Sunday, July 18, 2010

Graduation Blues

A play is struggling to get out of Commencement, but the liberation has yet to take place.
Written by David Allyn, the drama is a new entry in this year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival.
Performed at the Vagabond Players, the play concerns the travails of Danni, a college senior on the verge of graduation---or is she? Blasting into her life for the commencement exercises are her (disinvited) father and her (equally unwanted) mother. To make matters more complicated, her father has brought along his much younger trophy fiancee, a lingerie model. Reciprocating, the mother has brought along her twenty-something policy advisor, who also doubles as her sometime lover.
The opening comical pop-ins and pop-outs quickly settle down into more serious business as Danni announces that she is not graduating, has dropped out of college, and has converted to Islam. Much of the rest of the play is devoted to rather wearying discussions of Danni's motives, the need to find a meaning in life, and the emptiness of conventional religion, especially for this family of secularized New York Jews. The script does not avoid the vapors of this sort of discussion and rarely rises above cliche in its more soul-searching moments.
Karin Crighton's direction crisply moves the cast around the set, which convincingly duplicates the standard dilapidated off-campus apartment of undergrads. This is truly ensemble acting, with each actor carefully reacting to others as well as delivering his or her own lines. Each actor is convincing in his or her role: Stacey Bonds as the frustrated Danni; Rodney Bonds as the aging businessman facing unemployment and decline of virility; Patricia Batyi-Benz as the mother who has turned neo-con politician; Alex Kafarakis as the handsome, slick political consultant. But the roles themselves remain stereotyped.
In the evening's two most refreshing performances, Lynn McCormick turns the tables on her character's stereotype of the dumb blond model by checking out of her once-glittering engagement and converting to the feminist cause. In a hyper-kinetic performance as Danni's roommate, Kelly Fuller spices up the action with her exotic commitment to the cause of "poly" liberation (those who want more than one partner) and her quirky asides at just the right moment of the play's lagging action.
The play's intriguing pentagon of characters at its center and its moments of witty monologue reveal Allyn's talents as a playwright. But the heart of this tale of adolescent rebellion and the bitter loneliness of late middle age still remains to be excavated.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

G&S do the Charleston

In the Young Victorian Theatre Company's production of Iolanthe, Gilbert and Sullivan's tale of fairyland meets the Jazz Age.
The operetta's gossamer plot concerns the problems deriving from the illict marriage between a fairy, Iolanthe (Madelyn Wanner) and a too human Lord Chancellor (Troy Clark). Their part-human, part-fairy son, Strephon (Jeffrey Williams) desires to marry Phyllis (Sara Kete Walston), a ward of the Lord Chancellor. Alas, the taboos of fairyland and the laws of parliament forbid the marriage. After a great deal of gauzy nonsense concerning fairy solidarity, parliamentary corruption, and the changing-of-the-guard, boy finally gets girl and the bevy of newly engaged fairies and peers can trot off to a honeymoon in Fairyland.
Under the artistic direction of James Harp, this Victorian tale is transplanted to the 1920s. The stylish Art Deco set, the flapper costumes, the hip flasks, the silent-film conventions, and the hints of the Charleston provide a charming frame for the evening. Walston makes a delightful Mary Pickford coquette and Alexis Tantau (Queen of the Fairies) makes a commanding vamp. But when the director alters the lyrics and book of W.S. Gilbert to include anachronistic 1920s slang, the production sags. The sag becomes a collapse when Harp inexplicably "updates" the material to make references to current politics. What do Obama, Arundel Mills, Robert de Niro, and the hapless John Edwards have to do with Iolanthe? What do they even have to do with the Roaring Twenties? Nothing. Such gimmicks only cheapen an otherwise professional production.
The musical end of the production provides higher values. Under Phillip Collister's direction, the impressive orchestra provides a clear and sensitive account of Arthur Sullivan's score. The different textures of the score (lyrics, patter songs, satires, pleas) are faithfully evoked by the well-disciplined ensemble. Wanner, Waltson, Tantau, and Williams bring fine voices and carefully sculpted interpretations to their respective characters.
The Young Vic's production of Iolanthe generates some charming fairy dust in its handsomely sung version of G&S, but its gratuitous gadgets indicate that Sullivan actually knew what he was doing when he wrote the original libretto.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Violent Bear It Away

Currently playing at the Copeland Theater at Notre Dame College, Susan Middaugh's Black Widows is a delicious black comedy concerning two widows with a taste for larceny, fraud, and murder. Directed by Barry Feinstein, the drama is the most recent entry in this year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival.
At the center of the play stands the unlikely couple of Vera and Gwen. An embittered refugee from Russia, Vera is the cynical landlady for whom the accumulation of wealth is the only conceivable goal in life. No moral rules apply if you can get away with it; ethical objections to crime are only the sentimental bleat of the world's losers. Against this Nietzschean virago stands the timid Gwen, one of the world's sentimentalists. Her passion to protect stray dogs is matched by her passion to protect stray homeless alcoholics who dot her neighborhood. Having successfully tapped Gwen's streak of greed, the irresistible Vera expertly maneuvers the docile Gwen into escalating acts of minor theft, insurance fraud, and finally murder of the homeless men whose insurance policies they have commandeered for themselves.
The vibrant performances of Ann Mainolfi (Vera) and Babs Dentz (Gwen) are the treasure of the evening. Vera's cynical treatment of humanity and of the hapless Gwen exudes an ecstatic joy as she mows down her victims physically or verbally. The occasional flashbacks to the annihilation of her family at the hand of the Nazis evoke the source of this cynicism. Mainolfi's ability to change from beaming charmer to threatening bully in the space of a second brings the destructive but beguiling character alive. In her haunting character of Gwen, Dentz provides the evening's most moving performance. At first the caricature of the deranged pet-lover, Dentz shows genuine affection for the homeless men the duo is attempting to con. Her anguish over the escalation of crime is powerfully conveyed. Her final confrontation scene with the imprisoned Vera shows Gwen at last freed from the domination of the manipulative Vera and free to enjoy such humane pursuits as dog shelters, waitressing, and just being kind to the down and out.
Complementing the expert performance of the lethal duo is Glenn Vitale's cagey performance as John McArdle, a homeless vet who maintains a proper suspicion of the gifts showered upon him by these two alleged church ladies. In one of the evening's more entertaining twists, McArdle actually begins to recover from what had seemed a fatal addiction to alcohol. His unwelcome longevity causes Vera to mow him down in a trumped-up car accident.
The strength of Barry Feinstein's direction lies in the strong performances and ensemble feel he has elicited from his talented cast. The piece's dark humor and sincere sentiment about human suffering are kept in good balance. Unfortunately, at the opening night performance at least, the technical glitches indicated that the production was not quite ready. The many lighting miscues, confused movements, and flubbed lines broke the flow of the performance. The set gave the play a rather inert look, but the recorded original score (trumpet by Joseph Conway and guitar by Charlie Sigler) used the instruments cherished by the two homeless characters and gently recalled their ambitions to become jazz musicians in earlier times---another humane touch in a dark comedy with a soul.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

After the Madness

Currently playing at the Strand, Afterthoughts is a probing meditation on the massacre of students by a deranged fellow student. Loosely based on the Virginia Tech killings in 2007, the play focuses on the recollection of the massacre by five survivors: three of whom have died and wander through the afterlife and two of whom are still tethered to the earth. Written and directed by emerging playwright Alec Lawson, the brief drama (running time of one hour) provides a vivid portrait of the effort to make sense of what is senseless.
The drama presents this recollection of horror on two levels. In center stage, a triangle of the deceased try to understand the killings and make sense of the gloomy afterlife they have awakened to. Two murder victims (Will, played by Dan Walker, and Alison, played by Sheila Toomb) confront the killer (James, played by Michael Geib), who committed suicide at the end of his spree. The dialogue here is uneven. The in-jokes about theater majors age quickly; the "wisdom of life" remarks are often moralizing; the speculation on the afterlife has a grade-B "Twilight Zone" quality. The performance of the trio of actors is oddly restrained; little of the shock of the massacre comes through. Still, the expert blocking of the actors gives an appropriate sleepwalking quality to a trio wandering on the border between life and eternity.
More convincing is the simpler duet of survivors (played by Cordelia Snow and Courtney Williams). Perched on a balcony, the two survivors recount at a distance the events, the personalities, and the time-line of the fateful day. Their sober testimony ultimately proves more moving than the rambling debates of the trio in purgatory.
Enhancing this portrait of inexplicable violence is the brilliant set and lighting design by Kendra Richard. The black-and-white sculptural set of tumbled platforms and splintered fragments freezes the violence of the massacre and provides a haunting platform for the survivors' tales. The effective lighting, especially of the two living survivors dangling from the balcony, underscores the dream-like quality of the drama. One of the aesthetic strengths of the Strand Theater is its complete reconstruction of performance space for each production. Richard's reconstruction for Afterthoughts is an extraordinary achievement.