Saturday, November 19, 2016

Sparkling Desires

Single Carrot Theatre is in fine form with its opening production of the season: Savage/Love by Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin.  The play is a loose mosaic of monologues and sketches dealing with the irrational impulses propelling human passion.  Ascetically dressed in white, the cast begins by making short speeches incorporating many of the cliches concerning love which pepper our everyday speech and the bits and pieces of unrequited love affairs.  The play then moves into a series of two-person dialogues, athletically performed, fleshing out the various opening maxims.  At the conclusion the cast becomes a chorus line reminding the audience that they are part and parcel of the lunacies just enacted on the stage.  The play itself has the feel of a plate of tantalizing hors d'oeuvres but the main course seems to be missing.  The barbed sharpness of the writing partially compensates for the thin structure.

The direction by Jen Spieler is brilliance incarnate.  The quick changes in location, posture, mood, and even props prevent this simply structured and mono-themed piece from receding into predictability. The production suddenly turns musical (with banjo) and then athletic (with energetic leaps over platforms) and then wistful (with exhausted lovers under the covers) and then farcical (as we suddenly do the laundry).  The scenic design (Edward Victor), lighting design (Ryan Johnson), and sound design (Meghan Stanton) keep the cascade of visual and audial images flowing without overwhelming the straightforward poetry and humor of the script.

The cast demonstrates the ensemble cohesion and energy which is Single Carrot's forte.  All six actors are supple and convincing as they quickly change genres, characters, and situations.  One standout moment involves Paul Diem and Genevieve de Mahy in an offbeat musical interlude.

Savage/Love has the typical Shepard note of danger and menace.  But the tone here, especially at the conclusion, is more mellow.  The lunacy, fear, and desire are part of the simple, awkward human desire to love and be loved.


Saturday, October 22, 2016

Gorgeous Anne

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is currently offering a rarity: Maxwell Anderson's Anne of the Thousand Days.  Originally produced on Broadway in 1948, this drama about the stormy relationship between King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn became a popular, opulent 1969 film starring Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold.  But to accommodate the tastes of film-going audiences, the movie script dropped most of the blank-verse passages in the original script.  (Along with T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry, Anderson was an architect of the short-lived revival of neo-Shakespearean verse drama in the mid twentieth century.)  It is a delight to see and especially to hear Anderson's lush poetry, which climaxes in a series of monologues and verbal duels at the play's conclusion, as the royal marriage collapses and Anne marches to the scaffold.

A stylized version of the Globe, Chesapeake's theater provides a splendor neo-Tudor frame for the production.  The three-story tall background set of Tudor arches and the dazzling, rustling costumes add to the jewel-box glow.  The period vocal groups and the expertly choreographed dances enhance the professional polish of the production.

The greatest achievement of Kasi Campbell's direction is bringing out the humor in what is otherwise a tragic tale of political intrigue.  The comedy behind Henry's awkward attempts at seducing Anne and Anne's stratagems to yield to Henry only at a high political price is repeatedly on display.  One of the comic highlights of the production is the witty negotiating banter of the dueling couple as they dance and leap through the convoluted turns of a Tudor saraband.

The effort to bring out the tragic complexities of the lead characters is less successful.  Lizzi Albert (Anne) and Ron Heneghan (Henry) bring a certain stature and ardor to their respective roles.  But they tend to deliver their lines in a monotonous, declamatory manner.  They rarely explore the rich emotional palette of Anderson's verse.  The soaring monologues and duels of the last act require an emotional range and tonal variation which the lead actors have yet to master.  One has the impression of an unfinished interpretation.  Much of the supporting cast is excellent, with Yury Lomakin's Cromwell and Molly Moores's Elizabeth Boleyn (Anne's mother) as standouts.  Campbell's meticulous direction of the many group scenes (concerts, dances, card games, trials, processions) enhances the production's pictorial quality. 


Friday, September 9, 2016

Confusion in the Dark

To open its new season Everyman Theatre has chosen to revive Frederick Knott's hardy perennial, Wait Until Dark.  The thriller pits a gang of smugglers (Roat, Carlino, Mike) against a blind housewife (Susan), trapped in her basement Greenwich Village apartment.  Roat and his associates are attempting to retrieve a doll that has accidentally fallen into the possession of Susan, her husband (Sam), and a pesky upstairs teenage neighbor (Gloria).  The opening effort of the gang members to deceive Susan through a series of elaborate ruses---including the suggestion that her husband was having an affair with the gang member (Lisa) who inadvertently gave him the doll---turns into physical violence in the second act.  In the celebrated climactic scene out of Grand Guignol, Susan turns the entire stage pitch black as she breaks the fuses on all the apartment's lights to create an even playing field with Roat, now determined to rape and kill her.

Unfortunately, the director Donald Hicken has chosen to use Jeffrey Hatcher's 2013 "adaptation" of Knott's play rather than the original 1966 Knott script.  Originally set in 1960s New York, the action is now transplanted to 1944.  Why?  In a program note, the dramaturg Johanna Gruenhut argues that this new setting gives the play a film noir feel.  Everyone is now bathed in a dark undercurrent of criminality and vice.  "As they negotiate the tribulations, blame is hard to ascribe, no one---not even a young neighbor---is truly innocent, and it is unclear who is more capable of protecting whom, and who really needs protection."  Really?  The blind Susan, the heroine of the piece, is perfectly innocent: Roat is the violent aggressor and she has done nothing to provoke him.  Her husband Sam, falsely accused of adultery in order to get Susan to relinquish the doll, is innocent as well.  Gloria is a disturbed, obnoxious girl in teenage rebellion mode but she courageously helps Susan to fend off the trio of aggressors.   No criminal she.  Knott's moral universe starkly pits the good against the evil; it's three against three and there's no ambiguity as to who is the assailant and who is the victim.

Another bit of Hatcher's tampering has to do with the smuggled contents in the doll.  In the original script it was heroin; now, it is diamonds.  But the violent Roat and his dime-store henchmen are clearly low-life petty criminals, more typical of the drug trade than an elegant heist from Tiffany's.  The script is full of the anxiety typical of 1960s New York: a burgeoning drug trade, rising crime rates, middle-class flight to the suburbs, growing insecurity in those who remain in the city.  Even Gloria's violent tantrums have a 1960s youth rebellion air to them.  The newly concocted references to World War II do nothing to advance the action.

The sound design also bears traces of directorial malfeasance.  The play is punctuated by the loud sound of a clock ticking and eerie music that sounds like the old Twilight Zone.  It weakens rather than enhances the tension of the play.  Susan's anxiety in her silent, isolated little universe is undercut.

The cast delivers a solid performance.  A standout was Shannon Hutchinson as Gloria, the awkward, disturbed, but ultimately heroic teenager.  Megan Anderson is completely credible as Susan, alternating confusion, terror, and courage as she slowly deciphers the conspiracy tightening around her.   As Roat, Bruce Randolph Nelson captures the sadist's dark humor but is not as menacing as Roat might be.


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Election 2016 at Kennedy Center

One of the central theatrical events of the DC region is the annual Page-to-Stage Festival held on the Labor Day Weekend at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.  The Festival's committee invites theater groups from the District, Maryland, and Virginia to give a preview of the new dramatic season through readings, rehearsals, and panels tied to their current works-in-progress.  Numerous Baltimore groups presented programs at this year's Festival.  One of the more intriguing entries came from the Playwrights Group of Baltimore, who presented an anthology of short plays, USA 2017, which focused on everyone's favorite topic of conversation these days: the presidential election in November.

A mixture of comic and tragic pieces explored the election's outcome from different perspectives.  As one might expect, Donald Trump was the arch-villain of the evening.

Rich Espey's sober dialogue What a Year probed the ways in which "white privilege" is more than a slogan and how even mildly racially tinged language can hurt and distort reality.  More bombastic, Paddy Carroll's satirical My Fabulous Trumpettes imagines how the famous Trumpian wall backfires as the Donald takes over the White House with the comic assist of Chris Christie, Sarah Palin, and Vladimir Putin.  The wall returns in Amy Bernstein's elegiac The Wall, in which a Mexican-American mother and daughter find themselves separated from and invisible to each other because of the new wall on the Mexican border.  Political corruption is the object of criticism in Joe Osborne's No Contest, set in a decrepit Philadelphia precinct.  The most poetic piece of the evening, Cheryl Williams's Ford's Place gently depicts three older women dealing with the grief-tinged comic soap opera of their small neighborhood.

Allegory takes over in Susan Middaugh's Heavy Weights, where Hillary and Donald become boxers in the ring.  Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty make guest appearances to deliver patriotic speeches on the real meaning of America.  In Kevin Kostic's The Political Roundup dueling Democratic and Republican television commentators, using the foulest rhetoric to destroy the positions of the other side, suddenly discover they are long-lost siblings and the children of the unsuspecting host.  A political farce, John Conley's Adele and Lancelot Bake a Cake features two White House chefs, adamantly opposed to Hillary and Donald, who bake an unusual dessert for the unexpected new President and Vice President.  An elegiac note returns with Dwight Cook's C in C's Last Walk, depicting Obama's bittersweet day of departure from the White House.

Shirley Basfield Dunlap, Menchu Esteban, Alex Hewett, Richard Keller, Alina Collins Maldonado, and Erica Poe joined the playwrights as the cast for USA 2017.  The result was a clear, passionate, creative---but far from nuanced---take on our bizarre electoral season.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Organ Donation: The Comedy

Everyman Theatre's production of Michael Hollinger's Under the Skin smoothly presents a comic melodrama about an unlikely subject: organ donation.  This is only the second production of Hollinger's play (it premiered last year at Philadelphia's Arden Theatre) and confirms Hollinger's status as an emerging playwright to be taken seriously.  Energetically directed by Vincent Lancisi, the sleek production brings out the humor as well as the pathos of a dysfunctional family suddenly brought together by a health crisis.

The crisis is middle-aged Lou's collapsing kidneys.  Needing a transplant, he turns to his estranged daughter Raina, torn between filial duty and resentment of her father's longstanding abandonment of her.  As the plot thickens, Raina meets the mistress of her father, Marlene, and the son from the adulterous affair, Jarrell.  The many references to American pop culture keep the audience laughing as the play's many plot twists and revelations of family secrets lead the play to a dramatic if somewhat strained conclusion.

The cast works smoothly as an ensemble.  Megan Anderson (Raina), Mitchell Herbert (Lou), Alice Gatling (Marlene), and Keith Royal Smith (Jarrell) bring a convincing emotional anguish to their roles.  The omnipresent humor and improbable plot reversals do not overwhelm the internal conflict within each of the characters.  The set design of Brandon McNell and the lighting design of Jay Herzog place the characters within the steely, antiseptic, analytic world of the medical establishment. The sterile material environment is an effective counterpoint to the volcanic emotions of the characters as they confront each other's deceptions and their own fears.

As entertaining as the play is, it has the feel of a dramatic work which has not quite matured.  With its cascading pop references, the script often has the sound of a television situation comedy.  There is further work required to reveal the characters and the conflict in depth. The ending is also problematic.  The lights come up on the audience as Raina reminds us that we all part of one big family and that we should all be willing to donate organs, even to strangers.  I expected the ushers to confront us with organ donation cards as we left the theater.  This public service announcement may have been well-intentioned but it is a shrill piece of agitprop which only weakens the play as a dramatic exercise.