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A User-Driven Site for Theater in Atlanta, Georgia
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Companies Reviewed#
Alliance Theatre Company84
Georgia Shakespeare54
Horizon Theatre Company50
Actor's Express49
Theatre in the Square43
Synchronicity Performance Group42
The New American Shakespeare Tavern39
Aurora Theatre34
Theatrical Outfit25
Georgia Ensemble Theatre23
7 Stages21
Theater of the Stars16
Essential Theatre13
Stage Door Players12
Kudzu Playhouse12
Atlanta Lyric Theatre11
Broadway Across America9
Centerstage North Theatre9
Act 3 Productions7
Onstage Atlanta, Inc.6
True Colors Theatre Company6
Next Stage Theatre Company5
Pumphouse Players5
Actors Theatre of Atlanta4
Atlanta Broadway Series4
Blackwell Playhouse4
Button Theatre3
Polk Street Players3
Theatre On Main3
Atlanta Classical Theatre2
Pinch n' Ouch Theatre2
Dad's Garage Theatre Company2
Cobb Children's Theatre2
Soul-stice Repertory Ensemble2
Independant Producer1
Out of Box Theatre 1
Théâtre du Rêve 1
Kelvin Wade Productions1
Non-Atlanta Equity Theater Company1
2 Fat Farmers Productions1
Flickering Productions1
Square Globe Theatre1
Meet Before you Marry Entertainment1
The Legacy Theatre1
Jack In The Black Box Theatre Company1
Onion Man Productions1
Professional Tour1
Reaction Productions1
Lionheart Theatre Company1
G-Four Productions1
Village Playhouses of Roswell1
Stage Two Productions1
The Flying Carpet Theatre Company1
Oglethorpe University Theatre Department1
The Weird Sisters Theatre Project1
The Company Theatre1
Rosewater Theatre Company1
Vitality Vision Productions1
Art Within1
Theatre Gael1
Big Top Productions1
Mountain View Arts Alliance1
Jerusalem Group Theatre1
Average Rating Given : 3.85589
Reviews in Last 6 months :
REVIEWS

Macbeth, by William Shakespeare
Muddy, Pretentious, and Unpleasant
Thursday, December 20, 2012
2.0
The promise (and expectation) of Georgia Shakespeare�s �Macbeth� was great. Advance word was it would be a restaging of Orson Welles classic 1936 �Voodoo Macbeth,� part of the WPA�s Federal Theatre project. Directed by iconoclast Orson Welles, that production not only re-interpreted Shakespeare�s Scottish Play as a Colonial Caribbean rebellion, it also introduced a roster full of African American actors who excelled at classical works. The bits and pieces I�ve seen showed it to be a vibrant, exciting, and compelling production.

Alas, would that this result met those expectations. In this case, Georgia Shakespeare made the choice to go with a director totally inexperienced in Shakespeare�s works, who �re-imagined Welles� production for the 21st Century.� Unfortunately, that �re-imagination� goes no deeper than adding some high-tech effects that not only draw more attention to themselves than to the text, but also serves only to muddy the story and obscure the poetry.

You know something's wrong when the most common conversation overheard at intermission is along the lines of "I'm glad I read the play, otherwise I wouldn't know what was going on." Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges has most of the actors mumble their way through their lines (when they're not pre-recorded and reverbed into incomprehensibility), has the costumer go with a "let's put them in pajamas" approach that makes character distinction and recognition a Sisyphean task, and overuses a projection design that looks as if it were filtered through a kaleidoscope (kneecapping any potential for tension or true horror).

Still, Neal Ghant's performance in the title role is a thing of beauty, and some really good fight choreography make the final conflict a joy to behold. Still, all the good bits are totally destroyed by a final moment in which the entire cast (tries) to deliver the final lines in unison.

The program tells us we�re on a Caribbean Island still under Colonial rule, though nothing we see on stage helps set that scene (besides machetes being the �weapon of choice�). Generic baggy (but comfortable-looking) costumes make no difference between soldier and citizen, between rich and poor, between witch and mortal. The plot sticks with the basic �Thane meets witches and lets overwhelming ambition lead to tragedy� outline of the original play, though here, too much of the witch�s dialogue is pre-recorded and incomprehensible, too many of the actors make no effort at clarity, too much of the story experiences chronic disconnect between the Scottish references and the Caribbean pretensions.

The dialogue problem is especially stark with Lady Macbeth, who is completely incomprehensible. At no point did I see any sense of the scheming co-conspirator, the �power-behind-the-throne� driving force that propels Macbeth into power. At no time did I see any sense of transition from the power-mad queen to the tragically disturbed repentant. Her last scene is even further hampered by having her in a silly phone-booth shaped box that blocks her face from most of the audience, pushed around on castors that drown out most of her lines.

And the projections do absolutely nothing to illuminate the story or the themes. Images roll and roil with abstract self-importance, and, in places where they would have helped (the prophecies in the pre-final-battle witch�s scene, for example) they were no more imaginative than a student �cut-and-paste� art project. They distracted and diverted my attention, and did absolutely nothing to set a scene, evoke a mood, or underscore a theme.

Which brings us to Neal Ghant. He is the reason this production has any effect, any redeeming (and memorable) quality. He gives us a Macbeth of power, of magnetism, of charisma. It�s easy to see how this man is a leader, how he achieves his goals. It�s easy to �buy into� his tragic qualities � the strengths that appeal are also the flaws that seal his fate. He is comfortable with the language and with its place in telling this story.

Credit also needs to go to Fight Directors Scot and Kelly Mann, who have staged a final encounter that is dazzling, exciting, and suspenseful. The passions and fears and frustrations of the characters were an integral part of the choreography, and it made the play more than bearable for a few too-short moments.

Indeed, this is a production that requires patience to endure, that strings together disparate moments of muddy pretense and inappropriate sentimentality. It is directed with too many self-aware gimmicks that are just that � gimmicks that show �look what we can do,� when, most often, the gimmicks add less-than-nothing to the story, to the words, to the experience.

This was, indeed, a tale full of sound and fury, all of which, in the final analyze, signified nothing.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




Anything Goes, by Music & Lyrics by Cole Porter
Port(er) of Call
Thursday, December 20, 2012
4.5
For the second time in a few short months, I got to wallow in an evening filled with the music of Cole Porter. That it was accompanied by a truly silly, sublimely old-fashioned show done to the hilt by the talented designers and performers of Atlanta Lyric Theatre was only icing on the cake. I loved this show, and, if audience reaction is anything to go by, I wasn't alone.

Anyone who loves musicals (and if you don�t, why are you reading this?) knows that �Anything Goes� is one of Cole Porter�s most-performed, most-revived, and most-revised shows (Wikipedia has a nice little spreadsheet that compares three versions -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anything_Goes). For the record, the version chosen by Atlanta Lyric is the recent (2011) revision by Timothy Crouse (son of original book writer Russel Crouse) and John Weidman (�Pacific Overtures� and �Assassins�) that won Tony�s for Best Revival and Best Actress in a Musical (Sutton Foster). It includes at least two Porter songs not in any previous version (�The Crew Song� and �Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye�), adds a few old ones from the original 1934 version (�There�ll Always be a Lady Fair,� �Gypsy in Me,� and �Buddy Beware�), and tweaks other songs by changing the order and assigning them to different characters.

When all is said and done, though, none of this really matters. It�s a silly little story that remains (mostly) unchanged that is used to string together a collection of totally entrancing and �Delovely� Cole Porter songs. I�ll try to recap without snickering � Billy Crocker stows away on board the luxury liner SS American to win the heart of sweet debutante Hope Harcourt, who is engaged to British nobleman Lord Evelyn Oakleigh to save her family from financial ruin. Meanwhile, Billy�s Boss, Elisha J. Whitney, is making the crossing hoping to seal a financial deal, confident that Billy will make a strategic stock sale that will save him from financial ruin. Meanwhile, evangelist-turned-nightclub-singer Reno Sweeney, a friend of Billy�s, is making the crossing to ..um .. do whatever evangelist-turned-nightclub-singers do in London, probably not involving saving anyone from financial ruin. Meanwhile, Public Enemy # 13 Moonface Martin is making the crossing with his gal pal Erma to � well, the best I can figure is to provide some plot complications, to help Billy, and to show that gangsters are hoofers too.

Add to the mix a search for public enemy # 1, a real missionary with his reformed-gambler Chinese protégées, a boatload of farcical set-ups and complications, and, you know, the more I write, the more I realize it doesn�t really matter.

What really matters is that �Anything Goes� is REALLY about singers and dancers at their peak performing the songs of Cole Porter at his peak. It�s about Lisa Manuli (Reno) and Alan Kilpatrick (Moonface) mooning over �Friendship.� It�s about Jeremy Wood (Billy) and Laura Floyd (Hope) crooning and mooning and �Delovely-ing.� It�s about brilliantly comic turns by Jennifer Smiles (Erma � �Buddie Beware�) and Dustin Lewis (Evelyn � �The Gypsy in Me�). And, of course, it�s about a cast of more than thirty bringing down the Strand rafters with high-octane versions of �Blow Gabriel Blow� and �Anything Goes.�

Director and MD Brandt Blocker and Choreographer Karen Hebert spare no ounce of talent in creating the scenes and musical numbers, and set and lighting designer Bradley Bergeron creates a space that is a true thing of beauty. The Strand stage is small, but tall, and Mr. Bergeron uses the space beautifully to fill it without crowding it.

Even with all the revisions, this is truly an old-school musical, complete with full orchestra, overture, and full-evening running time. It harkens back to a time when a visit to Broadway was a special event and NOT a quick entertainment fix to be enjoyed and forgotten. It is fast-paced, high-energy, and without a thought in its pretty little head. It is filled with characters that start with archetypes and caricatures and fills them out with delightful eccentricities and recognizable heartaches.

After wallowing in the pleasures of the show, all I wanted to do was serenade it with another reprise of �I Get a Kick Out of You.� In short, �It�s the Top!�

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)
�

Out of Order, by Ray Cooney
Out of Control
Thursday, December 20, 2012
4.0
With last year's "Lend me a Tenor," Stage Door's Robert Egizio showed a deft hand at staging break-neck full-tilt-desperation farce. Now, that promise is doubly ensured with the fast-paced, door-slamming "Out of Order," a play with absolutely no redeeming intellectual value, other than non-stop laughs at the antics of a stable of farceurs well-playing characters behaving badly.

And, to make things even better, the �people behaving badly� are from the political arena, feeding all of our primal instincts of the stereotypical sleazy politician. Richard Willey (yes the hero is REALLY named �Dick Willey,� so there�s no danger of subtlety here) is a conservative MP playing hooky from an all-night debate going on in Parliament. His brief encounter with the comely (and young) secretary (Jane Worthington) of an opposing MP is cut short by the discovery of a body in the hotel suite rented for the occasion. Relying on his hapless assistant (George) to untangle the pieces may not have been the best of ideas, because soon, everyone has a different lie to tell, a different scheme that backfires, a different elaborate tale to remember. Toss into the mix Jane�s quick-tempered husband, Richard�s not-as-absent-as-expected wife, the nurse of George�s ailing mother, the jaded hotel staff for whom this is just another day, and a free-slamming window with a mind of its own, and soon everyone is running ragged, slamming doors, dropping trousers, and otherwise misbehaving without MISBEHAVING, and the farce checklist is complete and filled.

In one sense, Ray Cooney�s play breaks a cardinal rule of farce � rather than have the complications compile to a critical-mass of desperation, he chooses instead to string together a series of problems, each one replacing the sorta-kinda-solved one that came before. But, rather than undercut the �escalation� farce so desperately needs, this instead gives the gifted cast a chance to increasingly over-react to the next problem, so the effect is the same build-up, the same drive to desperation that becomes fuel for uncontrolled laughter. I suspect he could have ended with a sequence depicting the most trivial problem imaginable, and this group would carry on as if it were Armageddon.

This is definitely a cast that plays well together, that seems to live and breathe the essence of farce. Matthew Myers is so blithe and clueless as Richard, he literally stays �above it all,� calmly instigating shenanigans that he knows will be unraveled by everyone in his orbit. Like many Cooney protagonists, it is his behavior that drives the plot, but he seems to be the calmest of all.

It is Terry Guest as George who has the lion�s share of fast-talking, quick-change desperation wallowing � He�s the one who has to �clean up the mess,� who has to improvise and live with the results of his not-always-very-bright schemes. Just as George is often inspired in his far-fetched choices, Mr. Guest is equally inspired in the acting choices he makes, the stiff-upper-lip pseudo-calm that does little to mask the torrent of wild panic aching to run free.

As the ladies in their lives, Jenny Holden is a lovely and funny Jane, a worthy object of anyone�s affection. Arriving late in the game are Stephanie Wilkinson as Pamela, Richard�s not-supposed-to-be-in-town spouse, and Dina Shadwell as the nurse to George�s long-suffering mother. Both are women �of a certain age� who nevertheless find a burning core of passion brought to life by just the right phrase, just the kind-enough-to-convince gesture. Both manage to wring more laughs out of the roles than a cursory read of the script would warrant. In the supporting roles, James Baskin, Rial Ellsworth, and Pat Bell as the hotel staff, Doug Graham as Jane�s spitfire husband, and David Allen Grindstaff as the not-dead-yet corpse all create vivid unforgettable characters who earn their place, for good or ill, in the antics from the center.

Chuck Welcome has built a warm and welcoming hotel suite with a logistically impressive, seemingly self-aware window that falls (with a slam, of course) at all the right moments. This is an obviously expensive hotel, and the set is built and dressed to truly showcase that expense.

Director Robert Egizio has orchestrated a show with a break-neck pace without letting the character and whimsy, the quiet moments slip by unnoticed. This is his second farce in less than a year, and he can obviously make the genre sit up and bark. Okay, maybe the third looks-like-fel***tio-but-really-isn�t gag may have been excessive (or not), but the whole production whisks by faster than the Underground missing your stop.

I�m told farce is an �acquired� taste, but I have my doubts. We all love laughing at people behaving badly (or, more accurately, people trying to behave badly), and bawdy double-entendres are truly a thing of joy and a beauty to behold. If nothing else, �Out of Order,� especially in the hands of a talented cast and director, finds the key to unlock almost anyone�s funny bone with its (seeming) �Out of Control� characters and plot.

It really made me laugh!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Kiss of the Spider Woman, by Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Book by Terrence McNally, Based on the novel by Manuel Puig
The Web of Kander and Ebb
Thursday, December 20, 2012
3.5
John Kander and Fred Ebb never fail to weave a seductive web of words and music to pull us into a show. From hits like "Cabaret" and "Chicago" to lesser known "near-misses" like "The Act" and "70 Girls 70," their scores bring to life characters and stories that linger long after the final curtain falls.

I've been a fan of "Kiss of the Spider Woman" ever since its 1992 opening, having devoured the original Manuel Puig novel as well as the 1985 movie adaptation. I saw Chita Rivera dazzling in the first nationwide tour, and, truth to tell, that may have hurt my full enjoyment of this scaled-down production. Although most of the �make-it-smaller� choices work quite well, a few (barely) miss. And, although the two actors in the lead roles captivate and make us forget �those who have played them before,� the Spider-Woman / Aurora at the center is talented and lovely, but bland and not particularly memorable.

The scene is a grungy grimy prison cell in a nameless South American country. Molina is a gay window dresser serving a number of years for �corrupting the morals of a minor � male.� He is joined by Valentin, a revolutionary fresh off the torture train. What follows is a number of overlapping �battles of wills� � Valentin keeping his distance from his �fairy� cellmate, Molina sharing his fantasies and memories of movie star Aurora and the cheesy musicals she made, the warden trying to get information out of Valentin that would �break the ring of revolutionaries,� the prisoners trying to hold onto their lives �Over the Wall� before they fall victim to hopelessness or disease or the torturers� kindnesses.

If this sounds dark and depressing, it often is. But more often than not, it�s filled with exuberance and passion and love-of-the-life-we-left-behind. What other musical would dare to end with a non-ironic �Only in the Movies� song-and-dance number sparked by {spoiler ahead} the death of a character? What other musical would make it seem like a happy ending?

The heart and soul of this production is Craig Waldrip�s Molina. The flashiest of roles, it always attracts over-the-top performances (Brent Carver won a Tony for the original production, and William Hurt won his Oscar for the non-musical movie version). Mr. Waldrip�s singular achievement is to make me forget those earlier performances (and others I have seen over the years). He flounces, of course, but he also finds a passion that transcends the role � his love of movies, his flair for story-telling, his desire for love � all spring not from eccentricity or camp, but from a palpable dark center that DEMANDS these traits, that holds onto them as dearly as a drowning man grasps a lifeline. This is (by far) the best work I�ve seen from Mr. Waldrip, and the best musical performance I�ve seen all year.

He is matched song-for-song, line-for-line, darkness-for-darkness by Bryant Smith�s Valentin. This is a man devoted more to his friends than to his �cause� � his �anthem,� �The Day After That,� makes it clear that he is as disillusioned with the baseless rhetoric of his idealistic leaders as he was disillusioned by the promises of institutionalized religion that radicalized him. But, for his friends, he would do anything, and it is his recognition that Molina would similarly do �Anything for Him� that drives the final fatal choices made in the cell.

One of the biggest mistakes the movie made was to make Aurora and her movies propaganda films of the fascist government � a choice that made Molina�s idolization of her and his obsession with the movies seem like the actions of a blind-sided cultist � it truly undercut his intelligence and wisdom, a shortcoming William Hurt�s performance actually succeeded in overcoming. Here, fortunately, Aurora�s movies are escapist musicals filled with BIG emotions and simple moral choices � their world is Technicolor pure, not the ambiguous shades-of-gray world of the prison, and the contrast couldn�t be more vital. These musical interludes are what keeps Molina going, and it doesn�t take long for Valentin to also rely on them to put aside the harsh realities both inside and outside the cell.

I just wish Liberty Cogen made for a more compelling Aurora. True, it�s hard to compete with the memory of Chita Rivera, but that�s what I would have said about Brent Carver and William Hurt. Ms. Cogen sings and dances well, but she is far too low key, too I�m-relying-on-my-microphone-instead-of-my-belt, too play-it-safe-in-the-cheesy-movie-parts, This comes to a head in the second act during the title song, which should be a suspenseful ode to danger, an enticement to embrace death with a final kiss. The razzle-dazzle original cast had Chita River crawling over a full stage web and luring even the deafest audience member with her spell. Here, Ms. Cogen paces back and forth on an overhead walkway, and doesn�t let her voice grow stronger than a melodic whisper. It�s a concert, not a seduction, and it almost killed the final sequence for me.

Other than that, I truly loved how director Freddie Ashley scaled down everything to just the cell, with the prisoners becoming Aurora�s �Chorus Boys� without losing their prison uniforms � a dose of reality to temper the flights of fantasy. I loved how cabling imitated jail cells and let Ricardo Aponte�s choreography lift the cast and anchor them, often at the same time. I loved how the music of Kander and Ebb pulled me into the story and wouldn�t ease its death-grip on my attention until the final kiss.

Okay, I missed the large choral sound of �The Day After That� with its echoes of Argentinean documentaries of �The Disappeared,� and missed (a little) some of the flash and dazzle of Aurora�s �boys.� But even these were replaced by thoughtful and evocative images that served the story well. They were smaller, more elegant strands of the web this show weaves, different, but not weaker.

So the mark of a good musical is the romantic feel it gives you when it ends with a kiss. Like all good musicals �Kiss of the Spider Woman� does indeed end with a kiss. It�s the mark of truly great musical when the kiss means something totally unexpected and, perhaps, dark.

It�s really what�s waiting in the center of the web spun by Kander and Ebb, by Freddie Ashley and his production team, and by Craig Waldrip and Bryant Smith.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

�

What I Learned in Paris, by Pearl Cleage
Where Were You in '73?
Thursday, December 20, 2012
3.0
In the fall 1973, I was experiencing my first steady girlfriend and my first Broadway musical. One of those is a pleasant memory. Although Atlanta was still 26 years in my future, at the time, things here were on the cusp of historical change. Maynard Jackson was elected as the first Black Mayor of a major Southern city. And playwright Pearl Cleage was in the thick of things.

In �What I Learned in Paris,� Ms. Cleage has gathered together a group of African American characters basking in the glow of the Jackson win and its place in history and has a terrific time skewering the gender-based biases and idiosyncrasies of the era. She has also added a quite forgettable romantic-comedy plot that isn�t fatal so much as distracting.

But it�s not nearly as distracting as the set, a supposedly middle-class residence that makes no architectural, theatrical, or aesthetic sense whatsoever. But, gosh it sure is pretty!

Husband and wife JP and Ann Madison are at the rented Campaign Headquarters celebrating the win with campaign workers Lena Jefferson and John Stanton. JP is a bit of a chauvinist control freak and Ann can be a bit of hide-in-the-shadows spouse (though the opening moments of the play, in which she describes a close encounter with an NBC reporter, shows a strength that is never realized). It turns out that John and Ann are (sorta kinda) carrying on behind JP�s back and are looking for an opportunity to break away.

But, it turns out, JP is on the �short list� for a prestigious appointment in the new administration, and, truth to tell, he and Ann were never �really� married. Will the course of true love (John and Ann) ever have a chance against the larger-than-life machinations of a bullying relic from the fifties like JP? Enter Evie, JP�s ex-wife, and the owner of the house we�re visiting. Equal parts force-of-nature and bull-in-the-china-shop, Evie comes with an agenda and a style all her own.

Why the political and period details are so much more compelling than the romantic comedy elements is simple � Danny Johnson gives JP too much bull-and-bluster, even a bit of cruelty, and none of the elegance and charm we�re TOLD makes him so attractive. There is no earthly reason why Ann would balk at the decision to leave him, and no earthly reason why Evie would (possibly) want him back, Sure it�s easy to root for John and Ann, though, at least after the first scene, Kelsey Scott makes Ann far too wimpy and submissive that we � well, I was going to say we wonder why the men would both want her, but, that�s pretty much what (too many) men found attractive at the time.

Still, for a contemporary audience, we�re left with a romantic comedy with no couples to really root for. Fortunately, we�re also left with a terrific cast in the other roles. Crystal Fox (Evie) returns to the Alliance stage with a vengeance, commanding the story from her first entrance until the last moment of the play. She purports to come armed with everything she learned in Paris about modern feminism and about romance, but, the implication is that she ALWAYS knew what she wanted and ALWAYS went after it in the most direct way possible. She�s never one to suffer fools, especially men. You may think that would make us question her decision to (perhaps) return to JP, but she plays her cards close to the vest, and there�s a distinct possibly she may be after something other than romance � simple revenge, perhaps, or some male consciousness-raising. The bottom line is that it doesn�t matter what she wants (or why she wants it), she makes us like Evie enough that we hope she gets it.

Eugene H. Little IV, turns in his standard excellence as John, and January LaVoy is memorable as Lena. everyone�s �go-to� friend for confession and advice. I wish Kelsey Scott would have given Ann more of the fire she showed in the opening scene, and I wish Mr. Johnson would have give JP just the tiniest spark of charm or vulnerability. Still, they were good enough with period details and mannerisms that my quibbles hurt only my enjoyment of the romance plot.

Now, let�s talk about that set. In productions in the distant past, I have complained about set designers at the Alliance making very theatrical and bold choices, that made no architectural or logical sense (�Spinning Into Butter�s� office that could only have been approached by a thin gangway from a main building, and �Light up the Sky�s� window over a fireplace, for example). Here, we have a two-story set that, at first glance, looks impressive, until you realize that the second story is a simple walkway that leads to a closet-sized room that is supposed to hold two bedrooms and a hallway. The �downstairs� is a single open room that consists of kitchen, dining room, living room and foyer, all arranged in a way that makes no sense (living room area between the kitchen and the dining room, for example), and comes across more as a converted barn than an actual suburban house.

Now, I was told the designer was aiming for a non-realistic �feel,� but I�m skeptical � such an approach has absolutely no textural support, and such an approach would be (and perhaps is) totally hamstrung by the use of realistic walls and shapes and furnishings and props. All I could say is that I spent far too much time distracted by the anomalies built into the set that would have been better spent trying to find a connection to the actors and characters. Whatever the reason and approach, it was a design that called too much attention to itself and totally failed to set the era or to focus our attention where it needed to be.

So, �What I Learned in Paris� was one of those plays I liked but didn�t love. I loved some of the actors, all of the period detail, and most of the characters. I really liked Ms. Cleage�s feel for the era, her dialogue, her plot construction, and the passion she brings to recreating a turning point in Atlanta history.

That being said, I think the romantic plot could benefit by a little bit of tinkering, and any future production would benefit by, well, not to be too harsh, but by employing a designer more interested in illustrating the period and the play than in creating an architectural folly that distracts when it doesn�t wallow in pretention.

Perhaps a trip to Paris would help his learning curve.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Time Stands Still, by Donald Margulies
Post-Trauma Drama
Thursday, December 20, 2012
4.5
Sarah Goodwin and James Dodd are damaged. She is a photo-journalist and he is a writer. They have been sharing a life and a Brooklyn loft apartment for many years. While covering the war in Iraq, they are each traumatized in different ways, and have come �home� to heal, and to, perhaps, rebuild their life together both personally and professionally. They have each had their own life-changing �Time Standing Still� moment that forces them to reassess what they want and who they are. The only question is, will they still want to stay together?

Donald Margulies is a writer whose specialty is characters who talk like real people, using conversation more to shield than to reveal, exploring the dynamics of relationships and how �what we do� informs �who we are.� His Pulitzer-Prize winning �Dinner with Friends� showed us two seemingly happy couples whose friendship is forever changed when one couple decides to split, whose choices as pairs ultimately affects their choices as individuals.

Here, we have two couples also, Sarah and James� editor, Richard, is there to help them through their recovery and to shepherd their work into new and marketable paths. And he has with him his new love, the perky and (seemingly) shallow Mandy, half his edge (She is NOT his mid-life crisis, as more than one character is quick to say). Will their blissful happiness urge Sarah and James down a matrimonial path they may not be ready for?

Like Margulies� other works, �Time Stands Still� is an eminently watchable play, populated by characters we get to know well, whom we get to like and root for. They are alternately funny and sad, profound and banal, politically astute and politically-correct naïve. They talk like adults, discuss things, fight about things, and avoid talking about what is truly important until it�s too late.

You see, Sarah�s trauma is primarily physical. Caught by a roadside bomb, her leg has been shattered, her arm broken, and her face filled with shrapnel. But she is self-reliant to a fault. She can�t stand the fact that James hovers over her, trying to anticipate her every need (and wish). She bristles at his overly-controlling attitude towards her recovery.

James� trauma is more psychological. After witnessing a brutal killing of a woman and her children (�Parts of their brains flew into my face, my eyes�), he returns home, so he wasn�t �there� when Sarah had her close encounter of the explosive kind.

To put it bluntly, Sarah�s injuries do not affect her ambitions, and she is �chomping at the bit� to return to a war zone or to some other catastrophe. James is done with war, with danger, with too-much-risk assignments. How can a couple survive when that life-changing �time stands still� moment propels them down divergent paths?

This is an almost perfect production of this beautifully conceived and written play. The chaotically full set by Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay is a marvelous achievement � a beautifully-realized loft apartment that tells us so much about the people who live there before we even meet them. And the cast breathes so much life into these characters that we can�t help liking them, wishing we could spend more time with them.

Carolyn Cook is the heart and soul of the show, giving Sarah a wounded vitality that reminded me of a caged panther � her injuries keep her in the apartment, but, for her, it�s a prison � she�d look much more natural in the middle of a battlefield with a camera in her hand. Robin Bloodworth, in spite of a longish hair style that makes him look much younger than Ms. Cook, nevertheless brings to life a wounded man struggling to hold onto his human lifesaver who is drifting farther and farther away. Alternately boorish and vulnerable, he seems like the perfect match for Sarah. Until he doesn�t.

As Richard and Mandy, Chris Kayser and Ann Marie Gideon are a study in contrasts. He is mature and weary and filled with affection for Sarah and James, but, when Mandy is on stage, he puffs up like preening peacock, shedding years and woes as if they were never there. Ms. Gideon has perhaps the hardest job � playing a young (�there�s young and there�s embryonic�) woman who can�t hope to match the experiences of the others, but who nevertheless is incapable of keeping silent about them. Her questions and rants seem shallow to everyone else, but she still somehow manages to win them over. It�s a guileless naivety that is quite effective, quite appealing. It doesn�t take long for Sarah and James (and us) to see what attracts Richard and Mandy to each other.

�Time Stands Still� is a play that resonates strongly with its complex characters and the unexpected twists of its story. It�s a through-the-microscope look at two couples as much as it is a picture-book of the four people who comprise those couples. It�s a funny and moving look at love, at trauma, at ambition, and, ultimately, of the range of behaviors we inflict on each other, from the most brutal to the most loving.

In a nutshell, it�s a play I won�t soon forget.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

�

The Man Who Came to Dinner, by Moss Hart & George S. Kaufman
Life-Sized
Thursday, December 20, 2012
3.5
Sheridan Whiteside can best be described as a charming bull in a china shop. He has built his reputation on his acerbic wit, his casual put-downs of the pompous and over-inflated, and his friendships with the rich and famous and powerful. In other words, he needs to be larger than life, he needs to bulldoze his way through lesser mortals' existences and to bask in the gloriousness of being Sheridan Whiteside. In Georgia Ensemble�s (mostly) entertaining staging of Kaufman and Hart�s 1939 �The Man Who Came to Dinner,� we meet a cranky, blustery, past-the-point-of-no-return obnoxious Whiteside, who seems to have left most of his charm off stage. In other words, he is less-than larger-than-life, which, I suppose, makes him life-sized. This is a distraction, but not a fatal one.

It is December of 1939, and erstwhile critic, writer, and radio personality Sheridan Whiteside finds himself the unwilling guest of the Stanley household of Mesalia OH. A close encounter with a patch of ice has reduced him to a too-broken-to-travel state. As he semi-heals, his acidic personality begns to infect everyone around him for good and ill. In between visits from his famous friends, he manages to upturn the lives of everyone in Mesalia, and some folks aren�t too happy about it. Take ingénue June Stanley (a radiant Corinna Reselle) � her secret romance with a young union organizer is just the right choice to send businessman father �Mr. Stanley� (Frank Roberts, oozing pomposity out of every pore) into apoplexy. Son Richard (Alexander McCurley) is a burgeoning photographer who is encouraged in his artistic pursuits.

But, since Whiteside cannot abide losing his ever-loyal �gal Friday� Maggie (a marvelous-as-usual Wendy Melkonian) to marriage with local reporter (and talented playwright) Bert Jefferson (Jacob York), all sorts of machinations are hatched and plotted and sorta-semi foiled. Add to the mix a Hollywood comic (Banjo), a British playwright and composer (Beverly Carlton), a randy and ambitious actress (Lorraine Sheldon), an absent-minded professor (Professor Metz), an almost-competent doctor, a battle-axe nurse, and a crate full of penguins (don�t ask), and Christmas in Mesalia will not be all silver bells and mistletoe.

Kaufman and Hart based almost all these characters on real people (Whiteside = Alexander Woollcott, Banjo = Harpo Marx, Beverly = Noel Coward, Lorraine = Gertrude Lawrence, etc etc etc), and throughout, names are dropped like rose petals at a wedding, so I was glad that G.E.T. put up a �Who�s Who� lobby display letting us in on all the �top names� in the 1939 news cycle.

But, my chief problem with this production was the Whiteside of Allan Edwards. Mr. Edwards gives us a grumbling, obnoxious, downright mean Whiteside, which is expected (and good), but he has none of the charm or wit that would tell us WHY he�s so popular, WHY Maggie would even consider turning down a marriage proposal to stay with him. Whiteside is supposed to keep his most venomous attacks to the pompous, hypocritical, downright stupid people he encounters, and temper his attacks with affection for those closest to him. But, Mr. Edwards treats his closest friends as if they were insignificant and a pox on his life.

Not to be blunt, but this leaves a hole in the center of the play that, fortunately, for most of the time is mitigated (and alleviated) by the eccentricity of everyone who comes into his orbit. I absolutely loved Jim Dailey�s Banjo and Shannon Eubanks' Lorraine, and all the local residents and comers-and-goers positively drip personality and character. So, I suppose, my less-than-enthusiastic response to Mr. Edwards didn�t really hurt my enjoyment of the play � it only made it seem longer than necessary.

Jamie Bullins has built a set that perfectly captures the character of the Stanleys and the period, and Light Designer Mike Post has bathed it all in a nostalgic warmth that nicely belied the cold winter winds blowing outside. If I have one complaint about the design, it�s in the costume for Beverly Carlton (and a too-young actor filling it). Yes, the yachtsman�s duds fully suggest Noel Coward, but the point that he was travelling in winter far from any large body of water seems to have been missed. A winter coat and evening wear, or period �travelling clothes� would have been far more appropriate.

Still, this is a (mostly) wonderful mounting of a classic community theatre warhorse, filled with eccentric and marvelous performances, and studded liberally with laughs and smiles. It�s very evident why this piece is still popular after over seventy years, and very evident why it will still be popular for decades to come.

Now, if we could give Mr. Edwards a transfusion of charm, it would be downright perfect.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Sweet Charity, by Book: Neil Simon; Music: Cy Coleman; Lyrics: Dorothy Fields
If They Could See her Now
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
4.5
�Sweet Charity� is (or was) a big brassy musical with many memorable songs, and a heroine who (literally) wears her heart on her sleeve (well, her arm). It�s also based on one of my all time favorite movies, Fellini�s 1957 �Nights of Cabiria.� Now, Atlanta ex-pat Sean Daniels returns (with a couple of friends) to give us a down-sized vision that still fills the Aurora stage with energy, with song, with charisma, and with heart.

The Fellini movie is (and always will be) a work separate and different from this musical. It is a whimsical and lyrical journey with a traditional �whore with a heart of gold,� a kindly waif who never realizes she�s the butt of every low-life�s cruelty, who, no matter how bad things get, can still greet the evening with a �Buona Sera,� can still find beauty in the squalor that is her life. The final sequence in which she joins an impromptu parade as she stumbles home from the latest cruelty inflicted on her is one of the most elegiac, emotionally ambivalent, downright beautiful sequences ever put on film.

�Sweet Charity� retains most of the plot elements of �Cabiria,� even some of the mood and optimism. Of course, the Broadway of 1966 would never tolerate a prostitute as a heroine (interestingly, �Charity� tunesmith Cy Coleman eventually was able to do his �Hooker Musical� � 1990�s �The Life,� but even that did not reach Broadway until 1997). So, meet Charity Hope Valentine, a dancer-for-hire in one of those seedy Dance Parlors that surrounded Times Square in the sixties and seventies. Of course, the dancers can take the clients to a back room for another kind of �dance,� but Charity makes it clear she has never done �that.�

But, like Cabiria before her, she leads with her heart, trusting the most untrustworthy of men, finding the best possible motives in the worst possible actions. And, when things go into the lake (as they inevitably do), she�ll pick herself up, dry her dress and her eyes, and do it again. And, like Cabiria before her, she finds her seeming soul-mate, a neurotic and kind accountant named Oscar. Unlike Cabiria�s Oscar (who turns out to be a {Yeah, the spoiler police even monitors comments about 55-year-old movies}), Charity�s Oscar is actually a nice guy who really loves her. So, what could possibly go wrong?

And, because Dance Parlors and �Rhythm of Life� churches and Oscar�s {Deleted by the psychological spoiler police} are a thing of the past, �Sweet Charity� is a show firmly ensconced in the sixties.

And the design and production team milk that for all it�s worth. From the retro costumes and hair styles to the depressingly-in-my-memory steps of the �Rich Man�s Frug� to the tiny milk bottles carried by the �local color� milkman, everything screams the right period. Even the (slightly) anachronistic Bon Ami ad on the back brick wall of the set will be familiar to anyone who remembers similar ads in the New York of the time (there was such an ad right outside my hotel room when I was there for the 1964 World�s Fair � unless my memory deceives me, which it probably does).

Since we�re talking about the set and chorography, I have to credit the production team (Director Sean Daniels, Music Director Ann-Carol Pence, Chorographer Jen MacQueen, Set Designer John Thigpen) for integrating all the elements into a nicely cohesive unit. A two-story set with runways, staircases, balconies, and fires escapes surrounds the larger-than-the-cast orchestra, and all three dimensions are used fully. Many dance numbers require the apparently-in-terrific-shape cast to gallop up and down staircases with breakneck abandon, creating stage pictures both simple and complex. The cast never walks when they can run, never climbs when they can leap, never stands still when they can drape over the rails with brazen come-hitherliness.

And the cast itself is a thing of beauty and a joy to behold. In the central role, Rebecca Simon is a lithe and fragile Charity, a big-voiced, big-hearted force of nature whose wide-eyed embrace of life makes us wince at the bumps and bruises she finds in her path. As the three men in her life, Trent Blanton is alternately brittle and oily, suave and continental, and endearingly clumsy. His face may be a bit too craggy and distinctive to fully �sell� his separate characterizations, but, that, more or less, is the point. Once we accept the device that Charity falls for the same guy over and over, Mr. Blanton�s range comes into sharp focus. It doesn�t hurt that his Oscar and his Vittorio both share a marvelous rapport with Ms. Simon�s Charity � it�s easy to see what each man sees in her.

They are ably supported by a Protean ensemble who slip in and out of various roles (and supporting chorus voices) with the ease of music hall chameleons. Indeed, Jimi Kocina�s display of virtuosity (sometimes switching characters three or four times in less than a minute) recalls the recent productions of �Thirty-Nine Steps� in dexterity and simplicity. I also have to commend Caroline Freedlund�s Nickie and Taryn Janelle�s Helene, Charity�s Dance Hall pals who range from the tear-up-the-stage athleticism of �There�s Got to be Something Better Than This� to the soft and supportive ballad-icism of �Baby Dream Your Dream.� The ensemble is filled out by Jevares C. Myrick (whose �Big Daddy� makes �Rhythm of Life� pulse with energy and, well, life and rhythm), Loren Lott, Jenna Edmonds, and John Markowski.

The ending is admittedly not as lyrical and moving as that of the Fellini film, but it is a far cry better than the scripted �She lived hopefully ever after� pabulum that mars other productions (as well as the �Sweet Charity� film version of 1969). Instead, we�re left with a Charity belting out that she can take anything the universe throws at her and not only survive, but thrive. And, by golly, in the hands of Ms. Simon and the Aurora production, I believe she can!

This is one production to �spend a little time� with!

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)



Anton in Show Business, by Jane Martin
Beating a Dead Horse ... From the Inside
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
4.5
So, what do you get when you combine a fictional playwright (Jane Martin) with a meta-story about theatre people doing theatre things with non-theatre people trying to keep up with the help of a shill of a character in their midst?

Well, as a theatre person, I have to say you get a delightful romp with a troupe of women that skewers all the absurdities of a life in the theatre at the same time it pays them due homage. You get an ensemble of absurdly cast ladies pulling out all the stops in a blistering display of talent that�ll leave you breathless (if not with awe, then at least with laughter). You get a gloriously no-budget production that hits every note right and whooshes you on your way, smiling and (as a theatre person) feeling a bit justified and empowered and smugly superior to those �not of our tribe.�

I suppose if I weren�t a theatre person, I�d get all the same stuff, but would occasionally lose my way in the fog of �in jokes.� But, that�s an issue for the mundanes to worry about. I�ll even lend them a fog lamp.

So, here�s the story. Lisabette and Casey are two actresses in New York. Lisabette is a wide-eyed innocent, fresh off the bus from parts south. Casey is a veteran of too many unpaid off-off Broadway productions. They are auditioning for a new �Three Sisters.� After melting down at the feet of a pretentious British director, they are perversely hired by Holly, a jaded television star bank-rolling (or is it steam-rolling?) the production to give her reputation some �serious stage cred.� Faster than you can say �Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay� (if only we could know), the �sisters� are off to San Antonio and an ever-bewildering parade of can�t-keep-the-job directors, all with a �vision,� none with a clue. Toss in a tobacco magnate with deep (if fickle) pockets, a country singer leaving his wife for Holly, a stage manager keeping us apprised of what�s going on, and a cranky audience member (soon to be revealed as a {deleted by the you-can-figure-it-out-yourself police}) who seems to question every choice made by the writer and director and actresses, and � you know this sentence has gone on for so long now that I forget what I started out talking about. .

What really elevates this play above a simple satire of stage shenanigans is an underlying respect and even affection for theatre and the eccentrics who keep it alive. You�ve heard the sound byte �Love the theatre, hate the drama� that, at root, whines about ego and diva-ism and hissy fits and all the other excesses our kind is/are prone to? This play is a case of �Really love the theatre and the drama is kind of fun too!� It turns out that Holly can be directed and has some talent. It turns out that the bizarre final director can actually get his cast to deliver. It turns out that the �sisters� bond and have a grand time together. And it turns out that these three have some Anton in them, even if they can show it only to {Deleted by the �Do-I-Have-To-Edit-Everything-You-Say-?� police}.

Which brings us to the Weird Sisters Theatre Project. Here is a group of actresses. mostly associated with the Shakespeare Tavern (which plays host to this production). All of them have shown out-of-ballpark talent in the past, and none of them disappoints here. Comic force-of-nature Kelly Criss plays Holly as a sorta spoiled diva, over-confident in her (considerable) sexual charm, under-confident in her (also considerable) talent. Jaclyn Hofmann gives Lisabette a Southern charm that oozes like butter from a bowl of grits, a sincerity that we used to have, but too many of us lose too quickly. Megan Rose Houchins scowls and sulks her way as Casey, finding charm and sympathy in the most �olga-ish� of the sisters, warming slowly until burning brightly. Rachel Frawley is (too often) invisible as the �heckler Joby, but she too gets to step into the light and express a sincere (if critical) love of theatre. Three other actresses (Tiffany Porter, Taylor M. Dooley, and Annie York) play dodge-ball with about a dozen other characters, male and female, (and, a more than one meta-moment, females acknowledging they�re playing males). I was especially impressed by Ms. York parade of can-you-be-more absurd directors (all male, of course � one of the deliciously ironic points of the play � �80% of the roles in the American theatre are played by men, and 90% of the directors are men�). I also liked Ms. Dooley�s stark (and, at one point, insanely quick) transition from the flamboyant Kate to the reticent Joe Bob. All were wrangled by first-time director Veronika Duerr, who here shows herself just as impressive behind the scenes as she has been before our eyes. Based on her work here, it would be a crime if the Tavern let her nascent directing skills languish on the shelf.

So, what we have is a young female company (a sort of �lighter side� of Synchronicity Theatre�s overtly feminist vision) in their second production (unfortunately, I missed last year�s �Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief�), and I was left simply hungry for more. Granted, I�m a rabid theatre geek, so any play about the theatre (usually) works well for me. But here, I was taken in and spellbound from the firsdt word to the last, which, of course, means I expect only the best from this group in the future.

I do have to end on a slight correction. At one point, the �heckler� Joby describes a meta-theatrical event about the death of theatre as an art form like �beating a dead horse � from the inside� (can we coin the word sado-necroequifilia to describe such an activity?). Because of the love of theatre that permeates this script, and the care and joy brought to it by this production, I prefer to think of it as �Tickling a Live Horse � From the Inside.�

If only we could know!

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)



Bat-Hamlet, by Jordan Pulliam
The Bard and the Bat
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
5.0
Holy Mash-Ups, Gentle Readers! Who'd'a thunk a "Hamlet" parody drenched in the characters of "Batman" (the sixties TV parody, not the recent "Dark Knight" versions) would be the genesis of so much laughter? Decatur resident Jordan Pulliam has put together a confection of a play that made me laugh-out-loud more than any other this year.

Welcome to the Kingdom of Gothic, a modern day metropolis ruled by a just and kindly Police Commissioner. The Commissioner is murdered by the Jester, who assumes his crown, takes his daughter for a bride, and turns the city into a hotbed of crime and mayhem, sending the Commissioner's son Hamlet into a depressed tail spin. Faster than you can say BAM! POW! SPLAT!, Hamlet has become a cowled and caped crusading crime-fighter and his friend Horatio has become his sidekick, um, Songbird-Boy.

Most of the familiar characters from both worlds are here, the jester's advisor (the bird-obsessed "Puffin"), his children Ophelia and Laertes, "Riddles," the Gravediggers -- even other heroes from the DC universe step in with surprisingly silly but effective roles. Even the final orgy of death and destruction is grist for the comedy mill here.

In theory, this should work. After all, both the worlds of Shakespeare and Comic Books deal with over-the-top characters in extraordinary situations. Both deal in hyper-realistic, even poetic language. More to the point, both deal with characters who are obsessed, obsessed with love, with justice, with vengeance -- all those high-and-mighty lofties that rarely cross the paths of those of obsessed with the mere day-to-day banalities of making it to the weekend.

But what puts this particular mash-up over the top is the ensemble. As Bat-Hamlet, Topher Payne is a dim-bulb caricature, but he plays it with such straight-faced sincerity that you can't help but laugh. Playwright Pulliam has given him a plethora of tongue-twisting speeches that mangle Shakespeare with modern idiom. As an example, at one point, Hamlet just can't come up with the right word for what he's thinking, so he can only say "The play's the, um ,er, THING!" In other words, the play manages to poke fun at Shakespeare's vocabulary at the same time it's paying it homage.

I was also amused by Stuart McDaniel's Jester and Aaron Gotlieb's Puffin, both of whom are pure DC villains playing the roles of Claudius and Polonius, but have a grand old time being evil and layering their voices with all sorts of gimmicky mannerisms. Again, these are more Batman-parody villains, than Heath Ledger journeys to the Heart of Darkness, and, as such create a delightful juxtaposition with their darker Bardic antecedents.

Gertrude has been youthened to "Barbara," and Megan Hayes makes her a funny little nagging "sister" who eventually transforms into {Deleted by the Spoiler Police}. And the delightful Kate Graham makes Ophelia a mopey little he-never-loved-me cast-off, who has a super-heroine of her own ready to come out of the sewing closet. (Not to be too creepy, but both Ms. Hayes and Ms. Graham look GREAT when they trade in their gowns for spandex!)

As to the rest, Lake Roberts is a scream as the reluctant sidekick Songbird Boy, and Emmett Furrow, Kenneth Wigley, Bob Smith, and Ashleigh Hoppe do yeomen-duty, juggling about a thousand roles each. I have to add that Ms. Hoppe has a death scene (who was she and why does she die? Does it really matter?) that is especially grand and glorious, a thing of beauty and a joy to behold.

Yes, "Bat-Hamlet" fits practically the entire Hamlet story into its plot, so some may think it goes on for far too long. But, it is (and always has been) a grand and glorious story that, for me, never out-stayed its welcome. Some may also be disturbed by a comedy in which everybody {Deleted by the Spoiler Police, but if you know "Hamlet," you know what I'm saying, know what I mean?}s. I was not.

In fact, this is one of the funniest, silliest, laugh-out-loudingest plays I've seen in a while, peopled by one of the best ensembles I've seen in a while, and directed by Peter Hardy (who I actually have seen in a while).

What's not to love?

BANG! POW! SPLAT!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


The Local, by Curated by Ellen McQueen
A Portrait of the City With Some Young Playwrights
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
3.0
For my third visit to this year�s Essential Play Festival, let�s hop aboard �The Local.� �The Local� is an anthology portrait of Atlanta, as told by some of Atlanta�s best playwrights. Developed and Directed by Ellen McQueen, it wants to multi-media-zoom from topic to topic with freeway-like speed, but, its ultimate effect me was more of a back-roads-meander inside the perimeter. The pieces were all too short or too shallow or too been-there seen-that to shed any new light on the city or to provide any compelling narrative, and, indeed, looking at the list of pieces is a bit of a challenge for my memory cells to recall what some were even about.

The play starts off �in the wrong lane� (so to speak) by giving us a musical parody of Atlanta�s traffic woes. Not only have we already seen an identical jab in one of Second City�s recent pieces at the Alliance (complete with rolling office chairs playing the roles of cars), it�s a too-easy shot that doesn�t tell us anything we don�t already know. Right from the start, I was given the impression we were getting more of a rant than a true portrait of the city, a home-grown knock-off of the Second City shows, none of which I was especially entertained by.

Here though, it was especially disappointing, since local authors do not (or should not) have the �outsider�s� perspective that, to my mind, dragged down the shows from Chicago. But, there it is � a lead-off rant about traffic, followed by a silly piece about all the �Peachtree Streets� in town. There are far too many monologues that go no deeper than a PR release (in other words, filled with information but not much character). There are even a few videos (but to me, too many � I DON�T come to the theatre to watch movies), one of which is no more than a commercial for the Beltline that could have come straight from the Public Outreach and Media department of the project organizers.

Even ignoring all these (admittedly) personal reactions I had to this piece � I would be hard-pressed to identify anything particularly �Atlantan� about the people on view. One of the better pieces, Ellen McQueen�s �Cyclorama,� even used a character from the north to try to examine the south�s ambivalent memory of the Civil War. The �Atlanta� on view was strictly events and landmarks that fail to illuminate any local �character.�

That�s not to say that everything here was forgettable. I liked Margaret Baldwin�s �Deepest Part of the Creek,� a sort of gothic �memory� tale that owed more to Flannery O�Connor than to Atlanta (or even Georgia) writers. Stephanie Schrag�s �CDC� was also clever, couched in the form of a Middle School report (marvelously performed by young Mei Nathan), but, again, it was more facts and figures than people and events. Ms. McQueen�s �Manuel�s� was a nicely ironic slice-of-theatre-culture that ended too soon, and the always reliable Topher Payne gave us �Everybody Ends Up here,� a character-driven comedy set during the Atlanta Pride parade which actually succeeded in showing a spectrum of attitudes and behaviors characterizing the gay community. But, yet again, place references to Atlanta aside, it could have been set in any metropolitan city anytime in the past forty years. I also really enjoyed the dance numbers, especially the final �Phoenix Reborn� piece that seemed to rise organically out of a generic talking-heads �Occupy Atlanta� video.

The ensemble cast also puts forth a grand and glorious effort � Spencer Stephens is our sorta kinda �conductor / emcee� who shepherds Christina Boland, Cheryl Evette Booker, Dre Camacho, Terry Guest, Madeline J. Kahn, Mei Nathan, Nancy Powell, John Stanier, and Charles Umeano through a plethora of roles and times and places that truly highlights what a marvelous pool of talent can be found in our city. There�s not a bad performance in the lot, and, in some cases, some truly remarkable turns.

Still, I can�t help but grumble about the �to what end?� aspect of all this fine work.

Perhaps the problem here is the short-work format. It is incredibly difficult to capture any emotional resonance or depth of theme in a 5 � 10 minute sketch. The best that can be hoped for is a quick sketchy comedy or monologue, or �theatre-lite� experience. While the attempt may have been to make a tapestry that eventually yields a memorable portrait, here, the pieces were too generic, too monochromatic to make any overall vision truly legible. Perhaps another problem is the �guidebook to Atlanta� aspect of the local references. Places and events are talked about only, they have little resonance or effect on the characters we see. Perhaps a smaller vision, fewer, but longer plays would have made a more coherent work. Right now, the piece includes twenty-five individuals, fewer than half of which I can recall with enough clarity to describe here. And, one final perhaps � there is a lot of history in Atlanta that could provide a �backbone� to a collection such as this � the Civil War, the early Indian era, Jim Crow, the Child Murders of the 1970�s. the Olympics. Even the local premiere of �Gone With the Wind� could provide a framework for several writers to discover a �character� of Atlanta.

But, a generic �This is Atlanta� theme is just too broad and subject to too many skim-the-surface (and clichéd) to support this many short works. The fact that 25 of them failed to show any compelling portrait is evidence of that.

Or maybe I was just too mind-numbed by traffic on Howell Mill Road to truly appreciate what I saw.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



The Emperor and the Nightingale, by April-Dawn Gladu and James Woodward
Soothing the Savage Breast
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
4.5
Once upon a time (and not very long ago it was), there lived a man named Hans Christian Anderson who devised a tale. The tale told of an Emperor who captivates a nightingale whose song has captivated his heart. When a mechanical device supplants the nightingale, the bird is given its freedom and flees the emperor�s palace. In later years, the Emperor�s musical device loses its charms, and the Emperor deteriorates, almost unto death. Hearing of this, the nightingale returns and her song restores the emperor and the kingdom.

This classic tale was always a Westerner�s idea of China, a �from the outside� approach based solely on a popular decorative style of nineteenth-century Europe (�Chinoiserie�). Now, Allen O�Reilly and Georgia Shakespeare�s Family Series have found an adaptation of this story by April-Dawn Gladu that takes a decidedly Eastern Approach. The story is basically the same, but it is now layered with elements of Chinese history, with rituals and traditions associated with New Year festivals, with woodcut backdrop projections that take us from rural village to elegant palace, with music that �mashes up� Eastern and Western styles and genres, and with whimsical puppetry that charms as it amuses. The result is a lyrical and effective tale, spun by a troupe of artists that seems to take no false steps.

I suppose, to be honest, my limited background precludes me making a judgment on the accuracy of the Eastern styles and tropes and elements. Still, I daresay most of us have been exposed to more actual Chinese arts than did those of Anderson�s day, and, to me, this show works on that level. The costumes and projections are indeed similar to images I have seen from China, and from scenes and styles of recent historical films by directors such as Zhang Yimou.

More to the point, director O�Reilly has gathered an ensemble of young actors who flit from role to role with ease, and who capture both the imagination of the grown-ups in the audience as easily as they (apparently) capture the attention of the not-so-grown-ups. I really loved Ann Marie Gideon�s elegant movements in the all-dance role of the Nightingale, as well as Terrance Jackson�s wounded gruffness and authority as the Emperor. Seth Langer is screamingly funny as the jealous music master and Anna Kimmell is nicely animatronic as the mechanical �Jade Bird.�

But, the real standout (for me) was Caleb Clark�s �Imperial Choir.� Wearing a towering headdress composed of five marionette-esque puppets, Mr. Clark creates five distinct characters, often at odds with each other, without losing an overall personal attitude towards them. In other words, he�s really playing six characters at the same time � the five individual singers and the choir itself. It�s a dexterous performance that works on every level.

And the production looks great. A simple set backed by a large projection screen, the images (presumably by Set Designer Jon Nooner � the program lists no �background artist) combined with the rich reds and golds of Liz Stewart�s lighting design, creates a world that is both beautiful and exotic. Katy Munroe�s costumes are better than anything from the main repertory season, and the puppets (by Stephanie Kaskel Bogle), including a marvelous �New Year�s Dragon,� are captivating.

The acid test, though, is how well the kids respond. At last Saturday�s early morning show, there was nary a restless whimper from the totally engaged kids. It may be the newness of the story for them, the exotic and bright costumes, the silly joking of the music master and choir, or the moments of audience participation, but they all seemed entranced.

As was I. This is, perhaps, my favorite of all the Family productions Georgia Shakespeare has offered, and I (for one) really appreciate the effort they are making to find new stories that appeal equally to boys and to girls and to the grown-ups they�ve let into their lives.

Just as the Nighingale�s music has the power to soothe the savage breast of the Emperor, this production soothed the cranky-morning critic breast that yearned for caffeine and surprise.

Gong xi fa cai!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


High Society, by Book: Arthur Kopit; Songs: Cole Porter
A Swell Party
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
4.0
Have you heard? It�s on the stage �
�High Society� defies its age!
Will did you evah?
What a swell party this is!

I confess to being a big fan of �The Philadelphia Story,� Philip Barry�s 1939 play, which became a marvelous 1940 movie, which became a not-quite-as-marvelous 1956 movie musical called �High Society.� My fondness for the piece is best left unscrutinized � the characters are mostly wafer-thin screwball-comedy �types� � the spoiled heiress, the bratty sister, the stuffed shirt fiancé, the charming ex-husband, the lecherous uncle, the scruffy reporters, the working class �dame.� They are thrown into a plot that has them in the preparation throes of a high society wedding that seems doomed from the start.

Yet, I�ve always found the play eminently readable (if difficult to produce), the 1940 movie laugh-out-loud funny and charming (no matter how often I watch it), and the 1956 movie enjoyable in its own right (thanks more to the Cole Porter score than to the incredibly wrong-for-the-parts Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly).

So, it�s no surprise that when, in 1998, �High Society� was finally getting its play-to-screen-to-movie musical-to-Broadway musical adaptation (complete with a bevy of new (well, relatively obscure) Cole Porter songs), I had to rush to see it. I enjoyed it, but it was marred by an awful performance in the central role, and an unnecessarily dizzying array of scene changes and technical effects (Let�s not even mention that tacky and ugly three-cat poster). Still, one couldn�t walk away unamused by John McMartin�s marvelous Uncle Willy (listen to the original cast recording to see just how dirty he makes the line �Peek-a-Boo�), and the added songs are beautiful in that Cole Porter way � you can�t listen to the score without wishing you were tux�d up and martini�d down.

That brings us to Stage Door Player�s mounting of the 1998 version. Centered by a clever and adaptable unit set and an absolutely wonderful Galen Crawley in the central role of Tracy Lord, it is already miles ahead of the Broadway production. This production is smooth and elegant, well sung and (for the females) nicely acted. I waltzed out humming the songs, and still have to smother a smile when I recall many moments.

The only thing that brings this airy confection down to earth is a couple of adequate-but-little-more performances by some of the principal men.

First, though, let me recap the plot. Like the 1956 movie, the story has been moved from Philadelphia�s Main Line to �A Glorious Weekend in June 1938� on Oyster Bay, Long Island. There is a wedding in the works � beautiful heiress Tracy Lord (the aforementioned Ms. Crawley) is tying the knot with coal magnate George Kittredge (Christopher Lewis). NOT attending the festivities is Tracy�s father (George Devours), in hiding due to a scandal (and public) affair with a dancer who�s, um, �Got That Thing� (as explained in one of the new Porter songs). Just to complicate matters, Tracy�s ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Jeremy Wood) has come with a couple of reporters from a scandal magazine, Mike Connor (Jeremy Varner) and Liz Imbrie (Caitlin Smith). Also on hand to keep things lively are the bottom-pinching Uncle Willie (Robert Wayne) and Tracy�s sassy kid sister Dinah (the wonderfully sassy Hope Valls). Before long, everyone is pretending to be someone else, the gin and champagne are flowing like gin and champagne, and the lyrics to �Let�s Misbehave� are taken as commandments.

Keeping the action flowing smoothly (and the sets changing quickly) are a quartet of servants, played with panache by Caleigh Allen, Anthony Owen, Kelly Chapin Schmidt, and Trey Getz. Keeping the plot lighter than air are the ecstatically perfects songs of Cole Porter � both the familiar (�Who Wants to be a Millionaire?�, �Well, Did you Evah?�, �I Love Paris,� �Once Upon a Time,� �Little One,� �True Love,� and �Let�s Misbehave�) and the not-so-familiar (�She�s Got That Thing�, �I�m Getting Myself Ready For You,� �Say it With Gin�, and the lively opening �Throwing a Ball Tonight.�)

As I said before I really REALLY liked Ms. Crawley�s Tracy. She had just the right combination of elegant charm, just-spoiled-enough haughtiness, wry humor, and downright sexiness the role requires. No, she�s not Katherine Hepburn (who is?), but she has so much more than the cold and distant Grace Kelly gave the role, and she�s better by a Long Island Mile than Mellissa Errico, who played the role in 1998. I also liked Ms. Smith�s Liz Imbrie and Ms. Vall�s Dinah.

On the other hand, I found Mr. Wood�s Dexter a bit lifeless and bland. Yes, he sings beautifully and has the kind of good looks the role requires, but I found his performance, on the whole, �by-the-numbers� and not remotely up to the level he achieved in �Singin� in the Rain� a couple years back. True, his duet with Dinah (�Little One�) had none of the air of creepiness that Bing Crosby�s movie version had, but I was expecting (hoping for) more, well, more charm. By contrast, Mr. Lewis� Kittredge was all charmless bluster and nervous energy � the perfect foil for Tracy�s energetic embrace of fun and life (I also liked his yellow sweater with the black diamonds � a not-so-subtle nod to a certain round-headed comic strip lad).

I also found Mr. Varner�s Mike Connor equally vapid and substanceless. Seeming far too young for the role, he was (granted) swell of voice but not so swell of appeal. As to Mr. Wayne�s Uncle Willie, he had a number of nice moments, and seemed to be having a really good time, which more than made up for his not-as-filthy-as-I-wanted-it-to-be �Peek-a-Boo.�

Fortunately, this is Ms. Crawley�s production to make or break, and make it she does. If the men weren�t as memorable in their acting choices, they were more-than-equal to the music, and all of them nailed the songs, making it clear why Cole Porter is now and forever-after a master of sophisticated melody and wit. Director Robert Egizio and Scenic Designer Chuck Welcome have come up with a smart and clever unit set that holds all the many scenes and lets the quartet of servants blithely prepare the stage with nary a lagging moment. Music Director Linda Uzelac has accomplished the remarkable feat of coaching the cast to make Mr. Porter�s intricate lyrics flow as smoothly and elegantly as a dry martini (shaken or stirred), and Choreographer Jen MacQueen has created some steps that trip eagerly across the stage, as if these characters were born to dance.

After seeing this show, I stumbled home, intoxicated with delight, ready to �Mow the bubbly and pour the lawn.� A Swell Party, Indeed!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde
Wilde-ly Off-Target
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
3.0
You can't mess with Oscar Wilde. His plays are elegant constructions filled with ridiculously eloquent characters who can't help being charming. They are also very fragile, and, if a clever director tries to impose a conceptual idea, it more often than not shatters the cloud of triviality that serious people look for in a Wilde play. Such was the case a number of years ago when Theatre in the Square flattened all the sets and props to highlight the (mis)perception of the shallowness of the story, and the whole production was, well, pretty durn flat.

Now, director Sabin Epstein and the repertory company of Georgia Shakespeare have tried to be cleverer than Wilde, and, once again, the effort fails. The entire production, though fast-paced and edited down to a fast (if incoherent) two hours, is charmless and unfunny and, not to be too blunt, downright ugly.

To start with the physical look of the show, this is an incredibly unattractive set! The three acts (different locales) are staged on a unit set consisting of a dark muddy green wall filled with doors fronted with a black-and-white tiled floor. Let's take a moment here to ponder that. A black and white tiled floor would look great in a set for a restaurant or a kitchen or a -- well, that's all I can think of now. But as part of a Victorian Sitting Room, Library, and Garden, it serves only to distract.

Any location �dressing� consists of paintings on the furniture � a semi-nude portrait for the sitting room, shrubbery for the garden, and books for the library (at one point in Act III, a character even pulls a book out of the sofa). Not only is this a concept that draws attention to itself (and away from the play), it serves no purpose (repertory needs aside) I can see unless it�s to once again suggest (erroneously) that we are seeing shallow characters in shallow situations.

Moving on to the costuming, Courtney Patterson�s Gwendolyn is forced to wear a mis-matched monstrosity that is out-of-character, out-of-period, and out-of-the-ballpark ugly. All the female characters, in fact, are given exaggerated frocks that must have been fun to design, and may admittedly make you smile when they first appear, but are decidedly wrong wrong wrong in conveying the lighter-than-air wit of Wilde and his creation. It�s as if a troupe of vaudeville clowns decided to do drawing room comedy rather than slapstick. Why the men are given traditional tuxes and Victorian formalwear I cannot even begin to fathom.

All of this may be (somewhat) forgivable if the cast were up to the not-inconsiderable challenge of making Wilde�s dialogue dance and sing. The good news is, with one critical exception, they are. As John Worthing and Gwendolyn Fairfax, Joe Knezevich and Courtney Patterson continue their run of successful pairings, brilliantly playing characters who love absurdity, elegance, and language. Ms. Patterson even makes that frightful costume seem natural (almost). Ann Marie Gideon makes Cecily Cardew a creature of guileful innocence (if you�ll forgive the oxymoron), at times petulant and stubborn, at others charming and whimsical.

In a bit of gender-reversal gimmickry, Mark Cabus dons Lady Bracknell�s gowns and haughtiness, and Megan McFarland tuxes up to play the manservant Lane. Although both do okay in the roles (I would have preferred to see Mr. (Ms.?) Cabus relish the sound of his (her?) own voice a bit more), the casting struck me as purposeless cleverosity � another �Look-at-me-I�m-a-Director� indulgence that adds nothing to the proceedings. Toss in the usual suspects (Chris Kayser, Allen O�Reilly, and Marianne Fraulo) doing their usual highly excellent �thing,� and the result should have been a parfait of a show that overcame the pseudo-cleverness of the production team.

Why the result missed by a Bunbury Mile can be laid at the feet of the production�s Algernon, Caleb Clark. This is Mr. Clark�s first season with the repertory, and, indeed, he did fine work in �Illyria� and �Much Ado.� Here, though, he gives us an Algernon who drones with a monotonously nasal voice, who doesn�t seem to grasp the �music� of Wilde, and who, frankly, goes through the play seeming bored with it all. Granted, he is made to look very much like Oscar Wilde himself, but the resemblance is only skin-deep. This is an Algernon who, in spite of his witty words, come across as country-clod dull-witted, and, frankly irritating. Algernon has some of the funniest lines ever penned in the English language, and Mr. Clark not only makes the wit seem witless, he shows no comprehension that he even �gets the joke.� Algernon is nothing if not a character amused by his own cleverness � here he is just a badly groomed oaf mangling the language and dragging the production down to that unpleasant just-off-book level of readiness.

Please forgive me if I seem too harsh, here. This is one of my all time favorite plays, and I am always very disappointed when it fails, especially when a director and a design team grossly misinterprets the self-described �trivial� nature of the plot and characters as being truly trivial and superficial (they�re not). I think most of the cast could pull this show off in their sleep. That doesn�t mean it�s the right choice to actually sleep-walk through it, as Mr. Clark seems to do.

But all this may merely be a metaphysical speculation, and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


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Evelyn in Purgatory, by Topher Payne
Lies and Secrets
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
5.0
Atlanta�s Topher Payne is rapidly building a body of work that should be the envy of any writer anywhere. If I sound like a rabid fan, I�d have to plead guilty. When I walk into a Topher Payne show, I can confidently expect a foray into the human experience that entertains, moves, and, above all, convinces. His particular talent is setting up our expectations about a character or situation or even theme, then find an entertaining and convincingly theatrical way to upend those expectations.

Now, he�s turned his attention to teachers, to public schools, and to the bureaucracy and popular (mis)conceptions that assail the whole educational establishment. Welcome to the purgatory of the New York City Public School Disciplinary Waiting Room. It�s a �Breakfast Club� for the grown-ups.

But first, a soapbox digression.

What is it about the teaching profession that makes it such a lightning rod for (intensely emotional) debate and discussion and remembrance? We all have stories about favorite teachers who inspired us and set us on our life�s paths. And we all have stories about feared teachers who �ruined our lives� while staying in our nightmares throughout adulthood. Teachers� Unions are an easy target for venom-dripped commentary. Public School Bureaucracy has inspired comedians from here to eternity. Teachers can inspire hyperbole from both ends of the spectrum, from those who call it the �most important job in the world� to those who say it�s �not a real job, but a haven for those who can�t do anything.�

I can�t pretend neutrality. I flirted with the teaching profession at a time when no one was hiring teachers (hence my 36-year �temporary� job until something �opened up�). I student-taught high school English at a small-town, mostly rural high school in Central Pennsylvania, and those ten weeks had to be the hardest (and most important) work I ever experienced. So my tendency is to bristle when I hear pundits pontificate about how teachers �don�t work enough� or �have it easy� or, to be blatantly political, �don�t deserve the protection of collective bargaining.�

To put it at its simplest, teachers have an enormous impact on us, for good or ill. And, for those of us that have achieved a minimal level of adulthood, they have an equal impact on our children.

So, now, to open this year�s Essential Theatre summer repertory, the insanely talented Topher Payne has written a marvelously wide (and deep) examination of everything that is good and bad about teachers and the Public School System Five teachers have run afoul of the New York City Public School System Disciplinary Board and cannot return to the classroom until they�ve had their hearing before, well, before the �powers that be.� The problem is that it can take weeks, even months, for any particular case to be heard. So, they sit in a featureless institutional room and wait. When Evelyn Reid joins this little group, she brings a passion for justice and an aversion to inactivity. Faster than you can say �Aging Brat Pack,� the teachers are bickering, discussing books, bickering, falling in love, bickering, and, well �. when all is said and done, waiting for their cases to be heard. One (Betty Mitchell) is there on purpose � she�s nearing retirement and hopes a series of not-so-accidental �senior moments� will let her out of the classroom until her time runs out. Another (Rial Ellsworth) is a sports coach, a bit of a bully, who (too) violently stopped a group of bullies from tormenting a smaller (gentler) classmate. Another (Jon Weirenga) is a first-year teacher who suffered a moment of it�s-too-much-for-me panic. Another (Jo Howarth) is a dedicated Art Teacher feeling the encroaching claws of politically-motivated obsolescence. Then there�s Evelyn herself (Amanda Cucher), accused by a student of being indiscreet with another student � the classic my-teacher-hates-me-so-I�ll-blackmail-her story (perhaps). Rounding out the cast is Megan Hayes, as the room �proctor,� who is dragged into their small circle of situational �friendship.�

I love how these characters are introduced, how they change before our eyes (through an unlayering of truth and falsehood rather than through arbitrary plot contrivances). I love how they surprise, how they make me laugh and move me, how they represent a broad spectrum of teachers and styles and ambitions. There are no villains here (well, there is, but it�s not who you expect). Even the faceless �powers-that-be� are more than the expected bureaucratic villains, as they say things and make decisions that (gasp) sometimes actually make sense.

But what sends this one out of the ball park is its unswerving respect for education and its insistence on giving each character their fair share of humanity. Conflicts are honestly raised and (sometimes) resolved. Attachments and resentments are real. Eccentricities aren�t dwelled on, but seeming afterthoughts (embellishments?) on fully realized characters. And there is an overwhelming acknowledgement of the true impact these people have on their students, that the best of them have a real affection for their students and a passion for their subjects.

Reed Higgins has designed and built a paralyzingly purgatorial set, a colorless institutional �way station� that looks like every other schoolroom or workroom or waiting room or prison cell ever built. Director Betty Hart has filled it was a vast and glorious array of color and incident and character. And Topher Payne has put words upon the page that have most successfully found their way into the mouths of this marvelous ensemble, words that splatter the cinder block walls with gold and blood and bile and warmth. It�s the perfect storm of the chaos of living thrust into a hopelessly banal order that can never be imposed, but is still strangely comforting.

I loved every minute of �Evelyn in Purgatory,� and I urge you to watch it carefully. It WILL be on the final!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


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Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare
Letting Loose
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
5.0
Let me start by plagiarizing myself. A short two months ago, I wrote the following about the Shakespeare Tavern�s �Much Ado� �

�Much Ado About Nothing� is probably my favorite of Shakespeare�s �mature� comedies, and has become more so as I�ve matured myself. I�ve always liked the fine line it walks between potential farce and potential tragedy, the richness of its characters, and, especially, the (im)balance it paints between mature and immature love. I�ve seen dozens of productions, ranging from traditional stagings to those set in 1950�s Cuba or in early 20th century America, and I was part of a not-very-good production set in 1970�s Any-Country. I thought Kenneth Branagh�s 1993 film with its Italian-Leather-and-Lace approach one of the best �Shakes-Screen� adaptations, and I�m chomping at the bit to see Joss Whedon�s more modern take later this year.

All of this is a not-very-subtle way of saying I tend to enjoy any production, even when mis-directed or sloppily acted.

Fortunately, like the Tavern before it, Georgia Shakespeare has mounted a production that more-than clicks on every level, hitting every comedic high note just right, not shying away from the more tragic potentiality of its Don John plottings. It doesn�t hurt that it is overflowing with crackerjack performances that manage to give even my oft-Ado�d eyes moments of surprise.

For those not familiar with this�n, here�s a quick plot recap. The Prince, Don Pedro, and his troops are returning home from suppressing a rebellion by his half-(bastard)-brother Don John. They are invited to spend some needed post-battle R&R at the palatial estate of Leonato. The Prince�s closest friends, Benedick and Claudio, become romantically entangled with Leonato�s niece and daughter, Beatrice and Hero. Meanwhile, the not-quite-reconciled Don John plots to �get back� at his brother by foiling the romances.

Most of the play is concerned with the contrasting Benedick/Beatrice and Claudio/Hero romances. Benedick and Beatrice have a long history of squabbling and �merry-war-making,� and resist their attraction as long as they can. They are, after all, good humored bachelor(ette)s, and shudder at the thought of losing their well-earned independence. Claudio and Hero, on the other hand, are young and in lust-at-first-sight, sharing a tie that is shallow at best, easily foiled at worse.

Throughout, we have a series of plot turns that rely on overheard conversations, deliberately arranged deceptions, and both good-natured and malevolent machinations. Indeed, much ado does ensue over characters �noting� conversations that have been arranged for their eavesdroppings.

In this, more than any other play, the humor is based on character, on what we learn about their natures, on how we soon know them better than they know themselves. And, in more than any other play, the appeal lies in how easily everything can go wrong, in how the �day is saved� not through any plot contrivance, but through the trust and affection the characters ultimately have for each other.

And this, more than anything else, is one of the reasons this production works so well. Here we have a repertory of actors who have worked together often, and who obviously have a lot of off-stage affection for each other. We have a troupe who thoroughly enjoy what they�re doing, and who allow us to thoroughly enjoy watching them do it. They seem to know the text backwards and forwards and they seem to know these characters well. After all, they find fresh �moments of truth� in the convoluted speeches and plotting, and they made me really care about them, familiarity and eccentricity notwithstanding.

Director Richard Garner and his design team have chosen a similar concept to that taken by Kenneth Branagh in his still-enjoyable movie. We�re in Italy, it�s summer-hot, and the characters can�t want to unload all the layered-formalities that rule their life (and dress), and let loose with some unrestrained passion. We�re in Leonato�s courtyard (set by the ever-talented Kat Conley) and there are plenty of levels and nooks and crannies and miscellaneous hiding places, including a full-sized working fountain, which you just know will be fallen into � the better to add a wet-tunic-contest look to the shenanigans (or is it an excuse for Joe Knezevich�s Benedict to strip down to his Elizabethan skivvies?). Some incredibly spot-on lighting effects (Mike Post, designer) drench the play with Mediterranean sun-tones, and even make it seem like other locations, such as an underground crypt approachable only by water.

And the cast, oh the cast! What can I say? It is an almost perfect ensemble, centered by Mr. Knezevich and by Courtney Patterson, who are like fire and ice � mutually destructive, but looking ever so good together. Ann Marie Gideon and Eugene H. Russell IV are lustily doe-eyed as the young lovers Hero and Claudio, and, as the �older generation,� Allen O�Reilly as Leonato and Marianne Fraulo as his brother Antonio (um I mean his sister Antonia � an intriguing gender-swap that seems purposeless, but fits this production like a tailored swimming tunic) are both wonderfully childlike and quick to anger and, well, compelling and credible.

In the comic subplot, Chris Kayser pulls out all the stops as the master constable Dogberry, here looking like nothing less than a wannabe pirate who�d be more at home in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta than on the high seas. His crew of watch-folk are an enthusiastic brood of bozos and bumblers who stumble onto Don John�s nefarious plot in spite of themselves. Mr. Kayser also gets beaucoup kudos for making Dogberry�s fracturing of the Queen�s English actually understandable and hysterical.

So, �Much Ado About Nothing� is a charming and delightfully entertaining addition to the summer season at Oglethorpe. Thanks to the Tavern�s Evolution series, I�m beginning to think of all these comedies in the context of their order of composition, This one is more �meaty� than the more farcical doings in the (earlier) �Comedy of Errors� or �Midsummer Night�s Dream,� but not quite as obscure or dark as the (later) �As You Like It� or �Winter�s Tale.� It is literally in the �Goldilocks Zone� of the Shakespearean canon, light enough to generate its fair share of laughs and smiles, deep enough to stir an emotional wrench or two, warm enough to make it truly memorable, breezy enough to go down as smoothly as a flagon of chilled wine.

And, in these hotter-than-a-bar-stool days of summer, it is a refreshing splash of doesn�t-get-any-better-than-this for the discerning theater geek. And that�s certainly not too much ado!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


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By Wheel and By Wing (2012), by Cameron Albert-Deitch, Sam Bardge, Haley Chung, Leslie Doctor, Dara Epstein, Justin Fisher, Maital Gotfried, Leah Quattrochi, and Parish Turnet, et al
In Thrall to "What Really Happened"
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
4.0
Three years ago, on a long flight from New York to Atlanta, Act 3 Productions Artistic Director Patti Mactas sat with a woman named Jeannie Wechsler. Throughout the flight, Ms. Wechsler shared the story of her family�s remarkable exodus from pre-Nazi Russia to the United States, a journey that would ultimately take fifteen years to complete.

Ms. Mactas took the story to heart, and decided to guide the creation of a musical theatre piece based on it. Spearheaded by Creative Director Corey-Jan Albert, a team of young writers and musicians have put together a remarkable entertainment, a musical journey through Nazi-threatened Russia, a story of a large family that is as much about the achievement of young artists as it is about this remarkable family.

Esther and Mickey Parnes head a poor Jewish family of seven children. It is June of 1941, and they lived in �the bustling town of Skalat on the Polish/Ukrainian border.� Worried about the advancing German army (and already victims of local anti-Semitic bullies), the family packs up a small cart and travels deeper into the Soviet Union, accompanied by eldest son Moishe�s good friend Azriel. Azriel is also attracted to eldest daughter Sally, but is thought �not good enough� for her by the parents.

Throughout the next four years, they endure many by-the-skin-of-their-teeth escapes, a few separations, and being snowbound by extreme winter and near starvation. Throughout it all, they maintain a strong sense of family, and a yearning to survive that is positively inspiring. By the end of the war, they have remained together, and have been fortified to face the new challenges of Deportation Camps and American Immigration Bureaucracies, challenges that will ultimately take over a decade to surmount.

Although I have some reservations over this version of the show (which I�ll get into later), I have to praise the remarkable achievement of this show�s creative team. Lead by Corey-Jan Albert, they include Cameron Albert-Deitch (Book and Lyrics), Haley Chung (Book and Lyrics), Dara Epstein (Book), Leah Quattrochi (Book), Parish Turner (Book), Sam Barge (Music), Leslie Doctor (Music and Lyrics), Justin Nash Fisher (Music), Greg Windle (Music and Lyrics), and Maital Gottfried (Lyrics). With such a large (and young) creative team as this, I would normally expect a �musical-by-committee� hodgepodge, a mix of styles and disconnects that miss all the unities Aristotle was so fond of. Instead, what I saw was an internally consistent piece with songs that were stylistically unified, and characters that remained the same with no jarring inconsistencies.

This last point, may, in fact, be one of the problems with this approach. The characters were so consistent throughout that there was no change or growth in them. They go through a number of extreme situations, yet come out the same as they were at the beginning. In one sense this is a good thing � each of the characters is a multi-dimensional creation, with more individual nuance than you may expect from a musical with such a large number of characters. What I found problematic is that they only took a �journey of incident,� not a �journey of growth.� They were, in effect, the same people at the end as they were at the beginning.

This may actually be an expectation when the writers are writing about real people with whom they�ve had contact. Most of the surviving Parnes family met with the production team to flesh out their stories in person, and many in the cast actually got to interact with the contemporary versions of the people they were playing. This may have had the effect of giving the artists a tendency to create the characters �as they are now,� rather than showing them as �they were then� and letting them grow and change.

Not to put too blunt a point on it, but characters who don�t grow can make threadbare drama. It�s often been said that �reality makes for poor theatre,� and, when dramatizing real events and real people, being overly devoted to showing �what really happened� may not be the best idea, simply because, in the process of putting words in their mouths, the writers are changing them, re-creating them in way that may not be in service to the overall story.

As an example, I have no doubt that the animosity between Azriel and the Parnes parents was very real, and very memorable (to the contemporary Azriel). NOT getting the parents� perspective, may, of necessity, make that whole plot point seem contrived, especially when it does a complete turnabout at the end. I�ve learned some things that give the animosity perspective and dramatic �Oomph,� but these things were not included in the play as it was presented here. I would have liked to see, perhaps, a moment where the Father tells us (or at least sings to us) all the reasons for his distrust of Azriel, not the simplistic �He�s not good enough for her� that we have now. Having Azriel grow and change throughout the show could also justify a change in perspective from the parents.

Now, all this being said, I have nothing but praise for the cast and production team here. Director Mactas has gathered a marvelous ensemble of adults and children to play the Parnes family (Elyssa Brette Mactas, Douglas Berlon, Connor Crank, Traci Weisberg, Brandon Kalusa, Caroline Grace Carter, Jeremy Kemalov, Ella Owen, and Sophia Kemalov, with Benjamin Harris as Azriel). Erin Hamilton is a lithe and expressive �Neshoma,� a �spirit� of the life force that unites the family and helps them survive � in a truly theatrical conception that I absolutely loved, she overlooks everything, adding choreographed moments to underscore emotional high (and low) points. A 10-person ensemble of Act 3 veterans fills out the cast with numerous other roles.

And, music director Lyn Taylor leads a seven-member orchestra that makes the many musical moments sing, and which never overpowers the singers. This show looked and sounded very good indeed.

This is a work in progress, and it follows an initial 2011 workshop reading of the show. There are some structural and dramatic problems that can (and, I presume, will) be addressed in future revisions. The bottom line is that this is a compelling story that should find an appreciative audience, no matter what shape it takes. More to the point, it�s a vivid reminder that Act 3 is a �hotbed� of creative talent, and their shows will only get better and better as they gain more experience.

If this may be used as an example, I look forward to seeing more original work from them.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


�

Gypsy, by Arthur Laurents, Tephen Sondheim, Jule Styne
Ingrid's Turn
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
5.0
Since its Broadway debut in 1959, �Gypsy� has been almost universally accepted as the quintessential American Musical, a big and brassy entertainment about entertainment, centered by a larger-than-life character who has become the dream role of any actress/singer �of a certain age.� Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell, Bette Midler, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti Lupone � all have taken a �turn� wearing Mama Rose�s Orthopedic Oxfords and along with her smothering over-inflated sense of self and motherhood and entertainment. All have played to accolades and awards and none (in my recollection) have ever been fully panned � it�s as if something about the role precludes a bad performance � even an actress who doesn�t �get it� will be swept along by the tidal force of Arthur Laurents� dialogue and Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim�s music to turn in an unstoned turn.

Now, Atlanta Lyric Theatre has opened (and sadly closed far too soon) a delightfully old-fashioned production. And now it is Ingrid Cole�s turn to knock off our collective socks with a larger-than-life belt voice, a layered and complex characterization and a way of shouting out �Sing Out, Louise� in a manner guaranteed to shake the knees of the most steely-nerved watcher. That she is matched by one of the most wonderful Louise/Gypsy�s I�ve seen (Jill Ginsberg), is supported by an ensemble of actor/singers that would be the envy of any production company, and is allowed to play on a nicely retro (and expensive-looking) set is just icing on the cake that is this show.

Loosely based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee (and substantially �cleaned up�**), this is the classic backstage story of a mother striving to achieve her dreams of Vaudeville Stardom through the exploitation of her daughters, Louise and �Baby June.� But Vaudeville is dying, her daughters could care less, and the world of entertainment has few (if any) opportunities for women �of a certain age.� What sets this show apart, makes it more than the tale of a monster stage mother, is the vulnerability of Rose, the very real slings and arrows that afflict her, the cross-currents of popular taste and limited offspring talent. She earns our sympathy (in spite of her outrageous actions) when each setback strikes her like so many personal failings, especially when these setbacks are the result of actual personal failings.

The final moments of the play, in which Rose sees her daughter�s fame outstrip her own, in which she shows us (and Gypsy) what she could have been (the exquisitely angry and introspective �Rose�s Turn�), in which mother and daughter take the first steps towards uneasy truce and possible détente -- it�s one of my favorite moments in Musical Theatre, one in which this cast and production realize perfectly.

So, what makes this outing so �delightfully old-fashioned� and �retro?� Let�s start with the uncut Overture and Entr�Acte. When was the last time a musical was actually written with an Overture? When was the last time you saw one included with a revival? It�s an aspect of musicals I�ve decidedly missed. Not only does it give us a sampler of �what�s to come,� it gives us an opportunity to �ease into the show,� to remind us that this is something special, something you can�t get with another media format. Here, it made me love the production before a note was even sung.

The extravagant set design was also unabashedly old-school. There were no (apparent) computerized gimmickry to quickly fly out and replace a set. No, here there are long scene shifts, curtains closed, as the show progresses from one seedy location to another. Normally, I would whine and moan about long scene changes slowing down the pace of a production, but, here, for whatever reason, I not only didn�t mind it, I embraced it � once that Overture brought me into a mindset of a vanishing style of production, the scene shifts reminded me that that was where I would stay.

As is usual, Atlanta Lyric gathered together an outstanding ensemble, led by Ms. Cole and Ms. Ginsberg. I especially liked Alan Kilpatrick�s ever-patient Herbie, Alison Brannon Wilhoit�s June, Alyssa Payne�s Baby June, Emerson Steele�s Baby Louise, and the �Gotta have a Gimmick� trio of Karen Hebert, Marcie Millard, and Kathleen McCook � these ladies achieved the impossible task of making the low-class bump-and-grinders downright respectable (without losing that smutty edge we�ve come to know and expect from this number). All things considered, with everyone playing multiple characters and filling out the many choral numbers, this was another cast that added up to an ensemble greater than the sum of its parts.

So, I really must apologize for my delay in posting these comments. This was a truly wonderful show, and I loved every minute of it. It was a reminder of how musicals have evolved over the past decades by going �old school� and showing us the real pleasures that have been lost as shows have become more modern, more electronic, more razzle-dazzle, and less heartfelt.

And, as Ingrid Cole vividly reminds us, a musical�s gotta have heart!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

** For a frighteningly vivid (and not-suitable-for-any-stage) look at Mama Rose and Gypsy�s lives, I heartily recommend Karen Abbott�s recent book �American Rose.� If �Gypsy� weren�t such an almost-perfect show, it would be difficult to watch without thinking of the dark dark life of the real Mama Rose. As it is, all memory of Ms. Abbott�s book vanishes with that first �Let me Entertain you.�




Assassins, by Stephen Sondheim
Dark Anthem
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
4.0
(NOTE: This production changed venues halfway through the run. Although these comments reflect the show as staged during opening weekend, he �grade� reflects my overall judgment on both versions. Afterwards, I have a few words about the �re-staging� at Alley Stage.)

Although our Declaration of Independence lists �The Pursuit of Happiness� as an �unalienable� (the, word, Mr. Adams, is �inalienable�) right, our actual Constitution kinda skirts around the whole happiness issue. Even so, we demand our happiness, and when it doesn�t happen, SOMEONE must be to blame, and SOMETHING must be done!

Which is why, according to John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim�s musical �Assassins,� thirteen people, successfully or not, have tried to kill the President of the United States. In this play, set in a symbolic limbo of a carnival shooting gallery sideshow, we meet nine of them as they tell us what landed them on the delivery end of a gun.

We know some of them � everyone learns about John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald in school. Those of us of a certain age, easily remember John Hinkley, �Squeaky� Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore. If we aced American History, we certainly know that Garfield and McKinley were killed in office, but we probably don�t know anything about their killers (let alone how to spell their names). That leaves a few we don�t know, even more who don�t even appear in this show.

�Assassins� can be very problematic for many people. Does it glorify these misfits at the expense of their victims? Does it try, in a dark way, to justify their actions? Or is it just an exercise in dark comedy, an excuse to get some laughs at the expense of some dead presidents? I can�t help but wonder what Jodie Foster thinks of Hinkley�s song, �I am Unworthy of Your Love.�

As for me, I think the play wants to do something profound � it wants us to look at the dark side of the American Dream through the eyes of a group of people for whom that dream has failed. It wants us to take the extraordinary step of empathizing with �people not like us,� of seeing the human being beneath the skin of the sideshow freak. It wants us to recognize that we are not so very different from the very people we supposedly revile. And it wants to turn that empathy upside-down, making us afraid of these people we were feeling sorry for not two minutes ago.

Script-writer John Weidman wrote the following shortly after the original 1991 Playwrights Horizon production:

�Thirteen people have tried to kill the President of the United States. Four have succeeded. These murderers and would-be murderers are generally dismissed as maniacs and misfits who have little in common with each other, and nothing in common with the rest of us.

�Assassins suggests otherwise. Assassins suggests that while these individuals are, to say the least, peculiar � taken as a group they are peculiarly American. And that behind the variety of motives which they articulated for their murderous outbursts, they share a common purpose: a desperate desire to reconcile intolerable feelings of impotence with an inflamed sense of entitlement.�

This is, in fact, one of my favorite Sondheim scores, filled with musical stylings that exemplify the history of American Music. The score itself, is pure Americana, reflecting each of the eras that produced an Assassin. More to the point, the songs can be funny and chilling at the same time, lyrically provocative as they describe twisted emotions, dark yearnings, and soon-to-be-misplaced passions.

And, over-riding everything is the iconic American dream of making the world notice! Attention must be paid! The fact that the witnesses at the attempted killing of FDR are every bit as shallow and attention-craving as the killers themselves is the key to this show, the song that tells us we�re seeing not the marginal and insane, but the there-but-for-fortune-go-I people-like-us.

And, it�s a measure of the strength of this show that, even though I think director Rob Hardie and the next Stage Production completely miss the boat on this theme, despite a WTF ending that is many times less effective than that written, this show still works, still moves and tickles, still gives a tuneful look into the darkest reaches of American-Dream-gone-wrong.

Let me try to articulate my reservations about this production. It seemed to me that Mr. Hardie made the unfortunate choice to go for cheap laughs, to emphasize the wide-eyed craziness of these people. While this approach is definitely funnier than a more measured interpretation, It�s also more donuts-for-dinner forgettable. For this outing, we�re not touring the side show of a darker American History with these people. They�re not our fellow-travelers � they�re the exhibits. We�re there to gawk at them, to point and stare, to more or less �Look at the Freaks.� Yes, all the marvelously ambiguous Sondheim lyrics and juxtapositions are there, not ignored, but they are now stuff to be endured while waiting for the next laugh.

And the bottom line for me, with this approach, is that over-the-top crazy-people become alienating. We can�t �walk in their shoes� when we�re laughing at them.

And, Mr. Hardie ends the show by having the cast �turn on� the side show proprietor, the Red-Suited tempter who talked them into committing murder. Normally the show ends with the cast taking aim at the audience � a strong �this is what you get for liking me� finale. Here though, there�s little point to this action beside the obvious �Here�s Someone Else to Blame� moment, and its dramatic effect is, to say the least, tame. That point has been made many times already, and It just doesn�t ring true for me, leaving me very unsatisfied � just another nail in the coffin-lid of my �what-do-these-people-have-to-do-with-me� response.

Even with this substantial criticism, I found the production more effective than I would have expected. Mr. Hardie�s cast look and sound great, and his design and technical crew have worked magic with the resources available to them. If Matt Jones� Booth had a too-quiet-for-Victorian-actor voice. if Katie Patterson�s Sara Jane Moore was more aging hippie than suburban housewife, if Danielle Girardeau�s �Squeaky� Fromme was more wide-eyed stage whacko than disturbed Manson acolyte, if Don Goodner�s Hinkley was more petulant adolescent than obsessed young man, if Jeff Boyce was far too old for the not-yet-thirty-when-he-died Leon Czolgosz (so that�s how you spell it!), it didn�t stop them or any of the cast from having a wealth of beautifully sung, perfectly realized �moments.� Everyone here was eccentric and funny, and everyone was able to master Sondheim�s intricate melodies and lyrics. My favorite of the assassins was Zip Rampy�s Charles Guiteau, a pompous and preening dandy with an elevated sense of adequacy (�I killed Garfield because I wanted to be Ambassador to France!�), but I also really liked Alan Phelps Zangara (*), Paul Gourdeau�s Sam Byck (**), Phyllis Giller�s Emma Goldman, Monte Howell�s Proprietor, and Nick Crawley�s Balladeer. The cast was filled out by a dynamite ensemble of Ted Persky, Kaylee Bugg, Max Chambers, Cayla Franzman, and Ethan Lasenyik. And, Music Director Annie Cook led them all through the traps and peaks of this difficult score as well as leading the live orchestra with nary an overwhelm-the-singers moment. The show sounded great!

On the other hand, I was a little less fond of the slide shows and projection. Some of the slides had too much information to be read in the short time they were up, others highlighted too many of the differences in the appearances of the actors and their real-life characters, and others were just over-obvious distractions. On the other hand, the Kennedy funeral and assassination footage during �Something Just Broke� was the perfect counterpoint � the emotional kick that reminded us that these killers did have victims, that these actions �broke� the country (for a very short time). More to the point, it (as well as the Balladeer) reminded us that these actions ALL failed to get the killers anything they wanted.

In the final analysis then, I have a strong difference of opinion with Mr. Hardie on what this show is really about, on the emotions and reactions it should evoke in its audience. This did not stop me from appreciating the approach taken here, for what it was. For me, though, it was a series of strong and wonderful moments that added up to a whole that was too much less than the sum of its parts.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

* It has been speculated that Zangara�s real target in Miami was Chicago Mayor Cermak, whom he did kill � this is based on the fact that Zangara was a marksman in the Italian army and that Cermak had a problem with the Chicago mob. That�s it! That Zangara was never in Chicago, that he was a marksman with a weapon and a distance not used here, that Cermak was killed by the wild spray of gunfire after Zangara�s initial shot at FDR is not, I suppose, relevant to the conspiracy-mongers who apparently think ALL Italian immigrants are part of the mob.

** I�d actually never heard of this guy or his attempt on Nixon until this show came out. Apparently, his failed highjacking (with the resulting deaths of a pilot and a Police Officer) was described to the media as just that � another failed highjacking, lost in a news cycle that was obsessed with Watergate. Apparently, the secret service didn�t want to give anyone any how-to-kill-a-president ideas.


AFTERNOTE ON THE SECOND WEEK MOVE TO THE ALLEY THEATRE:

In one of those �Love the Theatre Hate the Drama� episodes that we�ve all come to know and regret, �Assassins� was ... ahem � given the opportunity to let Next Stage move into its new Alley Stage home sooner than expected. Because of the new venue, many moments had to be completely restaged, and one role recast (director Rob Hardie stepped into the role of [Deleted by the I-Still-Have-Friends-in-Both-Camps Police] and didn�t completely embarrass himself).

Aside from the remarkable achievement of completely restaging the show in less than a week, I have to say the more intimate venue really helped the show. Mr. Jones now came across as a lot stronger as Booth, the projection screens were repositioned in less-distracting line-of-sight areas, and, the Guiteau execution was many times more effective (my College Directing professor was RIGHT about weak/strong stage positions � who knew?). The band and sound design were, again, well balanced and the closeness mitigated most of the alienation I felt opening weekend.

On the other hand, I still hated the ending and the over-the-top Fromme/Moore sequence, but, overall, I left the theatre much happier, giving my grade here a bit of a bump.

And, the show did generate a boatload of (not rancorous) discussion between myself and Mr. Hardie, and that�s always a pleasure, and very much what this production really wanted to do.
�

Illyria: a Twelfth Night Musical, by John R. Briggs and Eric Frampton
Play On!
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
4.0
<I>If Music be the Food of Love, Play On!</I>

�12th Night� is one of those Bardic Pleasures that sing to me no matter how often I see it, and I have seen it very often. Filled with the music of love and comedy and wit and heartfelt emotion, it never fails to find a wide range of emotional buttons to play with in my over-stimulated imagination.

Add to that the fact that I�ve enjoyed the CD of Georgia Shakespeare�s 1999 production of �Illyria� for years, and the stage is set for a whole sack-full of preconceptions, biases, and I-Can�t-Wait-To-See-It expectations before the first guitar is even strummed.

To be sure, this production was filled with �hits,� with ecstatically entertaining production numbers and �moments� and performances. I left the theatre smiling (even laughing) at lingering memory, and the songs have been ricocheting through my mind all week.

That being said, there also a few too many �misses� that I have to talk about, misses that, to my mind, may be more the result of tech-week burn-out than conscious choice (or insurmountable performance shortcoming).


<I>�What is this Land?�</I>

The short answer is, of course, Illyria, the strange and alien landscape upon which our mourning heroine, Viola, finds herself shipwrecked. The longer (and more meta) answer is that it is a mythical Arabian Nights Middle East, a purely theatrical locale in which those with scimitars consult priests and not mullahs, in which the local royalty are Counts and Countesses, not Emirs and their nameless, faceless, multiple spouses. It is a world in which the musical idiom is the panoply of American popular music, riding the range of folk, country, pop, rock, gospel, blues, and even a little Day-O pseudo-reggae.

If you don�t know the story, you should have paid more attention in English class. Viola and her twin brother are cast overboard and shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria, each thinking the other has perished. Viola disguises herself as a boy (not difficult here, since the males seem to wear tutu-esque dresses), names him(her)self Cesario, and enters the service of the Count Orsino, with whom she falls in love-at-first-sight. But Orsino is pining for the Countess Olivia, a woman who has forsworn all men due to grief over her own lost brother. Orsino sends Cesario to carry his message of love to Olivia, who immediately falls in love-at-first-sight with Cesario.

Okay, you got all that? Viola is disguised as Cesario and loves Orsino who loves Olivia who loves Cesario who is really Viola. Viola and Olivia are both mourning dead brothers, one of whom is not really dead. And let�s not even talk about Sir Toby Belch and his feud with Olivia�s steward the holier-than-thou Malvolio (�I am NOT of your element!�).

It�s a wonder there aren�t more musicals based on this story, �Play On!� and �All Shook Up� notwithstanding!


<I>�If you would laugh yourself into stitches, then follow me!�</I>

And, indeed, I often found myself laughing at the sudden and bizarre song transitions -- a tequila-soused Viola suddenly becoming a girl-band leader with �You Can�t Wait,� Feste donning a cowboy hat for the Opry-esque �Come Today Death,� a robed choir joining Feste and Malvolio for the tambourine-spangling amen-rousing �Lord Have Mercy,� and Feste (again) channeling Elvis for �Oh, Mistress Mine.� In fact, the only numbers that didn�t quite gel for me were Sir Toby�s, the drinking song �Let it Drink� (could use a lot more abandon), and the comic tango �Tango of the Blades� (could use more clarity and more, well, comedy).

The cast was made up of actors who sing, rather than musical belters, but that was fine. I thought Courtney Patterson�s 2006 Viola was a much more interesting creation than her work here, and though she has a pleasant voice (and a way with a microphone that truly works), she seemed to be �trying too hard� during the musical numbers. Joe Knezevich�s Orsino breaks no new ground or finds no new levels, despite �nailing� what I sometimes think is the best song in the show (�You�ve Never Loved�). I did enjoy Anna Kimmell�s Olivia, Megan McFarland�s Maria, and Mark Cabus�s Sir Andrew. I was (only a trifle) disappointed with Chris Kayser�s Sir Toby and Allen O�Reilly�s Malvolio, bth who were competent, but �by-the-numbers,� needing a bit more spark to truly sing to me.

The stand-out for me, though, was Travis Smith�s Feste. This is a role that sometimes disappears beneath the shenanigans filling the story, but here, he was a true troubadour, carrying the lion�s share of musical numbers with a wide range of style and tone, and building a unique characterization that made all the disparate elements hold together. This was a fine ensemble, and Mr. Smith seemed to be the glue that held it together.

I also liked the �Arabian Nights� concept that clarified the �alienness� of Illyria to Viola, giving ample opportunities for over-the-top costuming with its it-doesn�t-have-to-synch-with-any-real-historical-era style. As to the music by John Briggs, while it doesn�t have the consistent style of his �Shrew: the Musical,� it�s stew of genres becomes a style itself � it becomes the world of popular music and all the various nooks and crannies and pigeonholes into which we love to sub-divide our likes and dislikes. And it is ALL Broadway Musical, all over-the-top razzle-dazzle and can�t-get-it-out-of-my-head melody. If the few moments of singalong or clapalong fell flat with Sunday�s sleepy matinee crown, it shouldn�t have.

This is a boisterous, funny, toe-tapping retelling of an oft-told tale, one filled with song and dance, signifying not nothing, but a terrifically exciting good time. If some of the performances and numbers seemed a little tired and not-quite-there, I�m sure that a lot of that can be traced to opening-weekend exhaustion, and I trust the show will find it�s �A+� footing by mid-July.

And, if not, we�ll let Malvolio be revenged on the whole pack of them.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



As You Like It, by William Shakespeare
Out of the Woods
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
4.5
At Last!

Since Kenneth Branagh�s 2006 film of �As You Like It,� I�ve been (im)patiently waiting for an on-stage version that brings alive the characters and themes as clearly and as entertainingly as did that marvelous adaptation. This has always been a �problem� play for me, and I�ve never embraced it as a favorite as I have �12th Night,� �Much Ado,� and �Merry Wives.� Most productions (apparently) have trouble clarifying the various aspects of love on display, or tend to give short shrift to the town/forest court/county dichotomies, or come up with a �concept� that is more �clever� than �smart,� doing little to illuminate the plot�s dark corners and ambiguities.

At last, here is a staging that is pure delight from start to finish, that gives equal weight to over-the-top clowning and beneath-the-surface emotion. Sticking with their traditional �original practice� approach, the Shakespeare Tavern has this time collected a cast that brings these characters alive, that hits all the highs and lows our literature professors told us were there, and even gives a sly nudge-nudge wink-wink to some of the plot contrivances that usually bug me.

Let�s start with the Plot. As its place in the Tavern �Evolution Series� implies, this is probably one of Shakespeare�s most �mature� comedies � equal parts slapstick, wordplay, and dark potential. It has more depth than the earlier successes of �Midsummer� or �Two Gentlemen,� but it also does not have the overabundance of drama found in later plays like �Winter�s Tale� or �Pericles.� The Duke of Whatever has been o�erthown by his brother and banished to the Forest of Arden. The exiled Duke�s daughter, Rosalind, remains behind, as companion to the �bad� Duke�s daughter, Celia. In a parallel plot, brothers Oliver and Orlando are undergoing a similar upheaval � their father has died, and oldest son Oliver would be happy if Orlando just disappeared.

There is a pivotal wrestling match, during which Orlando (barely) defeats the new Duke�s favorite, so must run for his life, but NOT before falling in love with Rosalind, who is subsequently also banished from the court. Celia decides to join her, and the two disguise themselves as a boy (�Ganymede�) and his simple sister. Soon, the paths of Orlando and �Ganymede� cross, and � well, you know what�s to come.

Why this complex web of relationships and politics and philosophical ruminations on love and courting works so well this time is simple � the cast. Truth to tell, that�s apparently ALL that was needed to make this work for me! I�ve been a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Veronika Duerr�s for a long time now, and here, she gives us a Rosalind every bit as tasty as her Viola was in last year�s �12th Night� (a role she�ll be repeating next month). This is a Rosalind at home in both court and forest, comfortable in both gown and breeches. More to the point, we see the connections she has with all the characters � the �Lust at First Sight� attraction to Orlando that gradually blossoms into something deeper as her Ganymede charade continues, the giddy-girl BFF interactions with Celia, the heartfelt reunion with her father, the sense of betrayal from her uncle, the friendship with Touchstone � all these aspects were real, and often rib-tickling funny in Ms. Duerr�s more-than-capable hands.

As Celia, Kelly Criss is every bit her match, equal parts little-girl lost-in-the-woods and proud heir-to-the-dukedom, loyal friend and betrayed daughter. These two actresses are a true delight together and bring out every morsel of plentiful humor that is in this script without neglecting the darker under-belly of Shakespeare�s court intrigues.

As Orlando, Jonathan Horne is able to show us a �male ingénue� with depth. Yes, he moons and swoons over his lust-at-first-sight attraction to Rosalind, but he never neglects the subtle sexual politics of his �unseemly� attraction to this Ganymede fellow, and embraces their friendship with ALL that that implies. As he is �schooled in love� in the forest, we soon see that he is not only a suitable match for Rosalind, but a deserving heir to title and nobility.

I also have to praise newcomer Jay Peterson, large and imposing, who makes a vivid appearance as the wrestler Charles, then, in an impressive switch, comes back almost unrecognizable as the exiled Duke. Other roles are filled with a forest full of familiar faces and newcomers. Jeff McKerley gives us a marvelously depressed Jacques, spellbinding with the all-too-familiar �All the World�s a Stage� speech, Daniel Parvis continues his run of comic roles with a delightfully off-color Touchstone, Matt Nitchie gives us a woefully forlorn hysterically woebegone shepherd-in-love Silvius, and Jacob York is a reluctantly nasty Oliver, actually convincing in his late-in-the show conversion to �good guy.�

The staging by Troy Willis is much more interesting than the stand-in-a-line-and-orate blocking of the Tavern�s 2010 staging, with a well-choreographed and executed wrestling match at the start, a series of nicely-blocked pas de deux couplings of various characters, a gorgeous sampling of pleasant musical interludes (nicely composed by Mark Schroeder, Bo Gaiason, and Clarke Weigle), and an attention to pace that makes the (sorta kinda) long running time pass in a seeming whirl.

But, when all is said and done, this production soars on the wings of Veronika Duerr and Kelly Criss � I feel almost like a creepy old-man fan-boy as I gush, but watching them take on this story is an exercise in sheer joy and a true theatrical geek-asm.

Not to be too creepy, but that�s just as I like it!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

�

Xanadu, by Book by Douglas Carter Beane, Music & Lyrics by Jeff Lynne & John Farar based on the Universal Pictures Film, Screenplay by Richard Danus & Marc Rubel
Oh, For a Muse of Cheesiness!
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
3.5
I have to ask, what is it about the music that was popular when you�re in your twenties, that sticks (for good or for ill) forever? I was in my twenties in the 1970�s and it was the height of the disco era. At the time, though, I was heavily into concept albums and �rock-goes-to-college� artists (and, of course, musicals), and I absolutely, positively, unequivocally HATED Disco.

Today, I still enjoy the occasional air-keyboard session with Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson, the classic licks of Alvin Lee guitar, and even the flute-y sounds of Ian Anderson. And I still shudder with dread and exasperation at even the slightest disco beat.

All this may explain my ambivalent reaction to the marvelously cheesy �Xanadu,� the tongue-in-cheek adaption of the 1980 Olivia Newton-John flopperoo movie that helped establish the Razzie awards. Like the rest of the audience, I really enjoyed the first half, with its over-the-top ridiculous plot, its just-plain-fun silliness, and its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to getting us to laugh. Then it makes the mistake of letting us catch our breath with an unwelcome intermission that gives us time to ponder what it is we�re really watching. In other words, it�s a marvelously entertaining 90-minute musical that goes on for about 30 minutes too long.

Let me try to recap the plot without descending into a NSFW fit of giggling. It is 1980, and Sonny Malone is a struggling artist who has reached the end of his rope. The Muse of History, Clio, takes pity on him and assumes earthly form � an Australian roller-skating beauty named Kira � to inspire him to achieve the heights of his ambition � to open a multi-media Roller Disco center. Clio�s less-than-friendly sisters, Melpomene and Calliope, conspire to make her break Zeus� written-in-stone commandments by falling in love (with a mortal!).

I�m sorry, I just fell into a giggling fit at the idea that the height of anyone�s artistic ambition would be to open a roller disco. Sonny is painted as a very dim-bulb Southern California beach boy, and, unfortunately, has little to recommend as anyone�s object-of-affection, let alone the leave-immortality-behind passion that comes over Clio. This is about where I skipped the track, where I began to stop laughing at all the silliness and wince at all the mis-steps that made the original movie so awful.

The script (by the extremely talented Douglas Carter Beane who also gave us the marvelous �The Little Dog Laughed� and �As Bees in Honey Drown�) is filled with laugh-out-loud jokes at the expense of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Southern California, creativity after 1980, and, of course, musicals based on bad movies. But it�s a level of silliness that is fragile, that can come crashing to a dull sameness if the audience is given time to dwell on it for too long. And here we�re given too much time to wonder why the Muse of History is inspiring a painter, on why Clio/Kira even likes this guy (and didn�t like the older-and-much-more interesting Danny Maguire � or, for that matter, Mozart and Chopin), and on why they keep slowing down the story to sing all these god-awful songs, songs that are repeated in a seemingly endless encore during which the audience is invited on stage for an impromptu dance party � always a sure sign of desperation that I always thoroughly detest.

By the time we get to the second act sojourn to Mount Olympus, I was only able to shudder at the desperate cheesiness of it all, and I was not able to get in tune with the rest of the audience�s giddiness. Oh, yes, this is definitely a crowd pleaser (especially if you�re a �forty-year-old gay man� as the show itself admits). I just wish I had as much fun as everyone around me seemed to be having.

Then again, I really really enjoyed this cast. Lindsey Lamb Archer is breathtakingly muse-like as Clio/Kira, and I only wish I had her behind my shoulder now as I struggle to articulate my ambivalence. Al Stilo makes a welcome return to the stage as Danny Maguire, and Marcie Millard and Jill Hames pull out all their prodigious comic talents as Melpomene and Calliope. I liked that two of the sisters were played by men (Craig Waldrip and Greg Bosworth) and the rest of the ensemble-muses created pleasant and distinctive characters that never descended into caricature (Mary Nye Bennett and Christen C. Orr). Yes, I wish Jordan Craig�s Sonny had been less of a wishy-washy blandly dumb doofus, but, Mr. Craig gave him a sad-eyed sincerity that filled in many of the under-written gaps.

But, that music. Blecccchhhhhhh! Sure, I loved ELO at the time, and it was great to hear �Evil Woman� and �Strange Magic� again. I was even pleasantly entertained by the forgettable �Have You Never Been Mellow,� especially in the context used here. But everything else was just so dull and filled with throbbingly banal sameness that I wanted to stab myself in the ears to keep from listening to it. Even the choreography was simplistic to a fault, with Ms. Archer�s roller skating confined to two poses and a lot of gliding (though kudos for the sight gag used in the finale by Ms. Millard).

I am second to none in my appreciation for cheesiness. I�ve even been pleasantly surprised by musicals with a disco retro style (�Mamma Mia� in particular). Even here, I went into the intermission with a song in my heart and a smile on my face. But, apparently, cheesiness soon wears out its welcome, and, mid-way through the second act, that�s pretty much what happened to me here.

Oh, for a muse of cheesiness that would lift the second half of this show to the Olympian Heights achieved by the first. Then, THEN I could grit my teeth, grimly smile, and say, �Great Caesar�s Pinstripes, but that was fun!�

As it is, I will merely sigh and get on with my life.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

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Lend Me A Tenor, by Ken Ludwig
Fractured Farcitures
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
4.5
A big event is imminent, and a �ringer� pro has been brought in. The pro backs out and has to be replaced by a talented young minion. Complications ensue, desperation mounts, and all can be saved by a single �Hail Mary.� To celebrate their hard-won victory, the cast does a 15-second recap of the entire story as an encore.

The fact that I was able to use the above paragraph to introduce my recent review of Ken Ludwig�s �The Fox on the Fairway� validates my original assertion that he�s fallen into a predictable rut. Or it could indicate he�s stumbled onto a formula that can hold an infinite number of stories. I�m inclined to believe the former, but, based on the results earlier at Aurora Theatre and now at Dunwoody�s Stage Door Players, I am more confident that the latter is the case. Both plays are fast-paced, side-splittingly funny pieces, tightly directed and exquisitely performed. Those feelings of déjà vu experienced by the current Ludwigfest are quickly drowned out by laughter at the antics at these too-obsessed, just over-the-top eccentric characters and the wonderful actors hiding behind them.

Welcome to Cleveland OH and 1934. The Cleveland Opera has planned a gala fundraiser, a one-night only performance of Verdi�s Otello starring the world-renowned tenor Tito Merelli (�Il Stupendo�). After a series of unfortunate events (you know the list � a jealous wife, a hidden fan, a talented minion, an accidental overdose, a misplaced corpse, too many tenors in black-face, too many lustful ladies, too many complications, too many slamming doors), the desperation level rises to absurd heights, the silliness goes over the rafters and through the roof, and the applause lasts almost as long as the echoes of laughter.

This play has been very popular with regional and community groups since its arrival more than 25 years ago (this is the fourth production I�ve seen, and my lovely and talented spouse has been in enough of them to play three of the four female roles), and it�s easy to see why. Tightly-written characters that never grow tiring, fast-paced segments of dialogue that are almost physical in their choreographed sound bytes, absurdly contrived farcical situations (exactly how likely is it that one amateur tenor in blackface can fool both his fiancée and the opera-obsessed audience of Cleveland?), and just enough singing to satisfy some of our we-sorta-kinda-like-real-(�legitimate�)-singing pretentions � what�s not to like?

And Stage Door�s Robert Egizio has cleverly staged the whole thing with an eye toward absurdity (a set with doors with a formal look that suggests tuxedos) and with a cast that finds every comic note and belts them all through the roof. John Markowski is delightfully sheepish as Max, the opera manager�s assistant. At least he�s sheepish until he gets to hide behind the Otello-face, at which time his exuberance and his love of singing propels him over the top. If his singing his more musical-comedy belt than operatic every-tone-is-perfectly-formed, it can be forgiven. Squeaky-voiced Kelly Chapin Schmidt is marvelous as Maggie, Max�s Tito-obsessed fiancée. Megan Hayes, Mark Gray, Karen Whitaker, and Charlie Bradshaw provide terrific support, and Larry Ruth is a Tito that is beautifully over-the-top pompous and dim. And I REALLY enjoyed Eliana Marianes as Tito�s ever-jealous wife Maria, a woman whose every line is an aggrieved shout-out to those who inflict upon womankind the injustice of a (shudder) husband. She is so over-the-top and so pull-out-the-clichés Italian that every line is a comic delight. This is, in fact, a beautifully effective ensemble, much greater than the sum of its parts, and its parts are pretty good to begin with.

So, this is a beautifully-performed farce that throws in some sly commentary on the nature of artists (and �artistic� fans), a tightly-written word-and-gag-fest that delights the ears as it dazzles the eyes, and a valentine to opera, to laughter, and to the over-talented amateurs we know lurk behind the scenes in every artistic ensemble. It�s a story that does not overstay its welcome, or lose its appeal even after multiple productions. And it�s a troupe of actors and a production team in peak form, creating a marvelously memorable evening, whose overture is a medley of all the staple ingredients of the best comedies and farces.

All I can say after seeing this, is, �Encore!�

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



The Story Of My Life, by Music & Lyrics by Neil Bartram Book by Brian Hill
A Wonderful Life
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
4.0
�The Story of My Life� is an effective little tear-jerker that, despite numerous script problems, manages to tug at just the right heart-strings and funny-bones to end up working like a charm. It tells the slight story of two friends, Tom and Alvin, who drift apart and reconnect from childhood through abbreviated grown-up-hood. Alvin has died (no spoiler) and Tom, a writer of some repute, is struggling to prepare his friend�s eulogy. The ghost (memory) of Alvin pulls out stories from their lives to try to �kick-start� Tom�s permanently writers-blocked mind.

And that�s about it. The cast of two goes through the mostly sung-through piece, energetically switching from winsome ballads to angry anthems to silly digressions. And, thanks to some clever staging and two over-the-top wonderful performances, it works like a charm.

So, what�s so bad about all this? Well, the writer-slash-English-Major in me wants to tick off the numerous mis-steps � too many ill-conceived �It�s a Wonderful Life� allusions that only serve to underscore the shortcomings here, stories that are too banal and not-especially-special for serious attention, contrived character points and blank-slate backgrounds (How does Tom make a successful career out of writing about JUST his friendship with Alvin? What does Alvin really want to do with his life that is interrupted by his father�s illness? Why does Tom�s engagement fail? Does Alvin even have a �Significant other?�). There are hints of submerged homosexuality that are never explored. There are hints that there are aspects of Alvin that Tom never knew (or wanted to know). And, because the play is TOTALLY from Tom�s point of view, there are so many unanswered questions about why Alvin makes the choices he does, and what leads them to this point their (after) lives.

So, then, why did I like this play so much, and why does it �work like a charm?� After all the songs aren�t that memorable (although I did enjoy the early-in-life �Mrs. Remington� and the climactically tear-jerking �I Didn�t See Alvin�). The life being examined isn�t filled with incident and meaning. And we don�t even have the luxury of seeing the effect this particular life has on anyone around him. The works we hear from the �great writer� are not particularly compelling, not even close-to-great.

So, then, why did I like this play so much, and why does it �work like a charm?� The answer is probably because John Stanier (Tom) and Kelly David Carr (Alvin) have charisma by the bucketful, talent to spare, and could probably charm the socks off anyone. They each have dozens of solo moments that soar to the rafters, and, though their voices don�t blend particularly well, they still manage to harmonize in the duets in a way that is �better than the way it sounds.� Barbara Capogna Macko is their energetic accompanist, and embellishes the musical experience without overwhelming it.

And Julie Taliaferro has directed the show in an intimate manner that does full justice to the story. Set Designer Jasmine Vogue Pai has constructed a white-on-white set, a heavenly �library� filled with the blank and wordless books of Alvin�s life � a set that pays off beautifully when pages are scattered to the wind, only to �disappear� when they reach the floor. And John Parker has lit it all in a way that captures the vagueness of the set with the specificity of each scene � lighting white sets is an incredibly difficult task, and Mr. Parker has come up with one of the best designs I�ve seen at the Art Place (including � especially � my own).

I think it works because it�s an intimate story, told in an intimate venue. It is directed and performed by a cast and production team that wants to share a friend�s story � it may not be of great import to the world or to art, but, because it�s about a friend, it becomes of great import to us. I can�t imagine this show ever working in a large proscenium venue (and, indeed, the Broadway production closed after only five performances), but here, everything about the piece �works like a charm.�

And, being a wannabe-writer myself, I can definitely relate to all the sly references to problems and inspirations faced by those who have the more-courage-than-I-had to choose writing as a career rather than an avocation. I once had a button that said �Writing is easy � All you have to do is stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.� I�m sure Tom can relate, as his planned eulogy remains stubbornly blank.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)
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The Waffle Palace: Smothered, Covered, and Scattered 24/7/365, by Larry Larson & Eddie Levi Lee
Padded, Contrived, and Scattershot
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
2.0
In 2007, after enjoying �Charm School,� their comedy about political correctness and corporate faddism, I called Larry Larsen & Eddie Levi Lee �an Atlanta treasure as writers, as actors, and as artists.� Now comes �The Waffle Palace � Smothered, Covered, & Scattered 24/7/365,� and all I have to say is, I�d like to eat those words, preferably with plenty of syrup.

Conceived as an homage to all the quirky things that have happened at Waffle House, and as a tribute to Southern Hospitality, the play, to me, came across as an unfunny wallow in stereotypes, a tasteless mixture of styles and moods, and as a meandering and (far too often) just plain dumb waste of time.

John runs a family-owned �Waffle Palace� just off the 14th-Street exit of Atlanta�s connector. It�s 2009, when that exit was closed for a year for re-construction of the 14th-Street Bridge, so business on the over-night shift is, well, to be kind, non-existent. On top of that, a business conglomerate wants to buy the place to make way for a (very) profitable commercial venture.

That�s about it. We get stories of the cook�s desire to start a church and the new waitress�s contrived romance with a garbage collector, neither of which are developed to a believable level. We also get John�s totally pointless delaying tactic in giving the developers an answer � we know from the start he doesn�t want to sell. And we get a boatload of �quirky� stories on the Palace�s customers, all of which are about as quirky as a National Enquirer exposé. We get the overused and almost-a-cliché [Deleted by the Spoiler Police]-left-as-a-tip story, a dead [Deleted by the I-can�t-believe-they-pulled-out-this-lame-chestnut police] that turns out to be a [Deleted by the I-can�t-believe-they-pulled-out-this-stereotype police], a pair of cops who do a painful-to-sit-through hip-hop number about the joys of self-tasering, a Jeff-Foxworthy clone who gives us a �You may not be in a Waffle Palace� routine without a single funny line, a proctologist with way too many butt jokes, a guy from Texas who � well, is just a guy from Texas, a punk band, etc etc etc � all adding nothing but padding to an already too-long running time.

At one point, we get an expensive-looking (and admittedly fun to watch) special-effects sequence in which the Gates of Hell apparently open because someone dared order pancakes (lame!), we get a representative from the Real Estate demons who turns out to be a literal devil (lamer!), we get a funeral for someone we never met in which we�re asked to sing along with �Amazing Grace� AND �The Dreidel Song� (lamest!). We even get a guitar-playing interlude in which the pre-recorded guitar is too loud for the lyrics of the song to be heard.

We get a whole hash-load of stuff, none of which is particularly interesting or funny. What we DON�T get are characters who go beyond surface single-quirk stereotypes. One waitress is an is-she-Catholic-or-Jewish immigrant from Nicaragua named Esmeralda Bernstein, another is a ruler-of-the-staff Earth Mother who is always espousing �Connie�s Rules.� And John himself shows no depth at all, following a predictable path, and, to quote Dorothy Parker, runs the gamut of emotions from A to B. And the whole Evil Corporate Empire stealing a family business plot trope has been done to death � and here we get absolutely nothing new to give it any spark of interest.

I REALLY did not like this play.

Maybe part of my dislike is based on my personal distaste for Waffle House itself. I always resent pandering waitresses who call me �Hon� and have always left the place with an upset stomach. I�ve never experienced the sort of camaraderie and �Southern Courtesy� this play seems to claim can be found on the menu there. And I haven�t returned to one in years.

This is, admittedly, one of the best-looking sets I�ve seen in a while. Front row seats are really demi-booths (missed opportunity � having the cast keep the front-row audience supplied with coffee throughout), and it looks as if the behind-the-counter kitchen can actually provide breakfast for us all. Unfortunately, the lighting mix is a bit scattershot with shadows-in-the-wrong-places and the sound mix is often a bit too loud.

Still, the cast almost makes it worth the trip. Larry Larsen himself plays John, and I appreciated his efforts as an actor much more than his efforts as a writer. Maria Rodriguez-Sager plays Esmeralda as an innocent abroad, and I liked her in spite of her clichéd thicker-than-molasses accent. And Marguerite Hannah brings to Connie a pleasant warmth that is downright welcoming. Then we have Enoch King, Allan Edwards, Lala Cochran, and Eric Mendenhall playing the other twenty-plus roles in a whirlwind of costume and character quick-changes that can be downright dizzying while remaining impressive.

But, it all is in service of script that I found far too lame and forgettable. One of the few good lines is �A four-dollar breakfast is like a ten-dollar [hooker] � you never know what you�re going to catch.� Watching �The Waffle Palace � etc etc etc� was like eating at Waffle House � I felt pandered to and left the place with an unpleasant feeling in the pit of my stomach.

And I really REALLY hate being called �Hon� by someone I don�t know.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)
�

The Fox on the Fairway, by Ken Ludwig
Definitely Better Than Par
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
4.5
A big event is imminent, and a “ringer” pro has been brought in. The pro backs out and has to be replaced by a talented young minion. Complications ensue, desperation mounts, and all can be saved by a single “Hail Mary.” To celebrate their hard-won victory, the cast does a 15-second recap of the entire story as an encore.

The fact that the above paragraph can be used to describe Ken Ludwig’s “Lend me a Tenor” AND “The Fox on the Fairway, may be a sign he’s fallen into a formulaic rut. Or it could indicate he’s stumbled onto a formula that can hold an infinite number of stories. I’m inclined to believe the former, but, based on the results currently on stage at Aurora Theatre, I hold out hopes for the latter. This is a fast-paced, side-splittingly funny piece, tightly directed and exquisitely performed. Those feelings of déjà vu experienced by those of us (too) familiar with “Lend me a Tenor” (more on that piece in a couple weeks after Stage Door’s revival) are quickly drowned out by laughter at the antics at these too-obsessed, just over-the-top eccentric characters and the wonderful actors hiding behind them.

It’s time for the annual Golf Tournament between rivals Quail Valley Country Club and Crouching Squirrel Country Club. As usual, Club Presidents Bingham (Quail Valley) and Dickie (Crouching Squirrel Hidden Nutjob) have made an outrageous bet on the outcome. If Crouching Squirrel wins, Bingham must turn over the keys to his wife’s Antique Shop along with $200,000. What Dickie doesn’t know is that Bingham has recruited a ridiculously talented pro to play for his side. What Bingham doesn’t know is that his wife’s store is soon to worth millions from a land deal, and, oh, yes, Crouching Squirrel has stolen his “ringer.”

Enter Justin and Louise, the young employees in lust/love. Justin has just been hired as Bingham’s assistant, and Louise is the waitress at the Quail Valley Tap Room. Toss into the mix Pamela, from Bingham’s Board of Directors, who happens to be Dickie’s ex-wife and also [Truly Absurd Plot Twist Deleted by the Spoiler Police]. Oh, did I mention that Justin has a golf game that scores in the mid-sixties?

Mr. Ludwig has pulled out all the stops here, tossing in clever-entendres pure slapstick, a fragile antique vase, a purple-pimpernel birthmark (Hooray! Someone else knows “The Court Jester”!), a battle-axe wife, a crouching-dimwit hidden-genius blonde bombshell, a lot of free-flowing wine and champagne, a number of ridiculously mismatched golfing “togs” (with one of Dickie’s sweaters matching the modern art painting on the set), drug-induced hallucinations, an engagement ring down the sink, and that hoariest of clichés, the microphone with a mind of its own leading to an embarrassingly broadcast confession. All familiar stuff, all used here to tremendously effective, um, effect. And to top them all, there’s the amazingly funny sight of a drunken Courtney Patterson (as Pamela), lying flat on her back with a golf ball in her mouth for Bingham’s swing aimed right at us.

Director Kevin Gillese (from Dad’s Garage) has assembled a tremendously talented cast led by Dan Triandiflou’s calmly desperate Bingham, Mr. Triandiflou creates a character who is an anchor of calm in the midst of all this craziness, but he is the one with the most at stake. Courtney Patterson flexes her comedic chops with her serial-divorcee Pamela (“I had a nightmare all my ex-husbands were in the tournament and I was the seventh hole”) with a few secrets of her own (not to mention a way with an ad-lib that covered a few technical faux’s pas). As rival president Dickie, Robin Bloodworth is delightfully dim, mangling idioms as easily as he mangles his wardrobe. Jacob York and Jenny Holden are simply marvelous as the young lovers Justin and Louise, and generate plenty of on-stage heat. And, to round out the cast, Suehyla El-Attar is marvelous as Muriel, Bingham’s Margaret-Dumontesque wife and tormentor.

Lizz Dorsey has put together a beautiful set (the Quail Valley Tap Room) that breaks apart at just the right moment, backed by a superbly designed and executed backdrop that looks positively three-dimensional. Lights (Mary Parker) and Sound (Bobby Johnson) add just the right amount of support, and the Costumes of Alan Yeong are equal parts silly and elegant. Everything in this production was a “hole in one” and kept the entire thing humming along like a finely-tuned golf cart.

So, yeah, this play doesn’t break any new ground, doesn’t reveal anything about human nature we haven’t seen before, and taps into a structure Mr. Ludwig has used before. It’s variations on a successful theme, yet I certainly don’t begrudge his return to it, if the results are this funny and this effective. After all, we don’t criticize Tiger Woods when he repeats moves he’s made before.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




Steel Magnolias, by Robert Harling
Return to Chinquapin Parish
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
4.0
Why don’t y’all pull up a cushion, sit by me here on the couch, and I’ll tell you ‘bout yet another trip down Louisiana way, with that ever-popular piece, Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias.” If you’ve been living in a cultural bubble for the past couple of decades, this is an oft-produced, oft-enjoyed, off-Broadway play that was made into a hugely popular movie (that will be remade by Kenny Leon this year). Originally conceived as a “love letter” that playwright Harling conceived to cope with [deleted by the spoiler police], this is an enjoyable portrait of Southern womanhood that gives equal attention to your heartstrings and to your funny bones (“Laughing through tears is my favorite emotion”).

It is Shelby’s wedding day, and we’re in Truvy’s hair salon as all the characters gather more for gossip than tonsorial couture. They joke, kvetch, and shower each other with home-fried wisdom and affection. We stay in Truvy’s salon as the next scenes take us through a year or so of joys and tragedies and incidents both small and too-large-for-the-men-to-handle.

This play succeeds or fails on the shoulders of the six women whose stories we share, and Act 3 Productions has assembled a doozy of a cast. Debbi Berlon, a newcomer to Atlanta stages, is a revelation as M’Lynn, the central role over-played by Sally Field in the movie version. She is a granite-filled force of nature, a mother to die for, who runs the gamut of emotion from deepest grief to over-the-top ecstatic happiness, stopping at every rest stop along the way. She has a quiet, but forceful voice that demands attention (and obedience), and her brilliantly under-played last scene monologue had me in tears, despite my (perhaps) over-familiarity with the scene and the words. This is an actress to watch for!

As her daughter, Shelby, last year’s MAT winner Maggie Taylor shows she’s just as talented in non-musical roles (though she does get to lend her voice to a heart-breakingly appropriate song during the last scene change). Ms. Taylor is as fragile as a blossom, but has a firm determination that even her mother can’t deny. She hits every note right, and was a definite joy to watch. (And, incidentally, LOOKS as if Ms. Berlon could be her mother.)

In the other roles, Kandice Arrington brings a unique African-American sass to Truvy that works in every way (and gives a nice preview of how Kenny Leon’s upcoming all-black film version will work). Johnna Mitchell and Judy Seaman are wonderful in the “old lady” parts (Ouiser and Clairee), equal parts vinegar and molasses. And Ansley Gwinn rounds out the cast nicely as Annelle.

Like I said, this play succeeds and fails on the strength of the cast, which, in this case, is a good thing, as there were so many questionable choices made in the actual design of this production. The most glaring problem is the set, a (to be honest) sorta kinda attractive piece that is just plain wrong. Supposedly a converted car port, the set designer made no effort to make it look like one, instead creating a pink and grey back wall that looks as if a Pepto Bismol bomb went off in a Pep Boys garage (for the record, pink is SHELBY's signature color, not Truvy's). Two free-hanging window frames downstage do nothing except hide the actresses at critical points, and no effort was made to disguise the fact that the space has no back-stage areas -- the actresses use an architecturally awkward door a level or two below the main playing area. (“Negative Space” and “False Walls” are two concepts the Act 3 designers should become acquainted with.)

Also questionable was the decision to update the play from the 1980’s to the 2010’s. On the surface, this is an idea that has merit, but, in execution, it just wasn’t handled consistently at al. References to “Princess Kate” (who, by the way, is a Duchess, not a Princess) seem out of place when there are references to Donny Osmond remaining. Considering that the play covers more than a year, using current references in the first scene also leaves you in a bind as to what can you refer to in the “future” scenes.

But, let me repeat a third time, this play succeeds and fails on the strength of the cast, and Act 3 has given us a group of women I found downright pleasant to visit, who quickly distracted me from the distractions of the wrong-headed set and inconsistent time references, and who made this play what it was designed to be – a love letter to Southern Womanhood that is equal parts laughter and tears.

And, in the final analysis, that’s all you need to know.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




El Insólito Caso de Miss Piña Colada, by Carlos Ferrari
EL CASO TRISTE DEL ESPECTADOR MONOLINGÜE (THE SAD CASE OF THE MONOLINGUAL
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
-1.0
(For English-Only Speakers) *** ( C )
(For Spanish Speakers) ???? (How Can I Know?)

Last year, Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theatre launched its “Teatro del Sol” project, an outreach to Atlanta’s Hispanic community of plays performed in Spanish. The inaugural production, “Barrio Hollywood,” was an evocatively poetic piece that transcended language barriers to deliver a knock-out punch of a play-going experience.

For this year’s piece, a dialogue-heavy farce, “El Insólito Caso de Miss Piña Colada” (“The Preposterous Case of Miss Piña Colada”), the results were a lot less satisfying to the non-Spanish speaker, but, judging from the reactions of last Saturday’s audience, extremely satisfying to those who don’t have to rely on the super-titled translation. I have to admit that a lot of the humor did come across, and I found myself smiling, even laughing, with the rest of the audience (at least through the first act).

Ofelia is a widow who wants to live the good life, but lacks the means to do so. When a beauty pageant looms on the horizon, she pushes her daughter, Loreley, to enter. She hopes this will put her on firm financial footing, as well is count coup against her arch-rival, Esperancita. However, the cost of pageant proves prohibitive, so she pushes all her adult children (not to mention her slacker brother) to get jobs to make the dream happen. To say the paths chosen by all the characters lead to absurd heights of embarrassment is an understatement.

The problem for the non-Spanish speaker, like last year, is the short-sighted decision to “Color code” the English super-titles. Ofelia’s white dialogue is easy to read as is daughter Abigail’s yellow lines. But, when we get to the dark reds and browns and greens of the other characters, they are totally washed out by ambient light, and totally unreadable. For Act One, this isn’t much of a problem since Ofelia has the lion’s share of speech, and lost-in-translation blanks can be (presumably) filled by context and visuals. Unfortunately, in Act Two, I completely lost the thread of the plot, and have no idea what happens or how the story concludes.

Which is a shame, because I really enjoyed the set-up and the vividly over-the-top performances of the cast (not to mention the fact that everyone around me was having a rollicking good time).

Let me say, right off the bat, that this is not necessarily a bad thing – the mission of Teatro del Sol is to reach out to Hispanic audiences, and the packed, laughing house was evidence that they are succeeding tremendously. And, the fact that what I saw made me regret my mono-lingualism, made me want to learn some Spanish is a definite plus. If I were as fluent as I should be, I suspect this play would deserve an Easy A, based on the set, the performances, and the obvious delight of the audience.

Here, I am able to say that the performances made much of this work. Here were some actors I’ve seen and enjoyed in other shows, Diany Rodrigues (scholarly daughter Abigail), Ricardo Aponte (musically incluined son Nataniel), and Alexandros Salazar (slacker Uncle Nataniel), and they all created indelible characters that were not lost in translation. And I really liked the head-butting pendulum-mood conflict between Rose Bianco’s Ofelia and Marfia Eugenia Arboleda’s Esperancita. And, as the shy and manipulated Loreley, Blanca Agüero is a delight from beginning to end.

For the sad monolingualist, though, I have to ask the production team to give us a little credit. We can figure out who’s talking even if all the supertitles are in white. I have to ask, why even use them if they’re unreadable? Didn’t anyone notice this during Tech Week?

So, just to show I can be just as patronizing, I’ll run this review through yahoo’s Babelfish translator. I welcome all my Spanish-speaking friends to let me know where it really messed up.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


(Para los altavoces del inglés solamente) *** (C)
¿(Para los altavoces españoles)???? (Cómo puedo saber?)

El año pasado, el teatro de la aurora de Lawrenceville puso en marcha su proyecto de “Teatro del Sol”, un outreach a la comunidad hispánica de Atlanta de juegos realizados en español. La producción inaugural, “barrio hispano Hollywood,” era un pedazo evocadoramente poético que superó barreras linguísticas para entregar un sacador de golpe de gracia de una experiencia juego-que iba.

Para el pedazo relativo a este año, una farsa diálogo-pesada, “El Insólito Caso de Miss Piña Colada” (“The Preposterous Case of Miss Piña Colada”), los resultados era mucho menos satisfying al altavoz no-Español, pero, según las reacciones de la audiencia del sábado pasado, satisfaciendo extremadamente a las que no tienen que confiar en la traducción estupendo-titulada. Tengo que admitir que mucho el humor pareció, y me encontré sonrisa, incluso riendo, con el resto de la audiencia (por lo menos con el primer acto).

Ofelia es una viuda que quiere vivir la buena vida, pero carece los medios de hacer tan. Cuando un desfile de belleza asoma en el horizonte, ella empuja a su hija, Loreley, para entrar. Ella espera que esto la ponga en pie financiero firme, también sea golpe contra su arco-rival, Esperancita de la cuenta. Sin embargo, el coste del desfile prueba prohibitivo, así que ella empuja a todos sus niños adultos (sin mencionar su hermano más flojo) para conseguir trabajos de hacer que el sueño sucede. Para decir las trayectorias elegidas por todos los caracteres llevan a las alturas absurdas de la vergulenza son una subestimación.

El problema para el altavoz no-Español, como año pasado, es la decisión miope al “código de color” los super-titles ingleses. El diálogo blanco de Ofelia es fácil de leer al igual que las líneas amarillas de Abigail de la hija. Pero, cuando conseguimos a los rojos y los marrones y los verdes oscuros de los otros caracteres, son eliminadas totalmente por la luz ambiente, y totalmente ilegible. Para el acto uno, éste no es mucho de un problema puesto que Ofelia tiene la parte de león del discurso, y los espacios en blanco de la perder-en-traducción pueden (probablemente) ser llenados por contexto y representaciones visuales. Desafortunadamente, en el acto dos, perdí totalmente el hilo de rosca del diagrama, y no tengo ninguna idea qué sucede o cómo la historia concluye.

Cuál es una vergüenza, porque disfruté realmente de la disposición y vivo sobre - los funcionamientos superiores del molde (sin mencionar el hecho que cada uno alrededor de mí tenía un buen rato rollicking).

Déjeme decir, enderece del palo, que esto no es necesariamente una mala cosa - la misión de Teatro del Sol es alcanzar hacia fuera a las audiencias hispánicas, y la casa llena, de risa era evidencia que están teniendo éxito enormemente. Y, el hecho de que qué vi hizo que lamenta mi mono-lingualism, hecho me quiere aprender un cierto español es un definido más. Si fuera tan fluido como debo ser, sospecho que este juego merecería una A fácil, basada en el sistema, los funcionamientos, y el placer obvio de la audiencia.

Aquí, puedo decir que los funcionamientos hicieron mucho de este trabajo. Aquí estaban algunos agentes que he visto y que he gozado en otras demostraciones, Diany Rodrigues (hija de estudiante Abigail), Ricardo Aponte (hijo musical incluined Nataniel), y Alejandro Salazar (un tío más flojo Nataniel), y ellos todos los caracteres indelebles creados que no fueron perdidos en la traducción. Y tuve gusto realmente del conflicto head-butting del péndulo-humor entre Ofelia de Rose Bianco y Esperancita de Arboleda del Eugenia de Marfia. Y, como el Loreley tímido y manipulado, el Blanca Agüero es un placer de comenzar a terminar.

Para el monolingualist triste, aunque, tengo que pedir que el equipo de la producción nos dé un poco crédito. Podemos imaginar quién está hablando incluso si todos los supertitles están en blanco. ¿Tengo que pedir, por qué incluso los utilizo si son ilegibles? ¿Cualquier persona no notó esto durante semana de la tecnología?

Así pues, apenas demostrar me puedo estar apenas como patronizando, funcionaré esta revisión a través del traductor de Babelfish de yahoo. Acojo con satisfacción a todos mis amigos de Spanish=speaking para dejarme saber dónde ensució realmente.

I can' t cree este idiota pomposo piensa realmente que las páginas de internet pueden hacer una traducción exacta de su revisión mal concebida. Si él tenía una onza de sentido, he' d aprende un poco del español tan he' d sabe cuándo se están reventando sus bolas.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Grease, by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Greasing the Bottom Line
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
3.0
For many years, “Grease” was “The Little Musical That Could.” Scrappy, profane, and energetic, it achieved an almost cult status for its wildly original song pastiches, it’s crisply delineated characters, its sweetly sentimental heart, and its celebration of the “Bad Boy/Girl” in all of us. I saw it a number of times, loving it every time, and a production in Harrisburg became one of the first musicals for which I worked on lighting design.

Then came the insanely successful 1978 movie, and all of a sudden, “Grease” became “The Big Musical That Couldn’t.” The movie rode on the crest of the popularity of John Travolta and Disco, and eliminated most of the smaller “character songs,” adding too many that substituted ‘70’s Disco Drive for the original ‘50’s Back Beat. And, it substituted the crowd-pleasing finale “All Choked Up” (which I always thought of as a proto-feminist “I’m Running the Show Here” coming-of-age anthem for Sandy), with the blandly sentimental “You’re the One That I Want,” a song which, to my ears, has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Since the movie came out, revivals and community productions have tried to “cash in” by retaining the movie’s songs, blanding down the dialogue and lyrics (particularly “Greased Lightning”) and using it as the cash cow it is. Not that there’s anything wrong with selecting shows that’ll bring in the audience, unless that’s your ONLY motivation for including it in the season. Even worse than that, I haven’t seen a production I liked since the movie came out – I’ve even walked out on a few that were as lifeless as Rizzo’s virtue.

Which brings me to the Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s current production. It’s in the time slot for which the exquisitely rapturous “A Light in the Piazza” had been scheduled. The substitution was made not through any problems with the “Piazza” rights, but because the “Grease” rights “suddenly became available and we’ve wanted to do it for years.”

Granted, “Grease” will make a lot more money for A.L.T. than “Piazza” could even hope to (a LOT more), and, these days, that’s a major consideration. I can also concede the affection the A.L.T. production team has for “Grease,” and allow the sincerity of their desire to produce it over and above its commercial appeal. That being said, I do have to acknowledge that the “appearance of selling out” rubs me the wrong way, especially since I REALLY wanted to see “Light in the Piazza” (and I’m not the only one, if opening-night subscriber comments are anything to go by). (For the record, “Piazza” is NOT on A.L.T.’s 2012/2013 schedule, but I’ve been assured it WILL be produced. Eventually.)

Now that that’s out of the way, let me turn my attention to the show I saw, rather than the one I didn’t. This was, perhaps, the best “Grease” I’ve seen since the movie came out, but, truthfully, that’s a bit of a “faint praise.” The voices and performances were all up to A.L.T.’s usual out-of-the-ballpark standards, and the (resurrected?) character songs (“Those Magic Changes,” “Freddy my Love”, and “Mooning,” especially) were welcome and well-done. The set (a stylized juke-box with two levels and many “wagons”) looked great (at first sight). And “You’re the One That I Want” was actually given a doo-wop back beat which made it sound a lot less ‘70’s than the original.

But, I still have some grave reservations about the not-so-magic changes done to the script, and a few questionable design/directing choices that kept the show from being the over-the-top joy ride I was (secretly) hoping it would be. As far as the script, the “cleaning up” of the language and lyrics really runs counter the “bad boy/girl” celebration of the original – How seriously can we take them if they use so many euphemisms? It makes them too bland, too why-do-we-even-care, and seriously undercuts the ending. These are, at root, kids who are going nowhere, and their absence from the opening “reunion” was always a reminder that the (probably) chose the wrong path. Making them “kids next door,” more or less says that they’re choices and actions are okay, just another part of growing up. No wonder parents hate this show!

Also, replacing the original Alma Mater parody with a “pre-prise” of “We Go Together” is also a questionable choice. We all remeber “dirty lyric” parodies of school songs, and the original was a thing of beauty. Now, the show opens with a bland fizzle instead of the usual snarky sizzle.

Speaking of “fizzle over sizzle,” what’s with the looooonnnnnnnggggggg scene changes? This is, at first glance, a nicely designed-for-quick-changes set, a multi-leveled, many-wagoned construction that should let the scenes actually overlap. However, we are stuck here with long gaps between scenes (was it a not-designed-for-quick-change costume issue, or a the-wagons-are-too-large-to-move-quickly issue?). In any case, the scene changes dragged down the pace to a crawl – pre-movie versions of this show clocked in at under two hours WITH intermission – here, it’s pushing 2:45.

Overall, I liked the energy of Ricardo Aponte’s choreography, and the staging of directors Brandt Blocker and Alan Kilpatrick (scene changes aside), with one glaring exception. The show, for me, always built its energy to the explosion of the Act One finale of “We Go Together.” Here, though, that number loses steam as it goes along, until, at the point it should be lighting the stage with energy, the cast actually sits on the steps to just sing. After I was through rolling my eyes, I could only wonder. “what were they thinking?”

The cast, however, did “go together like rama-lama-lama ka-dinga da ding dong.” Maxim Gukhman and Anna Kimmel were pleasantly well-matched in the lead roles of Danny and Sandy, and, more to the point, they let their co-stars shine with eccentricity and character. This is an ensemble show at root, and the ensemble here rises to the occasion. I especially liked Michael J. Austin’s Doody, Nick Morrett’s Roger, and Alison Brannon Wilhoit’s Rizzo, but that’s not to downgrade the contributions of Findley Hansard (Jan), Jill Ginsberg (Marty)*, Bradley Bergeron (Kenickie), Jimi Kocina (Sonny), Kelly Schmidt (Frenchie) or Caroline Freedlund (Patty Simcox). Jevares Myrick was an interesting choice to play Vince Fontaine and Teen Angel – he put a definite Motown spin on the characters that worked (in spite of the the expected period racial tensions). G Devours, Jono Davis, and Elizabeth Neidel Wexler were also memorable in smaller roles.

So, I daresay, if you’re a fan of “Grease” (post-movie), you’re gonna love this. If not, there’s still a lot to like and appreciate. Yes, it’s not the same show I fell in love with back in the late ‘70’s, but there’s enough of that show left to … Oh, who am I kidding? There’s enough left to really gripe about what was lost, about what was put in its place, and about what “should have been.”

And, it’s NOT “A Light in the Piazza.” (Insert angry snarling here.)

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

** A side note to Ms. Ginsberg – mispronouncing a teen idol’s name makes it look as if you haven’t done your homework, Imagine a 2030 play set in 2011 in which a star-struck ‘tween characters refers to “Justin Bye-ber.” I’m sure there are some “77 Sunset Strip” videos on line that’ll let you find out how to pronounce “Kookie.”



A Wrinkle in Time, by John Glore (Based on Madeleine L'Engle)
Hyper-Tesser-Active Voice
Friday, April 27, 2012
4.0
It was a dark and stormy night!

Such is the purposefully banal opening of Madeleine L’Engle’s totally un-banal 1962 book, “A Wrinkle in Time,” the young adult speculative fiction book that gave us the marvelously eccentric Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Which, and Mrs Who, not to mention the faster-than-light travel concept of the “Tesseract,” a “folding” of space and time that found its way into countless classics of science fiction ever after.

And now, Theatrical Outfit gives us a marvelous staging of John Glore’s 2010 stage adaptation in which six chameleon-like actors give us Tardis-full of odd and alien characters as they tell us the story of Meg Murry’s quest for her father.

Meg is a young girl of extraordinary intellect and even more extraordinary imagination. She is lying in bed as the dark and stormy night rages around her. The daughter of scientists, she can’t sleep, so she joins her genius little brother Charles Wallace for a cup of late night cocoa. Faster than you can say “too much exposition,” Meg, Charles Wallace, and an older schoolmate (Calvin O’Keefe), are “tesseracted” away to find Meg’s missing father. Their guides are a trio of eccentric characters who hide in the guise of the dotty Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Which, and Mrs Who. Their adventures take them into the heart of “the black” as they visit the mechanistically grim planet of Camazotz. They find Father, but lose Charles Wallace during their escape to a kinder, gentler planet, where the nurturing Aunt Beast obscurely leads them to the path of happily ever after.

This is, of course, an over-simplification of an insanely imaginative story, which leads me to one of the shortcomings of this adaptation – there’s a lot of story to squeeze into a quick 90-minute one act, and there’s nary a breath-taking pause before we are confronted with a new wrinkle in plot, a new creature breaking the bizarro-tron scale, a new narration sequence to fill us in on what we’ve just missed.

Constructed in the Nicholas-Nickleby style of tight-ensemble-giving-narration-while-flitting-from-character-to-character, the script relies perhaps too much on our listening (and imagining) abilities, but, this is a style I’ve always enjoyed, and here, the ensemble is small and talented and makes the story-telling look easy.

Maybe I have an advantage because I (more or less) went in knowing the story, so I find it difficult to judge how smoothly this adaptation goes down to the uninitiated (and the very young). I was, in fact, supposed to see this with my daughter, but was stood up for (shudder) a day of shopping (the nerve)! In any case, I had a good time, primarily because of the time and care that went into the design and construction of this production, and, if I am any judge of audience, so did the grown-ups and kids I saw this with (I’d say it’s a tad long and scary-dark for the under-eight set, but everyone else should enjoy it).

The costuming by Shay Buckley is especially impressive, creating from scratch the metal-and-red-light denizens if Camazotz and the organically towering Aunt Beast, who, at first, looks like a Lovecraftian horror, but who grows on us as her gentility comes to the fore. The transition of the dowdy Mrs Whatsit into the smoothly elegant winged alien is also jaw-droppingly fun to witness. A combination of projections and quickly adapted shapes and objects and platforms and wagons makes all the scene transitions fly by as if they’re being tesseracted by the cast and crew.

And what a cast! Emma Jackson makes for a plucky and witty Meg, and she is most ably supported by veterans Marianne Fraulo, Kate Donadio, Andrew Crigler, Mark Cabus, and Lowrey Brown, all of whom create a marvelous array of characters regardless of age and gender and species.

But, in the final analysis, all the critters and creatures and phantasmagoria are merely props and hurdles in what is essentially the story of a young girl in quest to find her Daddy and to reunite her family. As fun as the Science Fiction trappings are, it’s the heart and soul of Meg Murry that provide the heart and soul of this play, and it’s the heart and soul of this ensemble and production team that makes it all work. Director Justin Anderson adds another “win” to his quickly-becoming-overwhelming list of successful stagings for young audiences.

Ms. L’Engle returned to the Murry and O’Keefe families many times throughout her career, never failing to create a tale that excited the imagination even as it warmed the heart. This is, in fact, a perfect play to watch with a daughter or a Daddy. And, in my humble opinion, it’s a lot more fun than shopping with Mommy.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare
Goldilocks Zone
Friday, April 27, 2012
4.5
“Much Ado About Nothing” is probably my favorite of Shakespeare’s “mature” comedies, and has become more so as I’ve matured myself. I’ve always liked the fine line it walks between potential farce and potential tragedy, the richness of its characters, and, especially, the (im)balance it paints between mature and immature love. I’ve seen dozens of productions, ranging from traditional stagings to those set in 1950’s Cuba or in early 20th century America, and I was part of a not-very-good production set in 1970’s Any-Country. I thought Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film with its Italian-Leather-and-Lace approach one of the best “Shakes-Screen” adaptations, and I’m chomping at the bit to see Joss Whedon’s more modern take later this year.

All of this is a not-very-subtle way of saying I tend to enjoy any production, even when mis-directed or sloppily acted.

Fortunately, the Shakespeare Tavern’s “Original Practice” approach works on every level, hits every comedic note right, and doesn’t shy away from the more tragic potentiality of its Don John plottings. It doesn’t hurt that it’s filled with crackerjack performances that manage to give even my oft-Ado’d eyes moments of surprise.

For those not familiar with this’n, here’s a quick plot recap. The Prince, Don Pedro, and his troops are returning home from suppressing a rebellion by his half-(bastard)-brother Don John. They are invited to spend some needed post-battle R&R at the palatial estate of Leonato. The Prince’s closest friends, Benedick and Claudio, become romantically entangled with Leonato’s niece and daughter, Beatrice and Hero. Meanwhile, the not-quite-reconciled Don John plots to “get back” at his brother by foiling the romances.

Most of the play is concerned with the contrasting Benedick/Beatrice and Claudio/Hero romances. Benedick and Beatrice have a long history of squabbling and “merry-war-making,” and resist their attraction as long as they can. They are, after all, good humored bachelor(ette)s, and shudder at the thought of losing their well-earned independence. Claudio and Hero, on the other hand, are young and in lust-at-first-sight, sharing a tie that is shallow at best, easily foiled at worse.

Throughout, we have a series of plot turns that rely on overheard conversations, deliberately arranged deceptions, and both good-natured and malevolent machinations. Indeed, much ado does ensue over characters “noting” conversations that have been arranged for their eavesdroppings.

In this, more than any other play, the humor is based on character, on what we learn about their natures, on how we soon know them better than they know themselves. And, in more than any other play, the appeal lies in how easily everything can go wrong, in how the “day is saved” not through any plot contrivance, but through the trust and affection the characters ultimately have for each other.

And this, more than anything else, is one of the reasons this production works so well. Here we have a repertory of actors who have worked together often, and who obviously have a lot of off-stage affection for each other. We have a troupe who thoroughly enjoy what they’re doing, and who allow us to thoroughly enjoy watching them do it. They obviously know the text backwards and forwards, they obviously know these characters well, and they obviously find fresh and new “moments of truth” in the convoluted speeches and plotting.

Take note, especially, of Beatrice’s surprised reaction at Don Pedro’s half-serious marriage proposal; even more, take note of Don Pedro’s surprise at his own response to her rejection. Take note of the inherent violence in Beatrice’s appeal for Benedick to “kill Claudio,” after Claudio rejects a seemingly faithless Hero. This has always been an over-the-top angry moment for Beatrice, but here, Erin Considine reinforces her rage with actual physical violence that not only surprises us and Benedick, but herself as well. And, of course, take note as Andrew Houchins’ Benedick finds his whole “reason for being” completely overturned by the realization (rightly or wrongly) that Beatrice loves him. Mr. Houchins and Ms. Considine anchor this production with their wise and witty portrayals, and make us love Benedick and Beatrice as much as they (eventually) love each other.

So, “Much Ado About Nothing” is a distinct feather in the cap of the Tavern’s “Evolution Series.” More “meaty” than the more farcical doings in “Comedy of Errors” or “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but not quite as obscure or dark as the later “As You Like It” or “Winter’s Tale.” It is literally in the “Goldilocks Zone” of the Shakespearean canon, light enough to generate its fair share of laughs and smiles, deep enough to stir an emotional wrench or two, warm enough to make it truly memorable, breezy enough to go down as smoothly as a flagon of Tavern wine.

Much ado, indeed!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Musical Show, by Richard Maltby, Jr. (Conceived by William Meade)
Juke Joint Musical
Friday, April 27, 2012
4.0
Johnny Cash is, unarguably, an icon of American popular music. Equally at home with country, pop, rock, and gospel, his hits always defied easy categorization, other than the fact that, throughout his fifty-plus-year career, a whole bunch of different kinds of folks really really liked a whole bunch of his recordings.

In 2005, “Ring of Fire,” a “juke box musical” of his songbook became a hit in small studio theatres around the country, but its 2006 transition to Broadway only survived a month. Based on this energetic production by Georgia Ensemble Theatre, it’s not hard to speculate why.

Essentially a concert with no story arc and only minimal narration, “Ring of Fire” stands or falls on the merits of its cast and on the fan-base of Mr. Cash himself. And, that fan support is, I suppose, based more on the man himself than his songs. Johnny Cash could (and did) fill Madison Square Garden, but, I imagine the songs themselves performed by not-Johnny-Cash could not be expected to do the same.

Which is a shame, because many of them are classics of Americana, tuneful longings, exuberant celebrations, and wistful reminiscences. In GET’s production, only one performer (the awesome Chris Irwin) even comes close to reminding us of the rugged macho appeal of Mr. Cash, but everyone, singly or in chorus, is firmly able to run the distance with whatever song is on the table.

I do believe the show would have been better served by a set suggesting a country “juke joint” rather than the idyllic (idealic?) farmhouse of Mr. Cash’s youth, or a wider distribution of the block of slow down-beat numbers which leaves a “black hole” in the middle of Act II. But it is definitely all the better for abandoning the Broadway production’s “mixed couples” concept (the cast composed of three couples of various ages representing different stages of Mr. Cash’s life) – the idea always struck me as oddly pretentious and limiting, and I welcome its non-appearance here.

In this production, we have six very able performers (two women, three men, and a drummer) who take turns in the spotlight and on the accompaniment, playing their own pianos and guitars and harmonicas and basses and accordions (is there anything Mark Schroeder DOESN’T play?), and engaging in “tag-team” groupings for duets, trios and full-harmony numbers. They are, more or less, playing themselves, and, in the context of this show, there is absolutely nothing wrong (and much that is right) about that approach.

Joining Mr. Irwin and Mr. Schroeder are Jeremy Wood, Scott Depoy, Tracy Vaden Moore, and Denise Hillis, with J.R. Hawkins on drums (and a few patter choruses of “I’ve Been Everywhere”). All have moments to shine and all interact and harmonize and blend with compelling skill and apparent ease (Mr. Irwin’s contribution as Musical Director is a definite asset). I liked this show far more than I expected to, and it gave me a new appreciation for many old favorites, and even a few numbers that barely registered on my radio-radar at the time of their release.

To be honest, there are some Johnny Cash songs I really don’t like (“Ragged Old Flag” always irritated me by its patriotic pandering and its exclusion of anything American not associated with a war or battle, and I find it hard to sympathize with the “hero” of “Folsom Prison Blues”). But, taken as a whole, these songs paint a diverse and compelling portrait of middle America, illustrate the life of a troubadour who created a memorable “living on the edge” persona, and remind us of how much fun it is to sit in a juke joint, dance with your lady (or a stranger), pound your feet to a compulsive rhythm, or just cry in your beer.

GET’s “Ring of Fire” is a “Juke Joint” “cover concert” of the songs that made Johnny Cash great, and a celebration of the man who sold them to us.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




The Motherf**ker with the Hat, by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Get with the Program
Friday, April 20, 2012
5.0
Jackie can’t catch a break. On parole after being busted for dealing, he has finally found a job, his relationship with his main squeeze Veronica is reaching steadier ground, and he has been sober for, well, longer than he’s ever been. Then he comes home, finds Veronica’s bed reeking of Aqua Velva and Dick, and, more to the point, the motherf**ker left his hat on the dining room table. Jackie’s always had this anger management issue, so he’s off to see his sponsor before he finds a gun and takes care of the motherf**ker once and for all.

Unless the motherf**ker is really {deleted by the spoiler police}!

So, will he lose his job before the cops find out he has a gun and has fired it in some a**hole’s living room? Will he let himself be seduced by his sponsor’s wife before Veronica finds out about his other little infidelities? Will Veronica bash in his brains if she does find out? Will Cousin Julio tolerate him long enough for him to regain his twelve-step footing?

Such is the set-up for the funny, profane, and altogether terrific “The Motherf**ker with the Hat,” a 2011 Tony nominee from Stephen Adly Guirgis (“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” and “Jesus Hopped the A Train”), now being given an altogether terrific staging at Actors Express.

You can tell by the title that Mr. Guirgis is poised to inherit David Mamet’s “Poet Laureate of Profanity” hat, but what you can’t tell is how good he is at putting together fractured English, stark imagery, original phraseology and sharply piercing cruelty along with the frequent “F Bombs.” Like Mamet, he is especially good at making inarticulate people find just the right words to articulate their cluelessness, their limitless frustrations, and their basic humanity.

These are people that educated suburbanites like myself rarely encounter in real life, but whose struggles speak to that “we’ve got to be better than this” optimism everyone strives for.

Everyone is (too) quick to let Jackie know how low he really is, how brutal life is, how hopeless any idealism would have to be. Cousin Julio even remarks on how wide is “the gap between who you think you are and who you really are.” But what makes Jackie such a credible and compelling hero is that, even when life proves the pessimists right, when those he trusts the most turn out to be the least trustworthy of all, when his quick-to-flare anger makes him his own worst enemy, he still remains an optimist, still believes everything will turn out for the best.

And, even though the play leaves him {deleted by the spoiler police}, we leave the play with the same optimistic belief in his future.

Director Freddie Ashley has assembled a wonderful cast and orchestrated a fast-paced, constantly compelling production. Randy Cohlmia is a terrific Jackie, part woebegone puppy-eyed victim, part bulldozing wide-eyed avenger. Neal A Ghant adds to his ever-growing resume with a treacherously smooth and calm Ralph D, Jackie’s Twelve-Step sponsor. Stacy Melich is Ralph’s wife Victoria, “Mussolini reincarnated” in one moment, vulnerable seductress in the next. Denise Arribas is Veronica, foul-mouthed and coked-up, petty and cruel, cold-hearted and loving, all in rapid sequence. And Luis Hernandez is a revelation as Cousin Julio, gently fey and starkly Von Damme, compellingly watchable and funny. Philip Male has put together a seedy every-apartment set that becomes three separate residences without losing its gritty Manhattan air, and the whole production roars along, firing on all cylinders and barreling towards its disarmingly sweet finale like a speed freak on a crash-course recovery program.

So, the questions remain, can a person with a hair-trigger temper find happiness with a spitfire who’s still using? Can a hen-pecked husband really be this duplicitous and cynical and remain a viable sponsor? Can a friend made after the age of twenty ever become a real friend, or are we stuck with the friends we had as kids? Will there always be some “motherf**ker with a hat” to derail all our best intentions? And will anyone offended by the word “motherf**ker” care enough to explore these questions with Jackie and company?

Grant me the serenity to accept those who can’t, the strength to convince those who can, and the wisdom to know the difference!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, by Stephen King
Passive Spirits
Friday, April 20, 2012
3.0
AN OPEN FAN LETTER TO STEPHEN KING

Dear Mr. King:

I am one of your biggest fans. Before you start having Annie Wilkes nightmares, rest assured this is the last time (perhaps) I’ll cross your particular dreamscape.

However, I do have to express my (modified) disappointment with your first excursion into musical theatre, “The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.” Yes there were some moments of shivery delight, some others of musical giddiness, and even a few of theatrical flourish. However, in overall structure and tone, it seemed to break a few too many cardinal rules of character and plot.

Since this is, in fact, an “open” letter, let me do a bit of a recap for all the readers who aren’t Stephen King. In 1967, two brothers, Andy and Jack McCandless and the young woman loved by them both meet a mysterious end, witnessed only by their 10-year-old brother, Joe. Forty years later, Joe’s sons Drake and Frank and the young woman loved by them both (or at least lusted after by both) are following a similar path. The adult Joe gathers the family at their doomed-by-destiny lake house to tell the story, hopefully to prevent history from repeating itself.

The entire story is punctuated by songs by John Mellencamp, that, on their own, are fine and dandy, but do a little too little to embellish this particular tale.

Let me start with the most obvious shortfall -- the ghosts. Would Stephen King, the popular writer of books and stories, ever create a supernatural “MacGuffin” like a set of ghosts who are this passive and who play such a small role in the actual development of the plot? These are ghosts who do nothing but stand around and “witness,” who never really interact with the 2007 characters. In a Stephen King book, they would be the creepies who crawl into Gentle Reader’s subconscious, who would make the plot pay off in unexpected, and ultimately, satisfying ways. Here, they are passive sprits who do little except watch and whine.

Along those lines, would Stephen King, the popular writer of books and stories, create a mythology as inconsistent as the “ghost rules” on display here? This is, after all, the writer who re-invented the haunted house mythos with “The Shining,” the space-time continuum with “The Langoliers,” and time-as-a-living-monster in the exquisite “11/22/63.” Here we see spiritless ghosts who, at one point, stick around because someone living has unresolved issues, at others, stick around because they themselves have unresolved issues.

I also have to ask, would Stephen King, the popular writer of books and stories, create a horror back-story with so little horror? The McCandless brothers (both generations) are less the victims of supernatural shenanigans than they are of arrested adolescence. Their story, when (finally) told, is petty and mundane, Joe’s lies and evasions unmotivated and pointless, the final apocalypse almost an afterthought.

Stephen King, the popular writer of books and stories, could easily create a story with this structure – a man gathering his family to unburden himself and lay to rest the ghosts that have haunted him his entire life. And it would work, because, on the page, a ghost story will inflame the gentle reader’s imagination, and take him on a journey into fear and darkness. The stage, however, is an entirely different animal (and it has claws). When we see a set full of folks sitting around talking, it is less a journey to the dark side than a static exercise in fore-stalling. There is little point in Joe stretching out this story for two acts, since the story itself has so little meat on its bones.

If you plan on developing this piece any further, may I humbly make the following suggestions:

(1) Make Young Joe more an active participant in the 1967 story. His “hiding of the truth” would have more resonance if he himself caused part of the tragedy. Yes, I know things we witness at ten can resonate throughout your lifetime (I was ten when I witnessed Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald live on TV), but passive witnesses tend to be “Meh” stage characters.

(2) Make the 1967 ghosts active participants in the 2007 story. Think how much more dramatic, more moving it would be if Frank and Drake were actually loving and supportive siblings who become alienated (and violent) because of the actions of ghost-Jack and ghost-Andy. And it would eliminate the need for “The Shape,” a clichéd and irritating character whose every line (when I could understand it) stopped the flow of the story dead in its tracks.

(3) Find some better driver for the Act One finale “Tear This Cabin Down.” It’s probably the best musical moment of the show, but it comes out of nowhere.

(4) Clean up the mythos. Stephen King, the popular writer of books and stories, would give us a “ghost culture” that is new, compelling, and, above all, consistent. Wouldn’t it be better, for example, if it were hinted that the 1967 story were driven by ghosts from an even earlier generation, or that the 2007 story affects (infects?) a future generation?

(5) Make adult Joe less passive. His actions seem more of opportunity than of intention, and Shuler Hensley here has no opportunity (and too few songs) to show us what he’s really capable of. (Along those same lines, I’m an Emily Skinner fan from way back, so, if she stays with the production, any additional songs you and Mr. Mellencamp could put into her mouth would be a thing of beauty and a joy to behold.)

There are so many good Stephen King moments and lines here (I loved “Too late always comes too early!”) that it does disappoint when the whole thing falls even slightly flat. Violence on stage is always more effective than in the movies (though not as effective as on the page), and your climax here is creepy and spectacular, but it would be better if I could have been a bit more emotionally invested in the characters.

Yes, last night’s Opening Night audience was a thousand times more enthusiastic than I seem to be here, and, overall, I had a pretty good time watching this. I just wanted to have a better time.

Maybe you (or I) should check out some of the books on writing by this Stephen King guy. He knows what he’s talking about!

Sincerely,

Gentle Reader, Your Biggest Fan (Brad Rudy BKRudy@aol.com)


Same Time, Next Year, by Bernard Slade
Happily Ever After
Thursday, April 12, 2012
4.0
Love stories are all well and good, but what happens after that final bow? What exactly goes into “happily ever after?” Bernard Slade has built a body of work that examines this very issue – his plays start where most romantic comedies end – two people have found true love (or not). Now what?

Mr. Slade’s examination of the effect of time on long-term relationships started with this very popular 1975 play. At rise, we discover George and Doris the “morning after” a one-night stand. It’s 1951, and both are married to other people, both seem to be nice folks who would “never dream about cheating.” Yet here they are. They find, to their utter embarrassment (and joy) that they are almost “soul mates,” that they find excitement and connection with each other that escapes their “every day marriages.” So, they agree to meet on the same weekend every year.

What follows is a collection of vignettes, six “mini-plays” each set five years apart during which their affair passes the “test of time” and appears to grow stronger with each passing year.

To be sure, there are a lot of “sit-com” elements here – each scene hits all the expected points of whatever era it embodies – fifties innocence and neuroses, sixties rebellion and establishment-conservatism, seventies self-actualization and “be-in-touch-with-your feelings” excesses. When George and Doris are “out-of-synch,” it seems to come from the writer’s plotting contrivance rather than the characters’ own logical progression. And the “tell a good and bad story about your spouse” set up is a blatant exposition device right out of the playwright’s bag of tricks.

Yet, Mr. Slade is an accomplished writer of sit-coms (he worked on “Bewitched” and created “Love on a Rooftop” – a “Barefoot in the Park” clone I thought only I remembered -- “The Flying Nun” and “The Partridge Family”). So the contrivances work, and the characters work. His point here seems to be that even when George and Doris are “out-of-synch,” their relationship transcends their differences, and they find they have just as much to offer each year, perhaps more.

In Stage Door’s marvelous production, Bryan Brendle and Cara Mantella breathe new life into these characters I’ve seen too often before (this has to be the tenth production of this play I’ve seen). He’s winning, even when he’s whining, and she defeats a series of successive wigs to create a real character who truly grows before our eyes – the mousy, squeaky-voiced housewife of 1951 believably grows into the flaky hippy of 1964 and the confident businesswoman of 1970.

Director Tess Malis Kincaid and Sound Designer Dan Bauman have overcome one of the inherent challenges of the script – keeping the audience’s interest during the necessarily long between-scenes costume and make-up changes – by giving us quick-cut sound bites that lead us from one year to the next – songs, commercials, TV and Movie clips – ANYTHING to “set the period.” And for the most part, it works really well – the “mini-breaks” weren’t too long, and I enjoyed how the clips were put together.

Chuck Welcome has designed and built a very impressive set – a “timeless” cottage bedroom suite with faux oak beams, fireplace, and large four-poster bed – it’s the perfect room for a weekend “getaway,” and served the play very nicely.

“Same Time, Next Year” was only the first of Mr. Slade’s plays to deal with relationships and time. There is a seldom-produced sequel, (“Same Time, Another Year”), which takes George and Doris into their eighties (and the 1990’s) and lets them face aging, problem-children, and their (finally) marriage to each other. “Romantic Comedy” looks at a long-term relationship between two playwrights, “Return Engagements” takes four couples at a Stratford Ontario bed-and-breakfast over the course of twenty years, and “Special Occasions” flashes back to show how a couple got to “here and now” from “there and then.” Taken as a body of work, it’s a varied look at ALL the different ways time (and constant companionship) can wreck or bolster a “happily ever after.” These plays aren’t afraid to tackle the petty irritations and accommodations that are part and parcel of relationships over time. And they constantly surprise – things that seem implied at one time become overt a decade or so later. Things that are minor in the beginning become monstrous in the middle (and vice versa). And time inevitably does what we expect time to always do – separate the couples who were truly meant to be together (all appearances to the contrary) from those that are just passing flings or momentary passions.

Some may argue that George and Doris are in a needlessly artificial situation – is it really a relationship if they only see each other one weekend a year? I would say yes. As far apart as George and Doris grow during the sixties, the fact that they come back together every year, the fact that they can’t be apart even when they ARE apart is critical here. They spend enough of their weekend NOT in bed that they become aware of (and tolerant of) each other’s idiosyncrasies, and the time apart can make new discoveries possible year after year.

And, it doesn’t hurt that, with Ms. Mantella and Mr. Brendle, we have a Doris and George we like spending time with, a Doris and George we cannot help but root for. It’s a measure of their success that I would like to see them tackle the “what happens next” pleasures of “Same Time, Another Year” (once they’re old enough for the roles).

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Clyde 'n Bonnie: A Folktale, by Book - Hunter Foster; Music & Lyrics - Rick Crom
LEGEND -- (Wait for it)
Thursday, April 12, 2012
4.5
This story is absolutely true. Only the facts have been made up.

History tells us that Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker weren’t heroes, Petty thieves and publicity hounds, they robbed and killed their way across Middle America until their May 23, 1934 ambush along a Louisiana highway. The LEGEND of Bonnie and Clyde though is quite a different story, and had its start while they were still shootin’ and stealin’ to survive the depression.

And Folk Tales are nothing if not about the Legends, the spin-doctor white-washing that makes heroes out of the lowliest scoundrels. And I, for one, have no problem with that, as long as we know what we’re seeing (*).

“Clyde ‘n’ Bonnie: A Folk Tale” is a snappy entertainment in the Bluegrass mold of “The Robber Bridegroom” – a bunch of good old folks get together in a barn somewhere to tell the story of when things were excitin’ and of the people who made them so. (In fact, truth to tell, “Clyde ‘n’ Bonnie” is so reminiscent of “Robber Bridegroom” that that 1975 musical could easily be performed with the same cast and on the same set as the show we’re seeing here.)

It’s the depths of the depression and bankers are foreclosin’ on Moms and Pops everywhere. Bonnie Parker is a waitress with a hankering for the Hollywood life. When sweet-faced Clyde steals the money she wanted to steal for herself, she goes chasing after him, and the rest is less history than legend-in-the-makin’. Clyde and Bonnie don’t really shoot anyone (on purpose), they just steal from those mean old bankers, and they’re pursued by the comically incompetent yokel lawmen and the prissily anachronistic J Edgar Hoover until their final confrontation with destiny.

And along the way, they sing and dance and joke and sorta kinda shyly find themselves maybe sorta kinda fallin’ in love.

I have to confess, in spite of its fast-and-loosin’ with history ‘n’ fact, in spite of its no-doubt intentional echoes of “Robber Bridegroom,” I really REALLY liked this show. I chalk it up to three factors – my pre-existing fondness for tall tales (and purposefully exaggerated retellings of familiar stories), the good-spirited pleasantness of the whole script with those toe-tappin’ songs that fill it to the brim (PLEASE tell me there will one day be a recording of it), and the breezy charm and don’t-take-us-too-seriousness of the players.

Let’s start with the cast. J.C. Long and Laura Floyd make a slyly charming Clyde and Bonnie – he all bluster and tongue-tied shyness, she all starry-eyed ambition and take-no-prisoners sass. They don’t really acknowledge their attraction until its almost too late (and much is made of how love makes you crazy but alive – “Loco Pero Vivo”), and their “courtship” is downright sweet. Karen Howell is Martha, our matron-of-ceremonies who is telling the story (or, I should say, is wranglin’ the townfolks to show us the story), and she is spunky and wistful, and full of the local pride that always turns a blind eye to “just the facts.” Bart Hansard plays the cross-dressing J.Edgar Hoover surprisingly straight (if you’ll pardon the expression) – it’s essentially a paper-thin one-note role based on all the innuendo about Mr. Hoover’s … um … sartorial predilections, but Mr. Hansard makes it all blithe and no-big-deal and why-would-anyone-make-a-fuss. Caitlin Smith is a full-voiced force-of-nature as Blanche Barrow, whose faux-gospel “Turn Away” shakes the house and rattles the rafters. She’s very ably matched by Bryant Smith’s hen-pecked (but still manly) Buck Barrow, whose “I See Heaven” is a delightfully silly parody of all those musical “I’m Dying” numbers sung by characters about to meet their maker. Also on hand is Googie Uterhardt as a sheriff with a bit of a crush on Bonnie, Greg Bosworth as a dimwitted deputy, Tony Larkin as Clyde’s even-more-dimwitted crony, Stephen L. Hudson as Hoover’s unflappable aide, and a multi-talented ensemble filled out by Kevin Daugherty, Rachel Miller, and Jennifer Smiles.

As to the Songs by Rick Grom, the tone is set early on with the grand and glorious “This Can’t Be It,” in which Bonnie and the chorus kvetch about the dull banality of life on the up-and-up. There’s the brilliant patter of “Run With Me,” the aforementioned “Turn Away,” “Loco Pero Vivo,” and “I See Heaven,” and host more of memorable melodies. It all comes home to roost with the “Land of Opportunity Finale” in which everyone dresses like Clyde ‘n’ Bonnie (and I DON’T have to tell you which of the two Mr. Hoover chooses). The book by actor Hunter Foster is filled with over-the-top exaggerations and silly caricatures, but there is enough heart to fill an organ donor bank, and enough witty one-liners to keep me smilin’ on through.

Director Lonny Price has given the whole thing an imaginative veneer (I just LOVED the car chases) and a gee-whiz Let’s-Put-on-a-Show innocence that I find appealing and that sells the whole “Don’t-Bring-Me-Down-With-the-Real-Story” concept, or, I should say, made me swallow the concept, hook, line, and sinker. Musical Director Ann-Carol Pence wraps it all up with her usual adeptness (she makes it all look so easy – not a simple task), though, it may have been nice to see the band as a more integral part of the goings-on.

So, to wrap this all up, let me just say that “Clyde ‘n’ Bonnie” is marvelously entertaining show, a tuneful look at how legends are made and how the criminals of the past become the heroes of the present. It’s well-acted, well-directed, well-designed (marvelous sets & lights by Phil Male and Bradley Bergeron and great period costumes by Joanna Schmink), and well worth a trip to Lawrenceville.

Now, where was I? Oh Yes …

… DARY!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

* Which is the difference between this and the whole kerfuffle about monologist Mike Daisy’s Steve Jobs piece – Mr. Daisy puts himself out as an “observer” of social trends and events, and, as such, has to indulge in “dramatic license” with a bit more discretion and forbearance than someone coming out and saying, “I’m tellin’ a whopper of a tale, and I hope you like it!”


The Merry Wives of Windsor, by William Shakespeare
Falstaff in Rut
Monday, March 19, 2012
4.5
I have a strained and strange relationship with “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” I was part of a production a number of years ago that challenged both patience and good will and was seen by few and remembered by none. Shortly after that, I faintly smiled through Georgia Shakespeare production that made me forget, if fleetingly, the recent death of someone near and dear.

Still and all, it’s a play I truly love, one that lets Shakespeare wallow in his own Middle Class peers rather than the princes and paupers we’re used to seeing him over-inflate. It’s filled with character and caricature, wiles and whimsy, jealousy and cheekiness, buck-baskets and bottom-feeders. In short, it is a delightful trifle that never fails to amuse

Yes, “Merry Wives” is gossamer-thin, lighter than air, and about as serious as the Marx Brothers contemplating Margaret Dumont’s bosom. Legend has it that it was written in fourteen days at the express request of Queen Elizabeth I, and scholars have been dumping on it ever since. It is over 80% prose, and has little of the soaring language Shakespearean addicts such as myself long to lose ourselves in.

But Preston Sturgess was right. Sometimes, a gossamer comedy is just what is needed, just what can give you a grip on your sanity, just what you want to give you the strength to face what lurks outside the theatre doors. It was just what I needed when I spent most of 2001 messing it up, just what I needed in 2002 when I was in deep mourning, just what I needed in 2012 when life if throwing little at me I can’t blithely smile away.

So, to summarize, we have the return of Sir John Falstaff, the bellicose, belly-quivering knight from the Henry IV plays, this time in lust with the comely wives of two Windsor merchants. Appalled at his assault on their good character, they conspire to give the lecherous knight his come-uppance, creating a whimsical and merry romp that leads Falstaff under the river and into the woods, donning a set of antlers to actually become his “stag in full rut” for the entire village to see and to mock. Throw in some standard sub-plots involving true love and fortune-hunting and poor parental match-making and every other comedic trope Shakespeare had developed by this point in his career, and what’s not to like?

This production at the Shakespeare Tavern is a delight from beginning to end. From the traditional Tudor stage set to the joyous merriment of Laura Cole and Mary Russell as the wives, to the raving jealousy of Matt Nitchie as Master Ford, to Tony Brown’s larger-than-life-Falstaff, to the fractured English of Jeff McKerley’s Evans and Drew Reeve’s Caius, to the bonhomie of Troy Willis’ Host, to the cluelessness of Paul Hester’s Slender, to the simplicity of Matt Felten’s Simple -- everything conspired to make me smile, even laugh. If the Fenton and Anne love story came across as the least interesting aspect of the story this time, I didn’t especially care, since the whole affair was just so durn pleasant.

So, you may criticize “Merry Wives” for not being as deep or as poetic or as weighty as other works in Shakespeare’s comedic canon. You may puzzle at its lack of princes or villains, or its constant allusions to Elizabethan “Humors” Theory. You may even quibble that it finds lechery and unrestrained jealousy faster fodder for our entertainment appetite than love and virtue. But you won’t be able to ignore its joyous passion, its rabidly appealing ribaldry, or its full-frontal assault on your funny bone.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Talking With, by Jane Martin
Listening To ...
Monday, March 19, 2012
-1.0
(Bias Disclaimer: I cannot “Grade” this show, because I designed its lighting, because I’m close friends with Out-of-Box artistic director Carolyn Choe, and because my lovely and talented spouse was part of the cast. These biases, of course, won’t stop me from writing about it. Just keep your supply of grains-of-salt nearby.)

Let’s get one thing straight, right from the get-go. I’m not the biggest fan of monologues. It may be because I prefer to watch characters inter-acting, and most monologues are more “I’m-all-alone-sololioqizing”, or, “I’m spilling my guts to all y’all out there in Audience-land,” both of which can easily become contrived and tedious. Or, it may just be that I’m bad at them, and usually audition better with “cold readings.”

That being said, I’ve enjoyed one-character plays in the past, almost as often as not. Still, I approach these productions with a slightly cynical you-better-wow-me attitude. For that reason, I gratefully accepted Carolyn Choe’s offer to light the premiere production of her Out-of-Box Theatre, Jane Martin’s “Talking With…,” a series of twelve monologues about women and performed by women. I suppose I assumed helping with the show would relieve me from actually writing about it, and publically “passing judgment” on another Barbara Rudy performance.

For reasons too complicated to dive into now, I didn’t actually watch the show beginning to end, until after my task list was complete and the show had opened, so I watched it with the eyes of an actual audience member.

In a nutshell, it wowed me.

We meet twelve exceptional women (played by twelve exceptional actresses) who quickly pull us into their sharp-edged worlds. These are characters who have been wounded or have inflicted wounds, who embrace eccentricity as if it were a life preserver, who face adversity with a smile and joy with skepticism. They are, in fact, some of the most engaging women you’re likely to meet on this or any stage.

Just to skim over the highlights, Jessica Fern Hunt as an actress, facing that dreaded “15 minutes” call while reminiscing about all the “directors-from-hell” we all like to kvetch about. Leigh-Ann Campbell is in deep labor, literally agonizing about the dragon she may be producing. Judith Beasley uses a container of “Clear Glass Marbles” to wage war with loss. Carolyn Choe is an Oz-obsessed housewife holding onto the last scraps of sanity. Barbara Rudy is a devout snake handler, praying she’ll get through life unbitten (just a warning – do NOT sit in the front row if you’re at all Ophidiophobic). Candace Mabry is a baton twirler whose skill is a religion, a drug, and a transport down the razor-blade of life. Peg Thon is a light-obsessed senior, Linda Place a bizarre auditioner, Karen Thornton a Rodeo rider, Margo Dietrich a worshipper at the Golden Arches, Latifah Johnson a finder of beauty, and Stacy Vaccaro is a wounded woman just trying to leave her mark.

My own biases aside, I can’t even begin to choose a favorite among these small “play-lets.” Each woman is portrayed with utter conviction and specificity, each finds her own unique way into my sympathies, each carries a full burden of virtues and sins and aggravating-affecting idiosyncrasies. And each treats us as if we’re a specific person, not as if we were a generic “blank-faced audience.”

Atlanta actor Tom Thon has directed them with a firm grasp of variety and pace, and has conceived a series of monologues that, despite their disparate nature, seem naturally cohesive and of a whole. It’s a credit to the entire production that this does NOT feel like a day at Unifieds, as you may expect a bunch of monologues to feel. It feels like a glimpse into the lives of a group of women who, as a group, seem more comfortable hidden behind a veil of emotional defense.

Before I finish, I want to say a few words about Out of Box. Carolyn Choe has designed the company to be a “gypsy” organization, with no permanent home or talent pool. “We seek out alternative-use spaces and create a production that fits that space. Beyond the “box,” we seek to work cooperatively with other groups, organizations, and people to expand the possibilities, the types and size of the productions we create.” I like the idea of finding a space, and then finding a production to fit that space – too often, start-up companies try to force a particular show into a venue for which it isn’t particularly suited. Too often, they do not even achieve “one-hit wonder” status. Starting with the venue is a good idea, one I hope will achieve fruition.

“Talking With…”” may be a little difficult to find – it’s being performed at the Artisan Resource Center, a cozy little arts warehouse hidden between a bowling alley and a pawnshop off Cobb Parkway in Marietta. It’s worth seeking out. Even without my own (and my wife’s) contributions to this production, it’s one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend most enthusiastically.

Just try not to get bit.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




Brilliant Traces, by Cindy Lou Johnson
Indistinguishable
Monday, March 19, 2012
3.5
What distinguishes us from each other?

Some say it’s “the mark we leave on the universe,” the things we have done or said (good and bad) that leave traces behind. Others say it’s the characteristics that “separate us from the crowd,” the eccentricities we pride ourselves on nurturing (or, as Luisa says in “The Fantasticks,” “Please don’t ever let me be normal.”) Still others claim, it’s those we love and who love us back, the people we choose to accompany us through life and whom we nurture along the way.

This last, of course, begs the question – what about those who choose solitude? Do they just fade away, lost in an indistinguishable sameness, like a polar bear in an Alaskan white-out blizzard?

This last is the thematic backbone to Cindy Lou Johnson’s 1989 play, “Brilliant Traces,” now being given a revival by Synchronicity Theatre at the 7 Stages small backstage space. Though I admired its crisp characterizations and energetic delivery, I found its contrivances to be less than convincing, and its conclusion a bit, well, inconclusive. For all intents and purposes, despite a blizzard of virtues, this play suffers from much of the same “indistinguishableness” so feared by its heroine.

We’re in a wilderness cabin, a howling wind freezing us to the marrow. Suddenly, there’s a pounding on the door, propelling a single quilt-clad resident to alertness. In stumbles Rosannah Deluce, clad in a bridal gown that has seen happier times. She babbles a bit too coherently for about ten minutes before passing out from hunger, exhaustion, and exposure. Our quilt-clad cabin denizen, in a vaguely creepy sequence, lifts her onto the bed, cleans her up, and sits and waits, Two days later, Rosannah awakes to a steaming pot of day-old soup, some baggy clothes, and a snow-bound cabin mate as socially awkward as she.

What follows is a short winter’s journey into night as Rosannah and cabin-guy (he says his name is “Henry Harry” and there’s no reason to disbelieve him) take turns confessing and consoling, their emotional journey drifting from point to point until a final resolution that seems “final,” but, given what has gone before, could seesaw in another direction a minute after curtain call.

And that’s the problem here. Rosannah and Harry each have very sound psychological reasons to be anti-social and proximity-to-anyone-phobic, and, as a result, have little psychological reason to be so open with each other. Considering they “spill their guts” mere minutes after being acquainted, I had trouble accepting them as real characters beyond the playwright’s contrived constructs. It doesn’t help that a plot point regarding Rosannah’s family is casually revealed late in the encounter, making it a “from left field” detail that doesn’t especially jibe with her previous stories,

In other words, this encounter has nothing new or surprising about it, and seems indistinguishable from a thousand other “let’s throw two characters into an inescapable scene and see what happens” scenarios. They could just as easily been on a lifeboat, a stalled bus, or a desert island. Okay, the icy Alaska setting does offer some thematic and symbolic resonance, but what good is that if we don’t accept the characters as “real people?”

And yet, here I am, almost a week later, still thinking about them and about “what may happen next.”

Credit has to go to Kate Graham and Chad Martin, who make Rosannah and Henry stay on the right side of that charming/annoying divide that threatens to overcome them. In particular, Ms. Graham starts off the play in a very grating fashion, barging in and soliloquizing for no apparent reason, too coherent by half given what we learn is her physical condition and emotional ordeal. Yet, for some reason, the combination of wedding dress and Alaskan blizzard seemed to put me in a frame of mind to accept it, and her. And, as her damaged side becomes more apparent throughout the play, the annoying parts of her take on a charm all their own.

Chad Martin seems a tad too young to carry the character of Henry (he is a supervisor on an oil rig who, years before, left behind a wife and child because of [deleted by spoiler police]. He would be more believable in his 40’s or 50’s, not as a contemporary of Rosannah’s. A bigger age disparity would make their reaching out have a more “hard won’ aspect, less a “Will they fall in love?” undertone. Sucjh a disparity would (may) make that initial scene a little less (more) creepy.

Still and all, I can sit here and nit-pick about all the dramaturgical deficiencies I saw in this play, and whine about “it should have done this” or “it didn’t do that.” I can pontificate about the heavy-handed symbolism of the “below floor” lights which overemphasized the shack’s seediness without adding any emotional heft. I could kvetch about how too much of the set design was in service more to the repertory with “Petite Rouge” than to any “organic” (meaningful) analysis of this particular piece’s needs. But, when all is said and done, these two lingered with me, and may stick in my memory for some time to come.

And, that’s what makes this play stand out from the other indistinguishable “character studies” that may drift our way.

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)



The Foreigner, by Larry Shue
Blasny Blasny Blah Blah Blah
Monday, March 19, 2012
4.0
Larry Shue’s “The Foreigner” is one of those “guilty pleasure” Regional/Community Theatre staples that can always be relied on to fill houses and please subscribers. It is a lot funnier than it should be, given that most of its humor depends on cultural stereotypes and characters being dumber than rock-boxes. And it is fairly “production-proof” – even badly acted and directed stagings can be winning and enjoyable.

Fortunately, Georgia Ensembles new production is anything but badly-acted and directed. An ensemble of marvelous actors wanders around David Manuel’s marvelous two-story set while James Donadio’s marvelous direction keeps the pace jumpy and swift.

For the none of you who have never encountered this play, here’s a recap – Charlie Baker, a neurotically shy man on the rebound from a bad marriage to a dying wife has come to a Georgia bed-and-breakfast. His best friend Froggy LeSueur (and with a name like that, you know the late Larry Shue’s forte is not subtlety) is friends with the owner, a gamely spunky Betty Meeks. To avoid having to talk to anyone, Charlie pretends to be a foreigner who doesn’t understand English. “Anyone” is, of course, the other B&B guests – winsome ex-debutante Catherine, her simple brother Ellard, her fiancé the Reverend David Marshall Lee, and Owen Musser, a local bigot and thug.

Of course, because they think he doesn’t understand them, everyone is soon confiding in Charlie, projecting on him a character that he never had in his former life. Faster than you can concoct a language filled with nonsense words, Charlie is a local hero (or pariah), nefarious plots are laid bare for the world to see, and the “good guys” are quickly mounting a really dim-witted defense against the Klan.

Sure, only a numbskull would hear Charlie’s made-up language and believe it to be real, and sure, the plot depends on everyone being (in one way or another), a dimwit. Sure, all the Southern characters wallow in stereotype and shallowness. But, truth to tell, the stereotypes are so blatant that they seem exaggerated, becoming funnier (and more acceptable) each time I see this show.

It doesn’t hurt that Hugh Adams is such a warm and winning Charlie. Even his opening “boring man” scenes come across as charming. He has such an open and honest face that we can’t help but warm to him, even in the cavernous G.E.T. Roswell house. Although the other characters don’t offer many opportunities to go beyond the stereotypes, the efforts of John Stephens (Froggy), Nita Hardy (Betty), Jonathan MacQueen (Reverend David), Tracy Vaden Moore (Catherine), Scot Warren (Owen), and especially Bryan Mercer (Ellard) seem effortless and almost sublime.

As I said above, David Manuel has built a terribly attractive set that combines log-cabin rusticity with Cathedral ceiling elegance. Chuck Tedder’s lights add to the hominess of the look – this is a B&B I’d like to visit -- and all the technical birds come home to roost in the very silly “Bees Come Down” climax, which really can’t be described without sounding, well, very silly.

But, let’s not be too quick to dismiss this script. Mr. Shue’s dialogue – even the made-up words – snaps and jangles with life, gives the characters aspects that transcend their “type” and is truly a joy to hear, and, let me be honest, to laugh with. The plot is constructed like an elegant watchwork, with casual toss-off lines foreshadowing important “stuff to come.” Although the characters are stereotypes, they occasionally surprise, and, in the hands of a talented cast like this, they charm (even when being pretty charmless).

Yes, I sometimes feel guilty when I laugh at the antics that accompany any production of this perennial house-filler..

But, still, I laugh, indeed, I laugh.

And, sometimes, that’s all that’s necessary!

Blasny Blasny!

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)



The Wizard of OZ, by John Kane
Cultural Paradigms
Monday, March 19, 2012
3.5
It’s always a risk “messing with” an iconic story. The 1939 film of “The Wizard of Oz” is so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that any variation from it seems almost sacrilegious. Author Gregory Maguire has made a mark telling “grown-up” variations on the tale (“Wicked” and its three sequels(*)), but he is the exception – his plots are so far removed from the classic film that they seem another story altogether.

Then there are the various stage adaptations that use the Harold Arlen / Yip Harburg songs from the movie. Make it too similar, and you get a “copycat” production. Make it too different and you get a “what were they thinking?” reaction.

Which brings me to the Alliance Family Series production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Heavily edited to a brisk 75 minutes, this adaptation drops a lot of what are sure to be SOMEONE’s favorite lines or songs or moments. On top of that, director Rosemary Newcott and her design team have dressed the production in the trappings of “folk art,” using puppetry, no extras, and “found objects” to create a totally new Oz experience.

It will not appeal to everyone. My daughter, in fact, found it “cheesy” and wondered why Dorothy “did not wear a blue dress.” So, you see what the production is up against!

On the other hand, I liked it (a few quibbles aside) and thought it was a lot more fun than last year’s full-length production that toured through the Cobb Energy Center.

I thought the “folk art” concept was a decent idea, and liked some of its manifestations. Where it “dropped the ball” (so to speak) was on inattention to scale and unintended effects. As one example, the Tin Man’s torso was an Altoid’s tin – clever in and of itself, with a nice bit where he “opens up” to reveal no heart. But, Altoid tins are not that large, they’re tiny! And seeing it through the entire length of the play came across less like “folk art” and more like “product placement.”

I also liked the small replica of Dorothy’s house that eventually flew to the raters during the “twister.” But, I had to stop and note, what was it doing there? It was placed “outside” and was ignored by the cast, so it came across as less a dollhouse and more a clumsy “you-know-what’s-going-to-happen-with-this” device.

On the other hand, I really liked the puppetry, the replacement of all the Munchkin Extras with a number of very cleverly constructed marionettes and puppets. I liked the Toto hand puppet, and how it kept jumping from character to character. And I REALLY liked the “twister,” a thing-of-beauty-and-joy-to-behold that combined old-fashioned stagecraft and shadow-puppetry with a few modern whiz-bang effects.

What also really sells this production is the marvelous and sparkling cast. Led by Sharisa Whatley’s plucky and resourceful Dorothy, it’s really a nine-member ensemble, all of whom play multiple roles (and puppets) and “knock them out of the ball park.” Lowrey Brown is a rubber-limbed Scarecrow who spends more time on the ground than on his feet, Jordan Craig is the sensitive (if heartless) Tin Man, and Brad Raymond is a nicely fearful Lion, whose real bravery sneaks up on us as much as it does on him. Also on hand are Je Nie Fleming (the Wicked Witch), Patrick McColery (Uncle Henry), Erin Meadows (Glinda), Brandon O’Dell (the Wizard) and Reay Kaplan (as a bajillion supporting characters).

As expected, Kat Conley has put together a nicely “raw” “folk art” set that pays homage to the concept without losing sight of the story. Musical Director Christopher Cannon has led the cast in their recreations of all the familiar songs, and Henry Scott has contributed some clever choreography that made the stage look a lot more crowded than it really was.

So, will your own munchkin like this show? A lot depends on how “indoctrinated” they are with the classic film. I suspect it will appeal more to the under-ten ages (and opening night’s full house was awash with smiling and attentive small faces). Older kids may react much like my daughter and shrug it off with a “Meh.” As to all you non-Munchkins, I say, give it chance! It may surprise you!

Just pay no attention to that expectation behind the cultural paradigm!

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)

(* The third sequel, “Out of Oz,” dealing with Elphaba’s granddaughter, has just been published.)


Petite Rouge, by Joan Cushing
Into the Swamp
Monday, March 19, 2012
4.5
It’s a familiar tale – a young girl wearing a red cape goes on a journey through a danger-filled swamp to bring her ailing Granny some Gumbo (with cornbread and hot sauce). Along the way, she is tempted by a HUNGRY gator who does all he can to tempt her from the path.

Okay, maybe it’s a Cajun twist on a familiar tale, but, to my mind, that flavors it with enough hot sauce to make me stand up and shout “A-HOO-AH!” Welcome to the zydeco-flavored mini-musical, “Petite Rouge,” currently being given a rousing romp by Synchronicity Theatre. This a show filled with toe-tapping musical numbers, colorful Mardi-Gras-inspired costumes, extreme over-the-top characters, and an almost-familiar story.

Directed by the energetically talented Justin Anderson (Synchronicity’s “Best Christmas Pageant Ever”), it is a high-octane kid’s play, certain to please the 5-to-10-year-old set and their parents alike (In fact, I did enjoy it a bit more than my own 11-year-old gator-ette, who “liked some of it”). It offers opportunities to sing along, shout along, even dance along with its bayou bunch, and left me leaving the theatre humming the virtues of hot sauce (Don’t go into the swamp without it!).

I really liked Brian Harrison’s Gator-with-a-Gastronomic-Goal Claude, whose “I’m Hungry” (“It’s French for ‘What‘s on the menu?’”) is an early highlight. He struts, he preens, he plots, and he salivates over the tasty morsel that has wandered too close to his eatery, and, his comeuppance is equally joyous to behold. Also on tap are Renita James’ petulant and resourceful “Petite Rouge,” Steven D. Brun’s geeky cat “Tejean,” and an ensemble filled with characters created by Michael Stiggers (“Frog” and others), Taryn Janelle (“Crayfish” and others), and Jessica De Maria (“Turtle” and others). Six people creating a vast swampy populace that really knows how to “Let the Good Times Roll.”

The book, music and lyrics are by the wonderful Joan Cushing, who has given us previous Synchronicity “Family” shows “Miss Nelson is Missing” and “Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business.” She seems to have the pulse of the under-ten crowd, and, indeed, the packed house at this show were squirm-free and enraptured (it probably helps that our villainous Claude bears as much resemblance to a Gator as chalk does to cheese). There were enough puns and references to keep us grown-ups happy, with plenty of bright and vivid characters (and short running time) to satisfy the bored pre-tween

On a technical level, Set Designer Jeffery Martin, Light Designer Katie McCreary, and Sound Designer Erica French have filled the small 7 Stages Black Box with a smoky swampy shacky atmosphere in which I could almost smell the moldering plant life and amphibian home life before Petite Rouge even starts her adventure. Costume Designer Abby Parker has created a wide array of outfits that sell the many characters and critters, not forgetting those ubiquitous Mardi Gras beads and head-dresses.

So, for a grand and glorious time with the short folks who rule your life, I strongly recommend a trip into the swamp with “Petite Rouge.” Bring the Hot Sauce and Laissez les bons temps rouler!”

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)



Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, by Jennifer Haley
Shooting (Virtual) Fish in a Barrel
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
3.0
> Open Play with Old DOS-Style Game Commands

> Have four actors play a group of character types. It is not necessary for there to be any distinction between types – All adults are interchangeable as are all teenagers.

> Engage in easy-target marksmanship. Obsessed gamers and distraught parents are especially vulnerable.

> Blur the lines between virtual reality and reality reality. Then eliminate them.

> End play without going beyond Level One.

And that pretty much sums up my disappointment with this one-act, currently on the Aurora’s black box stage. This is a small play, slightly more than an hour in length, and pixel-thin in its ambitions and characterizations. We’re taken to a neighborhood where all the kids are obsessed with an on-line game called “Neighborhood 3,” in which their own neighborhood is overrun with zombies (who look like their parents) and where the game threatens to cross into the “real world.”

We’re introduced to “types” of characters – the “Father” type (all played by Bryan Bendle), the “Mother” type (Rachel Garner), the “Daughter” type (Jaclyn Hofmann) and the “Son” type (Greg Bosworth). All play various characters with little or no distinction (apart from Ms. Garner’s wigs), and none carry enough heft or depth for us to care two figs about what happens to them or what they do. While this approach may make for okay video-gaming, it makes for dry and, sometimes deadly-dull theatre.

Yes, it is intriguing sussing out the “rules” and smiling at the confusions of real-life and virtual-life, and a modicum of suspense is generated in the final couple of scenes, but, for me, it’s just not enough. Maybe if I liked on-line gaming a little better, or if I weren’t constantly annoyed by the on-stage video screens displaying the play for us (*), I might have found it a little more engaging. Maybe if the characters had shown a little initiative, or behaved a little against “type,” they may have been better company. Maybe if director Daniel May had chosen less awkward-to-sight-lines blocking, it wouldn’t have been so difficult to watch. And maybe if the obsessions and petulance on display hadn’t been such “easy targets,” or if the playwright had chosen to examine aspects about gaming other than those espoused by its critics, it would have progressed a little beyond Level One easy-targeting.

As it is, as it stands, watching “Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom” is a little too much like watching someone else play a video game. It is unengaging, unsurprising, and, in the final analysis, a bit unpleasant.

> Review Over.

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)

(*) Okay, there was one surprising moment – when the screens showed something OTHER than what we were seeing on stage. In one version, a father assaults a girl. In another, she assaults him. In the third, they hug and reconcile. The fact that it makes absolutely no difference to the story which version is on-stage and which two are on-screen is, perhaps, another problem with this script. The fact that we know nothing about these characters other than their “types” (maybe their names – I forget), is just video-game shallow.


Ain't Misbehavin', by based on the Music of "Fats" Waller
A "Phat" Wallow
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
5.0
This Joint is Jumpin’!

Welcome to the world of Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller, a prolific jazz pianist and songwriter whose inimitable style will be recognizable to almost everyone. “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is the 1978 revue that showcases some of his most recognizable tunes, and Atlanta Lyric Theatre has put together a terrific production that sends us on a high-octane rocket trip into the past.

We’re in a Harlem nightclub, anytime in the thirties or forties, and “Fats” himself is at the keyboard. A quintet of singers sashays and belts and coos and seduces us with ballads and dances and most exquisite wallows in nostalgia and high energy. A fortunate few in the audience gets to watch from an array of tables in the enlarged pit, but even the rest of us are made to feel like intimate guests, despite the cavernous reaches of Marietta’s Strand Theatre.

Just as a sampler, we get the all-too familiar title song, “Honeysuckle Rose” drained of its Willie-Nelson twang, “Black and Blue” in exquisite five-part harmony, a fast and sleazy “Fat and Greasy,” an angry (but playful) “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” an hilarious “Cash for your Trash,” and a bounce-off-the-walls and jump-for-joy “This Joint is Jumpin’,” And this is only a small bitsy part of the total treats on tap for the lucky many who venture Marietta-ward for this show.

This is, by far, the best production I’ve seen by Atlanta Lyric, and, by even farther, the best ensemble I’ve seen in any musical for quite some time. D. Woods, Eric Moore, Kenya Hamilton, Jevares C. Myrick, and Kayce Grogan-Wallace all have their moments in the spotlight, but they’re never as good as when they’re on stage together, in various pairings or group numbers. Their voices blend beautifully, and, combined, they are the singular definition of “greater than the sum of its parts” casting.

Add to the mix a marvelous orchestra led by conductor Brandt Blocker and on-stage pianist Andrew Fazackerly, all of whom deserve their share of the inevitable accolades in store. Mr. Fazackerly not only plays the piano like a master (or a lover), he adds his own moments of wit and character to this theatrical “waller” in jazz and ragtime and stride. Ricardo Aponte has done a marvelous job of staging and choreographing the ensemble, and all the creative elements click like a roomful of snapping fingers.

Bradley Bergeron has put together a seedily elegant night club, smoky and hazy one moment, blue and sorrowful the next. This is one of the best-looking shows I’ve seen at the Strand, and Mr. Bergeron has made excellent use of the not-too-wide, perhaps-too-tall area. Vertical lines done in old brick and haze compete with faux-deco trimmings that all evoke just-past-its-prime Harlem.

To be completely honest, I wasn’t as familiar with this show as I should have been, and more familiar with Waller’s music than I thought. I’ve heard many of these songs by other artists (the aforementioned Willie Nelson, Mandy Patinkin, Spider Saloff, even the late great Steve Goodman) without realizing their provenance, and here delighted in hearing (and seeing) them performed in a unified style that can only be described as a “phat wallow,” if you’ll forgive the out-of-period slang. The first thing I did after seeing the show was order the CD of the 1978 cast, just to relive all those wonderful moments.

So, nothing more needs to be said. I loved this show, it pretends to be nothing other than the revue it is (thank goodness no attempt was made to shoehorn a stupid plot onto the songs). I had a most excellent time, and “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed” that you will too! Trust me! After all, It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie!

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)


Romeo & Juliet (2012), by William Shakespeare
Long Form
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
3.0
Two houses, both alike in dignity,
At Shakespeare Tavern, where we watch the play,
From year to year to celebrate the day
St. Valentine is honored and obeyed,
Is staged with no ironic purpose hid
(For surely ‘tis an irony that death
Ensues from such a passion young,
And love and death describe an arc that bears
No ‘semblance to the Hallmark platitudes
That seem to foul this day too much for some).


I can’t say for sure whether this year’s February sojourn in Verona is a return to the “long form” R&J that last year was edited to a fast-paced gallop. I can say, though, that this year, the show was a three-hour slog with too many slow patches for comfort and too many less-than-exciting performances from some of the supporting cast.

Like last you, the leads are Matt Felten and Kelly Criss, providing the chemistry expected of acting couples married in real life (as if any time off stage can be described as “real”). And, like last year, they ably convey the characters’ youth, convincing me they were indeed just-teenagers swept away by awakening hormones and new-found lust. Both found opportunities for full-tilt kick-the-floor tantrums, both aroused in their older companions moments of eye-rolling exasperation. Even their first meeting provided an unexpected moment of youthful bravado that surprised and amused with its “this-feels-so-right” playfulness. Their combination of immaturity and to-the-heart passion amplified the emotional impact of their story, and made their tragic circumstance all the more effective. They were, in fact, that best thing about this production.

But, there are too many less-than-wonderful factors burying their story in just-off-book blandness and by-the-numbers recitation. The show opens with a slowly-paced fight in which you can almost see the actors “counting” the chorography. Led by a Benvolio with chronic mush-mouth, the opening scenes were surprisingly lackluster. Even this year’s Mercutio was lifeless (surprising considering how much I usually enjoy Paul Hester’s work) and dull – it wasn’t until he launched into a monochromatic “Queen Mab” speech that I realized he was even Mercutio. There was little bawdy camaraderie amongst the Montague friends, and what was there seemed insincere with a surprising “bored-with-it-all” mood.

Not everyone in the supporting cast was in “phone-it-in” mode – 2011 carryovers Jeff McKerley’s (a concerned and oft-distracted Friar Lawrence), Daniel Parvis (a cocky and volatile Tybalt), and Josie Burgin Lawson (a hovering and garrulous Nurse) were decidedly bright spots. Everyone else may have had moments or two of sparkle or confidence, but overall, came across as a troupe at the end of a long long run who have become bored with their show.

A casting note to make – it may have been a mistake to double the parts of Lord Montague and the dim servant Peter – though Doug Kaye was fine in both roles, he has such a distinctive look (and their scenes are so close together), that it was almost as if we were seeing the same character with a change of clothes.

Anyway, let me close with my usual (heavily-edited this year) Prologue pastiche:

And Mr. Reeves (director of it all)
Has taken us on yet another trek
To fair Verona, where our story lies.
The show’s still here, and will no doubt return,
So if you miss this year’s too-average stroll
Into the passage of this death-mark’d love,
Do not despair or wallow in regret.
It was an “off night” when I made my trip,
But if the troupe engages in their wont,
By next week (or at least next year)
It will be back to its expected form.
And that light taste of rue that holds your heart?
My strained, uncivil words shall hope to mend.


-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)


Jane Eyre -- The Musical, by John Caird and Paul Gordon
Sirens Sweetly Singing
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
3.5
For my first visit to Tyrone’s Legacy Theatre, I was brought face-to-face with “Jane Eyre – The Musical,” a rewritten version of the musical that managed to win five 2001 Tony nominations. This is indeed one of those heavily-workshopped, constantly-changinf shows (compare “Jekyll and Hyde,” “Martin Guerre,” even “Merrily We Roll Along”), one in which the creators tinker ad infinitum, and one which divides the audience over which version is the best. This being my first contact with the show (excepting, of course, the original Broadway recording, the novel, and the many film versions), I am perhaps not in the best position to judge its comparative quality.

Not to delay my judgment too long, although I am an ardent admirer of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, and enjoy listening to the songs on the Original Cast recording, I have a few, nay, I have many reservations about the structure of this show and its effectiveness.

That being said, I have absolutely no reservations about the quality of the leading performances by Katie Mitchell (Jane) and Stephen Mitchell Brown (Rochester). Both have star-making belt voices that blend together perfectly, and, both voices have a dramatic range that traverses the gamut from soft and tender lullaby to shake-the-rafters intensity. Mr. Brown possesses a strong baritone that surprises like a fine sherry – at once velvety smooth and bone-shatteringly strong, and Ms. Mitchell, perhaps a shade too attractive for the quintessential “plain Jane,” sings with a full-throated vulnerability that wins us to her side from her first notes to her last.

My reservations about the structure of the play involve the apparent lack of narrative drive inherent in the admittedly admirable songs. Too much of the story relies on the music (it is almost – not quite – completely sung through), and yet, each individual number is more reflective, introspective, than tell-the-story driven. We get songs about faith, about love, about temptation, about greed. We get few songs about what the characters are doing, about what came before, about what comes next. This makes the story and the supporting characters, by necessity, shallow and thin. Apart from Jane and Rochester (and perhaps Mrs. Fairfax), everyone is either too too good or too too evil. We get no sense of why they are the way they are or why they do the things they do. Even this revision chose (for whatever reason) to add the completely unnecessary characters of Jane’s parents, who start the show with a forgettable new song that adds nothing plot-wise or character-wise.

And, given the drama of the original novel, this is a major consideration. Too often during this production, I was confronted with a song I would normally like, but which here seemed to provide nothing but delay in the progression of Jane’s life story. Songs I’d enjoyed on the recording, I now waited impatiently to complete.

On the other hand, the decision to have the adult Jane interact with her younger self works extraordinarily well, giving the entire show a “patchwork memory” veneer that serves the story well.

And yet, despite the overlong progression of the production, I still found myself entranced and moved. Despite the questionable choices and lies-of-omission made by Rochester (**), I found myself rooting for his romance with our heroine. Despite the “marking time” aspect of too many of the songs, I found myself listening with (impatient) pleasure. And because of the overwhelming talents of the two leads, I found myself leaving the theatre with fond thoughts for this story and for this show.

If some of the supporting performances were just-off-book bland, if the staging of too many songs were recital-static and movement-deprived, if the (many) projections and scrim effects were unclear or distracting or simply unattractive, that made little difference. This is Jane and Rochester’s story, and it rises and falls on their songs and their interactions, and, in the more-than-capable voices of Ms. Mitchell and Mr. Brown, it succeeds. Greatly aided by a small and skillful (albeit unseen) 9-piece orchestra, this musical journey is indeed the “siren-song” so dramatically voiced by Mr. Rochester that leads the hapless audience onto the rocky shoals of (slight) structural disappointments.

Not to rise above my station as a mere scribbler of praises and pans, but I can’t resist alluding to Ms. Bronte’s original text, and conclude by acknowledging I feel ever so compelled to temper judgment with mercy.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

** For a harsh look at the young Rochester, I recommend Jean Rhys’ 1966 novel, “Wide Sargasso Sea,” a Jane Eyre “prequel” that looks at his courtship and marriage to “the madwoman in the attic.” It was made into a 1996 opera, a 2006 TV movie, and a 1993 “artistically erotic” (ahem) movie . And don’t get me started on the wonderfully “out there” “The Eyre Affair” by Jasper Fforde.



The Fairy Tale Lives of Russian Girls, by Meg Miroshnik
æèëè áûëè (Cyrillic Characters for "Zhili Byli")
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
4.0
Zhili Byli (“They lived, they were”).

Once Upon a Time.

In Russian or in English, those words launch the reader (or the viewer) into the realm of the fantastic, where innocents struggle with predators, where real life rubs elbows with magic. Where fantasy is grounded by Grimm tragedy and where the mundane takes wing with imagination.

We are blessed to be living in a resurgence of wistful fairytale entertainment. “Grimm” and “Once Upon a Time” are two television series that mix the magical with the contemporary, and no less than two big screen looks at the “Snow White” story are scheduled for Spring release. The Alliance started their season with the almost-a-classic “Into the Woods,” and, in a bit of synchronous timing, they are now staging the 2012 Kandeda Playwrighting winner, Meg Miroshnik’s “The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, or Äåâî÷åê (girls),” a marvelously entertaining look at a few Russian Fairy Tales told in the context of a modern feminist coming-of-age story.

Anya (“call me ‘Annie’ because I feel like an orphan”) was born in Moscow, but raised in Los Angeles. Now that she is twenty, she journeys back home to discover her roots (and to lose the American accent her Russian carries “like rust.”). Before she leaves, her mother reveals a Russia-shaped scar on her chest, and warns her to never “stray from the path. In Moscow, she stays with an “Aunt” who bears more than a passing resemblance to the witch Baba Yaga, and who tries her best to “fatten up” Anya. The woman across the way, Masha, lives with a man who seems to have become a bear. And she meets two women, Katya and “the other Katya” whose stories come complete with riddles, Tsars, and fatal sibling conflicts. Toss into the borscht a prostitute and a Grimm societal underbelly, and you’re left with a totally original play, one that tells fairy stories as if they were modern urban tragedies, and looks at urban life as if it were in a land far far away.

These characters (and critters) are brought to glorious life by six tremendously talented (and, not that it matters, attractive) women. Sarah Elizabeth Wallis (Synchronicity’s “Best Christmas Pageant Ever”) brings an innocent exuberance to Anya that charms completely. We see the dangers along her path, and worry that she may be too young to discover them while she can still fight them. Bree Dawn Shannon brings us two totally contrasting characters, the prostitute “Nastya” (whose “prohibited” fairy tale is a highlight of the show) and the sorta kinda nice-to-a-fault “Other Katya.” Alexandra Henrikson is an imposing and strong Katya, Diany Rodriguez an earthy Masha, Judy Leavell a slyly sympathetic Baba Yaga (Auntie Yaroslava), and Kate Goehring a plethora of characters both real and (perhaps) not.

This is also one of the best technical designs in town. Collette Pollard has created a thrilling set with scrimmed stone walls that turn into a forest at the flick of a switch, and that includes an enormous bear-sized oven (which you KNOW will be used for some nefarious purpose before all is happily-ever-aftered), and it is lit by Howell Binkley in a fast-paced multi-cued mix that must be pure hell on the logistics of getting actresses from one place to another (or from one character to another). Costumes by Ivan Ingermann combine peasant practicality with urban sleaze with a remarkable ease of transition, and the sound by Clay Benning (with original music by Joshua Horvath) is all Mother Russia melancholy, night club chic, and what’s-that-noise mystery.

I liked how this was all about the women, the “girls” of the title, with the less-than-admirable males relegated to off-stage impotence. I liked how each character tells us a tale to tell that informs (if not totally echoes) her own back story. And I liked how multiple threats come to fruition in perfect sequence, building to a suspenseful climax that mixes the right amount of danger with a sprinkling of both magic and realism. If I have one complaint, it’s that not all the stories carried the same clarity – I had to listen carefully to discern what happens when Annie, Masha, and Katya go out clubbing, and the place of the doomed Valentina isn’t as clear as I would have liked.

Still and all, what we’re left with is a journey into Russian folk tales, from the opening Zhili Byli to the “happily ever after” that’s not as final as it seems. We’re left with a marvelous evening spent in the company of all these women (and critters) who chafe at being called “girls” at the same time the wear the name like a badge of honor.

And we’re left with the classic elements of an innocent girl, a witch, and a hungry bear. Believe me when I tell you there’s more than one story there.

Zhili Byli!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




Red, by John Logan
What do You See?
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
5.0
What do you see?

This is the primary question at the root of any discussion of Abstract Expressionism. Why is it that one person can look at a seemingly formless collection of color and shape and drizzle and drablessness and turn away with a so-what sigh, while another stands rooted for hours, profoundly moved to tears by the same image?

What do you see?

This is also a question that is it the heart of my own critical philosophy, the engine that drives my desire to see and write about theatre in all its diverse splendor. I was forcefully reminded of this several weeks ago, when I got into a spirited discussion with another frequent theatre-goer about the merits of a current production, one which I praised to the heavens one which he considered one of the “worst ten plays I’ve ever seen.” What did I see that he didn’t? What did I miss?

What do you see?

When I see John Logan’s “Red,” a compelling play about artist Mark Rothko being given an insanely intelligent and exciting production at Theatrical Outfit, I see a play about two men in a single room, a meditation on art and aesthetics, a glimpse into the process of a great artist (with whom I was not only unfamiliar, but totally ignorant), a dynamic two-year journey into a man and his employee that never develops into friendship, a non-teacher who can’t help but teach, a worker who can’t help but learn, a man fighting the demons of his own pretensions and depressions while remaining true to the convictions that gave them birth, a young man whose own convictions can’t help but be molded in the furnace of this intense period of creativity. In short, I see a perfect play being given a perfect production that appeals to head, heart, mind, and soul.

What do you see?

It is 1958 and Mark Rothko is at a crossroads. He has been given a prize commission, the creation of a mural to decorate the walls of the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram’s Building on Manhattan’s Park Avenue. It is his chance to create a “space” in which his work can be experienced, contemplated, revered, It is an opportunity to create a thematically connected series that expresses basic human emotion writ large. It is also a temptation to sell out to the highest bidder.

He has hired a young man, Ken, fresh out of art school, to be his assistant, to “fetch food and cigarettes, to clean brushes, to lay down base coats, which is not really ‘painting’” (and indeed, we see Rothko and Ken transform a large blank canvas into a blood-red base for whatever will follow). He makes clear that he is not Ken’s teacher, but his employer. Throughout the next two years (90 minutes our time) the two work together, building a relationship through bickering, never really getting too close …until they have to.

These two are played by Tom Key (Rothko) and Jimi Kocina (Ken) in two of the most outstanding performances we are likely to see this year. Mr. Key is all Lion-in-Winter, quick to anger, arrogant in his victory over the schools of Cubism and Surrealism that preceded him, not prepared for the Pop Art era of Warhol and Johns that will follow. He wears plainly on his sleeve his devotion to his art and his craft, the meticulousness with which he approaches his work, his disdain for the less-than-satisfactory aesthetic training of his young assistant. His growing respect for Ken comes hard, not without too many moments of harsh cruelty.

Mr. Kocina starts out all eager puppy, willing to perform menial tasks just to pick up any drops of wisdom Rothko splatters around like so many droplets of red (crimson, scarlet, burgundy, wine-red, blood-red) drops of paint. As the months go by, he begins to see the man beneath the idol, the less-than pure motivations of the Four Seasons project, the arrogant peccadilloes of the cloistered creative genius. He sees the depressed man (who history tells us will eventually commit suicide in 1970), but, like Rothko, he is not immune to stooping to casual cruelty to make his points.

The final two scenes are riveting in their passion, in their laying bare the raw insecurities and passions that drive these two men, riveting in the clarity of the aesthetic divide that separates them, men of different countries, different generations, different expectations. It is very simply a perfect moment of theatre.

I could delve into the contributions of director David De Vries, or the wonderful set of Lee Maples that looks airy and spacious, but becomes almost prison-like by the end. I could praise the lights of Joseph Fultral, the sound design and music of Kendall Simpson, the props of MC Park (including several Rothko reproductions), and the costumes of Linda Patterson Indeed, all the technical aspects of the show are letter-perfect, and serve the story well.

But, when all is said and done, what I remember are the words of John Logan and the performances of Tom Key and Jimi Kocina.

Let me end with two quotes from Mr. Rothko (thank you Wikipedia for these):

“We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”

“I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however . . . is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command!”


This production of “Red” is the diametric opposite of this thought – it is a large play devoting to nothing less than the nature of art and how it relates to being human. That it is writ on a small canvas, a 90-minute, two-character chamber play, and that it succeeds in all of its lofty ambitions (even to one like me who went with zero prior knowledge of Rothko or his work) is nothing short of miraculous.

That’s what I see when I watch this production of “Red.”

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)





Avenue Q (2012), by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx, and Jeff Whitty
Second Impressions
Monday, February 6, 2012
4.5
As a boost to the new year, Horizon Theatre is remounting its 2011 production of “Avenue Q.” Even though I liked it a bit more this time than last, I think I can get by with remounting my own 2011 review of the first outing.

“Avenue Q” is one of those shows that, upon first impression, should be dismissed as a cynical one-joke exercise in snarkiness. Supposedly an “adult” parody of “Sesame Street,” it has little to offer beyond its shocking content (Cursing! Drugs! Sex!) and its strict allusion to “Sesame Street” (Rod & Nicky = Bert and Ernie, Trekkie Monster = Cookie Monster, etc).

I mean let’s look it with an honest eye. “What do you do With a BA in English?(**)” appeals to the anti-intellectualism running amok these days, and was apparently written by someone who never went to college. “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” is a cynical wallow in self-justification. “The Internet is for Porn” is … okay I’ll buy that one. The puppets are paper-thin characters who survive on stereotypes. And does (the late) Gary Coleman really need this much abuse?

And yet … And yet … And yet …

And yet, when I first heard the CD, I couldn’t stop laughing. And now that I’ve seen it on stage (again), I still can’t stop laughing. Maybe because I pre-date the “Sesame Street” generation (though I confess to getting through college with Grover and company), maybe because I have a healthy streak of snark myself, I respond well to the cynicism on view, and respond more to the healthy streak of heart that underscores the entire show.

To recap, Princeton is a recent college graduate moving to Avenue Q (because it’s all he can afford). There he meets all the residents who will be his friends – Gary Coleman, the building super (yes, THAT Gary Coleman), Rod and Nicky (two friends who share an apartment), Brian and Christmas Eve (two non-puppet characters – who says there’s no diversity here!), the winsome and lovely Kate Monster, and the reclusive (and single-minded) Trekkie Monster. Into Princeton’s world comes the “Bad Idea Bears” (a brilliantly mean conception), not to mention the what-you-see is what-you-get Lucy the Slut. Throughout the course of the play, Princeton is trying to find some purpose, and, well, each scene can be read as a little “lesson” in living on the grittier side of the tracks.

It doesn’t hurt that the Horizon has put together a cast of local favorites and put them through their puppetry paces to sell the show. Nick Arapoglou brings to Princeton a wide-eyed innocence that carries through his second act “bottoming out.” J.C. Long and Jeff McKerley bring to Rod and Nicky an originality that transcends the “Bert and Ernie” impersonations that too often saddle the actors who play the roles. Mary Nye Bennett is a sassy and strong Kate Monster, and her singing (especially in “There’s a Fine, Fine Line”) is one of the highlights of the show. I also liked the non-puppet characters played by Bernard T. Jones, Leslie Bellair, and Matt Nitchie. And, as expected, Jill Hames gives the Lucy the Slut puppet a “Special” life force that is funny and memorable.

Moriah & Isabel Curley-Clay have put them all in an impressively seedy back-street set (much sturdier than it was last year) that flows from scene to scene with little delay, and Heidi Cline McKerley directs it all with a pace and energy that creates a non-stop romp into the “dark side” of being a grown-up. I liked every minute of this show.

Now I can’t leave this review without commenting on some remarks I heard from some friends who were less-than-impressed with the performances. These were folks who did see the touring companies, and didn’t like the changes made to the show, particularly the lack of “Bert and Ernie” impersonations on the part of Mr. Long and Mr. McKerley. Admittedly, I’ve been known to unfavorably compare one production of a particular show with another version seen previously. In this case though, they seem to focus on something I DIDN’T like about the CD (and apparently the tours). We “get” that Rod and Nicky are supposed to be like Bert and Ernie – slavishly imitating those familiar voices is, to my ears, a distraction from the unique qualities brought to this show by these characters (for the record, Rod is firmly “in the closet” gay, and Nicky is not – his song “If You Were Gay” is one of the nicest, non-cynical and non-judgmental songs in the show). So, my response to such criticism is simply this – I liked the show, you didn’t! Neener Neener Neener! Since this is my second impression of the show, I can honestly say that my 2011 First Impressions were “on the money.”

So, I invite you all to take a trip the “Avenue Q,” where you will see the most interesting puppets doing the most interesting things to each other, and singing the most interesting songs with an energy that is contagious and infectious.

I can tell you how to get there!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

** So, just what DO you do with a BA in English? Call me! I have one. And what I had to do to get it is one of the main reasons this song should rub me the wrong way. Why it doesn’t is just an interesting psychological phenomenon that has absolutely nothing to do with Denial. At least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!



A Body of Water, by Lee Blessing
In Memorium
Monday, February 6, 2012
3.5
It’s very sobering reading on-line reviews of various productions of Lee Blessing’s “Body of Water.” Writers seem generally agreed that Mr. Blessing has created a “puzzle play” without “thinking through” the story or offering a clean resolution. I found nothing positive written about this play, and almost every writer talks about its shallowness and frustrating storyline.

Maybe I’m dimmer than other writers, but I did not find this piece frustrating or shallow. I found it be a superbly realized meditation on the nature of memory, and on the cruelties of power. A bit much? Let me explain.

Two people wake up in a house with no memory of who they are, of where they are, or of what brought them there. They seem to be in a luxurious house isolated by a surrounding body of water, with a local village within walking distance. As they try to jog their memories (Is this their home? Are they married? Do they even know each other?), they are soon joined by a young woman, Wren. Wren may be their daughter, their psychiatrist, their lawyer, or simply their caretaker. Since we see her from the point of view of the protagonists, we never know (because, well, duh, they never know).

What follows can only be called a psychodrama of cruelty, as Wren tells them differing stories on who they are and how they got there. At one moment, they are suspected of murdering their own daughter, and being isolated to determine if their memory loss is just a “dodge.” At another, they are victims of a suicide attempt gone wrong (Wren even produces an authentic looking note to support that story). At various times, the man is told the woman is dead, and the woman is told the man was never there.

One thing that is constant is that the main characters (called “Moss” and “Avis,” but that could be just as false as anything else they’re told) have problems with their memories – they wake up each day totally ignorant of their situation, and they often forget what they were told mere minutes before. Another thing that becomes obvious to us (if not to Moss and Avis) is that Wren is a consummate liar who seems to take an impious joy in the self-loathing horror her tales bring to the older couple.

What centers this play for me and makes it work are the character constants we see in the couple, the personality traits and whims that remain independent of memory and that arise in curious ways (Avis’ fascination with Moss’s anatomy, Moss’s sudden interest in sex and gardening, Avis’ horror at the photos of the murdered child, Moss’ sudden panic when left alone, their varying abilities at the minutiae of crossword puzzles, both characters’ indifference to Wren. These two come across as real people in an extremely unusual situation.

And, because the play is experienced totally from their point of view, it comes across as a “puzzle” play to those unwilling to engage.

Public mis-perception of the accuracy of memory is well-documented. Assured “eyewitness testimony” is constantly being discredited by more accurate DNA evidence, “suppressed memories” are usually found to be “created memories” of events that never occurred, and experiments have shown that most of what we remember is colored by our own wishes rather than being an accurate “videotape reconstruction” of events.

Here, we see two people acting as I suppose most of us would upon suddenly waking up with no sense of who or what we are. We see a young woman manipulating them, telling them stories they accept at face value, but which nevertheless turn out to be false (perhaps). And, because we know they’ll wake up tomorrow with no memory of what happened today, it’ll all start again. And, we’re left with the distinct message that who we are is far more than the sum of our memories, that memory may, in fact, be largely irrelevant to what makes us who we are.

Moss and Avis are played by real-life couple Mark and Tess Malis Kincaid, while Wren is played by Cara Mantella with an irritating nasal twang that made me dislike (or at least distrust) her from the first. Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay have created a breath-takingly beautiful set, an elegant living room with Cathedral-height floor-to-ceiling windows that shows us only a murky skyscape, often at odds with its dialogued description (they say “sunny blue skies,” we see folds of roiling grey). It’s too nice to be an institution, and that leads credence to the possibility that it is their home. And Freddie Ashley has directed it with his usually attention to detail and pace.

In the final analysis, your enjoyment of this play will depend on how much you trust memory, how much you believe it can be corrupted, how much you like the couple at its mercy, and how much tolerance you have for unresolved (irresolvable?) puzzles. I found it compelling (as I do all of Mr. Blessing’s work), and I hope some of you do too.

Unless of course, my own memory of the play has itself been totally corrupted by the Aurora PR machine.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



NEXT FALL, by Geoffrey Nauffts
This Day
Monday, February 6, 2012
4.5
Geoffrey Nauffts’ “Next Fall” is many things. An emotionally-charged excursion into a five-year relationship, a family drama dealing with homosexuality, a conflict between facing what today holds and putting off critical decisions until “next fall,” a witty character study, a debate on religion, a whimsical study of the random nature of sudden death.

Before you dismiss this as “too much meat for one play,” let me say it is first and foremost the story of Adam and Luke, of their relationship, of their friends and families. All the other themes and motifs I cited above are merely facets of their lives, things folks discuss with friends and lovers and families over warm snacks and chilled wine.

Luke has been critically injured in a random Manhattan traffic accident, and the hospital waiting room is the gathering place for those whose lives he touched – his father Butch, his mother Arlene, his friends Brandon and Holly, and his “longtime companion” Adam. Through a series of flashbacks, we see the birth and lifespan of the relationship between Adam and Luke.

To say I could relate to this couple is an understatement. Adam is a forty-something nebbish, a hypochondriac trying to find his “purpose,” an atheist. Luke is a twenty-something actor, er, I mean waiter, a hot-looking “boy toy” who could have his pick of the Manhattan gay population, a born-again Christian. (The fact that this seeming oxymoron seems natural and unforced is just one of the measures of playwright Nauffts’ skill.) Why would I identify with such a relationship? Well, leaving aside the fact that I was a forty-something nebbish atheist when I met my lovely and talented spouse, a twenty-something knockout devout Catholic, not much. Needless to say, I found many of their discussions and arguments familiar, their resolutions natural, their continued relationship reassuring.

And that’s the crux of why this scenario works so well – Adam and Luke are deeply in love, and that gets them over and through all the “rough spots” the differing worldviews and generational paradigms put in their path. The one thing they really can’t get around is Luke’s refusal to “come out” to his father, a refusal he keeps promising to end “Next Fall” or some other elusively future time. Now that Luke is in a coma with no hope of survival, Adam is left in the cold, a stranger to Luke’s family.

The play is filled with tiny nuances and irony that made me smile with delight. I liked how playwright Nauffts avoids taking sides in the religion arguments, letting each character have their moments of triumph and aggravation, giving equal weight to Adam’s “seize the moment before it’s too late” preference and Luke’s “It’ll be better in heaven” optimism. I was when Luke discusses how Matthew Shepherd’s killers can achieve heaven, while Shepherd himself cannot. And I was amused at how devout father Luke “hides” from is himself a “serial monogamist,” separated from Luke’s mother for twenty years. These are six perfectly realized characters each carrying a full weight of back-story and attitude and eccentricity.

The wonderful ensemble, led by Mitchell Anderson’s quirky and soulful Adam and Joe Sykes’ charmingly charismatic Luke is tight and distinct – William S. Murphey brings to Butch (and don’t you just love the faux-macho splendor of that name?) a vulnerability that’s never at odds with his frequent explosions of cruelty and anger. Patricia French brings a bizarre talkativeness to Luke’s eccentric Mother (Arlene) that is funny without being grating or unrealistic. And John Benzinger and Jennifer Levison bring even more warmth to Luke’s friends, a not-so-faux family that has always been “there” for him.

Scenic Designer Seamus M. Bourne and director Kate Warmer have devised a three-quarter thrust playing space, in which the waiting room dominates. All the other scenes are played in the thrust area, using versatile “sofa cubes” to create the scenes. It makes for occasional awkward sight lines, but nothing that lasts too long or is too intrusive,

You may write off my praise of this piece as a bias influenced by the similarity between my own marriage and the Adam / Luke relationship. You may even be right to do so. But I have always maintained (and will continue to do so), that what we bring into a play as an audience member, can (and should) carry far more weight than any “objective” “list of standards” brought by critics who come to judge rather than to engage. To be blunt, I don’t believe in objective criticism. Writers who describe “guilty pleasures” or who pretend there are objective yardsticks that apply to every production are just being dishonest with themselves and with their readers.

Speaking of “what we bring” to a play, one of the audience members at the performance I saw chatted with me before the show, saying he had come directly from the funeral of his best friend (and he was dressed in black). During the climactic scene where we actually see Luke’s comatose body on stage, this man openly wept with sobs that could be heard throughout the theatre. Who am I to deny his reaction because he came to the show with “baggage?” Who are you to deny me the added intensity his weeping brought to this scene?

“Next Fall” is an emotionally moving, funny play about a relationship. It’s about two people who are able to squeeze a lifetime of companionship into five short years. Regarding the religious issues in play, I naturally fall on Adam’s side – if you keep putting something important off until “Next Fall,” what happens if you have seen your last autumn? Sure, you may be blissing out in the afterlife of your faith, but you’ve also left all your loved ones to pick up the pieces you’ve left behind.

Maybe I’ve just seen too many productions of “Rent,” lately, but, to my mind, there is no day but today. And, if that is true, think how wonderful that makes this day.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




The Ladies Man, by Charles Morey, Georges Feydeau
This Room Smells of Old Farce!
Monday, February 6, 2012
4.0
What’s that I smell? Can it be the flopsweat of a desperate actor, trying to get his mouth around a word-burger big enough to choke Olivier, while dodging a bustier-sporting (and whip-wielding) mother-in-law while countless doors slam with synchronized abandoned? Or can it be a new(ish) translation of an old(ish) French farce?

Considering the actor in question floats through the evening with appallingly professional aplomb, I’m willing to bet on the latter.

Sure enough, welcome to “The Ladies Man,” Charles Morey’s translation of Georges Feydeau’s 1886 farce “Tailleur pour Dames” (literally, “Tailor for Women”). The plot is classic Feydeau: In “Belle Epoque” Paris, the recently married Dr. Hercule Molineaux (and you know, with a name like that, there’ll be at least one post-Feydeau Agatha Christie reference before all is slammed and done) tells "one, tiny, little, hardly noticeable lie" to cover an innocent but embarrassing indiscretion. From that tightly wound moment springs an explosion of misunderstandings (deliberate and otherwise), lies both large and larger, and mutually exclusive mistaken identities that threaten sense, sanity, and probably the fabric of the cosmos.

The players include Molineaux’s sweetly suspicious spouse, his epically proportioned (and epically fierce) mother-in-law, a saucy patient who would like nothing better than to make the supposed indiscretions of the good Doctor real ones, the saucy patient’s outrageously Aryan spouse, a lisping friend, a secretive maid, and a valet with curious tastes in undergarments. Toss them onto a set with too many architecturally ludicrous doors (none of which actually slam) and … well does it really matter what happens next?

Because a good bedroom farce requires a lot of slamming doors, let’s start with an analysis of those doors. Painted a garish pink, they exist in a wall-less set (by the talented Sara Ward Culpepper) that allows them to spin on their axes, making all the perfectly timed entrances and exits swoosh by with nary a slam. On paper it sounds like a “what were they thinking?” faux pas. On stage, it makes the pace whoosh faster than a French feint, and gives the whole mousetrap a frenetically frantic desperation that suits farce to a not-spilled Tea!

When the setting switches from the Molineaux’ finely furnished sitting room to an abandoned dressmaker shoppe (at “70 Rue Sans Souci”), a few tweaks of furniture is all that is needed to take us there. After all, it makes as much as sense as this octet of characters all showing up at the same abandoned shoppe at the same time, that is, none whatsoever. Not that there’s anything wrong with that …

And special giggles to the ludicrously over-the-top cast, led by Chris Kayser’s polished and desperate Molineaux. Lane Carlock is stunning as his winsomely sinned-against spouse, Yvonne. Andrea Frye is a treasure, literally filling the stage as Yvonne’s bulldog of a mother, who makes everyone cower when she brings out her whip. Veronika Duerr is charming as the secretive maid Marie, Katherine LeRoy is wonderful as the brash and brazen Suzanne, Robin Bloodworth is unrecognizable beneath a Prussian uniform, a German beard, and an Austrian accent as Suzanne’s jealous husband Aubin. And, as if that weren’t enough, we’ve also got Enoch King as the good Doctor’s valet, and Andrew Benator, as the good Doctor’s lithping (and badly-rugged) friend, Bassinet. These are extraordinarily well-written, well-performed characters who deeply mine the characters for every vein of humor.

Much of the credit to the success of this piece has to go to director Susan Reid. She knows her way around farce, and has staged it with equal parts precision blocking, character-centric business, and breath-taking pace.

It’s said that Farce is an acquired taste, that it is the “unwelcome uncle” at the theatrical picnic, that is difficult to get “right,” and that it results in little affection or respect. To that I say, “BTHHHHRRRRRRP!” I love farce for its blithe refusal to cater to realism, for its unashamed embrace of stagecraft over “theatre art,” and for its ability to make me laugh out loud.

Theatre in the Square’s “The Ladies Man” (is the lack of an apostrophe in the title intentional? But I digress …) made me laugh out loud. It also made me amazed at the physical and verbal skills of its talented cast and production crew. It is a tightly-wound construction that springs forth to brighten any evening spent in its company.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza
Red in Tooth and Claw
Sunday, January 29, 2012
4.5
“Behaving well gets you nowhere. Courtesy is a waste of time, it weakens you and undermines you …”

That is the central conceit of the characters in Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning “God of Carnage” (translated by Christopher Hampton). And, yet, I can’t escape the notion that the play (and Ms. Reza) are more optimistic than her characters, more “living in hope” that the veneer of civilization we wear is more than a façade, that it (all evidence to the contrary) keeps the “God of Carnage” from running amok and elevating anarchy to an ideal.

Ms. Reza is a French playwright (“Art” is perhaps her best-known prior work), and “The God of Carnage” was first produced in Paris, then London, before coming to Broadway. On its way across the Atlantic, the characters lost their French identities (becoming New York suburbanites) and the play’s title lost its “The.” Making its way to Atlanta, the characters have become African American, and their locale suspiciously Southern. This play is nothing if not adaptable to locale.

The Novaks (Veronica and Michael) have invited the Raleighs (Alan and Annette) into their tastefully furnished home. It seems that a schoolyard scuffle between their respective 11-year-old sons has resulted in the Novak boy losing some teeth. The civilized thing to do would be, of course, to talk through the whole thing without resorting to lawsuits and insurance claims. Civilization doesn’t stand a chance, as the evening degrades into a petty, bickering verbal slug-fest, leaving us envious of a child’s ability to just pick up a stick and whack the heck out whoever it is that’s pi$#&ng him off.

And it isn’t the couples at each other’s throats as much as it is a free-for-all, wives after husbands, men after women, both couples after the others’ son. The irony of it all is that the carnage here is not the red-in-tooth-and-claw variety exhibited by the off-stage children, but the more “civilized” modes of passive-aggression, thinly veiled insult, cold-shoulder contempt, and pretense. The only victims of real physical violence are a cell phone and a pot of tulips (I do not include the coffee-table art books, victims of a sudden [deleted by the spoiler police], in this list).

One of the strengths of the play is the presumed guilt or victimhood of the families’ sons. The Novaks, of course, consider their son to be the victim of a thug armed with a stick. The Raleighs believe their son resorted to the only means necessary to defend himself against a gang of bullies. Since we never hear the sons’ story, both (or neither) explanation is true or false, and serves only as a catalyst to open up wounds within the two marriages, and to spark warfare between the two couples.

I also like how easily the façade of courtesy falls victim to minor irritations and mis-placed enthusiasms. We can all be civilized when our children rend at each other, but pay more attention to your cell phone conversation than to us, and watch out! We can calmly discuss our son’s broken teeth and arrange a détente between your son and mine, but, accidently [deleted by the spoiler police] onto my prized books, and watch out! We can sit and calmly snack on Clafoutis (a pastry of apples, pears, and gingerbread), but side with THEM against OUR SON, and WATCH OUT!

And, of course, once the rum comes out, civilized courtesy goes right down the loo like so much effluvia.

The choice to populate this play with African-Americans works in every sense, though I have to say, a mixed-race cast would add another layer of sub-text that would fit in nicely with the threads of hidden violence (especially when a specific racial epithet is tossed out casually at one point). The play gets at the universal animal nature in us, where instinct trumps veneer, when hostility leaves civilization in the dust. In the final analysis, ethnicity (even race) is just another veneer that proves irrelevant when the gloves come off.

And this cast is truly a joy to behold. Jasmine Guy and Keith Randolph Smith are the Novaks and Crystal Fox and Geoffrey Darnell Williams are the Raleighs, creating characters who not only distinct and compelling, but COUPLES with individual dynamics and emotional complexities. I believed them not only as couples meeting for the first time, but also as partners with distinct “unspoken signals” and long-suppressed grudges.

Edward E Haynes Jr has built a set that isolates them in the center of the spacious Alliance stage while paradoxically evoking a large and airy living space. It’s a beautiful set in which the Novaks seem right at home (and the Raleighs seem like aliens). And Kent Gash makes a welcome return to Atlanta to direct the play with a bristling pace that keeps the evening nasty, brutish, and short.

So, of course, the question remains – are we, as a species, defined by how civilized we are, or by how brutal we are? Is it an accident that most of our sense of history is rooted in whatever wars or conflicts are occurring at any particular time? Is our fascination with atrocity and violence a symptom of moral decay or a “safe” release of a primal darkness hard-wired into our species? Is our true creation a product of a God of Carnage or a Prince of Peace? Can two couples talking about their kids escape their own bestial roots?

Yasmina Reza’s “The God Carnage” raises all these questions and lets us discuss the answers among ourselves. Just leave the cell phones, the weapons, and the Clafoutis at home.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

Postscript: The Roman Polanski film of this play just opened in Atlanta – hopefully I’ll have a look at that within the next week or so.




Annie, by Thoman Meehan, Charles Strouse, and Martin Charnin
Flat and Eyeless
Sunday, January 29, 2012
3.0
Maybe far away
Or Maybe very near
Someone is listening to “Annie”
And sticking a fork in their ear.


Admit it. You too are an “Annie”-hater. The thought of sitting through almost three hours of little girls, sticky-sweet optimism, and drill-them-into-your-mind melodies sounds about as appealing as an acid enema. “Annie” is the new “Cats” for the aren’t-we-so-hip in-crowd.

It’s so easy to fall into that trap. I’ve been involved in more productions than I’d care to admit, and truth to tell, it would not be my first choice for an evening out. But, I’m also a Daddy, and, since my gifted offspring had a 2011 run in “Annie Jr,” I thought it was time for her to witness a professional production of the “real thing.” So, Fox-ward we wended on a drizzly Tuesday night.

Theatre of the Stars has put together a vehicle for Sally Struthers to strut her comic chops, for Brad Oscar to show he has a post-Producers career, and for more than a few Atlanta actors (and children) to collect a pay check. All do fine work, and all try their durndest to give folks the “Annie” they expect. But they are stymied by a lifeless production that poses them in static tableaus for almost every number, and that pads the pace so the 160-plus minute running time seems like it’s over two-and-a-half hours.

“Annie” started its life with a bit of an identity crisis. It was based on the long-running Harold Gray comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” who used it to make pointed conservative political jabs at (among other things) labor unions, communism, and the New Deal. But, the musical, debuting in 1977, uses the story to make pointed liberal political jabs as (among other things) Herbert Hoover, big business, and rich folks. Really, the only thing they had in common was a little orphan, a rich benefactor, and that blindingly awful red dress. At least the strip was written with cliff-hanger sensibility totally drained from the stage version. Even FDR’s New Deal, a target of some of Gray’s most venomous attacks, becomes the plot-resolving “happy ending” of the musical. Go figure!

So, here’s the story, as if you didn’t know. Annie lives at the New York City Municipal Orphanage for Girls Annex, cared for by the comically mean Miss Hannigan. She runs away, is returned, and becomes the ward of billionaire Oliver Warbucks. A few mild complications involving a locket and a half-baked scheme by Miss Hannigan’s rascally brother Rooster are quickly dispatched, and Annie is set to live happily ever after.

It’s easy to see how this show is a cynic’s nightmare. It’s filled with cute little girls (no obese or funny-looking children need apply), and Annie’s brand of optimism is the kind that affects the other characters more than the audience. There’s little real threat to the characters, and the score by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin is filled with addictive melodies that linger in your head longer than you’d like.

But, (and here’s where I lose my snarky cynic’s certification), I find some of it not only enjoyable and clever, but self-deprecatingly so – it KNOWS its pluckier-than-thou heroine is over-the-top sunny, and actually gets comic mileage out of that knowledge – look no further than the Hooverville exchanges (“We use newspapers for blankets!” “At least you can read in bed.”) And, the script is filled with sly allusions and jokes that register nicely (“Harpo called.” “What did he want?” “He didn’t say.”).

Sure, it would have been nice to add a layer of real threat (the orphan’s gruel diet is made into a joke rather than a cruel facet of their lives). A few scenes of real danger would have also been welcome. But, as it is, “Annie” should be a warm and friendly show for families and kids of all ages.

Here, though, everything is static and slow, giving the whole thing a flat and lifeless veneer that’s hard to shake. The cast stands still for most of the musical numbers. And, the population of the orphanage is increased to over thirty (giving “Hard Knock Life” an eardrum-busting shrillness). If it weren’t for the elaborate sets, I’d almost believe we were watching a concert version of the show.

The cast is fine – I liked Sally Struthers’ randy and raspy-voiced Miss Hannigan, Brad Oscar’s gruffly affectionate Daddy Warbucks, and, especially, Mary Peeples’ winsome and winning Annie. It was good to see a lot of familiar Atlanta faces in the supporting cast (including Claci Miller, Glen Rainey, Christy Baggett, and Lisa Manuli), all doing excellent work. And they are given a polished and well-executed sandbox in which to play – backdrops evoke Edward Hopper, scenes appear and disappear with a smooth pace that should have been used in the scenes themselves, and the orchestral is tuneful without being overpowering.

But, when all is said and done, this is still “Annie.” This show will always be with us, will always be popular, and will always be the launch pad for stage-struck girls. I can tolerate it, even enjoy it if done correctly.

But here, they might as well have given the actors pupil-covering contacts, because it was as flat and eyeless as the comic strip itself.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Becky's New Car, by Steven Dietz
Becky's New Life
Sunday, January 29, 2012
4.5
Someone (it may have been Becky herself) once said that when a woman says she wants a new house, it means she really wants a new husband (**), and when she says she wants a new car, it really means she wants a new life. I guess I’ve always been one of those doofuses (doofi?) who never “got” the “code” of inter-gender communications. If you want a new life, just say “I want a new life!”

On the other hand, if the speaker is as charming and pleasant as Becky Foster (as played by Wendy Melkonian), I’d sign up for a lifetime supply of “Code Lessons.”

“Becky’s New Car” is a completely winning new play by Steven Dietz (whose “Shooting Star” I loved a few years ago at the Horizon Theatre). In it, he not only “breaks the fourth wall,” he shatters it completely and rebuilds it behind the audience. Becky starts out the play by talking to us, even having some folks in the front row help out with some housekeeping chores. She’s feeling used and abused, the spark has gone out of her marriage, and her “professional student” son appears to be a permanent resident of the house. She’s also the office manager of a new car lot, and, when one night, a befuddled old widower comes in to order nine cars for his office staff, there is a slight misunderstanding, a little lie of omission, and soon Becky is back-sliding into a sorta kinda affair with the widower and creating a very fragile house of lies to cover her tracks.

Toss into the mix a few more eccentric characters and a few plot contrivances that wear their artificiality proudly, and we’re left with a tasty Mulligatawny of a play, filled with wit, heart, spice, and surprise.

It’s true, Becky makes some questionable choices, with a loosey-goosey relationship with honesty, but she is so, well, nice, that it’s easy to forgive her. In fact, the irony here is that her husband, definitely the wronged person in this situation, comes across as a bit of a stick-in-the-mud for not being as forgiving as we are. To be sure, the play ends on a note of {Description deleted by the spoiler police} that went a long way in helping me rationalize my odd acceptance of all the lies and machinations. But, still, it’s an unusual (and morally suspect) reaction.

The wonderfully energetic cast goes a long way in taking responsibility for how well this play works. In addition to the always wonderful Ms. Melkonian, Allan Edwards is a charmingly befuddled Walter Flood, Becky’s guide into her new life. The always luminously yummy Kelly Criss sparkles as Walter’s daughter, Kenni, and the always sparkly Jacob York shines luminously as Chris, Becky’s intelligent, not-as-slacker-as-she-thinks son. Add in Randy Cohumas as Becky’s grumpy husband Joe, Lala Cochran as Walter’s hot-for-his-money friend Ginger, and Vince Pisani as an oddball co-worker, and you’ve got a dream ensemble, better than the sum of its parts, and those parts are pretty durn good!

Jamie Bullens has put together a functional set with discrete playing areas lit by Bryan Rosengrant that lets the action flow seamlessly from scene to scene, with its sparseness underscoring the meta-concept of theatrical contrivance. And, of course Shannon Eubanks directs it all with high energy, well-orchestrated stage pictures, and easy rapport with the audience.

In the final analysis, the theatrically contrived style of the piece perfectly underscores the “code” concept of the title character (alright, Becky does get an actual new car, but it’s not what’s important). I love how the characters all play well off the audience. At one point, during the final scene, Becky’s husband even says “You don’t think I don’t see all of them out there?”

And I really really love the character of Becky Foster. Even with the wonderful ensemble, this is Wendy Melkonian’s play (she spends the first 10 or so minutes alone on stage with us), and she is wonderful. She had me from her first line and didn’t let go until her last. She takes us all for a heck of a ride, and ,,, you know, now that I just said that, it could be that sometimes a new car is just a new car. Sometimes you need a new car to make you appreciate how comfortable the old one was. More often, though, two days into the “new car” experience, you’ve totally forgotten that dull old rattletrap you’re glad to be out of.

But, I digress…

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

** Should I be concerned that my wife keeps talking about getting a new house?


The Santaland Diaries (2011), by David Sedaris
Still Funny After All These Years
Monday, January 23, 2012
5.0
(If this looks familiar, most of it is exactly what I wrote last year. And the year before that. And the year before that. Why does this show feel so fresh? This production makes me laugh hysterically, and that takes some doing!. New references popped up – “Occupy Santaland,” Lady Gaga, even Herman Cain Campaign Workers (“Those are the bitter elves”), so, it can be said, every year it’s a little different. Now all they have to do is fix those references to way out-of-date “One Life to Live” characters :-) )

In the spirit of the “It worked last time, so why not beat it into the ground” planning style of most theatre companies (and, to be fiscally responsible, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that style), and since, to its credit, my reaction to “The Santaland Diaries” was even more pleasant this time than last, I’ll recycle my 2010 review, which recycled my 2009 review, which recycled my 2008 review, which recycled my 2007 review, which recycled my 2005 review, which recycled my 2004 review. Yes, Sloth is running amok in the Dedalus-land again!.

For the Umpteenth year, Horizon is presenting Harold M. Leaver as Crumpet, the Macy’s Elf in David Sedaris’ “The Santaland Diaries.” This was my seventh visit, and I must say, I once again had a laugh-out-loud, incredibly good time.

Written as a monologue, Horizon makes the excellent choice of adding two Protean Character actors, Megan Hayes and Enoch King take on a plethora of one-note roles to support Mr. Leaver’s Crumpet. (Again this year, the addition of two energetic interns, Cameron Bryce and Gwendolyn Labod, filled out the cast to Full-Ensembleland.) The penchant for schtick that sometimes undercuts many one-note performances, is here the perfect device to quickly present character, nuance, and laughter, all with the same over-the-top gesture or expression. Ms. Hayes and Mr. King have enormous fun with the wide range of stuff demanded of them. (2011 Note – this year, I again got the feeling their chief function was to try to corpse Mr. Leaver, a task at which they often succeeded. It’s to Mr. Leaver’s credit that he made me feel they were making David Sedaris break up, not Harold Leaver. Also, thank you Ms. Hayes for keeping the erotic Candy Cane Schtick of actresses past. Delicious!)

But it’s Harold Leaver who really sells this show. On stage for the entire 90 minutes of the play, he must interact with the audience, with his costars (who, more often than not, lose in a silent scene-stealing battle of upstaging schtick), and with the witty words Mr. Sedaris has put in his mouth. Sedaris is famous for his short pieces of whimsy, designed to celebrate eccentricity, finding humor in the darkest of places (a reading of this play's companion piece, "Season’s Greetings,” will show just how dark he can get), but ultimately, making us like the characters he so thoroughly skewers. Crumpet and his story fully embodies every irritation we experience during the Holidays, without losing the sense of fun that compels even the most irreligious of us to celebrate it. There is even a moment at the end that threatens (almost) to fall into the sentimentality that overwhelms most Christmas Theatre fare, reminding us that even this has its place (if not for too long).

Yes, this show is a Christmas cynic’s delight. It is also filled with a good will towards its characters that so many pundits seem to be losing this year. (I'd like to know when anger and bitterness towards someone wishing you a "Happy Holiday" became part of "Good Will Towards Men" -- but I digress). I strongly urge you to visit (or revisit) Crumpet before it’s too late.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (2011), by Barbara Robinson
Greater Expectations
Monday, January 23, 2012
5.0
“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.”

Thus begins Barbara Robinson’s 1972 getting-to-be-a-classic book (and play), “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” Indeed, is there a place in the country where there aren’t several productions on local stages every year? I’ve done lights for three different productions over the years, my daughter has played in three, and my own spouse directed a one-night-only production at her church last year and a longer-run production with Cartersville’s Pumphouse Players earlier this month.

So, I daresay, my expectations last year were at an ambivalent level – I’ve always been impressed with Synchronicity’s programming for younger audiences (“Junie B Jones,” “Bunnicula,” and “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” were some favorites), but I was afraid of having a “been-there seen-that” experience with this one. I was delightfully surprised with the 2010 production (even titling my review “The Tyranny of Low Expectations).

This year, they’ve restaged the production (with most of the same cast), and my enjoyment was even greater This show is a lively wallow in kid-friendly cheer, an energetic revisit to a story that is in danger of being over-told, and a top-notch production that reminded me of why this is a favorite of theatres everywhere.

In case you’ve avoided it over the years, the story is told by Beth Bradley, whose mother has been tapped to spearhead this year’s Christmas Pageant. Into the normal bedlam of a church pageant storm the Herdmans, a rag-tag collection of kids “from the other side of the tracks,” who “lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse.” No one expects anything from these kids except Mrs. Bradley, and disaster looms as the holiday nears.

This is one of those stories about how kids respond to what’s expected of them, how if you expect them to be mean they WILL be mean, how if you expect them to feel some Christmas spirit and give them the opportunity, they may just rise to the occasion. It’s story that, for me, doesn’t get old, and which moves me even as it makes me cringe at the antics of the “bad” kids.

Starting off with a clever and energetically sung “curtain speech,” the show dives right into the story, keeping it at a brisk hour length. The cast is pitch-perfect with Maureen Yasko and John Stewart bringing to the Bradleys a level of comfort and familiarity that rang true. Sarah Elizabeth Wallis (as Beth) handles her narration duties like a pro, and convincingly shows us an increasing respect for the Herdman mob. And, as the Herdmans, Josh Nunn, Claire Rigsby, Marshall VandenOever, Madisyn Kenenr, Shea Jones, and Katie Keenan are all wonderful, loud and raucous one moment, quiet and reflective at another. I especially liked the moment when director Justin Anderson showed them getting ready for the pageant by helping each other with their costumes and hair, even as they’re squabbling and sniping. Specila kudos this year go to Rachel Wansker who brought a positively delightful spin to Maxine, Beth’s shy and asthmatic friend.

So, why should you see this production, when you’ve probably seen your own kids do it somewhere, sometime already? Leaving aside the pleasure of seeing it done with a professionally designed and executed set, leaving aside a well-directed and fast-paced story, leaving aside seeing marvellously talented kids tackle the roles, it is still a good story, a moving testament to the spirit of Christmas (whatever that may be), and an amusing portrait of kids who can’t help being kids. Even if they are “absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.”

And you can’t expect more than that!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

(On a side note, a bit of advice to anyone considering taking a child who has just done the play directed by your spouse – DON’T! I took Julia to see this, and she spent the rest of the day raving to my wife about how much ”better it was than ours – even their Gladys was better than me!” Merry Christmas, Dear!)


Madeline's Christmas (2011), by Jennifer Kirkeby
Twelve More Little Girls
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
4.0
For a fourth year now, Horizon Theatre dives into its exercise in Gallic sweetness, “Madeline’s Christmas,” based on the stories by Ludwig Bemelmans. This is still a tuneful and sweet production, and, for it’s recovered a bit of the magic my scrooge-screens filtered out last year.

To be sure, there are some aspects that would irritate the cynical grownup – plot/character inconsistencies, some cheesy (but fun) “magical” effects, and enough sweetness to send even the most sucrose-tolerant parent into a diabetic coma, to name the very few I can dredge up from my “critic’s bag of standards.” Even more than I last year, though, I want to forgive its lapses and to cheer it on.

It’s Christmastime in Paris, and all the girls in Miss Clavel’s boarding school have colds. Only the smallest girl, Madeline, is spared the flu, but only because she forgot to have her scarf washed. Madeline must take care of everyone, none of whom will now be able to go home for Christmas. One act of kindness to a freezing (magical) rug seller later, and the girls are cured and off to home on their flying carpets (don’t ask). Throughout all is a passel of tuneful songs and lively dances and traditional little red coats and tea carts that move under their own power and snowflakes tossed by girls in the front row and silhouetted flying carpets against the Paris sky and mouse puppets and surprise gifts. All the elements click, and all the audiences are going home happy, myself included.

Of course, the show’s primary asset is its cast of 12 talented and cute-as-a-mouse-whisker girls, all aged between 9 and 12, all bringing a professionalism to the stage that’s a joy to watch. The fact that Horizon was able to find 24 such youngsters (the show was “double-cast” to take some of the strain off parents) is even more remarkable. At the performance I saw the “Green Cast” was led by the dimpled Amelia Kushner as Madeline. Ms. Kushner is spunky and likable and sings like an angel. She also knows when to stay in the background, and when to upstage her grown-up co-stars. Those grown-ups (Lauren Rozenzweig as a pleasant and winsome Miss Clavel, Josie Burgin-Lawson as a nicely-over-the-top Mrs. Murphy, and Alejandro Gutierrez as the magical Harsha) are also in fine form, treating their young co-stars as, well, co-stars rather than kids “in the way.” And, maybe it was excellent casting, but all the girls had real characters, not just “another cute face in the crowd” sameness.

All things considered, it’s a wise choice for a Christmas play – 24 girls with 48 parents and 96 grandparents, plus countless friends, siblings, cousins, and hangers-on, well, mathematically, it’s a guaranteed seat-filler. And, when you add in those theatre geeks who don’t know anyone in the cast, let’s just say we’ll be lucky to get a seat. The fact that’s it’s a well-performed, well-written play suitable for kids of all ages is just frosting on the gingerbread.

So, if you have the choice between sitting at home with your young’n’s watching some lame Disney Channel exercise in Seasonal Parody or going Horizon-ward to watch twelve little girls charm the socks off cynical old Scrooges like me, well, all things considered, it’s an easy choice to make.

Bon année, mes amis!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


RENT, by Jonathan Larson
Getting Better EveryTime
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
4.5
For the third time this year, I found myself at a performance of “Rent,” Jonathan Larson’s ridiculously popular paean to ‘90’s artsy bohemianism. I’ve already written (at length) about how it’s taken me a long time to warm to this show -- I’ve found too many of its songs too forgettable (“Without You” is, without a doubt, one of the blandest love songs ever), and its characters a tad too self-indulgent for my old-fart tastes (the memory of my own youthful self-indulgences having conveniently faded). Plot-wise, I’m not so much irritated by the fake-o “happy ending,” as much as unintentionally amused by its abruptness (coma to full recovery in less than five seconds is, you have to admit, giggle-inducing). Still and all, the score showed a boatload of potential cut short by Mr. Larson’s early death, a potential validated by the release of his earlier work in “Tick, Tick, Boom” (all of which, curiously enough, I find more memorable than any song from “Rent.”)

But you know what? Maybe repetition is at the heart of appreciation, because, with every new production, I’m finding myself enjoying it more and more, finding new nooks of pleasure in some of its corners of understated emotional complexity, finding its songs more and more filling my head more often than should be necessary, finding the self-indulgence not so naïve and immature.

And, Rob Hardie and Next Stage Theatre have mounted a production that, though not without its weak spots, has enough energy and compassion and raw talent to overcome most of my preconceived quibbles.

To recap the plot (and to indulge in cut-and-paste “filler” from my prior reviews), Mark and Roger are young artists (Mark is a filmmaker, Roger a musician) sharing a loft in an abandoned Alphabet City industrial building. Their former friend (and current landlord), Benny, is threatening to evict them until they come up with some rent, unless they can forestall a planned demonstration in the homeless tent-city next door. The demonstration is being organized by performance artist Maureen, (Mark’s former lover), and her new love interest, Joanne. Another friend, Tom Collins, experiences a brutal beating, and is cared for by a street-drummer/drag-queen named Angel, who becomes the group’s guardian angel. Maureen’s demonstration comes and goes with unexpected results, and we spend Act Two following a year in the lives of this group as they face 525,600 minutes of unexpected successes, failures, deaths, break-ups, and reconciliations.

Loosely based on Puccini’s “La Boheme,” “Rent” trades in Tuberculosis for AIDS, but retains the Bohemian “No Day but Today” seize-the-moment philosophy, celebrating artists’ lives, complete with their idealistic pretentions, and brink-of-poverty day-to-day struggles. The script even keeps the opera’s “Mimi,” making her an exotic dancer junkie in a love/need relationship with Roger. As in the opera, the characters all show multiple levels of affection, need, drive, courage, and disappointment. None of them can be pushed into a convenient stereotype, all of them come alive on stage.

In fact, the “No Day but Today” philosophy is made more urgent here by the play’s AIDS plotline, and edge-of-poverty desperate moments. This isn’t a youthful “seize the day” idealism, but a “this could be your last day” reality.

There are two strengths that really sold this particular production for me. There is, of course, the directorial style of Mr. Hardie (which I won’t discuss due to the usual bias), but, more central than that is the outstanding cast and production team. With one exception, every actor was perfectly suited to the role and every performance was over-the-top excellent.

It’s hard to select a standout here, but. If forced, I’d have to cite Quintez Rashad’s Angel. Mr. Rashad is a ball of energy with a heart as big is the Triborough Bridge. He ignites the stage with “Today 4 U,” and the affection he displays for EVERYONE in the cast is a driving force for this production. Nicholas Crawley’s Mark, Jeremiah Parker Hobbs’ Roger, Rayshawn Carson’s Tom Collins, Traci Weisberg’s Mimi, and Emily Stembridge’s Maureen were also impressive, creating indelible characters and singing like the pros they soon will be. Only this show’s Joanne was a bit “lost in the shuffle” of the show, flattening “Tango Maureen” a bit (the choreography didn’t help here – shouldn’t this number be, well, an actual tango?). On the other hand, she (and Ms. Stembridge) totally sell “Love me or Leave me,” so the earlier weaknesses do not, in the final analysis, drag down the show.

The action was backed up by a drop-dead-together ensemble and band (props to Ali Guiterrez’ Music Direction), and the overall sound of the show was simply wonderful. Wally Hinds’ set made wonderful use of the shabby ex-Blackwell space, the technical design by Jonathan Liles overcame most of the shortcomings of this venue (still a lot of downstage shadow, but I live in hope that one day this will change). Even John Parker Jr’s choreography (“Tango Maureen” excepted) was over-the-top memorable.

As I said in my earlier reviews this year, I am finding the show more and more enjoyable as time goes on, as it becomes a late-nineties period piece. Numbers like “One Song Glory,” “Light my Candle,” “Today 4 U,” “Tango: Maureen” “Take me or Leave me,” and “I’ll Cover You” all stick with me.. Even “Without You” is becoming less irritating and clichéd. And, the finale, “No Day but Today,” was is moving and beautiful. And this won’t be the last production I’ll see this year – Children’s Garden Theatre, which owns and operates the Blackwell venue, is opening a teen-cast production after this one closes (using the same set), and I already promised the almost-teen in my house I’d take her to it on New Year’s Eve.

Let’s be clear here. This is a very difficult musical. Next Stage’s production more than does it justice, and it should appeal to the show’s many many fans. Apparently, I’m rapidly becoming one of those fans. Forget regret, this “Rent” is yours to not miss. And there’s no day like today to not miss it.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Feet First in the Water With a Baby in My Teeth, by Megan Gogerty
Figure it Out!
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
5.0
Waaaaayyyy back in 2009, I described Megan Gogerty’s political monologue “Hillary Clinton Got Me Pregnant” as being “charming” but paper-thin, and I regretted that she never went beyond glib snark to show us more revealing (and interesting) levels of character. Well, here’s her follow-up, a warm, funny, moving journey into motherhood, that not only retains the charm and humor (and glibness) of her earlier piece, but delves much more deeply into her own history, her own embarrassments, her own likes and dislikes. It not only shows a character (and actress) not afraid to make herself look a little (sometimes a lot) foolish, but addresses some deeply held insecurities and doubts. And it decorates it as a funny ode to motherhood and the strength of womanhood in general.

As I wrote in 2009, the best thing about her last monologue was final segue into motherhood, into the surprises that the birth of her son brought into her heretofore politics-and-writing-centric life. Here, it’s all about the change, all about how life tends to snicker at the best-laid plans of brand-new working moms. We get a story about the joys/terrors of flying (ALONE!) with a 3-month-old, the embarrassment of what happens to your body AFTER giving birth (“the same muscles that pushed him out are what’s supposed to hold other stuff in”), the ambivalence of dealing with too-important-for-my-plans body image and all the plethora of Baby Blues we’ve come to recognize from other sources (most recently “Motherhood – the Musical”).

But we also get stories of her Mom and her Grandmother and her Great-Grandmother (the play’s title is based on a marvelous Great-Grandmother story), stories of single women raising children while living in a world that not only didn’t let them participate, but showed little respect for the impossible tasks they faced. We get digressions into feminism’s lack of understanding of motherhood, into the joys of the Dolly Parton oeuvre, into road trip to Car-henge reminiscences, and into the finer points of slaughtering chickens (don’t ask).

And we get Megan Gogerty’s insanely excellent portrayal of a character who shares her name and history, but who is a true theatrical creation. I loved how she kept the monologue casual and friendly, as if each new thought and memory and surprise were occurring to her right here and now. I loved how her first act I’m-dressed-up-for-the-theatre look (“Does my hair look okay parted on this side?”) gives way to her second act frowsy damn-it-I’m-dressed-for-comfort-and-who-cares-how-I-look sweats. I loved her final confession – “Now that he’s three, does it get any easier? How am supposed to know?” Frankly, there was nothing about this performance, this monologue that I DIDN’T love!

Performed on a (mostly) bare stage with a good-to-infinity forced perspective floor design Ms. Gogerty uses a free-standing window and two foldable foot-ladder-stools to great effect. Jessica Coale’s lighting design takes us smoothly from here to there (“there” being a very fungible commodity here), from now to then with ease and aplomb.

If there is anything to take away from Ms. Gogerty’s journey, it’s the sense that, impossible as the task of raising a child may be, it usually works out, things can be worked through, “figured out.” And, no matter how frazzled and ridiculous it gets, it’s always worth it. When asked if she regrets becoming a mother, after listing all the charmingly revolting features and irritating he-ruins-my-stuff misbehaviors, she can only respond “I can’t regret it. He makes me laugh. He makes me cry.” It’s like the old joke ..

“My son thinks he’s a chicken”
“How long has this been going on?”
“Ten years.”
“Why did you wait so long to tell me?”
“We needed the eggs.”

Well, Motherhood (Parenthood, to be honest) is filled with impossible challenges, and poop-filled clean-ups, and temper tantrums, and terrible-twos, and public embarrassments, and sleepless nights, and broken keepsakes, and constant worries. But we have to keep doing it, we have to figure out how to beat all the challenges, because, well, because we need the eggs.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



A Christmas Carol (2011), by Charles Dickens
Come Into My Parlour
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
5.0
For the third straight year, let me sing the praises of Anthony Rodriguez’s one-man “Christmas Carol,” playing in Aurora’s intimate black-box theatre. Since my reaction this year is on par with last year, let’s just revisit what I said last year (and the year before that):

If you feel a sense of déjà vu after seeing it, you won’t be surprised to see it is the same adaptation by Tony Brown that is used by the Shakespeare Tavern. Not only that, but both productions were directed by Mr. Brown. (I always thought he was “larger than life,” but now, it’s apparent he’s his own clone.)

Still, the approach here is different enough that I didn’t feel I was seeing the same show. Even though the adaptation is, at heart, a “storyteller’s” version, the Tavern uses multiple narrators and actors to tell the story, but the Aurora has only Mr. Rodriguez, on stage alone for the entire (BRISK!) 75-minute running time, engaging us completely with his spinning of this oft-told tale (though perhaps not “oft” enough for my Dickensophile tastes).

The small Aurora stage is set like a stripped-down Victorian parlour. Mr. Rodriguez comes out early, playing himself, greeting patrons he knows by name, even giving out some Christmas cards. He quickly segues into his story, pouring a childlike delight in his retelling of the tale. Occasionally interrupting himself with ad-libbed commentary (“Dickens apparently had some food issues”), often directing whole segments to specific audience members (especially any children present), tossing character voices hither and yon as if they were tinsel thrown on a tree, he makes the entire presentation a spell-binding delight. A sound technician occasionally throws in live effects or off-stage voices, but, when all is said and done, this is Mr. Rodriguez’s show.

I’ve always had a fondness for Patrick Stewart’s one-man “Carol,” (I listen to the recording every year), and this has set the bar high for any other version. Mr. Stewart gave a bravura actor’s turn, bringing all his training and experience into a seemingly endless parade of character and voice. Who could match that achievement? Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Brown made the smart attempt to not even try. Rather than focusing their efforts on a singular achievement of acting, they created a singular achievement of story-telling. They are, in effect, showing us the English parlour readings that Dickens himself gave of the story, recreating the very real pleasure of sitting down and hearing a master storyteller spin his webs of imagination and delight. Mr. Rodriguez makes no bones about being himself throughout, and makes for a more compelling (and welcoming) story-teller. It’s a very different focus, and to my mind, provides very different (and perhaps greater) pleasures than the strictly Thespian approach.

As usual, there are a lot of “Christmas Carols” from which you may choose this year, and, to my story-philic eyes, this adaptation is one of the best. If you love this story as much as I do, you can’t do much better than taking the trip to Lawrenceville and watching Mr. Rodriguez weave his spell.

Last year, I made the snide comment that the only thing that would have been made the experience better, would have been free cocoa to sip while wallowing in the tale. This year, Mr. Rodriguez offered me some. It doesn’t get any better than that!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)





The Sound of Music, by Rodgers & Hammerstein
How Do You Solve a Problem
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
3.5
How do you solve the problem of writing about a well-produced. well-acted production of a musical you have little affection for and even less patience? Here’s one way.

“The Sound of Music” is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1959 musical (loosely) based on the life of Maria von Trapp and the von Trapp family singers. With a book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse (“Anything Goes” and “Life With Father”), it tells the story of Maria, an Austrian novice nun who is assigned as governess to the children of Captain Georg von Trapp, a World War I Austrian hero. Her love of music soon (that is, immediately) wins over the supposedly difficult children, and … well, if you don’t know the story, you’ve managed to avoid one of the most popular movie musicals ever made.

I won’t even attempt to discuss the thousands of ways this story departs from the “real” story, since “dramatic license” is part and parcel of theatrical versions of “real events.” Instead, let me talk about what was created here. One of the biggest disconnects is the difference between what we’re told and what we’re shown. We’re told that the von Trapp brood are ill-mannered, badly behaved, and go through governesses faster than lapsed dieters go through donuts. What we’re shown are a passel of cute, slightly rambunctious kids who go all weepy at the sound of thunder, who line up in rigid formation at their father’s slightest whistle, and who accept Maria so quickly it makes your head spin. We’re told that Captain von Trapp is stern and unfeeling and hates music, but we’re shown a man who dotes on his kids and has a guitar always nearby for a ready ballad. We’re told that Maria and the Captain fall in love, but we’re shown few scenes of them together until the inevitable love song (“An Ordinary Couple” replaced here by the movie’s more saccharine “Something Good”).

Even harder to justify theatrically are the many many long scenes of characters just standing and singing at us. Yes, that is logically what they would do – they are, after all, a choir of nuns and a family giving many (many) concerts. Still, it always leaves me with the uneasy sensation that the strained plot elements are mere filler contrived to tie together a series of concert performances – story telling at its most skeletal; and uninteresting (and surprising, coming from the team whose usual melding of song and story set the template for almost every musical since “Oklahoma.”)

Not surprisingly, the Nazis are trotted out to give the piece some hokum suspense (the Captain is patriotically Austrian and hates the Germans’ intrusion). This would be acceptable dramatically, despite that fact that in real Life, the von Trapps took a leisurely train ride to Italy as the first leg of their “escape” to America, long after the marriage and the start of the war. (Oops, I said I wouldn’t talk about real life / stage life discrepancies – sorry). But here, “Ze Nazis” are so clownish and one-dimensional, they distract much more than they threaten.

The score does contain some nice moments, but a few too many that simply grate. I have always disliked the moment when the jubilantly spiritual Wedding Procession segues into the doggerel melody of “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria.” -- this is a moment that has never worked for me, not in the movie and not in any of the many stage versions I’ve seen. I’ve also always found “Do-Re-Mi,” “So Long, Farewell,” and “The Lonely Goatherd” too simplistic melodically to be interesting, and “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” a pale shadow of the other R&H “Spiritual” numbers. I do have an appreciation of the almost-plainsong of the Nun’s choir pieces, and I always enjoy “Edelweiss.” Still, there is nothing in this score I would yearn to add to my collection, and the inclusion here of songs written specifically for the movie version adds nothing nor takes away anything.

But then, with all this said, the Atlanta Lyric Theatre has assembled a top-notch cast and design team that provides more pleasure than I have EVER gotten from this show.

Starting with the set by Isabel and Moriah Curley Clay, we’re treated to an adaptable playing area backed by a beautifully rendered Alpine scene – a backdrop so well-done I thought at first it was a photographic projection. Although it may strain credulity that this same view backs every scene, I quickly adapted to the device, and respected the flexibility of the set even more – there are a lot of scenes here, and very little time was spent between them.

I also truly enjoyed the performances of the leads, Wendy Melkonian as Maria and a nicely understated Jeff McKerley as the Captain. At root, these are tremendously predicable, even bland characters, but Melkonian and McKerley gave them so much personality, it was like seeing them fresh and new. I also really liked Stephanie Wilkinson’s Baroness, John Schmedes’ Max, and the children played by Findley Hansard (Liesl), Bryce Payne (Friedrich), Hope Valls (Louisa), Allen Hill (Kurt), Brett Cooper (Brigitta), Alyssa Payne (Marta), and Kyla Deaver (Gretl). These kids all created individual characters and came across as real (not stage) siblings with their squabbling and little moments of affection. Their voices also blended beautifully, and I had no trouble accepting them as a professional musical group.

So, will I ever like “The Sound of Music?” Probably not as well as I like other Rodgers and Hammerstein offerings, and probably not as well as I liked this particular production.

Still and all, if you are a fan, you will like this show, and if you’re not, you won’t hate it.

And, I suppose, that’s how you solve a problem like a review of a good production of a show you don’t really like.

-- Brad Rudy(BKRudy@aol.com)


A Christmas Carol (2011), by Charles Dickens
Still Spectacular After All These years
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
5.0

“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.”

When the reading public first saw these words on 17 December 1843, there was little indication that the story that followed would evolve into a Holiday Icon. Greeted with near-universal acclaim, Charles Dickens little “Ghost Story of Christmas,” written in five “staves,” soon outsold all his longer works, giving Mr. Dickens a second career as a performer. Always a lover of amateur theatrics, he performed “A Christmas Carol” hundreds of times throughout the rest of his life.

Some have even accused the story of “setting the stage” and popularizing many of our modern Christmas traditions and rituals. Others have blamed it for the increasing secularization of the holiday. Whatever the truth, it remains a favorite of mine and a favorite of theatres everywhere. Thousands of stage (and film) adaptations exist, and many theatres create their own, tailoring the story to the particular talents of each group.

I’ve been reviewing multiple “Carols” for years now, and, as usual, I’m a real glutton for more. Itdidn’t warm to the Alliance’s over-the-top, multi-ethnic version at first, but now, I look forward to it every year. I still really like this show. It is a marvellously engaging and clever production, a testament to both the Alliance Stagecraft and ensemble work, and I thoroughly recommend it. This year, there were a number of cast changes, which gave the production a veneer of freshness that made it go down easier than warm egg nog on a frosty night. So, I hereby resurrect my usual pastiche (slightly rewritten) for your reading displeasure:

(With apologies to Mr. Dickens, Clement Clarke Moore, and anyone with a taste for poetry.)

‘Twas the month before Christmas, and on every stage,
“A Christmas Carol” played, it’s still all the rage!
A thousand-one Cratchits, four-thousand-four ghosts
Help Scrooge thaw his heart, help Fred make his toasts.

I’ll soon be re-writing of other forays,
Th’Alliance’s effort’s the subject these days.
It’s my eighth year seeing this marvellous play,
It’s my sixth year in keeping my quibbling at bay.

Chris Kayser’s old miser’s a pleasure to see –
His road to redemption’s realistic for me.
I liked all the Cratchits, they could do no wrong.
I liked the extravagant staging and song.

This year, a new face, Ghost of Christmases Past
Is Elizabeth Berkes, most wonderf’lly cast!
Marley’s David de Vries is most creaky and cold,
His chains and his darkness are vivid and bold.

And all of the costumes and all of the lights
Are beautif’lly rendered, are beautiful sights.
Yes, once again Rosemary Newcott succeeds
In staging this marvellous Holiday Deed.

This tale never tires, it gives me a lift.
For me it’s a welcome Victorian gift.
So, while you are wallowing in Christmassy cheer,
Catch up with this show ere the end of the year.

Before I sign off with my usual cheek,
Merry Christmas to All! May you have a safe week!

-- Brad Rudy(BKRudy@aol.com)


Motherhood: The Musical, by Sue Fabisch
Surprisingly Good
Friday, December 2, 2011
4.5
As any Mother can tell you, the only constant about Motherhood is surprise. Surprise at the pendulum hormonal outbursts of pregnancy, surprise at emotional (and physical) extremes of birth, surprise at the workload, surprise at the loveload. As the “Golden Girls” paraphrase puts it, “If Motherhood were easy, Fathers would be able to do it.”

So, it should be no surprise that “Motherhood: The Musical,” despite some of the lowest expectations I’ve had going into a show in years, is a surprisingly good, surprisingly entertaining piece of work.

I had to shudder when I first heard of this show. Billed as “In the tradition of “Menopause,” “Respect,” and “Food Fight” (and from the same producers),” it had nothing of appeal for me. I girded by mind for a lame collection of song parodies and spot-em-a-mile-away punchlines. These shows always struck me as low on creativity and humor, and high on “push the same buttons” caricatures.

Right away, “Motherhood” leaves all the others in the dust, as it is short on parodies (only two, both fairly decent) and high on originality (20 original new songs written for the show). The set up and structure is a lot less contrived than all the others – a young woman is about to give birth, and all her “experienced mother” friends gather to throw her a shower. Like with the other shows of this “genre,” each of the women are a certain “type,” but unlike the others, they have dimensions beyond those “types.” Amy (a glowing Lisa Manuli) is the starry-eyed new mother, slightly nervous about what’s to come, but determined to be the best Mom possible (despite her own Mother’s constant barrage of bad-advice phone messages). Tasha (Jewel Lucien) is the single Mom, Brooke (Ingrid Cole) is the working Mom, and Barb (Mary Kathryn Kaye) is the “Serial” Mom (“I must like it, I keep doing it”). All have surprisingly real back stories and interactions, and, despite their differences, all are believable as close friends.

What I also liked about this show is how so many of the scenes captured the truly ambivalent emotional mixes of the topic. Rather than concentrating on the excesses and woes of Motherhood, the show “mixes it up.” A goofy upbeat number about driving a mini-van is followed by a sincere love song to a new child (“I’m Danny’s Mom”). A wonderful parody about epidurals (“Good Drugs” to the Young Rascal’s “Good Lov’n’”) is followed by the post-birth “Now I Know,” a song similar in theme and mood to “Baby’s” “The Story Goes On.”

More important, though, I found myself laughing and smiling through almost the entire play. Jokes were consistently inconsistent, ranging from broad slapstick, to whimsical self-deprecation, to rueful observation, to exasperated outburst. It doesn’t hurt that this is a wonderful cast and creative team, with nary a sour note, missed light cue, or crackly microphone evident. Writer Sue Fabish and Music Director Johnny Rodgers (who also wrote many of the melodies and supervised the recording of the background tracks) have fashioned a lovely little valentine (with acid) fully realized by director and choreographer Lisa Shriver. Michael Schweikardt’s suburban living room set easily transforms into a delivery room as well as “fantasy” locales for many of the numbers. I particularly liked how the pristine not-a-dust-speck-in-sight living room is turned into a frantic mess only one week after the arrival of Amy’s baby.

And, just as icing on the cake, this production does NOT include the traditional “(and, to my mind, irritating) Let’s-Show-Our-Solidarity-By-Dancing-With-the-Cast finale of the earlier shows, but it does end on its own terms with a more effecting audience-participation gag that’s actually funnier and more effective.

So, does this mean, I’m becoming a fan of this particular “genre,” even to the point of revisiting the earlier shows? Heck No! Perhaps I responded so favorably this time because Fatherhood isn’t as removed from Motherhood as womenfolk imagine, and I could identify with all the frustrations and aggravations and joys of this particular group of people. Perhaps motherhood is a broader topic with more opportunities for original humor than, say, menopause, or weight gain. Perhaps the use of actual creativity and depth of character is a better choice than lame parody and stereotype.

Whatever the reason, I liked this show a lot, and I’m willing to recommend it to any mothers (or fathers) who want an excuse for putting off laundry, housecleaning, yard work, and homework-checking for a quick 90 minutes.

Now, please excuse me while I go tuck my daughter into bed.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Love's Labors Lost, by William Shakespeare
Finding the Words
Thursday, December 1, 2011
3.5

What if you make an oath promising to abstain from all worldly comforts (women, food, women, sleep, women, drink, and women) so you can engage in a regimen of study, contemplation, and improvement? What if, mere moments after making such an oath, you fall in love? If you pledge your faith to the object of your new-found affection, how can you possibly believe she will trust such a pledge?

Welcome to William Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labours Lost,” a favorite of his time, but forgotten for two centuries and seldom-performed today. Seeing the Tavern’s lively production a mere 15 months after seeing Georgia Shakespeare’s 2010 production, it’s easy to understand why, easy to see how a quick cut-and-paste from my review of that production is oddly appropriate for this one.

Sure, I can take a pedantic English major’s approach, and remind you that Shakespeare was consciously parodying the style of John Lyly’s courtly dramas of the 1580’s, but, since Mr. Lyly’s oeuvre is very much over and forgotten, such parody is completely pointless today. I could also comment on the central role language plays in this piece – it is, after all, all about words and poems and puns and witty bon mots and oaths and pledges and braggadocio and talk talk talk talk. I could also talk about how the piece has no villain, no conflict, and no tests for the characters to pass, but that would take us right back to the John Lyly factor, and that certainly needs no gilding from me. I perhaps will eventually talk about the wistful ending, in which no love is really found, in which no plot point is actually resolved.

I could also take the “Shakespeare Evolution” approach and tell you this is the first of Shakespeare’s comedies seemingly created from nothing, NOT being an adaptation of someone else’s story. I could also point out that it contains one of the most complexly funny scenes of “overhearing” someone else he ever wrote, even when compared the later use of that plot trope in “Much Ado About Nothing.”

What, then, is left for the pleasure of a modern Atlanta audience? Even Kenneth Branagh had to add a few hot and sexy song-and-dance numbers to his 2000 movie version, just to keep us interested.

Well, to be honest, what’s left should be a slyly amusing, infinitely profound look at love and friendship. What’s left is a warm look at a piece that “plays far better than it reads,” that hints at what made it so popular during Elizabethan and Jacobean times, and that actually breaks some of the formulaic plottings we’ve come to expect from Shakespeare’s romances.

To recap the plot, the King of Navarre has persuaded three of his attending gentlemen to enter a monastic lifestyle of study and learning, abjuring women and food and even sleep for the three-year duration of their study. He has even coaxed them all into joining him in signing an oath detailing this commitment. But, being a king, he is almost at once forced into a compromise by the need to negotiate with the daughter of the dying King of France. Setting up the Princess and her ladies in a pavilion before his castle (the oath forbids female entry), he and his friends also fall in love with the delegation. Throw into the mix a pompous visiting Spanish Don, a pedantic professor and his friend, and a malaprop-spouting rustic and his wench, and the stage is set for an orthographic feast of words, neologisms, pretentious prattle, over-the-top purple poesy, not to mention the usual array of hidden eavesdroppers, witty battle-of-sexes banter, and bawdy licentiousness. There’s even a badly-performed internal “playlet”, prefiguring what will be done by the rude mechanicals scenes of “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

I have to confess to having a weak spot for this sort of stuff. I revel in the English language, and gleefully feast on the wordplay here. In this play, Shakespeare gets to paradoxically “have his word-burgers and scoff at them, too.” He indulges in the worst excesses of the language, all while making fun of those who also indulge. As an example, at one point, Berowne expostulates on how such language excesses will forthwith be out of his discourse, yet he expostulates in the form of a perfectly constructed sonnet.

For this production, some of the cast (occasionally) fell into a rote recitation of the admittedly difficult pontificatings, making a few too many scenes plod rather than soar. The women especially too often disappear into bland sameness, fuzzying the distinctions enjoyed by the male characters. Still, these (few) lapses are more than overcome by the Tavern’s usual over-the-top clowning and cleverly conceived concepts.

Leading the cast is Jeff McKerley as Berowne and Andrew Houchins as Ferdinand. Both bring to their performances their usual skill and charm and both bring enough of themselves into the performances to make these renditions very different than those I’ve seen before. They are joined by Daniel Parvis and Jonathan Horne as their other friends, by a flamboyantly silly Jeff Watkins as Don de Armado and Matthew Felton’s cleverer servant Moth. On the female side, Heidi Cline McKerley is credited as playing Rosaline, but I believe at this particular performance, the role was filled by director Laura Cole. Mary Russell brings a convincing playfulness AND seriousness to the Princess of France, but the other ladies go through their paces in a skillful, yet undistinctive way. I also have to confess to not being particularly over-whelmed by Tony Brown’s Costard or Doug Kaye’s Holofernes, though, again, neither did anything especially wrong – just not especially memorable. In smaller roles, I did enjoy Matt Baum’s dull-faced Constable Dull, and Rivka Levin over-exuberant Jaquenetta.

Ms. Cole has opened the play on a note plainsong sobriety that quickly degenerates into Pythonesque silliness that totally foreshadows the mix of moods that is to come. The staging of the “Nine Worthies” play-within-a-play is over-the-top funny, especially Mr., Felten’s undersized and over-dramatic Hercules vs Serpent. I still fall into a fit of giggles at its recall. And, the play closes on a sad, “loves lost” note that echoes the opening and paradoxically “feels” right.

My criticisms, however, are mere quibbles in what is a charmingly reverent romp into letting yourself be hoist on the petard of your own words. These courtiers do not get away with their casual oath-breaking, and the ending is a nicely elegiac mood-song that runs totally counter to the “every jack shall have his Jill” ending of Shakespeare’s happier work. For me, this ending grounds the play in a way that is more sophisticated (and compelling) than some of Shakespeare’s more mature comedies, and reminds us that words are more than banquets, that they have real meaning and real consequences. “The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.”

As last words go, it’s not bad.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, by A. Rey Pamatmat
Family Ties
Thursday, December 1, 2011
3.0
Whatever you do, don’t mess with Edith. A spunky 12-year old, she carries a pellet rifle and a stuffed frog, though it’s not obvious which one she’d use in an emergency (well, until an emergency comes up).

Such is the set-up of A. Rey Pamatmat’s “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them,” now onstage at Actors Express. Perhaps it’s good that Edith can shoot and hit, as she lives alone with her 16-year old brother, Kenny. Their mother has died, and their father has chosen to live elsewhere, his idea of “good parenting” being an occasional deposit into their ATM account.

This potentially tragic set-up is complicated when Kenny and his “study buddy,” Benji, fall in love. Benji is the polar opposite of Kenny and Edith – totally Mom-sheltered, he can hardly dress himself, let alone survive as independent not-quite adult. (It’s a constant surprise to him all the things Edith and Kenny can do – like cook and clean and still have time for homework.) The complication comes when Benji’s sheltering Mom reacts badly to his burgeoning sexuality and boots him out.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, Dad and his new girlfriend decide to “come home” just when Benji and Kenny are romping around in their tighty-whities and Edith is on guard duty.

I have to confess to a lot of ambivalence about this piece. Although I think the set-up is clever and the characters sharply drawn, too often they talk like grown-ups, not like kids in a grown-up situation. Worse, actors Rose Le Tran (Edith) and Ralph Del Rosario (Kenny) are much older than their characters, and too often come across as “adults playing at being children” rather than like true youngsters. Ms. Le Tran also has the unfortunate habit of delivering too many of her lines evenly paced and pitched, giving more of a recitation than a performance. Tucker Weinmann, on the other hand, is consistently appealing as Benji, innocent and surprised at all the new sensations adolescence is bringing him.

I also didn’t like how the script strains to keep adults off stage. Other than some ominous shadows at the end of the first act, all we see are the three kids, parents being absent, “in the other room,” or “waiting in the car.” While I suppose this tends to focus our attention on the three at the center of the story, it also makes the “willing suspension of disbelief” harder to achieve, makes them appear more like adults than like children. The fact that they speak in the same rhythms, the same voice, does not help matters

Then again, the play contains a lot of sequences of compelling observation, of adolescent surprise, and, at its climax, a sequence of breath-taking suspense that literally had me on the edge of my seat.

Maybe my lukewarm response has something to do with my own fatherhood. Although I can respond to the family dynamics created by Edith, Kenny, and Benji, and respect the strength of character needed for their (sorta) success, I can’t help but scoff at the playwright’s casual acceptance of the situation, the “letting the father off the hook” for his blatant abandonment (echoed by the actions of Benji’s Mother). It’s as if he’s creating a world where this is the norm rather than the heavily-sanctioned exception.

And, I really had a hard time accepting the blithely happy ending, in which nothing has really changed for the protagonists. This is a subject that screams for heavier drama, higher stakes. Maybe even for a set that isn’t so comfortable and blandly ordinary – it seems more like a kid’s clubhouse than like an abandoned farmhouse that threatens to consume its inhabitants. I never worried for these kids, and, given the subject matter, I really should have.

On the other hand, I can’t say that I had a lousy time at this show. It moves quickly and has many moments of real pleasure. Much of the dialogue rings like true kid-speak, and Edith is definitely a character that lingers in your memory.

So, even if Edith can hit the things she shoots at, Mr. Pamatmat’s aim could use a little more tweaking.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Sex and the Second City, by Kirk Hamley, Maribeth Monroe, Jimmy Carlson, and the Second City casts
iLike This Show
Thursday, December 1, 2011
4.0
Once again, the Second City troop has moseyed onto the Hertz Theatre for another round of Atlanta-bashing improv. Once again, I girded my critical loins for a long evening of lame sketches and laugh-less gags.

Once again, my expectations were totally upended by this new piece, a unified collection that actually has a structure, a lot of heart, and nary an Atlanta-bash in sight. Now that I say this, and looking over my responses to SS’s last visits, I find that my reactions were all over the map – so much so I found nothing in three prior reviews to copy and paste into this one. {Insert lazy pre-holiday sigh here.}

This time, Second City takes on dating in the plugged-in turned-on cyber-savvy social-networking world. We follow the (mis) adventures of a love-lorn thirty-something as she wades through the jetsam spewed out by iLove, an on-line dating site. Meanwhile, another couple, together for a year, finds out all they don’t have in common as they race away from a marriage that has an ominous what-could-possibly-go-wrong subtext.

Mixed in with these stories are a boatload of quick scenes and gags about dating customs and dating tragedies, with a few dating successes mixed in to give it all some much-needed heart. And, there are some wonderfully clever improv moments – a character doing a series of “sixty-second dates” with random women in the audience (for one), an audience member coaxed on stage for a blind date with an actress who is given her “topics of conversation” from random shout-outs (for another).

There was a lot to like here – a bachelor party where the “stripper” for the blindfolded groom-to-be is his fiancée, a romance novel brought to steamy life by bored mass transit denizens, Second City alum Fred Willard as a smarmy host in pre-recorded videos that interact with the characters, and so much more. I loved how the groom-to-be continually has the worst-possible comments come out of his mouth, how the frazzled iLove customer continually torpedoes her own dates, and how real affection is found in the most unlikely of places.

And I really liked how these four performers interacted, how they were able to convincingly create numerous characters in addition to their “through-plot-line” characters. Atlanta native Amy Roeder (making her fourth appearance here) is simply marvelous as “Dorinda,” the iLove “lost cause.” Ed Kross is a nicely geeky “Edrick” (among others), a character whose comic book collection is longer than his romantic successes (which hover at the zero point). As the couple racing away from marriage, Angela Dawe and Zach Muhn combine a healthy sexiness with a not-so-healthy selfishness and shallowness to show a couple with nothing in common except attraction and entropy.

Also helping the cause are Video Director Jeff Hadick and director Jimmy Carlson, who give us a true multi-media production that scores in almost every scene. Credited with the script are “The Casts of the Second City,” Kirk Hanley, Maribeth Monroe, and director Carlson.

There were no song parodies this year (thank goodness) and no too-long too-unfunny scenes, and the whole thing goes down as quickly as a sixty-second date and as smoothly as a blind date with a soul mate. I usually have a lot impatience for sketch comedy and improv, but, in this case, a cohesive structure, an energetic and talented cast, and a wide range of iLove targets makes this one the best of the Second City Atlanta shows.

And having Fred Willard on hand (well, on tape) is NEVER a bad idea.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



The House of Yes, by Wendy Macleod
No Boundaries
Thursday, December 1, 2011
3.5
It’s always good news when a new community theatre launches, especially now, when community theatres are closing their doors in droves. So, it’s with a mixed welcome that Flickering Productions joins the roster of companies finding a home in Marietta’s new-lease-on-life used-to-be Blackwell Theatre.

I say mixed because its inaugural production, Wendy Macleod’s dark comedy “The House of Yes” is a favorite of mine (I loved the 1997 Parker Posey / Genevieve Bujold movie version). But the result, despite the efforts of an outstanding cast, doesn’t quite capture the difficult combination of empathy and dark humor that comes with this particular piece.

It’s a dark Thanksgiving and the Pascal clan is having a gathering. Tight-knit and tighter-lipped, this is a deeply dysfunctional group with secrets and obsessions, and a major storm has trapped them in the house. Marty (Thomas Strickland) has brought home his fiancée Lisa (Stephanie Bullard) to the obvious distress of his twin sister Jackie-O (Michelle Peck). Jackie-O has a deep and dark obsession with her brother (“She came out of the womb holding on to his [word deleted by the spoiler police]”) and a darker obsession with Jackie Onassis and the Kennedy assassination. Meanwhile, younger brother Anthony (Adam Kelley) develops his own obsession with Lisa while Matriarch (known only as Mrs. Pascal and played by Lisa Clark) wanders around in a world of her own, completely oblivious to the eddies and whirls of passion swirling around her house.

This is the backbone of the story that should be a roller coaster ride of shocks and grim humor, situations that should cause nervous laughter based on appalling behavior. Yet, somewhere between script and stage, an essential element seems to have been missed. Rather than becoming embroiled in the lives of these misfits, I found myself an outsider, an observer of a seemingly contrived portrait of outrageousness for outrageousness’ sake. Without that connection, the entire Kennedy obsession seems a little phony and out-of-context.

Languidly paced and emotionally distant, the production seemed to me to be reluctant to take that final step of empathy, that brave leap to becoming these twisted characters. It seemed to me that they were content to “play” the characters rather than “become” them. And, without that spark of empathy, they become charmless caricatures, puppets of a playwright with nothing really novel or unique to say. Without that spark of empathy, most of the humor evaporates. This was, essentially, a passionless production about passionate people.

On the other hand, I have nothing but respect for the attempt – this would be a difficult play for any group, and, that Flickering chose it as their introduction to Atlanta bespeaks a bravery and dedication that bodes well for their future. Their goal is “to bring performances to Atlanta audiences, and Atlanta actors, that they might not otherwise have a chance to see and get involved in. … We want to support shows that expand the minds of audiences and push the abilities and comfort zones of actors and creative crew.” This is definitely a laudable goal, and one I can support.

That being said, “The House of Yes” is definitely the sort of play that would stretch the “comfort zone” of cast and audience alike, and I strongly recommend it for that reason. It may very well be that I saw the show on an “off” night (with a criminally small audience), and that the energy (and empathy) levels will increase as the run continues. Perhaps a little “period” detail would help, setting it during an era when the Kennedy’s were real memories to twenty-somethings rather than figures out of a history textbook.

So, even if this production shows more potential than realization, I strongly urge you to say “Yes” to “The House of Yes.” You may even see the dark humor that my too-critical eyes passed over.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Glimpses of the Moon, by Tajlei Levis (book & lyrics) and John Mercurio (music)
Rhinestone Jewel Box
Thursday, December 1, 2011
2.5
Edith Wharton was a writer of irony. She employed irony in her novels about the early 20th-century well-to-do to give her works an undercurrent of humor and to let her not-so-wealthy readers identify with her heroes and heroines.

Now, imagine a musical version of one of her books, drained of all irony, drained of all recognizable human behavior, and layered with a few not-very-memorable songs. That was my reaction to “Glimpses of the Moon,” the Tajlei Lewis / John Mercurio musical currently on stage at Roswell’s Georgia Ensemble Theatre.

Susy Branch is a not-very-wealthy woman with a lot of wealthy friends. She lives like a parasite, going from summer home to summer home, trying to live a life she can’t hope to afford. Nick Lansing is a writer, a scholar who has become the darling of the same rich folks who have taken a liking (for no discernible reason) to Susy. The two of them concoct a scheme to marry until they meet the “right” person, that is, someone rich enough to keep them in the lap of luxury.

To say I find this set-up repellant and appalling would be an understatement. I know Edith Wharton created these characters with a spark of charm, a modicum of self-deprecation that made their dubious plot almost a lark. But here, it’s played with nary a tongue-in-cheek, with so much earnestness I can only assume the playwright heartily approves of them and their plan.

This is underscored by the opening of the second act, in which a nautical disaster is played for laughs, and a character sings a joyful anthem to the deaths of his cousins. Yes, it was (sorta) tuneful and bouncy, but how can anyone sing it (or hear it) without feeling a little dirty, a little in need of some moral cleansing?

True, the production glitters like a jewel-box – the archly beautiful deco set is able to morph from scene to scene with little effort. In addition, the lights bubble and glow, the costumes sparkle, the smiles dazzle. It all goes down somewhat pleasantly, until one realizes that the diamonds are chipped rhinestones, that the characters are greedy (and amoral) gold-diggers, and that the romantic moonlight is an unfocused smudge on the rear cyclorama.

Edith Wharton was able to comment on the upper classes by getting inside their heads and showing us their virtues as well as their foibles. Here, we’re given only the dark side. We’re told they are charming, but any real charm is provided only by the admittedly jubilant and pleasant cast (Anna Kimmell, Mary Nye Bennett, Googie Uterhardt, Caitlin Smith, Brandon O’Dell, and Maxim Gukhman), whose work provides the pleasure that justifies my perhaps too-generous grade. They are not at all served by the dreary score by John Mercurio (whose “Academy” I found equally underwhelming) that evokes more post-Sondheim disharmony than jazz age sparkle. I suppose it’s a credit to the usually fine work of the cast and of Music Director Ann-Carol Pence that I assume the disharmonies are Mr. Mercurio’s contribution – especially an off-key soprano note in the final seconds of the play.

As to Alan Kirkpatrick’s direction, I fear there was little for him to do with this material. The pace is kept lively, but the interactions are curiously cold and passionless. There may have been some tricks to be done to replace the Wharton irony lost in translation, but I can’t (or at least won’t) hold Mr. Kirkpatrick responsible.

In the final analysis, though there are a few pleasures to be found in “Glimpses of the Moon,” they are totally overshadowed by the appealing cynicism of the script and the characters. This is a shallow play about shallow people, and I find little reason to take any interest at all in their story. There is no romance, no real feeling, no glimpses of anything accept cold and greedy people in nice clothes.

And that’s the biggest irony of all, considering my fondness for most of Edith Wharton’s creations.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




Rent (School Edition), by Jonathan Larson
No Day Like Today
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
4.0
I’m not the biggest fan of “Rent,” Jonathan Larson’s iconic paean to ‘90’s artsy bohemianism. I’ve found too many of its songs too forgettable (“Without You” is, without a doubt, one of the blandest love songs ever), and its characters a tad too self-indulgent for my old-fart tastes (the memory of my own youthful self-indulgences has conveniently faded). Plot-wise, I’m not so much irritated by the fake-o “happy ending,” as much as unintentionally amused by its abruptness (coma to full recovery in less than five seconds is, you have to admit, giggle-inducing). Still and all, the score showed a boatload of potential cut short by Mr. Larson’s early death, a potential validated by the release of his earlier work in “Tick, Tick, Boom” (all of which, curiously enough, I find more memorable than any song from “Rent.”)

All this being said, I did sorta kinda like the movie version, and I did sorta kinda like a number of previous versions mounted on area theatres. I approached this particular production with mixed feelings – I hate (on principle) “School” or “Junior” versions of established musicals, but, I’m usually very impressed with the work coming out of Act 3, particularly its recent MAT-winning “Once on this Island.” I’m happy to report that this production was over-the-top good (with the exception of one unfortunate casting choice, which I’ll discuss later), the “edits” seamless and barely noticeable, and its plot line strangely relevant in the wake of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests of late (as unfocused and heartfelt as all the references in “La Vie Boheme”). There were even some aspects better than all the recent productions I’ve seen.

Mark and Roger are young artists (Mark is a filmmaker, Roger a musician) sharing a loft in an abandoned Alphabet City industrial building. Their former friend (and current landlord), Benny, is threatening to evict them until they come up with some rent, unless they can forestall a planned demonstration in the homeless tent-city next door. The demonstration is being organized by performance artist Maureen, (Mark’s former lover), and her new love interest, Joanne. Another friend, Tom Collins, experiences a brutal beating, and is cared for by a street-drummer/drag-queen named Angel, who becomes the group’s guardian angel. Maureen’s demonstration comes and goes with unexpected results, and we spend Act Two following a year in the lives of this group as they face 525,600 minutes of unexpected successes, failures, deaths, break-ups, and reconciliations.

Loosely based on Puccini’s “La Boheme,” “Rent” trades in Tuberculosis for AIDS, but retains the Bohemian “No Day but Today” seize-the-moment philosophy, celebrating artists’ lives, complete with their idealistic pretentions, and brink-of-poverty day-to-day struggles. The script even keeps the opera’s “Mimi,” making her an exotic dancer junkie in a love/need relationship with Roger. As in the opera, the characters all show multiple levels of affection, need, drive, courage, and disappointment. None of them can be pushed into a convenient stereotype, all of them come alive on stage.

In fact, the “No Day but Today” philosophy is made more urgent here by the play’s AIDS plotline, emphasized in this case by the Director’s notes, describing how AIDS affected her personally. This isn’t a youthful “seize the day” idealism, but a “this could be your last day” reality.

Most of the cast were high school students, showing a skill and range far beyond their years and experience. If Joe Arnotti was years older than his cast-mates, he nevertheless made a Roger who was youthful and compelling, of an age with everyone else. Of the rest, the acting standout was Kristen Edwards’ Maureen, whose Performance piece was a study in appropriate over-the-top scenery-chewing and youthful energy. Sarah Rose Glazer made a painful thin Mimi who showed a remarkable range of emotion and Luna Manela’s Joanne was feisty and an equal partner to Ms. Edwards (she also did a spot-on tango). Evan Newsome gave us a Mark who was a bit bland, but who nevertheless centered the group and gave the cast its needed cohesion.

My biggest cast problem was with the actor playing Angel. From the start, he struck me as someone uncomfortable with the character’s affectations, “playing” (from a distance) outrageousness rather than embodying it. Never once picking up a drumstick, he made “Today for You” an exercise in breathless and frenetic choreography rather than the spontaneous burst of energy it should have been. And, his affectionate scenes with Tom Collins came across as if he were a high school kid afraid of what his buddies would think of him hugging a man.

On the other hand, what really worked here was the overall choreography (by Johnna Mitchell), the musical direction (by Jennifer Loudermilk -- for the first time, I could actually understand the lyrics to “La Vie Boheme”), and a number of choices made by director Patti Mactas. I especially liked the addition of dancers to a few numbers (particularly the “ghost” soloist in “One Song Glory”), using live actors for the telephone voices (though “Alexi Darling” should have changed into a more professional business attire), the use of the rolling scaffolds, and having Angel actually appear as Mimi lay dying – this made one of my least favorite moments work (somewhat – it would have been better of Angel had stayed in character rather than just walking out looking at her, then walking off). Non-standard choices that also worked were putting the cast all over the many levels for “Seasons of Love” and dressing Tom Collins more as a college teacher than as a scruffy homeless guy.

What didn’t work as well as it should have were the “live feeds” of Mark’s filmmaking – most were shot from an angle putting his subjects in the poorest light possible, and, it quickly became apparent the actor wasn’t familiar with the rudiments of frame composition. The video feed during “Living in America” was also distracting, and anachronistic (the play is very specific about being set in the early nineties, and the video clips were generic early eighties to late nineties news clips and movies).

As I said in my review of the Lyric’s production, as familiar as some of this is becoming, I am finding the show more and more enjoyable as time goes on, as it becomes a late-nineties period piece. Numbers like “One Song Glory,” “Light my Candle,” “Today for You,” “Tango: Maureen” “Take me or Leave me,” and “I’ll Cover You” all landed beautifully. Even “Without You” wasn’t as irritating as it usually is for me. And, the finale, “No Day but Today,” was both moving and beautiful.

Let’s be clear here. This is a very difficult musical. Act 3’s production more than does it justice, and it should appeal to the show’s many many fans. That I’m not one of those fans should in no way dissuade you from seeing it. Forget regret, this “Rent” is yours to not miss. And there’s no day like today to not miss it.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



In the next Room, or, the Vibrator Play, by Sarah Ruhl
Hysterical Paroxyms
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
4.5
To the “Victorian Mind,” extreme displays of emotion were suspect (possibly sinful), and, in a woman, cause for medical treatment. This “treatment” was invariably a form of “therapeutic massage” that led to “hysterical paroxysms,” intense reactions that invariably led to calmer (and happier) spouses. In her lyrically romantic comedy, “In the Next Room, or, The Vibrator Play,” Sarah Ruhl takes us on a period tour of the overlap between this medical practice and the onset of the Age of Electricity.

Dr. Givings is a specialist in gynecological and hysterical disorders who works at a prosperous spa outside of New York City. His hobby is electricity, and he has designed a primitive prototype instrument to help in his treatments, though he often has to call on his midwife assistant to manually “complete” the therapy. To the doctor, this new technology is just another tool, no more threatening than a stethoscope. But to his patients, it is a source of a brave new world of exploding sexuality and addictive physical sensation. Meanwhile, the Doctor’s wife, Catherine, is relegated to the outer room, where she struggles to nurse her new baby while over-hearing the affect her husband’s treatment has on his patients.

Ms. Ruhl has fashioned a marvelously enticing piece, a pre-feminist look at how one particular woman discovers the potential of her sexuality without betraying the less-than-complete knowledge of female response that defined the period. Catherine cannot understand why she has problems nursing her baby, and has to hire a “wet nurse” to provide what she knows she should be giving. She cannot understand why her husband hides in his private examining room when she longs for his company. Because she lives in an age when female sexual response is unknown (and suspect), she gropes in the dark for understanding, understanding why her body both betrays and excites her. Catherine knows SOMETHING is happening with these women, and longs to try the therapy herself, something that would cross her husband’s rather rigid code of ethics and proper behavior.

She’s soon sneaking into her husband’s examining room and trying his device on herself. Soon, she has soon found the oh-so-sweet mystery of life she has been longing for. Rather than ending the play in a brutal showdown between respectability and lines-of-behavior, though. Ms. Ruhl chooses instead a more intimate encounter, a scene in which walls and barriers melt magically into a gentle snowscape of intimacy and discovery for both Catherine and her husband.

I’ve adored this play since I first read it last spring, and was happy to see a production so soon. And, though there are a few gaps between my expectations and the production, none of them were critical of my enjoyment of this piece. It certainly helps that director Rachel May is an expert at capturing the gist of a piece and making it live for an audience, having her design team layer on many pieces of Victorian detail (I especially liked how the lights dimmed and the device barked every time it was “turned on”). It certainly helps that, with Kate Donadio and Brian Kurlander, she has found a cast that perfectly embodies Ms. Ruhl’s main characters. And, it REALLY helps that the production as a whole, in the intimate venue of the Horizon Stage, brings us face to face with the action (so to speak) and makes us live and breathe Catherine’s frustrations and joys. That the set magically “disappears’ for the epiphanic final scene was just “icing on the cake.”

What truly works here is the production’s reliance on the humor of what-we-know versus what-they-know, without slipping into that all-so-tempting sand trap of cultural smugness. Our enjoyment of the play does not rely on our knowledge of sexuality and female orgasm, but on our enjoyment of the characters’ surprise at these new and unknown feelings. It’s not a nudge-nudge wink-wink crassness that drives the play, but a careful unfolding of slightly naughty no-entendres – the characters know not whereof they speak – and a more explicit unfolding of emotional intimacy. This is a play about sexuality and intimacy you can enjoy without feeling slightly naughty yourself.

I also have to praise the supporting cast of Daryl Lisa Fazio, Tiffany Morgan, Doyle Reynolds, Xiomara Yanique, and, especially Tony Larking, whose artist proves to be a major temptation for Catherine as well as a reminder that this sort of therapy was not confined to women. Costume Designer Jonida Beqo is to be commended for her period costumes (include LAYERS of undergarments) and Props Designer Maclare “MC” Park definitely gets points for the electronic tools of Dr. Givings – Rube Goldberg would have been proud. Lights and Sound by Katie McCreary and Kristin Von Heinzemeyer all added to the ambience of a one-week-after-gaslight world, where electricity was both a boon and a bane, where the patter of raindrops competed with the buzz of hand-wired devices for supremacy.

“The Vibrator Play, or, In the Next Room” is a marvelous production of a marvelous play, one that combines period detail with very modern emotional intimacy. It was a theatrical experience that, frankly, left me humming (if not fully vibrating).

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



The Real Tweenagers of Atlanta, by Rosemary Newcott
Keeping it Real
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
3.5
OMG! So, this show is, like, so kewl!

It’s like what if they turned this really big theatre into our school auditorium, and then had an assembly where they made the new teachers pretend to be us, so they can tell us who we are and what we like, then, like, tell us we’re all about being “real.” So, my BFF and I were rolling our eyes and saying how it was gonna make us barf, cause, I mean, you know, old people in their twenties pretending to be “Tweens” (and don’t you just HATE that word) is so creepy gross, you know.

But, it wasn’t lame at all. Shocker! I read that they talked to real middle schoolers and they had real middle schoolers go up for some of the scenes, so they got some of the stuff right, like I really like “Glee” even though my BFF hates it, and they got the whole brother and sister thing right like I can’t stand my own brother unless he’s helping me with homework and stuff. And I liked how the sports guy was shy with girls and how the smart girl was actually real pretty and stuff.

I didn’t like how they had them pretend to be types of kids like nerds and cheerleaders and zombie chickens and stuff, ‘cause I don’t think I am a type. I mean I’m just me, aren’t I? Still, that was one of the parts where they let real kids play on stage, and I think they were actually funnier than the grown-ups pretending to be kids.

I did like the Tween Feud game, and I was so glad to see my not all my answers to the questions had me in the top group – I mean I love Harry Potter but “Twilight” sux so much I want to spit beans, so how could it so popular? BTHOM!

But, I still gotta say that the cool parts were so much cooler than the lame parts were lame that I gotta say I liked the show better than I think my BFF did. I mean sure, it was creepy seeing grown-ups playing kids, but they were so good at it, by the end, I forgot they were really grown-ups. The program says their real names are Danielle Deadwyler (I bet she HATES that name) and Keith Hale and Bernard D. Jones (the only Bernard I ever knew always hit me) and Claire Rigsby and Jacob York and don’t they ALL sound like gramma and grampa names? The program also says the play was written by the cast with music by Justin Ellington and Keith Hale, and, even though I really liked the Drill Team number, I didn’t so much like the Book Report Rap (I would have picked the Science one, ‘cause Science is so much cooler than book reports), but it wasn’t TOO lame.

So, that’s my report on this play, and I hope my teacher likes my report as much as I liked this play.

Keep it real!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Golda's Balcony, by William Gibson
Woman of Iron
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
4.5
“Golda’s Balcony” has a history almost as complex and surprising as, well, as the life of a shtetl refugee turned Milwaukee school teacher turned Prime Minister of Israel. Originally commissioned by Ms. Meir herself (who wanted “that boy who wrote ‘Miracle Worker’” to dramatize her life), it first saw life as “Golda,” a short-lived 1977 piece that earned praise for its star (Anne Bancroft), but little else. Indeed, reading the script of “Golda” today, with its large and rambling cast of multi-role actors and “witnesses,” one wonders what any director could have done to make it work. Rather than let the subject rest in peace (Ms. Meir succumbed to lymphatic cancer in 1978), Mr. Gibson reconceived the piece as a monologue (“Golda’s Balcony”) for a single actress, brought it back to Broadway in 2003 with Tovah Feldshuh in the title role, and it became the longest-running one-character play in Broadway history.

The Alliance Theatre recently brought Ms. Feldshuh to Atlanta for a short run, and, I have to say, I found it a most effective (and brilliantly acted) piece of work. I guess my chief regret is waiting this long (almost a full month) to finally write about it.

Following the basic structure of the original play, “Golda’s Balcony” uses the 1973 Yom Kippur War as a framing device to recreate the life of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, as filtered through her own memories and recreations. Born in 1898 in Kiev to a struggling carpenter, the family soon fled Russia in the wake of pogroms. Settling in Milwaukee, the Mabovitch family ran a small grocery store, and young Golda grew up as a typical (albeit politically precocious) first-generation American.

While in high school, she became interested in the Zionist movement before becoming a teacher in the Milwaukee public school system. Eventually, she married an intellectual “Sign Painter” (Morris Myerson) and the couple moved to a kibbutz in Palestine. It wasn’t long before her political activities dominated her life, and, eventually, she is made Prime Minister of Israel in 1969.

Rather than becoming a dry theatrical biography, though, this play shows us a woman at a crossroads, a woman under extreme pressure who is not afraid to face her past, and her shortcomings (she freely admits to being a “terrible wife and mother”). The play is well-constructed, with “flashbacks” arising naturally out of certain current situations. We see how this “woman of iron” makes extremely difficult and painful decisions, and we also see the “life history” that made this strength, these decisions possible. She knows her small country, nestled amongst a host of enemies, cannot survive without America’s help (as her enemies have full access to Soviet money and equipment), and she is able to go toe-to-toe with the America of Nixon and Kissinger to get the help she needs to prevail.

The play has all the drama of a tense political thriller (even though, historically, we already know the outcome), without sacrificing the small details that bring a person’s life to, well, to life for a theatre audience. I particularly enjoyed the affectionately stereotypical portrayal of Golda’s mother, the occasional lapses into a mid-western dialect, the moments of rueful memory, particularly the memory of a boy in a post-Holocaust refugee camp giving her a bouquet of flowers made of paper – a memory engendered by the death of that boy (now an adult) in the battle.

Ms. Feldshuh is quite simply remarkable in this role, able to cover a wide range of emotion and memory. I particularly liked how she showed us not herself portraying the various characters in Golda Meir’s life, but Ms. Meir herself playing those roles. It’s a subtlety I hope wasn’t lost on the audience. Staged in a (mostly) bare black space, the lights focus our full attention on the remarkable woman sharing her life story.

“Golda’s Balcony” refers to a very specific location in Israel’s Nuclear Arms facility, but it also evokes our theatrical memories of “Evita,” an evocation purposefully fed by the program portrait of Ms. Feldshuh holding her arms up in a “Don’t Cry for me, Israel” pose. But that evocation may be an injustice. “Golda’s balcony” is NOT a musical portrait of a woman intoxicated with power, but a dramatic portrait of one thrust upon the world stage, one with a strong, almost fanatical goal of survival for her country, one who sacrifices home and hearth to achieve that goal, one who is even willing to engage in high-stakes diplomatic blackmail to achieve her goals. And, in Ms. Feldshuh’s very capable hands, it’s a portrait that was exhilarating to witness and compelling to remember.

Don’t cry for Golda or for Israel. Cry for yourself if you missed this remarkable play.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


The Last Romance - An Atlanta Premiere, by Joe DiPietro
Guilt-Free Confection
Monday, November 7, 2011
4.5
Joe DiPietro’s “The Last Romance,” recently mounted by Dunwoody’s Stage Door Players, is a most deceiving confection. For the most part, it is a sweet, almost forgettable romantic comedy – senior citizens find romance and realize that no one ever really masters love’s pitfalls and blind spots. Mr. DiPietro himself has attacked this before in “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” (“I Can Live With That”).

But, as I sit here two weeks after the show has closed, still procrastinating writing about it, I find it has lingered far and beyond the “memory-span” of most light-weight theatre pieces. What I remember aren’t the jokes and smiles and warm-fuzzies. What I remember are the choices faced by the characters, the conflict that arises when the heart and the conscience part ways, the different ways different characters deal with this conflict. This is indeed good and nourishing stuff, and it elevates the play higher than I would have originally judged. It is, in effect, dessert with more nutrition than calories.

Ralph is a retired widower, living with his sister Rose. He has been “hanging out” at a local dog park, hoping to “meet” Carol, an attractive woman with a runt-rat of a dog. Okay, he’s “stalking” her in a clumsy (and essentially harmless) way. When they finally meet, they rush into a friendship that turns into a date that turns into a relationship. In the meantime, Rose (separated from her own husband for a few decades) is feeling not a little threatened. Add to the mix a young man whose beautiful operatic tenor recalls Ralph’s youthful ambitions and lost opportunities, and you have a recipe for a whimsical and softly appealing romance.

The conflict comes when we learn Carol is still married, although her husband has been in a coma for years. And we learn that Rose’s husband finally wants a divorce, so his dying mistress can have the solace of a last-chance wedding. Since all are staunchly Catholic, someone will end up disappointed. Again.

I really like the idea that it’s not evil that can drive the temptations to skirt those absolutes that fortify our consciences, but affection, kindness, even love. Carol is willing to have a relationship with Ralph, even while caring for her husband. Rose owes nothing to that “whore” who stole her husband, especially if it means breaking a sacred marriage vow (a marriage twenty years dead). And Ralph seems to get it all – a chance at a “Last Romance” and a chance to visit La Scala to hear opera at its finest. But is it worth it if it means doing it with a married woman? Do any of them even have enough time to “wait” until circumstances align with the dictates of the church?

If this sounds like serious stuff, it is. But it’s buried deep in the heart of a comedy, a romance that warms the heart as it makes us smile, even laugh. Frank Roberts’ Ralph is over-bearing, loud and endearing. Joanna Daniel brings a sweetness and edge to Carol that makes her appeal to Ralph not only understandable, but inevitable. And, in a brilliantly funny performance, Pat Bell makes Rose a cranky care-giver, a woman who knows all of Ralph’s foibles but loves him anyway, a seemingly inflexibly faithful parishioner, who may end up bending more than anyone else. And Stephen McCool’s “Young Man” is sweet voiced and pleasant, showing us what Ralph was like when all roads still lay before him.

Director Justin T. Anderson, Set Designer Chuck Welcome, Lighting Designer John David Williams, Sound Designer Dan Bauman, and Music Director Linda Uzelac have contributed the usual Stage Door glister, creating a playing space that transforms from park to living area with a shift of furniture, an adjustment of light, a splash of sound, another aria to mask the change. This is (or, I should say, was) a beautiful looking, beautiful sounding production that served the story quite well, indeed.

You’ve missed your last chance to see “The Last Romance,” but it’s a play to look for in the future (Mr. DiPietro’s work seems to pop up with welcome frequency at area theatres). It serves up a pleasant and delectable confection of a romance that hits the mind and memory like a vitamin-enriched energy bar. Don’t be deceived by its patina of sweetness and light – it asks important questions and it comes up with no easy answers. To my mind, that’s a meal worth remembering.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Gray Area, by John Ahlin
The Words of Southern Aggression
Monday, November 7, 2011
4.0
There are many words that could describe John Ahlin’s “Gray Area,” currently camping out at Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theatre. Comedy caper, historical debate, character whimsy – any of these would be accurate. But, at heart, I would describe it as a deeply entertaining (and theatrical) examination of the power of words, how they frame our discussions, how they can become either barriers or bridges between folks of different mind sets.

Farragut is a New York columnist, an acerbic curmudgeon whose favorite mode of discourse is snark. No target is too high (or too low) for the withering power of his words. When three Alabama good ole boys take umbrage at his comments about civil war re-enactors, they take matters into their own unwashed hands. They kidnap Farragut and whisk him away to their forest campsite, just apart from the battlefield that will host an upcoming re-enactment.

But (and here’s where this what-could-go-wrong disaster of an idea goes crazy-right), their intention is not to hurt or ransom Farragut, but to debate him. They want to show him that his prejudices against the South (capital “S”) are wrong, and to get him to honestly retract his column. What they didn’t count on was Farragut being a major civil war scholar himself, and that maybe he knows whereof he speaks, that maybe their own ingrained ideas of pride and heritage may not align completely with the facts.

What follows is a delightfully gonzo debate, a war-between-the-words of competing ideas and facts, a series of games with increasingly silly trappings and increasingly serious intent. It is a combination I found delightful to hear and compelling to watch. Ahlin’s purpose is perhaps made overly plain – that political discourse of a polarizing nature is pretty much useless, that ideas are rarely black-and-white, and that true understanding is found in that nebulous “gray area.” He takes the idea that understanding is not built on insults and echo-chamber bellowing, but on truly listening to the “other,” to getting into his shiny shoes (or battered boots) and hiking that proverbial mile.

His chief weapon is the character of Keith, the “ringleader” of this motley crew of Alabama friends. Keith is smarter than you would expect, wiser than Farragut at first realizes, and funnier than any audience deserves. He has a way with words that is truly splendiferous, an easy-going manner that’s quick to spot hypocrisy, even when it’s in himself. By making Keith such a “breath-of-fresh-air” in what could easily have been a forest of stereotypes, he lowers our own blinders and lets us give the man a listen.

Okay, some of the “facts” bandied about are a little shallowly researched (Keith’s comment about tariffs being a leading cause of the North/South conflict is easily debunked by a quick Google of when the tariffs were actually lifted). Still, the arguments are less about “facts” than about attitudes and emotions, and, in every case, these attitudes ring true.

The cast is especially successful at bringing this play to life – Glenn Rainey as Farragut and Bart Hansard as Keith are equally matched, both physically and emotionally. Both are sublime comic actors who can make a debate come off almost like stand-up routine. Bryan Brendle and Scott Warren bring Keith’s friends to brilliant life – both start as seeming caricatures, but each has something to contribute, and each has surprises for us that broaden and deepen their characters

Phil Male’s forest set is lovely with an odd cinderblock structure that could be a ruin or a monument, but provides a bizarre platform for blocking elevations and slapstick tumbles. The lighting by Rob Dillard makes effective use of gobos and gels to bring the forest to laugh at different times of day. Director Sherri D. Sutton is to be commended for orchestrating such a marvelous group of actors and designers and for bringing the strengths of this play to life.


I was raised about an hour from the Gettysburg Battlefield, and visited the site almost every year of the 60’s. I now live within walking distance of the Kennesaw Mountain site, so you may say I have Civil War history in my blood. I chafe when I hear arguments based less on fact than on family legacy-stories that have obviously changed through constant re-telling. At the same time, I acknowledge that the arguments are even less black-and-white than more contemporary political conflicts, and that there is a vast gray area that can shape and change even my preconceived notions and traditions.

What isn’t a “gray area” is the fact that this play is a remarkable entertainment, a play that could so easily have been little more than a dry debate, but was elevated by a cast that brings these characters to life and makes us care about what they say. More to the point, it makes us enjoy actually listening to their words!

It was my pleasure to unconditionally surrender to this play!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Ghiost-Writer, by Michael Hollinger
Ellipsis
Monday, November 7, 2011
4.0
Words and punctuation! ... Deconstructed to its basic elements, writing can be described as an arrangement of words and punctuation that more or less reflects an ever-changing definition of artistry and craft.

“Ghost-Writer” is about three people, a writer, a spouse, and a typist. It’s the typist’s story, it’s her voice that dominates the play – almost a monologue with a few carefully crafted interactions. It’s also about love and obsession and disappointment and grief. And, of course, how the words (and punctuation) arrange themselves on the typed page, arrange themselves in the characters’ voices. Exclamation Point!

And yet, there are disconnects at the center of the Theatre in the Square production of this piece (by venue favorite Michael Hollinger) that undercut my enjoyment of it, missed opportunities that made the central performance seem like, well, like a performance rather than like the recreation of a character. These disconnects made her story seem contrived, made her passion seem feigned, made her apotheosis of her idol seem banal.

Franklin Woolsey is a writer, a contemporary of Henry James. His typist (“amanuensis” to use Mr. Hollinger’s lyrical word) is Myra Babbage, a spinsterish woman who hangs onto his every word, and types his manuscripts as if her typewriter were a musical instrument. The third character is Woolsey’s wife, Vivian, not a little jealous of the time her husband spends in his office, not without a certain talent for words herself. When Franklin dies in mid-dictation, Myra goes into a spiral of grief. She can’t stop writing his words, even if those words are in her own head, are, in fact, her own words. Is she creating a new work “in the style of” Franklin Woolsey, or is she actually taking dictation “from beyond?”

One of the disconnects for me was the typing itself. I am of a generation that remembers manual typewriters, who got through college with one, who knows how they are supposed to sound. To me, it sounded as if Elisa Carlson (as Myra) were merely typing random keys, not actually typing anything of substance. There were no distinctive “clunks” indicating a shift key were being used, no softer “clacks” that usually accompanied the space bar. I can’t say whether she was actually typing words or not, but it sounded to me as if she weren’t. This gave a lie to the idea of the typewriter being her “instrument,” being an extension of her own mind.

The second disconnect were the words of Franklin Woolsey themselves. Far from being an example of early twentieth century literature, they seemed more an attempt at melodramatic romance, bodice-rippers if you will. To give Mr. Hollinger the benefit of the doubt, this was probably intentional, a way of using Woolsey’s works as a reflection of Myra’s feelings, a way of emphasizing the love of the words over the context of their arrangement. Indeed, at one particularly steamy encounter, Myra cannot help but add additional details that Woolsey reads (to himself) with relish and approval.

What does work in this play are the few scenes of interaction. Myra’s scenes with Woolsey (a just-bland-enough Peter Tamm) steam with subtext, burn with her unfulfilled passion and his cold remove. Her scenes with Vivian (Ellen McQueen, marvelous and smoldering) crackle with tension and jealousy. It is perhaps unfortunate that most of the play is Myra talking directly to us (“we” are given the role of a tabloid journalist interviewing Myra, hoping for a juicy tidbit of scandal or over-the-top eccentricity). Ms. Carlson is pleasant and personable, but her voice tended towards monotony, as if her love of words and language were confined to the written word rather than with the sound of language itself. Perhaps this was intentional – if so, it was one of those “clever-not-smart” ideas that try to make a thematic point at the expense of dramatic accessibility. In any case, though I found her grief in the final moments moving, I found too much of her earlier interactions dry and unconvincing.

What also works (or should have worked) was Hollinger’s love for the subtleties and nuance of language, of the interplay between words and punctuation, of how a suitably placed hyphen can refocus the reader’s attention or a suitable adjective can add just the right amount of color to fully realize an image or a moment. As a lover of writing myself, I couldn’t help but respond to this, to wallow in the aesthetic joy of it all.

In the final analysis, even though the supernatural element was underplayed, it was enough of a distraction (and was never fully addressed thematically) to be an irritation. Ms. Carlson’s performance left me wanting to like Myra more than I did. And that durned typewriter just sounded wrong.

I wanted to love this play, and leave with an exclamation point in my heart. Instead, I merely liked it, and left with an attenuated ellipsis in its place.



-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



The Glass Menagerie, by by Tennessee Williams
Shattered
Friday, October 28, 2011
5.0
Memory has a way of smothering us in its comfort-blanket embrace of rose-colored assurances even as it deceives us with its lost details, its manufactured incidents, and its pleasing fallacies. They say there is no consciousness without memory, no memory of early years before consciousness. What does it say about us when the core of who we are may be (and usually is) a blatant lie?

“The Glass Menagerie” is arguably Tennessee Williams’ most well-known “Memory Play.” In it, he attempts an exorcism of his own memories of, his mother, his sister, and his youth in St. Louis. Tom Wingfield is telling us his memory of his final days living in that tenement that may or may not resemble Williams’ own. His memory is filtered, biased, and selective as he tells us of his overly eccentric mother Amanda and his crippled and shy sister Laura, of the “Gentleman Caller” who was supposed to pull Laura out of her fragile solitude, of the circumstances that shattered forever the memory of hearth and home and family.

Like all memories, Tom’s ebbs and flows with detail, sometimes fuzzy and unfocused, other times sharp and clear. It is through Williams’ genius that these ebbs and flows transfer into a workable dramatic framework, that what we see is inalterably “infected” with Tom’s feelings – his mother a bit too jagged, his sister a bit too fragile. And we accept the conventions, because, at their root, are the very real emotions Tom will always carry. His story conveys all too realistically the emotional upheavals and consequences of the choices he made and regrets.

Our first contact with the Wingfield family in Georgia Shakespeare’s exquisite and sublime production is the Wingfield home, sketchier than realism would demand, larger than accuracy would require. We see a large shattered mirror dominating everything. We are not only going through the looking glass of memory, we are going through one shattered and in pieces. It’s an effective image, and it dominates everything we see. Images occasionally move across the mirrored shards, abstract shapes that reflect a stray thought or feeling, vague images that reflect a stray memory intruding on the story. The design has a surreal (in the sense of “super-real”) air of the inside of a mind, the memories and feelings that combine in a jumble of complex emotions that can’t help but affect the narrative that is being sorted, created into an acceptable (in the sense of “I can live with it”) memory.

Joe Knezevich starts us off with a slow and deliberate Tom. It’s as if he were carefully weighing every word, testing each phrase against the ever-shifting reality of his memory, not releasing it to us until it is just right. It’s an approach that is at first, off-putting, but eventually pays off as we see that control gradually break down, gradually reveal to us the swirls of emotion his story may be designed to hide.

The figures of his memory, the Amanda of Mary Lynn Owen, the Laura of Bethany Anne Lind, the Gentleman Caller of Travis Smith, bring very different readings to these characters I thought I knew. Ms. Owen gives us the expected Amanda, blinded by the idealization of her own lost girlhood, stubbornly immune to the harsh realities of her situation and her family. Yet, she is often subdued, often giddy and silly, passive-aggressive in her domination of her children rather than merely tyrannical.

Ms. Lind is remarkable, a fragile creature not merely shy, but pathologically withdrawn – when she learns the identity of the Gentleman Caller, she wheezes and sobs as though an asthma attack will spare her what she knows must come. This is (at last) a Laura that is close in spirit to her source, Williams’ institutionalized sister – this is a young woman who desperately needs real help, not pseudo-get-over-it platitudes that will be her lot in this household.

And, Mr. Smith gives us a Jim who is pleasant and approachable, who doesn’t wear his self-created confidence like an arrogant club, who sees Laura for what she us, likes her for it, and regrets being put into a situation where he will make her retreat further into a self-shattering glass shell. This is by far the best Jim/Laura sequence I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen more “Menageries” than you can shake a unicorn at), and is alternately sweet, hopeful, and gut-wrenchingly traumatic. This scene (necessarily totally imagined by Tom) that completes this play, ties it up into an emotional bolt and shoots it straight into our guts.

Richard Garner has directed his cast and design crew with a sure hand and a clear concept that does full justice to Williams’ delicate play. I loved how the look and sound underscored and emphasized the complex clarity of the emotional core, yet retained the vagueness – and clarity – of differing memories. I loved how the cast inhabited these characters and made them real. Even if they are only constructs of Tom’s memory, of Williams’ memory, they nevertheless live and breathe and tell us their own tale, their own role in the memory of the storyteller(s).

“The Glass Menagerie” has always been a delicate figurine of a play, easily shattered by over-the-top acting or heavy-handed direction. In the hands of Georgia Shakespeare, it is an outstanding exercise in theater, a candle-lit reverie that justifies all the support this company needs and is (apparently) receiving.

When Tom implores Laura to blow out her candle, to darken her memory forever, it is a sublime moment, a moment that reassures us that no matter how many tricks memory has up its sleeve, no matter how often it lies and deceives, it is always as true as it needs to be.

It would be satisfying to wish Mr. Williams a gentle “Blow out your candle, Tennessee.” Since he has already passed into our own memories, all we know of him is what he has shared. And I will be forever glad that he chose to share this particular moment, this particular shard of shattered memory.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




Underneath the Lintel, by Glen Berger
Sublime (If Ephemeral)
Friday, October 28, 2011
5.0
There are three facts I’d like you to consider. First, the Universe is big. REALLY big. Incomprehensibly big. There are billions of stars in every galaxy and billions of galaxies in just the small corner of existence we can witness. Second, the earth is old. REALLY old. Incomprehensibly old. If the entire history of the earth could be expressed as a long and echoing hallway, the entirety of human existence would be a hair-sized sliver at the far end. Third, a hundred years from now, most of us will be dead. Heck, a hundred minutes from now, SOME of us may be dead. Our lives are short. REALLY short. Incomprehensibly short.

Now that I’ve put these ideas out there, I have to ask – does this make the triviality and minutiae of day-to-day life incredibly pointless, or does it make even ephemeral whims and pleasures incredibly meaningful? How you answer that question should speak volumes about your character and about how you deal with the struggles large and small that are racing towards you like a runaway train.

So, let me talk about “Underneath the Lintel,” the marvelous monologue written by Glen Berger and performed by Steve Coulter. As proof of the ephemeral nature of live theatre, the play has closed, and all that is left are the tiny evidences that it was here, torn tickets, dog-eared programs, borrowed props seeking their home, lights and sets being recycled for “what comes next.”

In this play we meet a frowsy and dusty Dutch librarian. A late book return (113 years overdue, in fact), sends this minor bureaucrat on a globe-trotting scavenger hunt, searching for the mythical “wandering Jew,” finding little evidences of a myth come to life (“I know he’s a myth. But I now have the myth’s trousers!”). Along the way, he absorbs the whimsical cruelties of mankind and of history – six million exterminated by a holocaust become equal to one woman killed by a block of frozen urine from a passing jet liner. Civilizations falling become equal to the klink-klank-klatter of a Klezmer tune. He has rented the Aurora black box theatre to present his case and to show us his evidences.

And still the quest continues. I really have nothing more to say (other than volumes of praise for the work of Mr. Coulter who makes this character a casebook of mannerisms and neuroses and sudden realizations, a public speaker who is afraid of the public, a man who finds a core of belief rises from the ashes of mere acceptance.

Eight years ago, Actors Theater of Atlanta (gone but not forgotten – yet), staged this same play with this same actor. Let me just cut and paste (with a few revisions) what I wrote at that time:

I offer the following incidental intelligences as evidences of the parity of ephemera and profundity (if you have to ask, you should look them up) as inspired by a viewing of “Underneath the Lintel”:

# 1. If you must walk on thin ice, you might as well dance.

# 2. Theatre is an examination of all that is human. Great theatre differs from bad theatre only in that it shows humankind rather than actorkind.

#3 “Ships are safe inside a harbor, but is that what ships are for?” (Lyric heard on a “Four Bitchin’ Babes" Cassette).

#4 “The Universe is incomprehensibly large, History is incomprehensibly long, Death is incomprehensibly inevitable.” (Paraphrase of three questions inspiring the writing of “Underneath the Lintel” as described by Glen Berger in the afterword of the published edition of the play, shamelessly plagiarized in my opening paragraph above).

#5 To be utterly human is to use ephemera to shout to the cosmos I WAS HERE!

#6 Actors Theatre of Atlanta staged “Underneath the Lintel” in a production that displayed the best acting, writing, and direction I had seen in months. Every choice made by actor Steve Coulter was inspired, every word penned by writer Glen Berger sang (and still sings). The play worked as entertainment, as mystery, as philosophy, as art. And yet, it was poorly attended -- more evidence of the irony of the ephemera/profundity paradox. The Aurora production is every bit as memorable, and can even be called a bit of evidence that there once was a company called “Actors Theatre of Atlanta.”

#7 A theatre blog such as this may be ephemera, but it is my only dance – it is safer to remain anonymous (“underneath the lintel,” as it were) – but to do so is to belittle the importance of the dance. Rather than shout to the cosmos, my day job whines to the middle manager. Lighting my daughter’s play and washing my family’s laundry are higher in the grand scheme of importance (another paraphrase from Mr. Berger’s afterword).

#8 Theatre is by nature ephemeral – it bursts forth in an agony of creation, it floats for a moment in the souls of the audience, and it is forever lost. Is there a more profound dance in the face of the eternal?

#9 Since the ATA production in 2003, blogs and on-line presences have proliferated with the speed and volume of the billions of bacteria that populate the human gut (more than the total number of species homo that have walked the earth since we diverged from the apes). Every one of them screams to the universe “I AM HERE!” A hundred years from now, how many will be remembered?

#10 If you must walk on thin ice, you might as well dance.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com) I WAS HERE!



Broke, by Janece Shaffer
Kyrie Eliason
Friday, October 28, 2011
5.0
Sometimes a play is so timely and hits so “close to home” that I can’t help watching it with a strong case of déjà vu filtering everything. Such a play is “Broke,” Janece Shaffer’s new play about how one family copes with the “new economy.”

The Eliasons are a wealthy American family, living large with the brass ring and playing large with a huge share of the American Dream. When primary breadwinner Liz (Tess Malis Kincaid) loses her high-level, high-pressure job, the reaction is muted at first. After all, they still have their retirement nest egg, Husband Jonathan (James M. Leaming) owns his own small business, and Liz has an iiPhone full of contacts and headhunters chomping at the bit to hire her.

But then, Liz’s former employer goes completely bust, wiping out their seven-figure retirement fund. The realization soon sinks in that executive vacancies at Liz’s level are non-existent. And selling their home is not an option, because it’s worth less than what they owe. What follows is a sequence of events in which “going broke” tries and tests the Eliason family in ways that are uncomfortably recognizable and dramatically satisfying.

We get the denial phase, where Jonathan buys a new wall-sized TV and acts as if there is nothing different about their circumstances. We get the bargaining phase, where Liz and Jonathan choose what’s important to their lives, and what’s not so important. We get the anger phase, where Liz cannot understand why Jonathan refuses to sell his business (what matters family legacies when a large payout can come?) and Jonathan cannot understand why Liz “mismanaged” their nest egg (“Who puts ALL their money into company stock?”). We get the depression phase, where Liz finds the TV more consoling than the lap-top job search. And we get the acceptance phase, where hard choices are made, accommodations are negotiated, plans are adjusted, and family ties are strengthened.

And that, in a nutshell, is the strength of this wonderful new play. When writing about hot-button political topics, it’s so easy to get up on your soapbox, and pontificate about how this group is evil or that party is misguided or that idea will lead us all down the brimstone path to doom and destruction. Ms. Shaffer is more interested in what makes up a family, what tears at the ties that bind us, what compromises we make to maintain the core heartbeat(s) of the relationship(s). In previous plays, she has examined how conflicts of spirituality can sabotage the closest of families (“Bluish”), how golden-years romance repaints past relationships (“Managing Maxine”), and how familial common threads (e.g. Motherhood) can trump conflicts raised by racism and other prejudgments (“Brownie Points”). All of these plays gave us memorable characters in simple situations, characters defined by how they talk and what they say, relationships defined by what’s left unsaid and what’s left unthought. All of these plays are, first and foremost, theatrical entertainments about families, with any political points relegated to the “things we all share” pigeonhole. All of these plays are defined by imperfect characters, loved and resented, memorable in their imperfections and unwise choices, relevant in their lessons learned and growths made.

With the Eliasons, Ms. Shaffer has created an almost-perfect family for this particular story. Let’s start with the fact that their circumstances are so very different from most of ours (especially those working in the Arts). After all, there really aren’t too many families who can “make ends meet” by “selling the Lake House.” Not many families have a seven-figure “nest egg.” Not many families have a daughter in a high-cost university competing for a “London internship.” Still, the script and the production make them recognizable, make them “everyfamily” without sacrificing their characteristic identity. It’s the little details that help define them, the story of their meeting in a Laundromat (“He was reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being”), their wading into the morass of coupon-clipping and discount-grocery stores (“Are we Big-K Cola people now?”), their guilty-pleasure indulgence-hiding (a quick dunk of a Starbucks behind a potted plant when the spouse comes in). They never lose their essential humanity, as embodied by the “outsider,” Evalyn Rentas (Elisabeth Omilami), an organizer for a summer camp for underprivileged kids. Her program was left in the cold by the mega-corporation’s failure, and in between resume-building Liz does everything she can to ensure the program continues, even running the whole thing when Ms. Rentas injures herself in a slip-and-fall. (Of course, because this is the play it is, Jonathan has to wonder “Are we liable?”)

And the play of chockfull of dialogue that sings, that amuses and moves, that rings true by exposing character idiosyncrasy and long-suppressed resentments. This is a play that treads, always successfully, a fine line between high drama and character-based comedy. There are a (fairly) equal balance of serious and light moments, and the end-result is an evening spent with a family that’s worth knowing, with characters who can be aggravating and inspiring.

And none if it would work without the invaluable and maddeningly talented cast. Tess Malis Kincaid gives another in what is an apparently endless series of beautifully dynamic performances, giving Liz an intelligence, a drive, and a sexiness that give the play a hot-blooded life that can be almost overwhelming. She is well-matched by James M. Leaving, who gives us a Jonathan who is a bit of a hang-dog over-grown boyishness, who revels in his kid’s shoe store and treats life’s challenges like just another game to be conquered. In the smaller roles of daughter Missie and Evalyn Harris, Galen Crawley and Elisabeth Omilami add dimension and contrast to the family, showing layers of emotion and connection not always made explicit by the dialogue.

The set (by Jack Magaw) gives us a realistic (and comfortable) home that looks both elegant and lived-in. It’s significant that I heard someone say “I want to live there” upon seeing the set at the start of the evening. Pete Shinn’s lighting very nicely fills the space, showing us sunlight through unseen windows, flickers from the larger-than-sensible television, and moody between-scenes “pictures” that never disrupt the flow of the story.

So, yes, I’m becoming a major league Janece Shaffer fan. She can skillfully build a strong scenario that resonates with timeliness without being politically obvious, can write conversations and arguments most of us have experienced in our own household budget wars (when did she wiretap our home office?), and can create a family that is appealing and true-to-life. Most playwrights would (or should) be envious of these abilities. And to tie it all up in a compelling and entertaining theatrical entertainment is a talent not to be underestimated.

If you can afford it, I strongly urge you go for “Broke.” Have mercy on the Eliasons!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Spring Awakening, by Book and lyrics by Steven Sater, Music by Duncan Sheik
Adolanguescence
Friday, October 28, 2011
4.5
I was fully expecting to dislike “Spring Awakening.” After all, I find the cast recording less than compelling, the original 1896 Frank Wedekind play a bit of a frustrating slog of a read, and the combination of modern rock music and period characters a disharmonious discontinuity. Imagine my surprise to find Actor’s Express’ production of this 2007 Tony winner completely captivating and profoundly moving.

So, we’re in late 19th-century Germany. Students at an all-boys Academy and the girls they grew up with are entering adolescence, that confusing time of life when puberty raises its ugly head (so to speak) and hormones trump maturity. The older generation is happily stuck in a hidebound rut of authority and Victorian contempt for anything that smacks of the sensual. So, the kids are between a rock and a hard place (so to speak) – their bodies are sending them urgent demands that MUST BE MET NOW !!!!, but their parents and teachers categorically refuse to explain these demands. So, we’re left with dreams that aren’t explained, desires with sudden and hidden consequences, harsh judgments and cold lovelessness. In other words, the young characters are “Totally F$%^ked” (in the words of one of the show’s best numbers) with tragic results.

Melchior (Jordan Craig) is the smart kid, the leader, the one to whom everyone goes to for advice, the “Great Hope” of his school and his family. Wendla (Kylie Brown) is an innocent waif whose mother refuses to tell how she becomes an aunt. Melchior and Wendla “discover” each other (though they have known each other their entire lives). Moritz (Greg Bosworth) is a slower student, gangly and shy, who doesn’t understand these “sticky dreams” that keep him awake at night and narcoleptic in class. His father cares less about failure than how the neighbors will judge that failure. Martha (Christen C. Orr) is abused by her father, Ilse (Stephanie Friedman) has been ousted by her family, Ernst (Bernard D. Jones) has a crush on Hanschen (Jordan Harris), who is only too happy to act upon that knowledge. The other kids (played by Nick Arapaglou, Kathryn Foley, Jimi Kocina, and Angie Zhang) all have their distinctly characteristic aspect of adolescence to explore, all contribute threads to the tapestry being constructed by the play.

These teenage characters run the full spectrum from total innocence to active seducer, from languescent torpor (“I just want to feel something!”) to spastic foot-stomping passion (“I want to feel something NOW!”). From the vantage point of late middle age, I found it difficult to watch them wander into the traps I fell into myself, become overwhelmed by “the little things,” toy (sometimes successfully) with total self-destruction. I shuddered at Hanschen’s calculated seduction of the innocent Ernst, and at Melchior’s more abandoned seduction of Wendla. I heard my own teachers’ voices in the thoughtless pontifications of the “adults”, (all men played by Robert Wayne, all women by LaLa Cochran, all characters intentionally dressed alike and interchangeable).

And, against all odds, the modern elements worked. The kids were all costumed in semi-period clothes that contained modern touches, all had modern hairstyles and vocal styles. The entire set was designed to suggest the German Expressionism of films of the 20’s (okay, not “Caligari” surreal, but definitely evocative of Fritz Lang and others of that ilk), which created an ambience of mood and emotion rather than one of period. These kids seemed to bridge the past and the present, the adults mired in the past – it is this dynamic that made the seeming culture clash actually gel and propel.

Even the songs took on a new veneer when backed by the passion of these performers. Okay, I still don’t love the score, but now the songs will evoke the moments of the play that gave them life. The opening “Mama Who Bore Me” is a plaintive “What is happening to me?” cry from Wendla, the “angry” songs (“The Bitch of Living,” “The Dark I Know Well,” “Totally F$%^ked”) have a drive and passion missed by a casual listener of the CD. And the final “Song of Purple Summer” is a beautiful hymn to growing, to loss, and to the memory of those who never make it through this “spring.”

What really sells this play for me are how all these contradictory elements seem united, how they create their own world that is perfectly acceptable and perfectly analogous to our own. The ensemble work of the cast is astounding (kudos to Music Director Seth Davis, Director Freddie Ashley, and Choreographer Sarah Turner) for making their various contributions seamless and whole), and the design work (set by Seamus Bourne, costumes by Erik Teague, lights by Joseph P. Monaghan III) creates a world that I was only too happy to visit. This is one of the best-looking, best-sounding shows I’ve seen at Actor’s Express.

So, “Spring Awakening” is a tremendously moving tapestry of adolescence, of the angst and anticipation that create that long and languid span between childhood and adulthood (what I describe as “adolanguescence,” because it’s such a neat-sounding word), where we fight the battles of fast-change maturity with the tools of a child (when our parents and teachers even choose to give us those tools). It is ultimately an emotionally satisfying excursion into the slings and arrows, the fatalities and survivals, the rants and whines of teenagers of every generation.

And it’s a reminder that it’s sometimes short-sighted to pre-judge a show by its original cast recording.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Into the Woods, by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim
Stumping the Story
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
4.0
It’s all about the stories. And the words. Yes, you can concoct scholarly theses centered on the influences of Bettelheim, on the threads of Campbell’s archetypes, on the historical synchronicities and similarities across various cultures, on the seemingly conflicting themes of maturity, wish-fulfillment, responsibility, and “children-as-witness.” All of these (and more) scholarly analyses have come out of the forests of academia. But, in the final analysis, any production of Sondheim and Lapine’s “Into the Woods” is all about the stories. And the words.

But, when a production lets disunified design elements and clever-not-smart ideas compete with the stories (and the words), that production is (sadly) lessened. Such is the case with the Alliance Theatre’s current production of this popular favorite.

First produced in 1986, “Into the Woods” combines several popular fairy tales with a new unifying story, sending its cast off on a classic quest and letting their fondest dreams come true. In the second act, they reap the dire consequences for the choices and compromises they made to win their “I wish” journeys. In other words, Act One is a happy excursion into childhood, the stories we always remember, the “happily ever afters” we always dream. Act Two is the darker journeys of adulthood, the taking of responsibility, the bonding together to achieve a goal, the moments of loss and despair. I have friends who insist that Act Two ruined the play for them, that they preferred the happy endings alone. I think Act Two is really what the play is about. Act One makes “Into the Woods” a good and fun-filled musical. Act Two makes it a GREAT musical.

To admit my biases up front, this is one of my all-time favorite shows. I saw the original production with Bernadette Peters, a Los Angeles production with jazz great Cleo Laine as the witch, several tours of the original, and about a half-dozen community theatre productions, one for which I designed lights. I know this play very well, and, as such, my standards and expectations are high (but not set in stone).

My clever-not-smart sense started tingling even before this show started, when I read costume designer Lex Liang’s concept of using costumes from various periods to produce a “timeless quality,” keeping with the dramaturgical detail that these stories are oft-told in different times and different cultures. In my experience, combining different eras in one story does NOT produce a “timeless quality,” but a “disunity” that distracts from the story (and the words). As soon as we see the Prince in a contemporary tuxedo in a scene with the Baker’s wife in feudal leather, the reaction isn’t “Ooh, Timeless!’ – it’s “WTF? That’s weird!” Individually, the costumes were beautiful and well-rendered, but when they were combined on stage, SOMEONE always seemed to “in the wrong story.”

On the other hand, I really liked the recurring woods-like motifs and colors in the set (by Todd Rosenthal), the lights (by Ken Yunker) and even the costumes. The set abandoned the original flat “storybook” look of the opening (a great choice IMHO) for a large stump out of which grew the various sets and branches, a storybook castle and oversized full moon in the background. Nothing was explicitly tree-like, but everything suggested forest – it was a woods of the imagination that worked so much better than the more realistic approaches too often attempted. In fact, whenever “realism” intruded (a forced perspective roadway that looks silly whenever anyone walks on it, an oversized button that rolls across the stage at a critical moment, a ghostly grandmother tossing a dress out of a tree (Cinderella’s ball gown, which I truly hated for being so out of context – whenever she wore it, Cinderella ALWAYS looked like she was “in the wrong story”).

Another issue I had with the concept was a casting choice. According to director Susan Booth’s program notes, she wanted to emphasis the “children-as-witness” theme that finds its path in the “Children Will Listen” number. As such, the outstanding orchestra was composed entirely of young (and immensely talented) young musicians, visible as part of the design throughout. So why was an adult cast as Little Red Riding Hood? Not to take away from Diany Rodriguez’ marvelous performance, but, being taller than the Baker and of equal stature and coloring to Cinderella, she just seemed, well, creepy. And, when she loses her red cape, she blends in so well I was distracted from the story (and the words) by too many “who is that woman with Cinderella?” moments.

Which brings me to what saves this production for me – the performances. There was really not a weak element in the cast, all of whom handled Sondheim’s music (and words) with remarkable skill and alacrity. I especially liked Angela Robinson’s Witch (whose antlers were a thing of beauty and a joy to behold), the Baker of Mark Price, Jill Ginsberg’s practical (yet starry-eyed) Cinderella, and Courtney Balan’s Baker’s Wife. The smaller roles were filled with many Atlanta actors (Courtney Collins, Jeff McKerley, Brandon O’Dell, Jeanette Illidge) all of who were spot on with their characters and their stories. Credit really needs to go to director Booth, choreographer Daniel Pelzig, and, especially Music Director Helen Gregory for seamlessly orchestrating this wide and disparate canvas into a seemingly unified collection of stories (and words).

So, how far would you go to realize your finest “I wish?” How much of a “mess” will your wish leave for someone else? How many of your arguments will your children hear and forever remember? What do you want to leave behind?

More than a collection of children’s stories, “Into the Woods” is a journey into the heart of adulthood, into what we bring from our childhood, about what we leave for those we lose behind. It’s a musically rich, profoundly moving dream of a show, lyrically complex and emotionally involving. It’s Sondheim at his peak, and I anticipate every new production with a sense of excitement like that of the start of a new forest journey.

And it is a telling fact that, even when a few design choice get in the way of the story (and the words), I am still caught up in the joy and the sadness of the journey. Though I may dwell on the brambles along the way in my comments, what I really remember are the sounds and the smells and he sights of the journey as a whole.

What I really remember are the stories. And the words.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




Panhandle Slim and the Oklahoma Kid, by Jeff Daniels
In the Meantime
Monday, September 26, 2011
3.5
Howdy, y’all! Wanna hear ‘bout how Panhandle Slim was gunned down and tossed into the desert so’s the buzzards wouldn’t get hungry? Wanna hear how he lost his one true love when his own bullet went a-wanderin’? Wanna hear the Oklahoma Kid strum his guitar and sing a few purty songs ‘bout redemption and salvation and all sorts of mystical whatnot?

Well, I’m afraid you cain’t. Y’see, I sorta kinda dawdled my way over to Roswell for this purtickaler show, then sorta kinda dawdled my way when it came time to write up my thoughts (of all the best vices, I like percrastination the best – you can look up that reference tomorrow – or whenever). The upshot is, this show is over, done, hopped the first stage outa town, ambled into the sunset, moseyed over to Boot Hill, is pushin’ up the sagebrush, and is ticklin’ the cactus from unnerneath.

Maybe some time, someone’ll put it back on stage (the flat kind, not the rollin’ kind), and you’ll be able to see it. In the meantime, let me tell y’all ‘bout this purtickaler show, now a memory that grows smaller and whispier ever’ day.

So, are all of us, even the worst of us, worthy of redemption? That’s the question at the heart of this whimsical little confection by Broadway and movie actor Jeff Daniels (“Fly Away Home,“ “Dumb and Dumber,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “The 5th of July,” and many many others). The play opens on a dusty and forlorn desert, snakes rattlin’ in the corners, Spanish ruins lookin’ for all the world like a graveyard. A dune climbs slowly towards Stage Left, so’s you know someone’s eventually gonna do some sorta symbolic “climb to glory.”

A man in black pulls a body on stage, unceremoniously dumps it by a gravestone-lookin’ hunka stucco rubble. With a spit ‘n’ a sneer, the man in black stalks off stage, never to be seen again. But that’s not the end! We hear distant hoof beats, and a man on horseback (well, a horse looking like those in “Spamalot” ) “rides” on stage. He is dust-free, dressed in tight teal leathers, and carries an awfully sweet-soundin' guitar. Yes, my friends, this is the Oklahoma Kid, the singingest cowboy ever to ride a three-octave range, come by to help Panhandle Slim cross over to the other side (for the dying man is indeed Panhandle Slim -- the man, not the legend).

And for the next ninety intermissionless minutes (which, if I recall my schoolmarm’s lessons, is about the same as 450 “Coyote Minutes”), we watch the Kid and Slim recreate that horrible day when sweet Annabelle came betwixt Horse Face Johnson and that wayward bullet from Slim’s Colt 45. Horse Face sure-as-shootin’ had it coming. Annabelle sure-as-shootin’ did not.

Will Panhandle Slim be redeemed so he can join his sweet Annabelle in the sweet hereafter? How can the Oklahoma Kid pass on forgiveness when Slim can’t ever forgive himself? And, in the final scene, who is gonna ride off into that everlastin’ sunset, climb those symbolic sands to glory? The answers may surprise you.

Alright, this is a slim and slight entertainment, a tall tale that could stand a little more exaggeration, a tuneful songfest that could use a little more song, a “Twilight Zone” pastiche that could use a little more woo-woo weirdness. Still, I thunk it were a pleasant diversion, not too long, not too dull, a few songs that were likeable (“In the Meantime”) if not memorable, a lesson in fate and forgiveness that makes its case simply and likeably. It boasted a colorful quartet of talented singers and actors (Rob Lawhon as the Kid, Ryan Richardson as Slim, Geoff McKnight as Horseface and others and the sweet-voiced and sweet-faced Laura Floyd as Annabelle and Mama). It boasted a design team that created an evocative Sooner State-scape (Jonathan Rollins on set, Mike Post on lights, Thom Jenkins on Sound), and it had a costume plot by Linda Patterson that nicely melded the contrastin’ worlds of rough-and-tumble real west, perhaps deceptive memory, and singing-cowboy-movie fantasy.

Which is as good as sayin’ I liked this show but didn’t love it. Mebbe if Mr. Daniels had given Panhandle Slim more to do than just lie around and die, like p’r’aps some test or action he had to take ‘r do to earn his redemption, or if he had given the Oklahoma Kid a darker side that hinted that Slim could be “shepherded” to a warmer and less pleasant ever after should the need arise. I don’t know. Maybe if it felt more like a tall tale than a Western Kumbaya campfire, or if it had touched an emotional level slightly deeper than “’ain’t that nice” pleasantry,

In any case, Mr. Daniels does show a flair for character and dialogue and song, so I have high hopes for future work from him. I even have hopes that one day, he may even send this’n wanderin’ through his word processor for a plot upgrade. In the meantime, “Panhandle Slim and the Oklahoma Kid” meanders nicely like a lazy river, when I would have preferred if it had bubbled and foamed like a white-water rapids.

But, by my reckonin’ y’all’ve missed it (unless you didn’t). So, we’ll let this memory wash through the levees of our theatre year as it wanders slowly into that final delta where all memories are resolved or forgiven or punished.

But, I digress.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Les Miserables (School Edition), by Claude-Michel Schonberg (music), Alain Boubil and Jean-Marc Natel (lyrics), Based off of the novel by Victor Hugo
Do You Hear the Chorus Sing?
Monday, September 26, 2011
4.0
“Les Misérables,” the 1980 Cameron Mackintosh / Boublil & Schönberg musical of the Victor Hugo classic has always been a particular favorite of mine. Although some of Hugo’s plot machinations have been whittled down to the point of clunkiness (the love triangle here appears especially contrived), these shortcomings have always been overwhelmed by the sheer emotional appeal of the music and singers. Throughout the eighties, I saw four productions, all following Mackintosh’s original grandiose staging, all pushing the emotional buttons that still get affected by just listening to the score. I even have three recordings – the Broadway Cast, the Symphonic “Complete Show,” and a hard-to-find tape of the original French production.

A little while back, a new touring company with a fresh interpretation marched through the Fox, and I wrote a giddy rave, extolling its fresh ideas and familiar plot and emotional arc. It was with equally giddy anticipation that I haled to the Cobb Civic Center’s Jennie T. Anderson Theatre for Cobb Children’s Theatre’s summer stock mounting of the school edition.

Now, I’m often skeptical of “Junior” versions of shows, even those adapted and supported by the show’s original creators. I find them condescending to young adults and overly distracting if you know the original well. I stand by that preconception here, even though the only “edit” I noticed (besides a few dozen internal tweaks) was the elimination of the “Castle on a Cloud” reprise, (only because that number, with its lovely counter-melody by Valjean, is one of my favorite musical moments of the original). That’s either a tribute to those who cut the show down, or to the young performers here, who bring a level of commitment and skill that would make a more traditional cast envious.

Before talking about this particular staging, let me recap the libretto and music for those whose memory may be as spotty as my own. The plot condenses Victor Hugo’s sprawling epic into a concise sung-through entertainment, sacrificing some plot credibility for an emotional through-line that carries us on a life-long journey with its hero, Jean Valjean. As a young man, Valjean stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, and, as a result, spent nineteen years as a slave in the French penal system. Upon parole, a small-town priest “buys his soul” with a few pieces of stolen silver. Valjean creates a new identity and eventually becomes mayor of a small town. Through a series of unfortunate incidents, his identity is revealed to Javert, an officer of the law who has made Valjean his personal obsession. Valjean escapes and raises an orphan girl, Cosette. Eventually, the years lead them to Paris where a sudden student uprising captures them all in a web of love and duty and honor. The epilog takes us through Cosette’s wedding and the peaceful end of Valjean’s long and painful journey.

For the purposes of this production, a few indulgences need to be asked of the audience. There were the usual shaky spotlights and shakier set pieces. And, because CCT summer stock shows are open only to middle school, high school, and college students, the really “young” roles (Young Cosette, Young Eponine, and Gavroche) are necessarily too old … well, too tall … to be fully convincing in the roles. In this case, however, they are played so well, that it’s a problem easily overlooked (except in “One Day More,” when the gangly Gavroche looks decidedly awkward perched on the shoulders of an older actor of similar height).

However, an indulgence more difficult to give, was the over-reliance on over-amplification. All the soloists were miked to the hilt, and the volume mix was so hot that everyone stayed in their “head voices.” The absence of energetic belts drained many of the numbers of their energy and power, despite the quality of the singing. This was especially true in “I Dreamed a Dream,” which maintained an “even’ intensity throughout, losing that final emotional belt that really sells the song.

Worse, the chorus was not miked, and they too often faded into the background. I was sitting in the first row, and I often had difficulty hearing them. I have no doubt that students of this caliber are fully capable of filling the Anderson auditorium with sound, and, why they didn’t here I can only ascribe to too much reliance on those crackly head mikes.

Another issue with this particular staging was that Director Ryan Karstensen apparently blocked only for the Center section. Sight lines from my vantage point in House Left were often restricted. For example, I seldom actually saw older Cosette’s face, and “A Little Fall of Rain” was completely obscured (this was my daughter’s first trip to “Les Miz” and she had no idea what had happened to Eponine).

On the other hand, I can’t praise the cast and Music Director Jennifer Loudermilk enough. This is a difficult score, and all the principles were up to the task. The sound from the chorus was full and rich (if too-often softer than expected). Special kudos to Ryan O’Leary’s Valjean, Marcus Rodriguez’ Javert, Samantha Blinn’s Cosette, Ellen Mitchell’s Fantine, Scout Powell’s Young Cosette, Mary Ellen Norwood’s Eponine, and the Thenardiers of Ian Mallon and Stephanie Ward. I truly expect to see all of them in future area musical endeavors.

So, to summarize, this didn’t feel like an exercise in “watching other people’s children” as can so often happen with student productions. It felt like a fully realized performance that told the story with all the emotional highs and lows intact. It was a wonderful introduction to the show for my daughter, and I truly believe the cast deserves all the praise and support that came from their families and friends. This “Les Misérables” was well worth a visit if you’re an old musical geek, if you’re a youngster yet to make your first acquaintance, or if you’re only interested in a beautifully wrought evening in the Theatre. Even with the technical quibbles I cited above, I was caught up in the sweep of the story, the beauty and theatricality of the presentation, and the raw emotional energy of the performances. I have heard this music literally hundreds of time, and, given productions of this quality, the joy of this show will never fade for me.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



The Green Book, by Calvin Alexander Ramsey
Safe Passage
Monday, September 26, 2011
4.5
Between 1936 and 1964, a Harlem postal employee and civic leader named Victor Green published a travel guide for African Americans called “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book.” It soon became known as “The Green Book,” and it listed hotels and restaurants and service stations that were “friendly” to African Americans travelling through the Jim Crow years. It also listed private homes in which travelers could find a safe haven and perhaps a free meal.

In Calvin Alexander Ramsey’s “The Green Book,” a play receiving its world premiere production at Theatrical Outfit, we visit such a private home, that of Dan and Barbara Davis. It’s 1953 in Missouri and W.E.B. Dubois is giving a lecture nearby. The warm and inviting home is jumping with guests. George Smith, a decorated WWII veteran and his wife are moving on to another army base. Keith Chenault, a sales rep for Dwight Green, is closing on a major deal to include a chain of previously whites-only service stations. And the Davises themselves, along with their teenage daughter Neena, are anxious to see Dr. Dubois’ lecture (though Neena can’t easily hide her schoolgirl crush on the young and obviously wealthy Chenault).

They are soon joined by a white man, Victor Lansky, who refuses to stay in any hotel that discriminates against anyone. Why he has made this choice, why he is welcomed with open arms by the Davises, and why his very presence rankles Keith Chenault become the engine that drives this gripping and always compelling play.

Coming from my white suburban background, I had never known of this historical artifact, and, especially in my naïve youth, I couldn’t imagine the need for it. After all, travel was always easy for us, given the plentiful Howard Johnsons, turnpike Rest Stops, and sleepy motels. This is my answer to those critics who say that the play overstates historical obviousness, that the tales told, the conflicts sparked, and the motivations explored have been told time and time again.

Yes, Keith Chenault may be a blatant villain, a bigot who resents a white “intrusion” into his haven, a profiteer who likes segregation because of the money it puts in his pocket. Yes, Victor Lansky is a character we’ve seen before, a Holocaust survivor whose tales of persecution and bigotry outweigh anything even the Jim Crow south can claim. But the reality of the play, of the characters, of the dialogue, shows that this superficial analysis is dead wrong.

Because, more often than is comfortable, Chenault is right. Because the institutionalization of bigotry in the South was (and is) every bit as soul-stripping as the more blatant atrocities of the Holocaust. It’s a difference of scale, not of character. And, given enough time, there’s no doubt that the worst of the Jim Crow “spirit” could very easily have engendered an American Holocaust.

And, Victor often does come across as a bit arrogant in a “my suffering is worse than yours” contest that threatens to undermine his seemingly politically-correct attitudes towards race. And, as is true of any play with a Holocaust theme, he has suffered more than is due for anyone – the atrocities he describes are both sadly familiar and deeply harrowing,

And, in the final analysis, isn’t the extent to which he and his family sacrificed too many parts of themselves in order to survive a mirror image to the exploitation Keith engages in? Don’t both of them have an unacknowledged kinship in the fact that the choices they have made for survival stripped away too many layers of who they claim to be? Aren’t both characters men who will do anything to survive?

This cast is typical of what we have come to expect at Theatrical Outfit, consummate storytellers with a flair for character and surprise. Neal A. Ghant imbues Keith with enough charm and ambition that we understand his choices even as we are appalled by them. Take note especially of the final scenes, when he comes face to face with the true cost of the deal he has made, with the true cost of the riches he is bound to earn – it is a sublime blend of guilt and pride, of an “I can’t let this hold me back” determination that doesn’t ignore the true pain it has cost.

And Barry Stewart Mann brings Victor to life in ways that transcend his “role” as the stock survivor character. Yes, his stories are crafted to show us the extremes of suffering, to give us still more Holocaust stories that try to be worse than the last ones we were told. But that suffering is clearly written on his face, and makes them seem alive, much more so than any textbook rendering of the era could make them.

In supporting roles Archie Lee Simpson, Donna Biscoe, and Veanna Black (as the Davises) and E. Roger Mitchell and Sharisa Whatley (as the Smiths) convincingly play real people caught up in this historical moment, saintly in their ambitions but down-to-earth on their moment-by-moment interactions. And Rob Cleveland makes a welcome cameo as Dwight Green, providing a little bit of historical context and exposition without seeming to intrude on the main story.

The set by R. Paul Thomason is a comfortable and clean middle class home, with a pleasant living room and kitchen (the kitchen’s seeming purpose to give teenage Neena a place to eavesdrop on the Keith/Victor conflict, disabusing her of any “hero-worship” she felt towards Keith). Director Freddie Hendricks uses the space well, and keeps the play moving and electric. All the technical elements combine well and disappear professionally behind the power of this story.

One of the production’s PR releases mentioned that there is a particular irony in producing this play at this venue, as the former Herren’s restaurant at this location was one of the first (in 1962) to voluntarily integrate, and would “no doubt have been included in the Green Book.” The only problem with that assessment is that 1962 was only two years before the Civil Rights act, only two years before the “Green Book” ceased publication. In other words, Herren’s desegregation may have been a case of “too little too late” to be a true part of the “Green Book’s” full history.

In any case, I did track down an on-line facsimile of the 1949 edition. The few listings for Atlanta include one “tourist home,” six hotels (one of which was the Butler Street YMCA), one Beauty Shop, two Barber Shops, three Service Stations, one Garage, three Restaurants (Sutton’s on Auburn Ave, Hawk’s on Auburn Ave, and Dew Drop Inn on Ashby St), and three Taverns (Yeah Man on Auburn Ave, Sportsman’s Smoke Shop on Auburn Ave, and Butler’s on Simpson Rd). Apparently, Atlanta had very few options for the African American traveler, almost none away from Auburn Ave.

Still and all, I’m very grateful for Theatrical Outfit for shining a spotlight on this forgotten artifact of Americana, and for doing it with such a well-written, well-acted production. It sometimes depresses me how much of American history I was never taught, and never bothered to learn. Let me close with two quotes from the 1949 cover:

“Carry your Green Book with you -- You may need it (75 cents)”
“’Travel is fatal to prejudice’ – Mark Twain”

And that, my friends, says it all!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

Link to “Green Book” 1949 Facsimile:
http://www.autolife.umd.umich.edu/mwg-internal/de5fs23hu73ds/progress?id=2nPDtl4y8u



The Two Gentlemen of Verona, by William Shakespeare
Tyro Will
Monday, September 26, 2011
4.0
So, having reached its goal of being the first American company to produce the entire Shakespearean canon, The Shakespeare Tavern has decided NOT to rest on its whew-we-did-it laurels, but to launch an even more ambitious project – “The Evolution Series.” In one season, they plan on producing all the Shakespearean comedies in the order they were written, letting us experience first-hand the development of the genius that was Shakespeare. To quote the company’s PR release (by Kristin Hall):

The Shakespeare Evolution Series in its current form contains three or four phases based on play genre, rather than simply working its way through Shakespeare’s plays one by one. First up the company will perform all of Shakespeare’s comedies in their order of composition, moving then to the tragedies to trace how the Bard’s tragic style developed, next showing how he combined both styles in his late ‘tragicomic’ romances (including The Tempest) and hopefully, if scheduling and finances allow, eventually ending with an extravaganza of Shakespeare’s history plays. But this ordering system doesn’t mean that audiences will have to cry through the entire second round after laughing through the first. The company hopes to sprinkle plays from different genres alongside each production—for instance, giving audiences a few chances to see the comedy As You Like It, supposedly written the same year as the tragedy Julius Caesar, during the tragedy’s run.

As a confirmed Bardophile of many decades, I can only applaud this plan. Personally, I’d like to see some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries’ works just to give some perspective on what theatrical influences affected his work. After all, Shakespeare’s theatre didn’t exist in a vacuum – he was just one of many actor/playwrights working in London.

Still, I look forward to seeing the entire canon again (and again (and again)).

So, Two Gentlemen of Verona! What does this production tell us about the tyro bard, the genius that will be? Just to recap the plot (from The Pocket Companion to Shakespeare by J C Trewin):

Valentine, seeking to be “tutor’d in the world,” goes with his servant Speed from Verona to Milan, saying goodbye to his friend Proteus. Presently, Proteus, enamored to Julia (as she is of him), is also ordered by his father to leave for Milan. There Valentine falls in love with the Duke’s daughter, Silvia; when Proteus arrives they tell him that because the Duke prefers a wealthier suitor, Thurio, they propose to elope. Proteus, himself infatuated with Silvia, informs the Duke.

What happens next, I’ll leave for you to discover.

The first thing that’s obvious as that even here, Shakespeare uses most of the plot devices that inform almost all of his comedies – Lust overcoming true love (for a bit), betrayal and reversal, women disguised as men (a natural device since women were not allowed on the Elizabethan stage), servants “tweaking” their masters, fathers making arbitrary decisions regarding their daughters’ marriage prospects, high-brow angst and low-brow buffoonery (even, with the character of Sir Eglamour, high-brow buffoonery).

One thing to note here is that one of our heroes, Proteus, acts in a way that is despicable and cruel. He betrays his best friend and his “true love.” He abandons his principles at the mere sight of a pretty face – “lust at first sight” totally apart from any true knowledge (or even acquaintance) of the object of his new desire. And yet, we can’t help but NOT dislike him. He jumps through pretzel-logic hoops to rationalize his choices and his actions, but, in Jonathan Horne’s capable performance, leaves him with a bucketful of charm that makes his ultimate forgiveness by Valentine and Julia, (not to mention us) fully inevitable. Already, Shakespeare shows himself capable of creating well-defined characters who retain an audience’s sympathy despite their unsympathetic actions. You could almost say that that Proteus lays the groundwork for such future characters as Edmund, Iago, MacBeth, Claudius, and, especially, Richard III – villains we can’t help but like.

Another thing to note is how fully dimensional his women are. True, Silvia is dismissed by many scholars as nothing but a pretty face, a “hollow” character whose only purpose is to move the plot. But, take note of how steadfast she is in her affection for Valentine and her disdain for Proteus. Take note of how she defies her father at every turn. This is a fully-formed woman, fully deserving of Valentine’s love (and even Proteus’ lust). And Julia is a remarkable creation, totally unlike any other woman in the canon. When we first meet her, she is a comic whirlwind, letting her insecurities capriciously bounce her from one action to regret to reaction to still more regret. Yet, when she finally settles on Proteus, she is relentless in her pursuit, in her trust of him despite his actions. When you compare Silvia and Julia with the so-called heroines of Marlowe, Jonson, and Middleton, it’s easy to see that Shakespeare, from the start, was light years ahead of his contemporaries.

True, there are some immaturities in this play. This is the only time Shakespeare wrote a major role for a dog (and kudos to male-impersonating Sandy as Crab, as nuanced a canine as one could wish for). Some of the humor is less than subtle, and some of the language sing-song doggerel Of course it’s doggerel! What do you expect with a canine in the cast!

Still, I have to admire this production as a whole. It’s filled with laughter and emotion and suspense and it’s plain to see that Shakespeare’s “muse of fire” is on high flame and full throttle. The performances by the Tavern troupe are uniformly admirable, especially the aforementioned Mr. Horne and his eponymous partner Kenneth Wigley (Valentine), the women (Amee Vyas as Julia and Kati Grace Morton as Silvia), and the servants (Matt Felton as Speed and Daniel Parvis as Launce). The ensemble work is top-notch and Laura Cole directs the whole thing with her usual flair for comedy and language.

So, I applaud the Tavern’s ambitious new Evolution series, I congratulate them on a marvelous first production, and I close by describing why I enjoy visiting tavern itself, using Valentine’s final words: “One feast, one house, one mutual happiness.”

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



There Goes The Bride, by By Ray Cooney & John Chapman
Twits Amok
Friday, August 26, 2011
4.0
Ray Cooney has written a bucket-full of farces, and Marietta’s CenterStage North has become the local “go-to” group for doing them right (i.e, fast and furious). They’ve recently completed a (literal) run of 1974’s “There Goes the Bride,” which Mr. Cooney wrote in collaboration with John Chapman. True to the Cooney formula, we have the standard farce of embarrassment – a character blithely unaware of his effect on those around him, while everyone else jumps through increasingly desperate hoops to hide what’s really going on.

In this case, it’s Timothy Westerby, father of the bride and advertising executive, balancing the shrill demands of a demanding client (a Bra salesman, of course), with the increasingly disaster-prone wedding of his daughter. Due to an untimely whack on the head, he imagines the “flapper girl” of his campaign coming to doe-eyed, clingy life. With another whack on the head, he’s sure he’s a twenties socialite himself, treating his own home like a hotel and his family and colleagues as if they were the hotel staff. When the disapproving father of the groom arrives from Australia, all Westerby breaks loose, as everyone tries to sweep the loopy loon under the rug, imaginary flapper and all.

I thought this one started off on a mis-step, with an awkward on-stage costume change (trying to remove a nightgown AFTER putting on a tight-fitting wedding dress over it) that strains credibility (even for farce) and slows the pace. Things improve a little when the marvelous John Stanier (as Westerby) arrives and his flapper vision (Amy Lester) begins dancing around the room. But, the comic potential of an hallucination is limited at best, and most of the first act comes across as more desperate writing than desperate farceur-ating.

However, when Mr. Westerby is transported back to the twenties and we’re plunged into Act Two, the play positively takes off through the stratosphere of silliness and absurdity. It doesn‘t hurt that Mr. Stanier puts on an upper-class twit accent right out of Monty Python that stirs the giggle-pot every time he opens his mouth (which, of course, he does often and inappropriately). The increasing desperation of his wife (Lisa Clark), his partner (Jim Wilgus), and his almost-dithering in-laws (Gloria Szokoly and Murray Sarkin) add to the mayhem, which is given an added boost by the blustery anger of the father-of-the-groom (Brad Corbin). Even the poor bride (Kimberly Lowe) is reduced to hiding in her room as her running mascara turns her into a raccoon.

To be fully honest, I’ve found the works of Mr. Cooney’s to be a mixed bag, many of them hitting familiar notes and melodies, with contrivances laid on thicker than barrel of clichés. Too often, when in the hands of farceurs of limited experience, these plays can be downright deadly. Here, though, once the play gets going, it is sheer delight. My mixed reaction to the opening may be more a function of an “off night” or my own limited expectations, and, to be fair, the audience seemed to eat up (Mr. Cooney is a favorite of the CSN audience base).

So, “There Goes the Bride” has gone the way of all closed farces (behind a door somewhere and up to something embarrassingly naughty). But its memory lingers still, Charlestoning its glorious way into generating a silly grin every time I think of it. Most plays should be this fortunate!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)





On Golden Pond, by Ernest Thompson
Still Life With Old Poop
Friday, August 26, 2011
3.5
To open its landmark 30th Season, Marietta’s Theatre in the Square has gone back to its roots, giving a new production of its very first play, Ernest Thompson’s sweet and popular “On Golden Pond.” I’ve liked this play since I first read it decades ago, enjoyed the movie version, and even worked on a production in my pre-Atlanta days. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it (since I’ve relaxed with the loons, so to speak), and I was anticipating this production as if it were a return trip to a favorite vacation spot.

True to my expectations, I found a production that was a comfortable retelling of a familiar story, a return visit to some pleasant characters to while away a hot summer evening. This time, though, there were a couple of problems that dampened the evening, almost as much as a sudden rainstorm mucks up a refreshing mountain hike.

But first, since this play is not as often produced as once it was, let me recap the plot. Norman and Ethel Thayer are beginning the summer as they have for the past umpteen decades of their marriage – retreating to their quiet Maine retreat along the shores of Golden Pond. Their daughter Chelsea soon arrives with her current beau (“Bill Ray”) and his young son (“Billy”). When, Chelsea and Bill Ray escape for a romantic European “pre-Honeymoon,” leaving Billy behind, Norman and Thayer find themselves dusting off their rusty parenting skills and dealing with an empty nest that’s not so empty any more.

However, all this is just a pretext for a tackle-box full of casual conversations, vents built on old resentments, gentle ruminations on parenthood and spousehood, and not a few reminiscences, both pleasant and not-so. The family dynamics are fairly straightforward, but the characters are all sharply defined and the dialog sharp and sassy.

So, what’s not to like about this warm puppy of a play?

My biggest objection here is the design of the set. At first glance, it is a beautifully rendered cabin retreat, a multi-leveled getaway backed by a well-done painting of Golden Pond itself. Wide French doors along the back keep the backdrop in constant view. The whole thing is almost breathtaking in its beauty and in its seeming “rightness” for the setting, often dressed in technical wizardry that takes it from sunny splendor, to sunset stillness to stormy foggery.

Let’s pause for a moment, though. French Doors on a lakeside cabin? Perhaps. But, a significant plot point is a screen door in need of repair. Does it make logistical sense to place said screen door beside a set of French doors, than watch people pass by the usable doors only to complain about the broken screen door beside it? Not so much!

In addition to that, at a number of points throughout, the characters refer to windows along the fourth wall looking out on the lake. This would mean the house must be on a peninsula jutting into the lake, and be only about a dozen feet wide, something that doesn’t make logistical sense. My sense was that the entire design focused on that beautiful backdrop, almost underscoring the still-life painted-on whitecaps that distract with their obvious artificiality.

But, on the other hand, this cast is (almost) uniformly excellent, imbuing these characters with personality and surprise. Peter Thomasson and Judy Leavell, though too young for the roles, nevertheless carry the ages naturally. More to the point, they come across as a couple, as two people for whom the honeymoon never really ended, and who know each other better than themselves. I loved every moment they were on stage (which, truth to tell, is most of the play). Young Elijah Marcano (**) was also wonderful as Billy, showing a perfect combination of pre-teen disdain and innocence. Charles Horton is fine as Bill Ray and Bart Hansard does his usual comic unusual as local postman/handyman Charlie.

I also liked Agnes Lucinda Harty’s Chelsea, with one exception. When she has her venting moment in Act Two, it comes across as too angst-in-the-treetops over-the-top, totally out of proportion to its instigation (lingering resentment and jealousy over how Norman has quickly bonded with Billy). I always saw the scene as an “after tremor,” a further expression of anger that had long since been moved to the “back burner” (and, indeed, that’s how it was played in the movie). Here, it comes across a pressure cooker at the bursting point, as if the fire is still on high. Whether my interpretation of the scene is correct or not, the effect is of a spoiled, still-adolescent girl whose description of her father is totally out-of-synch to the crotchety but loveable eccentric we’ve been watching all evening.

Still, when all is said and done, this is a welcome revival of a well-liked play, a chance to visit characters and relax with them by the shores of a favorite lake. If the play has always been the theatrical equivalent of a still-life watercolor (and if the tableau backdrop makes it even more so), what of that? It makes its simple points gently and easily, then lets us relax, kick back, and bask in the company of these characters.

And, I’d be an old poop indeed if I let a few quibbles ruin the vacation!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

(**) Young Mr. Marcano will be alternating with Charlie Garland in this role. 

A Chorus Line, by
Singularly Sensational
Friday, August 26, 2011
5.0
Two years ago, I had some faint praise for a new touring company of “A Chorus Line.” Although I loved its energy, its story and its music, I found fault with a few wrinkles the past few decades have thrown into the story.

Now, Aurora Theatre has mounted its own production, and, I am pleased that this time, all my nitpicking reservations have been dispatched by a razzmatazz high-kicking production that brings back everything that made it such a popular favorite way back when.

Before discussing the merits of this cast and production, let me plagiarize my own review from the 2009 tour.

During the seventies (I was in my twenties, then), I’d seen “A Chorus Line” about a half dozen times, loving it every time. Even though I trip over all my left feet every time I try to dance, I still saw it as “my” story – a young person’s story of drive, of ambition, of finding that muse that gives meaning to life.

Now that I’m in my (late) fifties, a different muse, a different drive gets me through the day, but I still can’t help but find a place of affection for this piece. Indeed, Aurora’s production is the first time I’ve seen it in a comparatively intimate venue (touring houses and Broadway’s Shubert are notoriously cavernous and distancing), and it puts an old (but new) veneer on everything. By old, I mean that the play was developed in the intimate setting of New York’s Public Theatre. By new, I mean that I’ve never seen it this way, where I could see (almost smell) the dancers’ sweat and feel every thump of their feet hitting the floorboards. (An interesting digression – the AJC’s review of this production was muted at best, but the critic admitted to seeing it from an upper corner of the balcony – I wonder how far back this intimate “in your lap dance” feel was effective!)

So, what about my previous quibbles? The opening number no longer feels too long -- a lot of personality sparks keep the dancers from having that same-old same-old faceless quality the tour had, giving them an individuality not seen before. The cast still seems too 70’s politically correct (each cast member represents a single particular cultural/ethnic combination), but now, it just helps establish the period (which, not coincidentally, also makes the almost quaint attitudes towards homosexuality work). The pseudo-suspense of “who will be cast” no longer seems to be an issue, because, frankly, the show always was more about “how did we get here” than “who will win,” (**) and any suspense is necessarily contrived and arbitrary. Okay, the adolescence number (“Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen”) still seems long, but now, it gradually builds momentum to a frenzied climax, so it doesn’t seem TOO long. After all, most of these characters are less than a decade out of adolescence, so it makes sense that all those angst-filled years are still very much on their minds.

As before, any quibbles pale in comparison to everything that still works. The youthful drive and energy of the cast (were any of them even alive when the show first opened?), the confessions that strike at the heart at choosing a necessarily short-term career in dance, the bits of candor that ring true even now, the air of hopeful desperation and half-expected rejection. I still love the simplistic stagecraft, the mirrors that multiply the cast into infinity, the faceless final number that drives home the point that these are NOT the stars of tomorrow. And I still love the climactic “What would you do if you can’t dance?” scene, a dramatic high point that ties the show together and underscores that these kids are in it because they have no other choice – they can’t NOT dance.

The choreography by Jen MacQueen recalls the original without slavishly imitating it, and contains enough subtlety and newness that, for me, it was fresh and alive. And Ann-Carol Pence’s musical direction is up to (perhaps beyond) her usual high bar of excellence – these are 19 voices that blend beautifully and soar individually without being overpowered by the very seventies-sounding orchestra.

It was also a pleasure seeing familiar local faces inhabiting these characters without slavishly mimicking those who’ve played them before. I was especially impressed by Courtney Godwin’s Val, Leslie Bellair’s Connie, Kelly Schmidt’s Maggie, Angela Harris’ Kristine, Marissa Druzbanski’s Diana, Pamela Gold’s Cassie, and David Rossetti’s Paul. It may be unfair singling out these few, because everyone had their moments to shine, even the “extras” cut after the first number. When they all high-kick their way into anonymous synchronization, it’s sheer joy to watch.

So, exactly how have the decades changed me and my perception of this show? Well, the “Things I do for Love” have definitely suffered some “scope creep.” The acquisition of family (and mortgage) have rearranged my priorities, and there’s little I cannot NOT do (seeing plays and writing about them being the obvious exception). Rather than identifying with these characters as I did in my twenties, I now look at them with nostalgia, with an older person’s sense of “I wish I could find that passion again.” The irony inherent in that statement, of course, is, that if we are suitably passionate about anything, we rarely see it as “passion” – just as part of who we really are.

To fall back on a critic’s cliché, “A Chorus Line” is still a “Singular Sensation” and this production is singularly sensational. In spite of a few passing-decades-stress-cracks, it can still high-kick its way into your heart. It is a young person’s show that brought back to life the young person I still believe I am.

A final digression -- the AJC also commented that too many of the cast looked “out of shape.” All I can say is, looks or not, any group that can perform this aggressively energetic choreography while having the stamina (and breath) to belt out these numbers with this quality, are in much better shape than I could ever hope to be.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

** Wouldn’t an interesting twist be to alter the ending so a different eight are chosen each performance? The cast wouldn’t know if they were being “cast,” the audience would have its expectations ripped akimbo, and the long final walk into position would actually have some real suspense. Just a thought.


Urinetown - The Musical, by Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis
Ap-PEE-sement
Friday, August 26, 2011
4.0
If this were a review of a musical called “Urinetown,” it would probably start with a tacky toilet-humor title, and acknowledge my on-going biases due to my relationship/friendship with director Rob Hardie and Next Stage Theatre. Heck, he even talked me into giving a curtain speech this time, and holding my review until later in the run!

If this were a review of a musical called “Urinetown,” it would downplay the Small Budget constraints that were overcome with a top-notch cast, a wonderfully talented band, a urinal-full of energetic choreography, a bucket-full of marvelous singing, and a pot-full of inspired directorial flourishes (the opening announcements in particular), while admitting that the lighting design truly sucked wind (*) and the set design could have used a LOT more “distressing” (we’re in a low-rent amenity, after all, not a high-end spa).

If this were a review of a musical called “Urinetown,” it would praise to the seven seas and seventy sewers the work of leads Brian Clements, Connor Crank, Michelle Peck, Amanda Hardie, Rob Hardie, and, especially, Alli Sheahan, who was the funniest and loveliest Hope Cladwell I’ve ever seen.

It would also acknowledge the strong and singularly excellent supporting work by everyone else. Or, more accurately the plurally excellent work, since most played multiple roles, rich and poor, relieved and backed-up (especially Kirsten Milliken and Chris Davis who positively dripped anticipatory relish in “Snuff that Girl”).

If this were a review of a musical called “Urinetown,” it would plagiarize from reviews of past productions, referring to the constant references to other musicals, the self-conscious and unconscious costuming allusions (I counted at least five musicals represented in the costuming plot, but was assured only two were intentional).

Finally, if this were a review of a musical called “Urinetown,” it would end with a protestation of my own tastefulness, after evoking the self-referential tone of the work in question.

However, this not a review of a musical called “Urinetown.” After all, I have far too many biases and far too much good taste to even see such a play.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


(*) I am intimately aware of the tech problems of the old Blackwell venue, having fought them myself last month for “The Last Five Years,” and on an ongoing basis with Children’s Garden Theater. However, even given the difficulty of the barriers, I got the distinct impression the designer made no effort to work with the lights that were available – scenes were generally badly mixed and focused, with random “hot spots” and too-low specials. On the other hand, Officer Lockstock’s footlights were a thing of beauty and joy to behold.



Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, by Richard Alfieri
Pas de Deux
Monday, August 15, 2011
4.5
Two years ago, the 2008 Atlanta Theatre year opened with Georgia Ensemble’s production of “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks.” I called I an “almost perfect play,” and, to this day, it remains one of my fondest memories from 2008. Now, Stage Door Players has remounted the production, bringing back the G.E.T. cast, director, and, well, one from the design team. The more intimate Dunwoody venue seemed to exaggerate a tiny few of the weaknesses of the script, but, more often, it also exaggerated the production’s strengths. Herewith is a (mostly) plagiarized remounting of my 2008 comments.

Let’s call this review “Six Theatre Excellence Lessons in Six Paragraphs.”

Lesson One: The Script

Step One in creating an excellent Theatrical Experience is selecting the right script. Richard Alfieri’s “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” is a winner. A 2003 Broadway also-ran, this play is much better than its early reviews showed. Mr. Alfieri has created two characters who snap and snipe at each other, arguing their way into an unlikely friendship. Yes, he pushes our emotional buttons, but he does it in a way I didn’t mind. These are aggravating characters we can’t help but like. It starts out with a highly contrived set-up – Middle-Aged Gay Dancer is put in a room with an elderly Southern Baptist Preacher’s wife – guess where this is going! But, in spite of what seems to be a highly predictable arc, they end up surprising us. Constantly. The play is structured in seven scenes, the six lessons with a “bonus lesson” added as a coda. Each scene uncovers a different layer of the characters, changing the nature of the friendship with each revelation, and changing our perceptions of them. And, it manages to make us laugh with them (and at them) as we dance along with them.

What the Stage Door production can’t hide though are some too-fast emotional and character transitions. The larger Georgia Ensemble venue, with its necessary project-to-the-back-of-the-stalls playing style, may have hidden some of these whiplash changes. But, you know, this is a common playwrighting shortfall than can be easily overcome by realistic and compelling performances. Which brings me to …

Lesson Two: The Actors

Step Two is finding the right actors. Jackie Prucha and Robert Egizio once again show themselves to be a perfect fit. I’ve been a fan of Ms. Prucha for some time, and she doesn’t disappoint here. Her Lily is all sharp edges and fragile glass. She made me believe her journey in spite of all the surprises the script has in store. And she made me laugh and cry at the same time, just by walking across the room to answer the door. Robert Egizio’s Michael is once again a perfect match for Ms. Prucha’s Lily, a bull in a China Shop, a large warm fuzzy hiding a fragile center. Together, the two are a perfect team, working off each other’s reactions. I was reminded of the line form “March of the Falsettos”: “Of all the lesser passions, we love fighting the most.” It may be that the characters as written are as shallow as the early critics of the play claimed. But, Ms. Prucha and Mr. Egizio made them live for me. And they dance (and fight) well together.

Because of the intimacy of the Stage Door venue, they also now display a much wider range of both subtlety and emotion. This certainly makes the script lapses more palatable and definitely makes my emotional attachment to them deeper and (almost) wiser.

Lesson Three: The Direction

Step Three is conceiving and directing the piece to focus our attention on the actors. Blocking for two characters can be a challenge – the impulse is keep out of their way and let them “feel their way” through the play. Robert J. Farley has made the more difficult choice of making each and every move add to the arc of the play. Not afraid to let them sit and talk to each other for long stretches, he is also not afraid to let them square off and argue from opposite sides of the stage. Each character seems to have his or her “safe place” where they can feel some protection, and each seems to be unafraid to “invade” the other. Or maybe, Mr. Farley stayed out of their way, and trusted their good instincts. Sometimes, it’s hard to judge.

Here, Mr. Farley has adapted well to the differing paradigms of two-side blocking. The movements are fluid and convincing, and not once do they seem to play only to the middle aisle, a mis-step I’ve seen far too often in non-proscenium venues.

Lesson Four: The Set

Step Four is to put the story on a set that reflects the characters and adds to the experience. Designer Chuck Welcome has borrowed freely from Scott Sargent’s G.E.T. set, Lily’s St. Petersburg Beach condominium. It is backed by a Gulf-and Sky cyclorama that gives plenty of opportunities for mood-enhancing pictures. And, it perfectly reflects Lily’s “everything must be perfectly in its place” character, a fragile museum that is invaded by Michael’s expansive character.

Lesson Five: The Tech Support

Step Five is to add a tech support team that is in tune with the director and designer’s vision. The perfect sunsets, the back-lit tableaus, the bright storm-required artificial light, the mood-setting surf sounds, the musical selections – all are just right. If there is such a thing as a perfect “tech ensemble” – this is it. Kudos to Mr. Welcome, Jim Alford (Costumes), John David Williams (Lights), and Dan Bauman (Sound).

Lesson Six: Putting it all Together

And, of course, the final step is to make all the aspects work well together. A play should be more than the sum of its parts, and here it is. Afterwards, I can sit down and praise all the parts separately (as a well-behaved ex-pseudocritic should), but, when all is said and done, if all the elements don’t gel, it becomes a shallow exercise. Here, the effort is funny, moving, and sublime. And the final moment is still a perfect amalgam of character, performance, lighting, and song. It made me stand up and cheer. I walked out with a definite dance in my heart.

So, once again, I’ll sing the praises of Robert and Jackie, of Mr. Farley and playwright Alfieri. His bio shows that Mr. Alfieri is working on a screenplay adaptation of this, and, though IMDB.com lists it as “In Development” for a 2012 release, I look forward to seeing it.

This play is a wonderful pas de deux for two actors, a roller-coaster emotional ride that brings a lump to your throat and a tickle to your funny bone. And, once again, it’s given a production that is much greater than the sum of its parts.

And that’s no Cha Cha Cha!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)






Noises Off, by Michael Frayn
Of Doors and Sardines
Monday, August 15, 2011
4.5
It’s not that “Noises Off” may well be an actor-proof show. This is ironic considering how difficult it is to perform, how the logistics of props and sets could stymie an MIT valedictorian, and how the cast needs the stamina of Olympiads to pull it off. But, when all is said and done, how is an audience supposed to know the difference between a production faux pas and a scripted faux pas?

It’s not that farce is by its nature a shallow creature, that any effort to parse the sardine symbolism is doomed from the start (are they spiritual or merely metaphysical?), or that deeply sociological theses cannot be written on the place of slapstick in creating a cultural milieu, or that a discussion of the sexual politics of stiff-upper-lip Brits prancing about in their lingerie will uncover anything of interest, or that allegorical inferences cannot be made on the parallels between the Voice of God and the Voice of Lloyd.

It’s not that I haven’t seen (and worked on) productions of this show many times in the past (and that there are at least two more local productions scheduled before year’s end) and that it never fails to please, never fails to surprise, never fails to strike at the marrow of my funny bone.

It’s not that I haven’t written about this play before, or that I will refrain from plagiarizing myself in my plot summary, to wit: For the un-initiated, Act One gives us the final Dress Rehearsal of a tired old Sex Comedy called “Nothing On” that is about to “tour the provinces.” The cast is living out a soap opera, the props have minds of their own, the director has his mind more on his next gig, and every eccentricity is thrown into the mined arena for a winner-takes-all fight to the death. During the first intermission, the set is turned around, we see a performance well into the tour, with backstage antics more frantic and desperate than anything onstage. Finally, the set turns around again, and we’re given the disaster-riddled result of weeks on the road, when everything that can go wrong goes incredibly disastrous.

It’s not that this is one of the funniest plays about the theatre ever produced, giving us thespic types characters we can’t help but recognize– the diva, the vacant starlet, the overbearing director, the over-exhausted tech guy, the over-innocent stage manager, the over-gossipy mother-hen, the over-insecure actor, the over-inebriated veteran.

It’s not that this production is not without its faults (a slightly languorous axe sequence, a Cockney accent a li’’le too bri’’le to be fully understood, a too well-groomed Selsdon) or without its pleasant surprises (Freddie’s costume, Brooke’s Act II pratfall, the curtain call).

It’s not that this cast isn’t up to the standards the Georgia Shakespeare troupe has set – Kayser’s Lloyd, Cook’s Dotty, Knezevich’s Garry, Kincaid’s Belinda, and Edwards’ Selsdon are all letter-perfect and tempo-hot, and they are nicely complemented by (relative) newcomers Ann Marie Gideon (Brooke), Mark Cabus (Freddie), Scott Warren (Tim), and Caitlin McWethy (Poppy),

It’s not that Scenic Designer Kat Conley, Costume Designer Doug Koertge, Lighting Designer Mike Post, and Sound Designer Clay Benning haven’t put together the perfect technical playground for these farceurs to romp around in, or that Richard Garner hasn’t directed with the right combination of comic flair and conceptual originality.

It’s just that, with my will to move being drained daily by an unmerciful humidity and an unusually cruel Mr. Sun and my will to live challenged by the daily news cycle, I really REALLY appreciated an evening of unrelenting laughter and unapologetic silliness. I was glad to be reminded that it’s all about doors and sardines -- farce, theatre, life, the universe, and everything!

Anyway, to recap my reaction to Georgia Shakespeare’s production of “Noises Off,” I have reviewed many shows that were hits, and many that were bombs, many comedies that never soared, and many dramas that should have been ignored. But, in all my many many years of writing about Atlanta theatre, I have never reviewed a production that was so … so ... I don’t know!

May the farce be with you!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Three Sistahs, by Thomas W. Jones III
Family Tides
Monday, August 15, 2011
4.0
Two years ago, Horizon staged Thomas W. Jones III’s “A Cool Drink a Water,” an homage to “A Raisin in the Sun” that took characters similar to Lorraine Hansberry’s and moved them forward a few decades. Now, Mr. Jones’ starting point is Chekov’s classic “Three Sisters,” and, if “Three Sistahs” echoes Chekov only slightly, it nevertheless provides a “playground” for three marvelously talented singer/actresses and a few “raise-the-roof” numbers that are infectious and memorable.

Chekov’s Prozorov sisters (Olga, Masha, and Irina) are here transformed to the Bradshaw sisters (Olive, Marsha, and Irene). They have come together at the family home in Washington DC for the funeral of their only brother, killed in Viet Nam (it is 1969). There’s where the similarity to Chekov ends. Through the course of an evening, a night, and the following morning, the Bradshaw’s kvetch and bond, and vent grievances old and new, and that’s about it. Whereas Chekov’s sisters live through several years of incident and disappointment, Mr. Jones’ Sistahs pack up some stuff and explore old emotional baggage. Whereas the Prozorovs were profoundly disappointed in their lives and loves, longing for a Moscow youth filtered through selective memory, the Bradshaws are profoundly disappointed in each other, longing to forget their past and quick to defend their own choices and lives.

As in the earlier play, it is a misdirection to compare Jones’ work with his starting-point source. He is not doing an adaptation or a sequel or an update, he is using the earlier plays as starting points, to explore his own themes of family and society independent of (and sometimes in direct contradiction to) his sources. In other words, our knowledge of Jones’ antecedents may color and influence how we react to his characters, but that knowledge may be easily discarded – his agenda is very different from Chekov’s.

On the other hand, I couldn’t help but be disappointed in “Three Sistah’s” lack of drive, lack of a narrative arc. The conflict is minimal – family squabbles and judgments only, so you’d think there would be more complexity of character. But I found these three surprisingly limited in scope. Olive, the oldest, is very much like Olga – spinsterish and devoted to her life as a college professor. She is also quickest to judge her sisters, making snarky insults almost a part of every conversation. Like Masha, Marsha is trying to hide an unhappy marriage from her sisters, but she is also the most sensual, the most vital, the one who can find something to laugh about even in the most trying of circumstances. Irene is the most unlike her antecedent – she is young and radical and not a little surly, almost blaming her sisters for complicity in letting the “Establishment” swallow her brother’s life like so much cannon fodder. She starts out as probably the most interesting character, but, in the end, we learn the least about her.

And there is no one else. We do not see these characters with any of their men, their relations, or their colleagues. There are no servants or retainers, no friends or neighbors. And, to be fair, this keeps in tune with Mr. Jones’ “focus on the family,” his examination of the ebbs and tides of sibling relationships, the changing alliances that can shatter with a misplaced jibe or wrong-headed quip, or a judgmental observation. The problem is that, unlike in “A Cool Drink a Water,” the family dynamics here have a been-there seen-that nothing-new feel that robs the play of energy and almost forces us to unfavorably compare the Bradshaws with the Prozorovs.

If that’s the case, why am I still recommending the production? For two reasons that I can rattle off the top of my brain – the music and the performances. The songs by Mr. Jones and William Hubbard carry a timeless rhythm and blues feel that is infectious, that carries emotional arrows that never fail to bull’s-eye our hearts. I can’t cite any songs in detail – the program does not list the musical numbers (and do you hate it when that happens as much as I do? ) – but, the show is filled to the brim with them, and I loved almost all of them.

And this cast is blessed with talent to spare. All three actresses (Crystal Fox as Marsha, Amber Iman as Irene, and the incomparable Bernadine Mitchell as Olive) have belts that shake the roof and rattle the soul, and when they sing together, their voices blend like pureed magic. These three could make the phone book sound compelling and memorable, and here, they create characters with enough fire and sass to make the plot-shortage of the play evident only in retrospect.

So, don’t go to “Three Sistahs” expecting a Chekovian word-fest whine-fest, or to see another classic given an African-American spin. Go to see three dynamo singers get to the root of sisterhood (sistah-hood?) by raising the roof in song. Go to see three women lay bare all the tides and ties that lie buried for years, only to come home to roost when all the claws are bared and flared. Go to see a musical chamber piece that moves and shakes. Go to see some well-written characters and songs that make you forget you may have seen it all before.

Or, go and see if your selective memory has better filters than mine. I guarantee that it won’t make you long for your rose-colored childhood in Moscow.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Fiddler on the Roof, by Stein, Bock, & Harnick
Traditions
Monday, August 15, 2011
4.0
Another tour of “Fiddler on the Roof?” Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Atlanta, you may say all of us have seen “Fiddler on the Roof.” Why does it keep coming back? I’ll tell you! I don’t know. But it does, and we keep flocking back. In what manner is this new production staged? That I can tell you in one word. Traditional!

In the past, I have taken to task Theatre of the Stars’ penchant for staging old favorites in a manner that slavishly copies the original productions, calling it the “museum mummification” of musicals. True to form, this production of “Fiddler,” in its staging, is no different from thousands that have come before. So, the question I need to ask is this – why did I enjoy it no less than previous stagings? Why, this time, did it strike me as fresh (well, engaging) and moving as the day it first appeared?

One easy answer is that it’s been over a decade since I’ve actually seen it (I missed the recent Harvey Fierstein and Theodore Bikel tours). But, I’ll dismiss that right away – after all, I’d NEVER seen “Oklahoma” on stage, yet I found the 2008 tour of that classic about as fresh month-old cornbread.

Another quick thought is that this staging was filled with a talented and energetic cast who weren’t “going through the motions,” but were investing it with life and surprise. True enough, and a necessary part of keeping any production “alive.” And, there were many, many moments that struck me as authentic and moving, and many moments in which the oh-so-familiar lines and songs “felt” new.

Still, I believe the real reason this show worked so well for me was the show itself. Tevye is such a multi-layered and human character that I can’t help but respond, no matter who is filling his milk-stained work boots. In this case, Tom Alan Robbins strikes a delicate balance between the sometimes over-the-top clowning of Zero Mostel and the movie’s sometimes over-the-top gravitas of Topol. He gives us a brilliantly realized portrait of a proud man, bemused by the whimsically cruel choices of his God and his children, finding moments of strength and wisdom in the midst of his wry, sometimes off-center commentary and reaction.

This is also as much the story of the new century as it is about one man. Political changes in Russia are about to overwhelm these characters, and, with our perfect historical hindsight, we recognize this even during their moments of ecstatic happiness. It’s also a time when political changes reach into the heart of family tradition, forever changing the roles so fervently described in the opening number. Our familiarity of the show may be honestly jumbled with our familiarity of “what comes next” historically, but that makes no real difference here – those few totally unfamiliar with the play will know from the opening number that this will not end happily for all.

The play’s construction is brilliant in its commingling of several Sholem Aleichem stories into one unified (and thematically whole) story. Reading the twenty-seven separate stories of “Tevye’s Daughters” is more like reading a novel than an anthology, as each story shows us a new aspect of Tevye and his family and friends. (The stories of the two youngest daughters are as equally compelling – and more tragic – as the stories of Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava we see dramatized here – I strongly recommend you track them down.) The music and dance go miles towards evoking the time and place and culture, and here, despite the slavish mimicry of Jerome Robbins’ original staging, are performed to perfection.

As to the supporting cast, I liked Susan Calla’s Golde (“Do You Love Me?” was especially moving), Zal Owen’s Motel, and the three daughters played by Erin O’Neil (Tzeitel), Megan McGinnis (Hodel), and Ephie Aardema (Chava). All the townspeople had a spark of character and individuality, and the ensemble as a whole worked beautifully in the service of the story.

Yes, I left the theatre wishing the production had brought something new and original to this story. But the story itself is memorable enough, the production itself was memorable enough to remind me that sometimes revisiting a familiar show done in a traditional way can have its own rewards.

To digress to an even more traditional note, let me remind you of how Sholem Aleichem begins his story “Modern Children” (Tzeitel’s tale):

“Modern children, did you say? Ah, you bring them into the world, sacrifice yourself for them, you slave for them day and night – and what do you get out of it? You think that one way or another it would work out according to your ideas or station. After all, I don’t expect to marry them off to millionaires, but then I don’t have to be satisfied with just anyone, either. So I figured I’d have at least a little luck with my daughters. Why not? In the first place, didn’t the Lord bless me with handsome girls; and a pretty face, as you yourself have said, is half a dowry. And besides, with God’s help, I’m not the same Tevye I used to be. Now the best match is not beyond my reach. Don’t you agree?”

Old and well-loved musicals, did you say? Ah, you go to them, and what do you get out of it? You think that one way or another it would work out according to your memories and expectations. After, I don’t expect the production to go out on a creative limb, but I don’t have to be satisfied with a lifeless museum piece, either. In the first place, didn’t Mr. Aleichem bless us with a vibrant Tevye and with emotionally complex tales? Didn’t Joseph Stein and Jerome Robbins and Bock & Harnick bring them to the stage fully-formed and beautifully sung? And a beautiful show, as you yourself have said, is half the battle. Now, a diverting and moving revival is not beyond our reach. Don’t you agree?

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


The Jungle Book, by a musical adaptation based on Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book originally commissioned by Orlando Shakespeare book and lyrics by April-Dawn Gladu music a
Lots of A-Peel
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
4.5
Oppress not the cubs of the stranger, but hail them as Sister and Brother,
For though they are little and fubsy, it may be the Bear is their mother.
"There is none like to me!" says the Cub in the pride of his earliest kill;
But the jungle is large and the Cub he is small. Let him think and be still.
-- Rudyard Kipling, “Maxims of Baloo” from “Kaa’s Hunting



Let’s boil this review down to the bare necessities:

The show has closed, so what I say doesn’t matter. On the other hand, if you and your cubs missed it, be very very sad.

Although this is a musical play based on Kipling’s classic story, it has very little in common with the Disney version. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The entire production came in at under an hour, most of which was spent by the Bandar’s (the monkey tribe) making sublimely dumb puns and jokes. Maybe that’s why I liked it so much. One classic they missed – “Do you like Kipling?” “I don’t know, I’ve never Kippled” [Insert rim shot here].

In a wise Children’s Theatre move, the cast used every opportunity to move into the audience and involve them with the story. Oh, to be fifty years younger!

Caitlin McWethy made for a sublimely sexy Kaa (in a G-rated way of course). I’ll be first in line to be constricted (just don’t tell my spouse).

Elizabeth Lanier had so many sadly beautiful moments as Messua, it was a shame she was only Mowgli’s Man-Tribe mother. Ann Marie Gideon was equally nurturing as Raksha (Mother Wolf).

Cordell Cole’s Shere Kahn was slinky and scary and everything you want in a Royal Bengal Tiger and his Chil kited above the action like, well, like an Indian Kite catching a summer thermal. Excellent puppetry and excellent characterizations!

The music was equal parts Indian raga and Broadway razzmatazz – the combination was a thing of beauty and a joy to be-hear.

Monkeys (especially Bandar Tribe monkeys) totally rock! (Another missed pun – “Bananas are my favorite fruit because they have appeal!”)

A simple (and elegant) design evoked Kipling’s jungle and ”Lion King’s” theatricality without reminding us that Indian and African jungles are miles (and worlds) apart. Nice work by Alexander K (set), Katie McCreary (lights), and Thomas Sowers (sound).

The show has closed, so what I say doesn’t matter. On the other hand, if you and your cubs missed it, be very very sad.

I dance on the hide of Shere Khan, but my heart is very heavy. My
mouth is cut and wounded with the stones from the village, but
my heart is very light, because I have come back to the jungle.
Why?

These two things fight together in me as the snakes fight in the
spring. The water comes out of my eyes; yet I laugh while it
falls. Why?

I am two Mowglis, but the hide of Shere Khan is under my feet.

Ahae! My heart is heavy with the things that I do not understand.

-- Rudyard Kipling – “Mowgli’s Song”



-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




A Thousand Circlets, by Theroun D'Arcy Patterson
And then ...?
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
4.5
Earl Leighton (Tony Vaughn) is the master of his universe. A celebrated architect, he is about to leave his mark on the Manhattan skyline, as his “Magnum Opus” design is soon to begin its construction to the sky. But he discovers he no longer knows how to tie his necktie. And so begins “A Thousand Circlets,” Theroun D’Arcy Patterson exquisite and moving new play about the onset of Alzheimer’s and how it tugs and tears at the family ties that bind.

For Earl and Liz Leighton, it is a second marriage. She watched her first husband waste away with cancer, and she is not about to go through that again. Of course, this leads to denial. All Earl needs to do is pull himself up and buckle down – this is not an illness, but a personal moral lapse! They each have grown children from their first marriages who all seem to be going through crises of their own. Earl’s decline sets off a thousand ripples through the family, ripples that cross and converge and threaten to forever disrupt the calm surface of this seemingly tight-knit family.

Mr. Patterson is an Atlanta actor who is beginning a second career as a writer. “A Thousand Circlets” shows him to have a confident command of language, of character, and of structure. His dialog is equally at home with lies, silences, and heartfelt revelations. It is character-specific, and drives this play with sudden wit, carefully-wrought obfuscation, and lyrical flights of poetry.

And these characters are beautifully drawn, at once individualistic and generic. By this, I mean the five characters have enough individuality that they are unique and fully constructed. At the same time, the problems they face, the reactions they show, are recognizable as our own. Though this is an African-American family, this play would work with a cast of any ethnicity. This is not to downplay their essential African-American quality – the play would work equally well, but it would be essentially different. The cast and the director have imbued the production with their own stamp, with their own cultural identity that would necessarily change with another cast.

For the most part, this group of actors captures these characters and makes their story compelling and recognizable. Aside from some (rare and short-lived) mush-mouth monotony, Mr. Patterson’s words come from their mouths naturally and forcefully. Mr. Vaughn is the classic alpha lion, refusing to go gently into that mental fog. Liz, played by the brilliant Yvonne Singh, is a difficult woman struggling with reliving the agonies that ended her first marriage. That she walks out at one point alienates her from many in the audience (shouts of “Bitch! and “Traitor!” came from a few enraged voices in the house), but I felt nothing but sympathy for her. Yes, her denial and hardness is at first shocking and cruel, but that made the revelations of what drove those actions all the more moving and understandable.

As the half-siblings, Tony Goolsby, Precious Bright, and Olubajo Sonubi each had their own stories and conflicts and secrets, many of which need to be set aside as their father’s condition becomes more and more apparent. Enough of their background remains unsaid, merely hinted at, that they emerge as intriguing characters in their own right.

The Essential “repertory” design makes way here for a platform with set pieces, alternately suggesting the Leighton’s comfortable home, Earl’s office, and airport waiting area, a hotel room, and all were non-specific enough to carry the weight of flashbacks and flights of imagination. The staging by director Betty Hart is fluid and fast-paced, the wide range of emotion orchestrated for maximum effect.

Every family has gone through the trial of watching a loved one descend into a mental fog, a strange limbo where faces aren’t recognized, where time has rolled back to a happier era, where simple tasks become arduous trials. The final scene of the play, where Liz returns and calmly describes how she will care for Earl at each step of his journey, is one of the most moving scenes you’re likely to see, both in its articulation of the devastation of Alzheimer’s, and in our realization of the price each “And then?” will cost Liz and the family. Although we are spared seeing Earl’s full deterioration, this scene brings home to us what will come, and the sadness and love that underscore the Leightons’ emotional preparation is simply devastating.

“A Thousand Circlets” is a powerful and moving piece of theatre, and Mr. Patterson has shown himself to be not merely a playwright of promise, but one of promise already realized.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Great Falls, by Lee Blessing
Only a Motion Away
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
5.0
Lee Blessing’s “Great Falls” is an exquisite onion of a play, a many-layered character study that slowly peels away layers of silence and resentment until it arrives at the core of a step-father step-daughter relationship, a core that may or may not be salvageable. And every layer tears away reluctantly, like scabs whose loss can only lead to more pain, more tears.

Lee Blessing is a writer who excels in small-cast character studies. His “A Walk in the Woods” brought cold war détente to a personal level, “Eleemosynary” brought détente to three generations of a family of exceptional women, and, “Patient A” brought Mr. Blessing himself to the stage as a character in a “meta-analysis” of the cultural politics of AIDS. I’ve been a fan for a long time, and was looking forward to this production (as I am looking forward to Aurora’s production of “A Body of Water” later this season).

I was not disappointed. “Monkeyman” (Emmett Furrow) has manipulated his step-daughter (Ashleigh Hoppe) into joining him on a cross-county trip. That is, he has more or less kidnapped her, but soon has manipulated her into agreeing to the trip. During the course of the journey, we learn more and more about these characters, each carrying far too many unheal-able wounds, each carrying more pain and anger than most humans should bear. Although we never learn their real names (she only refers to herself as “Bitch” and won’t let him use her real name) we learn so much about them and they way they deal with other that we leave the play knowing them better than most of our friends and acquaintances. Each revelation (some which may not be even true) is a new story, a new layer to over-paint the image we had previously constructed in our minds. The whole trip comes to a crisis (which the spoiler police won’t let me reveal here) in a small town called “Great Falls,” after which the two return home (or to what passes for home).

As simple as this plot sounds, it is built upon two characters who are extraordinarily complex, and not always particularly likeable. He’s a famous writer whose fame has led him into too many bad choices. She is a survivor of a childhood trauma who has retreated into adolescent surliness and poetry. Writing, in fact, soon becomes a common thread in their journey, a core of similarity they both try to nurture until it blows up in their faces.

Mr. Furrow and Ms. Hoppe are absolutely brilliant in their work here. They are asked to do a series of two-person scenes, often in the front seat of a car, always commanding our attention, always with a surprise, a nuance, or a revelation that upsets everything we thought we knew about them. I found myself spellbound throughout. Mr. Blessing’s brilliantly evocative dialog may have had a lot to do with this, but the work of these two actors carried the lion’s share of the burden of selling this story. These are two of the best performances of the year, and they bring these characters to life so well, I left the theatre with a sense of loss, as if friends had left my life forever.

Technically, the show is very simple. A black stage, a few set pieces, a door, a bed, a picnic bench, a projection screen, all shift with cinematic flow to tell the story, the two characters always in focus, never lost on an otherwise empty stage. Ellen McQueen’s direction is simple and elegant, orchestrating pace and performance and design into a whole that is seamless.

To evoke Paul Simon, “Monkeyman” wanted to orchestrate a “Father and Step-Child Reunion,” thinking the “motion away” would be a grand tour of all the tourist spots he enjoyed with his parents. That he fails so miserably in this plan, but succeeds in learning more than he cared to about his daughter, that he ends up sharing more of his own failures than he cared to, is the driving energy of this play.

This play is dense in theme as well as story and character. We see echoes of the breakdown of the nuclear family, the confusion of sex and intimacy, the trivialization of the American Landscape (Natural Beauty or Tourist trap? It’s only a cheap motel room and a bagful of souvenirs away), the problem of alienation and openness NOT healing wounds but possibly making them worse, the confluence of literature and life (do we, indeed, become what we write?), and, my favorite, how victimization can be an ongoing process (the predators will always find those weakened by prior trauma). Still, all these themes come across as simple parts of a consistent whole, seem to be “in service” to the main plot theme of the search being half the battle – though the journey may fail, the effort remains sublime.

This was one of my favorite productions of the year, and I can’t recommend it to you strongly enough. When writing and performance and design and direction come together with this much elegance and this much force, it becomes truly magic. And “Great Falls” is truly magic.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


A Sleeping Country, by Melanie Marnich
A Sleeping Script
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
3.0
For its inaugural production of its 2011 New Play Festival, Essential Theatre has chosen a peculiar little “neurotic comedy” by Melanie Marnich, “A Sleeping Country.” Although I found it long on caricature and implausible contrivance, but short on actual comedy, it was nevertheless a pleasant diversion, made more so by a warm and frazzled performance by Kelly Criss in the central role.

Julia Fracassi, a resident of a New York bearing a superficial resemblance to Woody Allen’s, suffers from chronic insomnia. Trading barbs with her therapist and long-time friend, Dr. Midge, she begins to suspect she may suffer from a rare and possibly deadly condition known as Fatal Familial Insomnia. Taking a break from her long-term relationship with almost-fiancé Greg, she makes a pilgrimage to Venice to visit a possible distant relation to check up on her genetic history. While there, she meets some seemingly eccentric folks whose worldly wisdom send her back home with some insight into her own family and condition.

Let’s look at these plot points to see why I had such a difficult time with my “willing suspension of disbelief” on this piece. In fact, why don’t we start with that first scene between Julia and her therapist? Yes, it is the funniest scene in the play and Megan Hayes pulls out the stops as Dr. Midge. But, is it the best ethical practice for a therapist to take on a childhood friend as a client? Does it make sense for the therapist to so belittle the central problem of her client (“I hope you’re not going to talk about your insomnia again? Boring!” – or words to that effect)? Not really! The scene seemed to me to be contrived simply to provide as much exposition with as many laughs (well, smiles) as possible.

Things go rapidly downhill once Julia gets to Vienna. Every cliché in the book is trotted out – the singing gondolier, the smarmy ladies’ man, the worldly-wise older woman – and there is not a drop of honesty in any of the scenes. Not to take away from Holly Stevenson’s performance as Isabella Orsini, but everything out of her mouth seemed to be a Hallmark-card platitude. To say there was nothing surprising or funny or compelling in any of these scenes would be an overstatement, perhaps – they did provide an occasional smile and they were never boring – but they certainly had none of the “life-altering wisdom” that Julia (and the plot) needed them to have.

Finally, when Julia finds the root cause of her insomnia ([Parenthetical Remark Deleted by the Spoiler Police]), it is the most obvious, least interesting explanation imaginable. To truly get into Woody Allen territory (which seems to be Ms. Marnich’s goal), a little more back-story would have been needed. Another “Why” needed to be answered – Just WHY did this lead to chronic insomnia? As written, it seems as if the playwright did only a casual Internet search for “insomnia causes” rather than come up with something that would have been truly revealing of character or would have shone a light on a compelling new aspect of what makes us human.

Even the very topic of Fatal Familial Insomnia is given short shrift. It’s brought up than given only the most casual dismissal. To be honest, I would have preferred it if Julia did have the condition – that would have taken the play in a totally original direction.

What we do have, though, is a marvelously jittery performance by Kelly Criss as Julia. Almost an innocent abroad, she goes through the play with a lost “Why is this happening to me, and why are these people treating me like this?” expression in her eyes, that actually “sells” the predictable ending so much more than the script does. She finds a lot of humor in the most seemingly un-funny situations, and has a goofy, wry reaction to her faux-therapist that even sells that contrivance. I’ve praised her in the past, but here, she shows the truly enviable ability to make a sleepy script come awake.

To be fair, my reaction may be a minority reaction. The audience I was with found a lot to laugh at, much more than I did. The “Buzz” in the lobby afterwards was uniformly positive, and I found myself leaving the theatre almost embarrassed to be such a grump and sorry I couldn’t enjoy the play as much as everyone else.

Still, my reaction is my reaction, and it would be silly of me to lose any sleep over it.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




'Til Beth Do Us Part, by Jones, Hope, & Wooten
Delayed Farce
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
3.5
Farce can be a very contradictory beast. The “Bull in the China Shop” of theatrical genres, it can run roughshod over such niceties as logic and consistency and character and plot, all in a hot-headed race for the desperation-rooted belly laugh. And, in my mind, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. On the other hand, farce can also be as delicate as a china figurine, shattering into a thousand pieces at the first sign of depth or compassion.

Take “’Til Beth Do Us Part,” by Jones, Hope, and Wooten, authors of such Community Theatre favorites as “Dearly Departed,” “Christmas Belles,” “The Dixie Swim Club,” and “The Red Velvet Cake War.” To be sure, it ends with a slam-bang scene that rockets through the stratosphere of desperation, mistaken identity, desperation, men in drag, desperation, absurdity, and desperation. (Did I mention how important desperation is to farce?) The problem is that it’s preceded by ninety minutes of basic bland sit com. All pay-off with no set-up, the play languorously putters away at 25 MPH then suddenly goes to 125 MPH as if it had been accelerating all along.

The fact that Pumphouse Players’ production closed over three weeks ago just adds to the timing issues of both this production and this review.

Gibby and Suzannah Hayden are sharing their empty nest in a fragile détente. Suzannah has found a new career in the chocolate industry and Gibby chafes at the time she doesn’t devote to his every need. Enter Beth Bailey, a new personal assistant for Suzannah who seems to be making it her duty to keep Gibby at wit’s end and out the door. Beth may have ulterior motives, and Gibby enlists his friend Hank to help expose Beth for the conniving intruder she seems to be. One half-baked scheme later and Hank is in a dress, Suzannah is panicking, Beth is plotting, doors are slamming, and a visitor from London is playing witness to it all.

Part of the problem with Pumphouse’s languidly-paced set-up may be the fact that the actress playing Beth puts on a Southern accent so thick she is totally unintelligible. I mean TOTALLY unintelligible. At one point her accent is supposed to go away, but she garbled and nasalized her lines so badly I couldn’t tell whether she dropped the accent or not. When you have to rely on context and others’ reactions to decipher the plot, it’s just too much work for too little pay-off.

This is not to say that the production didn’t have its pleasures. Kip Henderson and Rene Voige perfectly captured the rhythms of a couple long-married and routine-reliant. That there is a long-lasting love between the two was apparent from the start and really helped sell the absurd story contrivances. I found myself really rooting for Mr. Henderson’s Gibby, and smiling at the utter lameness of his plan. (He also gave one of the best pratfalls I’ve seen when he flips over the back of an errant sofa.) Daniel Rich, Cathy McDaniel and Celia Carmichael also do some nice character work in various supporting roles.

In other words, this production had all the ingredients for a truly memorable farce. All that was missing was an ever-increasing current of desperation from the starting gate. What it offered was a pleasant, evenly-paced comedy that took far too long to find its well-timed feet. What it offered was 5/6 of a good ensemble whose work was undercut at every opportunity by the sixth cast member.

Still, the frantic last scene was a riot to behold and a joy to hear. It was not too little, but it was assuredly too late.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare
Pride and Passion and Petulance (on Denial)
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
3.0
Georgia Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” is a cold and passionless event that makes a number of questionable design choices, leaves too many of its cast stranded and flailing for a hint of character, and is far too unclear in its story and emotional trajectory. To be sure, the performance I saw was the last preview one day before opening night and some of my objections may disappear as the production “finds its feet” and begins its long repertory run. Still, the more egregious design choices seem to be “cast in sandstone,” so will remain despite the company’s best efforts.

All this being said, Tess Malis Kincaid’s Cleopatra is an outstanding creation, a woman of pride and power and the occasional bout of petulance, and she is never dull to watch or to hear.

Let me begin with the play itself. Never one of my favorites, it is, however, one of Shakespeare’s most epic. With over forty scenes, it zips from location to location, covering practically the entire Roman Empire, with dozens of speaking roles, and political factions that divide and combine and change with the slightest change in political fortune. The love story at its center has always struck me as coldly calculated – though we’re told about the passion these characters feel for each other, their scenes together are invariably cerebral and political. I’ve always found it, at root, a controlled telling of an uncontrollable relationship.

Playwright Amlin Gray has helped some with this particular adaptation – when we first meet Antony (Chris Kayser) and Cleopatra (Ms. Kincaid), they are in the throes of lovemaking, surrounded (of course) by the Egyptian Queen’s loyal ladies and eunuchs and retainers. Even once the story gets moving, their every scene, no matter how “thoughtful,” carries an almost palpable undercurrent of barely controlled lust. This is a mature couple still in the throes of adolescent longing – a longing they probably never experienced in their own adolescence – and this longing makes the “argument” of the play (there is no room in a political leader’s life for anything but control and dispassion) strong and clear.

On the other hand, the adaptation makes the questionable decision to make Antony’s friend Enobarbus a narrator of sorts. He sets up the scenes, describes the various factions, and helps us with all the thousand points of exposition we need to understand all the ebbs and flows of this story. Granted, such an “exposition aide” is welcome (almost required), but Enobarbus? Allan Edwards is nicely warm and inviting in the role, and does what he can with it, but he doesn’t seem to be the best choice. Considering the character eventually betrays Antony then disappears from the play, the narration also disappears just when we need it the most. I think a better choice would have been Agrippa (or one of the other Octavius allies who survive the play) – that would have given the whole thing the same “winner’s version of history” fell that Plutarch himself (Shakespeare’s primary source) indulged.

Another curious decision was the elimination of all the battle scenes, which not only drains the production of any sense of urgency (and energy), but also makes it fairly unclear exactly what has gone wrong, why the characters are propelled to their tragic dooms. The panoply of history (and this particular story) is writ large (and red) in blood and conflict, and to remove it from sight is to do that history a disservice, draining it of life and putting it on some sort of dry and dusty scholastic pedestal.

As to the design choices, the kaleidoscope of changing locales are all played on an elegantly designed unit set, multi-layered and abstract. Considering how much geography this play covers, that’s all to the good. If the design seems to suggest a spider more than the expected Egyptian scarab, well there are certainly thematic justifications for that choice. My only objection is that location is more vague, more a product of character than of plot, resulting in some confusion. Normally, the exact location wouldn’t be a major issue, but, too often, specific references in the dialogue seem to contradict what we assume based on the characters, and that becomes an enormous distraction.

I also strongly object to the choice to costume the Romans in 19th-Century European uniforms. Yes, it does a nice job of differentiating the Octavius faction (in red) and the Antony faction (in blue), but let us not forget that these factions are supposedly allies, all Romans, fighting a common enemy (at first). It just doesn’t make sense for them to look as if they are part of different armies. To make matters worse, once the common enemy (Pompey) finally appears, he’s dressed like the Antony faction, so, unless you know the play, you have no idea who he is or what he’s doing there (he is not addressed by name in his first scene). Then, when Antony (and some others) don some medieval-looking armour later in the play, well, it just looks plain silly.

When all is said and done, though, this is really Cleopatra’s play, and Tess Malis Kincaid brings all her formidable skills to bear. She runs the full gamut of emotions from regal forcefulness to kittenish flirtation, from petulant tantrum to soaring splendor. She commands the stage from her first lustful groan to her last dying gasp. She is the engine that makes this barge float, and to watch her is to watch an actress at the peak of her glory.

So memorable is she, in fact, that the rest of the cast literally fades into the background. Chris Kayser brings his normal skill to his lines and manner, but his Antony is essentially a shallow creation, failing to reach martial glory status in the opening scenes, lost in Cleopatra’s shadow as the story concludes. Joe Knezevich’s Octavius Caesar is not the regal focused man apart, but a hollow antagonist, a puppet ruler seemingly pulled by the strings of Mr. Gray’s adaptation. All the other actors and characters blend together in a hopeless mish-mash of function and language, none staking a corner of individuality, none suggesting anything deeper than their mere plot function. To be fair, I fully expect these performance issues to vanish as the run continues, as the actors get more comfortable with their lines and characters, but, for now, they are an issue.

I’ve always seen “Antony and Cleopatra” as a play centered on denial (pun intended). These are two great leaders who won’t admit to themselves their co-dependency, the true depth of how their whirlwind passion corrupts their leadership and decision-making. It’s almost as if denial is a “fatal flaw” that leads them to their inevitable doom. Unfortunately, the performance I saw on Preview night was a production “not ready for prime time,” carrying its on production-denial. It was a lackluster affair ham-stringed by an ineffective adaptation, a ham-handed costume plot, and, Ms. Kincaid aside, a collection of performances that could have used a little more hamminess and spark.

But then, there’s Tess Malis Kincaid. If ever there was a performance to inspire the obsessive passion of the most sober conqueror, this is it. She is now and forever a Cleopatra to remember.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




Once On This Island, by
Storytime
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
4.0
It’s a familiar story. In fact, it’s a couple of familiar stories. Girl falls in love with boy from other side of the island, Gods bet on humans’ constancy, tragedy ensues, Gods engineer happy ending. It’s Romeo and Juliet, Ariel and her Prince, Tony and Maria, Buffy and Angel. And, no matter how many times it’s told, no matter how many settings it’s placed in, no matter how many hearts it breaks, what really matters is that it really matters.

In “Once on This Island,” the peasant inhabitants of a small nameless island are watched over by the Gods of Love, of Earth, of Water, and of Death. They live in isolation from the others, the city-dwellers, the descendants of the original inhabitants and their slaves. The God of Water sends a storm and young Ti Moune survives, now an orphan. When she grows up, the antic God of Death wants to prove that death is stronger than love, so he sends the child-of-wealth Daniel to the peasant side, victim of a car crash. The rest of the play follows the expected story. Ti Moune follows Daniel to the city, nurses him back to health, and falls in love with him. But, societies isolated from each other have separate and contradictory traditions. Will death be stronger than love? Will tradition and duty?

This is a sweet little play, really an extended one-act. It’s filled with marvelous Caribbean-influenced songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (“Ragtime” and “Seussical”). If the archetypical story is familiar enough, the specific trappings are not. I really liked the transformative dénouement, the specifics of the Gods’ characters, and the unconditional devotion of Ti Moune to both Daniel and her own traditions. If Daniel’s embracement of his own traditions and commitments is a bit unexpected, he has the good graces to not like the choice he feels compelled to make.

Normally performed by an all-black cast, Act 3 Productions has chosen to populate the island with a diverse kaleidoscope of actors, covering many ethnic types and skin tones. This actually worked for me, focusing the conflict on the class and tradition divide, rather than what has always seemed to me a contrived racial divide. Maggie Taylor (as Ti Moune) drives this play, bringing a powerful voice and a soft naïve nature to her obsession with Daniel. Connor Crank brings a nice face and nice voice to Daniel, but, when all is said and done, this time his appeal is less apparent and his blind devotion to tradition makes him come across more weak and unattractive than previous versions I’ve seen. Erin Deebel brings a lithe sensuality to Andrea, Ti Moune’s rival for Daniel’s heart, making that conflict a bit sharper – it’s easy to see how one person can be torn between such attractive (and different) women. And cute-as-coconut Rosslyn Milne (as young Ti Moune) steals every scene she’s in.

As the Gods, Jennifer Loudermilk, Michelle Peck, Taylor Sorrel, and Quintez Rashad remain aloof and entertaining, making sharp distinctions in character and sublime waves of musical voice. I liked everything they did. The stage is filled with Act 3’s usual expanded chorus who find plenty of opportunity for individual stand-out moments and group ensemble blending. This was a beautiful sounding show and Musical Director Lyn Taylor is to be commended for making such a disparate group of voices sound unified and whole.

Act 3’s typical playing space was adjusted very little (a clothesline along the back is all that made it different from Anne Frank’s annex), but this had the strange effect of making the show seem like a group of people gathering at a familiar gathering place to tell their story. Theresa Dean’s Lighting Design soon had me imagining the bare wood walls and platforms were really a tropical island, adding to the illusion.

So the question remains, why is such a familiar, and oft-told tale so enjoyable, so compelling, so moving? Can it be something so simple that we are genetically programmed to believe love transcends death, tradition, and expectation? Can it be that we know love can be a two-edged sword, that it cuts both to the heart and through it? I suspect this latter may have something to do with it. We’ve all felt the pain of heart-break, the joy of requited love, the frustration of accommodating those loved-one quirks that drive us bananas. Simple tales of unconditional love reaffirm the choices we have made, the affections we have built, the ties we have chosen to knot.

And when things go south, as they inevitably do in small ways, as they too often do in large ways, it is comforting, moving to see a story that reassures us that even when things go completely wrong, we know that love can kick death’s butt anywhere anytime and in any tradition.

And that, my friends, is “Why We Tell the Story.”

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


The Tempest, by William Shakespeare
Wandering in Wonder and Illusion
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
4.5
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. “The Tempest” is one of my all-time favorites from Shakespeare’s “play list,” and I’ve seen nearly a dozen different productions and film adaptations (and I anxiously await the DVD release of Julie Taymor’s 2010 version, which breezed through area theatres so fast that none of us could actually see it). I’ve always enjoyed the play’s combination of fantasy and Jacobean vengeance, its mixture of primal innocence (Miranda) and calculated evil (Antonio and Sebastian), its over-the-top theatricality and understated subtexts and emotional connections. But what really sells this piece for me is its resolution, its choice of forgiveness over revenge, its assurance that mistakes can be acknowledged and forgiven, and its humanist celebration of the mundane over the phantasmagoric.

For the second time, Georgia Shakespeare has cast a woman in the central role of Prospero (or, I should say, Prospera), this time the luminous and magical Carolyn Cook. This time, the mother/daughter dynamic of the 2003 production has been down-played in favor of making Ms. Cook’s Prospera a dynamic force of nature, a cyclone of anger and vengeance that cracks only slowly into the ultimate expressions of forgiveness and love. Prospera dominates this production like no other, mounted high over the stage for the opening tempest, overseeing and controlling all that happens in her reduced domain. She is so much the driving energy of this production that all the other characters, all the other actors have faded into a leeward shelter of my memory.

To recap the story, Prospera was the Duchess of Milan. After she withdraws into an intense study of magic and arcane lore, she is overthrown in a coup engineered by her brother Antonio and by Alonso, the King of Milan. Exiled to a deserted island with her young daughter Miranda, she engineers a tempest that sweeps all her enemies into her control. Witnessing the burgeoning love between her daughter Miranda and the shipwrecked son of Alonso, she begins to soften her harsh notions of revenge, and the play ends with a glorious paean to forgiveness and reconciliation.

One of the aspects of this play that seems to be as malleable and elusive as mercury is the character of Ariel, the “aery spirit” who is Prospero/a’s aide. Some productions have treated Arial as a bitter slave, others as the true force of magic behind Prospero/a’s power, still others as a fawning childlike daughter-figure (in my review of the 2003 staging, I cited her plaintive “Do you love me?” query to Prospera as a “perfect moment” that made clear their relationship). Here, Chris Kayser treats Ariel as a true partner, a gleeful participant in Prospera’s machinations, a true friend (they even share a sort of “secret handshake” that tells us as much about the long-time professional partnering of Ms. Cook and Mr. Kayser as it does about the teaming of Ariel and Prospera). The point is that the character is so cleverly written that all these approaches work, provided they are treated consistently within a particular production.

This time, if the shipwrecked conspirators rarely stand out as equal “combatants,” the comic sub-plot featuring the bestial Caliban and the drunken servants does. Mark Cabus and Bruce Evers bring to Trinculo and Stephano a blithe indifference to all the “magical” happenings that boosts the comic underscoring of their scenes. And Neal Ghant’s Caliban is a puffed-up would-be avenger who is far too easily distracted by rum and frolicking. I loved all their antics and their half-baked “plot.”

Physically, this production boasts a marvelous set by Tyler Tunney that is dominated by Prospera’s thatch-hut “cell,” a primitive-looking structure that focuses all the storylines, provides a marvelous platform for Prospera’s opening spell, and keeps a pastoral atmosphere flowing over all the proceedings.

But, this is Carolyn Cook’s play, pure and simple. She is one of the finest Prospero/as I’ve seen and she haunts the production even when not on stage. If her sense of motherly affection is cold and distant, well, that works within the context of this production. It is her raging anger that propels the plot, that needs to be tamed for the play to work. And Ms. Cook handles the transition like a master. This is a Prospera to treasure, one that sets the bar high for anyone (of either gender) who follows in her footsteps.

In the final analysis, every production of “The Tempest” is a “brave new world” of shifting focus and theatrical wonder. This production in particular gave me ample opportunity to “wander in illusion,’ in the theatrical bells and whistles that make up a truly satisfying evening of Shakespeare. It is, without a doubt, such stuff as dreams are made on.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Rent, by Jonathan Larson
Squatters
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
4.0
I’m not the biggest fan of “Rent,” Jonathan Larson’s iconic paean to ‘90’s artsy bohemianism. I’ve found too many of its songs too forgettable (“Without You” is, without a doubt, one of the blandest love songs ever), and its characters a tad too self-indulgent for my old-fart tastes (the memory of my own youthful self-indulgences has conveniently faded). Plot-wise, I’m not so much irritated by the fake-o “happy ending,” as much as unintentionally amused by its abruptness (coma to full recovery in less than five seconds is, you have to admit, giggle-inducing). Still and all, the score showed a boatload of potential cut short by Mr. Larson’s early death, a potential validated by the release of his earlier work in “Tick, Tick, Boom” (all of which, curiously enough, I find more memorable than any song from “Rent.”)

All this being said, I did sorta kinda like the movie version, and I did sorta kinda like Kudzu’s stripped down version from last year, so I was actually sorta kinda looking forward to this version just to see if my intense dislike of the original version has lessened over the years. Well, director Alan Kilpatrick has swiped a boatload of design concepts, (well, ALL, the design concepts), from the original and filled the stage with an energetic and talented cast of relative Atlanta unknowns, and, the result was a sorta kinda okay evening at the theatre that didn’t disappoint so much as leave me with a “been there seen that” feeling of déjà vu.

Mark and Roger are young artists (Mark is a filmmaker, Roger a musician) sharing a loft in an abandoned Alphabet City industrial building. Their former friend (and current landlord), Benny, is threatening to evict them until they come up with some rent, unless they can forestall a planned demonstration in the homeless tent-city next door. The demonstration is being organized by performance artist Maureen, (Mark’s former lover), and her new love interest, Joanne. Another friend, Tom Collins, experiences a brutal beating, and is cared for by a street-drummer/drag-queen named Angel, who becomes the group’s guardian angel. Maureen’s demonstration comes and goes with unexpected results, and we spend Act Two following a year in the lives of this group as they face 525,600 minutes of unexpected successes, failures, deaths, break-ups, and reconciliations.

Loosely based on Puccini’s “La Boheme,” “Rent” trades in Tuberculosis for AIDS, but retains the Bohemian “No Day but Today” seize-the-moment philosophy, celebrating artists’ lives, complete with their idealistic pretentions, and brink-of-poverty day-to-day struggles. The script even keeps the opera’s “Mimi,” making her an exotic dancer junkie in a love/need relationship with Roger. As in the opera, the characters all show multiple levels of affection, need, drive, courage, and disappointment. None of them can be pushed into a convenient stereotype, all of them come alive on stage.

The principal cast was uniformly good, including Maxim Gukhman as Mark, Stanley Allyn Owen (who looks like Gregg Allmann but sings like a Broadway belter) as Roger and Michael “Kevin” Harry as Tom Collins. On the female side, Felicia Roswell may have been a tad bland for my idea of Mimi, but she was nevertheless lithe and sweet-voiced, Alison Brannon was a tad blondely “too nice” as Maureen, but she still made it work, and Kenya Hamilton’s Joanne was memorable and hit all the right notes at all the right times. As in previous casts, Adam Car Peyton’s Angel was the emotional core of the show, making the contrived nature of this more-angelic-than-thou character actually credible.

The relatively small stage was filled out with a rather large ensemble that made “Seasons of Love” look a bit over-crowded, but otherwise filled the Strand theatre with voice and character. The only musical quibble I had was, as with Kudzu’s production, a bit of messiness in the Act One finale (“La Vie Boheme”) that occasionally let the patter-pontifications fade into slightly mush-mouthed drawl word-soup.

The technical aspects of the show (Set, Sound, Lights) were all up to the Lyric’s usual high standards, and I especially appreciated that the sound design, while suitably loud, was not blood-from-the-eardrums over-the-top loud like the first tour from the nineties.

Still, as familiar as some of this is becoming, I am finding the show more and more enjoyable as time goes on, as it becomes a late-nineties period piece. Numbers like “One Song Glory,” “Light my Candle,” “Today for You,” “Tango: Maureen” “Take me or Leave me,” and “I’ll Cover You” all landed beautifully. Even “Without You” wasn’t as irritating as it usually is for me. And, the finale, “No Day but Today,” was both moving and beautiful. If Mimi’s last minute “recovery” elicits its usual chuckles, the moments that follow mitigate any disillusionment.

Let’s be clear here. This is a very difficult musical. The Lyric’s production does it justice, and it should appeal to the show’s many many fans. That I’m not one of those fans should in no way dissuade you from seeing it. Forget regret, this “Rent” is yours to not miss. And there’s no day like today to not miss it.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Life in the Park, by Gary W. Heath
Show and Tell
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
3.0
One of the most painful “disconnects” in a theatrical production is when we are “told” things flatly contradicted by what we’re “shown.” Such is the case with Gary Heath’s “Life in the Park,” an extended one-act musical focusing on a group of homeless characters in a generic big-city park.

On its web site, the California-based Vitality Vision Productions, which has brought this show to the 14th Street Playhouse, tells us: “Although homelessness is the major theme of this show, it should not be simply classified as such. This is a story of "every man" in any unexpected or unavoidable condition that could affect any individual in his or her lifetime.” Indeed, along the way characters sing about “Same ol’ Nothing” or “Why Did I Wind Up Here,” or “The Streets Are Your Home.”

However what we’re SHOWN is a group of well-dressed characters, all homeless, all singing directly to us with little interaction, highlighting their very specific situations with no sense of “every man.” Indeed, we are given little clue as to the circumstances which brought these people here, and, in some cases, homelessness comes across as a “life style choice” rather than as a “last rung” of a ladder of desperate circumstances. This play not only romanticizes homelessness, it positively glorifies it.

One character dresses in a beige clean trench coat that wouldn’t look out of place on a patron of a trendy restaurant. He rides around the park on a bicycle that looks like it just came off a showroom floor. Another (a crippled vet – why is it ALWAYS a crippled veteran?) trundles around in a highly-polished, expensive-looking wheelchair. Even the blanket a character uses to [spoiler alert] commit “suicide by exposure” looks clean and plump enough to help him survive an arctic three-month winter night.

All these are production details that could have been averted with a little distressing. What really makes this show sink for me is its structure. Most of the songs are solos sung in isolation straight to us. Until the end, there is no interaction. There are only two characters who are NOT homeless, who come on to sing a pointless number that adds nothing to the show, then disappear (it doesn’t help that the roles are “doubled” by actors playing homeless characters). There is virtually no conflict, no real story, only a group of singers doing their numbers surrounded by a pleasantly lit and bucolic-looking park set (not even a HINT of whatever city the park is part of.

The show’s one redeeming factor is its cast. These are Equity Actors from California, all sporting impressive resumes and even more impressive singing voices. Thomas Silcott as Humphrey brings a sense of dignity and resignation to his character, with a deep singing voice as rich as velvet and as sweet as cookie dough. As Constance, Pamela Hamill brings a lot of eccentricity and wit to her role (but WHY did she have to be miked so loudly her off stage lines sound like the voice of God?). The cast is filled out by Jessica Couto, Jordan Miller, and John Racca, all of whom make the bland and banal (and there are a lot of wince-worthy rhyme attempts here) songs sound heartfelt and sincere.

Homelessness is a subject that has loads of potential – its varied causes, its potential for violence and loss, its “there-but-for-fortune” sense of “that-could-be-me.” What it is NOT is a good source for politically correct posturing or for blandly innocuous musings by paper-thin caricatures in a highly romanticized world that never existed. “Life in the Park” was, frankly, a waste of the talent on stage, a waste of a potentially deep and rich subject-pond, and, frankly, a waste of my time and energy.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Life is Short!, by Original 10-Minute Plays by Atlanta Playwrights
Death, and Other Comic Sketches
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
3.0
Onion Man Productions continues its tradition of building an evening of short original one-acts around a single set. “Life is Short” gives us 10 playlets (some little more than sketches) set in a funeral parlour. Before discussing the collection in general, let me air some thoughts on the particular plays.

NEW AGE FAREWELLS, INC by Susan M. Steadman (Grade: C)

The show starts out with a bit of a mis-step. Ms. Steadman has written a highly contrived piece in which three recent widows have to share a room to record farewell messages that will “play forever” in the caskets of their various beloveds. While it wouldn’t surprise me if such services actually exist, it does stretch my willing-suspension-of-disbelief to see it on stage, especially when accompanied by a bull-in-the-china shop sales rep with little clue about how to deal with grief-stricken patrons. The body of the play is then taken up by three awkwardly interweaving monologues building to a very predictable end twist. The saving grace of this piece are the nice characterizations by Rachel Frawley, Sarah Frey, Samantha Higgins & Maria Liatis.

LIFE IS SHORT by James Beck (Grade: B)

Interweaving through the entire show are some short vignettes showing a grieving (and pregnant) woman being given a tour of the funeral parlour. Although the episodes seem a tad pointless and go nowhere in particular, I did like the gentle characterizations and performances by James Beck and Emily Quarterone. It is a nice character study that succeeds in pulling all the various plays together. (One nitpick – I may not be an expert, but Ms. Quarterone didn’t seem to be nearly “pregnant enough” to justify the sudden-labor climax of the piece.)

EVERYBODY TALKIN’ BOUT HEAVEN by Jonathan S.E. Perkins (Grade: B+)

In this nicely staged piece, Betty Mitchell and Barbara Washington play a (sorta-semi) spoiled widow and her former maid, meeting after many years at the funeral of Ms. Mitchell’s husband. Through the course of the play, the widow learns more about her husband than she really wanted to know, and the two ladies build towards a real friendship based on much more than their former employee/servant dynamic. This was one of my favorite plays of the colelction.

SAM IN THE BOX by David Marshall Silverman (Grade: C-)

In a play much too reminiscent of the recent movie “Get Low,” a television executive tries to stage his own funeral, just so he can hear what people say about him. Lee Buechele is wonderful as the exec, but he is paired with a young actor who does little to get below the surface of the funeral director character – this makes the final character reversal seemingly out of left field. Overall, a cynical and depressing exercise.

THE ACHILLES PLAN by Sean Casey (GRADE: C)

At his father’s funeral, a young man ponders whether it’s better to live a short and exciting life or a long and dull one. He is seemingly motivated by his father’s passing, and wants to avoid the sort of “dull” life lived by his father. The problem is, the way his father’s life is described is anything but dull. The character seems to be more interested in fame than in having a well-lived life, and this gives the piece a contrived feel. I did like the performances, though, especially Richard Blair’s “Mr. Fate” and Amy Cain’s doting wife (which may have exacerbated the problem – how can life with this woman EVER be dull?).

KEYLESS ENTRY by Raymond Fast (GRADE: B+)

In another favorite (and another entry into more non-traditional plotting), we see some after-death shenanigans involving the still-living. Kudos to Judith Beasley, Joe McLaughlin, and Michael Stamm for keeping me guessing as to just who is dead and who is alive. Never mind that the story seemingly contradicts the “Life is Short” theme of the entire show.

A FOND FAREWELL WHEN EVEREST FELL by Jeremy Clark (GRADE: C)

This was probably the most cynical piece of the entire show. When a porn kingpin is murdered, his few relations (you can’t call them “loved ones”) gather to ponder who could have killed him, when they are joined by rough-looking stranger. A totally distasteful piece slightly leavened by some funny moments by actors Lory Cox, Bob Smith, Michael J. Tarver, and Kenneth Wigley.

FINAL ARRANGEMENTS by Daniel Carter Brown (No Grade)

I can’t really review this one because it featured my lovely and talented spouse, Barbara. Two cousins try to “send off” a beloved aunt as cheaply as possible, with some help from a kindly and eccentric funeral manager. Carolyn Choe, Chris Sawyer, and Barbara Rudy are featured.

THE FALSE FUNERAL by Daniel Carter Brown (Grade: C)

Another exercise in cynicism, as a couple fakes the husband’s death in order to escape debts. Instead, the wife learns a few secrets her husband would rather she never knew, and the plan falls to pieces. We’re then left with a fuzzy and pointless is-it-really-over-now type of ending. The cast does what they can and are fine all around, but the piece left a really bad taste in my mouth

THE PROFESSIONAL by Corey-Jan Albert (GRADE: B-)

An eccentric woman tries to revive the old “professional mourner” profession, with expected results. Jane Bass and Laura King give very good performances in what is essentially a one-joke sketch that goes on for a bit too long.

And that’s pretty much it. I have two main problems with the collection as a whole, which really boil down to the same issue. First, all these plays take a comic approach to death and funerals. Two different writers try to make us laugh by showing us excessively over-the-top and insincere wailing, and only one chooses to show a mourner feeling some actual grief. Worse, in fully half the pieces (five), the “departed” is depicted as less-than-savory, deserving no grief whatsoever (or even no feeling other than a “glad he’s gone” relief – and in these five plays, the departed is ALWAYS male).

My second problem is a feeling “sameness” about the collection. Death and funerals and grief are topics brimming with potential, with possibilities of variety of tone of subject, of emotional depth. In fact, only one of the plays (the episodic “Life is Short” even hints at the theme supposedly connecting them all – death comes to us all and life is for embracing and for living – a theme that can really resonate in the right hands).

Both of these problems could have been overcome with a little more editorial control in the compilation. Perhaps the writers should have gotten together while their works were still in the planning stages to plan overall strategy. Maybe then a few of them would have chosen different approaches.

As it stands, we’re left with a whole lot of work, a number of very good performances, and a few laughs, but it all adds up to significantly less than the sum of its parts. We’re left with a few funny sketches about death and grief, and, I’m afraid that makes for a less-than-satisfactory theatre experience.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Double Falsehood, or the Distrest Lovers, A PLAY!, by L. Theobald, with inspiration from W. Shakespeare
Bard-lerizations
Friday, June 24, 2011
4.5
In the official entries in the Revels Accounts of King James I of England, we find two items citing payment to John Heminges (actor and financial manager for the King’s Men, aka, Shakespeare’s company) for performances in 1613 before the court of a play entitled ”Cardenno” or “Cardenna.” Thus we have evidence that, at one time, there existed such a play, presumably penned by Shakespeare himself (probably in collaboration with John Fletcher), and lost to the ravages of history. Subsequent research suggested it was based on an episode (maybe two episodes) from Cervantes’ classic novel, Don Quixote, first published in England in 1612.

Flash forward to 1727. English writer Lewis Theobald claims to have three separate manuscripts of what he claims are Restoration-era copies of the lost Shakespeare play, now commonly referred to as “Cardenio” (Cervantes’ character at its center). He does a snappy rewrite, calls it “Double Falsehood, or the Distrest Lovers,” and this play does survive. (To digress, there is another claimant to the “Cardenio” provenance, which I’ll discuss below -- one based on a single researcher’s 1994 book that I found compelling and convincing, even if the world of Shakespearean Literary analysis still does not.)

Leaving aside the Restoration disfavor of Shakespeare in general and Restoration bowdlerizations of his works in particular (think “Romeo and Juliet” with a happy ending), Theobald’s claim was always suspect. However, since his is the only version available, the Arden Shakespeare Library has decided to include his play in its “Complete Works” publications. Accordingly, in keeping with its current season pledge to produce ALL extant Shakespeareana, the Shakespeare Tavern has slapped together a quickie production of “Double Falsehood,” which truth to tell, bears nary a whiff of Stratford genius, but, in the very capable hands of the Tavern troupe, is a marvelously silly and entertaining diversion that had me giggling with glee for its entire running time.

Director Andrew Houchins made the absolutely brilliant choice of presenting this piece, not in the Tavern’s typical “original practice” Elizabethan style, but in an 18th-Century melodramatic, wink-to-the-audience style (and, yes, the villain does wear a black cape and sports twirlable moustache). It’s a style similar to Victorian Melodrama, who, truth to tell, were somewhat guilty of Shakespeare-disdain themselves – and isn’t it curious how eras that spurn the Bard leave a legacy of super-unrealistic, cliché-ridden, caricature-populated theatrical droppings?

Anyway, here’s the story. Julio is given a mission at court. In despair because this would separate him from his beloved Leonora, Julio enlists the aid of his friend Henriquez to watch over Leonora, ensuring some suitor does not steal her away. However, being the younger son of the Duke, Henriquez himself is, in Leonora’s father’s eyes, a more perfect suitor than the lower-born Julio, and a marriage is arranged, one that delights the dastardly Henriquez and horrifies the chaste and modest Leonora. Meanwhile, a girl of humble birth, Violante, has been seduced and abandoned by the same Henriquez. Act IV takes us to the country, where Julio is now wandering mad, Violante has disguised herself as a young boy shepherd, and Leonora has escaped a fate worse than death by entering a convent. In true 18th-century melodramatic fashion, everyone comes together for a rousing finish that exemplifies the triumph of virtue and the character-correcting virtues of forgiveness.

At the center of all this folderol is a comic gem of a performance by Kelly Criss as Leonora. Going mega-miles over the top with exaggerated emotion – Why be sad when one can WEEP? Why despair when one can SWOON? -- Ms. Criss’ performance cements her position as one of the leading comic actresses in the area, and one can only hope she’ll have job security as the Tavern’s new season stages all of Shakespeare’s comedies.

As Violante, Mary Russell has a lot less to do, but also turns in a beautifully funny turn. Take special note of her over-the-top panic as her shepherd’s disguise fools virtually no one. As Julio, Nicholas Faircloth also proves his comic chops, making our laughter sympathetic and his foolish choices seem excusable.

And, of course, special mention has to be made of Jonathan Horne, our villainous Henriquez, rollicking in the sheer delight of being mean and nasty, making each dastardly deed an occasion for lip-smacking relishment. On top of that, he makes the character’s final (sudden and contrived) conversion to virtue, well, almost believable.

Able support for all is provided by Tavern regulars Daniel Parvis, Matt Felten, Jacob York, Clarke Weigle, and Jeff Watkins. Costume and Lights by Anne Carole Butler and Mary Ruth Ralston are competent and compelling, and the whole thing is staged by Mr. Houchins at a breakneck pace that never lets us stop snickering long enough to realize how silly the whole thing is.

The quickie one-sheet program suggests a drinking game while watching this show – take a sip for every line you think Shakespeare composed. Well, when you put it that way, I daresay everyone who plays the game will leave the theatre stone cold sober. Let’s not forget, a typical Restoration “rewrite” will (first) remove any dialogue that smacks of poetry and (second) remove any subtlety of character or tragic circumstance. Taking Mr. Theobald’s claim at face value, even if he did posses the manuscripts he claims (and no one is on record as actually having seen them), they would still have been a Restoration revision of the original, so none of Shakespeare’s dialogue would remain, and only the bare bones of his story. It would be like someone claiming the screenplay for “Gnomeo and Juliet” deserves to be placed alongside others in the Bardic canon.

Which brings me to a last (and lengthy) digression about the other contender for the “Cardenio” provenance.

In 1994, forensic handwriting expert (and Shakespearean analyst) Charles Hamilton published a book in support of another anonymous Elizabethan manuscript as being the “lost” play – a revenge melodrama entitled “The Second Maiden’s Tragedy.” Based on early twentieth-century scholarship, this play has usually been attributed to Thomas Middleton, a contemporary (and rival) of Shakespeare during the early 1600’s, and Mr. Hamilton’s book failed to convince very many (even any) Middleton enthusiasts.

I, however, find his arguments compelling, nay even convincing, and I find the play itself the equal of the other Shakespeare/Fletcher collaborations (better, in fact, than the pompous and static “Henry VIII”). Mr. Hamilton’s makes many convincing arguments, with the following being the most compelling:

(1) The handwriting of the manuscript is exactly the same as that of Shakespeare’s final will (remember that Mr. Hamilton is an expert on Elizabethan handwriting), and carries the characteristics of an author’s manuscript rather than a clerk’s (or stage manager’s) “clean” copy.
(2) The censor’s note at the end, which calls the play “untitled” but describes it as “The Second Maiden’s Tragedy,” hence the name that has come down to us, carries a date that places its approval just prior to the production of “Cardenio” before the court.
(3) Fletcher was the author of “The Maiden’s Tragedy,” which the censor obviously knew when giving it that temporary name.
(4) The main plot and sub-plot of “The Second Maiden’s Tragedy” suggests the Cardenio episode of “Don Quixote” albeit with changed character names and completely different resolutions. The sub-plot is, in fact, (more or less) the plot of “Double Falsehood.”
(5) The play had to have been written before the English publication of “Don Quixote,” so, the playwright had to either have read Cervantes in galley form, or read the original Spanish edition. Fletcher was known to be fluent in Spanish, and Middleton was known to have not been.

But, as with “Double Falsehood,” the proof will be in the play. Mr. Hamilton makes some conjectures and analyses that SEEM to rule out Middleton as the author and SEEM to rule in Shakespeare and Fletcher, and even makes some fair conjectures as to why it was not included in the first folio (many of which have also been applied to “Pericles,” “Two Noble Kinsmen,” and “Edward III”). As to the play itself, I really like the depth of the characters and the beauty of the language, both of which seem to preclude Middleton as the author, but, truth to tell, my only guide is what Hamilton says about Middleton – I’ve never actually read any of his plays.

Still, to be sure, I’d like to see the Tavern (some day) produce “The Second Maiden’s Tragedy,” if nothing else to see a bit of necrophilia on stage (yes, the evil tyrant has his way with the Lady after her suicide with a sublimely just and ironic result – in this version EVERYONE dies!). I’d be even more interested to know the thoughts of actors who know Shakespeare so well – is this dialogue on a par with what they know? Literary types can sit in their ivory towers and count contractions and punctuation and neologisms and make conclusions no different than a statistics program, but those who live and breathe these words day after day will, to my mind, make a more convincing case.

In any case, “The Second Maiden’s Tragedy” would leave drinking-game participants reeling under the table where “Double Falsehood” leaves them unmoved.

But, to get off my English major digression and back on the show at hand, “Double Falsehood” (whatever its provenance) is a delightful silly exercise in a lost style (that should, truth to tell, probably stay lost). It’s great for this single exercise in theatrical resurrection, and, on this hot summer days, is a wonderful alternative to pretty much everything else.

Besides, what’s Shakespeare scholarship without a little exposure to Restoration bowdlerization?

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)





Monty Python's Spamalot, by Python (Monty) with Iric Idle and John du Prez
Return of the Filthy English K-nigg-ts
Friday, June 24, 2011
4.0
Congratulations on receiving the Executive Version of this posting. A limited number of Better-Than-Average Subscribers have been personally chosen to receive this select edition. It is carefully delivered to your computer by your hand-picked ISP, and is translated into a language in which only you are fluent. It contains little or no offensive material, apart from four #%*%$’s, two *&^#$’s, and one F^%$-Bomb, and, since they have been transformed into cartoon swear-spell, you are safely past them now.

So, on to my review. It begins like this:

Atlanta. The 21st Century. A plague of Pythons has once again befallen our fell metropolis, rendering the stage of the Fabulous Fox asunder, as if trod upon by the feet of God. Thankfully, they will have fled by the time you read this. (A three-day tour? Must be a fateful trip!)

High Dramedy? Low Comigy? If not one, then the other? Duh-oy!

Perhaps one review would go like this – I laughed, I cried, it was better than “Cats.”

Perhaps another review would go like this – I was appalled! How DARE they cut the role of Kenneth Clarke? How DARE they imply the presence of a two-soled rocket-propelled God? How DARE they impugn the great nation of Finland? How DARE they not include the Piranha Brothers and the Spammish Repetition? How DARE they Dare this?

But my review will go like this – Um. I don’t know. It didn’t suck.

Then, my review may carp on the lower standards of this particular cast – no names in the name roles, a talk-sung “You won’t Succeed on Broadway,” a cheap-looking “Expensive Forest,” an abridged “Run Away,” a few too-many Fox-expected sound glitches.

Then, my review will digress into a series of philosophical, existential ponderings that give the pseudo-intellectualites among us fodder for cud. Just like this –

Did you know that God often loses kitchen cups?

Did you know that six pounds of confetti are used at each performance?

Did you know that even the poorest peasants wear costumes made of silken samite?

Did you know that the real reason the Fox house lights are so dim is to keep us from reading the program writings of Kristi Casey Sanders and Kathy Janish? (It must be a plot, ladies! It hurts my brain!)

What does that beggar do with his alms? (I suspect he goes backstage to lend a hand.)

This is where my review stops asking questions and talks some more about the cast..

Most were blithely adequate in their roles, hitting a good(ish) percentage of laugh lines and a fair(ish) number of accurate musical notes, embracing the silliness with all the reserve of glitter-spangled boy dancers, mangling all the accents to imperfection, and generally having a good enough time to make it easy for a Python-holic to forgive the lapses that put this production a notch or two lower than the last couple of tours.

On the other hand, young Caroline Bowman, fresh off tours of “Fame” in China and “Grease” in Turkey (and there’s GOT to be a joke somewhere in that particular resume), brings to “The Lady of the Lake” an energy and skill that knocks this show a few notches higher than the rest of the cast deserves. She belts with the best (absolutely nailing “The Diva’s Lament”) and adds a spark of energy to the show every time she walks on stage. Of the three “Ladies” I’ve seen at this point, she is, by far, my favorite.

Finally, this is the part of the review where I laboriously tie up any willing readers and subject them to some sort of denouement. It has to end up somewhere!

So, in spite of neglecting some of the more obscure Pythonalia (by saying this, this review cites a previously stated comment in an obscure fashion that serves to add to my word-count), “Monty Python’s Spamalot” is now and always a welcome visitor to our fair environs, a respite from the too-early-heat-wave that is obviously the product of a Liberal anti-Corporate America hoax, a marvelous compendium of excess and silliesque digressions, a profound rumination on the Godlike Hubris of Theatrical Producers (and their Pseudo-Semitic Base), and a heart-felt homage to the glories of Finland.

And, now, for something completely different, this is the end of my review.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

PS – Recipients of the Executive Version of this posting receive a postscript not included in the regular version.

RED, WHITE AND TUNA, by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, Ed Howard
Deja Vu, Y'All!
Friday, June 24, 2011
3.5
Howdy, y’all! I sure do hope all y’all’re havin’ a sparkly delightful spring (I do, I do!). If only it wasn’t as hot and steamy as a Tijuana House o’ Hospitality, I think we’d all be a mite more comfy and happy.

A highlight o’ my week was supposed to be another trip to Tuna, TX. I’ll be durned if Theatre in the Square didn’t move that ole Lone Star Flag back to the floor of Alley Stage where it all started back when, and I’ll be durned if they didn’t bring back two fine and dandy actors on top of it to play all the folks of Tuna TX. Sad to say, though, this version don’t wiggle along as smooth as a silky sidewinder dumped out of a Gulf oil spill like the last umpteen trips, but kinda just lies there, like a heat-stroked armadillo lyin’ on its back.

This is the third Tuna play by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard, and it’s directed by Mr. Howard, but, for me, it weren’t as funny or as interestin’ as “Greater Tuna” or “Tuna Christmas.”

A coupla years have gone by since we last saw these folks. Arles and Bertha are fixin’ to get hitched, R.R. Snavely has finally come back from his UFO tour of the unknown (and Didi isn’t too happy), Helen and Inita have their own caterin’ business (and their old hankerin’ ways), and flower-children Star Birdfeather and Amber Windchime have come back for a High School Reunion that no one seems to be lookin’ forward to. We also see old favorites Charlene and Stanley, Vera and Thurston, and, of course, Petey Fisk, but I guess I was just too durn heat-snoozy to figure out just what alla them were up to these days.

Now, if you haven’t heard by this time, these Tuna plays are character portraits (if y’all will forgive a high-falutin’ phrase) of the residents of tiny Tuna TX, in which pr’t’ near everyone (man, woman, child, and critter) are played by two actors (supported by what has to be a squadron of backstage dressers). These folks are silly and funny, but they just couldn’t seem to reach into my belly and tie a knot of somethin’ serious and pleasant, like they’ve done before. Still, I do have a certain fondness for all these folks, and that’s a whole different march to another kettle of fish.

Now, on to the warranted praise, Bryan Mercer and William S. Murphey give two dozen mighty fine and funny performances. To repeat what I said about last year’s excursions, Mr. Mercer is very convincing in all the lady parts he visits (not to mention good old Petey Fisk), and Mr. Murphey finds laughs in the most movin’ scenes and finds a flicker of feeling in the most silly scenes. These two work together like grits and beans, and never even raise a sweat in their many costume switcheroos. They make it look easy.

Some fancy Yankee writers say the Tuna plays make the characters look foolish and silly, and true Texans should oughta hate ‘em. In the previous plays, I was inclined to see the sparks of folks I really know in all of ‘em, and laugh at the all the eccentricities that can be ugly if they weren’t so funny. This time, though, there was just more ugly than funny, more same-old same-old than sudden surprise, more potato salad than bar-b-cued possum.

Still, if you liked these characters, you’ll probably like ‘em again. If you never met ‘em, well, you just might like ‘em too. After all, I’m just a narcoleptic old smarty-pants who needs to get more sleep and see fewer high-falutin’ shows, so what does what I say really matter? It don’t, it don’t!

So, all I can say to all y’all is you could do yourselves a favor by moseyin’ on over to the Theatre in the Square (which, of course, the Smut Snatchers won’t let me abbreviate) in Marietta GA (a big city by Tuna standards, I reckon), and visit with some folks you may (or may not) have visited before.

You just may have a finer time than I did, y’hear?

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



A Grand Night For Singing, by Rogers and Hammerstein
A Bland Night for Singing
Friday, June 24, 2011
3.5
I’m second to no one in my respect for Rodgers and Hammerstein, both for the music itself, and for their influence on Musical Theatre after the 1940’s. So, it came as a bit of a surprise that “A Grand Night for Singing,” the 1993 revue of their music, was, for me, so bland and lifeless. Comprised of a few favorite classics and many many lesser-known titles from lesser-known works, the show was very heavy on the slow ballads and very light on the lively plot numbers.

The problem may lie with the size of the cast. Conceived and arranged for five singers (two men and three women), the show has, essentially, no room for any large group numbers. The highlight of the show for me was “Honey Bun,” in which all five performers joined in a nicely choreographed and energetic jazz riff that, unfortunately, couldn’t be found anywhere else in the show.

Another problem may be a “have your cake and eat it too” approach to song set-ups. Each of the performers was costumed as an iconic Rodgers and Hammerstein character, putting some of the songs into their story and context. Yet, many opportunities were taken to completely change that context, most notably (and successfully) making “How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria” a wistful love song by a confused suitor. That this particular diversion seemed to work so well is either a tribute to the song’s adaptability, or a condemnation of the interchangeability of too much of the R&H canon.

And that, for me, was the biggest problem with the show. Because so many of the numbers are from lesser-known shows with no frame of reference for the listener, too many of them began to sound distressingly alike, as if any one of them could be plugged into any of the shows. Understandably, this may be more of a cultural relic of the pre-Sondheim era, but, to a post-Sondheim audience, it makes for a blandly monochromatic revue.

Another issue is the lack of truly passionate faux-spiritual numbers. There is no “Climb Every Mountain” or “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” indeed no numbers at all that would allow the performers to cut loose and belt with passion and conviction. Most egregiously, we heard a snippet of “Carousel’s” “Soliloquy,” but only in the context of songs about families and kids – the excerpt ended long before the dramatic conclusion of the original number.

This is not to denigrate the cast (Bernard Jones, Erin Lorette, Nick Morette, Kelly Chapin Schmidt, and Caitlin Smith). All had moments of excellence, all had voices that blended well, and Music Director Linda Uzelac is to be commended for making so many songs (over 30) sound so professional and so well-done, not letting the amplified orchestra overwhelm the unmiked singers.

Director Robert Egizio also staged the show well, using Stage Door’s thrust stage to maximum effect. Chuck Welcome has built a beautiful “Side Show” set, complete with Ferris Wheel and Carousel Lights in the background and numerous “booths” for staging small scenes. On a technical and performance level, the show is a complete winner.

And, taken in and of themselves, the songs are treasures, delicate and humble expressions of love, of confusion, of loss, of sadness, of the full panoply of human emotion that proved the bedrock of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. My complaint is with how they were put together, how the evening was structured. To be frank, you can only listen to so many love songs without wanting to know something about the lovers, without wanting to know their story. Adding a narrator (ala “Side by Side by Sondheim”) to provide context (any context) or commentary would have helped. Including a wider variety of songs would have helped.

And coming up with a way to include a few up-beat chorus numbers, even reduced to five voices, would have been ideal, a way to inject some life into what comes across as a nicely illustrated Lawrence Welk album.

This is a show I only wish had been a little more Grand and a little less Bland.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Avenue Q, by Jeff Whitty, Robert Lopez, and Jeff Marx
First Impressions
Friday, June 24, 2011
4.0
“Avenue Q” is one of those shows that, upon first impression, should be dismissed as a cynical one-joke exercise in snarkiness. Supposedly an “adult” parody of “Sesame Street,” it has little to offer beyond its shocking content (Cursing! Drugs! Sex!) and its strict allusion to “Sesame Street” (Rod & Nicky = Bert and Ernie, Trekkie Monster = Cookie Monster, etc).

I mean let’s look it with an honest eye. “What do you do With a BA in English?(**)” appeals to the anti-intellectualism running amok these days, and was apparently written by someone who never went to college. “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” is a cynical wallow in self-justification. “The Internet is for Porn” is … okay I’ll buy that one. The puppets are paper-thin characters who survive on stereotypes. And does (the late) Gary Coleman really need this much abuse?

And yet … And yet … And yet …

And yet, when I first heard the CD, I couldn’t stop laughing. And now that I’ve (finally) seen it on stage (I somehow missed the two tours that breezed through town), I still can’t stop laughing. Maybe because I pre-date the “Sesame Street” generation (though I confess to getting through college with Grover and company), maybe because I have a healthy streak of snark myself, I respond well to the cynicism on view, and respond more to the healthy streak of heart that underscores the entire show.

To recap, Princeton is a recent college graduate moving to Avenue Q (because it’s all he can afford). There he meets all the residents who will be his friends – Gary Coleman, the building super (yes, THAT Gary Coleman), Rod and Nicky (two friends who share an apartment), Brian and Christmas Eve (two non-puppet characters – who says there’s no diversity here!), the winsome and lovely Kate Monster, and the reclusive (and single-minded) Trekkie Monster. Into Princeton’s world comes the “Bad Idea Bears” (a brilliantly mean conception), not to mention the what-you-see is what-you-get Lucy the Slut. Throughout the course of the play, Princeton is trying to find some purpose, and, well, each scene can be read as a little “lesson” in living on the grittier side of the tracks.

It doesn’t hurt that the Horizon has put together a cast of local favorites and put them through their puppetry paces to sell the show. Nick Arapoglou brings to Princeton a wide-eyed innocence that carries through his second act “bottoming out.” J.C. Long and Jeff McKerley bring to Rod and Nicky an originality that transcends the “Bert and Ernie” impersonations that too often saddle the actors who play the roles. Mary Nye Bennett is a sassy and strong Kate Monster, and her singing (especially in “There’s a Fine, Fine Line”) is one of the highlights of the show. I also liked the non-puppet characters played by Spencer Stephens, Leslie Bellair, And Matt Nitchie, and Jill Hames gives the Lucy the Slut puppet a “Special” life force that is funny and memorable.

Moriah & Isabel Curley-Clay have put them all in a seedy (if sometimes flimsy) back-street set that flows from scene to scene with little delay, and Heidi Cline McKerley directs it all with a pace and energy that creates a non-stop romp into the “dark side” of being a grown-up. I liked every minute of this show.

Now I can’t leave this review without commenting on some remarks I heard from some friends who were less-than-impressed with the performances. These were folks who did see the touring companies, and didn’t like the changes made to the show, particularly the lack of “Bert and Ernie” impersonations on the part of Mr. Long and Mr. McKerley. Admittedly, I’ve been known to unfavorably compare one production of a particular show with another version seen previously. In this case though, they seem to focus on something I DIDN’T like about the CD (and apparently the tours). We “get” that Rod and Nicky are supposed to be like Bert and Ernie – slavishly imitating those familiar voices is, to my ears, a distraction from the unique qualities brought to this show by these characters (for the record, Rod is firmly “in the closet” gay, and Nicky is not – his song “If You Were Gay” is one of the nicest, non-cynical and non-judgmental songs in the show). So, my response to such criticism is simply this – I liked the show, you didn’t! Neener Neener Neener! Since this is my first impression of the show (for now), my only excuse is that I am unaffected by prior productions.

So, I invite you all to take a trip the “Avenue Q,” where you will see the most interesting puppets doing the most interesting things to each other, and singing the most interesting songs with an energy that is contagious and infectious.

I can tell you how to get there!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

** So, just what DO you do with a BA in English? Call me! I have one. And what I had to do to get it is one of the main reasons this song should rub me the wrong way. Why it doesn’t is just an interesting psychological phenomenon that has absolutely nothing to do with Denial. At least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!




The Judas Kiss, by David Hare
A Role of No Consequence
Friday, June 24, 2011
4.0
“The everyday world is shrouded.
We see it dimly.
Only when we love do we see the true person. The truth of a person is only visible through love.
Love is not the illusion, Life is.”


So says Oscar Wilde in David Hare’s 1998 play, “The Judas Kiss.” It is a peculiarly Victorian and Romantic philosophy, and during the course of the play, Mr. Hare proceeds to demolish the sentiment every chance he gets.

The background is familiar to many of us and has been the subject of several plays and films. In 1895, playwright Oscar Wilde was tried for “Gross Indecency” due to his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”) and was sentenced to two years of hard labor. After his release, he left England for good, his literary output diminishing to the single work “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a long work of poetry “commemorating the harsh rhythms of prison life.” He was only forty-six when he died, penniless and alone, in Paris.

“The Judas Kiss” two acts give us a “before and after” picture of the writer. In Act I (“Deciding to Stay”), we see him in London just prior to his arrest. His lover, “Bosie” is encouraging him to stay and his friend Robert Ross (who would ultimately bring his collected works to the reading public) urging him to flee. Throughout, he is seemingly indifferent to his fate, concerned more about his lunch than about his upcoming trial. In Act II (“Deciding to Leave”), we see him in exile after his release from prison, broken and destitute, facing the reality of the person he chose to give up his career and reputation to love.

Throughout, we are given glimpses of Wilde’s true genius, his talent for epigram and wry observation, his sparkling (even when piercing) wit, and his true appreciation of beauty and kindness. We are also shown a somewhat disillusioned side, a realization that his fate is out of his hands and is more the result of his status as a British “outsider” and an Irishman, than for his actions. After all, Bosie was guilty of the same “crimes,” yet he goes untried and unpunished due (no doubt) to his status as an English Lord.

I have often found Mr. Hare’s works a bit of challenge, appealing more to ideas and arguments than to emotions and conflicts (“Amy’s View,” “Plenty,” “Skylight”). Here, there are many arguments about politics and friendship and art and (especially) beauty. Here there is much emotion on display -- love and friendship, fear and devotion, loyalty and betrayal. But, typical for Hare, the emotion is kept at an arms’ length – we HEAR about the feelings more than we WITNESS them. Displays of love and friendship are usually accompanied by a cynical sneer or a cruel put-down. Ross, who history tells us never lost his fidelity to Wilde, who always had Wilde‘s best interests at heart, and who, ultimately, had his own ashes interred beside him, is blithely dismissed by Bosie as a “Third Party,” a “Role of No Consequence.” Anytime Wilde expresses his love for Bosie (who is here presented as selfish and shallow), he is reminded that Bosie does not deserve the sort of devotion and sacrifice Wilde is prepared to give.

Still, one can’t help but be moved by Wilde’s singularity of purpose. He seems to be aware of Bosie’s oft-enumerated shortcomings, but, to him, they do not matter. Because of his love, he knows the “truth” of the younger man’s character, a truth he comes to appreciate more fully after the titular “Judas Kiss” of the final moments. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Freddie Ashley’s performance as Wilde brings the writer alive in so many ways – his face a constantly changing mask of hurt and affection and wry distance and weariness and infatuation. Mr. Ashley proves to be as formidable on stage as he is “behind the scenes” when he directs. His Oscar Wilde is itself a creation of beauty, a character we can’t take our eyes (and ears) off of, even when he is surrounded by younger, lovelier, and nakeder actors.

In fact, this cast is key to an enjoyment of this production. Clifton Guterman, bleach-blonde and bone-thin, makes a surprisingly likeable Bosie. Yes, he’s shallow and self-centered (“I am not ashamed to say this – my suffering has been the greater” – this to a man who can barely move because of his two-year ordeal). But he’s also capable of real affection (if not sacrifice), and it’s very easy to see Wilde’s attraction (which, truth to tell, comes across more as aesthetic appreciation than as sexual desire). Christopher Corporandy is also compelling as Robert Ross, transcending the script’s “third-wheel” sycophant to suggesting a loyal devotion more in line with historical evidence. In smaller roles, Jillian Fratkin and Brody Wellmaker start the play off with a bang, playing a pair of randy servants who seem to be fond of Wilde, John Stephens plays their boss, all obsequiousness in the service of his hotel’s guests, and Antonio Pareja is suitably attractive as an Italian fisherman enjoying a one-night stand with Bosie (I’ll leave it to others to judge his Italian dialogue).

One of the biggest problems this cast has been able to overcome is the essential static quality of Act Two. To show the effects of his imprisonment, Wilde spends almost the entire act in his easy chair, moving only rarely, and reacting to the frolicking (and backstabbing) with a mere shift of expression and bearing. Credit to Mr. Ashley, director David Crowe, and the rest of the cast for making this undramatic set-up intensely theatrical. Credit also to the set and lights of Philip Male and Joe Monaghan, who have created a skeletal stage picture that transforms believably from a high-end London hotel room to a low-rent Italian bungalow with little more than a change in furnishings and an adjustment in gel warmth.

I’m a big fan of Oscar Wilde, and always considered his principled stand against London society an act of heroism. His plays provide dialogue that is a joy to both speak and hear, and his observational wit never gets stale. “The Judas Kiss” does justice to the man and to his story, and, if the script stays more in the head that in the heart, this production is memorable and compelling. And Freddie Ashley gives one of the best performances of the year, making me hope he will continue to show his talents in the scene as well as behind the scene.

And, to sum up Wilde’s view of nature and beauty and fate, let’s just listen again to his final monologue:

““All trials are trials for one’s life, just as all sentences are sentences of death, and three times I have been tried. The first time I left the box to be arrested, the second time to be led back to the House of Detention, the third time to pass into prison for two years. Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on just and unjust alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang the night with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt; she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole …”

And now, thanks to Robert Ross’s constant publicizing of the works of Oscar Wilde, and thanks to plays such as this one, Wilde is remembered fondly, while his tormentors are largely forgotten. Bitter herbs indeed!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Hair, by Book & Lyrics - Gerome Ragni & James Rado; Music - Galt MacDermot
Past Its Prime
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
3.0
Groovy, Far Out, and Outta Sight! Broadway Across America is bringing us a tour of the recent well-received Broadway revival of the ground-breaking 1968 tribal-love-rock-musical “Hair!” I’ve always been a fan of the show, its songs, its high spirits, and its break-the-fourth-wall free-flowing style. I was a huge fan of its 1979 movie adaptation.

And that presents a little problem here – Has Ms. Tharp’s eccentric and energetic choreography in the film ruined this play for anyone else’s dance vision? Certainly, for this production, I found the choreography flat and dull, which seemed to drain all the energy from the show for me, giving my mind ample opportunity to wander down all those “why this doesn’t work anymore” tracks.

Let’s be honest here, what was “ground-breaking” in 1968 has become overdone to the point of triteness by now. The show has not aged well at all. Granted, there are some excellent high points, but there are even more low points (an LSD sequence that takes forever and can probably be used by anti-drug groups to keep kids AWAY from acid, a gaggle of self-indulgent characters who seem allergic to any personal responsibility, a post-ending “come and dance with us on stage” that’s just as irritating here as it was in “Menopause” – and you know a show hasn’t aged well when it gets compared to the likes of “Menopause”).

Let me just touch on a few other things that haven’t aged well. The original “Do your own thing” vibe that permeated a lot of the hippie culture, now comes across as more “Do your own thing as long as it’s the same as ours.” Since 1968, “countercultures” have proliferated with the wild abandon of evolutionary microbes. The anti-establishment milieu on display here is only one of many various subcultures that capture the attention of the young and the idealistic, and it makes all the characters disturbingly alike. While the personal journey of Claude is still compelling (and the driving force of the plot), the movie made the absolutely brilliant choice of making him a true outsider. In that case, we saw the “tribe” through his eyes, and it made his acceptance of them (and their acceptance of him) so much more dramatically compelling than the “view from the inside” look the play offers. Here, I got the feeling “my thing is not lying around all day getting stoned” would not be an acceptable reaction.

Another thing is the infamous nude scene at the close of Act One. In 1968, it was indeed daring and vivid. We’ve now been jaded by so much on-stage freedom and on-line pornography that its unmotivated from-left-field nature is fully apparent. It’s not shocking now so much as distracting. To be honest, for this production, the distraction was minimized by the really REALLY dim lighting – so dim you couldn’t even tell anyone was naked. Still, I can think of at least a dozen more better-motivated moments in the show for spontaneous nakedness.

Many of these era-sensitive problems were exacerbated by the lackluster choreography. The “tribe” was filled to overflowing, packing the stage with more hippies than you can shake a flower at, and, for the most part, the choreography consisted of them clustering in a mega-group-hug mass, or simply gyrating in place. Even the exuberant leaps at the end of “I’ve got Life” came across as contrived and soul-less, simply because they were preceded by little movement. The dances that did exist evoked none of the style of the period, and simply seemed to consist of wiggle-the-butt and flail-the-arms gyration. Forays into the audience consisted solely of going up the house aisles in unison and more or less harassing the patrons with aisle seats. And I have to say that, after enjoying Twyla Tharp’s organically fluid staging of “Three-Five-Zero-Zero” in the movie – seeing it rendered as a “Let’s-All-Stand-In-a-Straight-Line-And-Sing” piece is just as dull and bland as PowerPoint presentation on statistics.

The singing here was, for the most part, spot on, with most of the ballads and solos filling the Fox with power and sincerity. Most of the soloists had a tendency to “scoop” into their big notes, so I suspect this was a stylistic choice of the music director – I found the device distracting but not necessarily fatal to my enjoyment. Indeed, the principals very capably delivered distinct performances, finding moments of individuality to lighten the heavy-handed sameness of the scripted characters. (The “Tribe” was not so memorable – they never gave me the feeling they were individuals or anything more than members of a Musical chorus.) Still, kudos to Steel Burkhardt’s charismatic (even when being a jerk) Berger, Paris Remillard’s looking-for-answers Claude, Caren Lyn Tackett’s angry and driven Sheila, and Kacie Sheik’s vulnerable and (very) pregnant Jeanie. Actually, my biggest problem with the cast was that all of them chose to fill their bios with new-agey “This is my sign” pretentiousness, with none of them listing any actually stage experience.

The show was staged on a unit set that evoked a junkyard hideaway more than a Central Park haven, but was suggestive enough to provide any number of interesting playing spaces, not to mention housing the wildly energetic band. Lighting was modern Broadway pull-out-the-stops razzle-dazzle (in other words, too “establishment” for my tastes), and the sound seemed to have an actual design, rather than the Fox’s usual make-their-ears-bleed pump-the-volume approach.

Still, all criticism aside, the songs have the same power they always had, the portrait of youthful idealism tempered by painful (possibly fatal) choices is still relevant, and the show itself is much redeemed by the stunning “Let the Sunshine In” finale. If the curtain call is an irritating subversion of that powerful ending, I have no problems forgiving it. We have a group of performers here who possess the talent and energy to sell the songs (if not all the plot and philosophy).

In spite of the creaks and cracks that forty years have added to the show, it’s still a pleasant wallow in the songs and ideals of (some of) our youths. If the intervening years have shown that the Age of Aquarius is yet to come, possibly receding farther and farther into the future, it’s still good to be relive that idealism that only youth and tasting-freedom-for-the-first-time can provide.

With the weather being what it is these days, we don’t really need a trip to “Hair” to “Let the Sunshine In,” but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Over the River and Through the Woods, by Joe DiPietro
Pasta Famiglia
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
4.5
Family ties ¡V the ones that come with unconditional love and demands ¡V can bind and sometimes even gag. For his entire life, Nick Cristano has been sharing Sunday dinner in Hoboken with all of his grandparents, Frank and Aida Gianelli and Nunzio and Emma Cristano. The four are a loving and exasperating lot, old-school first-generation Italian Americans, obsessed with family, faith and food. When Nick¡¦s new promotion threatens to take him to Washington (¡§The far-off one near California¡¨), the older generation pulls out all the stops to keep him near hearth and home and apron strings.

Joe DiPietro¡¦s ¡§Over the River and Through the Woods¡¨ has been around for a while ¡V TheatreReview.com lists five separate local productions, one of which I designed lights for a few years back (and, indeed, my wife is currently in rehearsals, directing a production at her church). I¡¦ve always found it charming piece of sentiment, eccentricity and aggravation leavened by a mile-wide streak of the sort of unconditional love only grandparents (and small children) can offer. That narrator Nick sometimes seems less than deserving can be overlooked, since, by the end of the play, he has done some major maturing.

Aurora Theatre has staged a new production that hits every note right, from the set accurately evoking a self-built Hoboken home, to the aromas of Italian cooking that seem to fill the theatre (missed revenue opportunity note ¡V why oh why was there no leftover lasagna on sale at the concession stand? ƒº), to the performances of the cast, who truly act as if they¡¦d known each other of most of their lives (pay close attention to the Trivial Pursuit game in Act II ¡V it¡¦s a triumph of character writing and ensemble acting).

This is a loud and close-knit family, miles removed from the quiet and polite Methodist grandparents I remember from my own youth. Still, they still carry a strong streak of familiarity ¡V who among us hasn¡¦t made a complete jerk of ourselves when exposed to the embarrassing ¡§shortcomings¡¨ of our own loved ones? Who among us has never wanted to pull out our hair and scream every time a loved one just ¡§doesn¡¦t GET us?¡¨ Who among us has never let these petty aggravations ruin our own affection and turn into a grudge lasting longer than the cannelloni course?

As I said above, this is truly wonderful cast. Eddie Levi Lee as Frank looks every inch the burly immigrant carpenter, frustrated as his age makes mundane tasks (like driving) suddenly difficult and more of a challenge than he can face. Barry Stolze¡¦s Nunzio is all wounded lion, raging against the illness eating him alive, yet keeping it a secret from those who love him most. Karen Howell brings to Emma a brassiness to die for (¡§dye¡¨ for, if we¡¦re talking about her hair?), only because we know she¡¦d gladly die for her family. But it is Susan Shalhoub Larkin¡¦s Aida who is the emotional center of the play, a goddess of pasta whose idea of love is inseparable from her idea of food. Her final monologue is the meat in this family confection, the reminder that the play we have been watching is not all about the laughs and groans and fights, but about the emotions and connections that have driven the story right into our hearts.

Okay, Jeremy Harrison¡¦s Nick comes across as more lace-curtain Irish than How-YOU-Doin¡¦ Italian, but he was easy to warm to, easy to see the connections that make his choices not as easy as we¡¦d like to think. He was very good at showing us Nick¡¦s aggravation with his grandparents, even better at showing the love that threaded through all of his interactions. And I REALLY liked Nicole Dramis¡¦ Caitlin O¡¦Hare (Grandma Emma¡¦s blind-date ¡§tactic¡¨ to keep Nick around), who showed a true affection for the grandparents, as well as true puzzlement at why Nick was always mad at them. I could easily believe that she was able to make Nick see his relatives through fresh eyes, and appreciate them more.

Tony Brown has directed this cast with an energy as loud as the characters, and Isabel & Moriah Curley-Clay have designed a set that beautifully evokes Frank and Aida¡¦s home (which Frank built himself), filling it with comfortable furnishings and dressings, and making it looked lived-in ¡V a home more than a set.

This is an audience-pleaser, a warm and rosy family comedy that threatens to overwhelm with sentiment but fortunately keeps that sentiment clean and earned. It is a celebration of food and family that even celebrates the humiliations and embarrassments family can inflict. And it is an ultimately moving reminder that, no matter how close families get, they are by definition a temporary arrangement, and that setting loved ones free is the truest expression of love.

And it really made me long for my own long-gone grandparents, and those quiet and polite (and only occasional) Sunday dinners that highlighted my first twenty years.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Moonlight & Magnolias, by Ron Hutchinson
More Politics and Sausage
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
4.5
(Add this one to the “It works no matter where it’s done” pigeonhole. Much of this review is copied directly from my reaction to the Alliance’s 2005 production of this play.)

People who enjoy politics and sausage (or so the old joke goes) should never watch them being made. Thanks to Ron Hutchinson’s comedy “MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS,” we can now add “People who like ‘Gone With the Wind’” to this.

FADE IN

The Studio Lot Bungalow/Office of Producer David O. Selznick.
Off-camera is trusty Gal Friday Miss Poppenghul.
Selznick and “Script Doctor” Ben Hecht are face-to-face, mid-argument.
Selznick is shocked.

Selznick: You’ve never read the book?
Hecht: I’ve never read the book.

{Insert here 105 minutes of desperation as Selznick pulls director Victor Fleming off “The Wizard of Oz” to help him and Hecht come up with a new screenplay for “Gone With the Wind,” a property only Selznick has any faith in. Add a bajillion reams of paper arranged in piles and drifts, a bushel of bananas, and enough peanuts to bankroll a Carter Presidential campaign. For flavor, add some Intelligentsia vs Mass Market commentary, some Hollywood Dishing, some goofy re-enacting, and a lot of laughs. End with four exhausted actors and one soon-to-filmed classic.}

FADE OUT

What I really liked about this play was how it used the sort of crisp dialog and pacing found in actual Ben Hecht screenplays (think “His Girl Friday”). The “serious political” bits in Act Two don’t really slow down the pace, and the attitudes of Fleming and Hecht reflect the mindset of those of us who never really liked “GWTW.” But, Selznick’s obsession and vision are no different than any other artist who has a definite goal and is willing to coerce, bribe, and bully anyone he needs to help him achieve that vision. What I liked was the tacit implication that anything can be turned into art if it comes with that kind of inner fire.

If I had to complain about anything, it would be about the character of Hecht. We are constantly told that he is Hollywood’s best “script doctor” and Selznick is obsessed with keeping him on the payroll. But we never really see him come up with any good lines or ideas. His function in the script seems to be only to take down the ideas Selznick and Fleming come up with. But, since the structure of the play is Selznick and Fleming acting out the book for Hecht’s benefit, this can, in the end, be forgiven.

Jeffrey Bigger as Selznick is absolutely dead-on in all his choices, giving one of the best performances I’ve seen from him. I believed that he was a man who could browbeat these heavy-duty collaborators, artists in their own right, to buy into his vision. This is not to downgrade the other performances. I really liked Jim Dailey’s Ben Hecht, who brought enough passionate conviction to the play that, this time, I quite forgot about the script quibble I talked about above. If Kelly David Carr brings a few too many modern mannerisms to the “man’s man” role of Victor Fleming, he more than makes up for it by being outrageously funny in the re-creation sequences. And, like Tess Malis Kincaid before her, Leigh-Ann Campbell pulls off the thankless role of Miss Poppenghul with humor and panache (yes, there do seem to be an unlimited number of line readings for “Yes, Mr. Selznick.”).

Julie Taliaferro directs her ensemble at a break-neck pace, made more strenuous by the nice multi-level set designed by herself and Chris Cerny. And John F. Parker Jr lights it all with a warmth that evokes the era and location. And, though I really enjoyed the faux-silhouette window bits from the Alliance production, I did not mind they had to be cut here (venue and budget constraints, I presume).

Yes, “Moonlight and Magnolias” is lightweight stuff, with a healthy spoonful of contemporary political commentary made palatable with a schoonerful of laughs.. But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – lightweight stuff has its place, and can be invigorating when it’s done right. This one is done right!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Circle Mirrror Transformation, by Annie Baker
Six Acting Lessons in Six Weeks
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
3.5
It’s an irony of the art of acting that, in the quest to create moments of “reality,” exercises, lessons, and training “games” of astounding artifice are used to hone our skills. We have to pretend in order to pursue that ever-elusive “magic moment” of emotional truth. In Annie Baker’s new comedy, “Circle Mirror Transformation,” we are plunged into a small-town acting class, and the trip is, oddly enough, more satisfying than you may think.

To be sure, I’ve participated in some of these exercises, and, on the whole, I’ve sometimes found them aggravatingly pretentious, and sometimes surprisingly effective. The pretention comes in the unspoken assumption that the art of theatre is ONLY emotion, that words are irrelevant and therefore disposable. It also ignores such (IMHO) critical aspects of acting as back-story, character memory, character “voice” (what does this character’s word choice and structure say about him/her?) and foreshadowing.

On the other hand, many of these exercises go right to the root of “segmenting” your awareness – what am I doing in this place at this time and why am I saying these particular words? What in my immediate environment MUST I ignore to get to the reality of the situation?

Because this play is set in a small town (“Shirley Vermont”), there is also a certain smug attitude towards the main character, towards her tunnel-vision focus on “Be Here Now” exercises. (Favorite line –“Will we ever be doing any REAL acting?” “This IS real acting.”). On the other hand, there’s also a blatant respect for the methods themselves, culminating in a distinctly effective ending in which two characters play themselves “ten years from now.” This gives the whole thing a certain schizophrenic quality, a quality compounded by the structure – the audience is asked to witness what can only be truly understood by direct experience.

Still, I liked the moments of recognition throughout, the slow reveals of characters through all the various “games,” the humor (and irony) inherent in failing to get beneath the surface of new relationships when the only interactions are supposedly “real revelations of character.” I liked how this cast showed a wide range of experience and response to the lessons (and to each other).

Shelly McCook is Marty, the teacher, and she brings to the role all her usual quirky humor, this time carrying a solid undercurrent of seriousness – she is fully committed to her craft (at least her idea of the craft) and never condescends to the material. David de Vries is her husband, James, only half-committed to the class (and, apparently, the marriage). Steven L. Hudson is sadly humorous as Schultz, a newly-divorced man “on the prowl,” aggravatingly jerky and appealingly vulnerable all at once (and what is acting if not the resolution of inherent contradictory impulses?). Amber Chaney is Theresa, a recent transplant from Manhattan, running away from a failed relationship and a failed acting career. And Rachel DeJulio is Lauren, a teenager who hasn’t lost that youthful drive to act we all remember. Together they harmonize beautifully, whether in a varied responses to exercises, whether in just-missed relationship connection , they are individually discordant, together a beautiful ensemble.

And that’s the real reason to see this play. I’m not sure how non-industry folk will regard all the “in-jokes” and references, or how they will react to the long Pinteresque (that is, fraught with sub-text) pauses, or how they will judge the vaguely-explained exercises. But they will definitely react to this group of people, to the sadness at the root of their lives that transcends to great joy when they get together each week to act and play.

The struggle of the actor is to make real what is essentially artificial. To make spontaneous outbursts of song, perfectly rhymed dialogue, intricately structured farce, outrageously imaginative fantasy, brilliantly contrived coincidence ALL seem the most realistic and natural thing in the world. IMHO, that is the true art and the true greatness of acting. That this skill is honed by the most preposterously artificial and surface-silly exercises is the take-home “truth” of “Circle Mirror Transformation,” and, personal nitpicking aside, that is what makes this play well worth the trip.

Now, I’ll go first. Whenever it’s your turn, shout out your number … ONE!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Diary of Anne Frank , by Frances Goodwrich
A Small Patch of Sky
Thursday, June 2, 2011
4.5
"I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart."
- Anne Frank


The story of Anne Frank and her family has become part of the fabric of our war remembrances, of the history of the holocaust. In the rush to canonize, we often forget that, in spite of her extreme circumstances, she was a real young woman going through the growth pains all young women go through. We forget that her diary reveals a “chatterbox,” a flirt, a rebellious daughter, an intelligent and curious mind, a precocious imagination with a flair for organizing her thoughts into a highly readable journal, a young woman whose life ended far too early and whose memory lingers due mostly to her own efforts.

Anne Frank was only thirteen when she, her parents, her sister, and another family (the van Daan’s) went into hiding in a “secret annex” of her father’s office. Forced to remain utterly silent during daylight hours, forced to survive on purloined ration books supplied by close friends, they remained prisoners of their hiding place for over two years until a Gestapo raid sent them to their inevitable fate. Throughout the two years in hiding, they bickered and grew and endured hunger and illness and crowded conditions. Throughout the two years in hiding, they survived. Once discovered, only one would return to find the abandoned diary and bring it to the world.

In 1955, a theatrical adaptation by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett opened on Broadway, and, to this day, it is mainstay of revival houses, schools, and other theater groups. Amazingly, Act 3 Productions’ staging is the first time I’ve seen it on stage, and I found it to be a nicely directed (by Jesse Cramer), movingly performed experience. The small playing area was divided into several cramped levels, and, to drive home the point of their confinement, the cast was required to remain onstage during intermission, finding “stuff” to quietly occupy their time while we “daytime workers” puttered around the lobby and refreshment stand.

Jo-Jo Steine leads the cast with a fully developed characterization as Anne. She starts out as a bit of a brat, mellows into an engaging teenager, discovers “first love” joys and crises, chafes at the restrictions put on her by her parents, and fully engages with us as her “diary.” She makes all the digressions seem natural, the wry comments on the characters of her “annex-mates” amusing (and often sharply pointed), and impresses with her intelligence and optimism. This is an Anne who is thoroughly engaging, who comes alive as a real person going through all the same adolescent agonies we all try to forget, who doesn’t let her extreme circumstance dull her enthusiasm for life and what will come “after the war.”

As her father, Otto Frank, Mark J. Perman is equally engaging, creating a source of strength the others cling to, and moving us all with his final quiet “what happened next” speech at the end. I also liked Kathleen Seconder’s Edith and Luna Manela’s Margot – all four Franks behaved like a real family, letting petty irritations overwhelm good sense, not losing a strong undercurrent of that “we will get through this together” connection that drives this play. As the van Daan’s, Joel W. Rose, Candy Spahr, and Gregory Scott Baldwin are a distinct contrast, often at odds, always a layer or two disconnected from their circumstances. In smaller roles, Evan Weisman, Johnna Barrett Mitchell, and Murray Sarkin fill out the story at just the right places.

If I have any complaint, it is with the three “Nazi extras” who come on at the end – all were so physically “off type” as to create a major distraction (a young man with a long seventies hairstyle, a woman with a decidedly Semitic appearance, an older gentleman with a “gone-to-seed” out-of-shape physique).

But, quibbles aside, it is the engagement of the main cast who really sell this production, who bring alive Anne’s story, making her so much more than an icon or a myth. We all know how her story ends (and, in a cosmic slap in the face, it ends only two months before the liberation of Amsterdam). But we still can’t help watching, can’t help being drawn to this vibrantly compelling young woman who was never afraid to tell us (her diary) what she really thought, or what she experienced, or what she tried to hide from everyone else. We can only be thankful her chronicle survived, that her story will be around to provide that remembrance, that “small patch of blue sky” that can salvage even the darkest of days.

And we can definitely be thankful for this production that brings to life the horror that was the holocaust.

"And finally I twist my heart round again, so that the bad is on the outside and the good is on the inside, and keep on trying to find a way of becoming what I would so like to be, and could be, if there weren't any other people living in the world."
-- Anne Frank



-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



August: Osage County, by Tracy Letta
Bloodsport!
Thursday, June 2, 2011
5.0
Every so often a production comes along that forever redefines what we mean by excellence. Such a production is the Alliance’s staging of Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” a searing and provocative post-mortem on “family values.” When I first read the play a number of years ago, I felt compelled to write a piece praising its dark-edged humor and finally-honed characters, admitting I was “chomping at the bit” to see a production. Now that I have, all I can see is that it not only met my expectations, but raised the bar on all of them.

Poet and teacher Beverly Weston (Del Hamilton) has disappeared. His daughters, all too close to middle age for comfort, descend on his rambling Oklahoma house to “support” his drug-addicted wife, Violet (Brenda Bynum). Thus begins an alcohol-and-resentment soaked battle for survival. For three acts, the Weston family pulls at the “ties that bind (and gag),” airing old hurts and creating new ones, picking at the scabs of long-submerged failings and wallowing in all the bitterness that only a lifetime of lies and hurts can establish.

Eldest daughter Barbara is fighting for control as she loses her husband to a younger woman and her daughter to dope and, um, other risky behaviors. Middle daughter Ivy, the one who remained “close to home,” is longing to finally scratch her way to a sort of freedom. Youngest daughter Karen has settled into an uneasy engagement to a sleaze-ball whose only redeeming quality is that he wants her. Add to the mix Violet’s sister Mattie Fae, who comes with her long-suffering husband, her browbeaten-to-catatonia son, and a purse-full of secrets all her own.

For three acts and three hours, these characters roam around the multi-storied set, forming alliances that go only as deep as the next drink, battling for dominance (“I’M IN CHARGE, NOW!” is the climactic Act II cry), and struggling in vain for some sort of closure or comfort or moment of sanity. It’s as if George and Martha from “Virginia Woolf” really did raise a family and taught them everything they practiced about the bloodsport of family life.

In my article on the script, I made a lot of comparisons to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” beginning with the detail that Mr. Letts must have been working on this play while he was here playing George in the Alliance’s 2004 production of Albee’s play. In another piece of synchronicity, the Honey and Nick of that production (Courtney Patterson and Joe Knezevich) are here as Karen and her fiancé, Steve. In a nutshell, like Albee, Mr. Letts gives us an aging couple in academia who have let their relationship smolder to a constant flame of concessions and drug-and-alcohol fueled escape, while their offspring handle the emotional brinkmanship that characterized the Albee play.

Here there are many many moments of submerged affection, bitter loss, and angry betrayal. Here there are many many moments of bad decisions, and wrong behavior, and realized-too-late repercussions. Here there are many many moments of dark humor and eye-rolling excess and angry silence.

Not to be too over-the-top with my praise, but here there are many many reminders about what theatre aspires to be, about why I love it, and about why Atlanta actors can do anything.

Yes, this is a completely Atlanta cast. Including at least three local artistic directors (Del Hamilton, Richard Garner, and Carolyn Cook), it also features actors we’ve seen in countless productions before (Chris Kayser, Jill Jane Clements, Bethany Anne Lind, Andrew Benator, Jill Jane Clements, Diany Rodriguez, the aforementioned Ms. Patterson and Mr. Knezevich, and the incomparable Tess Malis Kincaid). Filling out the cast is Brenda Bynum as Violet, who has been missing from Atlanta stages for far too long.

This is one of the best ensembles I’ve seen, well, ever. Ms. Kincaid brings to Barbara a presence and a range that simply astounds – she can be aggravating one moment and heartbreaking the next, filled with violence one act, and catatonic with grief the next. She is the “center” of this production, and, (slightly) more than anyone else, lifts it from the page into the realm of greatness. Ms. Cook disappears into Ivy, giving her silences and longings equal parts joy and pain. And Ms. Patterson gives Karen a talky flightiness that has to crash-land sooner or later. Ms. Bynum brings a staggering volatility to Violet, making her drug-fueled rantings equal parts comedy and tragedy, her shrill cruelties almost affectionate; we should hate this character, but, I for one, couldn’t. Ms. Lind wears Jean’s ennui like a blanket, using her youth and (questionable) innocence as a shield against the toxic influence of her family; yet you still see her some day turning into her mother and grandmother.

As for the men, well, what can be said? Most are mere targets of scorn, and all the actors bring something unique to each character. Mr. Kayser’s Bill (Barbara’s wandering husband) seems to be calm and collected, but he makes his straying eye seem not only inevitable, but almost required. Mr. Knezevich brings enough charm to Steve that he doesn’t come across as a TOTAL sleaze ball, even as his actions repel us. And, when Mr. Garner’s Charlie finally stands up to his wife (Mattie Fae), it’s a moment of pure victory. Andrew Benator’s “Little Charlie” is a pitiful sad sack, though we see a certain spark that apparently attracted Ivy. And Mr. Hamilton’s Beverly, even though he disappears five minutes into the show, starts the play with such force that his “shadow” never completely disappears.

When I first saw the set (by Leslie Taylor), I was a little taken aback by its openness – after all, the script emphasizes its closed-off quality (Violet has taped all the blinds shut rendering it constant night). However, Ken Yunker’s lighting design is so accurate and “right” (the “openness” disappears once the lights are up), and I soon saw it as the best choice. The background cyclorama is then used to punctuate each act with a slowly disintegrating tree that melts away as we leave the family to its own deadly games, adding an emotional level that would be lost on a completely closed-off set.

I heard someone describe this more as an “event” than a play. That may be due to its length (over three hours) and its size. But, upon reflection, I can’t help but be a little depressed by the comment. Plays like this should not be a special event, but should be the norm. This is a play that presents a houseful of distinct characters, telling a story that unfolds in leisurely (but fast-paced) detail, and takes us on a roller-coaster ride of emotions, both high and low, moving us to tears even as it tickles our sense of the absurd. It explores a particular dysfunctional family in ways that almost celebrates family dysfunction, and leaves us with a sense of well-being in thinking our own families are “so much better.”

For me, that’s not an “event,” but what I look for in every play I see.

And this is a play you really REALLY need to experience. It will make you look at the ones you love with a profoundly new sense of suspicion.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



A Midsummer Night's Dream, by William Shakespeare
A Little More Night Laughter
Thursday, June 2, 2011
4.5
Happy the Bardophile who wallows in a late summer dream only to see it “revived” a mere seven months later! Happy the tavern-going public who gets a chance to see the Tavern’s roster of familiar faces doing what they do best, then seeing them do it again! Happy the writer who can copy and paste a column previously written about a production previously praised!

Indeed, if this review gives you a sense of déjà vu, it’s because I wrote much of it last August when this production first galloped across the Tavern stage. This time, I got to bring along my wife and child, and this time, the pleasures were just as deep, the production just as enjoyable. This time, there were even a few things better.

Shakespeare’s “Dream” is probably his most accessible and familiar story. Theaterreview.com lists no fewer than twenty productions, four of which have my own reviews attached. I have personally been part of three separate productions, and seen at least a dozen more in venues in and out of Atlanta (including Canada’s Stratford Festival – and the less said about that Zorba-esque exercise, the better. Offa, Indeed!).

So with all that been-there seen-that potential in my expectations slot, I once again ventured forth upon a post-midspring eve to witness the New American Shakespeare Tavern’s “Traditional” approach to the piece, to see if my overwhelmingly positive response last summer was mere late-summer whimsy.

To recap, I’ve seen “Midsummers” set in a forest of beds-on-stilts, cast with “tag-team” Pucks, with mechanicals dressed in thatch, 2009’s GSF backstage-centric extravaganza, even one in which Puck wore Buddy Holly glasses and a superman shirt. It should be difficult to surprise me with this one.

Here we have a “Midsummer” with few directorial “flourishes” (a flatulent Lysander and a Jersey-Boy Peaseblossom are the major stand-outs), yet (again) I found myself continually surprised – surprised at the depths the actors found in the characters and interactions, surprised at the passions flowing like fairy dust, surprised at the moments of tenderness and whimsy, surprised at the laughs pulled from me on lines I know far too well. For the second time, I really REALLY enjoyed this production.

Let’s start with the cast. As before, the four lovers are the comic equals of the “Rude Mechanicals”. The scripted height-difference between Hermia (Jaclyn Hofmann) and Helena (Kelly Criss) is minimal (and the “big deal" made of it is funnier for that), but Jacob York’s Demetrius towers over Matt Felten’s Lysander, and a lot of comic mileage is made of that. Director Andrew Houchins has staged the forest scene with so much wit and slapstick and originality, that I (and, I daresay, everyone else in Friday’s crowd) was actually breathless with uncontrolled laughter. These four performers are so dynamic, so compelling, that they could have carried the show themselves, without the “low-brow” Mechanicals.

As to the Mechanicals themselves, Nicholas Faircloth left behind August’s understated Bottom, this time bursting from the gate in full bellow. As the show continues, he lets out even more stops, so that, by the time we get to the final scene, he’s chewing the scenery with the best of Bottoms (and the worst of Pyramuses). Drew Reeves’ Quince has some fine moments, Jeffrey Stephenson is a fine and flouncy Flute, Mark Schroeder a nicely petulant Starveling, and Bryan Lee a young and eager Snout. But, it is still Tony Brown’s sweetly dim Snug who is the most memorable of the lot, making one of the sweetest lions this side of Disney.

Daniel Parvis makes a nice and mischievous Puck, taking great joy in the bedlam he brings, bouncing around the stage with the energy of a pinball. I liked his moments of affection (and defiance) towards Oberon, and I loved the evident joy he took in his actions and in his words. This was one of the most poetically literate Pucks I’ve seen in a while, and Mr. Parvis proves himself (once again) a master of the language and of the character.

Matt Nitchie has been replaced by Jonathan Horne as Theseus and Oberon and Tiffany Porter is once again Hippolyta and Titania, and they make some intriguing choices and elicit their share of laughs. Again, though, neither is really “larger than life,” and I still wish they could have been a bit bigger. After all, they are leaders of mortals and immortals, and they too often come across as merely another set of lovers.

Of course, the set is the typical Tavern Globe-front, but lighting designer Greg Hanthorne Jr. has put together a marvelous design that takes us from day to night, from palace to forest, from glen to bower. Music written by Mark Schroeder and other “live” sounds contribute their usual mood-setting ambience to the tavern experience.
So the remarkable thing about this production is that it still reminds us that, no matter how familiar a particular Shakespearean piece may be, creative and inspired directors and actors can make it seem new and fresh and rich with “I-never-noticed-that-before” moments, even if we have seen the same production before. Going out on imaginative limbs can be fun and can be revealing, but not more so than simply knowing these characters so well they can move and amuse us with their fanciful story.

This is a supremely funny play, and, you truly need put it on your spring calendar.

It is definitely a treat to see the lovers’ plot on an equal comic footing with the “Rude Mechanicals” and a treat to see seasoned Shakespeareans at the top of their form. In this production, the well of laughter truly hath no bottom!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Forbidden Broadway's Greatest Hits: Vol. 1, by Gerald Alessandrini
Return to the Only-Okay Gray Way
Thursday, June 2, 2011
4.0
I have always found Gerald Alessandrini’s “Forbidden Broadway” series a muted pleasure. For the most part, I find his parodies pointed, accurate, and (more often than not) laugh-out-loud funny. Occasionally, though, they are laced with venom and downright cruelty. Times like those I usually just roll my eyes and skip to the next number.

So, it was with great pleasure I went to see this “Greatest Hits” revue of the highlights of 27 years of parodies and pastiches. Sure enough, on view were classic take-offs on (among others) “Lion King,” “Mamma Mia,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Wicked,” and “Les Misérables” (which seemed to be so “honored” in almost every version, including 2009’s “On My Phone”). Unfortunately, it also included at least one number from the “cruel and unfunny” group (“Liza One-Note”).

Still, there is more to love than not here. For one thing, since (most of) these spoofs are done with a basic affection for musicals in general, they are, barbs notwithstanding, almost a “love letter” to Broadway. Even the barbs are laced with a touch of “this could be so much better” hopefulness. And, seeing parodies of shows long closed is not a real issue, since most musicals featured are constantly being revived or toured or given local productions.

I was afraid an issue here would be the venue. The show was originally produced at a small dinner-theatre venue (so small it was considered “off-Broadway” despite its on-Broadway address). There was always a sense of intimacy between the audience and the singers, even an occasional give-and-take interaction, It turns out, my fear was unfounded. Sure, the cavernous Georgia Ensemble venue prohibits the same level of intimacy, but the four performers are quick to establish a “mass rapport” and make it seem smaller(ish). Even more, some numbers take on a different “feel” – the Ethel Merman vs Head Mike smack-down, for example – that work in different, but equally valid ways as the originals.

The cast, in fact, is made up of comic-actors-who-sing rather than singers-who-act, and that is all to the good. I’ve always liked the work of Googie Uterhardt, Marcie Millard, and Wendy Melkonian, and they are up to their expected excellence here. They are joined by director Don Farrell, who has been away from Atlanta longer than I’ve been here, but his return is welcome. The logistics of this show are complex (even chaotic), and Mr. Farrell has directed and cast the numbers in a way that keeps the numbers zipping along with no (discernable) pauses for costume changes. And those costumes (by Abby Parker) work in every scene – from the “Concert Revue” gowns and tuxes to the specific show costumes which run the gamut from homage copy (“Fiddler”) to outrageous exaggeration (“Lion King”).

Special kudos also need to go to accompanist Jeff Herndon who kept the cast together, even when the parodies sends singer into vocal keys that never existed on a keyboard.

Yes, this is a revue with no through-story, but the songs are a musical geek’s treasure trove. How you react will depend a lot on how much you enjoyed the shows being spoofed. It’s a measure of this production that I enjoyed even those parodies on shows I unequivocally loved, mostly because the targets are less the shows themselves than aspects of them that can be, well, targeted – Les Miz’s longevity and length, “Lion King’s” over-the-top costumes (what must it be like to wear them every night?), “Wicked’s” “Dueling Divas.” There are also some cases where the parody has little to do with the show itself than with life on Broadway (in general) – specifically the “Fiddler” “traditions” transposed to a life in New York theatre.

Ironically, this production has closed, as has the long-running New York original. Fortunately there are over ten collections (including box sets and compilations) available for purchase (or download), which means there is enough material for many more “Greatest Hits” productions.

I suspect this will become one of those “it never gets old” franchises that I, at least, will welcome with every new version. Do you suppose anyone will ever attempt some Atlanta-specific versions?

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




Barrio Hollywppd, by Elaine Romero
Barrio Lawrenceville
Thursday, May 5, 2011
3.5
On paper, it’s a wonderful idea. Aurora’s artistic director Anthony Rodriguez is reaching out to the area’s Hispanic community (not to mention reaching in to his own cultural roots) to produce a play by a writer with “an authentic Latino voice” performed entirely in Spanish. Of course, since my knowledge of Spanish is extremely limited, I’d have to rely on English supertitles, but that’s never been an issue with me. So, onward to “Barrio Hollywood,” a poetic exploration of love and lying by Elaine Romero in which the family of a comatose boxer struggle with memory and grief.

Of course, it must be said as a bias disclaimer that I have a neurotically severe aversion to boxing in general (I’m one of the few film fanatics who still think “Raging Bull” is overrated and “When We Were Kings” is downright awful). That being said, the boxing in this production is limited to some lyrically choreographed behind-the-scrim sequences that involve no opponent, hence no actual physical contact, so, again, this wasn’t an issue this time.

In fact, there is a lot to appreciate about this play and production, and, I really suspect my reservations fall under the “lost in translation” issues that sometimes surface when watching productions performed in an unfamiliar language.

Since, I generally liked the show, let me get the reservations part out of the way first. To begin with the most obvious (at least to a non-Spanish speaker), the idea of using different-colored supertitles for the different characters falls under the “clever-not-smart” category. My assumption was that the device was used to clearly delineate who was saying what. Unfortunately, the red and green fonts used for two of the characters proved almost entirely unreadable to my (admittedly) weak eyesight, so a lot of the play passed right over my comprehension center. It’s to the playwright’s credit (and to the cast’s) that context filled in many of the gaps for me.

Interestingly enough, this play was written originally in English and later translated into Spanish. I’m not sure if the supertitles reflected Ms. Romero’s original dialog, of they were a translation of the translation. I did find much of the English fell into sweetly poetic rhythms, and contained the sort of lyrical imagery promised in Mr. Rodriguez’ notes. But the sound of the Spanish did not sound as evocative (at least to my non-comprehending ears). Was this quality lost in translation, or are my ears deaf to the auditory nuances of the language? I actually suspect the latter, but I’d be interested in hearing the thoughts of those who do understand the language.

To recap the plot (for those of you who are still with me), the Morenos are an Hispanic family living in the “Barrio Hollywood” section of Tucson. On Cinco de Mayo, Alex Moreno crosses the border to participate in an illegal boxing match, where he suffers a traumatic brain injury. He is returned to Tucson, where he must be cared for by his sister Graciela(*) and his mother Amá. Throw into the mix an American doctor (Michael) who is falling in love with Graciela, Graciela’s love of ballet folklórico dance, and a suspicious death, and the set-up for melodramatic recriminations is complete.

I really liked how dance proved integral to this story (and kudos to Ricardo Aponte for his usual fine choreography), particularly one early sequence in which the three Morenos “swap” styles (Alex’s boxing steps and Amá’s ritualistic candle-lighting movements eerily synched with Graciela’s folklórico rhythms). I liked how flashback (and dream) sequences developed the relationship between Alex and Graciela. And I really liked how the burgeoning relationship between Graciela and Michael builds to its sweetly poetic climax.

Of course, I am singularly unqualified to judge the performances. Through my ignorance, I did feel Maria Sager’s Graciela was a bit more abrasive, as if she were projecting in a larger venue, but, again, there seemed to be subtleties there that were lost in translation. Joey Florez Jr (Alex), Sylvia Castro (Amá) and Alexandros Salazar (Michael) all gave wide-ranging performances that came through the language clearly and completely. I would be interested to know if Mr. Salazar’s Spanish came across as if it were from a non-native speaker (as is commented on) since that’s a subtlety I’d never be able to hear – to me, he sounded as fluent as the Morenos.

Britt Ramroop’s set is simple, though it seemed to require a few change sequences that were longer than their effect seemed to warrant, and James Helms’ lighting, while evocative and simple, also occasionally “washed out” the supertitles. Still, the production as a whole gelled completely for me, and Mr. Rodriguez’ direction keeps the action moving quickly. I hope this production is successful enough to warrant future excursions into Hispanic plays and stories.

In spite of his comatose state, this play takes us into the life (and family) of Alex Moreno, and it was a trip I was happy to take. To close with an entirely appropriate García Lorca verse:

But now he sleeps without end.
Now the moss and the grass
open with sure fingers
the flower of his skull.
And now his blood comes out singing;
singing along marshes and meadows,
sliden on frozen horns,
faltering soul in the mist
stumbling over a thousand hoofs
like a long, dark, sad tongue,
to form a pool of agony.


-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)


(*) The cast list spells her name “Graciella” but everywhere else in the program, it’s spelled “Graciela.” Foolish consistency!



Legacy of Light, by Karen Zacarías
Radiant
Thursday, May 5, 2011
5.0
In the country of France, in the estate of the writer and philosopher Voltaire, lived a woman whom nature had endowed with a most curious disposition. Her face was the true index of her mind. She had a solid judgment joined to the most unaffected optimism; and hence, I presume, she had her name of Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet.

She believed she lived in the best of possible worlds, writing and loving and challenging the greatest minds of her generation. And yet, one of the brutal facts of life in her world was that, when older women become pregnant, they invariably die. So, when, at the age of 42, she conceives a child with her young lover (the poet Jean François de Saint-Lambert), she knows she has only nine months to complete her life’s work.

In the country of America, in the Garden State of New Jersey, lived a woman of extraordinary intelligence and accomplishment. Her face was the true index of her mind. Left sterile by a bout with ovarian cancer (now in remission), she nevertheless contracted with a surrogate to bear her husband’s child; and hence, I presume, she had her name of Olivia.

She believed she lived in the best of possible worlds, writing and loving and challenging the greatest minds of her generation. And yet, one of the brutal facts of life in her world is that, when working women become mothers, their careers invariably die. So, when, in the prime of her career, her husband conceives a child with a young surrogate, she knows she has only nine months to complete her life’s work.

In Karen Zacarías’ marvelous play “Legacy of Light,” now being given a near-perfect production by Horizon Theatre, the lives of these two extraordinary women, separated by almost three centuries, collide and collude, two seemingly dissimilar stories approaching synchronicity, held together by a common love of science and knowledge, by a passion for life, and by an optimism in the face of absurdly pessimistic circumstances. And unifying it all is the droll commentary of Voltaire and his almost-bitter condemnation of such optimism that reached fruition in “Candide,” written ten years after Mme. du Châtelet’s death.

Ms. Zacarías first encountered Émilie du Châtelet in a footnote while she was researching her children’s play “Einstein is a Dummy.” Einstein cited Émilie as “one of the ‘forefathers’ of E=MC ²,” and, indeed, during those last nine months of her life, Mme. du Châtelet theorized about the nature of light and the relationship between matter and energy. During these fecund nine months, she also produced the definitive French translation of Isaac Newton's work Principia Mathematica, even as she was building on (and, at times, contradicting) Newton’s famous laws.

But, leaving all this fascinating science and history aside, this is primarily a story about parenthood and about relationships. Émilie “plays” with the young Saint-Lambert even while she enjoys a long-term relationship with Voltaire (the play opens with a comically energetic duel between her two lovers). She also has an almost-grown daughter, Pauline, who she is ready to “sell” into marriage to ensure a safe (and prosperous) future for the girl. Olivia is married to Peter, a nurturing teacher who, she fears, will be a better “mother” than she will ever be. Still she bonds with the surrogate, Millie, and struggles to assume all those “motherly” qualities she considers anathema to her life as a scientist.

In an intriguing sub-plot, we also see the relationship between Millie and her doting brother Lewis, how they have reacted to their mother’s recent death, and how Millie’s choice to bear Peter and Olivia’s child affects their relationship.

How all these stories eventually collide and intersect is one of the joys of this play, so I leave that discovery to you.

Another one of the joys of the play is how this incredible cast falls into these roles and makes them come alive. Leigh Campbell-Taylor (last year’s “Shooting Star”) is just perfect as Émilie, finding equal pleasures in frolicking with Saint-Lambert and sparring with Voltaire. It is a subtle, wide-ranging performance that brings alive this criminally little-know historical figure in ways that drive the play from beginning to end.

Lane Carlock is every bit her equal as Olivia, confident and passionate when lecturing girl scouts about the universe or crowing about her discovery of a “planet in gestation.” Yet, when the plot turns towards motherhood, she shows a panic and vulnerability that is as recognizable as it is compelling.

Allan Edwards bring Voltaire to fiery life and sends him shooting through both stories like a meteor about to strike. He displays all the wit and intelligence we’d expect from Voltaire, as well as some attractive self-deprecation and commentary on our contemporary world.

Doubling in both stories are Robin Bloodworth (as Peter and the Marquis du Châtelet), Kate Donadio (as Mille and Pauline), and Corey Bradberry (as Lewis and Saint-Lambert). All three are absolutely marvelous, sometimes requiring split-second costume/character changes, always making clear the connections between the characters they are playing (and yes, there are very specific plot reasons for the doubling in addition to the obvious thematic reasons).

Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay have designed a set that lets the action zip smoothly from scene to scene and from century to century. Isaac Newton’s apocryphal apple tree hangs over all, with spheres floating overhead like planets (or apples). The furnishings seem right at home in both periods, and the 18th-century costumes (by Joanna Schmink) are intricately detailed and lovely to look at. (Favorite line – when a contemporary character asks Voltaire if everyone in France dresses like he does, his response of “Yes” is both hilariously funny and oddly accurate.) And, all is directed by Susan Reid with her typical flair for pacing, ensemble building, and conceptualization.

Before closing out with another Voltaire pastiche, I have to comment on a certain similarity between this play and Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” Both plays concern science and are told using a single set in two different periods. When I first heard the description of this play, “Arcadia” came to mind immediately. Yet, while watching this, I wasn’t reminded of the Stoppard play at all, which, of course, I had to re-read just to figure out why. Leaving aside Stoppard’s marvelous facility for language and vivid characters, unlike “Legacy of Light,” “Arcadia” is an historical detective story – modern writers piece together what happened while we see the actual events unfold in counterpoint. As is typical in many Stoppard plays, the relationships are cold and cerebral and almost secondary to the talk of Literature and History and “Life.”

Here, the relationships are central. The juxtaposition of the two eras serves to build a compellingly universal theme of parenthood and learning and optimism. Truth to tell, this way of telling the story may not have worked without Stoppard’s earlier work, so I see it more as a “building on” of the technique than as a blind copying of it. And, of course, to those unfamiliar with “Arcadia,” it is totally irrelevant.

So, as Pangloss may have said to Madame du Châtelet after her death:

"There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been deprived of a fine life for the love of Saint-Lambert; had you not been ignored by the French Academy; had you not betrothed your daughter to that Italian ancient; you would not have been here to watch Olivia’s child being born."

"Excellently observed," answered Dedalus; "but let us cultivate our garden."

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)


The Wedding Singer, by Matthew Sklar, Chad Beguelin, and Tim Herlihy
Robbie's Girl
Thursday, May 5, 2011
3.5
Let’s start out with a bias disclaimer or two. I hated the 1980’s. I spent most of it on the graveyard shift, music and theatre generally sucked (IMHO), I was living a dull bachelor life, and, to make matters worse, Reagan was president. So, I have zero sense of nostalgia for the decade, and any musical that wallows in it will have a steep hill to climb for me.

On the other hand, I’ve often worked closely with Next Stage founder and “Wedding Singer” director Rob Hardie, who, truth to tell, has a somewhat more than passing interest in “Theatre Buzz” itself, so anything I say about his work must (and I mean MUST) be taken with a king-size grain of salt.

So, if I say there was a lot to like about Next Stage’s “The Wedding Singer,” (a few things even to love), you are excused if you find yourself shaking your head in rueful skepticism.

That being said, there was a lot to like about Next Stage’s “The Wedding Singer,” (a few things even to love),

Based on the 1998 Adam Sandler, movie, this show is about Robbie Hart, the lead singer in a Jersey band specializing in weddings. When he gets dumped at the altar, he goes into an emotional tailspin until he is “rescued” by Julia Sullivan, a waitress engaged to a Wall Street jerk. The rest of the play is all about how these two get the wrong people out of their lives and the right people in.

The first things to like about this show are the performances of the two leads, Daniel Pino (as Robby) and Lauren Rosenzweig (as Julia). They are perfectly matched, equally wide-eyed innocent and wounded, and, we can’t help but root for them from the moment they meet.

Other cast members were equally impressive, Mandy Mitchell as Julia’s wild-and-crazy friend Holly, Katrina Stroup as the shallow Linda, and Anita Stratton as Grandma Rosie. I was somewhat less impressed with Jason Cook’s Glenn Gulia (yes, if Julia’s marriage ever happened, she’d be “Julia Gulia.” Ouch!), who looked great and was suitably slimy, but he went no further than that – there was no surface charm that gave us any hint as to why Julia was attracted to him in the first place. He also occasionally seemed to lose his place in some of the numbers, being a just a hair off pitchwise or pacewise.

The next thing to like (even love) about the show is the high-wattage choreography (by John Parker and Anna Galt). They made the large group numbers amusing without being silly and energetic without being tiring. The show opens with a bang, the production number “It’s Your Wedding Day,” and the large cast of dancing singers make it all look easy. As to whether or not the style evokes the ‘80’s themselves, well, since I more-or-less slept through the decade, I have no way of judging.

The set (designed by Paul Ingbritsen and Mark Luman) was simple and highly adaptive, side wall quickly becoming Robbie’s bedroom, a stool or bench or platform quickly placed and quickly removed, and the design kept the whole thing whizzing by quicker than a cocaine buzz, and it all worked beautifully and smoothly. I also liked how the orchestra (plotwise, it was Robbie’s back-up band) was part of the set, placed upstage and backed up by a nicely lit (at times) cyc.

Other tech aspects were not so helpful to the show, mikes that went in and out at will, voices amped to the point of distortion, lights that left lead singers in the dark and background folks in stark focus. I did like how the background cyc had multi-colored lights dancing over it, but, again, they occasionally went to dark at the oddest of times.

So, yes, even though it wallows in ‘80’s nostalgia (shudder), I still found the show a lark and a joy to watch. The first act is especially fun and the show only lags slightly as the second act takes a bit too long to get to its conclusion. The songs are pleasant and bouncy and even (at times) memorable, and, a good time will be had by all!

Even if, like me, you absolutely hated the 1980’s.

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)




Butterflies Are Free, by Leonard Gershe
Outta Sight, Man!
Thursday, May 5, 2011
4.5

“I only want to be free. The butterflies are free.”
-- Charles Dickens

The 1960’s was a time of people (especially young people) making new definitions of freedom and engaging in new struggles to find or express that freedom. Kids seeking freedom from their parents, young men seeking freedom from being drafted into a war they did not support, wives seeking freedom from their husbands, the disenfranchised seeking freedom from entrenched cultural oppression, the “counterculture” seeking freedom from “the establishment.” And that’s just skimming the surface of the thousands of individual struggles going on around the country, around the world, around the home.

In his 1969 romantic comedy, “Butterflies are Free,” Leonard Gershe took us into the sightless world of Don Baker, a young blind man fighting for his freedom from his over-protective mother, a writer of saccharine children’s books about a young blind super-boy (“Donnie Dark”). When he meets his new neighbor, “free spirit” Jill Tanner, it is “love at first touch,” and the battle lines are drawn for what will be a fight for the soul of young Mr. Baker.

In Stage Door Players’ marvelous production of the play, Josh Donahue plays Don as a gentle man, hoping to become a musician, sensitive to the eddies of conflict and character that threaten to submerge him. He’s confident and optimistic within the well-memorized confines of his New York apartment, even to the point of being able to successfully navigate a phone cord around his unseen furniture. However, when things begin to fray around the edges, when furniture gets moved or ashtrays “disappear,” or friends prove unreliable, he becomes a little boy lost, curling on the floor and crying for his mother.

Megan Hayes, on the other hand, is a force of nature, a “bull in the china shop” crashing into Don’s life and taking him on an emotional; roller coaster that could take him to the skies or crash him into a broken heap. She embraces all the latest fads to varying degrees, but, in the final analysis, has an insecurity about getting too close that is almost as crippling as Don’s blindness. Ms. Hayes is vibrant and appealing and commands the stage every time she comes on.

And, as Don’s mother (“Mrs. Baker” – it’s ALWAYS “Mrs. Baker’), Jo Howarth is suffocating and supporting, over-bearing and irritating. It’s up to her to resolve Don’s dilemma, and she does it in a way that is as surprising as it is satisfying. I loved everything Ms. Howarth did here, and, it’s especially notable that at no time did she remind me of Eileen Heckart, who won an Oscar for playing this role in the 1972 film version (and which I saw three times in one week while I was off at College).

I really liked how this production evoked the era without wallowing in it. More in tune with the “pop music” aspects of the period (as opposed to the “soul” or “folk” or “psychedelic” musical aspects), it successfully pokes fun at the cultural excesses of the time, while giving equal respect to both sides of the generational struggles. Yes, the “off Broadway” director Ralph (Josh Williams) is pretentious and arrogant, but he’s also fully committed to his “vision,” to making full use of the new freedoms not available mere months before.

I liked how the set (by Chuck Welcome) created a cheap (but suspiciously spacious) lower Manhattan apartment, how the furnishings with their thrown-together feel and flea-market tattiness seemed familiar and, oddly comforting. I liked how the evocative costumes (designed by Tony Smithey) took me back to my teenage years (and my own ridiculously feeble attempts to be “with it”), and the large reel-to-reel tape deck looked like the exact same model I used in college sound design gigs.

But, in the final analysis, this production soars on the wings of Mr. Donahue and Ms. Hayes. Alone on stage for (almost) the entire first act, their “meet cute” and “fall in love fast” journey is funny and credible. They work beautifully well together (too well, perhaps – I think I imagined Mr. Donahue actually making eye contact with Ms. Hayes once or twice). And, they made it believable that this entire relationship, its birth, deepening, consummation, doubt, conflict, and resolution occurs in less than a day. Talk about “Doing your own thing NOW!”

So, all Don wants is to be as free as a butterfly. Now that the decades have taken off my rose-colored glasses it’s easy for me to say that butterflies are free only until they meet a hungry bird or a fanatical lepidopterist. It’s nice to see that in a play written at the time, Mr. Gershe acknowledges that Don can only be free until he meets rejection and heartbreak. Unless, of course, his mother unpins him from her Scarsdale wall display and lets him fly.

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)


Paul Robeson, by Philip Hayes Dean
In the Presence of Greatness
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
5.0
“I have discovered there are two forces in the world. Evil and the struggle against evil. And where I have found evil, I have struggled against it. And it has been that struggle that has kept my hope alive”

Born in 1898, Paul Leroy Robeson went on to blaze trails and ruffle feathers. Winning an athletic scholarship to Rutgers University, he was one of the first African Americans to make the all-star college football team, one of the first to play Othello on the professional stage, one of the first to pass the New York Bar. He was also repelled by his own country’s treatment of his race, and became an ex-patriot just when his musical career was reaching its peak.

Always outspoken, he alienated conservative leaders, ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Commission, had his passport revoked, was blacklisted by the recording industry, and was not above walking out of concerts into which blacks were not allowed.

And he lived to have the “last laugh,” as his sheer talent and idealism seemed to break down all the barriers he came across.

In 1978, Philip Hayes Dean wrote a (basically) one-man play in which Robeson avoids a Carnegie Hall concert in his honor, and chooses instead to tell us of his life and struggles and triumphs. James Earl Jones played Robeson to almost universal acclaim.

Now, Georgia Shakespeare has brought Avery Brooks’ production to the Oglethorpe Conant stage for a (too) brief one-weekend run. This is a breathtakingly powerful performance, a riveting production, and a welcome glimpse into the life of a great man, one whom the conservative pundits of today would quite angrily dismiss as an “enemy to America.”

This is a long show, going into great detail and filled with many anecdotes and digressions. We hear about his experiences with racism at Rutgers, racism that quickly transforms into respect and (almost) acceptance. We hear about his shock at how returning WWI veterans are treated in the South, returning home “to be castrated, lynched, tied to trees and burned to death – and sometimes in the uniforms of their country.” We hear about his days at a prestigious New York law firm, how he was kept from the courtroom, but his well-written arguments were used by the white lawyers of the firm. We hear about the courtship of his future wife, Eslanda Cordozo Goode (“…it was the strange combination of genes. After all – an African, Spanish, Jewish Sephardic married to an African, Cherokee, white Quaker – in an African, Methodist, Episcopal, Zion Church. I decided I could never see her again.” Cue wedding music.).

Of course we hear about his early successes in the plays of Eugene O-Neill, his triumph in “Showboat,” and his “escape” to London. We hear the tragic story of his German Manager’s daughter lost in the holocaust, his ill-treatment at the hands of the Germans and his acceptance at the hands of the Russians. And we hear about his run-in with HUAC, his struggles with his own government, and his victories over them all.

Mr. Brooks grabs us from the start and never lets us go, keeping us mesmerized through two 70-minute acts. His is a deep and authoritative voice, quick to rise in passionate anger, quick to melt into the music that was at the core of Robeson’s life. His uncannily accurate renditions of many of Robeson’s popular hits sent most of the audience into the GSF gift shop for his CD during intermission, and his easy mimicry of the others in Robeson’s life come across less as “voice caricatures” than as Mr. Robeson himself showing us how he heard those voices. Although, strictly speaking, he is not alone on stage (Ernie Scott plays Robeson’s long-time accompanist Lawrence Brown and provides a few key dialogue moments, specifically the Chairman of HUAC interrogating Robeson), this is Mr. Brooks’ play, and his work achieves true greatness. I daresay, even those who come to get their “geek on” by seeing “Deep Space Nine’s” Captain Sisko will come away with a profound respect for the range and power of this performance.

So, as I’m writing this, there is only one more performance tomorrow afternoon. Trust me, you should not miss it. Reading the play made me feel I was in the presence of a great man. Seeing it in production confirmed that feeling – it is a great performance in a play about a great man. Being in the presence of such greatness can only give me hope for the future of our theatre community.

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)



See What I Wanna See, by Michael John LaChiusa
The Unbearable Fungibility of Truth
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
4.5
It is a given that, post-Renaissance, humankind has had faith in “objective reality,” “truths” and “facts” that are out there waiting for our discovery. It is also a given that this faith has been exploited by swindlers, demagogues, and religious leaders, each offering a version of “truth” that is often contradictory, always self-serving.

If “objective reality” itself is built on such insecure sands, what chance does our poor memory have? How can we ever be sure that our memory is not lying, that our own eyes are not deceived by illusion or willful misdirection?

Such is the background for Michael John LaChiusa’s “See What I Wanna See,” a collection of short “musical-ettes” based on the stories of Ryunoske Akutagawa, the Japanese writer who provided the source material for Kurosawa’s classic 1950 film, “Rashoman,” in which the circumstances surrounding a horrendous crime are filtered through the perspectives of several different witnesses.

That story (“In a Grove”) provides the plot of most of Act One, here (“R Shoman”). Transposed to 1951 New York City, a rape and murder has occurred in Central Park. We hear the story from the point-of-view of the thief, the wife, the dead husband, and the janitor of a movie house showing (of course) “Rashoman.” Each version is different, each comes with assurances of truth, each can be as biased or as true as the next.

In Act Two (“Gloryday,” based on the story “The Dragon”), a priest in post-9/11 Manhattan is losing his faith as well as his ability to answer the piercing questions of all the shocked and grieved parishioners who demand answers. Fed up with the pointlessness of the world, he concocts a claim that a miracle will occur in two days at exactly 1:00 PM. The claim goes “viral” as the walking wounded of the city grasp onto the mere possibility of a return to normalcy. When the critical time comes … well, I suppose the spoiler police won’t let me tell you, but it is a transcendent conclusion that was as satisfactory to my skeptical eyes as I suppose it would be to someone with a bit more faith.

The third story (“Kesa and Morito”) is included as prologues to both acts. In “Kesa,” a married woman in medieval Japan sings to us of how she plans on (violently) ending her affair with a married man. In “Morito,” her lover sings pretty much the same song. How did the affair really end? In a frozen tableau and a red light, of course. At least if my memory is serving me well, today.

Of course all the stories are told in song, and Michael John LaChiusa’s music is both eloquent and evocative. From the Japanese flute that open both acts to the night club beat of the title song to the rousing faux-Gospel “Gloryday,” the music is an integral part of the story, and, though it may be more sophisticated than many casual listeners are used to, there are certainly memorable songs here. (Unless, of course, my memory is lying to me again.)

I’ve liked Mr. LaChiusa’s previous scores for “Hello Again,” “Marie Christine,” and “The Wild Party” (though, to be honest, I did prefer the Andrew Lippa “Wild Party” score). He has a way of using song to get to the heart of character, to express both ambivalence and unspoken sub-currents between characters. Here, notice how, with almost the same song, he shows how the Kesa and Morito story is not only a tale of violent revenge (maybe – just WHY do they want to kill each other?), but also an expression of the “Godlike Power” the planned murders give to the lovers.

The cast hits all these songs straight out of the ballpark (or straight down the hanamichi ramp, if you’ll forgive the allusion to the faux-Kabuki set ). I especially liked Kylie Brown whose three characters sketched a nice variety of women – the arrogantly smug Kesa, the outraged wife in “R Shoman” exuding sex and sophistication and deceit (depending on whose story we’re seeing), and the seductive actress in “Gloryday” who turns her affections on and off like a beer keg. Throughout, her pleasant voice covers a wide range, moving while it seduces. Dustin Lewis bring to the diametrically opposed roles of the Thief/Murderer and the Priest equal conviction, the thief all cocky new York menace, the priest all doubting “lost in the woods” confusion. Stuart Schleuse, Craig Waldrip, and Ingrid Cole all have nice turns, though I thought Ms. Cole’s “R Shoman” Medium a tad underused and “in the way,” a silly device to get the dead husband’s story. On the other hand, it adds another layer of fungibility to the “facts” of the case – are we really getting the husband’s story or is it just the medium’s fiction?

And, all five voices blended beautifully in the group numbers, even though some of the “Gloryday” pieces are written to be discordant and ”off.” (I think.)

Although most of the play is set in New York City, the design of the set (by Seamus M. Bourne) is very Japanese – a hanamichi ramp leads up to a formally constructed kabuki stage. Most of the action takes place on the bare floor in front of the stage, but the set effectively evokes the Japanese character of the source stories.

In conclusion, it is a given that I deal in the fungibility of facts and memory. I do not take notes while I watch a performance (if I’m writing, I’m not watching), so I have to depend on memory to fill in details of plot and character and performance. Sometimes (some would say often), that memory deceives me, and I make grievous errors that require follow-up correction. This play is a reminder that memory, that point-of-view, is critical in describing the “external reality” of an event or an experience. And. unless we can place ourselves in the position of an omniscient observer (or grandstand fool-osopher, as we critics tend to be), we will always be a little bit at sea when making our way through the ebb and flow of belief and experience, certainty and doubt.

Whether or not the details I’ve related here are accurate or not, the “truth” is that I had a very good time at this play, that I found it compelling and moving, and that I can’t wait to hear some of these songs again.

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)



Travelin' Black, by Patdro Harris and S. Renee Clark
On the Road Again
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
4.5
It’s a simple metaphor, perhaps overdone. Life is all about the journey, not the destination (which, truth to tell, is a foregone conclusion). That’s the simple premise of Patdro Harris and S. Renee Clark’s new musical, “Travelin’ Black,” commissioned and produced by Theatrical Outfit. More a revue than a story-musical, this is nevertheless an effective, tuneful, and, eventually, uplifting show.

Broken into “chapters” composed of songs and anecdotes and dances, this show succeeds in its stated goal, to “celebrate how music and dance have initiated and sustained the journey of black people through time and place and how these creative gifts have empowered them to change the world for the better” (from Tom Key’s program notes).

The show starts out right (IMHO) by introducing us to the five singers and two dancers of the cast by showing there is no didactic “definition” of “black,” that diversity is as much within groups as it is between groups. We are introduced to the suburban man with “history” (“I travel with my family on my back”), to the traditional supportive “Mama” figure,” to the laid back popular guy, to the upper class patroness of the arts (“I travel first class, is there any other way?”), and to the nature-loving back-to-our roots “Earth Mother.” As simple as these characterizations sound, they achieve surprising depth as the show progresses.

In the first “chapter” (“Packing Up”), we hear background pieces that show different types of music that make up the black experience. Gospel, Blues, Motown Soul, Show-Biz dance, all are shown to be part and parcel of the baggage for this trip. In the next segment (“On the Road”), we get music that makes up the lives and loves of, well, just about anybody – Ray Charles, the Isley Brothers, and Michael Jackson all have songs here. Before we get to intermission, we go through “Colored Intersection,” that strange place where white artists suborn black culture and vice versa, where our own road diverges from too many of our friends and colleagues.

Act II, then, takes us through “The Freeway” (which includes an extended “ballet” of all the “high points” of Black American History and music), a “Rest Stop,” “My Neighborhood,” and ending in the “Promised Land” with a rousing original number by Ms. Clark., “Travelin’.”

Also along the way, we have a sequence where each character tells us about the first time they “got a n%^^er” citation,” moments of surprising racism that in some cases, are a tad mild, even mundane, but which exemplify a real part of anyone travelling along this particular road. In one case, it’s a simple inability a have a cab stop. In another, it’s a moment of fear in the eyes of some new neighbors. But, there are those that are more serious, such as when a young boy sees his best friend being taught to hate him – “That’s when I first realized my best friend was a white boy.”

You may legitimately ask that if a far-from-black guy like myself can respond so favorably to this show, what can it possibly say to someone sharing this trip instead of simply observing it? Talk about questions impossible to answer! It could be as simple as the characters are all created to be recognizable to anyone. It could be that I always loved most of the songs being revived, as well as finding the new Renee Clark songs of equal caliber (I’d buy this CD in minute!). Maybe it’s the theatricality of the piece that’s so compelling.

I’m pretty sure, though, that anyone can (and will) respond favorably to the singers and dancers here. It’s becoming more and more true that, for me, whenever Eric Moore opens his mouth to sing, the world fades away and attention must be paid. When his baritone rises to the rafters, it’s like an arrow to the heart that can’t be ignored. The others (T. Renee Crutcher, Gavin Gregory, Adrienne Reynolds, and Sheila D. Wheat) each get their moments to shine and they take full advantage. And, when “Dancer Woman” (Ursula Kendall-Johnson) and “Dancer Man” (Thomas Hamilton) cut loose, it’s pure musical theatre, and a complete joy to behold.

The set is a stylized road that starts down center and rises to the ceiling. Platforms act as “Roadside Attraction” pullovers (including the small band at the highest level), and the show segues from song to song with no delays and no apparent traffic jams. The lights are in turn dramatically low-key and high-spirited spritely and bright. And the sound mix combines voices and accompaniment in perfect synchronization.

In the final analysis, then, then is a toe-tapping tuneful tour through the history of what can be called “Black” music (though many selections were indeed written by not-strictly-black songwriters). I loved it from beginning to end, and, I suspect you will, too. Like the journey we’re all on, I didn’t want it to end.

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)




The Mikado, by Gilbery & Sullivan
Here's a How-de-do!
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
4.0
I freely confess to being a major Gilbert and Sullivan Geek. I love the pattery word-burgers, the rapturous melodies, the silly plots with their choruses of twits and buffoons, the oh-so-British satire and the oh-so-British exaggeration. To date I’ve been part of (the tech part of) productions of “Pirates of Penzance,” “HMS Pinafore,” “Mikado,” Patience,” and “Ruddygore” (a less-known “early version” of the more oft-performed “Ruddigore”), and keep a pint-full of Gilbert lyrics to use as tongue-twisting vocal warm-ups.

So, it was with a feeling of utmost rapture that I approached this production of “The Mikado.”

True to expectations, this production is a G&S geek’s almost-dream. Okay, I REALLY missed the overture (one of their best), I grumbled at the fuzzy-edged “precision” of the choreography and fan-snapping, I rolled my eyes at the incomprehensibility of the Mikado’s lyrics (to be fair, this role is written in a range not especially conducive to clear locution), I blinked twice at the missed joke opportunities (specifically the “hopeless suit” and “child of nature” lines), and I almost fumed at the extended encores to “Here’s a How-de-do” (one of my favorite numbers, but did it really require FOUR encores?).

But, let’s be honest, here. This is a “Mikado” beautifully sung, elegantly designed, briskly directed, and over-the-top silly, just as it should be. Any plot summary would sound just plain dumb, so let’s avoid that altogether – suffice it to say, it involves “gentlemen from Japan,” a “train of little ladies,” an errant Prince, a soft-hearted executioner, a “Pooh Bah,” and a legally pathological aversion to flirting (Missed opportunity – the curtain speech should include a warning that “anyone caught flirting will be summarily executed”). What it’s really about (if the movie “Topsy Turvy” has any semblance to accuracy) is England’s new fascination with all things Japanese, and a look at Japanese culture through a blindly British filter. True, the look is shallow and grossly “politically incorrect” (names like “Nanki-Poo” and “Yum-Yum?” Ouch!), and, a cursory read of the libretto is sure to offend anyone from Japan. But, when the marvelous Sir Arthur Sullivan score is layered over all, when the decidedly British nature of the whole thing is made manifest, all is taken with a very forgiving grain of tit-willow song. (For the record, I consider “The Sun Whose Rays are all Ablaze” to be one of the most rapturously beautiful melodies ever written).

So, at the top of the list of praiseworthy facets (well, just below the score) has to be Jeff McKerley’s performance as Ko-Ko (the Lord High Executioner). I have often taken Mr. McKerley to task for wallowing in “over-the-top” hamminess and excess, but here, that trait is not only appropriate, it’s welcome and expected. Mr. McKerley perfectly captures that G&S sense of the absurd, over-reacting to every little barrier before him (as well as to audience responses), and wooing us all into accepting this creation as the comic force of nature he needs to be.

I also really liked Laura Floyd’s tasty and tuneful Yum-Yum (despite her tendency to throw away perfectly good laugh lines), Keena Redding Hunt’s imposing and (frankly) frightening Katisha, and J.C. Long’s straight-faced but whimsical Pish-Tush (a role that is usually forgettable – not here!). Wesley Morgan’s Nanki-Poo was suitably young and earnest, Danny Cook’s Pooh-Bah suitably over-bearing and pompous, and Jeffrey Gobb’s Mikado suitably deep-voiced and joyfully wicked (incomprehensibility notwithstanding). Mary Nye Bennett and Jeanette Illidge were also nicely individual as Yum-Yum’s fellow “Little Maids From School.”

The set was an impressive series of fan-shaped platforms and faux-Japanese backdrops, lit with vibrant shades of blue and gold, with a faux Kabuki hanamichi ramp adding a touch of verisimilitude to an otherwise not-quite-so-bald and not-unconvincing stage picture.

But, it is the music that really sells this production. Music Director Frank Timmerman has his large chorus and orchestra blended perfectly, and the lush choral numbers fill the Strand Theatre like a comforting wave of cheer. Old favorites like “Wand’ring Minstrel,” “Three Little Maids,” Here’s a How-de-do,” whatever song “To Sit in Solemn Silence” graces, “The Sun Whose Rays” (sigh), and the marvelously lyrical Act One and Two finales fell into my tin ears without a false note or missed expectation. Director Heidi Cline McKerley has assembled a perfect cast and production team, and the whole thing is a sheer joy from beginning to end.

I’ve always been told that Gilbert and Sullivan is an acquired taste, that people either love the shows or despise them. Truth be told, I simply cannot understand the joyless lives of those in the latter category, as I am firmly in the former.

Another production of “The Mikado?” Unmodified Rapture!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Academy, by John Mercurio
Last Year's Lessons
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
3.0
Watching “Academy” was very much like experiencing being held back in elementary school. Everything is done better than before, but I was still left with a feeling of “been there seen that.”

To be sure, the play is well-sung, well-acted, well-directed, and well-designed (one of the best sets of the year, in fact). I just couldn’t help escaping the feeling that too many characters were too similar, too many of the situations too familiar from too many other plays and books and movies, and too many of the songs (for me) not very memorable.

Benji DuPres is a newcomer to St Edward’s Academy. Two seniors make a seemingly trivial bet that they can get him to “break the rules” before the year is out. Before too long, promises are broken, backs are stabbed, and everyone is bound for a showdown in the ivy-covered bell tower that will impact these boys for life. Along the way, Benji learns a little bit about “life.”

Buzzing around the three leads are a number of interchangeable friends and fellow students, none of whom are developed to more than pop song depth. We have the macho guy who just wants to dance, the big-glasses nerd who just wants to belong, and the … well, just who is this kid played by Nick Arapaglou? We’re told his name is “Pete Neville,” and he has a nicely done and moving solo (“Perfect Day”) about his Dad running off and leaving, then he disappears from the play. (In fact, as far as we know any of the characters, they have “Daddy issues” of one sort or other.) At no time do we have any sense of the adults in their lives, or exactly what makes them different, unique, or special enough to deserve having their story told.

And, the allusions and parallels to “Faust” are a bit clumsy and obvious, since the “bargain” made is so trivial – mean-spirited, certainly, but no where even close to “eternal-soul-threatening.” Yes, an “easy admittance” to Stanford is in the balance, but it still seems slight and airless.

Admittedly, the climactic scene in the bell tower if effective and gripping (as all such scenes tend to be), and the performances by the three leads are all compelling. As Benji, Bryan Lee is nicely guileless and innocent, nervously making bad choices even as he grows into some good ones. As his older kin Armory, Lowrey Brown is at first arrogant and cruel, but his character makes enough growing-pain noises, that he grows more interesting than a cardboard villain. And as Michael, who befriends Benji for his bet with Armory, Jeremy Wood is all charm and guilt – he hates himself for betraying Benji, but won’t go so far as to threaten his admission to Stanford.

Director Freddie Ashley and Music Director Ann-Carol Pence bring along their usual professional touch – the play is nicely paced and well-sung, and it is filled with many nice moments and interactions. For me, though, they just did not add up to much – it was definitely a case of the whole being less than the sum of all the parts.

The set by Philip Male was, as I said above, one of the nicest I’ve seen this year. Old-stone walls build to a just off-center bell-tower which anchors and overshadows all the action. Various scenes are played on platforms of different heights, making a stage picture that is a true delight to the eyes.

I’ve been postponing writing this for almost a week, trying to rationalize why it just didn’t hold together for me. I still can’t decide if it’s because the characters are all “children of privilege” who basically act like spoiled brats, or if it’s because the songs all have that bland “pop song” feel that goes for easy emotions and shallow thinking. It could be because the problems of all the characters seem too similar, making them interchangeable to an uncomfortable level. Or it could be that I’ve just seen too many other stories set in boys’ schools that end up in a metaphorical bell tower. In addition to all these factors, I suspect I’ve simply outgrown (or missed entirely) the angst of these teenagers, that their problems pale next to the more adult betrayals that await them. The play really has nothing new or compelling to say about adolescence or about private schools.

In any case, “Academy” was a production I could respect, with all involved working well. Judging from audience reaction (and on-line “buzz”), it’s also a play that’s resonating with younger audiences and students. For me, though, watching it was like re-hearing last year’s lessons, when I was longing to hear new stories and tackle new mysteries.

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)



All Shook Up, by Book by Joe DiPietro, inspired by and featuring the songs of Elvis Presley
The King has Left the Perimeter
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
4.0
What is it about “Twelfth Night” and musicians with regal nicknames? In 1997, “Play On!” set the Bardic classic in 1920’s Harlem, with the music of Duke Ellington driving the plot. Now, that the Duke has had his day, it’s the King’s turn, as “All Shook Up” collects a bevy of Elvis Presley classics and puts them into a plot that is as much “Footloose” as it is “Twelfth Night.”

It’s “A small you-never-heard-of-it town somewhere in the Midwest” and it’s the summer of ’55. Public dancing and smooching has been banned by the Mayor. Dennis is going off to dental school, and has too little time to break his shell and confess his feelings for garage grease-girl Natalie. Into town rides roustabout Chad and Natalie is smitten. Faster than you can say “Is this really Illyria OH?”, Natalie is disguised as a man, Chad is chasing Miss Sandra (the Shakespeare-spoutin’ museum head), and Miss Sandra is chasing Ed, who, of course, is really Natalie in disguise. And don’t get me started on local hangout owner Sylvia, her daughter, the mayor’s son, and Natalie’s widowed father. Needless to say, most everyone is soon singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to someone who is in love with someone else.

“All Shook Up” opened a few years ago for a short Broadway run to almost universal pans. Written off as another “big-budget juke box musical” designed solely for the tourist crowd, it has since found new life in small regional theatres. Maybe what was needed was an intimate space, a small budget, and a young cast, but I found the whole thing delightfully diverting and disarmingly unpretentious. The ensemble throws their collective heart into the songs, most of which were one-time favorites of mine, and the whole thing whizzes by faster than a Harley on steroids.

Sure, sometimes the story groans a bit trying to make the songs work within the plot, but other times, it throws new overtones onto old favorites. In addition to the sublimely ironic “Can’t Help Falling in Love” I already cited, I liked how the story took “Now or Never” (not one of my favorites) and made it not only more politically correct but sweetly sincere (a couple is being separated by a long bus-ride to a military academy).

Sure the 21st-century attitudes towards homosexuality and interracial coupling seem out of place in a summer-of-’55 time-frame, but that’s part of the joke, part of the many pleasures to be had from this joyful production. It’s like taking a wallow in nostalgia without giving up your modern mind-set.

As to the cast, I really liked Joe Arnotti’s almost-Elvis performance as Chad, Suzy Babb’s spunky and aggressive Natalie, and Jennifer Loudermilk’s stone-cold-Mayor-with-a-heart-of-mush. As Sylvia, Rosemary Blankson has a voice that shakes the rafters, and Krystal Camille White and Marcus Rodriguez glow as the one couple who actually find each other right away and stay true to each other throughout. In fact, the large ensemble works together like a dream.

The set was drastically simple, a bare stage with a few platforms and silhouette-projections setting each scene. The costumes were period specific, and often were jokes themselves (I liked how a few grapes on a statue/dancer’s fig leaf made it seem more obscene than what the fig leaf was trying to cover).

Unfortunately, I saw the final performance of this production (Elvis has indeed left the perimeter), but that’s all right! At least I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours with a large and talented cast telling a comfortably-familiar story with a malt-shop full of juke box selections, all of which I couldn’t help falling in love with.

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)



Edward III, by William Shakespeare
Upon My Oath
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
4.0
For its second entry in its March Repertory, the New American Shakespeare Tavern goes back to the early part of the (probably) Bard’s career, with “Edward III,” an early foray into the English dynastic wars that provided the backbone of all the history plays.

For now, there is no vying for the British throne. Edward is in complete control, and, apart from those pesky Scots, he has nothing to do but pursue his own dynastic claim to the French throne. First though, he stops for an aggressively lustful pursuit of the Countess of Salisbury, just freed from the invading Scottish King David. When he is firmly rebuffed (in probably the play’s most excitingly dramatic scene), he sublimates his passions by going to France. A series of battles later, and the French and Scottish kings are both his prisoners, and all is well with the world.

Yes, a simple synopsis, but, like with his Henry VI plays (written around the same time), Shakespeare has more on his mind than simple storytelling. He wants to do nothing less than define what it means to be noble, to be valiant, to be honest, and, frankly, to be British. To be sure, one of the reasons the authorship of the play has been questioned is the comically caricaturish image of the Scots on view – when the bulk of the canon was published, the thoroughly Scottish James I was on the throne of England, and the folio publishers definitely did not want to get on his bad side.

In spite of all the similarities in style and language with the Henry VI trilogy, and with King John, the authorship of this play was in dispute until quite recently – it’s only been since the 1990’s that it has been an accepted part of the canon (and there are still some lingering nay-sayers out there). In any case, I’m not here to enter the “Did he write it?” debate, but to step into the equally polarizing “Is it any good?” can of worms.

The short answer, is, yes, I think the play is on a par with the Henry VI plays, and is indeed much better than “King John” and even the later “Henry VIII.” It has the usual vividly-drawn characters, high-poetic language, low-brow humor, and exciting battles. And there is much discussion about honesty, about oath-keeping, about the duty owed to a king, a subject, a prisoner, an enemy.

The crux of the Countess of Salisbury scenes is the conflict between breaking an oath to a liege and breaking an oath to a spouse. When the king suborns the Countess’ father to woo on his behalf, the countess can only marvel at the ensuing corruption caused by such a betrayal:

Unnatural besiege! Woe me unhappy,
To have escap’d the danger of my foes
And to be ten times worse envir’d by friends!
Hath he no means to stain my honest blood
But to corrupt the author of my blood
To be his scandalous and vile solicitor?
No marvel, though the branches be then infected
When poison hath encompassed the root:
No marvel, though the leprous infant die,
When the stern dam envenometh the dug.


(Who other than Shakespeare could ever conceive of metaphorical “leprous infants” or “envenomed dugs?”). When the Countess’ logic fails to deter the king, she resorts to good old-fashioned [deleted by the spoiler police]! Kudos definitely to costumer Anne Carole Butler for the Countess’s thigh-holsters, and to Mary Russell’s marvelous performance in selling this scene, making the king back off without losing his esteem or patronage.

The issue of honesty and oath-keeping also comes up later in the play. The Earl of Salisbury ransoms a French prisoner by obtaining “safe passage” documents from the French Crown Prince. When the King of France threatens to execute the Earl anyway, Prince Charles gets all huffy:

I hope, your highness will not so disgrace me
And dash the virtue of my seal-at-arms:
He hath my never-broken name to show,
Character’d with this princely hand of mine;


In other words, it’s okay to kill your enemy, just don’t break your word to him. It may sound a tad foolish to our modern ears, but, to the Elizabethan mind, honor was far and above the highest virtue. As the play continues, the odd thing is, it sounds less and less foolish the more times it’s articulated, and I (at least) left with a profound respect for the virtues of honesty and honor.

As to the production, these are the sorts of plays the Tavern does best. Rousing fight scenes coupled with rousing passions, snarky asides coupled with noble pronouncements, “great men” reduced to human-size, and simplicity raised to greatness. Drew Reeves does a wonderful job as King Edward, capturing both his out-of-control descent into clumsy passion, as well as his seemingly cold but outwardly noble demeanor in the thick of battle When he refuses to send aid to his besieged son’s recue, it’s a coldly calculated move to justify the Prince’s valor, but it takes an apparent emotional toll on him.

As “Black Prince” Edward, Matt Felten is brash and young and valorous, at turns cocky and condescending towards his enemies, but, brave and stalwart in extremis. Mr. Felten turns what could have been a one-note role into a dimensional character we cheer for.

I also liked Mary Russell’s besieged Countess, William S. Murphey’s French King John , and Tony Brown’s Earl of Warwick (father to the countess). The rest of the ensemble jumps from role to rose with the Tavern’s usual alacrity and skill, and keep all the many players distinct and compelling.

So, in the final analysis, this was a very good production of an unknown and rarely performed play. It bears a lot of the same shortcomings as some of Shakespeare’s other early work, but it also contains many moments of greatness. It’s a welcome addition to the canon, and I hope it finds its way into the regular repertory of this company and others.

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)

After Note: This is a difficult text to track down. Here’s a free on-line version:

http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/ShaEdw3.html

Or, here’s a published facsimile of the original Anonymous 1596 Publication:

http://search.barnesandnoble.com/The-reign-of-King-Edward-III-c1589/King-of-England-1312-1377-Edward-III-1312-1377/e/9781178335040/?itm=22&USRI=the+reign+of+king+edward+iii+facsimile





The Two Noble Kinsmen, by William Shakespeare, John Fletcher
The (Semi-)Bard's Tale
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
4.5
Chaucer tells of a story told by the knight while on pilgrimage to Canterbury:

Once on a time, as old tales tell to us,
There was a duke whose name was Theseus:
Of Athens he was lord and governor,
And in his time was such a conqueror
That greater was there not beneath the sun.
Full many a rich country had he won;
What with his wisdom and his chivalry
He gained the realm of Femininity,
That was of old time known as Scythia.
There wedded he the queen, Hippolyta,
And brought her home with him to his country.
[

In his later years, Shakespeare teamed with his young protégé, John Fletcher, to retell this story in “The Two Noble Kinsmen.” This wasn’t the first time he visited the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. We’re all familiar with the festivities portrayed in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (which, of course, the Tavern will be staging again next month). Here, though, the implications are darker, the chivalry higher, the outcome ironically tragic.

Three widowed Queens plead with Theseus to wage war against the Theban King Creon. Their dead husbands lie unattended, Creon not allowing them to

“…burn their bones,
To urn their ashes, nor to take th’offence
Of mortal loathsomeness from the blest eye
Of Holy Phoebus, but infects the winds
With stench of our slain lords.”

When Hippolyta and her sister Emilia join the clamor, Theseus agrees, if only to catch a moment’s peace. The war is waged, the battle won, and we are introduced to Arcite and Palamon, two noble kinsmen of Creon, now prisoners of Theseus. While in a prison tower, they catch a glimpse of Emilia and both fall instantly in love.

What follows is a conflict of chivalry and love. Palamon and Arcite, kinsmen and blood-bonded friends, can now do naught but struggle valiantly against each other to win the hand of Emilia (who, incidentally, still has never met them). Through the course of the play, we are treated to an episodic series of interrupted duels, explosively over-the-top expressions of affection and friendship, mad ravings of a jailer’s daughter hopelessly in love with Palamon, and even a traditional “Morris Dance,’ complete with pedant, wenches, and “babion” (baboon).

One of the things I liked about this production is how a lot of the excessive chivalry and romance is played for laughs at first, then gradually becomes more sincere as the stakes get higher. It’s as if director Troy Willis wanted to show us both how silly it is to modern eyes, but show how it still has value and deserves its own form of respect.

I also like how small moments leave lasting impacts. For example, the early scene with the three widowed queens seems to go on for far too long, but Andrew Houchins’ Theseus plays to the length, finally agreeing to the war with Creon just to get away from them. Another example is when Palamon and Arcite are in jail extolling the virtues of their friendship over and over, only to have that friendship overturned by a mere glance at a pretty face. Speaking of that pretty face, Kathryn Lawson has a moment when Emilia must choose one of the kinsmen (whom she still hardly knows), knowing full well that the one she doesn’t choose will be put to death. It’s a near-perfect “how can I make this choice?” moment that is fully realized with no words, no laughter, only agonized indecision.

“Midsummer” fans will definitely carp that the schoolmaster’s speech before Theseus and the Morris Dance are pale copies of the “Pyramus and Thisby” sequence, but I found them silly and energetic enough to enjoy them on their own terms.

More to the point, the seriousness of the last parts of the play bring a well-earned emotional response that was built on the enjoyable humor of the opening segments. I liked how the Jailer’s Daughter’s mad speeches had elements of humor and pathos, how she is “treated” by a quack doctor in a truly despicable way, and how, ultimately, her story ends with a wry note of hopefulness.

Much of the success of this production can be accounted for by the marvelously wide-ranging performances of Daniel Parvis (Palamon) and Matt Nitchie (Arcite). The characters are very similar on the printed page, but here, they have a wide range of individual mannerisms and traits. The actors skillfully make the humor sing and the pathos sigh, taking these two characters on a journey that leaves us as indecisive as Emilia – we like them both so much, we want them both to “win” (somehow).

Much as I love Shakespeare, I don’t think I have an “ear” tuned to the point where I can discern which scenes were written by Shakespeare and which by Fletcher. Which is a compliment to the play in general – it comes across as a unified piece, not as a jigsaw puzzle quickly assembled from the writings of two too dissimilar authors. It struck me as a true collaboration, a unified work that allowed both writers to show off their best writing while letting the influencies on each other smooth over any stylistic “disconnects.”

In other words, now that Shakespeare’s participation is becoming more widely accepted, I think it’s time for this play to join the canon with full respect. I find it on a par with “Pericles” and “The Winter’s Tale” and far superior to “Henry VIII,’ all of which were written about the same time. Maybe it’s Chaucer’s influence, maybe it’s because the play seems to fit the Tavern’s performing style like a glove, maybe it’s the charm and skill of Mr. Nitchie and Mr. Parvis (not to mention the more-than-a-pretty-face performance of Ms. Lawson and the exquisitely complementary ensemble).

All I can say is this production may well be a highlight of this Tavern season.

Since I opened this review with Chaucer, I might as well close with him as well:

For now is [name deleted by spoiler police], in alle wele,
Living in bliss, in richess, and in hele,
And Emely him loveth so tenderly,
And he hir serveth also gentilly,
That never was there no word hem betweene,
Of jalousy or any other teene.
Thus endeth [name deleted by spoiler police], and Emelye;
And God save all this faire compaignye! Amen.

HERE ENDETH THE KNIGHT'S TALE


-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)





The Little Foxes, by Lillian Hellman
Family Values
Saturday, April 16, 2011
4.0
“Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines:
for our vines have tender grapes”

-- Song of Solomon

Welcome to the south of 1900, a land of boundless economic growth and traditional family values. Of course, these values include marriage as a business investment, scratch-and-claw methods of social climbing, and blackmail as an integral part of family “game night.”

Lillian Hellman wrote “The Little Foxes” in 1939 both as a reaction to her own southern roots and as a comment on the devious business practices responsible for the depression. In it, the Hubbard family is planning on boosting its economic footprint by teaming with a Chicago businessman to build a mill close to its own cotton fields. They need the help of their sister’s husband to raise the necessary capital. However, sister Regina is carrying a lot of resentment and won’t be content with a meager third of the anticipated millions in profits.

What follows is torturous trek into a darkness of scheming and thieving and blackmail, from which only the strongest will remain standing. What chance does the “tenderest grape” of the family, daughter Alexandra, have in this den of foxes?

Make no mistake, Ms. Hellman created a classic portrait of the Southern mercantile mind, a culture that can blithely discard its aristocratic past at the same time it embraces the new “n%$%r class” as a source of cheap labor. It’s a very small step from slavery to the sorts of blatantly commercial marriages on display here – it’s a society in which human capital is bought and sold on a daily basis, in which the traditional “bosom of the family” is laced with venom, in which love and affection are alien (probably subversive) ideas, and in which escape is the only viable course of survival.

Somehow, I’ve managed to miss any productions of this play (even the 1941 Bette Davis movie version), so I went into this production with a sense of openness. There’s something about seeing a classic play for the first time that fills me with profound expectation, a promise of greatness to unfold before me as it unfolded to first-time viewers decades ago. I’ve long been a fan of Ms. Hellman’s other work, so this experience was an anticipation far and above my standard I-like-everything theatre geekiness.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Jessica Phelps West sinks her teeth into Regina with a relish that borders on ecstasy. Yes, she is cold to her family and daughter, but she puts on such a well-practiced, well-mannered public face that she comes across like one of those aliens on “V” – welcomely charming on the surface, but cold and reptilian to the core. I loved how she was alternately gracious and vicious, even to those who knew her best. It’s a tour-de-force performance, just as it should be.

I was also impressed by Ric Reitz as her husband Horace. Here is another character who can be described as a “tender grape,” a kind and gentle man who abhors his in-laws’ exploitation of the town’s poorer folks. Suffering from an acute heart ailment, he has escaped to Baltimore for extended treatment, but must return “home” to deal with the current business “crisis” (not so much a crisis as a “done deal” complicated by the Hubbard siblings inability to get along). Mr. Reitz makes Horace such a contrast that the others’ shortcomings are thrown into stark reveal.

And Mary Lynn Owen does her usual wonderful job as Birdie, the faded former aristocrat married to Oscar Hubbard. Married for her family’s cotton fields, she now lives a life of quiet desperation, a bit flighty and alcoholic, but constantly on eggshells to avoid the scolding tongue (and quick back-hand) of her husband.

The others in the cast build a strong ensemble, creating memorable characters (both “grapes” and “foxes”) that propel the story and paint a damning portrait of the “newly rich” southern mercantile class. Peter Thomasson and Clayton Landrey are the Hubbard brothers, cruel in their separate ways. Jeff Edgerton and Galen Crawley are the next generation, Leo and Alexandra, one gamely following in the family footsteps, the other seeking the promise of escape. Donna Biscoe is the family servant (loyal to Horace, quietly subservient to Regina), and Frank Roberts is the visitor from Chicago, the investor who can’t get enough of the Hubbard potential for profit, but can’t get away from them quickly enough.

Costume designer Alan Yeong is the “unsung” star of this production. He has created a series of turn-of-the-century gowns that are breathtakingly beautiful (for Regina) and somewhat ridiculous (for Birdie). It’s a design that says as much about his research into the period as it does bout his ability to clothe characters in ways that are revealing.

“The Little Foxes” is a production that does justice to a classic of the American stage, that highlights how plot can be used to reveal character and character to propel plot. It is also a production that showcases an actress and a costumer at the peak of their abilities, doing work that will be remembered for a long time to come.

There has been much written about how the play leaves Regina triumphant, but alone at the end. Somehow, Ms. Phelps made me believe that this was the best of all possible endings for her. She joyfully pays a price most of us would shudder to even contemplate. It’s a case of perverse family values indeed defining the society that they seek to control.

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)


Superior Donuts, by Tracey Letts
It Ain't Horse Fat!
Saturday, April 16, 2011
5.0
Arthur Przybyszewski (“Shub-er-shef-ski”) owns and operates Superior Donuts, a shop in Chicago’s Uptown District opened by his immigrant father sixty years ago. Franco Wicks is a college dropout, a wannabe writer with a bit of a gambling problem. Tracey Letts’ terrific new play, “Superior Donuts,” brings these two together with a bunch of neighborhood locals (two cops, a Russian DVD Store owner, a “bag lady” named “Lady,” a bookie, and some miscellaneous “muscle”) and the result is theatrical fireworks.

Mr. Letts has achieved a well-deserved reputation for off-beat and marginal characters mixing it up in sometimes absurd ways. In “Killer Joe,” a hit-man makes a deal with a trailer-trash family with a toxic result of blood, mayhem, and, well, romance. In “Bug,” an unhinged veteran pulls a vulnerable waitress into his paranoid world with (literally) fiery results. And, in “August: Osage County” (being staged next month at Alliance), he takes a chronically dysfunctional family and sets them at each others’ throats. Here, though, he is in a much lighter vein (not that all his plays don’t have their laughs), going for a true comedy of character.

Arthur is a quiet and private man, shutting out others whenever they get to close to guessing his “personal history and story.” Franco is charming and gregarious, bursting into the donut shop like a force of nature, looking for work, and doing everything he can to recast the shop in his own image. The two are as different is donuts and coffee, but they go together just as well. Their growing friendship is almost a dance, as Franco knocks at Arthur’s walls and Arthur opens up to new possibilities (and new risks).

And, when Franco’s gambling problem comes home to roost, the play explodes in a frenzy of sacrifice and friendship and fists/elbows/chairs.

I like how Letts has Arthur confide to us all the “stuff” he hides from his friends in lyrical asides that describe his immigrant parents, his resistance to the Viet Nam War, his failed marriage, and his lost (in the sense of “misplaced”) daughter. I like how, in a few words, the playwright makes us like Franco before we even see him. I like how funny this play is (even the fight scene has moments of off-kilter humor). And I really like how he fills the play with unspoken (and mis-spoken) moments that tell us more about these characters than most playwrights can tell in a multi-page monologue.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that Horizon has put together one of the best-designed and performed plays of the season.

To begin with, the set (by Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay) creates a marvelously detailed set that transports us to a down-on-its-fortune donut shop. If awards were given for set dressings, this would be a winner – cracked linoleum, graffiti-etched tables, well-used stools and tools, even a vintage Cubs poster. Most of the outside street is hidden by blinds and boarded up glass, giving the whole thing a feeling of haven, of sanctuary, of a private lair that is as welcoming as it is off-putting.

And the performances ripple and snap from the stage. Chris Kayser brings his usual skill to Arthur, assuring us that there is more going on in his head than he’s saying. He has the unenviable task of creating a close rapport with the audience during his asides while keeping any such closeness from the characters he shares the stage with. Bedraggled and unkempt, sporting a pony tail that marks him as a true not-really-ex hippie, he nevertheless shows a quiet dignity that people cannot help put respond to.

Eric J. Little brings enough charm and charisma to Franco that we’re prepared to like him before we even meet him. And, after that charm is literally beaten out of him, we long for its return, making the ending a truly hopeful moment. This is one of the best in a long series of good performances from this actor.

In the supporting roles, Bart Hansard brings his usual likeableness to the rather unlikeable Max, even behind his tortured English and Russian accent. Lala Cochran is warm and vulnerable as the middle-aged cop with a soft spot for Arthur. Nita Hardy makes for a painfully sad alcoholic “Lady” (I loved her description of the death of one of her children from “that disease where the spinal cord gets a mind of its own and decides it don’t want to live trapped inside those little bones no more.”) As to rest, Neal Hazard (as a Trek-obsessed cop), Bryan Bendle (as the ulcer-ridden bookie), Alan Heckner (as the bookie’s “enforcer”) and Sean Michael Moreno (as Max’s oversized nephew) provide valuable threads to the tapestry of this ensemble.

And, congratulations also need to go to fight choreographer Scot J. Mann who has managed to stage one of the most awkward and painful fights I’ve seen. It’s a fight that not only provides a fitting climax to the story, but also, in its own way, reveals even more about the characters involved and the world they inhabit. It’s awkward and vicious and the sort of street brawl that uses anything that comes to hand.

Part of the plot of this play is Franco’s “Great American Novel,” called “America will Be!” (from a verse in a Langston Hughes poem). With “Superior Donuts,” Tracy Letts and the Horizon production team have brought a slice of snowy Chicago to early-spring Atlanta, giving us a funny and moving story told by a roster of some of the most memorable characters (and characterizations) you’re likely to see this season (or at least until “August: Osage County” opens next month). It left me with a sense of a true slice of Americana told in very specific Chicago context. I can’t recommend it enough.

Or, to put it into Franco’s words, “It ain’t horse fat!”

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)



101 Humiliating Stories, by Lisa Kron
Schadenfreude Lite
Saturday, April 16, 2011
3.5
Before I pull out my bag of quibbles and criticisms, let me say straight up that Shelby Hofer is a treasure, and that I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to spend an hour than to watch her slip into one of Lisa Kron’s monologues. She treats her audience like her best friends, pulling us into her confidence and having us wryly share her stories and embarrassments. She is the reason to see “101 Humiliating Stories,” and, to be honest, for me that’s reason enough.

That being said, I had the feeling after this show that playwright Kron opted to play it safe with this one, opted to tone down her usual snarky observations and caustic stream-of-consciousness style. Yes, there’s a lot of fourth-wall shattering, but that’s the extent of her experimental exercise here. There’s nothing at all risky in this monologue, nothing that made me respond as favorably as to her other works, like “Well” and “2.5 Minute Ride.” Yes, she’s in a lighter vein here, but the autobiographical details aren’t as hard-edged. The stakes just aren’t high enough.

I think it comes down to the difference between “humiliation” and “embarrassment.” None of the anecdotes in this piece can be called truly humiliating. Yes, they are embarrassing, the sort of stories we tell years after the fact with a rueful smile on our faces. You know, stuff like “geeky celebrity encounters,” walking through the office with your skirt tucked into your tights, spending the boss’s petty cash on make-up, that sort of thing. We all have stories that are similar or even identical. In fact, in many instances, she seems to be proud of her actions, proud of the effect she has had on her acquaintances.

For me, humiliation implies high (even permanent) stakes. Falling asleep at the wheel and causing serious injury. Being beaten by a bully in front of someone you love. Being publically ridiculed in the mass media. Things with consequence.

Here it’s all nudge-nudge wink-wink wasn’t I being foolish? It’s Schadenfreude-lite! From Lisa Kron, I was expecting something darker, something to make us laugh at something truly not-funny, then making us ashamed of our laughter. Her works usually put her out on an emotional limb, where she turns our laughter into a saw.

Now that I’ve said all that, I have to go back to my first paragraph. Shelby Hofer is a treasure, and I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to spend an hour than to watch her slip into this monologue. In spite of my misgivings about this particular play, Ms. Hofer makes it go down as smoothly as a cool Pinot Grigio on a hot summer night. Her stories are amusing, and her wry self-deprecation carries us through the most embarrassing situations.

It’s not a long play, just an hour or so, but Ms. Hofer makes it zing by even quicker, giving us a glimpse into the character of “Lisa Kron” that is pleasant and, well, safe. She commands the mostly bare stage, even making a few side-trips into the house to borrow pens or have cell phone conversations, or, to, well, just to be closer to us,

The irony of this production is that I left the theatre with a wide smile on my face, but, by the time I was home, I had forgotten most of the stories. Ms. Kron has written a monologue that is the theatrical equivalent of “donuts for dinner” – pleasant now, but not particularly filling. A snack to amuse rather than to feed the emotions.

Thank goodness there was Shelby Hofer to deliver it!

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)


Exit, Pursued by a Bear, by Lauren Gunderson
Making it Classical
Saturday, April 16, 2011
4.5
What do you get when you combine a frazzled wife at the end of her rope, a husband duct-taped to a chair, a stripper who wants to be an actress, a gay best friend who shows support by showing up in a UGA cheerleader costume, a ton of frozen venison, and Shakespeare’s most memorable stage direction? You get Lauren Gunderson’s wild and wooly new “revenge comedy,” “Exit, Pursued by a Bear,” now being given its world premiere production by Synchronicity Performance Group.

It’s a fairly basic plan. Tired of being smacked around by her jerk of husband, Nan Carter and her new stripper friend Sweetheart have decided to “go classical” in a quest for revenge. They’ve duct-taped husband Kyle to a chair. Now, they’ll “put on a play,” showing him all the scenes that led up to this, scenes full of drunkenness and slaps and verbal abuse and dead deer (Nan works at veterinarian’s office and can’t stand to see any critters suffering). Nan’s best friend from childhood, Simon, shows up to lend support and to vent a lot of years of watching Nan suffer in silence. When all is said and done, the plan is to surround Kyle with all the frozen venison in the house, open the back door, and escape into the sunset, leaving Kyle to the mercy of the inevitable hungry bear.

Along the way, there are a boatload of laughs stemming from the utter cluelessness of all the characters and the absurdity of the situation. Along the way, there are also quiet moments of coming to terms with guilt, with anger, and with that strange co-dependency that often defines abusive relationships. There are even some moments that make Kyle seem less a monster and more the end result of the questionable parenting skills from those who raised him. (He’s described at one point as discovering that black-and-blue women are a source of laughter just as he was discovering puberty.) He’s even allowed to re-enact some of the “good” scenes from the marriage, which are sadly sweet, considering how things worked out.

Yes, it may seem a bit unusual clothing a serious subject like domestic abuse in the cloak of a “redneck” comedy, but the whole things works. In addition to the nicely delineated characters and laugh-out-loud dialogue, a lot of the credit for the success of this show rests on the shoulders of Veronika Duerr, an actress who could make a reading of the phone book funny. She gives Nan a sad and awkward demeanor, making us like her from the start. She’s damaged and fragile, but lets a core of iron gradually come out and save the day. And, she has bad case of hero-worship for Jimmy Carter (“I wish he was my real father”) that plays out as faux-profound quotes to comment on any situation. It also makes for a nice joke at the end. I love everything she does in this play!

As Sweetheart, newcomer Taylor M. Dooley is a true find. Sexy and smart, she wears her Georgia twang like a pair of “F%^$k-me” pumps, using it to define her as well as free her. When she drawls that she met Nan while on her way to “audition for the Dahlonega Community Theatre’s production of ‘Hamlet,’” you can’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of the idea at the same time you’re thinking “that actually might be interesting to see.”

And, as Simon, Clifton Gutterman makes a welcome return to Atlanta, giving us a gay character so far over-the-top, he leaves anyone else in the camp dust. More than camp, though, he shows us a true friend willing to go as far as he must to help Nan, and shows he’s not afraid to stand up to Kyle (at least as long Kyle is safely tied).

As Kyle, Nicholas Tecosky spends most of the play bound and gagged (he even takes his curtain call from the chair), but, in his few short scenes, he shows us a dim guy who lets his drinking and his temper go too far, who has a calmer side, and who can feel some regret at how he has treated Nan.

In the final analysis, though, this is Ms. Duerr’s play, and she elevates it from a simple “revenge comedy” to a heartfelt anthem to finding your freedom and for building a “family’ based on love and friendship rather than on fear. It helps that the whole “revenge” plot is a tad half-baked and absurd (an ironic point is eventually made about the eating habits of Georgia black bears that makes a nice ironic afterthought ), but it does give Nan the opportunity to finally unleash all the pent-up anger and disappointment that has been growing for years. And that is the true heart and soul of the piece.

For the record, “Exit, pursued by a bear” is the stage direction Shakespeare used in “A Winter’s Tale” to signal the doom of one of his characters. While it is used more metaphorically here (sorta – there may or may not be a real bear involved), it is more of way for playwright Gunderson to signal the freedom of her character. And it’s a freedom sweeter than honey (or revenge)!

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)




The Brand New Kid, by Melanie Marnich
The Stranger
Saturday, April 16, 2011
3.5
Dear Parents:

It would be easy for me to wax political, and to rant about today’s political divide having the same roots as playground bullying. An argument can be made (and often is) that playground cliques are all about “ganging up” on whoever is different (and weaker), just as political rhetoric is often rooted in a belief that “those who are different” or even “those who disagree” are “evil” or “undermining the American Way of Life.”

But, this is a review of a children’s play, not a political blog (all evidence to the contrary). So, let me talk about “The Brand New Kid,” a new musical adaptation of Katie Couric’s book about an immigrant student being bullied by his classmates, and a plucky new friend who has the guts to defend him. If you are the parent of a rugrat in the four-to-eight year range, I can’t think of a better lesson you could share.

Laslo Gasky (Lake Roberts) has just moved from Hungary, and he’s facing his first day of school. He talks funny and he dresses funny, so he becomes the quick object of scorn of Ricky (Corey Bradberry) and Peter (Brent Rose). Ellie McSnelly (Joanna Burgess) and her friend Carrie O’Toole (Enisha Brewster) are embarrassed when they ignore his plight, so Ellie soon begins to defend and befriend the new kid. Before the end, all are playing together, singing together, and acknowledging that each and every person has something about them others may think is “just a little bit weird.”

Along the way, they all learn lessons about being the “stranger,” learning about “the stranger,” and, ultimately, “accepting the stranger.”

Okay, the songs are a bit bland for tastes (I couldn’t repeat even one melody now only three days after seeing the show), and Laslo’s problems are solved a bit too quickly (a nod, no doubt, to small ones’ limited attention spans). However, I really liked this cast, all of whom attack their roles with an energy that is positively contagious. It didn’t take me long to forget that they were adults playing kids, and soon just accepted them as kids (and, at one point, a poodle, a bird, and a tree). Erin Lorette is also on hand playing at least three adults, all of who are distinct and alive. The play is directed in a brisk 55-minute romp that makes its points clearly and with little ado, and, the kids at last Sunday’s matinee showed a minimum of restlessness, seeming totally rapt by the story.

As a parent myself, I try to underscore the concept of acceptance and non-bullying when talking with my daughter (who, unfortunately, missed this show due to a late-rising rehearsal commitment). It’s a lesson that is best learned young, and, at the risk of injecting even more politics into the discussion, it’s a lesson that, once learned, may keep your kids from one day becoming talk show “ranters.” And, it may just keep you from blaming all the country’s ills on “the other.”

Sincerely,

Julia’s Daddy

Postscript: Check out this sight for activities and things to talk about when seeing this play or reading the book on which it’s based: http://learningtogive.org/teachers/literature_guides/BrandNewKid.asp

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)




Bad Dates, by Theresa Rebeck
First Impressions
Monday, April 11, 2011
4.5
I have to confess to be being a bit underwhelmed by my first impression of Theresa Rebeck’s “Bad Dates.” In the wake of Horizon theatre’s 2006 production, I admitted ambivalence at being charmed by the play, despite being “distracted” by the melodramatic mafia sub-plot and the pernicious man-bashing going on throughout.

Well, I’m almost five years older, and, hopefully, five years wiser. I now have no ambivalence in saying that “Bad Dates” is a delightful romp and Pumphouse Players’ new production is a joy to behold.

Stacy Vaccaro plays Haley, a shoe-obsessed single Mom in the big city, faced with the horrific fate of dealing with the “Dates from Hell.” She charms us with her exasperated tales of men from the shallow end of the gene pool, and surprises us with her own surprises, including a gentle realization at the end about a “Bug Guy” she’s been kvetching about all night. Yes, as I observed in 2006, there is some man-bashing going on here. To its credit, though, the script is aware that its heroine is not the best catch in the sea. As she’s complaining about one guy after another, we can imagine the stories the men are telling to the audiences gathered in their bedrooms.

Oh, yes, did I mention the structure of the play is a monologue, structured as if we the audience are gathered in Haley’s bedroom listening to her chat? It’s a device that works surprisingly well, making us friendly participants rather than disinterested observers. I really like how Ms. Vaccaro is not afraid of actually interacting with us, breaking the “fourth wall” and even reacting to audience comments and sounds.

Why I enjoyed this production so much more (besides countless lesser monologue-plays endured in the intervening years) is that Ms. Vaccaro is utterly charming and engaging. Her comments are less “man-bashing” in general than rueful observations about the shortcomings of those men in particular she is seeing. Yes, she has a lot of fun cataloguing their faults, but often admits surprise at the habits that she finds appealing and attractive.

As to the “mafia” subplot, it actually adds a line of tension to the play, a device to show the character’s innate naïveté and to show that irritating “Bug Guy” in a far more captivating context. I now find it less a distraction, and more of a deepening, a way to show us that, in addition to various geeks and grotesques in single-guy polyester, there are real dangers and minefields that have to be crossed.

Director/Designer Jeanne Young has put Haley onto a bedroom set that reflects her less-than-prosperous apartment at the same time it lets her wallow in her closetful of shoes. It’s a credible, comfortable “living space” and Ms. Vaccaro lounges and struts as if she’s lived there for years.

So, the real point of the play is that Haley’s first Impression of her “bad dates” often (not always) proves wrong. Isn’t it a nice irony, then, that my own first impression of “Bad Dates” was equally short-sighted? In the final analysis, this is a charming and amusing monologue performed by an actress who grabs your attention and just won’t let go.

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)



Inherit The Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee
In Praise of Curiosity
Monday, April 11, 2011
5.0
It’s been over eighty-five years since the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” trial in Dayton, Tennessee. John Scopes was found guilty of daring to teach Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in a Tennessee classroom. Although that guilty verdict was later overturned on appeal, the basic conflict between religion and science continues to this day -- there are five pieces of anti-evolution legislation pending in State Houses and Senates, only one of which has been (narrowly) defeated in committee.

So, it’s no surprise that Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s 1955 fictionalized play of the trial is sadly relevant after all these years. What may be a surprise is that Georgia Ensemble has mounted a fast-paced and vividly produced revival of the piece that works on every level.

Bertram Cates (the play’s John Scopes) is going on trial for teaching evolution in small-town Hillsboro. The town fathers have hired charismatic Matthew Harrison Brady (a fictionalized William Jennings Bryant) to prosecute. Baltimore journalist E.K. Hornbeck (a stand-in for H.L. Mencken) has hired agnostic attorney Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow) to defend. In Act I, we’re treated to the circus-like atmosphere as Brady comes to town, spouting the “All-American” ideal of biblical infallibility and vowing to bring the full weight of the justice system down on the head of a teacher who dared to teach. Lawrence and Lee create a lynch-mob atmosphere in which any defense of Darwin or Cates is an attack on Mom, Apple Pie, and God.

In Act II, we’re given the actual trial in which Drummond fights against the obvious bias of the judge and the town, quietly extolling the virtues of reason and evidence. Dramatically, it’s a brilliant piece of writing that brings home the contrasting characters of Brady and Drummond at the same time it shows a lingering appreciation for the promise of American justice as well as its darker sides. When Brady accuses Drummond of trying to “destroy everybody’s belief in the Bible, and in God!” and Drummond angrily replies, “You know that’s not true. I’m just trying to stop you bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States!” we could be watching a C-Span debate from any of those five state legislatures.

Admittedly, a lot of the appeal of this play (for me) is that its politics are totally in line with my own, so those of a more Creationist (I’m sorry, “Intelligent Design”) disposition may chafe at its arguments. And, admittedly, the play makes a lot of points in the on-going debate between Science and Faith. There is one, though, I wish to talk about here. There’s an old sound-byte used by religion apologists that “Science explains how the universe works, and Religion explains why.” I’ve always bristled at this, thinking that Religion does NOT explain any “why,” it just tells a comforting story that stops people from -asking any further questions.

Drummond more or less makes this point when he questions Brady on Biblical inconsistencies and “tall tales”, such as the “wife” of Cain – “”If, ‘in the beginning’ there were only Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, where’d this extra woman spring from?” When Brady replies that the inconsistency never bothered him, Drummond sarcastically replies, “It frightens me to imagine the state of learning in this world if everyone had your driving curiosity.” The point is that certainty begets lack of curiosity. Why ask when you “know?” Why learn when all “knowledge” you need is handed to you in a pile of Bronze Age documents? This, to me, is at the heart of the Science/Religion debate, and, I am fully in the “camp” of those who see the “awe and wonder” in the unknown, who always question why, and who live their lives shining tiny rays of light into the dark unknown that is our universe (or multi-verse as the case may be).

And I truly love this play because it is in the same camp.

A few things really help move this production along. Edited down to a rapid two hours, this production boasts two towering performances at its core. Eddie Levi Lee makes a welcome return to Atlanta with his larger-than-life portrayal of Brady. A man who exudes charisma from every pore, he sweeps into town and wins everyone over with his certain fervor and his fiery rhetoric. He truly sees himself as a knight in shining armor, battling the dragon of godless science. John Ammerman’s Henry Drummond is a perfect adversary, quiet and assured, intelligent and slow to anger. But when these two have their climactic Act II showdown, it’s like watching a battle between giants, an irresistible force meeting an unmovable object, and it is compelling to experience.

The large ensemble supporting cast is a marvelous compendium of types and faces, with no performance upstaging the others (or the stars). I liked Chad Martin’s quiet nervousness as Bertram Cates, and Eliana Marianes’ conflicted preacher’s daughter, Rachel. They succeeded in making believable characters caught up in a current of history that was too deep to swim and too strong to resist.

The design was an open stage with many lit-from behind “windows” and “doors” that translated into a hot town square and an even hotter courtroom. The lights were honey-amber in their warmth, making me feel the sweat oozing from the characters. And the music, churchlike at the start (well, plainsong-like) helped define the character of Hillsboro as a very churchlike community indeed.

“Inherit the Wind” has rightly become an American classic, spawning four film versions and countless revivals. G.E.T.’s production is a gripping and fast-paced argument that plays of ideas age like fine wine, and improve on repeated viewings. To pass it by is to risk being a fool to the wise of heart.

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)




Honk!, by Book and lyrics by Anthony Drewe, Music by George Stiles
Finding Your Waddle
Monday, April 11, 2011
4.0
Alas, poor Ugly! Hatched from an over-sized egg, he’s the funny-looking one in Ida and Drake’s brood, the not-so-fluffy outcast with the croaky honk in place of the gentle quack. His siblings hate him, his neighbors hate him, and even his father hates him. Only his mother and the neighborhood cat find him appealing, and the cat is interested only in lunch.

And there we have the set-up of “Honk,” the musical adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s classic story, “The Ugly Duckling.” The Alliance is staging the “junior” version of this musical (one act – 75 minutes) and it is a light and breezy show with a gaggle of tuneful songs and a flock of gallinaceous (*) performances. In fact, I doubt if I’ll have an opportunity to slip in the classic collective word for swans (“lamentation”) as there is nothing to lament about this production.

The first thing that’s apparent is the marvelously outsized pond that is the set. Fronds and pods tower to the light grid, and magical lights reflect as if from waters disturbed only by a brood of puffballs. Blues and greens spill into the audience, and the magic of the farmyard is in full chorus even before the first cue.

Then Drake the Duck rises from his camp chair, drawls out the opening notes of “A Poultry Tale,” and we’re off on a magical adventure of a youngster leaving his hostile home to find his inner waddle, and flying gracefully back when he has grown and been accepted for who he is.

Topping the magical performance list if Christy Baggett’s devoted Ida, the mother duck we all wish we had. Leslie Bellair waddles nicely as Ida’s friend Maureen and then returns later as the gracefully swanlike Penny. Justin Tanner is suitably sad and awkward as Ugly, and I really enjoyed how he managed to stay heroic and gentle and outgoing, discovering his “inner swan” long before his “outer swan” became evident. And J.C. Long, among other roles, cuts loose nicely as a foot-tapping Bullfrog in “Warts and All,” my favorite number in the show. Everyone else (the regal Cynthia D. Barker, the drakish Brandon O’Dell, and the catlike Eugene H. Russell IV) succeed equally in creating a clutch of characters and critters that Ugly meets along his travels. Make no mistake, there is more waddling going on here than any stage has seen since the “Henny Penny” segment of “Story Theatre!”

Saturday night’s opening night crowd was stuffed to the rafters with a rafter of kids, all of whom appeared to have a marvelously good time (as did the tall folks with them), and all couldn’t resist leaving with a
cacophony of Honks and Hoots. This is that kind of play! Rosemary Newcott has done her usual outstanding job herding her herd of characters and bringing out the birds that apparently sleep in all of them.

So, if you have a pod of peewee humans hanging around your nest, now is the time to gather them up and head Alliance-ward for fun-filled trip to the pond. I daresay, there will be no lamentations if you do (unless three swans can be called a “lamentation”).

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)

(*) Just so you don’t have to look it up:

gal•li•na•ceous adj \ga-lə-nâ-shəs\ : of or relating to an order (Galliformes) of heavy-bodied largely terrestrial birds including the pheasants, turkeys, grouse, swans, geese, ducks, and the common domestic chicken.



Carapace, by David Mitchell Robinson
Too Much Unsaid
Monday, April 11, 2011
3.5
It’s a given that in any family, intense emotions are often hidden behind a shell of silence or sarcasm. Things best aired are left unsaid, creating small cracks that eventually build to a point of catastrophic collapse.

In David Mitchell Robinson’s “Carapace,” the 2010 Kandeda Award winner now getting its premiere production on the Alliance Hertz Theatre stage, a father wants to make amends with his grown daughter, but all that was left unsaid between them leaves a canyon over which any possible bridge has fallen beyond repair.

I find myself a bit ambivalent about this piece. Although I really appreciate Mr. Robinson’s flair for metaphor and dialogue and his ability to create compelling characters with a few short phrases of dialogue, I’m also a little put off by his “too much unsaid” script and by his melodramatic ending. In a nutshell, we see a father and daughter at odds, but we have no idea (apart from a generic “he’s an alcoholic” theme) of the specifics that led to that rift. Yes, we’re shown a scene where the father is too drunk to really tell his daughter how he feels, but her reaction is way out of proportion to the slight. Obviously SOMETHING heinous happened, and we don’t know what that is.

I suspect this was Mr. Robinson’s point, that he wanted to show us a man trying to bridge a gap, and that, for all intents and purposes, the genesis of that gap is just not relevant. The metaphor of the collapsed bridge in Minneapolis in 2007 suggests that small cracks and small neglects can build to a catastrophic breakdown, and it’s a perfectly valid metaphor. But, in the final analysis, people aren’t bridges (or metaphors), and leaving too much unsaid can be a little unsatisfying. Or, it could just be that the things that ARE said in no way prepare us for the melodrama that is to come.

It’s 2007 in Minneapolis, and Jeff’s daughter Margo is about to celebrate her 23rd birthday. He has been estranged from her for three years, due to his chronic alcoholism, and … well, something left unsaid. He really wants to make amends, so he plans to “surprise” her with a visit and a birthday gift, despite the fact that he doesn’t know where she lives, and the recent bridge collapse has made navigation around town difficult. He fortifies himself with a beer with an acquaintance (big mistake). He buys a turtle (NOT a tortoise) at a pet store, picks up a broken-down old terrarium at his ex-wife’s house, and finds his way to Margo’s house. In a final confrontation that simply crackles with tension and long-held fears and resentments, father and daughter find that the gulf between them is [description deleted by the spoiler police].

The play is structured as a monologue with flashbacks and digressions, so we get to see Jeff at different levels of sobriety and Margo as both a young teenager and a grown woman. Most of the scenes involve Jeff interacting with a single character (Mark Kincaid as an old drinking buddy, Paul Hester as the half-zonked pet shop salesman, Joe Knezevich as Jeff’s ex-wife’s brother, and Tony Larkin as Margo’s too-nice boy friend).

Jeff’s car is the central feature of the sparse set, and I liked how it was able to convert to different furnishings in different locales. Broken abutments and beams convert to doors and shelves and closets, and a wrap-around brightly-lit cyclorama gives the whole thing a shadow-play feel that underscores the nature of Jeff’s quest.)

Bethany Anne Lind brings to Margo a vulnerability that is positively heartbreaking. Afflicted with a terrible stutter, she has trouble expressing anything, let alone the roots of the rift with her father. Playing Margo at various ages allows her to show us how the stutter fades and grows, and, the fact that it is almost completely gone after her three-year estrangement is a telling point indeed. Ms. Lind is an Atlanta treasure, and this performance is one of her best.

But it’s David de Vries’ Jeff who carries the weight of this story. On stage for the entire 100 minutes of the play, he is alternately charming, pitiful, and irritating. There’s a snarky joke here that, for a play about miscommunications and silences, he talks a lot. But, then that’s the point, isn’t it? He tells us enough that we understand what he’s doing, but he leaves it for us to infer why he’s doing it now, and why he’s finding it so difficult to stay sober. There is one flashback moment during which he is silent when he needs to be talking, needs to be reaching out, and his expression of frustration at not being able to say the words Margo needs to hear is a story all its own.

Merriam-Webster’s on-line dictionary defines “carapace” as “a bony or chitinous case or shield covering the back or part of the back of an animal (as a turtle or crab)” or as “a protective, decorative, or disguising shell.” The metaphor, of course, is that Margo’s stuttering is the shell behind which she hides from the effects of her father’s drinking. During their final confrontation, it’s positively devastating to watch her withdraw back into that shell.

If the play had ended there, it would have been a emotionally charged play about mis-communication and the ties that tear families apart. But, by adding a melodramatic coda, Mr. Robinson has made it instead a been-there seen-that story about the pains of alcoholism.

It’s a coda that would have been better left unsaid.

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)



Leader of the Pack, by Book by Anne Beatts, Music & Lyrics by Ellie Greenwich & Friends
Do-Wop-Onotony
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
3.5
I am truly a pop music ignoramus. I had never heard the name of songwriter “Ellie Greenwich” before walking into Atlanta Lyric’s production of “Leader of the Pack,” though many of her songs “defined” my “tween” years in the early sixties. I suppose I could make the excuse that before Dylan and Lennon/McCartney, the world of pop was defined by songs and performers. Songwriters were unknown or (witness my own ignorance) ignored.

“Leader of the Pack” is basically a revue of the songs of Ellie Greenwich, which included “Be my Baby,” “Do Wah Diddy,” “Chapel of Love,” “And then He Kissed Me,” “Hanky Panky,” “River Deep, Mountain High,” “Da Doo Run Run,” and, of course, “Leader of the Pack.” She was one of the key talents behind the “Brill Building Sound,” and, eventually, went on to discover Neil Diamond. This show, features all of these and a boatload of lesser known (“B Side”) hits (24 songs in 90 minutes), but, to my ears, outside of the “big hits,” they sound remarkably alike – a sort of “Do-Wop-onotony” that wears a little thin before the end.

There is a plot (of sorts) that tells of Ellie’s marriage and partnership with songwriter Jeff Barry, but it’s thin, mostly fictional (as even the quickest on-line research would tell you), and filled with every “behind the scenes” musical biography cliché in the book (they even managed to steal “Little Shop’s” Levittown joke). Still and all, the “book parts” of the show do not really detract from its focus, which is the catalogue of Ellie Greenwich songs, most of which are about the giddy rush of first love first date first gush romance.

Staged like a sixties-era variety show, complete with slide shows and videos of the soloists, the show is energetically choreographed and performed, and it was very easy to fall into the songs’ infectious beat and even more infectious evocation of younger, more innocent times. Caitlin Smith brings a warm charm to Ellie, belting her solos like a pro (Ellie herself was a back-up singer on many of her compositions, and even released two solo albums). Larry Cox Jr. makes Jeff Barry equally charming, and they had the right chemistry to make the sketchy story work. Featured soloists Shawn Megorden, Kayce Grogan-Wallace, Mary Nye Bennett, and Dustin Lewis sell the songs, and convincingly suggest 60’s pop stars. A supporting nine-person ensemble fills the sound and the story (with Googie Uterhardt doing his usual wonderful job as a sorta warm sorta slimy sorta intense producer).

I have to admit to finding some of Elizabeth Neidel’s choreography a bit crude, suggesting more Madonna than “Shindig” (especially that difficult-to-watch “Hanky Panky” number) But, for the most part, the staging works and the cast goes through their paces with a sense of style and grace.

So, although I have to confess a slight disappointment in the show as a whole – I can’t recall any of the tunes I didn’t know going in – I also have to confess finding some parts exciting and other parts moving, particularly the final photo collage of the real Ellie and Jeff. I have to confess to enjoying the familiar songs, and not being too terribly distracted by the unfamiliar.

And, of course, any show that sends us home on the contagious rhythm of “Da Doo Ron Ron” has something going for it!

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)



Bye Bye Birdie, by Book by Michael Stewart, Music by Charels Strauss, Lyrics by
Happy Face
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
4.5
There’s nothing like a rousing rendition of “Bye Bye Birdie” to put me in my Happy-Face place. Steeped in a rose-tinted hindsight of what we believe were the “best of times,” “Birdie” quietly skewers the rigid mindsets we sorta-kinda outgrew at the same time it wallows in the teenage obsessions we never outgrow. Filled to the brim with tuneful frolics, it’s the sort of musical escapism that sneaks in its messages while it dances away a few hours of your life you don’t mind losing. Okay, maybe the songs are more Shubert Alley than Brill Building, but they still effectively bring back those giddy feelings of stacking the 45’s and partying until that 9:00 PM curfew.

And Stage Door Players has (or had) such a rousing rendition. Cleverly designed and energetically performed, this show put a smile on my face which didn’t disappear until long after I was home.

Just to recap the plot, teen idol Conrad Birdie is going into the army. His manager (well, his manager’s gal-pal and secretary) concoct a scheme in which Conrad gives “One Last Kiss” to a middle-America teenage fan. Faster than you can find Sweet Apple Ohio in your Rand-McNally, the world of music has invaded the home of the MacAfee family, and their world will never be the same.

Along the way, we are treated to such classic musical comedy staples as the over-bearing mother, the “bad boy” rock star, the good-hearted but jealous boy friend, the gal-pal who deserves more, and a bevy of small town types and tropes. Hanging over it all is a curtain of innocence that’s probably more fantasy than history, in spite of the pseudo-Spanish “hot tamale” (who’s really from Allentown PA) dropped into the center of it all like a depth charge.

Indeed, Denise Arribas sank her teeth into the role of Rosie Alvarez with a flair and energy that was positively infectious. She had an appeal and charm that centered this entire production, in spite of her severe (and unflattering) ‘50’s hair style, which seemed to add a decade or two to her appearance. And, because Bradley Bergeron’s Albert was so baby-faced and naïve, this, at first, seemed a slight disconnect, and it made the Rose-Albert-Ma triangle a tad, well, weird. (BTW, I loved how Cathe Hall Payne bulldozed her way through the story as Mae, Albert’s monster mother.) But, by the end, it worked beautifully, and Albert and Rosie’s last dance was a charming ode to doing-the-right-thing.

As Conrad, Nicholas Morrett was all smarm and swivel-hips when he was performing, and crude and belch-happy when he was not. It was a near-perfect combination that left room for a bit of panicky vulnerability when the Sweet Apple kids began to get a little too aggressive. Hannah Celeste Wilkinson was a lovely and charming Kim, and Charlie Bradshaw and Kelly Fletcher played her parents with affection and exasperation. I was glad that Mr. Bradshaw chose to make Mr. MacAfee his own character, and did not evoke the ghost of Paul Lynde at all.

They were supported by separate and equally marvelous ensembles, one teen and the other adult (special props to the sad-faced teen who is brought to life in “Put on a Happy Face” – she moved with precision and grace, and when she finally put on her happy face and cut loose with Ricardo Aponte’s lively choreography, she was a joy to behold). Music Director Linda Uzelac kept the groups together and on-key, and never let the small orchestra overwhelm the singers.

As to the design and staging, I really REALLY liked how the suggestive set (designed by Chuck Welcome) was able to spin and twist quickly into the many many locations, how a platform was made to morph from a desk to a bed to a stage and back again. I loved how the pastel-colored angular blocks of the backdrop (lit from within, of course), suggested all those early 60’s fads in appliance design and color, the pop-art trends of the period, and the garish variety shows that were beginning to be must-see TV. It was an almost perfect set, marred only by a few (quick and painless) sightline glimpses into the backstage areas. Costumes (Jim Alford) and wigs (George Deavours) also enhanced the 1960’s feel of the show.

The Stage Door venue always presents a blocking challenge, configured with equal portions of audience on two contiguous sides. It’s a set-up half-way between proscenium and “in-the-round,” and none of the blocking “rules” for those conventions will be useful here. However, director Robert Egizio made it all seem easy, Masses of characters romped and danced over the set with little or no sight-line or “stage picture” issues. And the lights of Michael Magursky and John David Williams made them all shine.

So, this is an old-fashioned musical written during an old-fashioned time. It gently skewers the gender mindset of the era while it takes a positive delight in the idol-worshipping teens who seem remarkably like today’s Jonas-and-Bieber-obsessed kids. It’s centered by a totally awesome performance by Denise Arribas, and it put me in a Happy-Face place from which I’ve yet to return.

And, that’s really all I ask of a musical!

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)


The Fantasticks, by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt
Nice to Remember
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
4.0
Every now and then, a production comes along that’s surprisingly likeable. I was never that big a fan of “The Fantasticks,” the long-running confection about love and growing up and theatrics. Sure, I’ve always liked it when I’ve seen it and I even have the old old record on vinyl that I’ll listen to every couple of years or so. But it was never one of those shows that I simply HAD to see or HAD to do or even HAD to listen to.

Yet here I am, singing (so to speak) the praises of CenterStage North’s production of “The Fantasticks.” For some reason, this production showed me why this show works so well in small venues, and why it has proved so long-lasting.

The set is a small stage that spills out onto the wide Art Place playing area. During a sprightly overture, the four principal actors come out and get prepared for the play. A mime-faced mute and a tall and imposing narrator help them with their costumes. They strike a pose and we’re off.

The narrator goes into the familiar strains of “Try to Remember,” a subversively sad song extolling the virtues of the past, entreating us to “follow follow follow” that golden memory. He then takes us back to the days of young romance, that first blush of passion that is always surprising and sublime. We meet Matt and Luisa, neighbors whose fathers are feuding and who are kept apart by a wall. Before long, it is revealed that the fathers are “closet friends” who have contrived the feud to bring the children together (if you need an explanation of that tortured logic, well, as the song says, “Children, I guess, must get their own way / The minute that you say ‘No!’”).

Now that the younger generation has fallen in love, the fathers need to put another barrier in their way. So, they make a contract with our narrator (who calls himself “El Gallo” – “The Rooster” for those of you with a penchant for language). El Gallo will hire some second-rate actors to play kidnappers. Luisa will be abducted (“Raped” in the politically-incorrect parlance of the classics), Matt will save her, the “feud” will end, and everyone will live happily ever after.

Of course, “happily ever after” is a relative phrase and Act Two shows us what happens AFTER the happy ending. This second act has always been a source of my dissatisfaction with this show – it relies on the premise that walls, feuds, and kidnappings aren’t great obstacles to romance, that such relationships are “too easily won.” This is a premise I’ve always found a bit hard to swallow. In any case, we see Matt go out “into the world” where he faces all sorts of trials and dangers. Being the female (this was written in the late fifties after all), Luisa remains behind where she is wooed and betrayed by El Gallo. The point is that this crucible of contrivance is necessary for maturity and a healthy marriage. Again, a premise I find a bit hard to swallow.

So, with all my objections to this script, why did I like this production so much? One reason is the artifice at the root of the play. This is obviously a play with players. Props (and characters) are pulled out of an on-stage box, and are deliberately suggestive rather than realistic. Contrivance is the stock-in-trade of these characters, so the contrivances of the plot seem an organic part of the whole. In this context, shallow, even meaningless, platitudes (“See it with your ears / Hear it with the inside of your hand”) seem profound and fraught with implication.

Second, the songs are (mostly) sweet and memorable, lyrical without being cloying. The dialogue has its own music (written in a sort of blank verse) that flows in and out of the songs as easily as a brook through a meadow. Most of the numbers are emotionally complex, happy songs in minor keys, dramatic songs with whimsical melodies, angry songs about minutiae.

Lastly, this cast and this production are appealing, using the intimacy of the Art Place stage to its full advantage. Yes, Mark Schroeder and Amanda Hardie are a bit older than Matt and Luisa, but they both bring an air of innocence and excitement that makes them believable. Ms. Hardie, in particular, gives Luisa’s “madness” an appealing eccentricity that amuses while it moves. As the fathers, Steve Worrall and Frank Harris are funny and eager, doting and energetic, and are the perfect foils for the younger folks. And Kelly Carr’s El Gallo centers the entire production with a swagger and a verve that are positively enticing. Tall and elegant in his satin cape, he woos the audience as much as he woos the characters, and tells the story with all the energy you could ask.

As the actors-for-hire, Lin Harrison and Mike Crowe orate and emote and die and swagger and carry their hambones on their sleeve, chewing the scenery, their lines, and their death scenes with a comic relish that is absolutely delectable. If Cheryl Baer is a bit too emotionally not-there for my tastes (I’ve seen Mutes steal this show with their expressiveness and wry unspoken miens – Ms. Baer plays it totally stone-faced and non-reactive), she nevertheless keeps the plot and props moving.

So, even if the show is not the fantastic extravaganza some folks expect from any musical, it is nevertheless a quietly appealing production, one that is proving “Nice to Remember” many days after the experience. Follow, Follow, Follow …

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)

Note: Normally, I’d beef about the “sanitizing” of the lyrics of “It Depends on What You Pay,” greatly reducing the number of references to “rape.” However, these days the “classic” meaning of the word has been largely forgotten, and the original “joke” was in fairly poor taste to begin with. The fact that the new lyrics still “scan” deserves at least a sorta kinda kudo (“abduction” after is a longer and less evocative word than “rape”).





The Curious Savage, by John Patrick
Tenacious Disconnects
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
-1.0
BIAS DISCLAIMER: Okay, I’m married to the director of this one, so I’ll be writing on eggshells here. I also have some program credits (undeserved – all I did to help was tack the floorboard trim to the set). Even so, take everything I say with a tenacious grain of salt.

There are many many reasons to dislike John Patrick’s “The Curious Savage.” First and foremost, it has not aged particularly well. Written and set in the 1950’s, it boasts a worldview in which families could “put away” embarrassing eccentrics, in which the wealthy could walk into a hospital and order around the staff (not to mention harass the patients) with impunity, and in which schizophrenia was viewed as a charming eccentricity rather than the soul-starving, life-killing disease it truly is.

But, despite a disastrously short Broadway run, this play has endured with community and school groups unabated. It’s perhaps easy to see why. The characters are colorful and fun to play, the villains are hissable and vile, the heroine is plucky and wise, and it all ends with heartfelt coda that reminds us of the sadness that truly underlies these disconnected lives.

To recap the plot, the children of Ethel Savage (Diane LeGrand Hail) have committed her to “The Cloisters,” a nursing home for the rich and disturbed. They say it’s because her widowhood has driven her mad, but the truth is, they want to get their greedy hands on the family fortune. After some adventures with the other residents of the home, some miscommunications, some sleight-of-hand by the sympathetic staff, Mrs. Savage realizes … well, let’s just say that the “family is where you’re loved and welcome” theme never grows old.

The chief appeal of this play is in the supporting cast of misfits, the residents of “The Cloisters.” There is Fairy Mae (Rene Voige), an aging ingénue of limited appeal who sees herself as a Beautiful Fairy Princess. There is Hannibal (Lane Teilhaber), a man who never grew up, and who tries with all his heart to be a gifted violinist, though he hardly knows which end of the bow is up. Jeffrey (Richard Blair) was a war hero and a concert pianist who suffers from PTSD and Survivor’s Guilt, and who can’t remember that he has a wife (Jackie Estafen). Florence (Tracey Egan) has allowed the death of her child move her a little too far from reality. Mrs. Paddy just hates the world.

As to the villains, Mrs.’ Savage’s children (a senator, a judge, and a serial divorcee, played by John Mistretta, Ed Crowell, and Lorie Dunn) are a cross-section of hypocrisy, greed, dimness, and out-right vile behavior. Rounding out the cast is Dr. Emmett, who is well-meaning and kind, but terminally ineffective at standing up to anyone with a loud voice and a loud wallet.

I’ll refrain from commenting on the production itself due to my obvious bias (and because I saw the last preview, which, IMHO, showed a show “ready for opening”). I will say that any director who can fit that many people on that small a stage without looking (too) over-crowded deserves at least a “not bad.”

I still have a lot of problems with the script. The “guests” of “The Cloisters” “fall in like” with Mrs. Savage far too quickly to be anything but contrivance, and the dated attitudes towards women and the mentally ill grate far too much. But I still enjoyed my visit with these misfits, recognized that there is some recognition of the real problems that they face, and was thoroughly moved by the gentle coda (in which Mrs. Savage sees everyone as they see themselves).

At one point, a performance by Mrs. Savage during her “I’m going to be an actress” phase is described as “a tenacious mediocrity unhampered by taste.” I could be snarky and describe “The Curious Savage” the same way. Instead I’ll say that it has a “tenacious appeal unhampered by quality.” At least, that’s the way I see it, no matter how far from reality my vision may actually stray.

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)




In Lieu of Flowers, by Daphne Mintz
Tattered Heartstrings
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
4.0
Grief. It rips at your heart like a child tearing the wings off a fly. It’s what’s left after an unfillable hole crushes your life. It’s the pain that reminds us that the love we lost was worth the loving.

In Daphne Mintz’ new play, “In Lieu of Flowers,” Damon and James are cousins coping with the death of the man who raised them both. They bicker and joke with a macho casualness that belies their very different griefs, their very different responses to who’s no longer in their life. And they can’t help but wonder about the mysterious white woman openly weeping at the funeral.

Lou has also lost her father. She has been left a flower shop that every day picks at the scab of her grief by reminding her of who is no longer behind the counter. A casual customer looking for the perfect bouquet to “get out of the doghouse” soon becomes a close friend and, perhaps, a bit more,

If I may digress a moment, I committed a cardinal sin at this production and arrived late (a combination of old-fart dithering getting the curtain time wrong and old-car meandering through the unfamiliar detours of Norcross). I missed the first ten minutes. For all I know, the opening of the play tied these two scenes, these two sets of characters together, making me the only audience member who had to discover that connection as the play progressed.

The irony is, this process of discovering the connections between the two plotlines was one of the greatest joys of this show. If, as I suspect, “all is revealed” at the beginning, I can only recommend that Ms. Mintz consider making the connection a slow reveal. For me, the “full story” was only apparent in the beautifully elegiac final scene in which the two stories finally intersect (at least for rude latecomers like me).

Grief is a topic that resonates strongly (often) when made the subject of a play. For every shallow “Conversations With My Wife,” there is a forceful and memorable “Rabbit Hole” or “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday” or “Lantana” that start with grief and dissect what it does to relationships and families and lives. These latter plays treat grief and loss not as a shallow wallow in woe-is-me-ism, but as a starting point to reveal strengths and weaknesses in characters and relationships.

I really liked how “In Lieu of Flowers” used the device of two stories, seemingly unconnected, separated by time, by place, by character, and by race. I liked how the stories showed two disparate yet paradoxically similar stories of grief and recovery. I liked how the juxtaposition of the stories showed how grief can both cripple and embolden, engender violence and passion, endow numbness and sensitivity, often at the same time in the same person.

And I really liked how this cast (Robb Douglas and Kirk D. Henry as James and Damon and Lydia Bolen Gordon and Nadir Mateen as Lou and Eddie) creates living, breathing, sorrowing characters who surprise and attract, bicker and flirt, attack and embrace. I like how they ramble on about what’s not important and leave stubbornly unsaid things that really matter.

If the structure is a tad formal – alternate scenes take us back and forth between James and Damon’s dining room and Lou’s flower shop – I found the transitions credible, the refusal to provide time cues (yes the play does play with sequence) both slightly irritating and ultimately satisfying. I didn’t really like how the refrigerator in the flower shop was always empty, but I did like how the emptiness was occasionally justified by the dialogue. I liked how a bouquet is created in one story, delivered in the other, and explained many scenes later. And I really liked how the music selections, the soundscape of designer Bob Peterson, created the perfect mood and bridged the transitions with just the right touch of melancholy and whimsy.

Grief may be the dark side of love, the inevitable conclusion of all relationships. It is the hazard we all risk when we open ourselves to anyone who will make our heart complete. And it can be the engine that drives any number of remarkable theatrical experiences. “In Lieu of Flowers” is definitely such an experience.

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)

Note: This was my first trip to Lionheart (hence the late arrival), but, I daresay, if they continue to produce work of this quality, it will not be my last.

Fat Pig, by Neil LaBute
Wallowing
Thursday, March 3, 2011
3.5
The question is, what’s more important – our friends’ opinions or our own happiness? This is the dilemma faced by Tom, the surprisingly passive hero of Neil LaBute’s “Fat Pig,” now being given an airing as part of Aurora’s GGC Lab series.

I am usually a fan of Mr. LaBute’s dark characters, the self-delusions and bad decisions that lead them down bizarre paths of cruelty and, sometimes, recovery and growth. “Fat Pig,” however, left me with a queasy bad taste in the back of my mind. Although the play pretends to be about the “dark side” of cultural attitudes towards the obese, it wallows far too much in “Fat-Bashing” (note the title of the play, after all) that it comes across as a vent from someone who just doesn’t like overweight people. And, by making its hero so passive and susceptible to his so-called friends’ opinion, he is more or less saying that that is the correct attitude to have.

Tom and Helen meet when they have to share a table in a crowded cafeteria. They immediately fall into synch, discovering a thousand points in common, especially a shared sense of humor. Before they even know each other’s names, they’ve made a date. It’s a dynamic, beautifully performed scene that promises the start of a traditional romantic comedy. Then we meet Tom’s friends, the sarcastic Carter who has a nasty word to say about everyone, and Jeannie, an attractive co-worker with whom Tom has had an almost-relationship.

Faster than you can say “with friends like these,” Tom becomes worried about how they’ll react to his attraction to a “plus-sized” woman, and they reveal themselves to have anything but his best interests at heart. Never mind that Helen makes Tom feel better than he has ever felt in his life, both with her pleasant companionship and with her enthusiastic love-making. Never mind that Carter reveals himself to be a true “fat bigot,” gleefully sharing a moment of his adolescence in which he publically shamed his overweight mother. Never mind that Jeannie soon turns into a jealous and vindictive shrew without an ounce of attractiveness about her. Never mind that Tom even admits his feelings of friendship for Carter aren’t even that deep. When it comes to the crunch, Tom is embarrassed to be seen in public with Helen, and it destroys the relationship.

In his more recent “Reasons to be Pretty,” LaBute shows us how we grow when we let our relationships transcend the façade of physical attractiveness. Here he had the opportunity to show that physical attractiveness itself is a “moving target,” that sometimes what (or who) we find attractive is outside the “cultural norm.” Here he does show that surface beauty often masks an inner hideousness. But here, he also seems to imply that that inner hideousness is preferable to an “inner beauty” masked by a few extra pounds (maybe even a few hundred extra pounds).

And I find that positively depressing.

Before I go off on a digression about the play I wish he would have written, let me at least praise this production. Jacob York brings to Tom a certain innocence and openness that made his final capitulation all the more aggravating. There were echoes of his performance in Pinch ‘n’ Ouch’s “Reasons to be Pretty” (will he be the “go-to guy” for all LaBute productions in the area?), which made me wish he showed more of that character’s eventual maturity. And I absolutely loved Jenna Tamisiea’s earthy and pleasant Helen. She has an attractive and openly honest face that is captivating, and makes it impossible to believe that Tom could not help but fall in love with her. It is a credit to her performance that, in the final scene, when she (in a dowdy one-piece bathing suit) is face-to-face with Jeannie (in the smallest of bikinis), and comes across as the more attractive (not to take away from Maureen Yasko, who looks positively delectable in that almost-a-bikini).

Jimi Kocina brings his usual charm to Carter, making us like him in spite of the despicable things that come out of his mouth. And, as just mentioned, Maureen Yasko is terribly attractive as Jeannie, until she shows her dark side, when she begins to make us long for the gentleness of her Katherine from last year’s Tavern “Shrew.”

Director Andy Houchins has perhaps staged a few too many scenes with a minimum of movement and with an equally minimum concern for sight-lines in the small GGC lab space. And that especially hurts the final scene, where Tom and Helen go through their final breakup rooted to their beach chairs. It added to my disappointment in the play’s conclusion. Still, the design of the production more often works than not (a small highly raised platform for Tom’s office, an expansive empty space for all of the scenes with Helen), and the pace is tight, in spite of all the frequent long monologues LaBute loves to write.

Okay, what would have made this play work for me? I would have liked to see Tom acknowledge that his relationship with Helen gives him more than his “friendship” with his co-workers. I would have liked to see Tom show an ounce of backbone in defending his own happiness. And I would have liked to see Tom admit at the end that he wants to be apart from his co-workers because he’s ashamed of THEM, and not of Helen.

But, that’s not the play that was written and that is being performed. As to what was written and produced, I can only express a profound sense of disappointment.

With all the wallowing in ”Fat-Bashing” going on, I can only assume Mr. LaBute wanted to have his “Tolerance Cake” and eat it too. Or at least he would want to eat it if it wouldn’t add too many extra pounds.

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)



[title of show], by Book by Hunter Bell, Music and Lyrics by Jeff Bowen
[title of review]
Thursday, March 3, 2011
4.5
This is the first sentence of my review.

The first paragraph of my review will echo the politically-correct sentiment that College productions should not be reviewed, because young students are essentially fragile creatures of glass who will break at the slightest criticism. (For my first digression, I’ll whine a bit – Where was this sentiment when my own college efforts were being raked over the small-town critical coals?) On the other hand, dealing emotionally with us vampires, who pretend to be part of the theatrical process, should be an essential lesson of any theatre student’s education.

That being said, this review will drop all pretense of pastiche and allow me to come right out and say I loved loved loved this show and this production. [title of show] is a metamusical by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell (“I never metamusical I didn’t like”) about two guys named Jeff and Hunter writing a musical about two guys named Jeff and Hunter writing a musical about two guys named Jeff and Hunter writing a musical. It is small, hilariously funny, and filled to the brim with obscure musical allusions that make geeks like myself positively moist with glee (Yes, I know who Mary Stout is and – digression # 2 -- when will WENN be on DVD?).

There are tons of “meta” moments to treasure. Just to cite some of my favorites:

“A D D D D F# A are the first notes of the show”
“If the completed script is in that envelope, why are we still talking?”
“Do we have to name the characters ‘Jeff’ and ‘Hunter?’” “Well, it’s a lot better than [insert actor’s real name here]!”
“If people are going to spend a dollar a minute to see us, we just have to make every minute burst with energy and excitement.” (Followed by a silent moment as Jeff and Hunter write in their note-pads)
“We need to get out of this scene – it’s gone on far too long.”
“This is the last note of the show.”


It’s all done on a bare stage with four chairs, four actors, and a keyboard player. The actors are unamplified, and (for the most part) able to be heard. (I presume this – I sat fairly close.) And all four gave wildly vibrant and energetic performances, creating characters that sold the show, despite their relative youth.

I’ve been a fan of the score for well over a year now, and the cast made all the songs work. I especially liked how they attacked “Two Nobodies in New York,” “Die, Vampire, Die,” and, my personal favorite, “Nine People’s Favorite Thing.”

As is my wont, I’ll toss in a nitpicky paragraph, so all y’all won’t think I’m in the pocketbook of Big-College-Production. The choreography was a bit simplistic for my tastes (albeit occasionally interesting and well done), and a little pace-tightening never hurts – the promised “90-minute show” lasted about 15 minutes too long. Also, the Playbill slide show during “Monkeys and Playbills” was a bit distracting (since too many were too small to actually read, but kudos for tracking down all those obscure musicals referenced in the song.

Now, this is the paragraph in which I praise the cast and production team. Kyle Brumley (Jeff), Shane Desmond (Hunter), Jessica DeMaria (Heidi), and Kate Wicker (Susan) were all wonderful and show a promising future in musical comedy. I liked how they “got” the skewed sense of humor of these characters and of their show. Musical Director and Keyboardist Jeff Herndon provided “Larry’s” occasional line and was the “old man” of the cast. And Director Matt Huff showed a wonderful understanding of the play, and “wrangled” his young cast well to tell this back-stage story.

Now, this is how I’ll start the last paragraph of my review. But I will have to end it by mentioning that I really need to get out of this review, as been going on for far too long.

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)



Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare
Return to Verona
Thursday, March 3, 2011
4.0
Two houses, both alike in dignity,
At Shakespeare Tavern, where we watch the play,
From year to year to celebrate the day
St. Valentine is honored and obeyed,
Is staged with no ironic purpose hid
(For surely ‘tis an irony that death
Ensues from such a passion young,
And love and death describe an arc that bears
No ‘semblance to the Hallmark platitudes
That seem to foul this day too much for some).


You know, for some reason it seems inappropriate to parody R&J’s prologue for this year’s mounting. After all, director Drew Reeves chose to drop it, making the commendable choice to dive headlong into the brawl that opens the play. This year’s production, in fact, was edited to within an inch of its life, making a fast-paced gallop that avoided many of the it-drags-here sandtraps of previous rounds.

For the record, this was my favorite Tavern “Romeo and Juliet” to date. Matt Felten and Kelly Criss provided the chemistry expected of acting couples married in real life (as if any time off stage can be described as “real”), but they also ably conveyed the characters’ youth, convincing me they were indeed just-teenagers swept away by awakening hormones and new-found lust. Both found opportunities for full-tilt kick-the-floor tantrums, both aroused in their older companions moments of eye-rolling exasperation. Even their first meeting provided an unexpected moment of youthful bravado that surprised and amused with its “this-feels-so-right” playfulness. Their combination of immaturity and to-the-heart passion amplified the emotional impact of their story, and made their tragic circumstance all the more effective.

I also liked the bawdy camaraderie of the Montague friends – they acted convincingly like a bunch of hooligan teenagers, finding roles within a rigid pecking order, exaggerating their own prowess and accomplishments. That their rampant testosterone had such fatal effects only added to the tragic underpinnings of the story.

As expected of a Tavern production, the fight scenes were wonderfully staged, and brutal to a fault. Romeo’s ultimate struggle with Tybalt was especially well-conceived and executed, and totally underscored the young man’s loss of control and thirst for revenge.

As to the supporting cast, I really liked J.C. Long’s blustery and talkative Mercutio, Jeff McKerley’s concerned and oft-distracted Friar Lawrence, Josie Burgin Lawson’s hovering and garrulous Nurse, William S. Murphey’s vacant Peter (the Capulet’s gopher), and Jonathan Horne’s wonderfully smarmy and hissable Paris. I also liked how Daniel Parvis’ Tybalt commanded the language and set off the conflicts, but, for my tastes, he was a tad too controlled and measured – I would have preferred to see more of a “wild anger” underscore his character. Everyone else, with few exceptions, filled out the ensemble with the sort of journeyman work I’ve come to expect from Tavern productions.

On a side note, this production was my daughter’s first Tavern experience, and, though she proved occasionally squirmy and distracted, the play nevertheless made her cry more than once. She’ll be returning for April’s “Midsummer,” and, hopefully, the experience will awake in her the same lifelong love of Shakespeare that seems to infect her doting father.

So, for my daughter’s sake, let me return to the prologue pastiche, if for no other reason than to make the whole “Romeo and Juliet” experience more than complete:

And Mr. Reeves (director of it all)
Needs be commended for another trek
To fair Verona, where our story lies.
The show’s still here, and will no doubt return,
So if you miss this chilly year’s foray
Into the passage of this death-mark’d love,
Do not despair or wallow in regret.
You missed a tightly-paced, exciting tale of woe,
But that light taste of rue that holds your heart
My strained, but civil words shall hope to mend.


-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)



I'm the Man You Meet Before You Meet the Man You Marry, by Manny Oliveira
Charmless and Vile
Thursday, March 3, 2011
1.0
Let me get my bias out of the way up front. I absolutely despise the sort of Vegas-style “insult” humor practiced by the likes of Don Rickles and all those various celebrity “roasts.” I’ve always found them cruel and unfunny, with the few lapses into “we’re only kidding” attempts at sincerity grossly insincere.

So, my reaction to Manny Oliviera’s vanity project, “I’m the Man You Meet Before You Meet the Man You Marry,” in which he channels the ghost of the not-dead-yet Rickles by casting insults to all the women he’s ever met (especially his Mother) should not be a surprise. I hated hated hated it, and mourn the loss of the time I spent watching it.

I do have to say up front that mine is perhaps a minority opinion – the reactions of the almost-full house at 14th Street Playhouse was enthusiastic and warm, which actually surprised me, since the audience itself was the target of many of Mr. Oliviera’s so-called jokes. Still, I often find myself outside the mainstream, and I actually find it very comfortable there.

Manny Oliviera is a Z-List “celebrity, whose IMdB entry lists only one credit. His program bio lists a few TV guest spots, but the bulk of his career seems to have been in stand-up comedy. This comes as no surprise, since he displays no acting abilty, and looks uncomfortable alone on the stage. He seems to stray far from any pre-scripted lines, often pausing to get back “on track.” And there are apparently a lot of dropped anecdotes, which come back as pointlessly vague allusions later in the show. To make matters worse, he spends most of the show pacing monotonously back and forth, left and right, lulling the audience into a hypnotic trance during which they’ll (apparently) laugh at anything that comes out of his mouth.

In a meandering monologue, he tells us about his strict mother, describes an early love affair gone bad, stereotypes viciously various ethnic “types” of women, interrupts himself for excursions into the audience for the sole purpose of insulting anyone who catches his eye, and (true to formula) too often “grows serious” for patently insincere moments of shallow platitudes. He finally ends with the clichéd observation that “being alone” is not the same as “being lonely.”

Straying so far from any script has the immediate impact of making many of light cues seem abrupt or otherwise misplaced. I don’t blame the tech crew for this, since I suspect Mr. Oliviera even gets the tech cue lines wrong, making it impossible for anyone to “follow script” for the show. This may be fine for a ten-minute Comedy Club set, but is disastrous for a two-plus hour theatrical event (yes it’s over two hours – far far too long, IMHO.)

All this might be forgivable, if he had an ounce of charm or respect for his audience. He doesn’t. He comes across like a past-his-prime lounge lizard, sneering at everyone and kvetching about how women treat him so badly. To be blunt, this entire project makes him seem like the sort of as$%^le who DESERVES to be treated badly by women and pretty much everyone else.

What actually makes me angry is that I saw this show on the same day as a marvelous little production of “The Meeting” in the smaller space downstairs. “The Meeting” is only being given a three-day run, while this show is enjoying a multi-week stay. If you’ll forgive a strained and extended metaphor here, “The Meeting” is the charismatic cousin you never knew you had who leaves the family reunion before you can really get acquainted. “I’m the Man You Meet …” is the creepy old uncle who stays long after the party is over and everyone else has gone home.

Your best bet is to stay home and miss this experience entirely!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

The Meeting, by Jeff Stetson
Malcolm and Martin
Thursday, March 3, 2011
4.0
There’s no evidence it ever happened. But, Jeff Stetson’s compelling one-act play, “The Meeting,” imagines a conversation between Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King in a hotel room, just a few short days before Malcolm X’s assassination. I’d first seen it on PBS’s “American Playhouse” (and when WILL they bring that series back?) in 1989, and found it both riveting and moving. Now, for Black History month, producer Kelvin Wade has mounted a short, 3-day-run of the show at 14th Street Playhouse’s small Stage 3 space, and it is a production to savor.

Masud Olufani is a revelation as Malcolm X, a brittle bundle of energy who can give a rousing oration, moments after sharing a quiet joke. In stark contrast, Lemario G. Bradwell makes Dr. King a soft-spoken, gentle giant of a man, who can nevertheless muster anger and passion when his core beliefs are challenged or underplayed. Together, the two men offer a conversation that strikes a wide range of emotional chords, evoking both men’s contrasting philosophies as well as their shared struggles.

Don’t get the idea that this play is a dry exercise in Black History Month indulgence. These characters are vital and intriguing, alive with flaws and quirks and qualities that let us all know they are forces of history, as well as grounded men with families and friends. They are not afraid to joke with each other, challenge each other, even arm-wrestle each other, and, even if there is no clear “victor” in their debate, there is a firm détente that they want the same things, that they won’t outlive their struggle, and that they share more than they imagine.

The production is very small-scale, a few pieces of furniture (bland hotel chic) against a black backdrop. It literally starts with a song, Trav Wright singing a from-the-heart rendition of the spiritual “A Change Gonna Come.” We then see excerpts from famous speeches given by the two men, speeches smartly chosen to set up their conflicting philosophies and their apparent disdain for each other’s approach.

When we finally get to the hotel room, Malcolm is being fussed over by his devoted bodyguard, Rasad (Lance Jackson). His home was firebombed earlier in the day, and Malcolm is agitated over not being able to be there for his wife and children. When Dr. King comes bearing a surprising gift (from his own daughter), Rasad leaves and the conversation takes off. Director Kelvin Wade uses the small space well, never letting his actors stay rooted in place too long, never letting their conversation become a “lecture,” giving the actors the freedom they need to bring this faux-moment-in-history to life.

Finally, R&B artist Tony Terry (“With You” and “She’s Fly”) closes the show with a beautiful performance of his hit “Should a Man Cry.”

I suppose, because of the short run, you may not get a chance to see this show. But, if the over-sold houses are any indication, Mr. Wade would do well to consider bringing it back for an extended run. It’s a small play, granted, but it brings to life the legacy of two men who are too-quickly disappearing into the back pages of American history texts, whose struggles and triumphs are given short shrift by far too many leaders and far too many pundits.

It is a vivid reminder that the first step to freedom is recognizing our own worth, and realizing we deserve freedom. Even if they chose different paths to freedom, both men spoke of this as the starting point, as the core value of any struggle for civil rights. This play is also a reminder that, given good writing, good directing, and good acting, theatre may just be the perfect forum for keeping their legacy alive.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



The Young Man from Atlanta, by Horton Foote
The Details of People
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
4.5
Houston, 1950. Will Kidder, in the twilight of his life, has made a huge investment in his dream house, a large mansion for he and his wife, Lily Dale, to spend their final years. Always a driven “Type A” salesman (“I’ve always been competitive!”), he has no plans to retire, and no pension or retirement plan to support such an unheard of choice. To his surprise, he loses his job because his company wants someone younger to wage his daily skirmishes.

On top of this stroke of ill fortune, Will and Lily Dale are still mourning the death of their son, Bill, the victim of a tragic accident that seems more and more like suicide. Now, Bill’s former “roommate” is coming around, either trying to reconcile with the parents of his lost friend, or trying to bilk them out of as much money as he can.

That’s the set-up of “The Young Man from Atlanta,” Horton Foote’s quietly evocative 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner now receiving a wonderful production at Theatrical Outfit. Steeped in the silences and omissions that all families share, this play quietly documents a period in American history when the work ethics were changing and the sexual revolution with its liberalizing attitude towards gay relationships was still years in the future. In spite of all that, the workforce dilemma faced by Will Kidder is agonizingly contemporary.

Horton Foote’s body work is a marvel of understatement. His characters usually have small dreams, small goals, and small actions (though he often chafed at the characterization of his work as “small”). The drama in his work comes from how his characters bring lifetimes of experience, good and bad, into the challenges the present always seems to bring. He is most famous for the screenplay for “Tender Mercies” and the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” However, I think his best work is a nine-play series called the “Orphan’s Home Cycle,” which follows several families through several generations of small town Texas life. In this saga more than any other work, he shows how small choices and mistakes can have devastating repercussions years, even generations later, and he returned to the characters more than once in the last years of his career.

Will and Lily Dale (and it’s ALWAYS “Lily Dale,” never just “Lily”) are characters from that cycle. We first meet Lily Dale in “Roots in a Parched Ground” (1962) as a spunky 10-year-old witnessing the death of her alcoholic father. “Lily Dale” (1986), set eight years later, chronicles her courtship by Will Kidder. And, in “Cousins” (1983), Will and Lily Dale are at the height of their success and wealth. Although knowledge of these earlier plays is not a requirement for enjoying “Young Man from Atlanta,” I do have to confess that re-reading them last week heightened my enjoyment of this newer play. For example, the first scene seems to be filled with clumsy exposition, but, recognizing the rather self-centered and talkative Will Kidder from the earlier plays makes the dialogue fit in with what I expected of his character.

We also welcome back another character from the cycle, Lily Dale’s step-father, Pete Davenport. What’s interesting about him is that he has changed little from his appearances in the earlier plays. Always quick to judge, slow to forgive, and taciturn to a fault, he represents a bridge to the earlier generations that stayed near home and cast their mindsets in stone. Lily Dale and Will, on the other hand, have grown considerably, mellowing with age and experience, grieving in their own ways – the chief conflict here is in how they treat Bill’s “roommate” – Lily Dale wants to embrace him and trusts him completely, if only to be reminded of her dead son and to honor the friend he left behind. Will rejects him utterly – he recognizes what his son had become, and does not want to be reminded of it. In fact, an argument could be made that Will “blames” the “young man” (who, by the way, we never see) for what Bill had become and can only believe he is in Houston to get even more money from them.

As expected, the cast nails every one of these characters. Tom Key and Marianne Hammock are absolutely wonderful as Will and Lily Dale, showing us a couple who have been together for decades, yet still feel the need to keep secrets from each other. Like the older couples seen recently in “Tokens of Affection” and “Sirens,” they skillfully embody all those unspoken mannerisms and glances and sighs that so characterize couples with a long unspoken history between them. Frank Roberts is good as Pete Davenport, giving this rather cold character a personality that transcends the simplistic expectation I had for him. They are given good support by Tim Batten, Andrew Benator, Donna Biscoe, Robin Bloodworth, Amanda Relaford, and Tonia Jackson. And, the production is given the usual well-balanced and solidly paced direction by Jessica Phelps West.

I also have to give special commendation to set designer Dale Brubaker. He has created a tall and imposing interior that perfectly embodies Will’s “$200,000 Mansion” (what would that be in 2011 dollars?), even to the point of making an office required for the first scene seem a part of the house. Jessica Coale’s lighting and Kendall Simpson’s original music all contribute to creating the world of Mr. Foote’s characters, driving the mood of the play.

In an essay introducing a volume of plays from the Orphan’s Home Cycle, Mr. Foote is quoted:

“I believe very deeply in the human spirit, and I have a sense of awe about it. I’ve known people the world has thrown everything at – to discourage them, to kill them, to break their spirit. … And yet something about them retains a dignity. They face life and they don’t ask quarters. ,,, I’ve just seen example after example of people enduring things I absolutely couldn’t. I’m always measuring myself [against that].”

His plays and movies reflect this passion for people and for the way they live and talk. Watching (even reading) one of his plays is like sitting with an older relative as they talk about people and stories they have known, older relatives who know how to capture your attention with a story you didn’t know you wanted to hear.

“The Young Man from Atlanta” is such a story. Will and Lily Dale and Pete are outcasts from an earlier time, living in a period only the oldest among us remember first hand. Yet their story strikes so many chords of recognition, we can’t help but respond.

Mr. Foote died almost two years ago (and is buried in the small town “graveyard full of our cousins”). He has left behind an incredibly diverse body of work, including the masterpiece that is “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” of which this is an addendum. A production as good as this can only do him honor.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

Postscript: As information, movies have been made of five of the “Orphans’ Home” plays and may be available online: “Courtship,” “1918,” “On Valentine’s Day,” “Convicts,” and “Lily Dale.”



Bring it On: The Musical, by Jeff Whitty, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tom Kitt, and Amanda Green
Fasten Your Seat Belts
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
5.0
So, when I first heard of it, I thought WTF? Seven Tony winners, the youngest and freshest creative talents on Broadway, were combining forces to bring a brand new musical to Atlanta. And what has this awesome mind trust chosen as its subject matter? The world of competitive cheerleading as seen in the 2000 yawn-fest “Bring it On” (okay, anything that features two “Buffy” alumni – Eliza Dushku and Clare Kramer – can’t be a total yawn-fest). Formulaic and predictable, it nevertheless spawned a devoted following as well as boatloads of almost identical straight-to-video sequels. My own reaction was “Meh!” Even the much-touted gymnastics come across (at least on the small screen) as more CGI than actual wow-inducing stunts.

I repeat, WTF?

To my surprise, “Bring it On: The Musical” is a total winner, an energetic locomotive of a show that starts strong and keeps building to its final competition. Not to discredit the terribly young (and fit) cast, but the credit for the success of this venture goes to that incredible cadre of behind-the-scenes talent.

Like the original movie’s sequels, the script by Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”), creates an original set of characters and puts them into a familiar by-the-numbers formula. Starting off with an “introduce the squad” sequence that turns out to be a dream, the show follows a blonde (it’s always blonde) and plucky heroine (“Campbell”) who becomes squad captain and must lead her crew on to win the National Cheerleading competition. Along the way, there are complications, a rival urban (read “ethnically diverse”) squad, a bad jerk-boyfriend, a good niceguy-boyfriend, rivals becoming BFF’s, and a final competition that teaches everyone important lessons.

Mr. Whitty has some fun with the formula though, skewering the win-at-any-cost personalities of too many of the characters without losing his apparent affection for them, not to mention adding echoes of “All About Eve” to the complications. (Did I say echoes? I meant to say heavy-handed rip-offs – he even named his understudy-with-a-heart-of-stony-ambition “Eva.”) He also has a feel for the angst and life-changing high-drama that is a typical adolescent’s day. I especially like how he includes a “drag cheerleader” in his roster, and makes the “chubby” girl a heroine of equal respect. And I really loved how he turned our expectations during the final competition completely upside-down! Formula? Yes! Predictable? Not on your life!

To its credit, the production uses two teams to create the music and lyrics. The plan was for Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”) and Amanda Green (“High Fidelity”) to create the songs for the Temple kids (rich and white) and for Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”) to do the same for the Jackson kids (poor and diverse). Somewhere along the way (or so production notes tell us), the two teams found they liked working together more than apart, and strict delineations soon evaporated. The result is a distinctive style of music for the two schools that set the stage, but a nice blending of style as loyalties and sympathies get more muddled and ambivalent.

If I may digress a moment, are you as irritated as I am when programs for new musicals do NOT include a song list? I’d love to cite some favorite numbers, but I can’t, since I have no idea what any of them were called. Suffice it to say, the title song (and sentiment) is repeated in more than one number and style, and it seems to work well in all of them. Let me at least credit Director/Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (“In the Heights”) and Music Director Alex Lacamoire (also “In the Heights”) for successfully making such a wild goulash of styles and songs seem seamless and part of a coherent whole. I’d love to see this show make it to Broadway, just to have a recording of the music made available.

Now, to discuss the real wow-factor here – the Cheerleader routines. These are just jaw-droppingly spectacular and display an athleticism and precision that are incomprehensible to my flabby old-man mind. Real-life cheerleading competitors have to maintain this level of skill and stamina for a three-minute routine. Here, for two-plus hours a show, many shows per week, the cast goes through many sequences in which pyramids go three levels high with leaps and spins going even higher, all without a net, all without “stunt doubles,” all relying on trust in costars to be there for the catch. I’m presuming there is a high level of risk involved – opening night programs listed two understudy replacements – but this cast dives into it with an enthusiasm and skill that is absolutely breathtaking. And it’s not just the “nameless ensemble” members doing the heavy lifting – stars Amanda Lea LaVergne (“Campbell”) and Kelly Felthouse (“Eva”) take their turns at the top of the pyramids. And they’re all so young – adults appear only as “voice-overs.”

If I have one complaint, it would be the sequence in which heroine Campbell is forced to dance wearing a grotesque leprechaun’s costume (don’t ask). She supposedly “wows” her new friends with her willingness to go out on a limb and move like a member of the “crew.” Unfortunately, the choreography here is too simplistic (step, shake-the-booty, step, shake-the-booty), and I wasn’t sharing the onlookers’ enthusiasm for her “game.” Maybe the costume was just too durn heavy for anything more difficult, but the sequence needs something a bit more. Still, it hardly dimmed my enthusiasm for the show overall.

On the other hand, everything about the design of the show clicked like a precision routine. Dominated by a blue mat, everything had a “gymnasium” feel to it. And, once the action moved to Jackson High School, a series of hall-locker units combined and morphed into hallways, bathrooms, dance platforms, and even school lockers. It was a design that moved the action smoothly and made clever usage of shapes and suggestions. Projections were used liberally, and the whole shebang started with an arena-style clock counting down to zero. In other words, the stage was the world of competitive sports, and the story found its imagery with all the accoutrements thereof.

So, one of the themes of the show (and the series of movies in general) is “finding your WOW!” That is, discovering what it is that you love doing so much that you can’t imagine NOT doing it.

I dare say, anyone wandering into the Alliance Theatre over the next month will find a “WOW” that can’t even be topped by spinning cheerleaders a hundred feet in the air. My own “WOW” is seeing young and talented artists at the top of their game producing work that defies all expectations. So, fasten your seatbelts, it’s gonna be a wild and wow-filled night!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)






Broadsword, by Marco Ramirez
Air Guitar
Friday, February 4, 2011
3.0
It starts out like a song. We enter the house to see a basement set, gnarled beams competing with pink insulation to smother the detritus of a life. Immaculately cared-for accoutrements of a long-past heavy metal band are scattered throughout.

As the play starts, a man in a white suit (Chris Kayser) enters and talks to an unseen musician, luring him away from his band with the promise of fame and riches and these-other-guys-are-all-losers reassurances.

Then he leaves and the lights come up. We hear the hum of a ramped up amplifier with no music on tap – it is the “sound of potential sound” as one character puts it. A man enters and turns it off. He is joined by another. They have little to say to each other and spend some quality time not saying it. We soon learn they are Vic (Dolph Amick) and Nicky (Justin Welborn), former members of a heavy band (“Broadsword”) whose charismatic leader Richie is enjoying a post-disappearance memorial service.

As the play continues, they are joined by Becca, a wise-beyond-her-role groupie (Stacy Melich), Tony, the member of the band whose departure precipitated its demise (Bryan Brendle), and Dr. Thorne, a pompous and pedantic musicologist (Rial Ellsworth). Faster than you can say “We’ve seen this plot before,” they’re talking about making deals with the devil, finding “the notes between the notes,” and pontificating about mystical idiocy that gives music supernatural properties far more boring than its already intrinsically magical nature.

Which is a shame, because I really loved the set up and execution of this scenario. Mr. Amick and Mr. Welborn are opposite and alike – both longing for the “glory days” of Broadsword’s heyday, both somewhat disappointed with the grace notes life has denied them. For Vic, though, life as a mechanic has not been too bad or even too unexpected. Yes, he misses the band, but he has also achieved a marginal truce with the way his life has come out. Nicky, on the other hand, is crumpled ball of resentment and anger. Living in a van and working behind a bar, he KNOWS he could have won the brass ring if the bastards of the world weren’t conspiring to kick him off the carousel.

This is as well-written, as beautifully performed a scene of pre-middle-age angst as I’ve ever seen. The jokes are rueful, almost bitter, and the shared memories fill each character with a glow their current lives can’t hope to match. Even when the prodigal Tony returns, his LA career hasn’t been as wonderful as he expected, his presumed brass ring ending up not a little tarnished and rusty.

Still, when the opportunity comes up to put down the disappointments and pick up the guitars and drumsticks, the moment could have been sublime, the triumph of pipe dreams over banal day-to-day-ism. The wayward plot even layers on a certain risk in their playing again, a chance that re-playing Richie’s “ultimate song” could lead to their own “ultimate fate.” They are risking more than the end of their dream’s hiatus, they are risking their very lives. It SHOULD have been a cathartic coda, a howl to the universe to stand back and marvel. Instead, it was like an air guitar solo with the sound turned down.

And, it was all because of playwright Marco Ramirez desire to layer on a pseudo-satanic story, a “deal-with-the-devil” B-movie plot that drains the play of its drive, of its humanity, and, ultimately, of its appeal. I can’t blame Mr. Ellsworth’s performance of the enigmatic Dr. Thorne. In fact, he skillfully makes the most ludicrous lines sound almost plausible, gives the character an tongue-in-cheek loopiness reminiscent of those “guy-who-explains-it-all” scientist characters we’ve all come to know and love (think the psychiatrist at the end of “Psycho”).

But the idea is tired and clichéd. A heavy metal band with a “dark side?” A musician making a deal with the devil? These are ideas that are done to death, and there is nothing new here to give any freshness to them.

Still, I can’t help but give the play a recommendation, if only for the performances, the direction, the design, and the set-up. Mr. Welborn, in particular, gives a brilliantly dynamic and memorable performance. This is a play I wanted desperately to like.

But, in the final analysis, its over-reliance on the supernatural was a tune that grated in my ear, that made me want to put my own air guitar back into its unseen case and not even hum along.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



The 39 Steps, by Patrick Barlow
Another Hannay Hitch
Saturday, January 29, 2011
4.5
Night. London. Fog. Danger. Richard Hannay goes to the theatre, meets a mysterious femme fatale who is soon fatale'd in his flat, and is embarked on an adventure featuring spies, violence, trains, and Scotsmen. The police think he's a murderer. And the clock is ticking.

Those of you versed in the works of Alfred Hitchcock will recognize the set-up of his classic 1935 thriller, "The 39 Steps," based in turn on John Buchan's 1915 novel. But, Hitchcock fans will have to reign in their outrage, as Patrick Barlow's 2006 stage adaptation places tongue firmly in music-hall cheek, and creates a giddily entertaining biggest-ham-takes-all romp, asking four actors to play all fourteen-gazillion roles with just a few scraps of scenery and costumes, and a whole lot of chutzpah and energy.

This show, in a nutshell, is one of the most entertaining works you're likely to see in this or any other year. Keeping the bare bones of the Buchan/Hitchcock story (innocent man accused of murder must crack a nasty spy ring to save his name and the girl), this production dishes out whirlwind character change, wry backstage buffoonery, dizzying word-play, mega-charm and tons of stage fog. To calm down the Hitchcockophiles, passing references to his other films are tossed out liberally, with even the famous Hitchcock cameo making a welcome appearance. Most of the references are underscored with a nudge-nudge wink-wink to the audience, but a few are just casually dropped as visual (or musical) jokes or fleeting references.

It's been said that Buchan's Richard Hannay novels (there were five as well as a few stories and cameos by the character in other works) provided the template for the modern spy novel, and writers from Ian Fleming to Robert Ludlum have freely acknowledged the debt. So, of course, it's appropriate that "AHT39S" takes every opportunity to skewer the clichés that come with the genre, including frequent references to the hero's rakish good looks (and brown eyes), shady characters with outrageously thick accents, villains with deformities and maniacal laughs, and even the old standby, a conveniently placed hymnal stopping a bullet ("Some of those hymns are very hard to get through").

As with the touring company that came through town in 2009, the true appeal of this production, though, is the breath-takingly fast and numerous character switches by the two-man protean ensemble, Bryan Mercer and Scott Warren. In one sequence, the two of them play six characters in a single scene, switching characters with a flip of a hat, a slump of a shoulder, a shift of a dialect. (Part of the joke is they are allowed to miss, to put on the wrong hat or the wrong accent at the wrong time.)

Centering it all is Jason MacDonald's single performance as Richard Hannay. On stage for almost the entire play, he has the unenviable task of carrying the plot, refereeing the ensemble, setting the bar for "how over-the-top can we take this?" and making us care enough that we want to know how his story turns out. The fourth member of the troupe, Catherine Dyer, has the relatively relaxed job of portraying only three women, the femme fatale at the top, the love interest, and a comely and helpful Scottish farmwife. All are excellent and engaging, with nary a wrong note or questionable choice. (In fact, I preferred Ms. Dyer to her touring-company counterpart, owing to a much more intelligible - though still comically over-the-top - German accent in the opening scene).

Clint Thornton's direction is full of backstage jokes, affection for the Music Hall tradition that is the stylistic forbearer of this piece, and attention to detail and pace. If anything "misses," it's the frequent soundstage images and buzzers that punctuate the piece - it's one of those "clever-not-smart" concepts that appear to pay homage to the cinematic roots of this adaptation (the Theatre in the Square house is even painted as if we're between two adjoining sound stages). The problem is that this concept is jarringly at odds with the music-hall buffoonery that is more firmly rooted in this script - did Hitchcock (or any other director) ever cast single actors in multiple roles for a film? Still, it's a minor quibble in what is still a hugely entertaining (and fast-paced) comedy.

After I saw the touring company, I predicted that this would be a mainstay of regional and community theatres for years to come (small cast, inexpensive to mount, and entertaining as a puppy with a squirrel doll), and, I suspect, it'll be one of those "This never grows old" pieces we all know and love. I'm happy to report that the avalanche of productions has officially begun, and that the piece still leaves me with a goofy grin on my face from beginning to end.

So what exactly are "The 39 Steps?" If I tell you, I'll have to shoot you. 39 times! Wearing 39 different costumes! (Cue Bernard Herrmann-esque ominous chords.)

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Sirens, by Deborah Zoe Laufer
How His Naked Ears Were Tortured
Saturday, January 29, 2011
4.5
Sam and Rose Abrams have reached a crossroads. Married for twenty-five years, they are at a stage of life where they are far too cranky with each other, far too piqued at each other’s failures and shortcomings, far too eager to pursue “the one who got away.” In a last ditch attempt to save their marriage, they embark on a Mediterranean cruise among the islands of Greece. There their stories diverge.

For Rose, a particularly spiteful spat is ended when Sam unceremoniously tosses himself overboard. His body is never found and Rose returns home, quickly making contact with the one love from her past, a love whose suit was trumped by Sam and his song about her.

For Sam, a particularly spiteful spat is interrupted by the sound of singing, a plaintive and intoxicating air reminiscent of youth and of the songwriting career that should have been his. (His one hit, “Rose Adelle” is twenty-five years in the past, and its success has never been matched.) With nothing to lose, he dives overboard and swims to a remote island, populated only by a siren out of myth (who is obsessed with electronic solitaire), a siren who looks like a long-lost love his own youth. Needing batteries for her own new-found love, the siren lets Sam return home.

What happens next is, perhaps, predictable by anyone who has ever seen a movie or read a book that climaxes in a “grand romantic gesture,” but it is no less funny and enjoyable for meeting those expectations.

Much like “Tokens of Affection” currently on stage at G.E.T., this is a hugely satisfying play about long-term love, how it sometimes grows stale, and how, the siren-call of the memory of love from our youth leads a relationship to capsize on the on the rocks of regret and habit and spite. It is a tale of how a deep and long-term love can sometimes save you from those white-capped shoals.

This is the second play I’ve seen by Deborah Zoe Laufer (after last year’s “End Days” at the Horizon), and I really enjoy how she is able to use figures of fantasy and myth to set off her stories that seem rooted in a very realistic emotional world. The stories and the characters may be fanciful, but they reveal very real and compelling conflicts that are quintessentially human. And, she has a wicked sense of humor and a flair for dialogue that makes the more predictable aspects of her plots seem fresh and exciting.

Steve Coulter and Mary Lynn Owen are the Abrams’s, utterly perfect in every way. Even when they are bickering the loudest, they still share an almost palpable bond that makes their slips and mistakes all the more affecting. When Mr. Coulter “breaks loose” with his goofy new song at the end, it is a joy to behold. And, in a tender coda, when they bind themselves together to a mast of a small ship, it is a moment of transcendent joy. They are ably supported by a radiant Kate Donadio as the siren (and a few other parts) and by Lowrey Brown as Rose’s old beau, pitifully smarmy in his trying-to-look younger hair style and lounge lizard attitude. Susan Reid has directed them all in a seamless, well-paced (and intermission-less) production that goes down as smoothly and magically as a genie’s elixir.

A simple set by Seamus Bourne (a lone island dominated by skulls and bones and dwarfed by an empty sky) is the backdrop, even though the bulk of the play is staged on small units on either side. It’s that siren-call motif embodied – no matter where the characters are, that island is waiting for them, with its grim reminders that the trip is one-way (usually). The sound design by Matt Callahan is a beautiful collection of echoes and sea-sounds and more versions of “Rose Adelle” than you can count.

So, as you wonder if you are staying with your spouse out of habit or out of something deeper, if you find your relationship growing dark with pique and regret, If you miss the freshness of your life was love was an undiscovered island, remember the words of Eric Clapton and Martin Sharpe:

You thought the leaden winter would bring you down forever,
But you rode upon a steamer to the violence of the sun.
And the colours of the sea bind your eyes with trembling mermaids,
And you touch the distant beaches with tales of brave Sam Abrams,
How his naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing,
For the sparkling waves are calling you to kiss their white-laced lips.


Or, you could go see “Sirens” at Aurora. The kiss is just as sweet!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, by William Finn
B-A-L-A-N-C-I-N-G Act
Saturday, January 29, 2011
3.5
Productions of William Finn's "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" are quickly becoming as common as, well, as middle school spelling bees. This is the second production I've seen since Halloween, and there are at least two more area productions before summer.

So, what makes this such a hit with audiences and with theatres? More to the point, why do I like it so much? I can probably answer these questions very simply - it's an easy show to produce, it can (and should) be alternately quite funny and quite moving, and every production, indeed every performance can be a little bit unique (if you'll forgive a classic usage faux pas).

Let's start by cutting and pasting my summary from G.E.T.'s late fall production. Starting out as a small improvisational one-act called "C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E," it was produced by The Farm, a New York comedy Troupe. Composer William Finn ("Falsettos," "A New Brain") saw the production and convinced playwright Rebecca Feldman to work with him to create a full-length musical. Workshopped and developed extensively by the Barrington Stage Company, it eventually found its way to off-Broadway and finally, in 2005, to Broadway, and, apparently, everywhere else.

Set in a high school gym in geographically ambiguous Putnam County (allowing for numerous local references and ad-libs), the show follows a group of eccentric kids, three equally eccentric adults, and several selected-at-random audience members as they compete to win the spelling bee. Keeping its Improv-roots intact, topical and local references and jokes abound, and the monitor of the bee is given free rein to use the increasingly eccentric words in increasingly eccentric usages.

There is a serious undertone to the piece as each of the contestants represents a different aspect of some family dysfunction -- parental neglect, too-high-expectations, large-family put-downs ("Dumb Kid!"), over-hovering parents (in this case, two Dads), and so forth. In fact, in contrast to how hard we laugh at some of the excesses of the bee itself, the songs can be down-right serious, and "The I-Love-You Song" in particular (in which the neglected girl conjures the chimerical image of her parents lavishing her with affection) never fails to move me to tears. Throughout, the cast drops in and out of supporting roles in the contestants' memories and fantasies (including a dryly affectionate and very Jewish Jesus).

Act 3 Productions endeavors to give as many performers an opportunity to perform as possible, often expanding casts to match the level of talent available. This production has already been criticized for adding six new characters who also do the lion's share of "doubling." My own take is that criticizing Act 3 for doing this is as valid as criticizing Théâtre du Rêve for doing their shows in French - it's what they do, so it should be expected. The question should be, do the new characters unnecessarily "pad" the show, and do the additions actually add to the show?

For me it's a close call, but, because of the energy and talent on display, I'm inclined to give the production the benefit of the doubt. For one thing, taking the minor characters away from the principal actors is a good choice - it makes some of the transitions less jarring. For another, it gives an opportunity to really pack the small stage for the "Pandemonium" number, which I thought clicked on all levels.

On the other hand, I thought most of the added characters veered over the line into stereotypes and caricatures - we have (among others) a tough guy "bad-ass" in a T-Shirt and Jersey accent, a dull-witted weight-lifter wearing his athletic leotards, and an immigrant from Bavaria in lederhosen and bad blonde wig. Perhaps some more thought should have gone into giving them a little dimension or surprise. Of course, having the "bad-ass" double as Olive's dad for "The I-Love-You" song was an inspired choice that was definitely a plus.

And, to the production's credit, it didn't "feel" padded to me, and, in fact, some of the new dialogue (and words), sounded familiar and in character with the rest of the show. I've never seen the published script, but I suspect, like many improv-based shows, it gives a lot of "extra" spelling words and exchanges that can be added or deleted.

As to the main cast, they are all quite good with creating their characters and making them work in this intimate setting. My favorites were Joe Arnotti's long and lanky Mitch Mahoney, Jo-Jo Steine's Logainne Schwarzandgrubenniere (who succeeded in making her lisped dialogue and lyrics perfectly understandable), Angie Zhang over-achieving Marcy Park, and Alli Sheahan's sad and goofy Olive Ostrovsky. The entire ensemble, in fact, blended well and played off each other beautifully.

Where the production fell short was in many of the technical aspects. I thought too many of the costumes were meant more as "walking sight gags" rather than as credible wardrobes. Vice Principal Douglas Panche's stained trousers, William Barfee's shirt-tail through the fly, Chip Tolentino's baseball Jersey ("Nicaragua"?), and the aforementioned lederhosen and weight-lifting tights spoke more of an eccentric costumer than of eccentric characters.

I also found some of the lighting color choices downright wrong - fantasy sequences disappeared in primary blues and purples, and areas were oddly balanced (brighter lights shifting the focus from where it needed to be). These proved to be very distracting to my admittedly overly-critical eye.

And, if I wanted to be REALLY picky, I'd also cite the occasional mispronounced word ("Dengue" and "Onager" were particularly bollixed) and even one misspelled word that was allowed to pass (Leaf Coneybear put a random "C" in front of "Acouchi").

But, these are all balanced out by the aggressively entertaining cast, the fast-paced dialogue, the few nicely executed production numbers, and the singing from all. I laughed at jokes I'd heard before and at stuff which was quite new ("President Bristol Palin Kennedy"? Loved it!). I even found the more serious moments appealing and not (terribly) undercut by the over-the-top costumes and missed-opportunity lighting scheme.

So, this was still a "Bee" that had some sting and that hasn't lost its spell. And, on balance, that's a G-O-O-D T-H-I-N-G!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

Postscript: Thank you for letting "Chip's Lament" have its original lyric, but the schtick with the microphone at the end was clumsily set up (was that particular microphone ever used anywhere else in the show?) and perhaps a tad gratuitous. But it still made me laugh.


Disney's "Beauty and the Bewast", by Linda Woolverton, Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice
Tale as Old as Time
Saturday, January 29, 2011
4.5
It’s a tale oft-told, familiar to anyone with a child-like heart. Inner beauty trapped in a hideous package. Innocent beauty losing her heart to a beast. Classic films by Cocteau and Disney told the tale, as did a cult TV series set in the tunnels and catacombs of Manhattan. And, as if by command from the gods of marketing, a full-blown stage musical of the Disney version of the story has become a regional favorite.

And now, Theatre of the Stars and Disney have mounted yet another national tour. It is a triumph of design, of theatricality, of performance. It is an evening away from the ice-in cabin fever of the past week, and it woke the child who forever lives in my own heart.

You know the story. Belle is a smart and imaginative young woman living in a peasant town whose residents can’t imagine more than the next meal, the next baguette, the next hunt. She makes a desperate deal to save her father and becomes the prisoner/guest of a fierce beast who rules angrily over an enchanted castle. Someone bends unexpectedly, and the beast reveals a heart of fuzzy gold. Will true love ignite before the last petal of the rose seals the spell forever?

In its transition from animated film to live-action stage spectacle, little is lost, but much is gained. What’s lost is the credibility of the enchanted household – no longer are they humanity-infused things of magic, but full-grown humans in odd costumes (some of which are surprisingly difficult to decipher – exactly how does Babette’s skimpy tutu suggest a feather duster?). What’s gained is the sense of you-are-there magic, of anger and terror that can’t transcend an animated drawing. What’s gained is a wider range of emotion from fear to love to despair to hope, and an immediacy that brings the characters to life, odd costumes and all.

This is a Beast who is absolutely threatening. I felt true fear for Belle as Justin Glaser glowers and towers and growls and attacks. The sense is real that he could do her real damage. And that makes his transition to repentant suitor all the more effective. It’s telling that he is given the best new song of the show, the rousing anthem “If I Can’t Love Her” that ends the first act. This is a Beast who absolutely wins us over, despite his anger and cruelty of early scenes.

This is a Belle who wins our hearts from the start. Liz Shivener sings like an angel, and creates a character who is sassy and original without betraying the cartoon we’ve become so familiar with over the years. She makes the Beast work hard for his redemption, and the change is all the more effective for that.

There are other changes that work well in the transition to the stage. I liked the rhythmic tankard-clangs in “Gaston” (now a full-blown production number), the puppetry of the wolves in the woods, the resurrection of “Human Again” (written for the movie but cut from the final release), new songs such as the aforementioned “If I Can’t Love Her” and Belle’s “A Change in Me,” familiar songs like “Be My Guest” and “Something There.” I also liked how some stage magic increased the theatricality, such as a talking Chip carried on a tray (with no dangling child-actor parts visible beneath), not to mention the illusion that is the final transformation of the Beast.

This is a cast that is almost perfect from top to bottom. As I mentioned, there is outstanding work from Ms. Shivener and Mr. Glaser in the lead roles, but I also want to commend Nathaniel Hackman’s beefy and baritone’d Gaston, Michael Fatica’s rubber-limbed comic turn as Lefou, and Merritt David Janes’ Gallic rascal Lumiere. If Sabina Petra comes across as more thin tumbler than stout teapot, she nevertheless acquits herself well with the title song and with her mother-hen assurance. Everyone else was equally effective in evoking the film characters and with telling the tale with passion and with humor and with well-harmonized song and dance.

And I loved the look and design of the show. At first glance extraordinarily busy with multiple frames of fleur-de-lis and curlicue, the framework of the set (by Stanley A. Meyer) soon takes on an organic feel as different scenes, equally ornate, grow out and complement the look. The lighting effects and color scheme (by Natasha Katz) are especially effective in setting the mood and repainting the set with a wide palette of color and tone and magical effect.

This is a show that looks nothing at all like the movie (costumes aside – Belle’s yellow ball gown could not possibly be replaced), but feels very much like it. It’s a new experience of a familiar story, and I strongly urge you to not let it pass you by.

It is, after all, a tale as old as time told in a way that is beautiful and not a little aww-inspiring.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare
Stopping By Illyria on a Snowy Evening
Saturday, January 29, 2011
4.0
(With apologies to Robert Frost)

What land this is I think I know.
Oft-times before I’ve seen this show;
And yet again I’m stopping here
Despite the threat of heavy snow.

It is Illyria we’re near
To witness loves and riots dear
With laughter oft our bellies quake
And threaten violence to our beer.

It gives my weary mind a shake
To try to tally some mistake.
My quibbles from my pen will creep
Whene’er homeward wend I make.

The highway’s icy, dark and deep.
But I have mem’ries to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Granted, I can’t cram all my thoughts of this production into a pastiche of Frost’s sixteen terse and frosty verses. So I’ll ask, “Was ‘Twelfth Night’ worth the two-hour homeward crawl through Sunday’s snow?”

You betcha!

True, my quibbles will rank this a step below Georgia Shakespeare’s wonderful Illyria sojourn from a few years ago, but what of that? This is still “Twelfth Night,” one of my favorite plays of the canon, and there is so much that is right and surprising here that my quibbles seem hollow indeed.

Let’s nitpick quickly and get on with the good stuff. To start, Nicholas Faircloth is far too young and laid back to meet my expectations of Sir Toby Belch. But, like his equally underplayed Bottom from last summer, this Sir Toby grew on me, and before long, I was enjoying his antics and his original portrait of a character who too often steals the play. Andrew Houchins goes against his usual style and underplays Orsino a tad more than is comfortable, making the Count almost disappear from the scenes he mopes through (would it be too much to ask for a little rueful recognition of his own ridiculousness?). On the other hand, Jeff McKerley takes Malvolio so far over the top that traces of the character go completely missing. Yes, he was funny, often making me laugh out loud. But was he Malvolio? Perhaps enough to sustain my enjoyment of the production, but not enough to feel any sympathy for his humiliation.

Now that all that is behind us, let’s talk about Veronika Duerr’s Viola/Cesario. This is her play from beginning to end, and she gives this character so much range, so much appeal, that she made me forget all the wonderful Violas I’ve seen in the past. She is heartful in her “wooing” of Orsino, desperate in her “being wooed” by Olivia, heartbreaking in her reunion with Sebastian, hysterically funny in her “battle” with Sir Andrew, and witty and intelligent and compelling throughout. As usual, her disguise wouldn’t have fooled a blind man (always a nice comment on how easily surface appearances take root), but, in this production, Sebastian (David Sterritt) is played so fey, so effeminate, that the confusion of the two is unusually credible. If it’s sometimes difficult to accept Ms. Duerr as a male, would it be cruel of me to say the same thing about Mr. Sterritt?

Another standout is J.C. Long’s full-voiced Feste, who’s “Wind and Rain” number ends the play on a paradoxically festive, yet whimsically somber note. (Mr. Long, along with Bo Ketchin, composed all the wonderful original music for the show). Kudos also to Matt Nitchie’s fop-without-a-clue Sir Andrew, and Kati Grace Morton’s surprisingly young and clever Maria. In general, the ensemble worked together like a well-oiled machine, and made this return to Illyria a pleasant and memorable sojourn. Although there were few cuts, and the play clocks in at almost three hours, director Drew Reeves, keeps the pace quick, the emotions and moods wide-ranging, and the stories always compelling.

So, let me end this review with the same (slightly rewritten) paraphrase with which I ended my last “Twelfth Night” comments:

If Shakespeare be the food of life, play on;
Give me excess of it, that surfeiting,
Our humor may quicken and so fly.
This play again! It has a soaring grace;
O, it comes o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Lifting and giving color. More! Much more!
‘Tis much more sweet now than it was before.
O spirit of life, how quick and fresh art thou,
That notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, all enters there,
Of such validity and pitch that e’er
Our burdens fall like dark forgotten dreams
That fade like smoke. So full of shapes is this,
That quibbles fade like snow into the night.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Tokens of Affection, by Topher Payne
The Measure of a Marriage
Saturday, January 29, 2011
4.5
We have this discussion often. “Why don’t you bring me flowers?” “The last time I brought you flowers, they died.”

How odd to hear this (sorta kinda) echoed from the stage during Georgia Ensemble’s “Tokens of Affection,” a funny and endearing romantic comedy written and directed by Atlanta’s own Topher Payne. Filled with Mr. Payne’s usual sharp dialogue and specifically delineated characters, this play shows us a kinder, gentler world, a world where affection and connection subvert the harsher, more grotesque edges of the usual creative Topher-scapes.

Charlie Garrett (Matthew Myers) is a conceptual artist for an international gaming company, putting the finishing touches on his “fire-breathing sea turtles.” He works from his shabbily sprawling New York apartment, and craves privacy to meet his deadline. When he is interrupted by a visit from his eager-to-fix-anything father (John Stephens), a terabyte’s worth of repressed family dysfunction threatens to crash his life. Adding to the strain is his harried sister, Claire (Kelly Criss), his too-preppy-even-for-Connecticut brother-in-law (Googie Uterhardt), his order-the-world-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life mother (Judy Leavell), and the lonely widow from across the hall (Shelly McCook), the only welcome distraction of the day. Suddenly, fire-breathing terrapins and laser-shooting cetaceans are losing their cosmic struggle with threatened divorce, secret pregnancy, and dying house-plants.

Centering it all is a series of brilliantly conceived conversations about marriage, relationships, the contrasting needs of surprise and comfort/appreciation, and the constant wail of “He never brings me flowers!” (It’s a metaphor, you see.) What does define a marriage or any relationship? What metaphors are missing from your partner’s life? What day is it?

I really liked how this play was jammed with tellingly creative details – an absent superintendent who has achieved mythic obscurity, a fire escape called a “terrace” by enterprising real estate agents, a stove that doesn’t work, a carton of milk that doesn’t smell right, a hot dog that is just beyond reach, a missed sticky-note message, a lie here, an exaggeration there, a work crisis everywhere. I really liked how these characters, most from the same family, are nevertheless distinct and aggravating/endearing in their own ways. And I liked how the rom-com plot did not depend on cheap contrivances and clichés for its resolution, but on established character traits and eccentricities.

And I really liked how this cast brought these characters to life. I was a tad distracted by the opening scene between Mr. Myers and Ms. McCook, during which both occasionally fell into that “look-at-me-I’m-reciting-lines” cadence in which every line ends on a down note (in both pitch and volume) and every line is given an unhealthy pause before it starts. But, once Ms. Criss enters with her first frantic “I need Mom’s Beer Bread recipe” phone call from her safe Connecticut Kitchen hidden safely behind an up-right scrim, the performances all take off Before too long, the laughs are being generated more by the whimsy of the characters than by their snappy banter, and, long before intermission, I was fully committed to their lives and to their story.

I liked how Mr. Stephens and Ms. Leavell came across as a real couple with a real history (and real issues) between them, how they worked as a couple to address their problems. Sure, they had practice late last year playing a couple in Theatre-in-the-Square’s “Conversations With My Wife,” but they are so much more effective this time around. Ms. Criss, always wonderful to watch, here creates a highly energized bundle-of-neuroses, making Claire everyone’s aggravating little sister without sacrificing that individuality that can make a performance come truly to life. And, after that rocky opening scene, Mr. Myers becomes more comfortable in the role, coming alive as his sense of desperation increases, and his role as “family mediator” is tested to its limits.

The set (by Stephanie Polhemus) is long and low, paradoxically suggesting a cramped and lived-in apartment at the same time it displays an unrealistic spaciousness. Unrealistic, that is, for a low(ish)-rent New York apartment. The sliver of Claire’s kitchen we see behind the scrim marks a nice contrast (as well as a clever meta-joke that “I can almost see a wall between us”). The lighting design (by Bryan Rosengrant) subtly conveys different times of day and emotionally evocative transitions between warmth and coolness. And the soundscape (by Jason Polhemus) switches seamlessly from Cole Porter standards to electronic beeps and bells and buzzes that define the living/work space of a contemporary worker in electronic fun.

So, what defines your marriage? What are the “tokens of affection” that keep it both comfortable and surprising? If I would say “You never bring me spackle,” I’d probably get a response like “The last time I brought you spackle, it dried.” And there’s nothing wrong with that, holes in the relationship notwithstanding.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


A Christmas Carol (2010), by Charles Dickens
Still Spectacular After All These Years
Saturday, January 15, 2011
4.5
“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.”

When the reading public first saw these words on 17 December 1843, there was little indication that the story that followed would evolve into a Holiday Icon. Greeted with near-universal acclaim, Charles Dickens little “Ghost Story of Christmas,” written in five “staves,” soon outsold all his longer works, giving Mr. Dickens a second career as a performer. Always a lover of amateur theatrics, he performed “A Christmas Carol” hundreds of times throughout the rest of his life.

Some have even accused the story of “setting the stage” and popularizing many of our modern Christmas traditions and rituals. Others have blamed it for the increasing secularization of the holiday. Whatever the truth, it remains a favorite of mine and a favorite of theatres everywhere. Thousands of stage (and film) adaptations exist, and many theatres create their own, tailoring the story to the particular talents of each group.

I’ve already reviewed a number of versions, and saved the most spectacular for last, only so I could have a family evening just before Christmas Eve to herald in the holiday weekend. I still really like this show. It is a marvelously engaging and clever production, a testament to both the Alliance Stagecraft and ensemble work, and I thoroughly recommend it. This was my daughter’s second year seeing it, and my wife’s first, and they too enjoyed it immensely. So, I hereby resurrect my usual pastiche (slightly rewritten) for your reading displeasure:

(With apologies to Mr. Dickens, Clement Clarke Moore, and anyone with a fondness for poetry.)

‘Twas the month before Christmas, and on every stage,
“A Christmas Carol” played, it’s still all the rage!
A thousand-one Cratchits, four-thousand-four ghosts
Help Scrooge thaw his heart, help Fred make his toasts.

I’ve already written of other forays,
Th’Alliance’s effort’s the subject these days.
It’s my seventh year seeing this marvelous play,
It’s my sixth year in keeping my quibbling at bay.

Chris Kayser’s old miser’s a pleasure to see –
His road to redemption’s realistic for me.
I liked all the Cratchits, they could do no wrong.
I liked the extravagant staging and song.

This year, once again, Ghost of Christmases Past
Is svelte Courtney Patterson, wonderf’lly cast!
Daniel May’s Jacob Marley’s still creaky and cold,
His chains and his darkness are vivid and bold.

And all of the costumes and all of the lights
Are beautif’lly rendered, are beautiful sights.
Yes, once again Rosemary Newcott succeeds
In staging this Marvelous Holiday Deed.

This tale never tires, it gives me a lift.
For me it’s a welcome Victorian gift.
So, while you are wallowing in Christmassy cheer,
Catch up with this show ere the end of the year.

Before I sign off with my usual cheek,
Merry Christmas to All! May you have a safe week!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


A Christmas Carol, by Waally Hinds
Tightening it Up
Saturday, January 15, 2011
4.0
Last year, I criticized Kudzu’s “Christmas Carol” for, among other things, unnecessary padding and too many ill-paced scenes. (I even titled my column “Stretching it Out!”) This year, I’m happy to report that most (not all) of the pacing problems have been tightened up, and the “padding” sequencing and songs seem more integral to the story and to setting the “Victorian Christmas” mood. Indeed, Kudzu Playhouse’s adaption has a lot to recommend it, including a nicely conceptualized set, a beautifully voice-blended troupe of carolers, a number of performances that hold up well, and a truly surprising whiz-bang tech gimmick to usher in the Ghost of Christmas present.

As to what I considered “padding” last year, in adapter (and director) Wally Hinds’ defense, it must be said that Dickens was notoriously wordy (he was, after all, paid by the word) and tended to fill his novels and stories with digressions and repetitions and wildly over-done descriptions and mood-sequences. In fact, the biggest challenge to any adapter of Dickens is resisting the urge to treat “every word as sacred,” and to be merciless in the editing process. (An interesting digression – Dickens’s own “public performance” prompt book for “Carol” shows he was himself ruthless in pruning his text.)

Like last year, I really liked the look and design of the production. The set was essentially a crowded brick street, segments of which would rotate to reveal interiors and other settings. It was perhaps a (small) misstep to place Scrooge’s bedchambers on a second floor – it was a source for some long scene changes giving the actors time to climb down, and presented “through the light grid” sight-line problems from the back of the house. It was nevertheless a good look and emphasized the cramped conditions of Victorian London, and the transitions seemed much shorter than last year.

Costuming too added to the look of the show, nicely recalling all the generations of “Carols” and Scrooges and Ghosts (oh my!) we have come to expect. Lighting stayed in the blue and amber ranges, beautifully evoking the candle-lit nighttime of a pre-incandescent city. And the electronic imagery leading into the “Christmas Present” segments worked beautifully – even if it seems an odd choice when you stop to think about it.

In the central role of Scrooge, Brink Miller (for the umpteenth time) dives in with gusto. He hits all the right notes, scowling and humbugging through the first half, and joyfully celebrating at the end. Too often, community theaters tend to fall back on a “by-the-numbers” been-there seen-that Scrooge, but Mr. Brink brings some individuality to the part, keeping the character fresh and alive for this telling.

As to the supporting cast, director Wally Hinds shows up in a number of roles and plays them all to the hilt. Sally Henry is a clever and winsome Belle, who managed to break my heart when she sang “Greensleeves” at her final parting from Scrooge. And Cynthia Ross makes for a stern and loving Mrs. Cratchit. The myriad troupe of youngsters filling out the Cratchit family and the rest of the ensemble are also “wrangled” well, no doubt a tribute to Mr. Hinds’ long history working with kids.

In the final analysis, then, this show has a lot to recommend it. It has a very VERY large cast, is totally family-friendly, and has been a Kudzu holiday mainstay for many years. My own daughter really enjoyed it, though that may owe a lot to seeing a number of her old friends in the cast.

It saddens me to think that this may be the last we see of this particular adaptation. Kudzu must vacate this venue by next month, and has yet to find a new home. I wish Wally and Jeannie Hinds the best in their next endeavors, and sincerely hope this “Carol” finds a new home for the holidays in 2011.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


The Santaland Diaries (2010), by David Sedaris
Still Funny After All These Years
Saturday, January 15, 2011
5.0
(If this looks familiar, most of it is exactly what I wrote last year. And the year before that. And the year before that. The only thing I have to add this year is – why does this show feel so fresh? I spent many prior nights this year working lights for another production, so I know the script better than my own name. Still, this production makes me laugh hysterically, and that takes some doing!. New references popped up – “Burlesque,” I-Pods, Democratic Congressional Workers (“Those are the bitter elves”), even Bristol Palin, so, it can be said, every year it’s a little different. Now all they have to do is fix those references way out-of-date “One Life to Live” characters.)

In the spirit of the “It worked last time, so why not beat it into the ground” planning style of most theater companies (and, to be fiscally responsible, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that style), and since, to its credit, my reaction to “The Santaland Diaries” was even more pleasant this time than last, I’ll recycle my 2009 review, which recycled my 2008 review, which recycled my 2007 review, which recycled my 2005 review, which recycled my 2004 review. Yes, Sloth is running amok in Dedalus-land again!.

For the Umpteenth year, Horizon is presenting Harold M. Leaver as Crumpet, the Macy’s Elf in David Sedaris’ “The Santaland Diaries.” This was my third fourth fifth sixth visit, and I must say, I once again had a laugh-out-loud, incredibly good time.

Written as a monologue, Horizon makes the excellent choice of adding two Protean Character actors, Marcie Millard Amanda Cucher Megan Hayes and Enoch King take on a plethora of one-note roles to support Mr. Leaver’s Crumpet. (This year, the addition of two energetic interns, Julia Jones and Chris Hedrick, filled out the cast to Full-Ensembleland.) The penchant for schtick that sometimes undercuts many one-note performances, is here the perfect device to quickly present character, nuance, and laughter, all with the same over-the-top gesture or expression. Ms. Millard Ms Cucher Ms. Hayes and Mr. King have enormous fun with the wide range of stuff demanded of them. (2010 Note – this year, I again got the feeling their chief function was to try to corpse Mr. Leaver, a task at which they often succeeded. It’s to Mr. Leaver’s credit that he made me feel they were making David Sedaris break up, not Harold Leaver. Also, thank you Ms. Hayes for keeping the erotic Candy Cane Schtick of actresses past. Delicious!)

But it’s Harold Leaver who really sells this show. On stage for the entire 90 minutes of the play, he must interact with the audience, with his costars (who, more often than not, lose in a silent scene-stealing battle of upstaging schtick), and with the witty words Mr. Sedaris has put in his mouth. Sedaris is famous for his short pieces of whimsy, designed to celebrate eccentricity, finding humor in the darkest of places (a reading of this play's companion piece, "Season’s Greetings,” will show just how dark he can get), but ultimately, making us like the characters he so thoroughly skewers. Crumpet and his story fully embodies every irritation we experience during the Holidays, without losing the sense of fun that compels even the most irreligious of us to celebrate it. There is even a moment at the end that threatens (almost) to fall into the sentimentality that overwhelms most Christmas Theatre fare, reminding us that even this has its place (if not for too long).

Yes, this show is a Christmas cynic’s delight. It is also filled with a good will towards its characters that so many pundits seem to be losing this year. (I'd like to know when anger and bitterness towards someone wishing you a "Happy Holiday" became part of "Good Will Towards Men" -- but I digress). I strongly urge you to visit (or revisit) Crumpet before it’s too late.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

42nd Street, by Book by Michael Stewart & Mark Bramble; Music by Harry Warren; Lyrics by Al Dubin
Tapping All the Right Notes
Saturday, January 15, 2011
5.0
Every now and then, a production comes along that overturns all expectations. Case in point is “42nd Street,” a show I’d always been not-so-dazzled by. The fact is, the only production I’d seen before was a tired touring company squeezed in at the end of a run of other back-stage musicals (including “Dreamgirls” and “Tap Dance Kid”). To say that I was a bit tired of the genre would be an understatement.

Imagine my surprise when Atlanta Lyric’s high-energy production kicked that tired memory right out of my head and replaced it with this show that clicks (I should say “taps”) on every level.

Yes, it’s the original “you’re going out there a youngster and coming back a star” plot in which the insanely talented ingénue dazzles the cynical producer and replaces the diva star. How many times have we seen that one, Ms. Daaé? But put it into a production as finely tuned and well-performed as this one, and the cliché comes to life and reminds us why it’s a plot that is retold time and again.

Let’s start with the choreography. This is, after all, a heavy dance piece with so much tap-dancing one often fears for the stage floor. Karen Hebert has put together a series of BIG dance numbers that succeed on the synchronized dancing of the cast. I know how hard it is to get small choruses to “stay together,” but here the large ensemble absolutely astounds with their precision, not once but in multiple numbers. No, there’re no stunning feats of athleticism, no stand-out solos, no overly-complicated routines that are the stock-in-trade of too many choreographers these days. Instead, there is a large group of (young) dancers going through their paces and showing us what being part of a chorus really means.

Moving on to the cast, I have to commend Jeff McKerley for tackling the role of producer Julian Marsh with a skill that transcended the schticky mugging that has crept in too many of his recent performances. Not to be snide, but it’s good to see him ACT again! Here he creates a character who is convincing and appealing. Cold with a “do-anything-for-the-show” obsessiveness, his thaw to an unspoken affection for young Peggy Sawyer is apparent even to the Strand’s balcony, where I was parked. Add to that his normal (and expected) to-the-rafters Broadway belt voice, and what’s not to like?

Casey Leigh Thompson brings to Peggy Sawyer charm and talent to spare, making us see why she is able to win over everyone -- lecherous co-stars, fellow chorus gypsies, demanding producer, parked-in-the-balcony cynic, and even, late in the show, older diva star. Ms. Thompson is beautiful to look at and wonderful to listen to, and creates a character that transcends the clichés and makes them real.

And, as the prematurely aging Dorothy Brock, choreographer Karen Hebert hits every note right, even the late-in-the-show “thawing” towards Peggy Sawyer. She made another cliché of the genre actually have life (and maybe even a little dignity).

The sets by Lee Shiver successfully managed the transitions from scene to scene, with the bare backstage an over-riding image that seeps into everything. The sets were well-designed for the large cast and many scenes, and the lighting (by Jessica Coale) kept the action in focus and with just the right touch of razzle-dazzle.

So, no one will convince me that “42nd Street” breaks new ground or should be in the pantheon of “Great Musicals.” Its plotline has been overdone by too many lesser shows between its origin as a movie and its transition to the stage. But, when delivered with the force of a perfectly directed (by Brandt blocker), perfectly designed, perfectly choreographed, and perfectly performed production such as this, it’s a potent reminder of where musicals came from and why they still appeal, of why they can still surprise, and, at times, overwhelm.

“42nd Street” has closed and is now confined to the lullaby of memory, but it is a memory I will treasure.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



A Country Christmas Carol, by Book by Ron Kaehler, Music by Albert Evans, Lyrics by Albert Evans and Ron Kaehler
Humbug, Y'All!
Monday, December 27, 2010
3.5
Eb Scrooge is on a rampage. His no-good nephew Dwight is drinking himself into a shabby middle-age, his secretary, single mom Bobbie Jo Cratchit is thinking more about her kids than his business, and the honky-tonk downstairs won’t give him a minute’s peace, what with all that durn carolin’ and racket and Holiday fuss! What the Dickens is he supposed to do when those spirits won’t even let him get a good night’s sleep?

Yes, y’all, it’s another visit to Scroogeville, this time with a bit of a Texas Twang and a country twist. CenterStage North has recently closed down its foray into holiday theatre with this pleasant musical interlude. Though it may be too little too late to say it now, this was a pleasant little musical diversion centered by three outstanding performances and an intriguing use of the wide and shallow Marietta Art Place Black Box theatre.

Pete Borden (**) was born to play Scrooge, and not just any Scrooge, THIS Scrooge. He bellows, he blusters, he drawls, he rules his roost with a vengeance, and he faces his past with a courage that can be downright moving at times. If he talks his songs rather than sings them, well, what else would Scrooge do?

Every bit his match was Julie Resh as Bobbie Jo Cratchit. Spunky and sassy, she also sings like an angel, and, in a moving scene by her son’s grave (the Christmas yet-to-come sequence, I reckon), takes aim at our heartstrings and hits the bull’s-eye. As Dwight (and young Eb), Mark Schroeder strums and staggers and sings and kvetches and is a nice comic foil for the others. I’ve reached the conclusion that Mr. Schroeder improves any production he’s part of, and I give a not-so-silent cheer every time I see his name in the program.

If the production also had a few off-key singers, a few missed opportunity moments, well, I found myself forgiving them every time the three main characters took the stage. If some of the staging ignored the awful sight lines provided by the café-style seating (Eb’s sister’s death scene especially), it was more than made up for by the overall design – a set that wrapped around the audience like a flannel Snuggie, and made the scene transitions flow as easily as Lone Star from a tap. Director Sarah Mitchell wrangled her large cast nicely, and made the who thing taste as sweet as Texas Barbecue.

And the script worked on almost every level. I liked how the authors (Ron Kaehler and Albert Evans) made this quintessentially British (and Victorian) story fit seamlessly into a Texas town, how they fleshed out some of the “Christmas Past” sequences (particularly Sister Fanny and her “surprise” baby), how making Cratchit a single Mom should have been done long ago. If I found some of the songs a little too intrusive and “Country Bland,” well, they certainly enhanced the mood of the piece, and brought out thoughts of smoky honky-tonks, well-decorated trailer parks, and small-town holidays.

So, it’s a mite too late to catch this particular trip to Marley County, but hopefully, you’ll get an opportunity to go back during another Christmas yet to come.

And that ain’t no humbug, y’all!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


(**) BIAS ALERT: Mr. Borden is very close friend of mine with whom I worked this year in two other productions.


Madeline's Christmas (2010), by Jennifer Kirkeby
Twelve More Little Girls
Monday, December 27, 2010
3.5
For a third year now, Horizon Theatre dives into its exercise in Gallic sweetness, “Madeline’s Christmas,” based on the stories by Ludwig Bemelmans. This is still a tuneful and sweet production, but, for the first time, a little bit (very little) of the magic has faded (a bit).

To be sure, there are some aspects that would irritate the cynical grownup – plot/character inconsistencies, some cheesy (but fun) “magical” effects, and enough sweetness to send even the most sucrose-tolerant parent into a diabetic coma, to name the very few I can dredge up from my “critic’s bag of standards.” But, even if the energy this year fades a tad during the final fifteen minutes, for some reason, I still want to forgive its lapses and to cheer it on.

It’s Christmastime in Paris, and all the girls in Miss Clavel’s boarding school have colds. Only the smallest girl, Madeline, is spared the flu, but only because she forgot to have her scarf washed. Madeline must take care of everyone, none of whom will now be able to go home for Christmas. One act of kindness to a freezing (magical) rug seller later, and the girls are cured and off to home on their flying carpets (don’t ask). Throughout all is a passel of tuneful songs and lively dances and traditional little red coats and tea carts that move under their own power and snowflakes tossed by girls in the front row and silhouetted flying carpets against the Paris sky and mouse puppets and surprise gifts. All the elements click, and all the audiences are going home happy, myself included.

Of course, the show’s primary asset is its cast of 12 talented and cute-as-a-mouse-whisker girls, all aged between 9 and 12, all bringing a professionalism to the stage that’s a joy to watch. The fact that Horizon was able to find 24 such youngsters (the show was “double-cast” to take some of the strain off parents) is even more remarkable. At the performance I saw the “Red Cast” was led by the dimpled Hannah Zeldin as Madeline. Ms. Zeldin is spunky and likable and sings like an angel. She also knows when to stay in the background, and when to upstage her grown-up co-stars. Those grown-ups (Courtney Foster-Donahue as a pleasant and winsome Miss Clavel, Naomi Lavette as a nicely-over-the-top Mrs. Murphy, and Winslow Thomas as the magical Harsha) are also in fine form, treating their young co-stars as, well, co-stars rather than kids “in the way.” And, maybe it was excellent casting, but all the girls had real characters, not just “another cute face in the crowd” sameness.

All things considered, it’s a wise choice for a Christmas play – 24 girls with 48 parents and 96 grandparents, plus countless friends, siblings, cousins, and hangers-on, well, mathematically, it’s a guaranteed seat-filler. And, when you add in those theatre geeks who don’t know anyone in the cast, let’s just say we’ll be lucky to get a seat. The fact that’s it’s a well-performed, well-written play suitable for kids of all ages is just frosting on the gingerbread.

So, if you have the choice between sitting at home with your young’n’s watching some lame Disney Channel exercise in Seasonal Parody or going Horizon-ward to watch twelve little girls charm the socks off cynical old Scrooges like me, well, all things considered, it’s an easy choice to make.

Bon année, mes amis!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)





The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson
The Tyranny of Low Expectations
Monday, December 27, 2010
4.5
“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.”

Thus begins Barbara Robinson’s 1972 getting-to-be-a-classic book (and play), “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” Indeed, is there a place in the country where there aren’t several productions on local stages every year? I’ve done lights for two different productions over the years, my daughter has played in two, and my own spouse directed a one-night-only production at her church (**) the day before I saw this one by Synchronicity.

So, I daresay, my expectations were at an ambivalent level – I’ve always been impressed with Synchronicity’s programming for younger audiences (“Junie B Jones,” “Bunnicula,” and “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” were some recent favorites), but I was afraid of having a “been-there seen-that” experience with this one.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. This show was a lively wallow in kid-friendly cheer, an energetic revisit to a story that is in danger of being over-told, and a top-notch production that reminded me of why this is a favorite of theatres everywhere.

In case you’ve avoided it over the years, the story is told by Beth Bradley, whose mother has been tapped to spearhead this year’s Christmas Pageant. Into the normal bedlam of a church pageant storm the Herdmans, a rag-tag collection of kids “from the other side of the tracks,” who “lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse.” No one expects anything from these kids except Mrs. Bradley, and disaster looms as the holiday nears.

This is one of those stories about how kids respond to what’s expected of them, how if you expect them to be mean they WILL be mean, how if you expect them to feel some Christmas spirit and give them the opportunity, they may just rise to the occasion. It’s story that, for me, doesn’t get old, and which moves me even as it makes me cringe at the antics of the “bad” kids.

And, if you’ll forgive a paradoxical aside, this production totally upended my own somewhat less-than-stellar expectations of it.

Starting off with a clever and energetically sung “curtain speech,” the show dives right into the story, keeping it at a brisk hour length. The cast is pitch-perfect with Maureen Yasko and John Stewart bringing to the Bradleys a level of comfort and familiarity that rang true. Sarah Elizabeth Wallis (as Beth) handles her narration duties like a pro, and convincingly shows us an increasing respect for the Herdman mob. And, as the Herdmans, Craig Thompson, Claire Rigsby, Leon Yushin, Zaire Gibbs, Eva Baez-Brooks, and Katie Keenan are all wonderful, loud and raucous one moment, quiet and reflective at another. I especially liked the moment when director Justin Anderson showed them getting ready for the pageant by helping each other with their costumes and hair, even as they’re squabbling and sniping.

So, why should you see this production, when you’ve probably seen your own kids do it somewhere, sometime already? Leaving aside the pleasure of seeing it done with a professionally designed and executed set, leaving aside seeing marvelously talented kids tackle the roles, it is still a good story, a moving testament to the spirit of Christmas (whatever that may be), and an amusing portrait of kids who can’t help being kids. Even if they are “absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.”

And you can’t expect more than that!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

** I am officially the “Worst Daddy Ever.” My daughter, Julia, played Gladys Herdman in my wife’s production, and I missed it because of my teching duties elsewhere on the only performance night. To make matters worse, I had arranged to take her to see Synchronicity’s production, but left her behind because she was late coming home from a sleep-over. This note constitutes my public penance and confession, and you would be well-justified in shunning me forever. {Sigh}



A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
Telling the Story
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
4.0
Once again, I wended my way to the Shakespeare Tavern for the requisite Cream-Cheese Brownie and story-centric retelling of everyone’s favorite Dickens story (pipe down all you “Cricket on the Hearth” fanatics!). This was my third Tavern “Carol,” and it holds up as well as expected, with last year’s few pace lapses filled in nicely.

Adapted and directed by Tony Brown, this version takes a “Nicholas Nickleby” approach – a troupe of “storytellers” share narration duties and slip into and out of a multitude of characters with a flick of a costume piece, an adjusted posture, an altered voice. The standard Tavern set has been decorated simply, but still with a Victorian flair. Live musicians carol us (and each other), and the story flows like a stream of stuffing from a goose.

Anchoring the entire affair is Drew Reeves’ umpty-umpth foray into Scrooge. This is a Scrooge who takes enormous delight in his miserliness, almost a lip-smacking joy in making peoples’ lives miserable. It’s an approach I hadn’t seen before (at least since his 2009 performance), and it still works. It adds a new layer of subtext to the “Christmas Past” scenes, in that we see not Scrooge’s regret on how he treated everyone, but his regret in the joy he took in that maltreatment.

The storytellers are universally skilled, creating sharp characterizations and voices that are as vivid as they are accurate. None stand out from each other; all stand out when compared to other ensembles. Just to give credit where it’s due, good job to Andrew Houchins, Paul Hester, Rivka Levin, Becky Cormier Finch, Matt Felten, Matt Nitchie, Mary Ruth Ralston, and Clarke Weigle. They also carol very well together. Once again, the numbers at the top of the show did not come across as so much “padded fill,” but as an extended “setting of the mood.” I think knowing that they were going to be there mitigated the “let’s the story going” frustration I felt in previous years.

When all is said and done, this production appeals to my Dickensophilia, to my fondness for Readers Theatre tropes, and to my appreciation of skilled performers who can create a world in my imagination.

I daresay other “Christmas Carols” will take a more traditional approach (or, in the Alliance’s case, more grandiose). I daresay I will find them equally compelling.

But, to see this Storyteller’s adaptation is to remind us that, especially to us skeptics and cynics, Story is the real appeal of this season, of this tale, of this venue.

As last year, this production is anything but Humbug!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



A Christmas Story, by Philip Grecian
The Triple-Dawg Dare (Revisited)
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
4.5
(NOTE: This is a combined piece covered the Georgia Shakespeare and Kudzu Playhouse productions of this show)

I remember the first time I saw “A Christmas Story,” the 1983 cinematic sundae of a flavorful quintet of Jean Shepherd stories. I had just turned thirty, and was slipping into that awkward pre-middle-age epoch during which you’re too old to play with toys and too young to drool into a pleasant nostalgic wallow. Adulthood weighed on my shoulders like an unwelcome bucket full of debt and unwelcome body-changes, making me question the wisdom of my extended bachelorhood (which would continue for another fifteen spouse-and-spawn-free years). My skeptical nature had fully formed, and Christmastime filled me with an ambivalence built on a suspicion I didn’t have the courage of my lack-of-convictions if it meant resisting my fondness for family, friends, and presents.

Then along came this joyous little film that celebrated the kid in all of us, that confirmed that Christmastime had less to do with religion than with childhood, that the celebration of Yule was no more dependent on belief in the story’s divine roots than the celebration of fantasy was dependent on a belief in wizards.

Now, here I am, {mumble mumble} years later, a crotchety old critic who turns into a 10-year-old every time someone hums “Jingle Bells Shotgun Shells,” getting to sit in judgment of two separate and unequal theatrical mountings of the story.

“Oh sure,” I hear you say. “Compare a big-budget equity production with an about-to-end-its-life community theatre’s last gasp. How can that be fair?” To be sure, it is not. On the other hand, if Kudzu Playhouse is sadly fading into the recession-tinted sunset, it is certainly worth a wallow in pre-nostalgia, a wistful sigh and smile for the things that can be done with nothing but love a love for theater and roll of duct tape, an acknowledgement that, somehow, telling stories on a stage will somehow survive and flourish, even if the names and venues shift with the winds of financial fortune.

But, I digress.

The key to making this story work is to capture that homespun sense of Jean Shepherd sitting down in front of a warm fire (or in a friendly pub) with an old friend and a mug of eggnog, reminiscing about the idealized times of childhood. And both of these productions capture that feeling as easily as a friendly snowball fight. If Georgia Shakespeare’s adult Ralphie is better at capturing the audience’s attention, at forming a bond with us as he spins his yarn, this in no way detracts from Kudzu’s counterpart, who, though occasionally falling into a chilly “I’m just reciting to you” cadence, nevertheless captures our listening pleasure at all the key moments. This script belongs to the narrator, to how he connects with us and interacts with the cast, and any enjoyment of the play will ride on how well he does his job.

And both Parker families beautifully capture the ups and downs and trials and dreams of any-family without slavishly impersonating their movie counterparts. The irritating habits and compromised sighs and comfortable snuggles and games are all on view, all deepening the emotional heft of the story. And, for the record, both productions have found marvelous young actors to play Ralphie and Randy, and to play their friends.

Where the productions differ most is the amount of cash available for the set. Both have nicely warm Parker households that carry most of the action. At Kudzu, a small section Stage Right dresses up for other scenes and disappears when not in use. At Oglethorpe, a revolve spins the house away to reveal the classroom and an enormous Department Store Santaland set, complete with twisting slide and Meanie Elf. Both approaches work and both approaches keep the scenes flowing without those long scene changes that can be the pepper in the cookie of a holiday show. If Kudzu gets the edge for any sequence, it’s the marvelous “ballet” as Mother and the Old Man take turns switching on-and-off the beautiful-to-behold leg lamp, only because the smaller set lets them do it more often. If I could make any suggestions to Kudzu, I recommend pulling the old follow spot out for Adult Ralphie, as he seems to have some difficulty “finding his light” and delivers a few too many speeches from the “dark side” of the stage.

If I may digress before I finish, Ralphie Parker is the sort of character that reminds me of what I used to be (and often wish I still were). Like him, I wore impossible-keep-unbroken glasses from an early age. Like him, I lived in horror of brothers and bullies, and shied from the conversation of my female peers. Like him, I dreamed of the perfect Christmas present, and the perfect Christmas season. Like him, I dreaded opening gifts from my Aunt (Socks and Underwear? Thank you so much! May I have another cookie?).

Like grown-up Ralphie, I look back on those days with the filters only adulthood can mercifully give. The Christmases of my youth were always the best times of the year for me, even when they weren’t. And, if my grown-up post-faith crotchety old pseudo-self doesn’t like it, he can just pull out his well-worn “Christmas Story” DVD, pour a glass of Tempranillo, prop up his feet, snuggle with his spouse and spawn, and be reminded of what Christmastime is really all about.

Or he can go see some friends and acquaintances tell it on stage. On any stage, big or small, it doesn’t matter. He’ll remember it well and think well of those who brought it to him.

And I triple-dawg dare you to do the same!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




A Christmas Story, by Philip Grecian
The Triple-Dawg Dare!
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
3.5
(NOTE: This is a combined piece covered the Georgia Shakespeare and Kudzu Playhouse productions of this show)

I remember the first time I saw “A Christmas Story,” the 1983 cinematic sundae of a flavorful quintet of Jean Shepherd stories. I had just turned thirty, and was slipping into that awkward pre-middle-age epoch during which you’re too old to play with toys and too young to drool into a pleasant nostalgic wallow. Adulthood weighed on my shoulders like an unwelcome bucket full of debt and unwelcome body-changes, making me question the wisdom of my extended bachelorhood (which would continue for another fifteen spouse-and-spawn-free years). My skeptical nature had fully formed, and Christmastime filled me with an ambivalence built on a suspicion I didn’t have the courage of my lack-of-convictions if it meant resisting my fondness for family, friends, and presents.

Then along came this joyous little film that celebrated the kid in all of us, that confirmed that Christmastime had less to do with religion than with childhood, that the celebration of Yule was no more dependent on belief in the story’s divine roots than the celebration of fantasy was dependent on a belief in wizards.

Now, here I am, {mumble mumble} years later, a crotchety old critic who turns into a 10-year-old every time someone hums “Jingle Bells Shotgun Shells,” getting to sit in judgment of two separate and unequal theatrical mountings of the story.

“Oh sure,” I hear you say. “Compare a big-budget equity production with an about-to-end-its-life community theatre’s last gasp. How can that be fair?” To be sure, it is not. On the other hand, if Kudzu Playhouse is sadly fading into the recession-tinted sunset, it is certainly worth a wallow in pre-nostalgia, a wistful sigh and smile for the things that can be done with nothing but love a love for theater and roll of duct tape, an acknowledgement that, somehow, telling stories on a stage will somehow survive and flourish, even if the names and venues shift with the winds of financial fortune.

But, I digress.

The key to making this story work is to capture that homespun sense of Jean Shepherd sitting down in front of a warm fire (or in a friendly pub) with an old friend and a mug of eggnog, reminiscing about the idealized times of childhood. And both of these productions capture that feeling as easily as a friendly snowball fight. If Georgia Shakespeare’s adult Ralphie is better at capturing the audience’s attention, at forming a bond with us as he spins his yarn, this in no way detracts from Kudzu’s counterpart, who, though occasionally falling into a chilly “I’m just reciting to you” cadence, nevertheless captures our listening pleasure at all the key moments. This script belongs to the narrator, to how he connects with us and interacts with the cast, and any enjoyment of the play will ride on how well he does his job.

And both Parker families beautifully capture the ups and downs and trials and dreams of any-family without slavishly impersonating their movie counterparts. The irritating habits and compromised sighs and comfortable snuggles and games are all on view, all deepening the emotional heft of the story. And, for the record, both productions have found marvelous young actors to play Ralphie and Randy, and to play their friends.

Where the productions differ most is the amount of cash available for the set. Both have nicely warm Parker households that carry most of the action. At Kudzu, a small section Stage Right dresses up for other scenes and disappears when not in use. At Oglethorpe, a revolve spins the house away to reveal the classroom and an enormous Department Store Santaland set, complete with twisting slide and Meanie Elf. Both approaches work and both approaches keep the scenes flowing without those long scene changes that can be the pepper in the cookie of a holiday show. If Kudzu gets the edge for any sequence, it’s the marvelous “ballet” as Mother and the Old Man take turns switching on-and-off the beautiful-to-behold leg lamp, only because the smaller set lets them do it more often. If I could make any suggestions to Kudzu, I recommend pulling the old follow spot out for Adult Ralphie, as he seems to have some difficulty “finding his light” and delivers a few too many speeches from the “dark side” of the stage.

If I may digress before I finish, Ralphie Parker is the sort of character that reminds me of what I used to be (and often wish I still were). Like him, I wore impossible-keep-unbroken glasses from an early age. Like him, I lived in horror of brothers and bullies, and shied from the conversation of my female peers. Like him, I dreamed of the perfect Christmas present, and the perfect Christmas season. Like him, I dreaded opening gifts from my Aunt (Socks and Underwear? Thank you so much! May I have another cookie?).

Like grown-up Ralphie, I look back on those days with the filters only adulthood can mercifully give. The Christmases of my youth were always the best times of the year for me, even when they weren’t. And, if my grown-up post-faith crotchety old pseudo-self doesn’t like it, he can just pull out his well-worn “Christmas Story” DVD, pour a glass of Tempranillo, prop up his feet, snuggle with his spouse and spawn, and be reminded of what Christmastime is really all about.

Or he can go see some friends and acquaintances tell it on stage. On any stage, big or small, it doesn’t matter. He’ll remember it well and think well of those who brought it to him.

And I triple-dawg dare you to do the same!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




Every Christmas Story Ever Told, by Michael Carleton, Jim Fitzgerald, and John Alvarez
No Ho Ho Ho!
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
1.0
“What better way to start a new tradition than with laughter?”

Thus writes Freddie Ashley (Artistic Director of Actors Express) in his program notes for “Every Christmas Story Ever Told,” what he hopes will be AE’s traditional entry into the holiday season stewpot. I couldn’t agree more. My only problem is that this play, this production, offers no opportunities for laughter at all, and, for me, was a crushingly dull exercise in lame ideas and joyless excess.

Advertised with such phrases as “madcap” and “nonstop hilarity,” this show gave me an expectation of the sort of laugh-fest parody “The Complete Works of Wm Shakespeare (Abridged)” offers – three protean actors running breathlessly through all the Christmas stories and traditions we’ve come to expect on our holiday stages. The fact that three writers are given Playwrighting credit adds to the preconception that the entire enterprise is the result of three actors improvising until they “got it right.”

Rather than cast critical brickbats at the cast, director, and designers here (who shall all remain nameless because they’ve done good work in the past and will again, and don’t deserve the sort of dilettante scuds I have been known to toss), let me try to articulate why this play fails to the extent I believe it does.

First, it starts out with a conceit that will raise the skeptical hackles of anyone who works in the theatre. A fairly straightforward production of “A Christmas Carol” is stopped in its tracks when a cast member decides, on his own, that he’s sick to death of Dickens, and would rather do another Christmas story. At the start, we’re given to believe that stage management and fellow actors would actually let this slide and go along with him. What’s worse, the actor has no stories in mind, and the cast polls the audience for Christmas story ideas, all of which they blithely ignore.

Next, there is no sense of parody to any of the stories – they’re just retold, edited down to bare bones. It’s as if we’re given a Reader’s Digest version of the stories, with no sense of affection and no effort at wit. Even the stories themselves do not even approach the “Every Story” standard expected – we get only four or five (at the most), with a lot of extraneous (and non-funny) junk thrown in – a trivia game about fruitcake, a look at Macy’s Thanksgiving parade that is simple painful to sit through, a finale that combines the titles of dozens of Christmas Songs into one blandly scored, badly rhymed mash-up.

The entire second act is made up of a mash-up of “Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” that simply fails on every count – stories that blend well, jokes that fall flat, bad Jimmy Stewart impressions, man-in-drag nonsense, and a Potter who is pointlessly blocked to drive his out-of-period wheelchair in circles for an entire scene. It’s a perfect storm of bad writing, bad acting, and bad direction that is just too dull and unfunny for words.

The production even avoids the effort of making the cast go through fast changes and quick character swaps by using a troupe of interns to “fill in” roles while the stars make their own changes. I’m sure some of this is scripted (a particular egregious example is a comely blonde intern being yanked off stage and replaced by a large man in drag just in time for a kiss), and, if so, it’s another example of a desperate grab for a cheap laugh.

Irritating also is the need to pull folks from the audience for several bits, most of which end up humiliating the audience member selected. (Although kudos to a recent Actors Express actress who was called upon to play the Fruitcake game and managed to inject a little bit of humor and energy into the proceedings). I hated those moments and cringed every time a cast member walked into the audience.

A mostly bare stage backed by an attractive Victorian-esque building serves very little purpose for the production (or its “Christmas Carol” conceit). Upside-down buckets on castors are used throughout in various guises and for various purposes, but, again, in various contrivances (how many theatres do you know keep a supply of buckets on castors handy?).

I suppose most of my comments could be written off as non-indicative of how the general public will react to this show, but, if Tuesday’s audience is any guide, I may be in the majority this time. I cannot recall a single laugh coming from the audience all night, and a large portion of them did not return after intermission. Still and all, I am a big fan of Actors Express, and wish I could be more positive in my comments.

But it all comes down to what Mr. Ashley was looking for in selecting this piece – laughter to begin a new holiday tradition. Unfortunately, this play fails to deliver. I find nothing more depressing than a comedy that isn’t the least bit funny. And, for me at least, this could very well be the “Worst Christmas Play Ever Written.”

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



A Christmas Carol (2010), by Charles Dickens
Come Into My Parlour
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
4.5
For the second straight year, let me sing the praises of Anthony Rodriguez’s one-man “Christmas Carol,” playing in Aurora’s intimate black-box theatre. Since my reaction this year is on par with last year, let’s just revisit what I said last year:

If you feel a sense of déjà vu after seeing it, you won’t be surprised to see it is the same adaptation by Tony Brown that is used by the Shakespeare Tavern. Not only that, but both productions were directed by Mr. Brown. (I always thought he was “larger than life,” but now, it’s apparent he’s his own clone.)

Still, the approach here is different enough that I didn’t feel I was seeing the same show. Even though the adaptation is, at heart, a “storyteller’s” version, the Tavern uses multiple narrators and actors to tell the story, but the Aurora has only Mr. Rodriguez, on stage alone for the entire (BRISK!) 75-minute running time, engaging us completely with his spinning of this oft-told tale (though perhaps not “oft” enough for my Dickensophile tastes).

The small Aurora stage is set like a stripped-down Victorian parlour. Mr. Rodriguez comes out early, playing himself, greeting patrons he knows by name, even giving out some Christmas cards (thanks, by the way). He quickly segues into his story, pouring a childlike delight in his retelling of the tale. Occasionally interrupting himself with ad-libbed commentary (“Dickens apparently had some food issues”), often directing whole segments to specific audience members (especially any children present), tossing character voices hither and yon as if they were tinsel thrown on a tree, he makes the entire presentation a spell-binding delight. A sound technician occasionally throws in live effects or off-stage voices, but, when all is said and done, this is Mr. Rodriguez’s show.

I’ve always had a fondness for Patrick Stewart’s one-man “Carol,” (I listen to the recording every year), and this has set the bar high for any other version. Mr. Stewart gave a bravura actor’s turn, bringing all his training and experience into a seemingly endless parade of character and voice. Who could match that achievement? Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Brown made the smart attempt to not even try. Rather than focusing their efforts on a singular achievement of acting, they created a singular achievement of story-telling. They are, in effect, showing us the English parlour readings that Dickens himself gave of the story, recreating the very real pleasure of sitting down and hearing a master storyteller spin his webs of imagination and delight. It’s a very different focus, and to my mind, provides very different (and perhaps greater) pleasures than the strictly Thespian approach.

As usual, there are a lot of “Christmas Carols” from which you may choose this year, and, to my story-philic eyes, this adaptation is one of the best. If you love this story as much as I do, you cant’s do much better than taking the trip to Lawrenceville and watching Mr. Rodriguez weave his spell.

The only thing that would have been made the experience better, would have been free mulled wine (or cocoa) to sip while wallowing in the tale (or perhaps a real fire in the hearth).

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Aurora Christmas Canteen 2010, by Brandon O'Dell
At Long Last
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
4.5
For the fifteenth year, Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theatre has put together a holiday revue it likes to call its “Christmas Canteen.” At some times structured like a 60’s era variety show (think “Carol Burnett” or “Smothers Brothers”) and at others like a 40’s era USO canteen, it combines pop hits from different eras in semi-thematic blocks, ties it together with some plotless banter and faux-mercials, and delivers it tied in a bow for the holidays. This is the first year I’ve seen it, and, I have to ask myself, what have been waiting for? This is a delightful show that bristles with talent and energy, and even offers a nostalgic wallow in the sort of entertainments that filled the TV-scapes of my youth. If the “travelogue” sequence reminded me a little too much of the similar parodic sequence in “Pete ‘n’ Keely,” well, here it’s treated with affection, and not disdain.

I have to confess I enjoy this plotless approach far more than the sort of forced narrative that ruined my enjoyment of revues like “Five Guys Named Moe” and “1940’s Radio Hour.” The performers (mostly) play themselves and blithely disregard the period tropes that would ground the production in a single era. It’s as if the history of popular music is the sandbox, and the songs are the toys we all get to play with. That the show (allegedly) changes from year to year will make this one to look forward to in the future.

A cast consisting of Kenya Hamilton, Eric Moore, Jevares Myrick, Charity Brooke Smith, Brandon O’Dell (who also takes a “compiler” credit), and Stacey Elizabeth Stone are all in fine voice and fit-as-a-fiddle physicality, combining simple (and wildly athletic) dance steps with right-as-rain posture and gesture to convey a motley crew of characters and situations. My favorites were the roller skating during the ‘50’s segment (faux-clumsy to perfectly executed), the precision almost-tap for the “Winter Wonderland” finale, the dance-with-a-rag-doll sequence, and, Mr. O’Dell’s “Leader of the Pack” wheels.

I was also glad to see Music Director Ann-Carol Pence add her voice to a couple of ballads, proving she can walk-the-tune as well as talk-the-melody. In general, for a musical revue such as this, you expect the highest standard from behind the piano/baton, and, as usual, Ms. Pence delivers.

On a technical note, the simple bandstand-with-lit-stairs set was a perfect fit, and the razzle-dazzle lights were impressive without being intrusive. I could have lived without some of the projections, as the placement of the screens occasionally distracted from the actors on stage. But, for the most part, all the pieces of the production meshed beautifully and were a joy to behold. The cigarette “commercials” were especially funny and pointed, and, sadly accurate (does anyone else remember the “Oasis” cigarette commercials that featured smokers moving from a cloudy room to a clear forest stream? I couldn’t help thinking of that every time I heard the “tastes like springtime” line).

So, I suppose I could make the excuse that the long trip to Lawrenceville kept me from seeing this show up to now, but I can absolutely guarantee that “Christmas Canteen” will be part of my holiday schedule for, hopefully, many years to come.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Lobby Hero, by Kenneth Lonergan
Best Intentions
Friday, December 3, 2010
3.5
What happens when you think you are a good person, wanting to go through life “doing the right thing,” but you are stymied by other people, by the good intentions of those who enter your lobby? What happens when “doing the right thing” is not always the best choice to make?

This is the ethical grey zone explored by Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero,” Pinch n’ Ouch Theatre’s second production, which continues the promise shown by last summer’s “reasons to be pretty.” While I have respect for (and took great pleasure in) the wonderful performances here, I couldn’t help thinking that Mr. Lonergan’s script didn’t always ring true for me, and the production made a few choices that emphasized the story’s flaws rather than its strengths.

Jeff is a bit of a slacker, trying to put his life together. Kicked out of the navy for smoking dope, he is working as a security guard (“I’m not a guard, I’m a security officer!”). His boss, William, is struggling with his own demons (does he lie to protect his wayward brother from an unjust judicial system?). The lobby is also part of the beat of two cops, Bill and Dawn. Dawn is the rookie who has to wait in the lobby while her older partner completes an upstairs liaison, while Bill, in his hard-nosed way, constantly reminds her that, as a woman, she’ll never be a “real” cop. Over the course of several nights, these characters bond and argue and make choices that feel right but have unintended consequences.

Part of my problem with this show may be the play’s length. There are four characters with three intersecting stories, but the stories themselves are fairly simplistic. The characters are given ethical morasses they have to cross, and they either do or don’t. I found too many of the conversations less-than-urgent, less-than-revealing, almost-redundant, and this tended to make my interest in these people less-than-compelling. To my mind, the play was over 180 minutes long, but only 90 minutes deep.

Another problem is the obvious contrivances required to keep these characters confined to the one-set lobby. Yes, Jeff has to be there (it’s his job, after all), but I found the reasons for the others to “hang out” and talk less than compelling, making too many of the conversations ring false from the get-go. Even Jeff’s movements, at times, seem more motivated by a need to “change the picture” rather than a real need to get out from behind his station. It doesn’t help that the set, though stunningly designed and constructed, struck me as more upper-scale hotel-chain, than almost-ready-to-go-to-seed downtown apartment – the walls are too clean, the architecture too modern, the floors too tidy.

I’m also a bit skeptical of the “old-boys network” politics of Bill and Dawn’s police station. While it may have been more believable twenty (even fifteen) years ago, we’ve now seen and read too much fiction featuring strong female police women to accept the blithe assertions of the rampant sexism on the force. I have no doubt that it exists in many places and for many women, but I do doubt it as a general condition of all cities, which is what the dialogue here implies.

On the other hand, the company does what it seems to do best – they create four distinct and credible individuals who react honestly to each other, who make choices that seem natural even when they’re surprising, and who don’t hide their shortcomings or inconsistencies or mannerisms when confronting each other. Andrew Puckett brings to Jeff a likeable confusion. A born slacker, he nevertheless made me believe he wanted to change, wanted to start making better choices. Larry Jr brings to Bill a charming cruelty – yes, he’s the least motivated to “do the right thing,” but he made me like him in spite of all that. Portia Cue is all anger and vulnerability as Dawn, conflicted in her feelings for her partner and her outrage at the ethical quandary in which his actions have placed her. Kenneth Camp (William) has the most difficult task – stepping into the role mid-run and trying to get “up to speed” with the rest of the cast. I’m not sure he’s 100 % there yet – his William is all bluster and confusion (and minor line stumbles), and I didn’t see the smooth transitions expected from a longer rehearsal period. All four, however, blended together with some wonderful ensemble work, and made the script’s contrivances seem less intrusive.

There’s no doubt that Kenneth Lonergan is a skillful writer of dialogue and character, and there’s no doubt that Pinch n’ Ouch has a promising future with these small realism-driven character plays. In this particular production, though, there is a slight disconnect between the less-than-realistic contrivances of the playwright, the not-quite-realistic-enough choices by the set designer, and the blisteringly realistic performances of the cast that makes the whole thing too often ring too false.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



A TUNA CHRISTMAS, by Joe Sears, Jaston Williams, Ed Howard
There's a Ring of Gaudy Glitter in Texas
Friday, December 3, 2010
4.5
Howdy, y’all! I sure do hope all y’all’re havin’ a sparkly delightful fall (I do! I do!).

Somethin’ that made my weekend shine a little bit more was another trip to Tuna, TX, just for the Halibut! I’ll be durned if Theatre in Square’s Alley Stage didn’t just put an ole Lone Star flag on its floor and plunk down two fine and dandy actors on top of it to play all the folks of Tuna TX. And I’ll be durned if the whole blamed thing don’t just wiggle along like a sidewinder dumped out of a tub of motor oil.

Now, if you haven’t heard by this time, “A Tuna Christmas” is the second in the popular “Tuna, Texas” series by Joe Sears, Jaston Williams, and Ed Howard. These plays are character portraits (if y’all will forgive a high-falutin’ phrase) of the residents of Tuna TX, in which pr’t’ near everyone (man, woman, child, and critter) are played by two actors (supported by what has to be a squadron of backstage dressers). These folks are silly and funny, but I’ll be durned if they don’t occasionally reach into my belly and tie a knot of somethin’ serious and pleasant. Granted, I do have a certain fondness for “Tuna Christmas,” since it was the first play I was paid to light (back when I was still in Yankee up in Pennsylvania), and I teched another production just a few years back.

To recap some of the various stories happening on stage – well, let’s just say that the “Christmas Phantom” is on the loose sabotaging as many yard displays as possible, the Bumiller family is having a Blue Season, Vera Carp is going for her 15th Yard Display win, Didi Snavely’s husband RR is still chasing that flying saucer, and the lights are about to be turned off on the Community Theater’s production of “A Christmas Carol.” Which may be a good thing. In any case, radio personalities Arles and Thurston have a piece to say about pr’t’ near everything and everybody (They do, they do!). Fans of the Tuna characters can expect this play to be as comfortable and aggravating as a visit to those distant relatives you’re not exactly sure you still like.

In this particular visit, all the too-many Christmas Trees that aggravated backstage folks have been reduced to just one, lit in different ways for different scenes, I’m not sure that was a good idea all the time, but for this play, most of the time sure as shootin’ counts.

Now, on to the beef of the matter, Bryan Mercer and William S. Murphey give two dozen of the best performances of the year. Mr. Mercer is very convincing in all the lady parts he visits, and Mr. Murphey finds laughs in the most movin’ scenes and finds a flicker of feeling in the most silly scenes. These two work together like grits and beans, and never even raise a sweat in their many costume switcheroos. They make it look easy.

Some fancy Yankee writers say the Tuna plays make the characters look foolish and silly, and true Texans should oughta hate ‘em. I’m inclined to see the sparks of folks I really know in all of ‘em, and laugh at the all the eccentricities that can be ugly if they weren’t so funny.

So, all I can say to all y’all is you would do yourselves a favor by moseyin’ on over to the Alley Stage in Marietta GA (a big city by Tuna standards, I reckon), and visit with some folks you may (or may not) have visited before.

You’ll have a fine time, y’hear?

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



Joined at the Head, by Catherine Butterfield
Making it Personal
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
-1.0
Bias Disclaimer: I will not grade this production, because my lovely and talented spouse is playing a leading role, and my good friend Carolyn Choe directed it.

Ever since I started documenting my theatre-goings, I have endeavored to create a personal critical aesthetic, a sorta-kinda autobiographical paradigm that takes into consideration my own history and expectations as a root source of critical response. As a non-professional writer, I can indulge the importance of how “who-I-am” affects “how-I-like-it,” and often wish more professional writers would do the same.

For Catherine Butterfield’s “Joined at the Head,” currently on view at Polk Street Players’ “Stellar Cellar,” my own biases become the only standard by which to judge, or at least, by which to comment. Three factors have led to this conclusion: It’s a play I’ve loved for over ten years, and from which I’ve drawn one of my favorite audition monologues. It concerns how cancer affects a marriage and a friendship, and, earlier this year, I lost one of my dearest friends to cancer. And, it features Barbara Rudy, who happens to be my wife, in a leading role. After a brief summary, I’ll contain my comments to those three factors.

Maggie Mulroney (Stacy Vaccaro) is a writer on a promotional tour in Boston. She hears from an old high school flame, Jim Burroughs (Richard Blair), who invites her to dinner. There, she meets Jim’s wife, Maggy (Barbara Rudy), who is, not incidentally, battling terminal cancer. Maggie and Maggy become fast friends, and through Maggy’s struggle, Maggie begins to come to terms with her own father’s death from cancer. An ensemble comprised of Rene Voige, Kirsten Benson, Tony Bowers, and Barry King play a host of other characters who touch upon the main plotline, but this is primarily the story of Maggie and Jim and Maggy.

One of the things that first attracted me to this script was its constant surprise. These characters defy our expectations, striking friendships where none should exist, confessing depths of feeling and despair when all we’ve seen is high optimism and good spirits, revealing snarky sides that appeal to snarky grandstand fool-osophers like myself. And the structure is also appealing. It’s mostly told to us by Maggie in standard break-the-fourth-wall narrations, but Maggy isn’t afraid to interrupt her and correct her version of events. Occasionally, we even see things that never happened, but were only thought to happen. And it ends with a tear-inducing denouement that is inevitable and expected, but adds a gentle coda that ties all Ms. Butterfield’s themes together in a way that is both satisfyingly complete, and appealingly open-ended.

As to Jim’s monologue, I still like it and use it because it covers a wide range of self-descriptive emotions (“Here’s what you won’t hear from them about me”) that may or may not be true. Each segment is slightly schizophrenic – there is a distinct disconnect between what Jim is saying he feels and what he actually feels. And, because of its timeless themes, it is appropriate no matter how old I get.

As to my second point, its focus on cancer and how it affects families, I can’t help but react. My friend (who, incidentally, was my “Best Man” at our wedding) began her own struggle with cancer about the same time I first read this play, so I was still in a slight state of shock at her unhopeful prognosis, making the story hit me with a too-close-for-comfort strength. Her later remissions and ultimate submission makes this a VERY personal story for me, one I cannot watch with any semblance of objectivity. I had similar reactions to similarly themed plays of recent years, most notably 7 Stage’s “My Left Breast” and Synchronicity’s “Looking for the Pony.”

And, what ultimately kills any unbiased response is seeing my own dear wife in Maggy’s role, seeing her nail perfectly the bandana’d and pale look (She even shaved her eyebrows for the role), agonizing through a long close-to-the end scene in which the chemo has drained her of all vitality. True, I believe this is Barbara’s best work since “Children of a Lesser God,” but how can any sane person honestly judge, when it’s his wife on stage dying for all the world to watch, showing what our friend Cathryn went through about this time last year? Did I believe I was watching Barbara or did I believe she was Maggy? Truth to tell, I don’t think it matters. Needless to say, the scene and the entire production played with all my emotional buttons and hit me with the impact of a pile driver.

So, for all these reasons, I will not presume to judge the quality of the performances or the production, or to predict if any one not personally touched by cancer will appreciate this play. (Is there anyone who hasn’t been personally touched by cancer?) I can say that I grumbled at the typical Polk Street low-rent tech problems, but I liked the wide range of characterizations by the ensemble (Mr. King’s pretentious TV interviewer was a special favorite), and I liked how director Carolyn Choe put the whole thing together on the postage-stamp of a stage.

I can say that I HOPE you get to see it and that it moves you as much as it moved me.

I can say that I took this play very personally, so my comments about it will of necessity reflect that bias.

And, I can say that I will not apologize for that bias.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Albatross, by Lee Nowell
Carry That Weight
Thursday, November 25, 2010
3.5
It was a dark and stormy night. Alice and Jim have been at the funeral of a friend, who died under very mysterious circumstances. Undercurrents of tension fill the room as things left unsaid through the years struggle to the surface with the ease of a camel threading a needle.

Such is the premise of “Albatross,” a brand new two-character play by local playwright Lee Nowell, now being given a crackling and tense mounting at Actors Express.

At its core, this is a thriller more than a portrait of marital dysfunction. After all, the secrets that Alice and Jim have been carrying through the years are violent events that few, if any of us have experienced. And, from a snarky critic’s point-of-view, it’s a bit contrived that both Alice and Jim have dark secrets they’ve never shared. Still, Ms. Nowell has developed the play skillfully enough that I, for one, was left spellbound by the gradual unfolding of their separate histories, the gradual reveals of how their pasts affect their present, the ironic revelations that show just how their dead “friend” had infiltrated both of their lives.

I have to first congratulate the cast, Lane Carlock, who has been absent for far too long from our stages, and Brian Kurlander, who made a splash during last summer’s Georgia Shakespeare season. They very successfully convey the unspoken tensions in a marriage in which secrets carry all the weight of the proverbial albatross, yet which is rooted in similar mindsets and reactions to adversity. The conflict between them may not get to the “Virginia Woolf” level of intensity, but it is real enough to carry the weight of their stories.

Next, director Freddie Ashley has done his usual fine job of orchestrating a tense and tightly-paced production, drenching the show with mood and motionlessness. Much of the play is spent with Alice and Jim at their kitchen table, trading barbs and probing for answers. Yet, this very simplicity speaks volumes as to their relationship and what they need to free themselves of their secrets and lies.

Philip Male and Mike Post have collaborated nicely on a set that separates their home into nice safe compartments, lit with a dark style that isolates the characters and focuses our attention on them. The occasional bursts of lightning only underscore the mood.

Yes, this play breaks no new ground and says nothing profound about marriage and about relationships. It is simply a dark night during the long journey of one marriage, a dark night that is both revealing and healing. It is a tense thriller in which (sorta kinda) good people are put into adverse situations in which they make bad decisions, then let those decisions weigh them down for decades. It is an engrossing journey into the past, into the discovery of all that lies below the surface.

And, it is a potent reminder, that I would be awful at any game of “Scotch.”

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




Timon of Athens, by William Shakespeare
Masks and Misanthropy
Thursday, November 25, 2010
3.5
Okay, let’s be honest, here. Shakespeare’s little-known, seldom-performed, never-read play, “Timon of Athens,” will probably never be at the top of your “Gotta See” list. Even Shakespeare geeks like myself tend to avoid it, and, truth to tell, I remembered so little of it from my college days I had to reread the sucker before wending tavern-ward for this mounting.

And, truth to tell, there is plenty about this script to nitpick at – nameless “types” instead of characters, a hero with no shades of gray, a series of episodes in place of true plot development, virtually no female characters, a subplot that blends not at all with the main plot. This was, in fact, an “unfinished” play from the peak of Shakespeare’s career that was (to all evidence) never performed in his lifetime, and was supposedly added to the first folio as “filler.” It’s themes were explored to better effect in later plays.

So, why did I enjoy the production so much?

Simply put, hatred of mankind is contagious, and when Maurice Ralston starts spewing his insults at the world, it’s a banquet of venom that can’t be resisted. Add to this a clever concept of using masks for all the nameless character types and a plethora of effective supporting performances and the result is an enlightening and memorable evening at the tavern.

Timon is a generous and popular Lord of Athens. He is always treating his friends to banquets and gifts and favors, and they, in turn, pour on the flattery like a tapless wine keg. When Timon’s fortunes reverse and he is left destitute, none among his fair-weather friends will step up to his aid. Disgusted, Timon becomes a hermit in the forest, spewing his hatred of mankind to any who wander by. And then he dies.

And, that’s pretty much it. We see some true friends – his servant Flavius who steadfastly remains by him even at the worst of times and under the most venomous of rants, and the soldier Alcibiades, who has his own reasons to hate the general populace of Athens. We see a misanthropic philosopher (Apemantus) who is the only one to speak truth to Timon, but who nevertheless can only marvel at his “all or nothing” nature – either all-trusting and all-giving, or all-hating and hiding from humanity (“The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends”). We see Timon stumble across a hidden hoard of gold, and give it away to avoid its apparent curse (is it any wonder this was Karl Marx’s favorite play?). And we see a seemingly endless parade of sycophants and flatterers never get their comeuppance.

Maurice Ralston makes a welcome visit from his new Nashville digs to embody Timon, and his performance is the core of why this production works. Timon, as written, goes from one extreme to the other, but in Mr. Ralston’s hands, we see the dots connected, we see his misanthropy build, step by step, visitor by visitor, until his decision to simply lie down and die is not only understandable, but inevitable. Sure, his loud and ranting moments are stirring and often humorous in their excess, but his quieter, more contemplative moments also work to make this character come alive,

He is given able support by Andrew Houchins as Apemantus, whose misanthropy is more cerebral, less personal than Timon’s. Paul Hester is also wonderful as the devoted servant Flavius, whose own generosity to his former master and his fellow servants gives the play a heartbeat. I would have liked to see more of Travis Smith’s Alcibiades, because, to be honest, that subplot never really takes hold, and the final confrontation with the Athenian senate is a bit weak and wobbly. Still, he makes Timon’s only true friend a vivid and dimensional figure.

Which brings us to the masks. An eight-member ensemble filled with Tavern regulars and apprentices don a series of clever and pointed masks to play every other character in the piece. “The artist” wears a mask shaped like a painter’s palette, "the poet" a mask shaped like a scroll. The senators are all in ghostly seriousness, and the lords in vulpine greed. The servants are simple, the prostitutes elegant. It’s a conceit that works, that highlights how these people are nothing but nameless flatterers. And, the actors actually give them individuality and a modicum of dimension.

So, I seriously doubt anything I say will inspire anyone but the most devoted Shakespeare fan to see this. Of course I think it’s important to see these works on a stage and in the mouths of trained actors rather than knowing them only from a dusty classroom text. There’s something about seeing Shakespeare’s characters, even his “bottom of the drawer, I’ll-finish-it-someday” characters alive and on stage that drives home their immortality far more than any professor’s enthusiasm.

And there is a definite pleasure in watching Timon and Apemantus trade their insults (“Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon” / “I’ll beat thee, but I should infect my hands!” / “Away, thou issue of a mangy dog! Choler does kill me that thou art alive!”).

Ain’t nobody can conjure an insult like Shakespeare!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, by William Finn (music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (book)
Under its S-P-E-L-L
Thursday, November 25, 2010
4.5
A few years ago, I took the Alliance’s production of William Finn’s “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” to task for piling on razzle-dazzle that upstaged the characters and story. Now, here comes Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s more scaled-down version, and (surprise surprise), I liked it in-Finn-itely more!

Since every theatre in town seems to be doing this show, a little background may be in order. Starting out as a small improvisational one-act called “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E,” it was produced by The Farm, a New York comedy Troupe. Composer William Finn (“Falsettos,” “A New Brain”) saw the production and convinced playwright Rebecca Feldman work with him to create a full-length musical. Workshopped and developed extensively by the Barrington Stage Company, it eventually found its way to off-Broadway and finally, in 2005, to Broadway, and, apparently, everywhere else.

Set in a high school gym in geographically ambiguous Putnam County (allowing for numerous local references and ad-libs), the show follows six eccentric kids, three equally eccentric adults, and four selected-at-random audience members as they compete to win the spelling bee. Keeping its Improv-roots intact, topical and local references and jokes abound, and the monitor of the bee is given free rein to use the increasingly eccentric words in increasingly eccentric usages – when asked to use the word “Mexican” in a sentence, his response is “We went to Home Depot to pick up a sack of mulch and a Mexican.”

There is a serious undertone to the piece as each of the contestants represents a different aspect of some family dysfunction -- parental neglect, too-high-expectations, large-family put-downs (“Dumb Kid!”), over-hovering parents (in this case, two Dads), and so forth. In fact, in contrast to how hard we laugh at some of the excesses of the bee itself, the songs can be down-right serious, and “The I-Love-You Song” in particular (in which the neglected girl conjures the chimerical image of her parents lavishing her with affection) never fails to move me to tears. Throughout, the cast drops in and out of supporting roles in the contestants’ memories and fantasies (including a dryly affectionate Jesus).

Where I thought the Alliance production mis-stepped was in dazzling us with hundreds of light cues, flashy colors, back-drops, and even fog effects, upstaging the group of kids who were just trying to win a bee. I thought it was the technological equivalent of a walk-on player shamelessly mussing to upstage the stars. Here, the light cues are limited to isolation moments and highlights, and the action remains firmly grounded in the gymnasium, giving the actors and the stories full focus.

As to the actors, most was as good as, or better than the Alliance troupe, with Jimi Kocina’s Leaf Coneybear, Leslie Bellair’s Marcy Park, Jono Davis’ Chip Tolentino, Nick Morrett’s William Barfee, and Kara Harrington’s Olive standing out among the kids. Now that I look at that last, it’s pretty much the entire cast. The one mild exception, I thought, was the actress who played Logainne Schwartzandgrubennier, who in addition to the usual lisp, put her voice so high up into the nasal zone that most of her lines (and lyrics) were a tad hard to understand.

As for the adults, Mary Kathryn Kaye, Shane Desmond, and Bradley Bergeron were all excellent, and each had their many moments to shine. Seamus Bourne’s set and Mary Parker’s lights made for a compellingly believable gymnasium (I loved how the school mascot images even found their way into G.E.T.’s lobby), director Alan Kilpatrick kept his ensemble moving briskly through their paces, and music director Linda Uzelac did her usual fine job of orchestrating voices and orchestra, making the songs seem fresh and new, even for those of us who have heard them hundreds of times.

This is a show I have a lot of affection for, with its wildly off-beat humor, its joy in spelling and wordplay, its grounded emotional core, and its portraits of youthful eccentricity. I like how time and locale keeps some of the improved material fresh, and how different audiences bring different qualities to the “guest speller” roles.

And I really love how “The I-Love-You Song” never fails to make me cry. This production had me under its spell from beginning to end!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

Postscript: I can’t end without saying a word about the bowdlerization of Chip’s “My Unfortunate Er%^&ction” number to “My Unfortunate Distraction.” This change has allegedly been authorized by the authors, but, knowing the original so well, it really jarred, especially since the changed lyrics themselves and the staging made it abundantly clear what he was singing about. Since this is an particularly “truthful” song – what young male almost-adolescent has NOT experienced this? – the change struck me as a bit of want-my-cake-and-eat-it-too hypocrisy. This is a play about the joy of words and language, and here we are, hiding behind euphemisms and mis-directions. I sincerely hope the authors change their minds about this “authorized” adjustment.


The Second City: Miracle on 1280 Peachtree Street, by The Second City
Sketchy Beginnings
Friday, November 19, 2010
-1.0
Since this performance of Second City’s third foray into the Atlanta ethos was its first preview, the odds of the show being the same on opening night are sketchy at best. For that reason, “rating” the show is premature, and perhaps, not a little unfair.

That being said, nothing (apparently) can stop me from at least writing about it.

For those whose area of interest is not the field of comedy, Second City is the over-50-year-old Chicago-based Improv-and-Sketch troupe that proved to be the starting stop for some of the country’s brightest comedy stars (John Candy, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Amy Sedaris, Martin Short, and virtually every SNL star since its beginnings). For the past two years, Second City has come to the Alliance to focus its often-sharp skewering on Atlanta celebrities and memes, and to bring some Atlanta-based improv artists into its fold.

As a matter of record, I was a bit chilly to its first offering (“Too Busy to Hate, Too Hate to Commute”) and a lot warmer to its 2009 “Peach Drop Stop and Roll.” Through the years, their Atlanta-themed sketches have grown more affectionate and gone a bit deeper than the Google-search obviousness of the first foray.

The most obvious thing I can say about the first preview of their newest endeavor is that, mmm, well, it needs a bit more work (which, hopefully, it’ll get before its “official” opening). Too many of the sketches were more clever than funny, too many of the short black-outs built to over-obvious punch-lines, and too much of it zoomed by without an inch of traction. For the record, I can’t recall a single sketch from Act Two, let alone any memorable punch lines.

Starting off on a high note, this version gave the expected Atlanta traffic skewering by giving us rush-hour-jam sounds which gradually morphed into car horns playing “Silent Night.” An opening number then set the stage (so to speak) for what promised to be a lively evening of improv and comedy. The first sign of trouble was an improv sketch that asked for “things usually not found around the house” and “things found around the house that you wish would just go away.” Unfortunately, the scene these fed was a lame Christmas party that seemed to paste the suggested items on as an afterthought.

Other sketches dealt with a “T.I. Suicide-intervention” theme that was funny, I suppose, “Great Moments in the career of Sonny Perdue” which were obvious and not funny, and a lame private eye sketch that used an audience member as a dull foil.

As part of the preview, there was also a “Third Act” of sketches being worked on for possible inclusion in the show. I have to admit, I didn’t like ANY of them – the punch lines didn’t work, and the set-ups were too long. One, in particular, involved a rapturous participant in a mega-church revival. The idea was funny, I suppose, but to watch her “come on down” through three separate blackouts was just too much wasted time for a too-weak joke we saw coming almost immediately. This act, though, did include a Glenn Beck / Martin Luther King Jr duet that has potential, and I would recommend its inclusion if its pace and focus could be tightened a bit.

So, if last year’s experience is any indication (I saw a performance near the end of the run), I fully expect this show to come together and provide the sort of fast-paced evening we expect from the Second City. Part of the preview process should be to weed out stuff that doesn’t work and tighten stuff that’s “almost there.” My crazy schedule got me into this first preview, which, as expected, had far more misses than hits. I’ll try to get to another later in the run, just to see how far the show has come. However, at this point, I can make no promises.

All I can say for now is that there was enough to keep the audience happy, and, if this is the sort of show you like, you’ll like it better as the run continues.

For now, though, the show is just the weensiest bit flat and sketchy.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




White Christmas, by Irving Berlin
Like the Ones We Used to Know
Friday, November 12, 2010
4.0
I have to confess to a fondness for old fashioned movie musicals, particularly those with a “backstage” theme. Although they carry a predictability that I usually find worthy of disdain in more contemporary works, in their own context, that predictability is part of an only-in-the-movies contrivance that I find endearing.

With this in mind, let’s talk about “White Christmas,” the perennial season favorite making still another trip through the Fox Theatre. Based on the 1954 Bing Crosby / Danny Kaye movie, the show follows song-and-dance team Bob Wallace and Phil Davis as they woo the comely Haynes sisters and try to save the Vermont Inn of their former army commander. Loaded to the gills with a passel of (possibly) recognizable Irving Berlin songs, this show also features some cracker-jack choreography, high-energy staging, and even ends on a gentle snowfall that, yes, spills over into the audience (I daresay that this week will see more snowfall in the Fox than fell on the entire Atlanta area last winter).

Sure, the plot is by-the-numbers predictable – even my little girl told me that “They’re going to fall in love” after Bob and Betty sang their don’t-believe-in-love duet, “Love and the Weather.” Of course Judy Haynes is going to “tame” Phil’s wandering eye (though I have to confess Denis Lambert’s mannerisms as Phil made me wonder if he were more interested in chorus boys than in chorus girls). Of course, the entire regiment will trudge to Vermont in winter for the “Let’s-put-on-a-show” solution to General Waverly’s financial woes. And, of course, everyone in Vermont seems to be an ex-Broadway hoofer down on their luck (for now).

But, when the scenery whisks away for a magical Fred-and-Ginger-esque dance (“The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing”), when Betty knocks the socks off the Regency Room with her torch song (“Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me”), when the old barn is transformed into, well, into the Fox stage for the Act I finale (“Blue Skies”), it’s magic time, and I’m loving every minute of it.

It doesn’t hurt that the cast (Mr. Lambert’s fey ways notwithstanding) is beautiful and talented and wear their 1954-ish costumes and hair styles as if they were born to them. As Bob Wallace, John Scherer (who resembles a young Regis Philbin) is more dependable-attractive than movie-star handsome, and I really liked how his innate decency wins hearts and minds with equal ease. As the Haynes sisters, Amy Bodnar (Betty) and Shannon O-Bryan (Judy) are fall-in-lust gorgeous and have talent that shouts to the skies. I loved every minute they were on. Ruth Williamson brings some class to the brassy old(er) lady role, and Mary Peeples is winning in the little girl role of Susan.

Other roles (as well as the chorus) were filled with a smorgasbord of young and old professionals who looked as if they were having the time of their lives (which, I suspect, they were). Razor-sharp choreography running the gamut from tap to elegance to group precision was executed with grace and energy and sold each and every group number, especially the Act II opener (“I Love a Piano”).

If the Irving Berlin score is not my favorite (I tend to like Gershwin and Porter more than Berlin), it was nevertheless reminiscent of the way musicals used to sound, and was full of pleasant surprises and old favorites.

So, this is a musical “just the like the ones I used to know,” with a cornucopia of pleasures. It’s an old-fashioned backstage story that wears its retro proudly, and wants nothing more than to give you a good time.

I had a good time, and I suspect most of you will too. Besides, where else in Atlanta can we feel the gentle touch of snowflakes on our faces?

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of their First Hundred Years, by Pearl Cleage
Holding Back History for a Cotillion
Friday, November 12, 2010
4.0
Disclaimer: The performance being reviewed was the last preview, though, IMHO, the show was “ready for prime time.”

When I first heard of the premise of Pearl Cleage’s “The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years” (and don’t you just love that title?), I had a few misgivings. First, I had a lot of problems with Ms. Cleage’s earlier work, “Flyin’ West,” which I found to be filled with cliché and short-changed male characterizations. Second, though I was aware of an “African-American High Society” in the south, I had little interest in them, considering their wealth the result of exploitation of fellow African-Americans, and their pretensions to “society” an embarrassing (and shallow) mirror-image of the (to my mind) equally embarrassing (and shallow) mainstream (that is, white) cotillion / debutante set. Setting the play during the height of the civil rights struggle would, in my expectations, underscore the hollowness of these people.

However, the result was a surprisingly pleasant and likeable romantic comedy, due primarily to Ms. Cleage’s honest affection for these characters, the actors’ charm and ability to get “under their skin,” and the production’s attention to detail and depth.

Like the Horizon’s “Night Blooms” reviewed earlier this month, it purports to look at the civil rights movement through the lens of a particular family’s experience. In this case, the family in question is the Dunbars, a wealthy family preparing for daughter Gracie’s 1964 Montgomery Alabama “Coming Out” party and expected engagement to fellow society scion Bobby Green. However, Gracie has other plans – she sees Bobby as more of a brother than a potential mate, and she also would much rather move to New York and become a writer. In addition, Bobby has fallen in love with fellow medical student Lillie Campbell and wants to forego a lucrative family practice to open a clinic in poverty-stricken Mississippi. Toss in a family skeleton, a cynical reporter, and a half-baked blackmail plot and the stage is set for incident, reversal, and conflict that honestly lets us wonder how the course of true love (and cotillion planning) can possibly run smoothly.

Trezana Beverly (who gave one of the finest performances I ever saw as the “Lady in Red” in Ntozake Shange’s 1975 “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf”) grounds the cast as matriarch Grace Dunbar. Every inch the society widow, she is bound and determined to see her granddaughter Gracie (a radiantly wonderful Naima Carter Russell) marry the “right” man and follow in her footsteps. She disassociates herself completely from the civil rights struggle -- on the bus boycott, she blithely comments that “They got what they want;” after all, why should she care about the bus when she’s got a chauffeur to take her where she wants to go? But she is completely bound up in her own little world, and can’t understand why this young generation would want anything else (“Selma doesn’t have cotillions!”).

Bobby Green (Kevin Daniels) is terrified of his own grandmother (Andrea Frye) and does not want to admit he is in love with Lillie (Karan Kendrick), pretending to go along with the engagement to Gracie, just for a little while longer. Meanwhile, Lillie’s own mother (Tonia Jackson) is not above stooping to a little manufactured family scandal and blackmail to help pay for the rest of Lillie’s education.

I could go on with all the myriad plot and character threads, but, the more I describe them, the more is evident Ms. Cleage’s skill at weaving a tapestry in which every element is perfectly in place, perfect for its place. Yes, we could indulge in a little cultural smugness to condemn the shallowness of Grace’s aspirations, but Ms. Cleage won’t let us. She has created a roster of un-shallow women who shatter our preconceptions and make us rethink why we would ever condemn them in the first place. Yes, a history of wider import is going on outside their mansion’s well-polished door, but, as has always been true, personal and family aspirations will always trump “bigger picture” issues. This is why “Night Blooms” succeeded so well, and why this play succeeds as well.

Designer Peter Hicks has created an attractive set, more museum than lived-in home, but so “right” for the Dunbar family (at one point, someone even comments about how “out of place” a scrap of paper is on the floor). I can’t imagine the smallest speck of dust to ever be allowed to rest for more than a minute or two on any polished surface.

More important, though, the production collects the finest actresses in the Atlanta area and lets them do what they do best – inhabit people with an intriguing story to tell. In addition to those cited above, the cast also includes Jasmine Guy as the reporter, Chinai Hardy as Gracie’s mother, and Neda Spears as the maid, Jessie. The entire cast melds beautifully, and to watch them at work is to watch a true ensemble in action.

So, I’d like to take this opportunity to cordially recommend for your consideration, “The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years.” It’s a reminder that you have to get your own “house in order” before you fix what’s wrong with society. It is a pleasant diversion before you write your next angry “Letter to the Editor” (you, know, the one you’ll get around to writing after you get the laundry done, the homework checked, the spouse’s latest crisis resolved, the household budget repaired, etc etc etc).

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)




Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher
The Dark Strangers
Friday, November 5, 2010
4.0
Long before Billy Joel sang of the dark stranger within each of us, Robert Louis Stevenson penned his oft-adapted, oft-seen story of one man’s dark side made flesh. I speak, of course, of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Aurora has found an intriguing adaptation of the story by Jeffrey Hatcher, and has staged it with loads of atmosphere and style.

London lawyer Mr. Utterson has become amazed at the influence a certain Edward Hyde has exerted over his old friend (and client) Dr. Henry Jekyll, to the point of becoming the hapless doctor’s sole heir and beneficiary. After Mr. Hyde becomes implicated in a hideous murder, things become more dire, and Mr. Utterson races to save his friend. Of course, things are not as they seem, as most of you probably already know.

This production has taken some fan-based critical heat for failing to “humanize” Dr. Jekyll and for making Mr. Hyde a more compelling figure. While I may question the added character of Elizabeth Ann Jelks, I had no problem with this piece’s portrait of Jekyll. After all, the original story was from Mr. Utterson’s point of view, and Jekyll had no “mitigating” fiancée (as the recent musical would have us believe), and, indeed, comes across as a tad cold and eccentric. On the other hand, this adaptation wants to show that good and evil is not such a dichotomy as other adaptations have conditioned us to expect, that they more part of a spectrum with different aspects, different levels. Good is not always ALL good, and evil is not always ALL bad. I find this far more interesting than a basic black-and-white characterization.

Choosing to write this adaptation in the Reader’s Theatre style with many narrators and multiple characterizations was also a strength, as far as I’m concerned (I suppose “Nicholas Nickleby” started this trend). This allows several actors to play the many faces of Hyde, often at once and in unison. Unlike other viewers, I found this device effective, and it made for a compelling way to highlight the strength Hyde is building over Jekyll, and underscored the “he never looks the same to two witnesses” aspect of the story. This device also allows a more verbatim adaptation of the original story, putting Stevenson’s words on the stage, adding a “ghost story around the campfire” aura to the production.

This, however, leaves the portrayal of Dr. Jekyll in the very capable hands of Brik Berkes. Yes, our first view of him is his fiercely denouncing a fellow physician (Dr. Carew), but my sense was that this showed him as an idealist who would not suffer fools gladly (or otherwise). This not only showed him at the start as a champion of science and integrity, but also implicated him in the eventual murder. Would Hyde have chosen Carew as a victim if Jekyll were not so disposed to dislike him?

Other aspects added by Mr. Hatcher were a mixed bag. I think the character of Ms. Jelks was poorly conceived and written (I was never quite sure of her place in the story), and the Dr. Lanyon episode is lot muddier than in the story. On the other hand, changing Carew into a “quack” doctor in addition to his status as an MP went a long way towards building Jekyll’s character as well as the character of Victorian medicine. It was fun to actually roo