Saturday, September 3, 2011

Darkling Texture

Frederick Knott happily admitted that he wrote plays for only one reason: money. He succeeded. His thrillers Dial M for Murder (1952) and Wait until Dark (1966) have delighted audiences for decades. Countless regional, collegiate, and community theaters have staged these gems of suspense, even if critics have sniffed at their highly contrived plots.

Vagabond Players' revival of Wait Until Dark maintains all the chills of the thriller. The climax of the play is still the end of the second act, when the blind housewife Susy (April Rejman) confronts the drug criminal Roat (Christopher Cahill) in an apartment where all sources of light have been extinguished. Even when we've seen the play (or the classy Audrey Hepburn film version) a hundred times before, we anxiously follow the pitch dark fight ingeniously tilted in favor of the blind housewife. The gripping climax is only the most exciting moment in Allan Herlinger's surefooted direction of the piece, in which the atmosphere of menace is carefully intensified as the action progresses.

The Vagabond's production offers more than the predictable thrills. The director and cast have drawn out the dark humor of the piece. This is especially striking in Cahill's performance as Roat, the murderous drug dealer. There is more than a touch of Richard III in Cahill savoring every violent moment as he kills his two criminal colleagues (played by Leonard Gilbert and Torbeg Tonnessen) and launches his assault on Susy.

The direction also brings out the psychological darkness of the characters. For all the fun-and-games of the climactic struggle in the dark---Did she just throw acid in his face? Will someone please shut that refrigerator door!---the most impressive part of the scene is its treatment of Roat's sadism. Wanting more than the heroin stuffed into a doll hidden in the apartment, Roat's humiliation of Suzy digs deeply into the theater of cruelty. The direction also effectively evokes the violence in the tense relationship between Suzy and the disturbed girl Gloria (Isabelle Anna Herlinger), a pesky neighbor. Suzy's reliance on the mercurial Gloria to help save her becomes a stark act of faith in an unpromising savior.

Enhancing the psychological darkness of the piece is the claustrophobic set designed by Bill Price. Painted in various tones of gray and black, the apartment and its furniture signal the threats, depression, and despair hovering over the play's action. Even before curtain rise (in a theater without curtains), the menacing mood of the evening is established.

Vagabond's production of Wait Until Dark provides all the thrills one could expect in this warhorse thriller. Its acidic wit and nocturnal psychology add something more.

Friday, August 19, 2011

On the Beach

The inaugural production of Seymoure Theater Company, Joe
Dennison's Muldoon is a gripping meditation on writing and violence.

Set at a Yucatan resort during the Zapatista uprisings in 1996, the play features three American exiles who confront their own violence in the isolation of a dingy hotel. A college professor, King (Stephen Deininger), his graduate assistant, Polly (Megan Rippey), and an alcoholic beachcomber, Pickle (Lynda McClary) are entangled in their own flights from something more than their native land. King is fighting his decline as a writer and his slavery to the bottle; Polly is confronting her diagnosis of terminal cancer; the uproarious Pickle is reeling from the death of her draft-dodging boyfriend (the mysterious Muldoon of the title) who fled to Mexico in the 1960s.

All three actors powerfully evoke the despair and violence-just-beneath-the-surface of their respective characters. McClary seems to be having the time of her life as the outrageous earth mother Pickle. She recites her stream-of-consciousness monologues, her obscure prophecies, and her poetic puns with alternating humor and intimidation. The second act provides the opportunity for several scorching confrontations as the more conventional masks of the characters fall on the shell-strewn beach.

As the action unfolds, the play explores how the growing violence of the characters turns into the narrative of the book King is desperately attempting to write. By the end of the play, it appears that the book (or the long-lost Muldoon) is actually authoring their destructive actions. While such meta-drama provides a challenging frame for the action, it occasionally becomes too didactic, as in the overly chatty ending of the first act.

Chip Chiperson's direction keeps an empathetic focus on the humanity of the characters, who could easily deteriorate into starchy literary theorists or cartoonish thugs. Even in the more academic passages, the pathos never disappears. The spare seaside set (designed by Joe Dennison, Alec Lawson, and Kendra Richard) and the ensemble of seaside sounds (designed by Dave Kiefaber) create a fitting atmosphere for the action. They reinforce the magical realism of the script.

Running this weekend and next at Mobtown Theater, Muldoon provides a challenge to thought and emotion in an exotic setting.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Avenging Angels

Entries in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival rarely burn with poetic intensity. Produced by Theatrical Mining Company and playing at Notre Dame College's Copeland Theater, Abraham and Isaac does. That is its strength but in its more static patches also its weakness.

Written by Stephen Schulze, this drama features a Columbine-like mass shooting at a school. The father of one of the victims, Charlie Barrow (Howard Berkowitz) tracks down one of the assailants, Ethan Brody (Daniel Sakamoto-Wengel). A military veteran and experienced hunter, Barrow's long monologues recount the killing of his daughter Vicki (Annie Unger) and the ensuing hunt. Richly metaphorical, the narratives evoke the shock of the bereaved father and the author's carefully observed love of nature. The grief of Charlie's estranged wife Anne (Raina Dewald) and the shame of Ethan's parents (masterfully played by Paul Ballard and Anne Marie Feild) enhance the pathos of the piece. A clever memorial service, in which the entire audience becomes the congregation of the bereaved, deepens the emotional pitch of the work by rooting it in the biblical suffering of Job and Christ crucified. (Tiffani Bliss Brown's delivery of the stirring sermon, however, is oddly muted.) Ably assisted by choreographer Nancy Flores, director Barry Feinstein's use of mime to evoke the violence and anguish of the characters underscores the play's poetic air.

At times, however, the poetic reminiscences freeze the work's action. The long narratives of the past become cumbersome; the too frequent strolls through nature exude a faded romantic perfume. The second act is overwhelmed by long patches of philosophical speculation. The vaguely Nietzschean theorizing by Charlie, Ethan, and Sheriff Watt (Steve Lichtenstein) on the enigma of evil rarely rises above cliche.

An emerging playwright---this is his first produced play---Schulze powerfully evokes the nihilism, grief, and bewilderment at the heart of our violence-soaked society. Abraham and Isaac is well worth the visit to Notre Dame. But the author has not quite made the transition from the poetic monologue and the philosophical treatise to the act-centered (rather than word or concept centered) world of drama.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Lyrical Gravel

Unraveled on the Gravel is a novelty for the Baltimore Playwrights Festival. Curently running at Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, Kevin Kostic's play is the first musical in BPF's long history. The work studies the tormented relationship between Ray (Josh Kemper) and his fiancee Amber (Sarah Jachelski). Moving backward in time, the drama unveils the sources of the couple's emotional conflicts through their college years and through their fluctuating friendship with fellow students Marlon (Nick Huber) and Wayne (Michael Milillo). An odd ghost/alter ego/ friend Wricks (Christopher Jones) provides provocative commentary on the doomed relationship.

Carrying a perfume of 1950s existentialism, the play convincingly unpeels the layers of Ray's self-hating anguish, which manifests itself as an eerie addiction to hitchhiking. The actors provide a solid ensemble portrayal of a tormented network of friendship and hostility, ably directed by Michael Tan. The closing "secret" of the play is too pat and sudden, but gusts of humor soften this somewhat psychoanalytic exploration of self-destruction and misplaced guilt.

Capably accompanied by an acoustic-rock trio (Brennan Kuhns, Christopher Marino, Elliott Peeples), the score permits Ray to reveal his inner demons and desires. The score is not exactly memorable (you won't be humming the tunes on your way out to Saint Paul Street), but the earnest expression of raw emotions through music effectively underscores the self-revelation at the core of the piece. Unfortunately, most of the cast cannot sing. (The two exceptions are Huber and Jones.) The offkey notes---more than a few---constitute the performance's most excruciating moments.

This musical drama represents one of BPF's most ambitious works. Despite the lyrical flaws, the complex web of psychological anguish in the play's soul glows.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Bedroom Suite

One of the theatrical signs of summer in Baltimore is the Strand Theater's Friends and Neighbors Festival. This year's edition has something for everyone, especially everyone with a taste for fringe. Running on alternate nights, this collection of six new plays by different authors provides the barest workshop productions: $20 was the maximum budget for each director. But less can be more, as a successful evening of very short one-act plays indicates.

Directed by Da'Minique Williams, two bedroom comedies feature squabbling married couples. In Sean Pomposello's Unlimited Nights, Lucy (Kate Shoemaker) and her husband (Raymond Kelly) confront a series of strange middle-of-the-night phone calls. The spat over the calls leads to a bitter walkout. In Susan Middaugh's Such Good Neighbors, Mavis (Jill Colucci) and her husband (Raymond Kelly) come to a confrontation over Mavis's gossip addiction. She enjoys listening to the fights of their next-door neighbors (especially when she holds a wineglass up to the wall), but when her husband becomes the object of the neighbors' disputes, her curiosity turns into paranoia.

Together, the plays run less than half-an-hour. Yet there is a an odd, pleasing symmetry in the bedroom farce that rapidly escalates into marital war. The direction and acting are crisp and energetic in a bare-bones black-and-white bedroom set---what do you expect for $20?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Indian Turn

Performing at Theatre Project, the Dakshina/ Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company offered an invigorating program of classical Indian and contemporary dances.

Somewhat surprisingly, the highlight of the everning were two contemporary Western works. In Kaddish, accompanied by the music of Ravel, Melissa Greco Liu gave a beautifully expressive interpretation of a woman racked by desire, solitude, and grief. Cleverly using spotlight and blackouts, By the Light employs Beethoven's music to ground the desires, absences, and reconciliations of an elusive romantic couple. Supported by Jamal Ari Black, Natalie Pinzon ably expressed the fluctuating emotions of the piece.

Choreographed by troupe leader Daniel Phoenix Singh, the more distinctively Indian dances seemed less secure. The opening invocation, Pushpanjali revealed the uneveness of troupe members' technique. The closing piece, Vasanth is an exercise in narrative ballet based on a tale of Shiva and the rebirth of the seasons. The joyous piece uses traditional Indian dance, mime, ballet, contemporary dance, and even a bit of Broadway chorus line to evoke the Hindu myth. But in this fusion of disparate dance traditions, one has the impression that the mixture of approaches has yet to gel into a coherent overall style. In his solo piece, Gokula Nilaya, Singh revealed his own mastery of technique in his supple, lyrical movements.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Bewitching Chaos

It is hard to believe that Run-of-the-Mill Theater is already producing its seventh Variations anthology. This year the theater features nine short plays focused on the theme of chaos. The result is a Variations on Chaos rich in diverse dramatic genres and high in magical atmosphere.

The evening opens with John Conley's "Farewell to Hippocrates," a stark condemnation of the contemporary medical profession's violation of the ethical ideals it claims to uphold. In a fine piece of ensemble acting, directed by Alec Lawson, a brooding trio of doctors (Beverly Shannon, Sarah Heiderman, and Rachel James) assaults the Hippocratic ideals of life, purity, and privacy. Kevin Kostic's "One Out of Five" is a charming piece on the anxieties of the parents of quintuplets. Directed by Danielle Young, Justin Isett and Emma Healey are suitably harried as the anxious couple. Susan McCarty's "Where Will We Go, What Will We Do?" is a farcial spin on the gay marriage debate and the anxieties it provokes. Under Kendra Richard's direction, Justin Isett, Beverly Shannon, Sarah Heidermann, and Ben Hoover are properly manic. J-F Bibeau's "In Theory" features two faux monkeys involved in a scientifc hoax. Directed by Kendra Richard, Emma Healey and Ben Hoover make energetic chimps, but this one-joke play could have used some pruning. The program's wittiest comedy, Laura Merrill's "The Great Unspeakable Tragedy of the Poorly Made Soup" features four frenzied diners (Emma Healey, Justin Isett, Phil Doccolo, and Sarah Heiderman) who turn blame and recrimination into a fine art. Alec Lawson's direction uses a full emotional palette to express the diners' abrupt interactions.

Written by Clarinda Harriss, "Taming Chaos" is an entertaining literary joust on how to interpret a poem, featuring a guest appearance by Wallace Stevens and a mysterious chicken (ably mimed by Brett Messoria). Kendra Richard's direction enables Rachel James, Sarah Heiderman, and Ben Hoover to bring out the love of literature at the play's core. Matthew Smith's "Pastoral Smut" brings a touch of neoclassicism to the evening. A contemporary couple seems to be role-playing the old pastoral archetypes of nymph and shepherd. Danielle Young's direction and the performances by Justin Isett and Emma Healey provide an elegaic touch, but the play seems uncertain in tone. Joe Dennison's nightmarish "First Day" features an authoritarian military officer (convincingly played by Beverly Shannon) ordering a new recruit (Emma Healey) into her sadistic war games. Kelly Cardall's stark direction underscores the violent despair of the situation. Closing the program is Ben Hoover's "Parable no.4." A poetic piece, the play features two lonely, isolated persons (touchingly played by Sarah Heidermann and Phil Doccolo) whose separate monologues finally end in a lethal encounter. Since both characters simultaneously deliver their monologues, it is not easy to follow the narrative (it has something to do with someone dying in the nineteenth century), but the play's lyrical qualities, enhanced by the tableau-like direction of Alec Lawson, turn the audial chaos into consolation.

The program had its false notes. To provide a transition between the plays Joe Dennison's "Well There You Have It," a satire on drive-time radio, has been hacked into smaller pieces. In an evening already heavy on text, this flood of extra words might cause migraines in certain audience members. The dim lighting abets the atmosphere of menacing chaos, but this audience member would have liked a better look at the intriguing abstract mural dominating the back of the playing area.

Variations on Chaos
is a fine achievement in collaborative theater. The varied scripts, fluid direction, and energetic performances contribute to the evening's point that everyday order is illusory and that the apocalypse may be closer than we think.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Grim Noel

It's closer to Easter than Christmas, but Single Carrot Theater's current production of The Long Christmas Ride Home would be a welcome gift at any season.

Loosely inspired by Thornton Wilder's Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden, Paula Vogel's play features a dysfunctional family trapped in a hellish Christmas trip and dinner. The Father (Kaveh Haerian) is destroying his family through infidelity, verbal abuse, and physical assault. The Mother (Genevieve de Mahy) has surrendered to despair. As young children, the offspring Claire (Britt Olsen-Ecker), Rebecca (Amy Parochetti Patrick), and Stephen (Elliott Rauh) suffer the violence in utter bewilderment. As adults, the children destroy themselves through acts of self-mutilation. The abuse of too many bitter Christmases has become internal self-hatred.
Uneven in quality, Vogel's script is more convincing in its opening parts, where a trendy Unitarian Christmas Eve service---in trying to keep all spiritual options open, the family is nothing but a spiritual void---forms the prelude to a violent Christmas dinner. The closing section of the play is less persuasive. The parallel destinies of the three children are too pat. The gay son destroys himself through promiscuity, the lesbian daughter prepares to shoot her former paramour, and the straight daughter freezes in a snowdrift when she discovers she's pregnant. Predeceasing his sisters, Stephen becomes their guardian angel; his longstanding tenderness in a broken family gives a poignant note to the conclusion. But in straining for the quality of a parable (with Wilder's Our Town very much in the background), Vogel's text becomes moralizing.

Jessica Garrett's direction expertly weaves the comic and tragic strains of the play into a coherent and moving whole. One of the central features of the play is the use of puppets to represent the young children in their loveless childhoods. Beautifully designed by Betsy Rosen, Don Becker, and Eric Brooks, the puppets are expertly choreographed to express the play's emotions of confusion, anger, resentment, and humiliation. Among the uniformly fine performances, two stand out. Genevieve de Mahy poignantly expresses the despair of the buttoned-down mother locked into a dead marriage she can neither redeem nor abolish. Aldo Pantoja memorably acts the role of the hip Unitarian minister in the evening's most humorous performance; he also does yeoman's duty as the eccentric Grandmother and the mystical Dancer who envelops Stephen in the play's closing glimpse of the afterlife. The stark black set, designed by J. Buck Jabaily, underscores the nihilism of a family whose sins of humiliation and despair pass from generation to generation.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Dido, Alberto Gonzales, and Timothy Nelson

American Opera Theater, one of the region's (and the nation's) most innovative opera companies, has done it again. Directed by Timothy Nelson, the company has put together a double bill of unlikely one-act operas: Melissa Dunphy's 2008 The Gonzales Contata and Henry Purcell's 1688 Dido and Aeneas. A strange pairing but it works, due largely to Nelson's choreographic direction.

Recently composed by Dunphy while an undergraduate at West Chester University, The Gonzales Contata is a political satire cobbled together from passages in the 2007 Senate hearings concerning Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The satire is cartoonish, with senators playing hide-and-seek and throwing paper airplanes at each other. The male senators are played by females; the single female on the Judiciary Committee (Senator Feinstein of California) is played by a male (with brio by Brady Del Vecchio). Amidst the fun, there is a hilarious aria for Gonzalez ("I Cannot Recall") and an oddly moving hymn to America at the end, once the ambitious politician has fallen from power. The score drags at moments, deteriorating into the grade-B horror movie soundtrack that seems to be the lot of much contemporary music. But Nelson's mock-martial staging maintains the production's verve and soprano Molly Young turns the hapless Gonzales into an almost tragic figure.

The production of Dido+Aeneas is the evening's highlight. Nelson has transposed the tale from classical antiquity to the present. In front of a bare black table, a housewife struggles with a tottering marriage (to businessman Aeneas) and the psychological demons within her. The original witches, spirits, and messengers of the original libretto are transformed into forces lodged within the mind of the troubled woman. Behind a scrim, the darkened chorus embellishes the decline and suicide of the protagonist. Both vocally and dramatically, Emily Noel provides a riveting portrait of a tormented and abandoned woman. Unfortunately, the Aeneas (Jason Buckwalter) delivers a more pedestrian performance. The Purcell score only gains in pathos and purity in this radical transposition of the action.

As usual, Nelson has wisely chosen his supporting forces. Supporting soloists and expert choruses are provided by the Handel Choir of Baltimore and the Peabody Conservatory of Music. The Ignoti Dei Orchestra provides moving accompaniment for the Purcell, although the baroque ensemble struggles with the atonal lurches of Gonzales.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Of Grief and Magic

With its distinctive mission to favor the theatrical voice of women, the Strand Theater offers a solid production of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. Based on her earlier memoir, the play explores Didion's grief during the improbable year in which she faces the sudden death of her husband and the prolonged medical crises leading to the death of her daughter.

The monologue is vintage Didion. Precise details of jewelry, clothing, medicines, corn fields, and airplane seats are recalled with a military severity. The pain of the year's grief is threaded with ironic comments on comparative river views and senses of time. This is very much the tiny affluent world of the literati who circle Didion and her author husband John Gregory Dunne. Not everyone is buried from the vaults of Manhattan's Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Not everyone can dryly compare commissions for Life vs. Vogue. The author's bewilderment at the death of the family wanders through the brittle, name-dropping gossip of several blocks on the Upper East Side.

Dianne Hood provides an engaging performance of the one-woman monologue: not an easy task at a running length of 80 minutes without intermission. Hood's Didion is very much the grande dame: in regal control of all the lethal events, ready for a precise commentary on each odd twist, lucid about her inconsolable grief as she magically and impossibly tries to wish her husband and daughter back to life. As consistent as Hood's performance is, the emotional range seems limited. The irony, the control, and the literary wit of Didion are present, but the rage and the bewilderment at the losses seem subdued. A certain primness dominates.

Miriam Bazensky's direction permits Hood to move gracefully over the Strand's tiny stage. Every effort is made to avoid the stasis that so easily overcomes dramatic monologues. In recounting her adventures with grief, Hood occasionally moves into an effective soft mime.

One of the heroes of the evening is set designer Debbie Bennett. The sleek, stylized set of Didion's apartment projects the coolness, accomplishment, and (thanks to a prominent mirror) the self-absorption of Didion. Even in her most painful self-disclosures, the self-assurance and wry calculation of Didion remain the stronger.