Friday, December 16, 2011

Theatre Review: Stones in His Pockets


Stones in His Pockets

Written by Marie Jones
Directed by Kathi E. B. Ellis

Reviewed by Keith Waits

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

Belfast playwright Marie Jones, 
author of Stones in His Pockets.
Stones in His Pockets is a beautiful piece of material. It could be a short story; it could be a film; it could be a poem; and in a curious way, it is all of those things:  literary yet succinct, cinematic in its structure, and lyrical in its tone. Formally, it is a play written for two actors to perform, together essaying fifteen separate characters involved in a movie being filmed in County Kerry, Ireland. The focus is primarily on two local men hired as extras, Charlie (Lee Look) and Jake (Doug Sumey), but two assistant directors, various other locals, the film’s English director and the American movie star, Caroline Giovanni, all make appearances.

The script is lean and economical, clocking in at 90 minutes with an intermission. But the fact that the two actors are required to make rapid changes in character, mood and temperament, at first, makes it seem complicated. There are no costume changes save for some business with hats; and for the first several transitions I was worried the characters would not be made sufficiently distinct from each other. But by the end of the first act, the quicksilver work of the two performers effectively delineated each personage clearly enough, and the developing narrative was engrossing.

There is a good deal of gentle humor of the kind that provokes a smile and promotes understanding of the people being portrayed, but the plot takes a tragic turn that is handled with great subtlety and absolutely no exploitation. Ending quietly, the play makes its point and leaves it at that. It carefully observes these people, contrasting the reaction of the native Irish against the “Hollywood” types without relying entirely on stereotypes.

The simple, low-key story nevertheless provides an opportunity for tour-de-force acting from the two actors. Mr. Look and Mr. Sumey deliver detailed and intimate work, drawing the audience deeper and deeper into the story and never losing the integrity of the tale, even when stepping into the shoes of female characters. The accents sounded fine to this untrained ear; and the largely soft-spoken delivery seemed appropriate to the material, even if the slight echo from the high, cavernous ceilings was a challenge.

It is material well suited to ShoeString Productions:  simple and stark, with a director and two actors working in close-knit collaboration to produce a rich and engaging piece of theatre. The production runs this weekend and picks up again after Christmas – one of the few choices available for theatre-goers during the holiday down time.

Stones in His Pockets
December 15, 16, 17, 29, 30 & January 1. All shows at 7:30.
Tickets, $15 in advance, $18 at the door
Students $12, Seniors $15

Shoestring Productions at
The Alley Theater
1205 East Washington Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Box Office: 502-713-6178

Monday, December 12, 2011

Theatre Review: A Christmas Carol


A Christmas Carol
Adapted by Barbara Field from Charles Dickens
Directed by Drew Fracher

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

If it is December, then it is time once again for A Christmas Carol at Actors Theatre. The familiar production, given a new staging every few years, remains a popular seasonal tradition for Louisvillians and for a very good reason – it remains the GREAT Christmas story of modern society.

Of course, Actors Theatre can be relied upon to provide a quality rendition, and this is no exception. This particular iteration has been in place for a few years, and little has changed since I saw it two years ago. But it is a sturdy adaptation that works the venerable story in a mostly traditional manner, with marvelous effects and stagecraft that remind us that Marley’s Ghost, along with the Christmas Spirits of Past and Present, are usually the best part of the story. Marley is here portrayed as a quite forceful presence, in spite of being seven years deceased, by Larry Bull. This talented actor, who was so memorable in a previous ATL turn in The Mystery of Irma Vep, shook the clich├ęd cobwebs of the character, towering over Ebenezer Scrooge as he frightens the old curmudgeon into obedience to the visits of three spirits.

In a delightful departure from the traditional trappings of the production as a whole, the Spirit of Christmas Past is given an unexpectedly elegant and acrobatic presentation by Lauren Hirte. Gracefully descending from above on two lengths of white silk that extend to the stage, she performs much of her role while executing an aerial ballet, moving up and down the fabric as she introduces herself to Scrooge and begins his dark journey of the soul. Clad in shimmering, body-hugging fabric, Ms. Hirte brought an idiosyncratically erotic charge to the proceedings that might have seemed out of place were it not leavened with abundant charm, innocence and energy.

Woe to the actor who must follow her as Christmas Present, but Tyrone Mitchell Henderson does captivating work while still existing within the familiar trappings of the role. Along with V. Craig Heidenreich’s jovial narrator and William McNulty’s venerable turn as Scrooge, these were the highlights of this year’s production. And if it might seem a challenge to comment on Mr. McNulty’s well-worn performance, I laughed anew this year at the mischievous glee his Scrooge took in confounding the expectations of those around him during his Christmas morning reawakening.

As to why Dickens’ tale still holds us in thrall? Perhaps because it is about conflict within the human heart first, Christmas second – and only uses the occasion as a device with which to explore the dark, bitter side of human experience. Although filled with festive scenes and holiday music, the overtly religious aspects of Christmas take a back seat. When Ebenezer finally awakens to the virtues of kindness and generosity, the power of the moment comes from our knowledge of how deeply he journeyed into genuine terror in order to rediscover his humanity, lending a profound universality to the narrative.

A Christmas Carol
December 6-December 23, 2011  

Actors Theatre of Louisville
Pamela Brown Auditorium
Third & Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Theatre Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Julane Havens

A review by Kate Barry

Entire contents are copyright © 2011 Kate Barry. All rights reserved.

Clay Marshall and Brian Hinds (background), Dawn Schulz, 
Abi Van Andel, Mike Slaton, and Joel Mingo 
in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by Kelly Moore.
There seems to be some enchantment afoot in the MeX Theater over at The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. Lovers are experiencing mistaken identity, actors are turning into donkeys, and fairies are prancing around without a care. Savage Rose Classical Theater Company has choreographed a passionate production of fantastical tomfoolery with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

My hat goes off to director Julane Havens for her lyrically infused blocking. In most Shakespearean comedies, scenes placed in wooded pastoral areas refer to themes of fertility. Havens focuses her production on the fertile wood and intricately uses her band of fairies (Victoria Reibel, Lauren Maxwell, Melinda Beck, Sabrina Spaulding and Jennifer Thompson) with Puck (Clay Marshall) as the captain of the mischievous, flirtatious crew. Havens transforms her fairies into sexual beings whose powerful presence dictate the shenanigans that the mortal lovers and fumbling troupe of actors encounter. As the mortal characters run amuck in the woods under the various spells, Havens takes the opportunity to have her fairies constantly present in assorted poses representing trees, rocks and other natural elements. This was a clever way to use the fairy cast as well as save money on set pieces. I wanted to see this concept used more throughout the entire production. As the mechanicals perform their play-within-the-play, Havens brings her fairies back on stage to watch the performance. Except for a comedic bit between Marshall and Tom Schulz, who plays Snug, a stage frightened actor, the choice to have fairies present could have been reconsidered.

 A Midsummer Night’s Dream is always a crowd pleaser. Stand-out performances belong to Tad Chitwood and the rest of his gang of rude Mechanical-turn-actors (Neill Robertson, Jeremy Sapp, Tom Schultz, Hank Paradis). I was constantly giggling at each and every single one of these idiosyncratic weirdoes. Hallie Kirk Dizdarevic and Brian Hinds provide strong performances as the fairy Queen and King. Abi Van Andel, Joel Mingo, Dawn Schulz and Mike Slaton are the squabbling lovers who find themselves lost in the woods, victims of Puck’s trickery. This quartet of actors’ vivacious energy pulsates with youthful folly, providing a sturdy foundation for the rest of the action.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Savage Rose Classical Theater Company
December 9, 12, 15, 17, 18
The MeX Theater at The Kentucky Center for the Arts
501 W. Main St.
Louisville, KY 40202

Friday, December 9, 2011

Theatre Review: The Changeling


The Changeling

By Thomas Middleton & William Rowley
Directed by J. Barrett Cooper

Reviewed by Keith Waits

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

The Jacobeans mean business. They don’t fool around for a minute. Maybe they felt they had something to prove following Shakespeare and the marvelous period of Elizabethan theatre; but for whatever the reason, there are few half measures in Jacobean plays. If you are looking for an evening at the theatre occupied with violence and tragedy resulting from profound shifts in morality, then The Changeling is just the ticket.

The first scenes establish what looks to be a romantic triangle, with Beatrice-Joanna in love with Alsemero but promised in marriage by her father to Alonzo. Yet we learn that there is yet another, unrequited suitor for the fair noblewoman in the character of Deflores, one of her father’s servants. This plotline alternates with overtly comic scenes set in an asylum run by Alibius, a doctor jealous of the attentions directed towards his younger, attractive wife, Isabella. At first the apparent contrast in tone is jarring, but the “serious” side of the story allows potent notes of dark humor to punctuate the developing threads of desire and betrayal, while the “comic” plot sneaks some thoughtful moments analogous to the tragedy into the slapstick. The resulting tonal balance is a challenge well met by this expert production.
Jeremy Sapp and Kate Bringardner in The Changling. Photo by Kelly Moore.

Deflores is a dark and complex individual, drawing wry laughs from the audience as he commits a fair amount of evil. Beatrice-Joanna enlists him to simplify her love life but receives more than she bargained for as Deflores extracts his price in a stunning and horrific confrontation that closes the first act. It is beautifully staged for maximum effect by director J. Barrett Cooper; and the two players, Jeremy Sapp and Kate Bringardner, strip away the veneer of civility to expose the primal emotions at the core of the scene: selfish desire and cruelty.

It was the highlight of a performance filled with many such indelible moments. A vengeful specter, maimed in life, makes recurring appearances, strikingly accompanied by disturbing, atonal music; several madmen gambol around the stage in a chaotic but riotously funny dance that injects unsettling anarchy into the otherwise very disciplined staging. And then there is the steady and assured work from Neil Robertson as the asylum doctor’s assistant and Tom Schulz as “the changeling” in his charge. The entire show is a study in misdirection, as the title character, vividly realized by Mr. Schulz, does not become the focus as one might expect. The classic text is again revealed to be entirely modern (a common tactic for Savage Rose): one more study of the human heart of darkness that predates all the contemporary neurotic variations on the theme.

The fine ensemble delivers perhaps the most consistently fine group of performances I’ve witnessed from this company. Aside from the aforementioned few, I would mention that Joel Mingo renders a mad fool in vivid terms that stealthily avoid the all-too-easy pitfalls of such histrionics, Ryan Watson handles the tricky character of Alsemero with aplomb, while Brian Hinds clowns brilliantly as the asylum doctor. Jennifer Thompson is lovely and charismatic as his wife; Mike Slaton is as fine an earnest, stuttering yet pitiful suitor as he is a haunting ghost; and Gerry Rose is forceful and determined as his revenge-seeking brother. Tad Chitwood, Tony Pike, Katie Scott and Melinda Beck acquit themselves admirably rounding out the rest.

The spare staging relies once again on Shana Lincoln’s skilled and detailed costuming for certain and lasting impact, with a sudden burst of color and exaggerated form – interjected with some nice mask work from Kaylyn Taylor during the madmen’s dance. But acting that fills the space with enough suggestiveness to make a set almost superfluous continues to be a Savage Rose trademark, with good lighting cues that never seem arbitrary from Lily Bartenstein.

Watching this company take to the stage again, I am reminded of The New York Times article from last year that characterized self-important art and culture as “cultural vegetables” – items akin to broccoli or asparagus in our culinary diet that we embrace as a conscious declaration of healthy intentions in our cultural diet: good for us but lacking in indulgent pleasure. It would be fair to say that all of Savage Rose’s efforts might qualify as “good for you.” But at their best, they also illustrate that vitamin-enriched theatre can be highly enjoyable as well. The Changeling is Savage Rose Classical Theatre at its best.

The Changeling
December 8, 10, 14 & 16 @ 7:30 p.m.
December 17 @ 2 p.m.

In repertory with A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company
The MeX Theater, The Kentucky Center
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Theatre Review: The Santaland Diaries


By David Sedaris
Directed by Juergen K. Tossman

A review by Kate Barry

Entire contents are copyright © 2011 Kate Barry. All rights reserved.

Ted Lesley in The Santaland Diaries
Photo courtesy of Bunbury Theatre.
Let me tell you what makes good theater: when a well-established company combines a well-crafted script with an exuberant lead actor and throws in a charming set. Bunbury Theatre has hit the mark with its one-man holiday show, The Santaland Diaries. With a script taken directly from humorist David Sedaris’s essay of the same name, this one-man one-act delves into the horrors a seasonal Macy employee faced as he worked as an elf.

As the elf, Ted Lesley brings his top performance to the stage. His ninety-minute monologue is a conversation with the audience as he delightfully expresses Sedaris’s comments, complaints and contemplations about working in a department store during the busiest shopping time of the year. The first-person narration starts with Lesley’s character in desperate need of a job and jokingly applying for the seasonal position. Soon, he finds himself in two interviews, training, costume fittings and eventually, Santaland.

Lesley’s personification of Sedaris’s wit was made stronger as he pushed through the show’s technical fumbles. Gracefully and innocently ignoring the opening night lighting and sound cue kinks, Lesley didn’t let anything get in the way of the hilarity. Delivering high energy while literally being the only character on stage for an hour and a half, Lesley deserves much applause. It takes a strong actor to be able to latch on to a text that is rich in word play and keep the audience interested for the duration of the performance. And this actor was most definitely that. Whether you’re an elf or know an elf, The Santaland Diaries at Bunbury Theatre provides lots of laughs for the Holiday season.

The Santaland Diaries
December 7-18
Bunbury Theatre
at the Henry Clay
604 S. Third St.
Louisville, KY
(502) 585-5306

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Theatre Review: Ordinary People

Based on the Novel by Judith Guest
Dramatized by Nancy Gilsenan
Directed by J. R. Stuart

Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley

Entire contents are copyright © 2011, Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.

Performed in a brightly lit chapel in a church on Spring Street in New Albany, it is obvious right from the start that Ordinary People is anything but an ordinary production.

Adapted from Judith Guest’s landmark 1976 novel that famously inspired the multiple Oscar-winning 1980 Robert Redford film, the story holds up well in today’s more jaded times. Although Nancy Gilsenan’s rather blunt dramatization loses some of the grace of Guest’s original novel and the subtlety of Alvin Sargent's screenplay, the story still resonates, thanks to solid acting from the ensemble and strong direction by J. R. Stuart.

It’s a heartbreaking story, dealing with one family’s struggle to cope after two traumatic events: the accidental drowning of one son, and the attempted suicide of the other. We are dropped into the story over a year later, when the surviving son is returning home after being committed to a mental hospital and the family is struggling to return to a sense of normalcy.

It’s largely an ensemble piece, but it does center on the dynamics of three core characters, thankfully performed by strong actors up to the challenge.

Kyle Braun takes the central role of Conrad Jarrett, the surviving son, who is still struggling with issues of survivor’s guilt and depression that threaten to cripple him. It is hands down the best performance I’ve seen from this actor; I was moved to tears more than once by his character’s anguish, and I challenge anyone not to squirm while he is describing his character’s suicide attempt in graphic detail.

Tiffany Taylor does great work with the show’s antagonist, Conrad’s mother, Beth. A force of nature, Beth has not come to terms with her older son’s death and is openly resentful of Conrad to the point that she has become jaded and cold. Gilsenan’s script robs the character of a lot of the sympathy generated in the novel and film, but Taylor makes her real and relatable nonetheless. While we may despise her actions, we have all known people like Beth Jarrett and can relate to the character Taylor has created.

At the other extreme, Gilsenan’s adaptation of Conrad’s father, Cal, is almost too perfect to be believable but again is made relatable by a strong performance. As played by Tom Trudgeon, Cal is the dad we all wish we had, keeping his head up and desperately trying to return his surviving family to some semblance of happiness and normalcy while dealing with a severely troubled son and coldly stubborn wife.

J. R. Stuart has coaxed solid work from these and the rest of the cast, and makes a memorable appearance himself as Conrad’s quirky psychologist, Dr. Berger.  There are also some nice turns by Phillip Rivera and Drew Cash as Conrad’s friend and “frenemy,” respectively, and by Julie Streble and Lindsay Vincent as the two potential love interests in Conrad’s life.

As the play is performed in the chapel of a church, the lack of any stage lighting takes some getting used to (the full house lighting you see when you enter the theater is the same as you get during the entire performance), but you do get used to it pretty quickly. Despite my issues with the script, this is easily one of the best pieces of Community Theater I have seen in quite some time and I can’t recommend it enough!

Starring Kyle Braun, Drew Cash, Phillip Rivera, Julie Streble, J. R. Stuart, Tiffany Taylor, Tom Trudgeon, Gabe Vanover and Lindsay Vincent.

Ordinary People

Presented at St. Mark’s United Church of Christ Chapel on Spring
222 East Spring Street, New Albany, Indiana
December 6-10 at 8 p.m. • December 11 at 2 p.m.
General Seating – $10

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Theatre Review: A Hanukkah Christmas with Klurman and Goldstein

The cast of A Hanukkuh Christmas with Klurman and Goldstein.
Photo courtesy of Bunbury Theatre.

Written and directed by Juergen K. Tossmann

Reviewed by Cristina Martin

Entire contents copyright © 2011 Cristina Martin. All rights reserved.

’Tis the season, all right. Holiday-themed productions proliferate at this time of year like snowflakes at the North Pole. For anyone inclined to take in one or more, the choice can be difficult:  Should it be a classic? A contemporary piece? A musical? A mystery? 

For those looking for a very funny new show “written to entertain and enlighten,” in the words of playwright and director Juergen K. Tossmann, Bunbury’s A Hanukkah Christmas with Klurman and Goldstein is a good bet. Lighthearted yet thought-provoking, it resonates with everyone – whether they celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, both, or neither.

Klaus Klurman and Hyman Goldstein are the mainstays of two previous plays by Tossmann. While characters and relationships developed in these are mentioned, A Hanukkah Christmas is perfectly understandable without having seen its precursors. With just a few explanations that aren’t the least bit tiresome, Tossmann manages to make it entirely clear who’s who, no small feat given that the connection between characters can be rather unconventional and complicated. And they’re nothing if not a diverse bunch: gathered together to celebrate “Hanukkah Christmas” are two elderly, cantankerous Jewish men (Klurman and Goldstein are played by Matt Orme and Tossmann himself, respectively); the kindhearted non-Jewish daughter-in-law of one of them (Angela Roberts Goldstein, played by Cathy Butler-Weathersby); a plain-spoken relative from eastern Kentucky (Fred, played by Mike Burmester); a transgender cousin of the Kentucky relative (Al/Alice, rendered believably by Dale Strange); and the very conservative African-American Reverend Felix (Sherrick O’Quinn) and his wife, Twilight (Jamisa Spalding). 

At the heart of it all is the irrepressible eponymous duo. You’ve got to see and hear Klurman and Goldstein for yourself to appreciate them fully. Whether they happen to be momentarily peevish, impish, childish, or outrageously politically incorrect, they’re appealing because they are who they are, with no apologies. Klurman, who was an actor and director in Europe as a young man (he starred in a film called Hitler Does the Tango (!)), declaims and pontificates accordingly, while Goldstein, once an accountant by profession, is less comfortable in his own skin and envies his friend’s flair for comedy. Matt Orme’s Klurman is magnificent in everything from accent to body language; I had to pinch myself to remember he wasn’t one of my elderly relatives from Central Europe. Many actors only dream of inhabiting a role so authentically. Juergen Tossman delivers a strong performance as well, though his accent vacillated on opening night and he seemed a bit distracted (billed as Producing Artistic Director, Playwright, Director, and Hyman Goldstein – I can’t imagine why!).

As the play opens, Goldstein is hanging a dreidel on his “Hanukkah tree.” When Klurman enters and remarks that his friend happens to be particularly crotchety, Goldstein explains that Christmas is an angst-filled time of year for him, one that makes him feel particularly “conflicted”… Why this is the case, we find out later, has to do with more than just his being Jewish. I had to smile as the light dawned:  Waiting for the show to begin, I couldn’t help but notice the exceptionally schmaltzy, cloying arrangements of holiday music being played at full volume. The songs got on my nerves more and more such that by the time I met Goldstein, I could relate entirely to his annoyance with all things Christmas, and I’m actually one who does celebrate the holiday! What a brilliant touch. 

Klurman and Goldstein are amusing when they trade insults with one another, and they’re even funnier when they play off the eclectic group of extended family members who come to dinner. 
Butler-Weathersby is so sweet and accommodating as Angela – who has taken Klurman and Goldstein into her home and now hosts this party – that I thought the woman must be a saint. We discover, however, that there are one or two things that get under her skin. Mike Burmester is hilarious as old hippie Fred, who isn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the shed and walks around rather bemused most of the time. When Goldstein is confused by Fred’s use of “y’all,” Klurman explains to Goldstein that Fred is from the South. “From the South?” Goldstein replies. “What is he, a Sephardic Jew?” He figures “Yal” is the man’s name and persists in using it as such, making for some great moments of comedy.

Judging by his portrayal of Al/Alice, Dale Strange has done an impressive study of how women move and hold themselves. Al/Alice’s sometimes exaggerated mannerisms get good laughs. We laugh with her rather than at her, however; she’s eminently likable because she has worked so hard to achieve self-acceptance and is unapologetically who she is. 

Also instantly likable is Twilight.  Jamisa Spalding emanates a refreshing openness coupled with an absolutely infectious laugh. As her dogmatic husband, Sherrick O’Quinn is downright scary. O’Quinn is a relative newcomer to the local theatre scene, but with the stage presence he demonstrates, he’s sure to make a name for himself.

Pacing was a bit slow at times, but this can most likely be explained by opening night tentativeness. One remarkable aspect of the direction was the blocking, which seemed natural and dynamic throughout. Klurman and Goldstein never left their wheelchairs, yet these were never encumbering or distracting.
The play’s humor is sometimes simple (recurring gags involve stinky cheese, intestinal gas, and the spiking of the punch bowl) but sometimes gives a viewer real pause. What to make of Goldstein calling Klurman “gay” in a mocking tone, singing a song about a Southern “Mammy,” or saying during a major hullabaloo that it “sounds like a shiksa (non-Jewish woman’s) wedding”? You can be insulted; or, as is intended, you can laugh at the ignorance and inaccuracy of the stereotypes. What to do about someone so seemingly unenlightened at nearly 90? You’re probably not going to get him to change his attitudes overnight. So do you just tolerate him?

The redeeming quality of Goldstein is that he actually knows better. He’s open to seeing people for the individuals they are. In fact, one of the people dearest to him in all the world was of a different race and sexual orientation. The word he and this person used as a term of endearment for one another can be taken as an unconscionable insult by someone else. So the sentiments behind the terms we use give them their true meaning, although the sentiment is not always evident behind the baggage the term carries.

“Happy Holidays” is a phrase Klurman and Goldstein both hate, maybe because it seems to have checked any and all baggage at the door. While they scoff that there’s no such thing as “Hanukkah Christmas” when Fred first says it, that becomes exactly what they celebrate in the end. Instead of blending into something bland, these quirky characters learn to live with each other despite their quirks, and in certain cases, to realize that they’re not so different after all. Twilight puts it well when she bursts out in delight, “Your family is just as dysfunctional as mine!”  

One question kept nagging at me as I sat before Angela’s understated but stylish living room. Did that orange-colored armchair and ottoman actually match the bold pattern on the couch or not? Would I put this combination in my own house? Depending on the light, my opinion wavered. After debating a bit I realized, What does it matter?? They’re coexisting in the room just fine even if they’re not precisely the same and even if Martha Stewart were to declare the combination crazy. Some may favor one over the other, but fundamentally, both are good spots to park your tuckus. What a good lesson for Hanukkah Christmas.

A Hanukkah Christmas
with Klurman and Goldstein

December 2-18, 2011

Bunbury Theatre
at the Henry Clay
604 S. Third St.
Louisville, KY
(502) 585-5306

Theatre Review: The Matrix LIVE! [A Parody]

Photo courtesy of The Alley Theater.

Written and Directed by Todd Zeigler

Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley

Entire contents are copyright © 2011, Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.

The Alley Theater had a big hit on their hands a couple of seasons ago with Point Break LIVE, a spoof of the dreadful Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze film that was more fun than it had any right to be. They are attempting to duplicate the success of that licensed show by creating their own original parody of another Reeves film, the somewhat more revered sci-fi opus The Matrix. The resulting production has some truly hilarious moments but is not quite as successful.

Part of the problem is that The Matrix LIVE tries too hard to emulate Point Break LIVE in nearly every way, starting with the structure of the production. Both shows feature the films’ directors as characters in the play (Katherine Bigelow for PBL, the Wachowski Brothers for TML), deciding to remake their film as a stage production and selecting an audience member* to play Keanu’s role. The humor is derived from trying to stage such expensive films on no budget at all, and (in the case of TML) on the increasingly flustered and infuriated cast and crew.

The Matrix LIVE makes the assumption that you are familiar with the story of The Matrix and its sequels (so if you are not, you may want to watch the trilogy before coming to the show). Most of the humor will go completely over the heads of the uninitiated, and sadly, a lot of the jokes and one-liners still land with an uncomfortable thud. But writer-director Todd Zeigler has assembled a strong cast of very limber comedic performers, and most of the physical comedy (which makes up the bulk of the humor) comes off very well and provided me with more than a few belly-laughs. I especially liked the way the cash-stripped production pulled off the famous “bullet time” scenes: cast members freeze in position while crew members in bright green T-shirts walk out and pick them up and mimic the slo-mo movements from the films. It’s as ridiculous and silly as it sounds, but still very funny.

The performances range from okay to really strong. I especially enjoyed Neleigh Olsen playing it pretty much straight in the iconic role of Trinity; she gives no nudges or winks to indicate she’s in a parody and that somehow makes her funnier. Kenn Parks similarly keeps it real as the godlike Morpheus, although his unfortunate bald-head wig gets enough laughs on its own. And Madeleine Dee is cute as a button as the perky Production Assistant, whose job it is to babysit the audience member filling in for Keanu Reeves.

Corey Music and Ben Unwin pretty much carry the show as the constantly feuding Wachowski Brothers, with Unwin especially getting a lot of laughs from his increasingly less ambiguous sexuality. (In reality, it is rumored that Larry Wachowski has transgendered into Lana Wachowski, and of course this type of show would never let THAT little reality nugget go unexploited.)

The show’s greatest asset, hands-down, is Tony Smith’s fight choreography. It manages to be complex and visually amazing while at the same time rapturously funny, spoofing some of the film’s most iconic moments. Very well done, and exhausting to watch.

The major drawback with the production, however, is its extreme length. At over three hours, it really tries the audience’s patience, and the concept really doesn’t carry the show for that long. The Alley has among its upcoming shows another parody, Star Wars: The Original Trilogy in Less Than 60 Minutes; if they can spoof the vastly superior original Star Wars trilogy in an hour, I can’t imagine why they felt the Matrix trilogy needed to run three times as long! The extreme over-length is unfortunately exacerbated by some ill-conceived jokes about how late it is getting, which only serve to remind the audience that, yes indeed, this show is too long.

Still, I would be doing the show a disservice if I didn’t admit to having a good time for most of the evening, and with a little editorial tightening (for example, the show’s never-ending ending could use a LOT of trimming) it could be another repeat performer for the Alley Theater.

Starring John Aurelius, Alan Canon, Elizabeth Cox, Madeleine Dee, Jeremy Dugan, Jeremy Gernert, Corey Music, Neleigh Olsen, Kenn Parks, Chris Petty, Ray Robinson, Tony Smith, and Ben Unwin.

The Matrix LIVE! [A Parody]

*SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read any further if you don’t want a mild spoiler!

I hesitate to put this paragraph in, but I can’t praise one of the show’s best features without giving away a secret (although it’s one you’d figure out pretty quickly anyway). The gimmick of selecting an audience member to play Keanu’s role is faked in The Matrix LIVE, allowing a very talented and hilarious (and uncredited) performance by Denny Grinar. He provides some of the best moments in the show as a bewildered audience member dragged into the show pretty much against his will and getting more and more into it as the show progresses. Really funny stuff.


December 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 10, 15, 16 & 17, 2011. All shows at 7:30.
Tickets, Advance: $18 General Admission; Student, Senior, Military $16
Day of Show: $20 General Admission; Senior, Military: $18; Student: $10 with valid current student ID at the box office
Season ticket eligible * Group Rates available

The Alley Theater
1205 East Washington Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Theatre Review: Last Train to Nibroc

Garret Patton as Raleigh and Kelly Patton as May in Last Train to Nibroc.
Photo courtesy of the Little Colonel Playhouse.

By Arlene Hutton
Directed by Martha Frazier

Reviewed by Keith Waits

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

Watching two people talk sounds dull, but it can be enthralling. For a good example of what I mean, check out Last Train to Nibroc, which just opened at the Little Colonel Playhouse. In the first scene of this two-character comedy-drama, the actors deliver all of the dialogue while sitting in train seats – physically confined together in tight circumstances with little opportunity to move at all. For it to work, the writing must be detailed and penetrating, and the players must be fully engaged in the moment. Otherwise, it can be a dreadful bore.

Fortunately, this production gets it right, with performances that seem to live and breathe the lives of these two characters with a fullness of feeling and subtlety that engages the audience. It is not a grand story, and not much happens along the way ­– three simple scenes that occur over a couple of years in the early 1940s – but the development of a prickly friendship that is trying to become a romance is examined in such careful, observant detail and rendered with a keen eye for the conflicting emotions contained therein that the final result arrives with unexpected pleasure.

The play is a chamber piece, a duet for man and woman. Raleigh is fresh out of the army in 1940, discharged for medical reasons just before the United States’ entry into World War II. He is confident and forward in his interest in May, a young woman he encounters on a train reading Magnificent Obsession. The choice of reading material for the character is specific to the moment in time but also provides a thoughtful contrast to the understated development of this relationship. May is reticent and wary of the brash young man, and most of the character’s actions are frustrating to witness; there is such a tendency to act against her own best interest and a lack of understanding of her own heart. 

It is a fascinating character study, and the script delivers dialogue that is certain of these characters identities, with a rich sense of time and place. Garrett and Kelly Patton, husband and wife in real life, do intelligent and well-observed work here, beautifully elucidating the depth of these characters under the wise direction of Martha Frazier. It is an intimate piece, with minimal blocking and sets – a perfect fit for the cozy stage of the Little Colonel Playhouse.

As strong as the work is, the energy did flag ever so slightly in the third scene, but the actors rallied to bring home the satisfying final moments in good form. This is high-quality work in an old-fashioned vein of storytelling that is ideal for this company and its very supportive audience.

Last Train to Nibroc

December 1-11, 2011

Little Colonel Playhouse
302 Mount Mercy Drive
Crestwood, KY 40014
(502) 241-9906

Friday, December 2, 2011

Theatre Review: Gays in Toyland

Written for Pandora by Jim Hesselman
Directed by Michael Drury

Reviewed by Keith Waits.

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

Gays in Toyland, Kneeling l to r:  Kate Holland, Jason Cooper;  
Standing l to r:  Mike Fryman, Patrick Brophy & Joe Hatfield. 
Photo courtesy of Pandora Productions.
Think of your most favorite Christmas fable and it almost certainly is a combination of innocence, fantasy, and music, with just enough schmaltz to melt the hearts of any curmudgeons on hand. 

So the first curiosity about Gays in Toyland is how closely it adheres to the formula for holiday enchantment. One might easily assume by the title alone that we are in for a nontraditional holiday offering that might even seek to subvert genre conventions and explode the very concept of the fantasy Christmas story. But the sly script by Jim Hesselman skillfully incorporates a message against intolerance towards gays while delivering a wholly charming and fully satisfying musical comedy that turns out to be, no kidding, entertainment suitable for the whole family.

Whether or not those are the creator’s intentions, I would have no problem recommending this production for children, with only a few off-color or suggestive bon mots that would be readily acceptable for broadcast during the “family hour” of 8 to 10 p.m. The story of a gentle shopkeeper trying, against great odds, to make a go of a small toy shop that eschews modern technology for old-fashioned dolls is pretty “safe” material for children. Add burgeoning friendships, a couple of wayward elves formerly employed at Santa’s workshop, and toys that come to life to sing sweet holiday songs, and it all seems irresistible.

That the burgeoning friendships are framed as the beginnings of a romance between two men, and that the catalyst for much of the positive effect on the shop’s fortunes is a heroic transgender character named Noelle – are but two examples of the contemporary sensibility that is injected into the material. Yet the storybook quality of the text, reinforced with estimable skill in the staging, establishes a sturdy foundation that allows Gays in Toyland to stand beside Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman as worthwhile seasonal fare.

The whole enterprise moves at a spritely pace and, clocking in at a lean and economical one hour and forty-five minutes with intermission, exits the stage long before any welcome is worn out.

The cast is uniformly excellent and brings an appropriate light touch to the playing. Patrick Brophy was in fine voice and sassy form as Noelle, while Mike Fryman and Joseph Hatfield proved an appealing pair as the shop owner and his new employee/possible love interest. Jason Cooper and Kate Holland were a comic delight as the two elves, and Alex Craig, Susan Crocker, Laura Ellis, Robbie Lewis and Julie Zelinski all do yeoman service as the ensemble. The mix of classic songs with revamped lyrics is a crucial ingredient in the balance of tradition and modern sensibility. Some of the numbers are brief, mere snatches of song, but “All I Want for Christmas Is a One-Night Stand” was a full-fledged show-stopper that begged for a fuller accompaniment than could be provided by one keyboardist, even one as capable as Doug Jones. In the second act, a wonderfully affecting presentation of “Doll on a Music Box/Truly Scrumptious” by a quartet of life-size toys come to life (Ms. Ellis, Ms. Crocker, Mr. Craig and Mr. Lewis) was a sweet but complex and intelligent number that was simultaneously innocent enough for children but, at least in this context and with the help of Mr. Hesselman’s tweaked words, provided smart social commentary for the adults. Along with a humorous variation of “Baby, It's Cold Outside” by the same four actors portraying newly baked ginger-bread cookies liberated from the oven, it makes the most potent case for the ageless appeal of this particular show. 

This show is yet another example of the seemingly inexhaustible ingenuity that Pandora brings to bear in exercising their mission statement. Hugely entertaining yet never so strident as to bury the joy and fun, the audience is invited to have a good time while expanding its understanding and insight of the larger society and the diversity of its citizens. Unabashedly cute but also smart and sassy, Gays in Toyland is a winning addition to the parade of holiday productions.

Gays in Toyland

December 1-11, 2011

Actors Theatre Louisville
The Victory Jory Theatre
316 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202