Saturday, April 23, 2011

Review: Alley Theatre's "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot"

Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
opened in New York in 2005 at LABrynth
with Philip Seymour Hoffman directing and
 Eric Bogosian as Satan. 
Not being familiar with Stephen Adly Guirgis's play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot I thought at first that the Alley Theatre was taking a potentially controversial step by opening on one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar. What I saw last night was, however, an unorthodox, but and interesting theological, psychological, sociological examination of questions surrounding the story of Christ's betrayal. Guirgis extends the idea of humanity's Free Will to the afterlife, but never reaches his conceit's absurd breaking point. Although it ran to generally positive reviews in New York and was warmly received in London in 2008, the play still needs a good editing and some rewrites if it is ever to reach its potential.

From an audience perspective TLDOJI is just too long and repetitive. Alley Theatre's opening night production ran 3 hours, 15 minutes including an intermission. Director Todd Zeigler and his cast will, one hopes, pick up the pace. What the play really needs, however, is the elimination of entire monologues and the condensation of others. There is a point in the process of writing a play during which the playwright throws in every idea he or she has developed: "the kitchen sink phase" if you will. From that hodgepodge of ideas a writer winnows and cuts to create a narrative arc, define characters and hone the storyline. It is, I understand the most difficult step in the process because it means throwing out really good stuff. This step is what is currently missing from Guirgis's work.

As it stands TLDOJI is an actor's dream; a series of dramatic monologues giving a performer plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their emotional range. Most of the actors in the Alley Theatre production delivered effective, occasionally inspired performances, that lacked the commitment needed to make them great. One of the early criticisms of this work, which unashamedly "Americanizes the afterlife,"is that it is at times "too New York," and last night's characterizations did tend toward the jerseylicious at times. The production as a whole seemed slightly underlighted and actors were too often delivering their lines in the shadows. I could have also wished for a more intimate staging, which would also have picked up the pace by reducing the actors' travel time. The production benefitted from Rachel French's costumes which were a bit literal, but very well realized.

The American approach to ideas related to God and creation is often adversarial and territorial. The playwright, who has written for and appeared in a number of popular television courtroom dramas uses this proclivity as a jumping off point by setting the scene in a greater-Purgatory court where opposing council attempt to settle the fate of Judas Iscariot as he sits in a catatonic stupor on the ninth level of Hell.

Mr. Guirgis obviously had a good time creating the character of Satan and Jon Adams's interpretation of the ultimate betrayer as a street smart wise guy was spot on. As Satan Adams has some of the best dialogue in the play and gives us a cool, understated, sympathetic creature free of stock ominous overtones. As the title character Brandon Cox spends much of the play staring into space. This is a real test of an actor's ability and Cox remained an empathetic character throughout, setting himself up well to tell Judas's story late in the second act. His revelatory scene with Jesus (Timothy Brown) toward the end of the play was well paced and dramatic. It was also the playwright's most openly evangelical moment of the evening. Brown's Jesus was ready for framing: tall, Anglo, restrained and beneficent throughout.

Originally conceived for actors to play multiple roles Zeigler has pared that aspect down a bit, so that the Alley production boasts a prodigious cast, some of whom appear for only a single monologue. One of these is John Hetzel who delivers a fine performance as Caiaphas the Elder. Dan Canon does a wonderful job providing new perspectives on Pontius Pilate and has a well-written, well performed absolutely superfluous coda as jury foreman Butch Honeywell. Tony Smith as Egyptian Prosecutor Yusef El-Fayoumy (a nod to the playwright's paternal heritage) and Meg Caudill as defense council/crusader Fabiana Aziza Cunningham serve as the binding agents of the play. Both actors carry the weight effortlessly and deliver uniformly enjoyable performances. I wish there had been more for Chris Petty to do. As Bailiff and Soldier his roles were functionary, but his turn as Simon the Zealot was exceptionally authentic. Finally I should not fail to mention Madeline Miller's turn as Saint Monica the foul-mouthed mother of Church Father Saint Augustine. This is one of the most exposed roles in the production and Miller carried it off well. With more time she may add the texture to her interpretation that would turn this character into someone memorable.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot continues at the Alley Theatre, 1205 East Washington Street at The Pointe, through April 30 with a special performance on Easter Sunday at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $15--$18 for general admission and may be purchased in advance: 502.713.6178 or Discounts are available for groups of 10+.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Review: Bourbon Baroque Music for Holy Week

Oh for a seat in heaven from which to have heard last night's performance by Bourbon Baroque. If not heaven, perhaps the dome of St. Agnes where much of the sound was directed. One of the many challenges faced by artistic directors of small, nomadic organizations like Bourbon Baroque is the inability to sufficiently master the acoustics of their performance hall in the time permitted. With guest soloists coming in and out of town just in time for performances it is difficult to achieve the delicate balance they and their audiences would appreciate.

That being said I am happy Susan and I were able to be part of last evening's event. As war planes roared above us on their way to simulated attacks on downtown Louisville, artistic directors John Austin Clark and Nicolas Fortin and their fortified chamber ensemble provided a beautiful beginning to Holy Week. There was room to dance, but we were well rewarded.

The concert began with three works for Traverso, Violin and continuo by Italian composer Domenico Corri. Flutist Leela Breithaupt joined Fortin and the ensemble [Janelle Davis, violin; Meghan Casper, viola; Lara Turner, cello; and Clark, harpsichord] in a gorgeous interpretation of music (according to the program notes) never before heard by this or any other North American audience.

Appreciation for music of the Baroque performed on authentic instruments requires a "re-tuning" of the ear for modern listeners. This shift in paradigm allows for the beautiful and exotic sonorities created last evening by Fortin and Breithaupt as Corri brought them together and swept them apart, twirling and bowing in a musical reflection of courtly dances.

The second portion of last evening's concert, Bach's Cantata, BWV 82 "Ich Habe Genug," was a tribute to the outstanding work of Melvin and Margaret Dickinson who, after 47 years, will close the books on the Louisville Bach Society with a final concert on May 1. The Dickinson's were an early inspiration for Clark who hopes to carry on the spirit of the ensemble.

For the cantata the ensemble was supplemented with a Violine (ancestor of the modern Bass Viol), played by Phil Spray. Bach took the text for his cantata, originally composed for the 1727 Feast of the purification of St. Mary, from the Gospel of Luke. Originally scored for a solo Bass vocal with orchestral accompaniment, "Ich habe genug" draws from the words of Simeon who proclaimed the fulfillment of his life, "I have enough," after the Holy Spirit prompts him toward an encounter with an eight-day-old infant Jesus. Bach arranged the popular work for soprano, tenor, alto and mezzo-soprano during his lifetime. Bach, being Bach, also introduced a second voice through his use of the oboe. The ethereal qualities of oboist Sung Lee's interpretation were suggestive of the Holy Spirit's role in the story, gently guiding the aged Simeon along toward a "serendipitous" meeting with the holy family. Mezzo-soprano Kristen Leich sang beautifully, filling the sanctuary when she was in her mid and upper ranges. Her low range was beautiful, round and mellow, if a little difficult to hear at times due to her unfamiliarity with the requirements of the space.

The evening concluded with Ms. Leich and the ensemble, sans oboe and traverso, performing two short pieces from Handel's Theodora, HWV 68. This was Handel's penultimate oratorio and his least heard. Thomas Morell's libretto is often in need of help from the composer, but not in last evening's selections. The text of the oratorio deals with the martyrdom of Theodora and the converted Roman soldier Didymus;  Leich's interpretation of the Recit: Ah! Whither should we fly and the Aria, As with rosy steps the morn were both beautiful and inspiring.

Mahler Symphony No. 1

Composer Gustav Mahler. Dr. Joanna Goldstein will Direct the IU Southeast Orchestra and members of Keep Louisville Symphonic in a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 "Titan," Sunday, April 17 at 3:00 p.m. in the Ogle Center, 4201 Grant Line Road, New Albany. Tickets are $8 for adults and will be available at the door.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Review: Crimes of the Heart

This weekend and next Bunbury Theatre, in cooperation with Kentucky Shakespeare, offers you the opportunity to experience one of the great Southern Gothic dramas. Beth Henley premiered her play Crimes of the Heart in Louisville at the 1979 Humana Festival of New American Plays. Among the many awards received since, a 1981 Pulitzer for Drama and the 1982 Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Director. In 1986 Henley successfully adapted her play for the screen and received three Academy Award nominations including Best Film.

Mera Kathryn Corlett as Lenny Magrath (foreground) and Laura Obernauf as Babe Botrelle
 in the Bunbury Theatre production of Crimes of the Heart.
Continuing through April 17 at the Henry Clay Building, 604 S. Third Street.
Tickets at 502.585.5306 or 
Veteran Steve Woodring both directed and designed the set for the Bunbury production and must be congratulated on both counts. Henley's script requires a director with a clear vision and some maturity to keep the story from tipping into melodrama or theatre of the absurd. At the same time the playwright has cannily created a script which seems to meander and twist on its way to delivering delightful revelations that gleefully hammer away at the base of the Southern archetypes that confine her characters. To aid in this Woodring has created a set that would be the envy of any theatre in the world. With designers Keith Kimmel (Lighting) and Teresa Greer (Costumes) Woodring transports audiences to Hazelhurst, Mississippi on an October evening in 1977 before the first word is spoken.

Enter Lenny Magrath, portrayed by the charming Mera Kathyrn Corlett making her Bunbury debut. Chronologically the youngest member of the company Corlett delivers a convincing spinster worn down by the prolonged verbal abuse of her benefactor "Old Grandaddy" who, unlike the film, works his will from the wings in the stage version. This is a true ensemble cast, though much of the play's attention is directed toward middle sister Meg Magrath and her paramour Doc Porter, played by the company's only members of Actors Equity Madison Dunaway and Brantley Dunaway, respectively. Brantley purposely underplays the deeply wounded Doc--a withered remnant of himself visibly reanimated by his proximity to the charismatic, vibrant Meg. Madison's character choices are among the most powerful in the production revealing a multi-dimensional girl who has willed herself to survive after a severe childhood.  trauma. The third sister in the triad is Babe Botrelle, played by Laura Obenauf, as a clueless, reckless belle-come-to-ruin. Obenauf avoids the temptation of making Babe appear spoiled and deserving of her fate, creating a character the audience can love.

One of the triumphs of Henley's writing is the avoidance of cliche. In the stage version of Crimes of the Heart she has created two characters who provide the chiaroscuro for this dark comedy. Raquel Robbins Cecil, well-known to Bunbury audiences, appears here to great comedic effect as the Magrath's first cousin and occasional nemesis Chick Boyle, a typical Hazelhurstian who unquestioningly accepts her society and embraces her role within its walls. The young idealistic lawyer Barnette Lloyd, played by Neil Brewer, was written out of the film version of the script. Young Brewer has the persona made popular by Jimmy Stewart at the height of his career; Bunbury subscribers may well remember his portrayal of Elwood P. Dowd. The character of the lawyer is problematic. At the beginning of the play he appears destined to become Babe's knight errant; by the end of the play I wondered if his sympathies might lie more along the lines of a different kind of knight popular in the South.

Adding to evening is a beautiful soundtrack of original music composed and performed by UofL professor and former Louisville Orchestra musician Sidney King.

I was surprised to discover at the end of the evening that this production runs approximately 2 1/2 hours with one 15-minute intermission. Be sure to let the babysitter know and make your plans now to attend one of the remaining performances of this wonderful play.

The Bunbury Theatre concludes the current season with Larry Shue's The Foreigner, June 11--17.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"The Dinner," by Sandy Richard, Pandora Productions

Pandora Productions
The Dinner by Sandy Richard
Through April 10, 2011
MeX Theatre, Kentucky Center for the Arts

Director: Michael J. Drury

Cast (in order of appearance):
Ted Lesley [Todd]
Sean Childress [Kevin]
Amy Holt [Chris]
Raven Railey [Lauren]
Amy Lewis-Ziegler [Amy]
Kristy Calman [Monica]

Please read my review in the April 6, 2011 edition of LEO

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Review: The Louisville Orchestra by Susan Reigler


The Louisville Orchestra's 2010-2011 Hilliard Lyons Classic Series concerts have been organized as musical tours of various cities around the world. Conductor Jorge Mester led the Louisville Orchestra and its audience at the Brown Theatre on a musical journey to London last night in program featuring music by Benjamin Britten, Antonin Dvorak and Edward Elgar. The results were mixed.

The concert opened with a very early work by Britten. Soirees musicales, Op. 9, ("Musical Evenings") was composed by in 1936 when, while working as a journeyman composer at a film studio in England, Britten was asked to write music for a documentary film entitled "Men of the Alps." The 23-year-old composer arranged five piano pieces by Rossini into a delightful suite for orchestra. (He later arranged another set of Rossini pieces and the two were eventually combined as the score for Balanchine's ballet, Divertimento.)

Last night's performance of the suite, which opened with a confident fanfare in the brass and alternately marched, capered and waltzed through the various sections of the orchestra, gave several of the LO's principals, including Marion Gibson (oboe), J. Jerome Amend (trumpet) and Andrea Levine (clarinet) chances to display their musicality with playful and charming solos. Touches of humor left audience members smiling, not least of which was the instrumental imitation of alpine yodeling in the "Tirolese" movement.

Charm, and no small amount of poetry, was on hand in soloist Julie Albers' account of Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B minor, Opus 104, which had its premeire in London in 1896. It was a virtually note-perfect performance by the American cellist, but even though her well-developed musical taste was evident, the performance never displayed the full-blooded Bohemian emotions of the concerto.

Ms. Albers spends much of her career playing chamber music and her sound is actually more suited to that genre that to performing in front of a symphony orchestra, at least as heard under last night's circumstances. The voice of her 1872 Vuillaume cello never managed to fill the hall and the orchestra almost entirely overbalanced the soloist. One exception was a beautiful duet with concertmaster Michael Davis. Why was Maestro Mester not being mindful of these acoustics?

Speaking of acoustics, during the lyrical Adagio movement, strange electronic twittering could be heard in the auditorium. Was the ensemble being amplified? The sound of the orchestra during Elgar's "Enigma" variations reinforced this impression.

It was difficult to distinguish layers of tone color - strings, winds, brass - and the orchestra dynamics ranged from loud to louder. A performance of Elgar's nostalgically romantic masterpiece requires a full choir of strings, especially lower strings, whose numbers were not in balance with the violins. Was the orchestra being electronically enhanced to give an impression of being larger? If so, it was not a good idea. There is a huge difference between "full sound" and "loud volume" and the loudness in the hall was physically painful.

This was a brutish rendering of music that should have been characterized by the composer's affection for and appreciation of the friends and family he depicted in the variations. Mester's tempos were so rushed that all wit and whimsy was obliterated.

The famous Variation IX, "Nimrod," should begin so softly that the audience has the impression of a musical whisper. The movement builds in an ever-so-gradual crescendo making the climax of Elgar's elegiac melody one of the most beautiful and powerfully emotional moments in music. (It is the musical realization of Henry James' statement, "The English are the most romantic people in the world and it is their best kept secret.")

No such moment occurred here. The beginning was certainly no softer than mezzo forte, leaving little room for the emotional arc of the music.

 Notable musical moments from several players, however, almost saved the performance. Jack Griffin's expressive viola solo opened Variation X ("Dorabella") was beautifully realized. Acting principal cellist Peter McCaffrey's confident solo introduced Variation XII (B.G.N.), a showpiece for the small cello section as a whole. The excitement and exuberance of the final variation was effectively expressed, thanks to the skill of the LO brass. If the rest of "Enigma" Variations had been as well played as the last two variations, this would have been a much more enjoyable performance.

Two other impediments to audience enjoyment must be noted. Apparently, as a cost-saving measure for the cash-strapped Louisville Orchestra, there have been no program notes for the last several performances of the LO. Listeners would have to look up the works ahead of the concert for background information that was given in this review. The program didn’t even include all the movements of the Elgar. It stopped at the ninth variation. There are thirteen.

The last two Hilliard Lyons Classic Series concerts, on April 29 and May 14, will also be at the Brown Theatre. It is hoped that theatre management will turn off the heat. Many audience members were fanning themselves throughout the concert last night and no wonder. Radiators on the stairway landings to the balcony were hot enough to grill steaks.