Friday, September 11, 2015

Families Sweet And Sour

The Variations project has become one of Baltimore's most creative theatrical traditions.  Now in its eleventh season, the project is a year-round collaborative event.  The audience from one year's production votes on the theme for the next year's.  After a brain-storming party on the chosen theme, area playwrights submit short plays on the theme.  (This year's competition garnered eighty different scripts.)  A selection committee culls the strongest plays for a staged reading with a q&a with the selected playwrights.  A final group of plays---this year an octet---is chosen for a full production.

The result this year is Variations on Family, an exceptionally polished anthology of plays produced by Rapid Lemon Productions under the tutelage of Max Garner.  Directed by Rosalind Cauthen, the evening features eight plays focused on the family, understood both as comedy and tragedy.  Despite the different genres, many of the plays focus on race and ethnicity, perhaps not surprising in a city roiling with racial conflict.  The evening is also unified by Cauthen's vigorous direction, which inserts athletic movement even into the most solemn of the constituent pieces.

Among the lighter pieces, Kimberley Lynne's "The Same Story" provides a comic slice-of-life as family members at a family reunion start to tell---you did read the title, didn't you?  This time it's about that really big insect that invaded an old road trip.  The sharp timing keeps the energetic cast (Tyrone Requer, Josh Thomas, Valerie Lewis, Sarah, Jacklin, Bob Singer, Kristina Szilagyi) moving.  Archie Williams and Tyrone Chapman's "FTP" manages to bring humor out of a most un-humorous political movement: Black Lives Matter. Tyrone Requer lends a bewildered, comic touch to the role of the demonstrator Dayshawn. Once again, the tight ensemble direction gives this piece its energy.   Larry Malkus's "Walter's Claw Hammer" provides the opportunity for Samy Hayder to give a bravura performance as the precocious child Andy, ready to snitch on anyone and anything.

The darker pieces alternate between tragedy and melodrama.  Kathleen Barber's "Myths And Other Truths" puts the finger on race and class as an African-American family (Tyrone Requer, Adrienne Knight, Samy Hader) invites a reluctant Russian-American (Kristina Szilagyi) for a meeting concerning a claim that both families have a common ancestry.  The Russian is reluctant because she proudly descends from the Romanov family---or does she?  D Carter's "Brother's Keeper" brings sibling rivalry to a boil as Josh Thomas, in a terrific performance, plays an angry homeless man who refuses to return home despite the pleas of his very proper younger brother.  The evening's darkest drama, John Conley's "The Dissertation," starkly depicts the Armenian genocide of the 1910s as an increasingly angered graduate student (Sarah Jacklin) confronts her martyred Armenian ancestors (powerfully played by Bob Singer and Kristina Szilagyi) in an explosion of grief and faith.  Jacklin brings an intense emotional energy to the once-staid student who is overwhelmed by the horrors she discovers.  Adrienne Knight and Valerie Lewis give moving performances in Shelbi Nelson's "Like Mother Like Daughter" as an adult child suddenly meets the mother who had abandoned her in childhood.

Appropriately placed as the evening's closing piece, Alice Stanley's "Welcome Baby Anderson" mixes humor and pathos in this tale of a couple awaiting the delivery of a baby they are about to adopt.  As they shoot a video as a keepsake for their child, the mother (Sarah Jacklin) becomes the comically passionate helicopter mom even before the baby arrives.  The mood suddenly turns serious when alone before the camera, the father (Josh Thomas) reveals the emotional pain which has made the couple so grateful for the child.

All of the technical support for the anthology is professional and helps give the production its polished, consistent feel.  A special standout is Casey Dutt's set design.  The backdrop of floating, empty picture frames permits the transitions between the plays to freeze in a series of haunting family portraits.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Two Cheers For Democracy

Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday has not aged well.  Originally produced in 1946, the comedy has all the political fervor of the victors in the immediate afterglow of World War II.  Democracy will rule the world, corruption is on the way out.  Defeated fascists are everywhere, but communism might not be such a bad idea after all.  The closing civics lesson about our changing world weighs a ton.

Still, Vagabond Players has come up with a remarkably stylish production of this political satire.  The handsome scenic design (Roy Steinman, Maurice Conn), a one-set posh Washington hotel apartment, sets the high professional standard for the production from the beginning.  The plot revolves around a triangle of characters caught in a comedy of political corruption and redemption.  Billie Dawn (Anne Shoemaker)  is the mistress of a corrupt businessman, Harry Brock (Steven Shriner).  A violent thug lobbying venal politicians, Brock uses Billie as a dummy partner in his seamy deals.  She just has to sign on the dotted line.  Matters are complicated when a progressive journalist, Paul Verall (Torberg Tonnessen), is hired by Brock to give Billie some cultural seasoning.  (Her appearances on the Washington social circuit so far have been an embarrassment.)  In a bit of Pygmalion-like metamorphosis, Paul transforms Billie into an erudite defender of the American Constitution.  She also ends up his wife and they bring down Harry's corrupt empire.  George Bernard Shaw need not fear the competition.  Billie's sudden change from an ignoramus (who has no idea what the Supreme Court is) to a textual critic of Tom Paine defies belief.  The improbable romance between Billie and Paul also strains belief.

The casting of the play is excellent.  As Billie, Shoemaker delivers a dazzling performance.  Her voice, posture, and movements perfectly embody the ditzy mistress who slowly awakens to the corrupt scheme of which she is an unwitting part.  She makes her transformation into a crusading citizen as convincing as this implausible transformation could be.  Tonnessen's Paul captures all the earnestness of the reform-minded journalist, although there is little chemistry in his romance with Billie.  Shriner brings out the violence and egotism of Brock, but the occasional declarations of love for Billie fall hollow.  As fine as the lead performances are, the play is stolen by Carol Conley Evans as Helen, the perky maid with acerbic political commentary on the goings-on in the apartment and with perfect comic timing.

Steve Goldklang's direction effectively brings out the comedy of the piece.  Billie's sentimental education at the hands of Paul has many hilarious moments.  The director manages to bring out all the charm in a rather heavyweight political pamphlet.


Monday, June 22, 2015

Bland From Here

Single Carrot's Theatre current play, Blind From Here, presents a rarity (for them): a dull production.

A home-cooked creation, the rock musical features a book and lyrics written by troupe member Alix Fenhagen.  Paul Diem, Stephen Nunns, Jack Sossman, and Michael Kerr have written the score.  The result is a loud but long evening in the theater.

Brett Olsen-Ecker stars as Elsa, the lead singer of a rock group making a trip across America.  The adventures end when Elsa is involved in an accident and ends up---you did  read the title, didn't you?  We begin with jokes about the limited cultural horizons of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but the script and score become more of the same as one podunk Midwestern town after another passes into view.  The cast is energetic but Ms. Olsen-Ecker is not the world's greatest singer and the male band members (Paul Diem, Andrew Porter) do not elicit much sympathy in their Halloweenish costumes and wigs.  Caitlin Weaver and Holly Gibbs provide solid vocal backups, but their earnest support does nothing to enliven a monotonous score or add interest to a routine the-summer-when-I-crossed-the-country road story.

This bland production reveals once again the Achilles heel of Single Carrot, an otherwise superb company.  The Carrots have many fine actors, directors, designers, and technical engineers.  But playwriting is not their forte.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Wildly on the Parkway

An evening with the Single Carrot Theatre company is always a wild one.  The wildness is not imited to their choice of difficult, avant-garde, often obscure dramatic fare.  It also involves unorthodox stage configurations, lighting, and sound engineering, unusual sets and costumes, and an energetic physicality that seems to be preparing some of the troupe members for the Olympic Decathalon.

Theatergoers will not be disappointed in their new production of Charles Mee's Utopia Parkway, one of the troupe's most creative endeavors.

Mee's script transposes an ancient Chinese folktale into an absurdist allegory and satire about the strange moral values of contemporary urban America.  The tale is a simple morality parable.  One upon a time, a poor man loses his wife to illness and gives up his daughter beause he can no longer afford to raise her.  Indentured as a servant to a wealthy widow, the daughter becomes beloved by her mistress, who soon treats her as her own daughter.  The widow is saved from robbers one evening by a father-and-son duo.  When the widow offers her saviors anything they want as a reward, they ask for the hand of the widow and her adopted daughter in marriage.  Greed is the motive.  The widow goes through with her promise but the daughter, egged on by the widow, delays a marriage she despises.  The outraged son tries to poison the grandmother-in-law but ends up inadvertantly poisoning his father instead.  The son manages to frame the innocent daughter for the murder.  But a Chinese tale always has a resourceful ghost.  After her execution, the wronged daughter's spirit returns to kill all those responsible for her trial and death.

Mee poetically transfers the tale to Utopia Parkway, an ethnically diverse community in Queens.  The Chinese roots of the play become marginal embelishments.  The Widow (Tracey Farrar) is now of African descent.  The Girl has now splintered into three characters of different ethnic backgrounds (Amanda Campbell, Camirin Farmer, Lien Le).  The Old Man (Paul Diem) and the Boy (Elliot Rauh) represent venal white males, a fop and a bully respectively, who specialize in avarice, blackmail, and assault.  The play also manages to satrize contemporary America, from its bizarre wedding-reception rituals to its sentimental romantic songs to its idolatry of a college education.  Seated arena-style on the four sides of the blackbox space, the audience looks down on the wrestling-like action, energetically choreographed by director Genevieve de Mahy, who gives the ritual of crime, romance, and revenge a dynamic sheen of visual and audial spectacle.

The hero of the evening is the remarkable score composed by Peabody student Faye Chiao.  The settings for Mee's offbeat poetic monologues and choruses vary in style from the camp song to the romantic lyric to echoes of Cole Porter to anthems to the family and to self-esteem on "What I like."  For all the range in style and very American bits of pastiche, the score never abandons its neo-Chinese frame.  The instruments played by cast members---gong, drum, cymbal, bell---and the cliches from Chinese martial arts intermittently revive the Chinese roots of what has become a very American satire of a society that has lost its moral compass  ("There was a time when we always knew what it was we had to do") and has fixated on the most trivial tokens of status.  The score acquires a ritualized ecstacy in several of the numbers staged in the center stage around a suspended tire that acts as a sacred candelabra for the evening's events.

Run, do not walk, to the box office for this dazzling walk on the wild side.  



Sunday, January 18, 2015

Intriguing Interlock

Vagabond Players' new production of Interlock is an authentic Baltimore theater event.  This is the city's premiere production of Ira Levin's psychological thriller.  First produced on Broadway in 1958, the play did not even survive a week, despite a stellar cast (Rosemary Harris, Celeste Holm).  Ably directed by Roy Hammond, the Vagabond production makes a compelling case that this psychological puzzle of a drawing-room play deserves a second look.

The personal link of the director to the writer also makes a fascinating background story.  Years ago, Hammond became an ardent fan of Ira Levin, the author of numerous thriller novels and plays.  Deathtrap, Rosemary's Baby, and The Boys From Brazil are the most famous.  Becoming a personal friend of Levin, who died in 2007, Hammond set himself the task of reviving all of Levin's plays, most of which had long since fallen into desuetude.  His production of Veronica's Room in Los Angeles in 1997 brought the director new theatrical awards and stimulated a new interest in Levin's neglected canon.

Set in the music room of a mansion in tony Gramercy Park in Manhattan shortly after World War II, Interlock pivots around the stormy relationship between the mansion's owner, Mrs. Price (Laura Gifford), her German-immigrant companion, Hilde (Karina Ferry), and Hilde's German-immigrant fiance and budding musician, Paul (Rick Lyon-Vaiden).  Effectively playing the manipulative grande dame confined to a wheelchair, Gifford uses measured doses of intimidation, rage, graciousness, and self-pity to force Paul into a relationship and Hilde into an abandonment which neither could envision at the play's formal high-society opening.  Family secrets, venal ambitions, sexual desires, and class distinctions are gradually unmasked with growing brutality as the original quest to find good rehearsal space for Paul deteriorates into something more sinister.  Ferry and Lyon-Vaiden match Gifford's performance in their convincing expression of the confusion and rage which accompany their descent into Mrs. Price's well-heeled version of domination and submission.

Not everything in the script works.  The opening twenty minutes provide a leaden account of the background of the three main characters.  The closing scene between Price and Paul is overwrought melodrama.  But the shifting emotions of the play's central triangle of characters and the increasing cruelty of the matron's manipulation have a riveting Strindbergesque steeliness.  Interlock is even worth a third look.