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Friday, September 23, 2011

Opera Review by Scott Dowd: “Carmen” at the Brown Theatre




Kentucky Opera has set a high standard for the 2011-12 season with their production of Carmen, which officially opens tonight at the Brown Theatre. Performances continue this Sunday afternoon and conclude next Friday evening.

Based on an 1845 novel by Prosper Mérimée’s novel of the same name Georges Bizet’s popular opera premiered in 1875 and has been a mainstay of the repertoire ever since; some much so that it is popularly referred to as one of the “ABCs of Opera,” meaning that, along with Aida and La Bohéme, Carmen is one of the most accessible crowd-pleasers in the canon.

Mezzo-Soprano Tara Vendetti lead an outstanding company in Kentucky Opera's production of Bizet's Carmen
at the Brown Theatre.
Wednesday night’s final dress rehearsal was not my first trip to Seville, nor was it my first encounter with the Gyspy cigarette girl. That being said director Kristine McIntyre’s interpretation has an earthiness and strength that let me fall in love with this classic anew. Mezzo-soprano Tara Vendetti’s Carmen is highly sexual, and playful but gone are the overtones of the evil siren who lures Don Jose to his doom. In this production Don Jose’s (Scott Piper) own weakness leads inexorably to his downfall.

Vendetti and Piper, both making their Kentucky Opera debuts have magnificent voices that easily fill the Brown, supported expertly by conductor Joe Mechavich and the orchestra. We expect no less from the singers who take the lead in the production and Kentucky Opera regularly delivers spectacular leads. What was most apparent last night was the work of general director David Roth and his team in developing the secondary roles via the Studio Artists program and the dramatic improvements in the chorus both vocally and in their ability to believably tell the story. In this case that includes a charming children’s chorus that performs at the standard we should expect of a professional company.  Norman Garrett who opens the show as Moralès is confident and easy in his delivery, setting the stage for everything that is to follow. He is joined shortly by another member of the program, Noel Bouley as Zuniga whose characterization of the Captain is as fine as his voice. Other Studio Artist stand outs include Carmen’s sidekicks: Frasquita (Abigail Paschke) and Mercédès (Claire Shackleton) who in addition to their singing, join in the dance as choreographed by my old friend Diana Dinicola.

Michael Mayes delivers a swash-buckling, self-important Escamillo, beautiful in the mid and upper registers. Soprano Heather Phillips, who sings the part of Michaëla, the peasant girl who might have save Don Jose from himself, is simply glorious.

I am so glad Kentucky Opera is able to present an addition evening of this production. Performances continue tonight, September 23 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, September 25 at 2 p.m. with a finale on Friday, September 30 at 8 p.m., all at the Brown Theatre. For tickets call 502.584.7777 or go to kyopera.org. 

Theatre Preview by Ted Benson: Splitting Schnitzel with the Narcotic Farmers



 I've been a big fan of the Louisville Improvisors for many years, whether through their shows, classes or their annual improv festival "Improvapalooza", so I was anxious to catch up with them find out more about their latest incarnation as the Narcotic Farmers.
I caught up with them as they were wrapping up a short tour of minimum-security facilities throughout Kentucky and Tennessee, called the "Fresh From The Can" tour. We had a freewheeling discussion at a little German Restaurant out on Dixie Highway where we split the Schnitzel and drank our weight in Spaten. Here goes part one of our conversation.

Ted Benson
Ted Benson: What is the Narcotic Farmers?

Alec Volz: That's a good question Ted, maybe Chris can answer that better than I can.

Chris Anger: Thanks Alec, I'll try. The Narcotic Farmers grew out of the Narcotic Farm, a famous drug facility in Lexington, Kentucky. A lot of famous jazz musicians ended up there, like Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, and Jackie McLean. So they had always had a great jazz band. Well one day someone brought in a copy of Viola Spolin’s book Improvisation for the Theater, so they started using it with the inmates as a tool to help them with role playing and learning how to play again. Eventually, the way it always happens with improv, after a couple of classes they decided to start their own group. Hence the Narcotic Farmers are born. This would probably be in the 50s.

AV: I should also say that they were also doing various other experiments with the inmates, including giving them LSD as a therapeutic tool, to varying degrees of success. And one day they decided to combine them both.

CA: Right. So, the first few Narcotic Farmers show were actually done under the influence of LSD. Which they filmed by the way.

AV: They were hard to watch. People would wander off in the middle of a scene; changes characters every line, in mid sentence become totally mute or just start crying hysterically for no reason. 

CA: Not unlike some of our rehearsals...

AV: It was compelling, but I wouldn't call it comedy.

CA: It was like watching a cross between the Living Theatre and an Inuit Birthing Ceremony.

AV: Gradually, they evolved and grew into what was more recognizable as a comedy improv group. Doing more of a 'Whose Line is it Anyway' kind of show.

CA: If you’re doped up on methadone or Thorazine it's better to focus on short form games.

TB: Why the Narcotic Farmers?

AV: When you've been working together as long as we have (Anger and Volz have been working together for 12 years) it's important to mix it up a little.

CA: Instead of doing the same old thing.

AV: With the same old people.

CA: Over and over again.

AV: Day after day after day.

CA: Year after year after year.

AV: Because you don't know any better.

CA: Or you just don't care any more.

AV: What was the question?

TB: Is there a personal connection to the Narcotic farmers?

CA: There is for me. My Uncle Sid did time there. My father’s brother. He was a comic who never quite made it. He spent a lot of time on the road, where he also picked up a heroin habit that he never quite shook. He was the Artistic Director of the Farmers when Peter Lorre was in the group.

TB: Is he still alive?

CA: No, sadly he's dead.

TB: If you don't mind, was it drugs?

CA: No, he choked on a balloon animal and died.

TB: That is sad.

CA: But, at least he was onstage when it happened.

TB: Who are the Narcotic farmers today?

AV: The Narcotic Farmers today are : Scott Field from Improv Nashville and Music City Improv, Jill Mothershed from Music City Improv, and of course Chris Anger, Todd "Magic Fingers" Hildreth and I from Louisville Improvisors.

TB: How did this particular configuration of the group get together?

CA: That's an excellent question Ted, maybe Alec can answer that better than I can.

AV: Thanks Chris, I'll try. Chris ran into Scott at a railroad/ reunion fundraiser for families of former inmates at the Farm.

CA: And we knew Scott and Jill because we've already played with them at "Improvapalooza" and at our "Irish Hill Improv and History Festival", although we didn't know about our shared history with the Narcotic Farmers until last year. Besides, we are always looking for a reason to get together.

AV: So, they started talking and it turns out that Scott is really into genealogy and had been doing a lot of research about the group, Scott is actually the group historian so if I'm a little fuzzy on some of the details please forgive me, one thing leads to another and the Narcotic Farmers are reborn.

CA: Needless to say we're very excited about the shows coming up this weekend.

AV: Yes we are. We've got 2 shows coming up, on Friday it will be the Louisville Improvisors with the New Improvisors, which is the debut performance of the latest group of graduates from the Louisville Improvisors Training Center.

CA: They'll be opening the show for us.

AV: Saturday night will be the return of the Narcotic Farmers!


LOUISVILLE IMPROVISORS/ NARCOTIC FARMERS perform Friday, September 23 and Saturday, September 24 at 7:30 p.m. each evening at The Bard's Town, 1801 Bardstown Road. Tickets are $10 and may be purchased at the door. For more information call  (502) 749-5275 or go to http://louisvilleimprov.com/

INTERVIEW HAS BEEN CONDENSED AND EDITED.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Theatre Review by Keith Waits: Hayswood Theatre’s “The Crucible”




While playwright Arthur Miller’s original commentary on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Committee on Un-American Activities has become an historical footnote, The Crucible remains a mainstay of today’s community, high school and college theatre programs. Most people will encounter it several times in their life, but the play manages to avoids the problems of over-saturation because it truly is one of the great classics of American theatre and, because people never change in their essentials, the perspective is relevant in to any prevailing socio-political climate.

Unfortunately, Hayswood Theatre has mounted a production that is as notable for sluggish pace and awkward performances as the script is for timelessness and intelligence. The story of the Salem witch trials, based largely on fact but viewed through the prism of McCarthyism in America circa 1952, is here given a self-conscious reading that undercuts its vitality and power. Many in the cast struggle to move beyond obvious limitations, allowing cues and lines to be dropped in detriment to the production.
Director Ellen Hanaver seems to have a sure understanding of the themes, and has a few capable performers in lead roles, but it just isn’t enough to make the play soar. Allen Platt has some good moments in the early scenes as Reverend Hale, but is unable to sustain the initial good work through the end. Likewise, Corey Macon Long is well-cast as the protagonist, John Proctor, finding the humility and the outrage the character requires, but a rich vocal delivery is not enough to realize the deep moral struggle of the final scene. Jim Aich’s arch, stentorian tone is appropriate to the puritanical authority of Deputy Governor Danforth, but he too misses the humanity that makes the character’s self-righteousness so tragic. These three have done solid work before, and no doubt their efforts here are highly motivated, but they just miss bringing this material fully to life.

Clockwise from Left -Shelley Hanaver-Torrez ,Elizabeth Anderson, Leigh Ballance, Trinity Travis,  Emma Dayvault, Kirsten McDowell, and Kathy Norton 
The settings and costumes are well-judged (although the judge’s wigs, while perhaps period-appropriate, were silly-looking) and suitably stark, and the blocking is functional and clean through most of the show.  The problem resides in actors with good intention, some of whom have looks and presence befitting the characters, but nevertheless find it difficult to deliver Miller’s expert dialogue with enough subtlety and nuance to do it justice. If one is looking for a straightforward production with which to explicate the text, this will suffice, but if you are searching for a rendering of The Crucible that might bring new insight and understanding, this is not the one for you. 
     
The Hayswood Theatre is located at 115 South Capitol Avenue, Corydon, IN 47112. For more information go to www.hayswoodtheatre.com

Entire contents are copyright © 2011 Keith Waits. All rights reserved. 




Dance Review by Kathi E. B. Ellis: The Louisville Ballet's "The Three Muskateers"




Artistic Director Bruce Simpson introduced the Louisville Ballet’s Saturday sparkling performance of The Three Musketeers by recognizing the company’s Diamond Anniversary, reminding audiences that Louisville is home to the seventh oldest ballet company in the country. In an odd juxtaposition he also lauded the city as home to all four of the major performing arts, dance, opera, theatre, and symphony orchestra – and the evening proceeded with a recorded track (a not-atypical music choice for the Ballet).

For those familiar with The Three Musketeers – from the swash-buckling Alexandre Dumas novel to the many movies and television versions (including the newest movie premiering next month) – The late choreographer Andre Prokovsky’s retelling of the story sensibly streamlines many of the subplots and focuses on select events and main characters. His choreography, recreated by repetiteur Gilles Maidon, evokes the great classical ballets and at the same time embraces quirky and comedic moments that delighted the audience. 

Dancer/choreographer Andre Prokovsky on stage.
The brief prologue, featuring clean, spare tableaux and a suggestion of the riotous crowd scenes to come, efficiently introduces the protagonists d’Artagnon (Kristofer Wotjera), the French Queen (Helen Daigle), and the English Duke of Buckingham (Robert Dunbar). Just as the audience thought it was au fait with proceedings, d’Artagnon’s mode of transport – a mule – erupted on stage in true English pantomime style evoking chuckles from the adults and delighted giggles from the youngest members of the audience.

Both acts move smoothly between the myriad locations necessary to even a stripped down version of the story thanks to the elegant and smart sets of Alexandre Vassiliev. Act One begins with d’Artagnon’s introduction to Athos (Brandon Ragland instead of Eduard Forehand on Saturday evening), Aramis (Phillip Velinov) and Porthos (Ben Needham-Wood). Each musketeer is introduced with a divertissement in which their character is neatly defined through their choreography: the solid strength of Athos, the lovelorn romanticism of Aramis, and the rollicking Porthos. Each dancer satisfactorily embodied these traits.  The three of them and d’Artagnon came fully into their own with the clever and humorous fight choreography of their duel and subsequent duel with the beleaguered Cardinal’s men. In recent seasons it has been wonderful to witness the strengthening of the men’s ensemble, both in numbers and in quality, and tonight was no exception. Making full use of the levels in the set and the wide Whitney Stage, the dance/combat sequences energetically and, apparently, effortlessly dispatch the Cardinal’s men. In the garden of the Louvre we are introduced to the delightfully self-centered and easily bored Louis XIII (Ian Poulis), his Queen, and her lady in waiting Constance (Natalia Ashikhmina). The ladies-in-waiting were hard-pressed to compete with the king’s fussiness and distractedness; their dancing was precise and charming, and yet the king commanded attention! The intrigue is introduced as Cardinal Richlieu (Harald Uwe Kern) and Milady (Erica de la O) plot to reveal the Queen’s affair with Buckingham. Of course, d’Artagnon and the musketeers arrive in the nick of time to rescue Constance from the Cardinal’s men, and in a lyric pas de deux d’Artagnon and Constance fall in love. We are next transported to the Queen’s apartment and another pas de deux – depicting the passion between the Queen and Buckingham  -- a lush romantic interlude which also features bravura dives.

Act two moves to London (beefeaters on hand to help with this transposition, in case the audience confuses Paris and London) and Milady arriving at Buckingham’s chamber.  Miss de la O’s long, lazy battements as Milady waits to entrap Buckingham sensuously suggest her complete ease in the role of spy, a delightful contrast to the mischievously efficient means of neutralizing the beefeaters guarding the necklace Milady is sent to retrieve. The conflict between Milady and Buckingham is strongly etched and passionately danced by Mr. Dunbar and Miss de la O. Back in France with the necklace, Milady is tricked into delivering up the necklace to Rochefort, a member of the Cardinal’s men – actually d’Artagnon in disguise – in a feisty pas de deux. Back at the Louvre the Queen and Constance await either the revelation to the king of the missing necklace or rescue by the musketeers.  This scene, with the two waiting women, evokes their apprehension through a series of turns and twists with each partnering the other, the patterns thus made are both familiarly classical and alien danced by two women. The timely arrival of d’Artagnon with the necklace not only saves the day, but reunites him with Constance in another lyric pas de deux, bringing this sometimes rollicking ballet to a gentle and sweet conclusion.

The energy of the evening bounces back in a delicious coda-like reprise of the highlights, almost a two minute version of the evening, including the dueling bravura and a sharp solo from Miss Ashikhmina. A brilliant ending to complement a happy ending, right down to the firework display! Having first become familiar with Mr. Prokovsky as a dancer in his London Festival Ballet days, it was delightful to renew my knowledge of him, this time as a choreographer. His (1980) ballet version of “The Three Musketeers” is a worthy addition to the many other adaptations of the novel, and the Louisville Ballet embraces the energy and humor of the piece with panache.

A bonus for balletomanes this weekend was that Mr. Prokovsky’s widow, Elvire, and M. Maidon were in the audience.  A reminder that under Mr. Simpson’s leadership the Louisville Ballet is firmly connected with the wider, international world of ballet. A connection that can only continue to benefit Louisville audiences as the company embarks on its seventh decade.

The Louisville Ballet continues their season on December 10 with the ever-popular Brown-Forman Nutcracker. For tickets and more information go to www.louisvilleballet.org.

Music Review by Carol Larson: The Louisville Chorus’s “9/11 Memorial Concert”




Held on the tenth anniversary of the attack, the year’s Louisville Chorus 9/11 Memorial Concert  at St. Martin of Tours was an especially emotional experience.  Director, Daniel Spurlock, chose a program of diverse and pertinent music that was very challenging for the ensemble.

Daniel Spurlock
The program began with the famous, “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place” from the German Requiem by Brahms. This piece is one of my absolute favorites and beautifully set the tone for the concert.  Mr. Spurlock and ensemble rendered a very interesting and unusual performance of this piece that may not have satisfied traditionalists.

One of the most thought-provoking works of the afternoon was Joseph Martin’s, “Who are the Brave”, with text by J. Paul Williams. This work asks each of us to “explore the role we perform in our daily lives. The world is full of complicated issues and we must all reflect on this complicated world that surrounds us”.  The men’s chorus did a nice job performing this piece; unfortunately, some of the text was lost in the acoustics of the church.

The program concluded with a complete iteration of the Requiem Mass, Op. 89 by Gabriel Faure, who composed this piece in 1888, probably in response to the death of his father.
This Requiem departs significantly from the standard liturgical text. Fauré includes two new sections, Pie Jesu and In Paradisum and omits both the Dies Irae and Tuba Mirum. This gives his requiem a mood of peacefulness and serenity throughout.  Under Spurlock’s sensitive baton, the soprano section was able to produce the subtle and ethereal sound that Faure intends. This work is such a favorite with audiences around the world today that it is hard to believe that it did not gain widespread popularity until the nineteen-fifties!

Despite the gorgeous work of the chorus organist Timothy Baker, and pianist Therese Davis were clear highlights of the afternoon. Their musicianship and talent are amazing!
The afternoon was gut wrenching as we all recalled the events of that horrific day.  Many thanks to Daniel Spurlock and the Louisville Chorus for putting this program together in memory of “9/11”.


For more information on upcoming performances  go to www.louisvillechorus.org/ConcertSeason.aspx

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Theatre Review by Keith Waits: "Anon(ymous)" at Walden Theatre


 Walden Theatre opens its new season with Anon(ymous), a work by noted playwright Naomi Iizuka that tells the tale of a refugee come to America. The story is modeled loosely on The Odyssey by Homer. That the character is a Southeast Asian affirms a contemporary setting and topical theme of alienation and identity among the modern-day immigrant population. The young man of the title is never given a name, and more than once pronounces “I am anonymous”, alternately communicating confusion and a cry for help.

Playwright Naomi Iizuka
It put me in mind of Ralph Ellison’s seminal novel, The Invisible Man, in which the unnamed title character represents the disenfranchised African-American population in the middle of the 21st century. Ms. Iizuka’s work doesn’t match up to that literary masterpiece, remaining grounded in academic illustrations when it needs to find a more visceral emotional connection to the audience,  but she is touching on similar themes and casting a powerful image of how that transparency of identity can shift from one racial and cultural identity to another. As Anon encounters various characters translated from Homer (Calysto beomes the vain and materialistic Calista; Cyclops translates into the horrific and cannibalistic Zyclo) underlying tones of racial and social discrimination are played out.

Director Julane Havens's staging is inventive and economical, finding virtue in a limited budget by employing parachutes to indicate settings and action; a device that also emphasizes the unity of movement in the ensemble. The olive green fabric initially suggests the war that drives Anon and his mother from their homeland, and evolves into various set pieces including, in the most surreal moment, an oven that swallows up a few cast members and perhaps means to allude to the Holocaust.

The young actors, some of whom are making their main stage debut in the Walden Theatre program, are consistent and solid. Adriana Guidry and Julia Smith were standouts among the newcomers. As for the more seasoned players, Nick Duong is a measured and sure presence in the lead, and Jake Nichols brings assured sleaziness to the role of a sweatshop proprietor making questionable wedding proposals to Anon’s mother. Courtney Doyle was a gentle but authoritative presence as Naja, a protective goddess, while Katie Scott and Sean Campbell provided vivid and eccentric turns late in the journey.

The text wears its relationship to The Odyssey lightly enough not to be pretentious, yet I cannot help but feel the author shies away from a deeper, more worthwhile exploration of her themes. Still, this is material from an important American playwright not normally seen on any other local stage, and Walden Theatre gives it a worthy presentation.
  
Anon(ymous) continues through September 24. Evening performances begin at 7:30 p.m. with a matinee at 2:00 p.m on the 24th. Walden Theatre is located at 1123 Payne Street, 40204. For more information call 502.589.0084.


 Entire contents are copyright © 2011 Keith Waits. All rights reserved. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Visual Arts Review by Mary Margaret Sparks: "Obsessive Attention to Detail" at Galerie Hertz




Saturday September 10 was the opening reception for Galerie Hertz’s 20th Anniversary exhibition.  In 1991, Galerie Hertz opened its doors for the first time in the East Market district starting a movement that continues today; transforming  neighborhood into Louisville’s hub for creative spaces including art galleries, design boutiques and local restaurants. Having exerted that lasting influence, a few years ago the owners moved on to build a new legacy in a different location on South Preston Street. 

Porcupine quills and wood
A work by Albert Sperath
Billy Hertz and Tom Schnepf are the machines behind Galerie Hertz. With their gallery manager Laura Devlin, they work to create exhibitions that stand out among other galleries in Louisville.  Obsessive Attention to Detail features six artists whose disparate styles and mediums, from bronze sculpture to photography that wouldn’t normally be grouped into a single exhibition.

Walking into Galerie Hertz, I was met immediately by the work of Albert Sperath, former director of the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation. These delicate sculptures are made from found objects such as turtle shells, windshield wiper blades, and acupuncture needles.  The focus of each work is on the materials and construction. The pieces are extremely detail-orientated but exemplify a natural beauty by the lack of color and use of woods, bones, and metal. In many of the sculptures Sperath contrasts the natural materials with the manufactured elements. I was impressed with all of the work but specifically drawn to two pieces on display in another part of the gallery, “Box Turtle Box” and “American Rain”. Talking with Sperath I learned that his artistic process is very organic which acts as a nice compliment to the technicality of the sculptures.

Hanging close to Sperath is work by Michelle Castro, who was part of the first exhibition at Galerie Hertz in 1991 where her works were exclusively two-dimensional. Castro’s new pieces are colorful and exhibit a sense of whimsy. Her three-dimensional work is very strong and one of my favorite pieces was “In My Mind’s Eye”, a mixed media sculpture. Looking at her piece, I experienced a moment of self-reflection as I gazed into the small mirrors making up part of the sculpture.  The rest of the piece includes different parts of a face that function as miniature doors. The whole fits together like a puzzle and its mysterious playful quality is enticing. Castro’s pieces hold many emotions inside and as one views the intricate details of each mosallage (mosaic collage) or sculpture, those emotions emerge. 

"Hangers" photographic art by Jim Ferringer
Another member of that inaugural exhibit was Jim Ferringer.  His nude photographs and prints, at first glance, didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the show. As I studied the pieces, which are multi-layered composites meticulously created in Photoshop from original source material, I began to understand that his work was connected to the rest of the show in its many small details.  (Hence the title Obsessive Attention to Detail) Ferringer’s work is striking in its subject matter. His nude males are posed in stoic and vulnerable positions, exhibiting calm but dark scenes.  I was most drawn to the signed archival prints lining a back wall of the gallery. These had more dramatic body poses combined with fantastical backgrounds. They reminded me of a Tim Burton movie, dark yet emotional, soft colors with strong figures.  When you see Ferringer’s work, you almost have to stare. They are striking, sometimes uncomfortable, and brilliantly composed.

Other artists in the exhibition include Robmat Butler, Philip Jackson and Brad White. Butler’s works follow on the theme of hanging down. Images of swings and shoes hanging from electric lines are portrayed simply using black paint and electrical tape. The modern looking compositions are paired with basic unstained wood frames for a little contrast in color and materials.

"Egg in Brown" by Phillip Jackson
Phillip Jackson’s realistic trompe l’oeil paintings are fascinating to examine. Using the subject matter of a raw cracked egg, I was given the chance to appreciate the beauty of something I use everyday and take for granted. The viewer sees the talent of Jackson in his painting of the translucent raw egg whites but also experiences a newfound appreciation for often overlooked or mundane things.

Brad White’s bronze sculptures are a nice compliment to the rest of the show.  I was first drawn to the wall featuring his cassette tapes and leaves. The realistic quality is tremendous but I most enjoyed how White kept the pieces in natural bronze and left them unpainted.  In the back of the gallery were my favorite works, a bronze light bulb and crushed water bottle.  Being a lover of realism and trompe l’oeil, I was glad to discover these little gems in their rather inconspicuous location.

The show is a little busy and, perhaps in need of editing, but overall Obsessive Attention to Detail is successful and, after all, it’s a celebration; a celebration of two men and a gallery who have taken a risk and started a creative movement spanning over two decades.

Obsessive Attention to Detail will be on display through September 24. Galerie Hertz is located at 1253 South Preston Street. Open Tuesday–Friday 11AM-5PM, Saturday 11AM-3PM and by appointment.  For more information call the gallery at 502.636.9722 or log on at www.BillyHertzGallery.com.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Theatre Review by Keith Waits: Halloween in Haiti: The Hanged Man Sings





Hercule Poirot traveling across the continent on the Orient Express; Charlie Chan crossing an ocean on a luxury liner headed for an exotic port. They represent the classic era of murder mysteries. It is a realm that WhoDunnit Murder Mystery Theatre sometimes inhabits, most recently in their new production, Halloween in Haiti: The Hanged Man Sings.

Some of their productions occupy a contemporary setting, but Graham V. Bell, in his second script for WhoDunnit, once again pays homage to the famous mysteries of the 1930’s by setting his story in Haiti in 1937. A wealthy plantation owner is found hanged, but his old school chum, Dr. Lindsay (played by Bell himself) , suspects foul play. The suspects include the deceased man’s fiancé,  Madame Perruque (Ann S. Waterman), his young nephew, Marmaduke Farqueson (John Collins), chauffeur Henri Samedi (A.J. Green) and his sister, Francoise (Karen Wilson). Oh yeah, and there is a butler called Mort Jesuis (Jeff McQueen) who appears to be some form of zombie, giving added layers of meaning to the cliché of whether “The Butler Did It”. 

WhoDunnit's Halloween shows can be over-the-top offerings with an emphasis on campy humor, but here the action, directed by Niles Welch, is slightly more restrained, although voodoo culture is very present and there is that zombie butler.  Mr. Bell’s script is a sturdy and well-constructed affair that respects tradition and plays out in a forthright manner. His Dr. Lindsay assumes the detective role with little preamble or justification, begging the question of why the others so easily acquiesce to his unauthorized and uninvited investigation, especially since one of them is the killer.

But the well-researched text, which includes a brief but detailed description of voodoo mind-control and references, “Baron Samedi”, a “master of the dead” in Haitian Voodoo, does a good job establishing setting and context through the dialogue and characterizations.

The cast does solid work, but two actors making their debut with this company shine especially bright. John Collins seems to enjoy himself playing the bitter and dissatisfied Marmaduke (probably bitter about that name!) and doesn’t overplay his drunkenness, avoiding one of the easiest pitfalls for an actor, while Karen Wilson brings a wicked, mischievous gleam to her voodoo priestess that seems slightly more suggestive than the script might support.

It all comes at you as three brief scenes interspersed with a 3-course meal (I had the Port-au-Prince chicken with roasted potatoes and broccoli – delicious!) and a cash bar, with the actors interacting with patrons “in character” between the work on stage, making for an easy-going but engaging evening out.
The production continues through October 29 (No show October 8) at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, 320 West Jefferson Street, downtown. Dinner shows begin seating at 6:30 p.m. with the show at 7 p.m. A special brunch performance begins Sunday, October 9 with seating at 12:30 p.m. and the show at 1 p.m. For tickets call (502) 426.7100 or go to www.whodunnitky.com.

Entire contents are copyright © 2011 Keith Waits. All rights reserved. 

Theatre Review by Todd Zeigler: A Man of No Importance, Pandora Productions at ATL


The old saying goes that an artist is his own worst critic. Less glib and more tragically true is that an artist can often be his own worst enemy. This is the crisis at the forefront of  Terrence McNally’s musical A Man of No Importance, the latest offering from Pandora Productions. This transcendently moving musical goes even beyond Pandora’s worthy mission statement to appeal to anyone who has ever had a spark of inspiration and been faced with the question of what to do with it. 

Playwright Terrence McNally
The main character, Alfie Byrne, referenced in the title, lives a routine life; benign but inconsequential. He takes tickets on the same bus route every day and regales his regulars with readings from his muse, Oscar Wilde. He lives with his bachelorette sister, serving as the house cook and preparing dishes far too exotic for her meat-and-potatoes tastes. And every so often, he directs a production for the church’s merry band of thespians, St. Imelda’s players, a group straight out of Waiting for Guffman--with accents. The delightful band is ready to revisit last year’s comic success, The Importance of Being Earnest but Alfie is drawn to more dramatic fare. His choice is Salome, Wilde’s hugely controversial take on the death of John the Baptist. For an Irish Catholic church in the midst of the Vatican II reforms, this is more trouble than Alfie realizes. To him, it’s just art. As rehearsals move forward, revelations about the material and members of the cast draw Alfie out of his sheltered life and into a world where artistic integrity is least of his problems. He finds that art isn’t just a passion or mission. It’s a life choice.

Normally all-things-offstage (save the curtain speech) for Pandora, artistic director Michael Drury is a marvel as Alfie. Essentially a big, cuddly, Irish teddy bear, Alfie could easily be played entirely for sympathy and weepiness. Drury completely and utterly grounds Alfie in the reality of the play, avoiding all mawkishness and self-pity and draws the audience’s emotions out all the more for it. He is simply wonderful.

Director Stephen Jones gives as much attention to the complexities of each supporting character. Tiffany Taylor finds every conceivable angle of Lily, Alfie’s sister. For well-established and well-played reasons, she comes to disapprove of almost every choice he makes. She then shows exactly how one can love someone all the more for his mistakes.

Obadiah Ewing-Roush is well cast as William Carney, the scenery-chewing default lead of the church theatre group. His soaring voice is a standout in the cast. He deftly asserts this well-rounded character’s motivations for betraying Alfie, yet avoids becoming any sort of villain. When he realizes he is the last to find out a major revelation about Alfie, it is genuinely heartbreaking.

Jason Brent Button brings a wealth of charm to Robbie, Alfie’s best friend and object of “the love that dare not speak its name.” Laura Ellis’s Adele is a character shrouded in ambiguity that at times grows frustrating in its refusal to dissipate. Yet she and Drury have a natural chemistry that brings wonderful results for both actors. Rusty Henle’s wry humor makes his widower’s ode “The Cuddles Mary Give” a show stopping tearjerker. Every character from the Meg Caudill’s secretive churchwoman to Patrick Brophy’s glib yet hilarious Oscar Wilde is fabulously captured. Jones’s staging is clever and free-flowing, giving us a delightful live experience.

The only major problem with this show is of neither the director nor cast’s making. In the final scene, we’re taken back to where we started and Alfie is given a glorious final song declaring…well, I can’t give it away. The lights go down…and then come back up, and we’re given…well, I can’t give that away. Let’s just say “more.”

And by “say,” I mean “exclaim ‘waitaminit – there’s more!?!’” The show’s ending completely works on paper in terms of story, theme and plot, and every actor plays it just right. But it is just plain unnecessary and even cheapens Alfie’s resolution. I’m desperately trying to give nothing away, but a personal victory in spite of consequences is far better than a grand victory robbed of consequences. After Alfie’s final song, I was done – emotionally satisfied and ready to reward the cast appropriately. The remainder feels tacked on and as overly schmaltzy and desperate to make its point as the rest of the show isn’t. It’s always the director’s option to cut, and I wish Mr. Jones had done so, but it shouldn’t even have gotten as far as the acting edition. McNally is a good enough playwright (and, one would think, has enough clout) to have avoided this.

Some sound issues persist through the show as the cast perform without the aid of microphones. The Victory Jory is a deceptively large space that is not the best at bouncing sound around.  The ears will adjust, but with the conductor behind the back curtain, the music/vocal sync wasn’t entirely perfect. One is confident repetition will breed precision.

Nonetheless, the music is engaging and the tale perfectly crafted, ending notwithstanding. McNally and composer Stephen Flaherty know how to make an audience feel deeply without manipulating the emotions out of them. It costs a lot to make art of any type, and this ensemble should be rewarded for its efforts. Go and be enriched.


A Man of No Importance continues through September 18 in the Victor Jory at Actors Theatre of Louisville, 316 West Main Street. For Tickets call 502.584.1205. Details are available online at: http://www.pandoraprods.org/OurProductions/20112012SeasonProductions/tabid/956/Default.aspx

Entire contents copyright 2011 by Todd Zeigler. All rights reserved.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Theatre Review by Todd Zeigler: The Fantasticks at CenterStage




The longest-running musical in Broadway history has two key ingredients going for it: inexhaustible charm and a swell of substance that rises to catch you off guard. Written by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones the show, which premiered in May 1960,  bears similarities to Sondheim’s Into the Woods (1986) on the boards at Clarksville Little Theatre. Currently enjoying a New York revival The Fantasticks is a leaner, lighter, more pop take on the question of what happens after “happily ever after.”

The story is simple: a young couple in love longs to be together. Their fathers plot to put them together by pretending to keep them apart (reverse psychology: the only way to reason with teenagers). The lovers unite, but find complacency and resentment before long, and only by going out into the world and facing its dangers do they mature and appreciate what they have left behind. The machinations of a charismatic bandit, “El Gallo,” guide both the lovers and the audience through this meditation on growing up.

CenterStage’s assemblage of talent for this tried-and-true tale does a fine job all around. As El Gallo, Jordan Price is a dashing ringmaster. Though not as bombastic as the role might allow, his muted, easygoing charm is immediately endearing – an absolutely essential quality for a character whose showcase song is a catalog of different types of rape. (“Rape” meaning “abduction” here, but still, one must admit it’s a charged word 50 years into this show’s life.)

Mera Kathryn Corlett is the embodiment of headstrong innocence as Luisa, the starry-eyed 16-year-old whose fantasies belie her pedestrian upbringing. Though he doesn’t quite pop off the stage the way Corlett does, Kyle Braun instills Matt, her true love, with a good heart and the insecurity of an All-American young man. His commitment to some of the intense moments of the second act’s brutal “Round and Round” is chill-inducing.

As Hucklebee and Bellomy, fathers of the young lovers, John Trueblood and Gary Crockett combine pleasing doses of fatherly affection and vaudeville showmanship. Though Crockett’s impish, futzing Bellomy is a bit busier, a bit more of a character and therefore a bit less grounded than his counterpart, they have great chemistry and avoid playing the same character “notes.”

Jason Cooper doesn’t miss a single opportunity for a laugh as Henry, the aging blowhard actor who recites Shakespeare at every opportunity while hobbling his way around the stage. Though his cockney accent is a bit more affected than perhaps necessary for the winking joke that is these two characters, David Beach’s comic timing is tick-tock perfect as Mortimer, the actor whose specialty is dying. (Are these two an homage to Stoppard? A question worth pondering…) Jacob Isaac rounds out the able cast as The Mute, the consciously theatrical show’s onstage props master and “set piece.” His facial work gives the character a personality beyond his utilitarian function here. He’s clearly having a great time, which subtly bolsters our own enjoyment.

A self-consciously theatrical show lends the designers a lot of opportunity, and they take it here. Director John Leffert did double duty as set designer, and his set pieces are simply gorgeous. The moon (a piece of wood hung on a nail) by which the fleeing lovers meet sparkles with glitter. Its flipside sun could have been a simple yellow circle, but instead a blend of myriad warm colors make it an eye-catching piece of art. It is little extras like these that broadcast the creators’ enthusiasm, and draw the same from the audience. Leffert’s costuming (triple duty!) is exciting, eye-pleasing and draws a distinction between the two families: brights and pastels for Hucklebee and Luisa, brown and green earth tones for Bellomy and Matt.

This is a production in which attention has been paid to every detail. It is a bit of a shame (and minor quibble) that the large auditorium of the Jewish Community Center puts the audience at such a distance from these little treats. A degree of intimacy is lost here, but the performers do their utmost to overcome the separation. That being said, you may want to choose a seat further removed as the facility’s limited sound system throws the sound to the middle and back of the room. The varying vocal strength of the performers (no fault of theirs, just a fact of life) also discourages sitting too close. The performances will be great no matter where you sit.

This perennial crowd-pleaser is a great choice for CenterStage and continues through September 18 in Linker Auditorium, 3600 Dutchman’s Lane, 40205. For tickets call 502.238.2739 or go to www.jccoflouisville.org/Centerstage.cfm.

Entire contents copyright 2011 by Todd Zeigler. All rights reserved.