Friday, October 28, 2011

Theatre Review by Keith Waits: "Little Shop of Horrors"

Music by Alan Menken. Book and lyrics by Howard Ashman.
Based on the film by Roger Corman. Screenplay by Charles Griffith.
Directed by John R. Leffert.

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

What a journey this material has experienced! From el-cheapo Roger Corman black-and-white horror comedy to off-Broadway musical to Broadway hit and Hollywood musical; and now a mainstay of community theaters all over America. It launched the careers of composing team Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who went on to become millionaires, helping revive Walt Disney’s animation department in the 1980s with films such as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

This splendid production at CenterStage returns the musical version to its humbler roots, restoring the kitschy tone and reveling in the nonstop parade of songs in the tuneful score. I had forgotten how little “book” there is in the first act, with most of the story and character development forcefully communicated in the musical numbers. Even the context and expository narrative is largely delivered in songs by the four Urchins. Modeled on girl groups from the early 1960s, they are a highlight of any production of Little Shop of Horrors and they are played here by Tamika Skaggs, Cierra Richmond, Tymika Prince and Katie Bowles with the required sass and style.

The story is simple enough. Seymour Krelborn and the object of his unrequited affections, Audrey, work for Mushnik’s Flower Shop, located on skid row and failing miserably until Seymour places his strange, interesting and wholly unidentifiable plant in the shop window. In the space of a song or two, success and fame come to Seymour and the shop, but at a terrible price, as the plant, dubbed Audrey II, begins to reveal its true and grisly nature.

For me, there are often moments in a familiar show that are a test for any new production. The first such moment in Little Shop is when Audrey II convinces Seymour of the real meaning of “Feed Me.” The duet between Chris Bryant as Seymour and Rush Trowel, giving soulful and stirring offstage voice to the homicidal plant, is thrilling, it and builds beautifully to the hilarious climax.

The other is in the number “Suddenly Seymour,” the wonderful love ballad sung by Seymour and Audrey. Done correctly, there is genuine triumph and heartfelt emotion being expressed equally for both characters, an uplifting moment that precedes a series of dark and dire circumstances. The performances of Mr. Bryant and Lauren McCombs as Audrey were certainly up to the task, delivering a memorable exchange that brought a rousing reaction from the audience.

Ms. McCombs was a comic delight throughout the evening, teetering precariously on high heels and wrapped in a form-fitting mini-skirt, but also singing in a strong voice that proved the highlight of the show. Mr. Bryant charted Seymour’s journey from nebbish to hero (of sorts) with confidence and forceful vocals. Jordan Price was impressive in multiple roles, but most notably as Orin Scrivello, D.D.S., Audrey’s vile and sadistic boyfriend. He seemed to relish the opportunity to overplay and was obviously having a good time on stage. Rusty Henle’s singing as Mushnik was a little weak in comparison to the others, yet he brought such high energy and specificity to his raucous number “Mushnik and Son” that it hardly mattered.

The design work and technical production were typical of the high standards we have come to expect from the CenterStage team, and the tidy orchestra of six led by John Spencer kept the lively accompaniment. This is a fun, fun show that works for all ages.

Little Shop of Horrors
October 27 – November 13, 2011
Jewish Community Center CenterStage
Linker Auditorium
3600 Dutchmans Lane
Louisville, KY 40205

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Theatre review by Keith Waits: "The Mousetrap"

By Agatha Christie
Directed by Amy Lewis Zeigler

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

As a kid, I used to love reading mysteries and went through a big Agatha Christie phase that included And Then There Were None, A Pocketful of Rye and the ultimate Christie experience, Murder on the Orient Express. So it seems somewhat inexplicable that I somehow have never encountered this famous play that has enjoyed the longest run in theatrical history: more than 24,500 performances of the original London production that is still entertaining audiences as of this writing.

The plot is a classic set-up: eight characters trapped in an English inn by a blizzard – which one of them is the killer? The limitations make it a natural for the stage, but even more interesting is that The Mousetrap, having been written by Christie after 30 years of celebrity, catches the renowned author playing with the tropes and clichés of the genre she helped create with a calculating and knowing wink to the audience. She hasn’t yet grown tired of them, but she is too self-aware to play it completely straight.

Why else would she have inserted Mr. Paravicini, a patently false character who calls such obvious attention to his dubious nature that he simply cannot be the murderer, if not to gently and humorously parody the audience’s expectation?  Although the script contains as much levity as suspense, this character is so broadly drawn and unresolved that we can only believe a writer of Christie’s discipline created him for such purpose.

Of course, 50 years after it opened, the surprises that have helped make this play famous may have slightly less impact for a modern sensibility. But the time-honored traditions on display in the structure can work wonderfully as nostalgia. In any event, this reviewer will say as little as possible and move on to the particulars of this solid production.

The action gets off to a slow start as the business of introducing characters and circumstance roll out on the nicely detailed set.  Director Amy Lewis Zeigler emphasizes the eccentricities of the characters in these opening moments, letting the story play more like drawing-room comedy than murder mystery – until the introduction late in the first act of Detective Sergeant Trotter, who arrives hot on the trail of a killer. After his arrival, the pace quickens somewhat and real suspense develops, despite it remaining a dialogue-heavy affair. The second act builds the identity of the murderous criminal with more care than one might expect, given the famous “twist” that all are sworn to never reveal. I was pleased that the resolution was lacking in gimmickry and that background was so thoughtfully explicated both in the script and this particular staging.

To talk about individual performances also provides ample opportunity for spoilers, but the work was fairly consistent in tone and the various attempts at British accents were at least never distracting. Each player delivered the goods in terms of providing appropriate red herrings and managed to find the laughs without sacrificing their character’s integrity. Bryce Woodard as policeman Trotter effectively introduced a sense of danger and urgency that quickened the pace, while Steve Zimmerman overplayed Mr. Paravicini in just the right way, with a full understanding that he was not playing a character but instead representing the author’s self-referential inside joke.

Good mysteries onstage are rare enough to make this a must-see for any devotee of the genre, and I cannot remember the last time this play, or any other Christie script, was produced in this area, so beware letting this opportunity slip away.

Featuring Sean Childress, Carrie Cooke, Elizabeth Cox, Michael Roberts, Jennifer Starr Tennant, Frank Whitaker, Bryce Woodard, and Steve Zimmerman.
The Mousetrap
October 26, 27, 28, 29, 31 and November 4, 5 @ 8 p.m.
November 5, 6 @ 2 p.m.

Louisville Repertory Company
The MeX Theatre, Kentucky Center
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Theatre Review by Keith Waits: "The Rocky Horror Show"

Book, Music & Lyrics by Richard O’Brien
Directed by Michael Drury
Reviewed by Keith Waits

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

I must confess I never cared for the film of this show. No disrespect to the iconic performances of Tim Curry and company. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is often clever but just as often lame and lackluster. To understand what I mean, see any good production of the original stage version to compare and contrast. There happens to be a pretty good one happening right now from Pandora Productions at The Connection Theatre.

This is the third year that director Michael Drury has made this play a Halloween treat, and many of the cast have returned from previous years. But now the setting is the proscenium with thrusting catwalk configuration of The Connection Theatre. For the most part (more about this later), it is a very good space for this show, the large cast (besides the 9 principals, there are is a “phantom” chorus numbering 13) prowling every bit of the stage and lower portions of the audience, once or twice carrying the action into the balcony level as well. It is a lively and audacious staging that fully embraces the essence of Rocky, which, in the words of Mr. Drury, is a “rock musical about sex,” without ever truly crossing the bounds of good taste.

Is a synopsis necessary? The story seems familiar even if you have never seen any previous version, overlaying transvestitism, trans sexuality, bisexuality and orgies over a hotbed of horror movie and sci-fi clichés that seem impossible to have avoided in the deeply self-referential pop culture stew we live in. It all may have been slightly shocking when it debuted in 1973, but now it plays more like good, slightly naughty, fun.

Dan Canon and Susan Crocker as the brother-sister team of Riff-Raff and Magenta were so at ease in these roles, sinister, with a hint of cruelty, as was the vivacious Laura Ellis as Columbia, all three veterans of previous years' productions. Newcomers to the show like Zachary Burrell as Rocky and Kyle Braun and Katie Nuss as Brad and Janet fit right in as if they had been doing these roles for years. The talented Mr. Braun especially proves once again why he is a fixture in local musical theatre. All were in good voice and brought loads of charm and energy to the proceedings. Best of all was Lucas Adams in the dual role of Eddie/Dr. Scott. He was a fine Eddie, rocking “Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul” with style. But it was the hilarious, teutonic Dr. Scott that nearly stole the show, incorporating a few passing references to previous Germanic authority figures like Dr. Strangelove.

Two veteran performers define the whole enterprise with great wit and style. Ted Lesley gives the Narrator just enough distinction that he overcomes the sometimes awkward placement of his interjections in the script, while Eddie D. Lewis plays Frank-N-Furter with real force and moxie – a slight homage to the famous originator of the role, but in the end his own memorable take on the character. His rendition of the climactic “I’m Going Home” was genuinely moving, providing a little emotional heft to a show that otherwise revels in the ridiculous.

The look of the production was marvelously decadent and appropriately fetishistic, mostly due to Shana Lincoln’s sexy costumes, which must have exhausted the available supply of spandex, leather and kinky lingerie in town. Good use was made of screen projections, some called for in the script but some designed to make reference to the film version as well. The three-piece band was tight, although Gayle King’s keyboards, so expertly executed, did not entirely remove my yearning for some chunky guitar chords. This is a good rock score, and it cries out for some rock and roll guitar. Sorry, Gayle.

I do have to quibble with the sound system, which at times dropped out on some seemingly strong singing. Dan Canon’s performance was compromised most when, for example, his line “I’m your new commander…” almost disappeared in the muddy mix. That is not a line you want to miss. Perhaps it was my seat close to the stage; perhaps it was a glitch in individual microphones. But it was an unfortunate recurring problem the night I attended. Very atypical for a Pandora Production too, so perhaps we can have confidence that Mr.Drury’s able technical crew will have such snafus addressed forthwith.

The local theatre scene is filled with good serious theatre right now, but for a rockin’ good time, it would be hard to beat this production, with its high energy and wicked humor. The Connection Theatre includes a Cash Only bar, so you can have a drink or two as well, which is always a good thing.

Ted Lesley as The Narrator in Pandora Productions'
The Rocky Horror Show. Photo courtesy of Pandora Productions.

The Rocky Horror Show
October 20-23, 26-31, 7:30pm
Pandora Productions
At The Connection Theatre
120 S. Floyd Street (enter from Market Street)
Tickets: 502-216-5502

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Louisville’s Photo Biennial Round Up

Louisville’s Photo Biennial Round Up
By Mary Margaret Sparks

Entire contents are copyright © 2011 Mary Margaret Sparks. All rights reserved.

The Photo Biennial is the Louisville photographic festival. It was started in 1999 and has grown into a huge citywide event featuring over 30 exhibitions at galleries, museums, universities and other public venues. The Biennial not only features exceptional exhibitions ranging from local to international photography but also includes lectures, workshops, symposia and public discussions. The Photo Biennial will be on display through the end of the month. Here are a few exhibitions not to miss.

Kaviar Forge & Gallery is currently exhibiting work by photographer Ryan Pyle. The exhibition is in conjunction with the “Canadian Invasion” section of the Photo Biennial featuring work by exceptional Canadian artists. Ryan Pyle’s work documents his 2006 journey in Central Asia photographing Chinese Turkestan culture. Pyle is a photographer for the New York Times based in China and will be giving a lecture at the Mellwood Arts Center on Sunday, October 23. An artist reception will be held at Kaviar Forge & Gallery on Saturday, October 22, from 1-4PM.

With Pyle’s credentials and awards, one would expect the works to be of great quality, and viewers will not be disappointed because each black-and-white photograph is stunning. Viewers will be drawn in by Pyle’s attention to detail in crafting each photograph and by the detailed subject matter of each piece. This exhibition is a great example of combining documentary realism with artistic creativity.

Another exhibition to check out is The Vision of a Generation: Photographs from the Parklands of Floyds Fork by Ted Wathen, Bob Hower and John Nation at the Main Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library.

The long layout of the Bernheim gallery lends itself well to the work. Viewers are met by the vivid colors as they walk into the space. The exhibition covers the five parks within the Parklands areas with the photographers taking on different parks.

The photographs were taken in 2007 after each had toured the Parklands. They decided to photograph the parks during each of the seasons to showcase the natural beauty and variety of the wilderness.

The images are breathtaking and range from aerial views to extreme close-ups capturing each individual park in its best form. Some of my favorite pieces include a close-up of four different tree barks by Bob Hower. The piece captures the delicate skin of the tree contrasting with the typical view of old trees as strong monuments. I also enjoyed John Nation’s piece depicting an animal skull lying amongst a field of purple lilacs.

The exhibition is free to the public and will be on display in the Bernheim Gallery through October 31.

All of the Photo Biennial exhibitions are remarkable, so make sure you check out as many as you can before they’re over! Below is a listing of upcoming events, and you can view all of the exhibition listings online at:

Photo Biennial Upcoming Events:
Friday, October 21: Canadian Invasion kick-off event at Mellwood Arts Center
Alan Rokach lecture at Actors Theatre, 6-8PM

Saturday, October 22: Jim Doiron lecture at Galerie Hertz, 3PM
Laura Carnie lecture at Gallery Janjobe
Alan Rokach workshop at Bernheim Arboretum

Sunday, October 23: Canadian Invasion lectures by Barrie Wentzell, Russell Monk & Ryan Pyle at Mellwood Arts Center, 6PM
Jim Doiron lecture at Galerie Hertz, 1:30PM
Alan Rokach workshop at Bernheim Arboretum

Saturday, October 29: Slide Luck Potshow at Land of Tomorrow

Monday, October 17, 2011

Theatre Review by Cristina Martin: "Blithe Spirit"

Written by Noel Coward
Directed by Juergen K. Tossmann

The French word esprit is a lovely and multifaceted one. It’s not only the equivalent of English spirit, in the sense of a disembodied life force or that of a pervasive mood, but it’s also translated as mind, and as that delectable product of the mind, wit. The current production of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit at Bunbury Theatre is a shining example of esprit in every sense.

The play derives its title from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To a Skylark”: Hail to thee, blithe spirit!/Bird thou never wert…. The bird of the poem seems far more ethereal than material; not so the blithe spirit of the play. She is the ghost of Elvira (Susan McNeese Lynch), first wife of writer Charles Condomine (Roger Fristoe). Elvira is summoned to this world when Charles invites famed medium Madame Arcati (Mary Ann Johnson) to hold a séance at his home, hoping to get fodder for his next book along with some good laughs at the expense of Madame Arcati’s “hocus-pocus.” His current wife, Ruth (Claire Sherman), as well as their friends Dr. George Bradman (Tony Prince) and his wife, Violet (Jennifer Levine), are also present. Worldly English folk of the 1950s, none of them anticipate an actual spiritual visitation. Even Madame Arcati is gleefully awed at her own success.

Naturally (and supernaturally), humor ensues in this “improbable farce,” as Coward himself called the work. He is also said to have remarked about Blithe Spirit, “There's no heart in the play. If there was a heart, it would be a sad story.” By this he meant presumably that it remains light throughout, as opposed to delving deep into the lives of complex characters. Be that as it may, the characters are cleverly drawn and skillfully brought to life in this production.

An almost constant patter of witty repartee holds the audience in a sustained state of amusement throughout. Every few minutes, laughter erupts as a situation, a turn of phrase, or a particularly animated facial expression on stage makes it impossible to suppress. Director Tossmann allows the wry verbal humor of Charles, Ruth and Dr. Bradman to be balanced artfully with the broader, more physical comedy expressed in the roles of Violet Bradman and Edith (Teresa Wentzel), the Condomines’ earnest and high-strung maid.

Roger Fristoe brings a good deal of experience to bear in the role of Charles, one which he has performed in three previous productions of the play. Supercilious stuffed shirt, once-and-future rogue, and occasionally hen-pecked husband all rolled into one, he’s able to combine arrogance with a certain vulnerability that makes the character more likable than he would be otherwise. As no-nonsense Ruth Condomine, Claire Sherman’s performance is as clean and sharp as her outstanding diction. She’s smart and self-possessed but not above being jealous of Charles’ first wife even before Elvira appears, and driven to her wits’ end once the spirit does join the household. Charles and Ruth engage in a good deal of deliciously sardonic dialogue, but Dr. Bradman comes out with some zingers, too. His is not one of the larger roles, but Tony Prince does it credit and is especially funny in his interactions with Jennifer Levine as his wife.

The humor in Mrs. Bradman’s character is of the broad variety, and Levine plays it to the hilt. Good natured but more than a little dim, Violet’s shrill, nervous laugh and vapid looks of consternation light up the stage. Also garnering laughter during every one of her entrances and exits is Edith, who struggles with everything she’s got (which may or may not be a whole lot) to master all that is required of her as a servant. Teresa Wentzel’s hilarious facial expressions and frenzied pitter-patter provide a great foil to the (relatively) staid Mr. and Mrs. Condomine.

The kingpin of all the action is Madame Arcati, of course. The splendidly cast Mary Ann Johnson immerses herself in this plum role and does not disappoint. She manages to make Madame Arcati gloriously nutty but entirely sincere, winning us over with surprisingly incisive comments one moment (Dr. Bradman: “I should think…”; Madame Arcati: “You should think, Dr. Bradman, but I’m afraid you don’t”) and cooing to her “ectoplasmic manifestations” the next. Marty Crawley’s costumes strike just the right note for each character and especially for Madame Arcati – what fun it must have been coming up with something appropriately zany, like her flowing garment in rainbow and black or her salmon-accented turban (a must-have for any medium, for sure) paired with velvet overalls.

Like Madame Arcati, Elvira entertains through her witticisms as well as through her physical expression. The exaggerated pout rarely leaves her face as she perches fetchingly on Charles’ sofa, and Lynch’s strong voice lends substance to Elvira’s otherworldly essence. She’s definitely strong-willed in spirit form, just as she was in life, and she’s none too pleased that Charles has taken a new wife since her death. Moreover, she seems to be here to stay, at least until Madame Arcati can figure out how to send her back where she came from. The situation of one man trying to get by with two mutually jealous wives is funny off the bat, but it’s further complicated by the fact that only Charles can see and hear Elvira. With Charles transmitting Elvira’s words to Ruth and sometimes taking editorial liberties, the result is often riotous.

Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in 1941; his insistence on its light and farcical nature can be seen as a conscious turning away from the gravity of the Second World War. Nevertheless, the play met with some initial objections on the part of those who thought it dealt too cavalierly with death at a time in history when the horror of human casualties was omnipresent and when some people had indeed begun to seek solace in spiritualism. The objections did not prevent the play from enjoying enormous success, however, then and since. Juergen Tossmann’s decision to set his production in the 1950s instead of the 1940s may be puzzling at first but makes sense upon reflection. In the popular imagination, the ’50s are so much more blithe of an era than the ’40s. Instead of being distracted by an essentially irrelevant historical context, we’re free to laugh and shake our heads at the amusing pettiness and universal character flaws of humankind.

Susan S. VanDyke’s well-appointed set evokes 1950s' upper-middle-class comfort and taste and is especially conveniently designed for ghostly activity. Lighting Designer Steve Woodring’s work highlights the action without ever devolving into camp where the supernatural is concerned. (I learned recently that it was Woodring who designed Bunbury’s marvelous theatre space on the third floor of the Henry Clay building, where the company has been performing for the last four seasons. What a boon to Louisville’s arts community!)

Without spoiling anything, I will say that Charles Condomine goes from being beleaguered by the demands of two wives to virtually skipping off stage as a single man at the end of Blithe Spirit. How does it come to pass? Go see Bunbury Theatre’s fine production to find out. By way of a hint, however, let me conjure an age-old comedic trope. From Molière’s tours d’esprit through drawing room comedies of a more modern bent, we learn: Never underestimate the servants!

Blithe Spirit
October 14-31, 2011
Bunbury Theatre
at the Henry Clay
604 S. Third St.
Louisville, KY
(502) 585-5306

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

Theatre Review by Todd Zeigler: "Hunter Gatherers"

Hunter Gatherers

By Peter Sinn Nachtrieb
Directed By Mike Brooks

Reviewed by Todd Zeigler

As much theater as there is in Louisville, and as good as the vast majority of it is, it’s easy to overlook that most of it is mined from Samuel French and Dramatist’s catalogue and presented as the latest interpretation of familiar material. (Look at even Actors Theatre’s offerings so far this season – Dracula, Tom Sawyer, and Jane Austen). One can become so accustomed to the standard way of doing shows that when something completely alien comes along, it can knock one completely for a loop with the freshness and vitality of wondering “What’s gonna happen next!?!”

Theatre [502]’s Hunter Gatherers by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, who should probably set up a second home in Louisville and would be more than welcome if he did, is one of the best productions to hit Louisville in a long time. It is at once the most absolutely essential example of what a play should be (antagonists who want something and do what they must to get it) and a tour de force of wit and insight into how primal even the most sophisticated people can be.

Two couples gather to celebrate the anniversary of their joint wedding – and a cascade of truths (though they could hardly be called secrets) burst free. That is all the plot summary you’ll find here. It is far more thrilling to discover the play completely fresh.

What can be said is that Hunter Gatherers is a far stronger work than Nachtrieb’s Humana Festival entry this year, BOB. That offering played out almost as a documentary: an academic, didactic overview of events that seem to have already happened, coming to a tidy conclusion. Nachtrieb’s signature style is to set up absurd situations, ground them in completely real circumstances, and push them as far as they can go. Here, he calls his shot, swings, and the ball still hasn’t hit the ground.

The four performers are some of Louisville’s best, and they push their work farther than any previous personal best because this playwright gives them so much to work with. It’s a common complaint that modern plays are easier to read than speak aloud. Nachtrieb boldly runs in the opposite direction. These characters don’t speak as much as essay. What makes it work is the explosive emotion barely veneered by the words. Every line is used to assuage, hurt, intimidate, plead, challenge – the active verbs that make a script a performance. And it is so thrilling to see actors think onstage as the tide ebbs and flows against them. Each also makes small character choices that make them all the more recognizable. You find yourself picking – and switching – sides because you know these people.

Nachtrieb’s dialogue has a musicality and wit to rival Aaron Sorkin’s, and director Mike Brooks has created an ensemble that positively sings. To say Eli Keel owns or dominates the stage isn’t enough. He conquers it, making us completely understand how sweaty asshole Alpha-Male genetics still thrive in polite society. He unapologetically enjoys everything he undertakes – a Stanley Kowalski for the iPhone age.

Leah Roberts is consistently cast around town for her ability to drive a high-tension, high-energy scene. Here she also shows us how she can delicately handle a release. (See the play. What I’m referring to is way more awesome than the way I’m referring to it.) She brings her usual brilliance and then some.

Sarah East is a master of both laugh lines and unexpected pathos. She makes bold choices and completely commits to why every word has to be said. She doesn’t color, beseech or inflect in any way. Before you’ve even registered how funny or heartbreaking her last line was, she’s on to the next one. Amazing to observe.

Joe Hatfield does a marvelous job of making a feckless character dramatically engaging. You want him so badly to fight back. Tricky work, exceptionally achieved.

My only quibble is with the style of fight choreography here. The show does get physical, and the hand-to-skin contact isn’t handled with contact, but with distant swings and hands slapping thighs or the stage floor for the appropriate sound effect. With the high intensity of this show, such artifice is like a pin poking a balloon: it doesn’t pop, but it really takes your attention in a way that it shouldn’t. But it is a choice, it suits Nachtrieb’s theatrical style, and it is consistent throughout. For that, it’s easy to get past to every other marvelous thing about this show.

No less than Jon Jory recently said that one of the biggest risks a new company can take is to produce only new works (while no less than Theatre [502]’s Gil Reyes was sitting right next to him). Whether classic or cutting-edge, Louisville is a city that supports its theatre, and Theatre [502] is putting out brand new work that we can get giddily excited about. Do not miss this.

Photo by Bill Brymer: Leah Roberts and Sarah East in
Theatre [502]'s production of Hunter Gatherers.
Hunter Gatherers

October 14- 22

The Victor Jory Theater
Actors Theatre of Louisville
Third & Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Entire contents copyright 2011 Todd Zeigler. All rights reserved.

Theatre Review by Keith Waits: "Frankenstein"


Written by Nick DiMartino. Adapted from the novel by Mary Shelley.
Directed by Charlie Sexton.

Reviewed by Keith Waits.

Frankenstein is a tale born from a nightmare in the mind of its author, Mary Shelley, and forged through a competition among privileged intellectuals, yet the continuing appeal of this story draws on the powerful concept of man creating life. The ultimate act of hubris: man imagining himself as God.

There are as many film adaptations as there are stars in the sky, and while many of them have been effective essays in horror, few do Shelley justice. This stage adaptation, by Nick DiMartino, hews closer to the source material, maintaining much of the surprisingly complex narrative but fashioning a lean and forthright plot all the same. Victor Frankenstein creates his “monster,” and his life is disassembled piece by piece as a result. The act of creation brings only destruction – the results an inevitable price to pay for such supreme arrogance.

Walden Theatre has mounted a handsome production that features a deluxe two-tier set design by Alec Volz and Clayton Marshall and lovely costumes by Donna Lawrence-Downs. A well-chosen cast puts forth earnest effort punctuated by some above-average work from Hank Paradis as Victor Frankenstein; Calvin Barron as his friend, Henry Clerval; and Noah Bunch as younger brother, William Frankenstein. D.J. Nash is fine as The Creature, nicely capturing brutality and confusion in equal measure with solid assist from Neill Robertson’s effective make-up design.

But the actors’ good work is sometimes undercut by a pace that rushes through important moments rather than letting them breathe and resonate. At its best, the script is genuinely tragic and much more than a genre exercise. But the emotional impact of death and, eventually, sacrifice, is not allowed to register fully with the audience as the action races pell-mell across the stage. This Frankenstein is swift and creepy fun, but it could have been so much more.

Still, memorable moments abound; and when Allison Spanyer as Elizabeth steps out of the shadows – a sepulchral vision – to deliver an all-too-brief epilogue, we get a glimpse of the haunting vision that director Charlie Sexton seems to be reaching for.

Illustration by Theodor Von Holst from the
frontispiece of the 1831 edition.
October 13-15 and 20-22 @ 7:30
October 15 & 22 @ 2:00pm

Walden Theatre
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY
(502) 589-0084

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

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Laura Eason / Playwright

Six years ago Laura Eason adjusted the focus of her career to concentrate on life as a playwright. The former actor, musician and artistic director made a name for herself as a member of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, an eccentric ensemble founded a quarter century ago by Northwestern University alums. Eason today is one of the American theatre’s most prolific and increasingly produced playwrights who divides her time between original scripts and adaptations of classic literature for the stage. Her latest work, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, brings the residents of Mark Twain’s Missouri River town to Actors Theatre of Louisville.

SD: I read somewhere that you started training as an actor early on.
LE: I started taking classes at the Piven Theatre Workshop in my hometown of Evanston, Illinois, when I was eleven or twelve. I came out of the story theatre tradition, and my interest in working with dramatic texts actually began there. My imagination really caught fire – theatre got a hold of me then and never let go.
SD: You’ve adapted The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for the stage, but you also write a lot of original plays. Are the processes very different?
LE: Well, when you’re doing an adaptation you’re having a very strong collaboration with the source material – you have a pre-existing work in which to relate. I liken it, in a way, to building a new house with salvaged materials. You’re making something totally new but using pieces – sometimes very important structural, fundamental, essential pieces – from something that already exists. But the ultimate goal of adaptation is to make something that can stand on its own – with its own structural integrity, charm and sensibility – while maintaining a strong and important relationship to the source.
SD: You have adapted a number of classics. Have you ever adapted a work by a living author?
LE: I’ve adapted both living authors and those who aren’t with us anymore. It’s interesting – even with a deceased author as in the case of Mark Twain, he is such an important part of the cultural consciousness that even though he’s not alive, his voice is living in so many people that I’m still having a conversation with his legacy.
SD: You adapted Huckleberry Finn as well. Mark Twain wrote both books, but they are substantially different.
LE: In a way, Tom Sawyer was a relief after Huck Finn. Tom Sawyer is also greatly loved and people have a strong attachment to the material, but it’s not the same kind of devotion. People hold Huck Finn up as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – novels in American literature. You have to make choices in adaptation, which means not including certain things or changing certain things to make it work in a dramatic context. How sensitive people are to the strong hand you have to take in creating a successful theatre piece can be more or less difficult, depending on how beloved the novel is – and its level of sanctification.
SD: It sounds as though it is a very different process than when you create an original play.
LE: Yes, with an original play, I can just write whatever I want and people can like it or not like it. But the opinion they’re having isn’t related to the transition from novel to play – it’s about the merits of the play itself. The amazing thing about adaptation is you get to have this very deep, strong relationship with the source material. That’s really a gift when you get to work with writers like Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Jules Verne – all of whom I’ve adapted. I’ve had a great opportunity to learn and grow as a writer from having the relationship with these texts.
SD: Has that affected your writing?
LE: I feel I’m a better writer because of the time I’ve spent with them. I’m a much funnier writer, and I have a better understanding of comedy because of Twain. From Dickens, I have developed a better understanding of character. It’s a huge pleasure to collaborate with these masters.
SD: How did you come to write your adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer?
LE: My friend Jeremy Cohen from The Hartford Stage in Connecticut called me up to say Hartford was interested in doing a new adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Twain’s death and the 175th anniversary of his birth. I’ve known Jeremy since he was the artistic director of Naked Eye Theatre in Chicago years ago, and he knew my work from the Lookingglass Theatre Company. They reached out to a couple of playwrights and, luckily, they picked me to do it.
SD: How long did you work on it?
LE: The first phone call and the world premiere opening night in Hartford were less than a year apart, so it was a very fast turnaround for the project. But Jeremy really understood how to direct adaptation.
SD: What do you mean by that?
LE: How you move through time and space in adaptation is often quite different. The play is very physical, very visual, and I needed a director who was going to understand how to tell the story not only through words, but also through picture, image and movement. It’s been a wonderful experience. This trip to Actors Theatre of Louisville is the start of a four-city tour. My adaptation has also been produced at the People’s Light Theatre in Philadelphia and it will be produced at the Denver Center Theatre this year as well.
SD: Have you made any changes since the premiere?
LE: I’ve made a couple of tiny text changes, but it’s the same production. We may have a different costume designer, but it’s essentially the same team. Our cast, however, is quite different, with the exception of the actor who plays Tom Sawyer.
SD: Actors Theatre patrons remember Lookingglass Theatre brought Lookingglass Alice to play here two seasons ago. You spent time as artistic director of the company.
LE: I was artistic director of Lookingglass for a total of six years, over two terms. The first was in the mid ’90s – I was 24 years old, so I hadn’t had that kind of management experience before. I learned a lot on the job, which was both interesting and challenging. By the time the second term came around in 2000, when we opened our new facility on Michigan Avenue, I felt really ready to help lead the company through our capital campaign and the opening of the theatre.
SD: You take leadership in turns?
LE: We have an artistic ensemble, so it’s different from other theatres. We are a collective of ensemble members, many of whom have been with the company since its founding in 1988. Although you’re the leader of the company, there is an amazing support system in these artists who are deeply invested, and you are one of them. There is no division between artistic leadership and the ensemble; you’re all ultimately part of the collective. It’s a wonderfully supportive environment, and it was a huge gift to my career and my life.
SD: The balance between art and fiduciary realities have always been in tension, but never more so than now. What kind of insights did that experience give you?
LE: I could talk about that for hours, but most applicable to my work now as a playwright is my awareness of the realities of the theatre – i.e., as people are reading plays, they are thinking about whether or not they can be produced. I’m more realistic about what I put on the page, knowing that if things are really extravagant or challenging, they need to be framed in such a way that the theatre feels they have options. I don’t rest the entire play on things that could be difficult or expensive. I also know from my time at Lookingglass that you can create a lot of magic without a lot of money. I also know you need a certain amount of money to allow people to live their lives as artists and show up. There is a sweet spot we need to hit in the theatre, but money isn’t always the answer.
SD: Do you feel that as a limiting factor? Do you self-edit?
LE: I don’t think it stops my imagination, but I know how to present my work in a way that isn’t scary to those watching the bottom line. It can manifest in a very positive way. In terms of cast size, for instance – when I’m writing a play for Lookingglass, I might conceive a show with a cast of twelve. But I wouldn’t do that for a show I was sending out to the general theatrical community because that is, unfortunately, prohibitive at this point. It’s a constant conversation in the community and within individual theatres: “What is enough to keep going? How much do we need? What is the relationship between money and creativity?” Those are big and important questions. But the one thing I do know is that the theatre will endure. I’ve seen it in my own little company that is about to turn 25 years old. We do almost all original work in a very physical and visual style that often lands outside audience expectations. I feel that if a bunch of kids out of Northwestern University who believed in their vision can win a regional Tony Award and become a Chicago institution in this very difficult climate, theatre will continue to be relevant and important.
SD: The word “relevant” has been tossed around in relation to theatre for more than three decades now. What does relevancy mean to you?
LE: People think theatre has become irrelevant because the world has become so connected to the medium of the inter-
net. So much of our life is now virtual that some people believe live events are being less valued. But I really think people are going to continue to seek out the experi-
ences you can only have with other human beings in the same room. I’m very optimistic about the future of the theatre. It will change and we all have to adapt as the world changes. But there is something very moving about the fact that when we’re in rehearsal for a play, we’re doing pretty much the same thing actors did a couple thousand years ago: We are bodies in a room telling a story. We are still connecting to this deeper aspect of humanity.
SD: Tell me about your process when you’re writing without the boundaries of adaptation.
LE: Just as in an adaptation, I need to decide what the play is about. It may come to me through a character, but early in the process I know the questions I’m asking and what questions I want to be in the air. I came out of the performance art world, so I understand what it’s like to be at a show and say, “I’ve no idea what this is about,” and yet I’m having a wonderful time! But I want people to be able to walk out and say, “This show was asking these questions.” That feels important to me. I want people to know why they should care when they come to see my plays.

Laura Eason’s adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer runs October 4-29 at Actors Theatre’s Pamela Brown Auditorium. For tickets and more information, call 502.584.1205 or to go to

Tim McKiernan and Casey Predovic as Tom and Huck. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Theatre Review by Kate Barry: "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer"

Tim McKiernan and Hayley Treider in 
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Photo Alan Simons.

Adapted from the novel by Mark Twain by Laura Eason
Directed by Jeremy B. Cohen

The reason we go to the theater is to forget about the world outside. When we sit in the darkness of the audience and the lights come up on stage, we are sucked into a world not like our own. At Actors Theatre of Louisville, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer provides plenty of escapism as we live vicariously through Tom and his numerous childhood adventures in the late 1800s' American South.

Tom Sawyer’s world is a playful creation.  From the entrance, in which actors burst on stage in a joyous dance of childish energy, to the explosion of gold in the final scene, the production is a superb example of where modern theater is headed. With a wordsmith like Mark Twain as a source, as well as timeless characters, the staging itself is anything but ordinary. Eight actors play multiple roles, except for Tim McKiernan in the title role and Hayley Treider as Becky Thatcher. Simple and spare set pieces consisting of benches, chairs and windows dance in and out as often as the different characters. The lighting design by Robert M. Wierzel plays a vital part as well. Showcasing different ways to exhibit space without physically changing the stage, special lighting sequences show the eerie creepiness of Tom and Becky’s journey through the underground tunnels as well as the progress made by the children in the town when Tom cons them into whitewashing his Aunt Polly’s fence. Needless to say, there is always something fun to look at during this play.

Whether he is looking for treasure with his best friend Huckleberry Finn (Robbie Tann), or sweetly courting Becky Thatcher (Hayley Treider) with brass door knobs, Tim McKiernan’s performance as Sawyer evokes the spirit of boys everywhere. He is curious and wise as he comes of age after he witnesses a violent murder. He handles Twain’s Missouri dialect with care, avoiding the easy southern stereotype. When matched with Huck Finn, his ragamuffin best friend whose reputation precedes him, McKiernan’s Sawyer really stretches his legs. McKiernan and Nichols play off of each other nicely, vividly bringing the spirit of Twain to life in alternating moments of mischievous play and the high stress surrounding the story’s more dramatic events.

The fine folks over at Actors Theatre have pieced together an excellent production. They have adapted a classic piece of literature with a modern theatrical appeal. The result is a timeless and playful image of what childhood was and how we would like to remember it.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
October 4-29
Actors Theatre of Louisville
Pamela Brown Auditorium
Third & Main Streets
Louisville, KY 40202

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

Theatre review by Keith Waits — "Evil Dead: The Musical"

Book and Lyrics by George Reinblatt
Music by Frank Cipolla, Christopher Bond, Melissa Morris & George Reinblatt
Directed by Joey Arena

The fun begins with the program, a full-color production that mimics the classic look of Playbill but carries the banner of “Playbile” instead. It is a fair indicator of what is to come.

The Alley Theater has made a specialty of shows that feature a “splatter zone” of up-close seating that comes equipped with emergency ponchos and protective eye wear. If you take the dare and enter this risky territory, take the precautions seriously, abandon vanity and wear the silly things, for you will be liberally soaked by a shower of fake blood. Evil Dead: The Musical uses the gimmick with such blatant gratuity that each and every patron who occupied a seat in this area found themselves dripping by the end, a puddle of red liquid pooling around their feet.

The fact that Producing Artistic Director Scott Davis has revived this show, after two successful runs of the equally wet Point Break Live!, comes as no surprise. The hard times we live in call out for such supremely silly theatre, as well as the fiscal rewards they bring to a struggling local company. Opening night brought a healthy number of enthusiastic patrons, many of whom were return customers from the first Louisville run of this show in 2009. They did not seem to be disappointed.

I failed to catch that production, so you will find no comparisons here. The plot is a parody of the simple story contained in Sam Raimi’s classic low-budget film, The Evil Dead, and its sequel, Evil Dead 2. Five young people find themselves stranded in a remote cabin and inadvertently summon demons into their lives by mishandling a book called the Necronomicon, left there by a professor whose daughter happens along in the second act.

The original is itself an ironic comment on such horror films in the first place, so any parody is necessarily an even loopier enterprise. This production swings for the fences and mostly knocks ist out of the park, with high energy and low humor that result in big laughs. A few technical glitches in the sound system and a couple of late lighting cues were not problem enough to derail the fun.

Director Joey Arena sets a brisk pace, with some of the gags disappearing amidst the audience’s laughter, and his cast plays it broadly. Rebecca Chaney played the thankless role of tag-along kid sister dutifully, and then cut loose with good vocals and dance moves in the high-energy number “Look Who’s Evil Now,” while Felicia Corbett, Jennifer Thompson and Daniel Smith all brought life and good timing to the rest of the spring vacation crew stranded in the woods. Later in the show, a trio of characters are introduced that included Neil Brewer, unabashedly cliché as Jake, a slack-jawed local yokel; sexy and smart Valerie Hopkins as Annie, whose costume keeps diminishing as the plot thickens; and Tyler Dippold as her assistant, Ed. Mr. Dippold also begins, saddled with a lackluster part; but the script efficiently delivers to each character enough spotlight moments, and the actor makes the most of his big moment.

Mason Stewart has the unenviable task of filling the shoes of Bruce Campbell, who played Ash in all three movies in the Evil Dead trilogy and who has enjoyed cult status ever since. Mr. Stewart has the requisite shock of dark hair and his chin almost measures up to Mr. Campbell’s famous specimen, but more importantly, he actually charts a journey for the character – from straight arrow college preppie to grim and determined demon slayer – that helps connect the audience to the story. Even silly theatre must do that, and Mr. Stewart leads the way in good form.

A small but rocking ensemble of musicians, led by Musical Director John Austin Clark on keyboards, provided suitable accompaniment.

Evil Dead: The Musical
October 7-31
The Alley Theater
1205 East Washington Street
Louisville, KY 40202


Theatre review by Craig Nolan Highley: "Death by Fatal Murder"

Left to right: David Myers, Bill Hanna & J.R. Stuart in Death by Fatal Murder at Derby Dinner Playhouse.
Photo courtesy of Derby Dinner Playhouse.

By Peter Gordon
Directed by Bekki Jo Schneider

If there is one literary or theatrical genre that sticks very strictly to a formula, it is the murder mystery or whodunit. With minor fluctuations, the stories invariably follow the same pattern: a group of people gather, someone is murdered, everyone is a suspect and had something to gain by the victim’s demise, and the murderer is revealed in the final scene. That simple outline has been played out countless times and can be done as a stone-faced drama, a suspenseful thriller, or a screwball comedy.

Another element frequently deployed is the investigating character, whether it be a seasoned detective (Columbo), a mystery writer (Jessica Fletcher in “Murder She Wrote”), a buffoonish policeman (Inspector Clousseau, “The Pink Panther” series), or countless other variations on the theme. The things that make such stories work are a thought-provoking mystery with clues that get you thinking, a cast of interesting characters, and a central detective character you can root for.

Well, in Derby Dinner Playhouse’s current production of Peter Gordon’s Death by Fatal Murder, I guess two out of three ain’t bad.

As a whodunit, the story definitely works. At a British country manor circa 1940, a police constable has gone missing (spoiler: he’s dead). The guests and staff who were present on the night in question are all suspects, and Scotland Yard has sent their worst detective (due to staffing shortages) to solve the case. There are the usual red herrings; and the supporting characters/suspects are, for the most part, quite colorful and the identity of the murderer is not easy to solve (at least, it wasn’t for me).

Some of the characters are instantly forgettable, but a few stand out thanks to strong performances. Janet Essenpreis is quite fun as Ginny Farquhar, the stereotypical stiff-upper-lip who refers to herself in the third person as “One”; and you can’t help but empathize with Bill Hanna as a police constable constantly trying to keep from exploding at the idiocy of his superior officer.  The always reliable Rita Thomas is in her element as a matronly house guest determined to solve the case; and J.R. Stuart is hysterical in a drag role as the mystical medium Blodwyn Morgan.

Unfortunately, the show’s biggest drawback is the central character: Inspector Pratt. As written by Gordon, he’s the central character and intended as an Inspector Clousseau-type comic detective, but he is not an endearing character by any means. Within five minutes of his first appearance, I was hoping he would be the next victim. It is one thing to have a bumbling character as the center of your story; but if he’s not empathetic, you lose your audience every moment he’s on stage. That is not to say actor Paul Kerr doesn’t deserve kudos for the performance. He does make Pratt occasionally funny, and it must have been a nightmare memorizing lines for such a language-mangling role. I just think a character like this one would be better served in a supporting capacity.

I did not know, going in, that this was the third part of a trilogy. I had not seen the first two installments, Murdered to Death and Secondary Cause of Death, and I did feel as though I had missed something. There were frequent references to past events that are not fleshed out, so I have to assume they are story threads from the first two plays. This was only a slight irritation, though, because the story presented here is generally self-contained.

As usual for Derby Dinner, the technical aspects of the show are flawless. Director Bekki Jo Schneider keeps the momentum going with no lulls in the action; and Ron Breedlove’s lighting effects are very effective at capturing the mood of the piece. John Witzke’s set and Sharon Murray Harrah’s costumes are realistic and evocative of the period.

In short, this is a solid mystery tale with some sharp comedy; and your appreciation of it will depend on your tolerance for the main character. Give it a try!

Starring Brian Bowman, Janet Essenpreis, Bill Hanna, Paul Kerr, David Myers, J.R. Stuart, Rita Thomas, and Tina Jo Wallace.

Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive
Clarksville, IN 47129
Tickets (812) 288-8281

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