Monday, November 21, 2011

Interview with Dwight Rhoden of Complexions Contemporary Ballet

Interview by Scott Dowd

Dwight Rhoden.  Photo by Jae Man Joo.

Since 1983, when the curtain first went up at The Kentucky Center, diversity has been a crucial part of its mission. Indeed, Louisville’s arts community boasts a particularly rich and diverse heritage, one to which the Center has long paid homage. Back in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, “The Midnite Ramble” described the live musical performances that would take place at midnight on the movie house stages along Walnut Street (now Muhammad Ali Boulevard), the hub of Louisville’s African American community. Moms Mabley, Redd Foxx, the Clovers and Clyde McPhatter and the Dominoes were just a few of the entertainers who performed there for Louisville audiences. As a tribute to the Walnut Street of yesteryear, The Kentucky Center celebrates our community’s cultural heritage with its Brown-Forman Midnite Ramble series. Over the years, the series has evolved from its traditional roots to embrace and reflect our diversity and commonwealth. Reviving that tradition of great performers, one of this year’s productions features Complexions Contemporary Ballet, a New York-based company founded seventeen years ago by two former members of the famous Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater:  Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson. Mr. Rhoden, who was once a principal dancer with Alvin Ailey, now functions as Complexions’ principal choreographer. Rhoden has created over eighty ballets for Complexions as well as for numerous other companies, including Alvin Ailey, The Arizona Ballet, The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Company, Ballet Gamonet, The Dance Theater of Harlem, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, The Joffrey Ballet, Miami City Ballet, New York City Ballet/Diamond Project, North Carolina Dance Theater, The Pennsylvania Ballet, Philadanco, Minneapolis Dance Theater, Phoenix Dance Company, Sacramento Ballet, Oakland Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, The Washington Ballet and Zenon Dance Company. He has directed and choreographed for television, film, theater and live performances, including So You Think You Can Dance, E! Entertainment’s “Tribute to Style” and Cirque du Soleil. Rhoden has also worked with such high-profile artists as Prince, Lenny Kravitz, Kelly Clarkson and Patrick Swayze.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet.
Photo by Jae Man Joo.
DR:  We actually didn’t set out to start a company. In 1994, Desmond and I were both leaving the Ailey company. Desmond was going overseas to dance with William Forsyth at the Frankfurt Ballet, and I was going to concentrate on choreography.
SD:  Had you decided to retire as a dancer?
DR:  I wasn’t sure if I was going to stop dancing or not. I just knew it was time to move on. I had had a great career with Ailey, but it was just time to take those next steps. I had choreographed my first piece on a major piece for the Ailey company during the time I was there and had been bitten by the choreography bug. In 1994, I was working on projects with smaller companies on the side and asking my friends, including Desmond, to get together and experiment with movement. During those sessions, Desmond and I decided we wanted to do a performance and I had this bright idea to choreograph the whole show.
SD:  But you had no company of dancers?
DR:  We invited friends of ours and other people we didn’t know but had seen and loved. We got together people from all the companies around New York City:  the Joffrey, the American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, certainly Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, as well as some dancers who didn’t have a lot of formal training but were amazing movers.
SD:  And you put on a show.
DR:  Yes, it was a symphony space on 95th and Broadway. We gave three performances and we sold out every night. By the time the show opened, we already knew we were onto something. The rehearsal process was an amazing experience with all of these dancers from different worlds. Up to that point, there hadn’t been a lot of cross-pollination of these companies. I might be down on the floor choreographing a Joffrey dancer with an Ailey dancer and a dancer from the Downtown Scene. It was very, very contemporary with modern dance and ballet – we had all those contrasts in the room and it was such an exciting process that we knew there was something more there. We got to the tech rehearsal the night before opening and looked at each other and said, “Wow! This is pretty amazing.” We felt obligated to do something more with it, and that’s when we decided to start the company.
SD:  How many dancers are in the company?
DR:  Fourteen.
SD:  What qualities do you look for in a dancer who wants to be a part of your company?
DR:  We look for a clean, clear instrument. Desmond and I were both classically trained yet chose contemporary modern dance paths in what we do. What we look for has evolved over the years, but essentially we want versatile dancers. We look for people with the passion who are not afraid to step outside the box a little bit. We also look for people who are willing to take some risks, because to make work that is compelling, you have to be willing to make yourself uncomfortable. Complexions at this point – 17 years in – is definitely a brand, and we don’t want all the dancers to look alike. It’s almost like making a good stew – we’re looking for different, exceptional qualities to combine into one larger whole.
SD:  So you’re removing boundaries for the dancers. What are you trying to bring to your audience?
DR:  Everyone talks about diversity, but we actually have been doing it from step one. I’m not saying that we’re infallible, but at every turn of the company we’re looking to create those contrasts. When you come to a Complexions program, you will certainly see a culturally and racially diverse company – you will see different types of bodies performing many different movement styles. There is a diversity of programming that might include a piece en pointe in one act contrasted with a modern, grounded work in another. You may see dances set to pop music and a classical Rachmaninoff ballet on the same program. We are a contemporary dance company, but the emphasis for us is on dance, without regard to stylistic confines.
SD:  Over the past 17 years you’ve created more than 80 works for Complexions. Where does a new work begin?
DR:  It sort of depends on the project. Sometimes it’s the music; sometimes it’s something I want to talk about or refers to something in my own life. More often than not, it’s about the dancers standing in front of me. I certainly walk into the room with my ideas, and there have been times when my mind was made up about the music before we started. Often I begin with options and I start to work on the movement with the dancers and let it evolve. It happens in all different types of ways. But the dancers are a huge part of where the work goes, how the work is developed and how it eventually comes out. One of our goals at Complexions is to always bring people closer to dance and let them in on what we’re up to.
SD:  I understand this is the last year Desmond Richardson will tour with the company.
DR:  Yes. He will remain the artistic director and we’ll work more side-by-side as opposed to him being a performer – although he’s not retiring from the stage and plans to work on other projects, including a one-man show scheduled for 2013.
SD:  A few years ago you and he and members of the company expanded your visibility by participating in the FOX Network program So You Think You Can Dance? How did that come about, and what made you all decide this was a good venue for Complexions?
DR:  Well, someone called and asked me to do it. Desmond and I both have worked in the commercial world; Desmond has done some work with pop stars and things like that. Regardless of what someone might think about the show itself, I believe it brings people closer to dance. I think anything that educates the public in any way about dance and movement and exposes them to what’s out there is a good thing. I have fun doing it, and I don’t feel that just because I create ballets for Pittsburgh or the New York City Ballet I can’t go on FOX and still do my thing. There are a lot people who have issues with that, but that’s not who Desmond and I are. We’re not snobby that way.
SD:  Looking at the arts spectrum, it seems to me that there are a lot of changes taking place in the way people look at what they do and how they go about the business of making art.
DR:  I’m working on a piece right now that is set to the music of J. S. Bach – a Baroque piece for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. At this point, I am commissioned mostly by ballet companies across the country and in Europe. I love classical ballet, I trained in classical ballet and I think it’s a beautiful art form. But classical ballet must continue to evolve; it has to go further. There will always be the Swan Lakes; but, if you’ve noticed, all ballet companies have a contemporary series at this point. Art should reflect the world we live in. Court dances are beautiful, but contemporary ballet is all about trying new things and reflecting what’s happening now. I think that’s what we’re supposed to do and it’s what artists have always done.
SD:  American artists in particular are driven by economic concerns.
DR:  I know from running a company that in this day and age we are all looking for creative ways to market what we do and get more people in the seats so we can have the support we need to continue.
SD:  When did you first come to dance?
DR:  Very, very late. I took my first dance class when I was 18. I was a social dancer and got involved in a lot of dance contests in high school. The story is actually kind of archetypal – a girlfriend who was a dancer with a local company encouraged me to come to the studio and take a real dance class. I started with modern dance and took ballet on the weekends. I found my passion. I was a musician, thought I wanted to be an actor, but dance trumped everything.
SD:  Does Complexions have an educational outreach program?
DR:  Yes, we do. We have two summer intensives and a winter intensive. The starting age for those is 12. We also do a lot of outreach in the cities as we tour. We are in Las Vegas at the moment, and yesterday the company gave an educational performance and master class. Today we’re on our way to Salt Lake City, and we have another series of master classes set up for our time in Utah. It’s a big part of what we do. This year Desmond kicked off his Next Generation Fund and is really leading that cause for us.
SD:  I would like to talk more about the idea of diversity. There is a real push here in Louisville right now to expand the magnet school programs for the arts to the elementary and middle schools. Those programs have been established in areas of the city that are historically under-served.
DR:  Kids have to be able to see themselves up there. More and more I think the world is diversifying, but we are by no means there. Kids need to experience the possibilities and be empowered to dream and understand that they can do these things. With Complexions, Desmond and I started 17 years ago with the idea of creating a diverse ensemble. The physical manifestation of that idea is only its most obvious expression. Kids connect with that when they see all these different types of people working together in a harmonious way. It speaks volumes. We add layers to that idea with the selection of music. We might use Marvin Gaye in one piece, U2 in another and classical music in a third. We try to show new ways of partnering in dance, and that’s what people connect to. We have been very successful with these ideas in that our audiences range from the very young, non-traditional kids right through to the more usual ballet crowd. We don’t have a black audience just because two black men are running the company.
SD:  You are certainly drawing from a deep well of influences, many of which go beyond the confines of the dance world.
DR:  Sure, we’re reflecting pop culture – everything, really. I want to reflect the world around me. That’s what’s interesting to me. The dancers influence that, too, because they’re what is now and we are making the statement that we are here with a strong connection to the things that happened before. We are restating traditional forms and stretching them further.

The Kentucky Center’s Brown-Forman Midnite Ramble featuring Complexions Contemporary Ballet is one performance only on Friday, February 3, 8 p.m. at the historic Brown Theatre, 315 W. Broadway. Ticket prices range from $25 to $42.50. To learn more about Complexions and see videos of some of their performances, go to For more information on this and other upcoming Kentucky Center presentations, and to buy tickets, call the box office at 502.584.7777 (800.775.7777) or visit their web site at

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sherlock Holmes and T’Was the Murder Before Christmas

Left to right: Dustin Perry, Erica Goldsmith, Penny Brill, Niles Welch,
Rick O'Daniel-Munger (seated), A.J. Green, Beth Olliges.
Photo by A.S. Waterman.

Written and directed by A. S. Waterman
Reviewed by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2011 Keith Waits. All rights reserved. 

Sherlock Holmes is very likely the most enduring character in western literature. Since his introduction by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887 in the novel A Study in Scarlet, no single literary creation has been adapted as often into other mediums or been resurrected through the work of so many other authors. So the first question the new production from WhoDunnit Murder Mystery Theater brings to mind might be: What took them so long?

Along the way, the Holmes carried on by others has tackled cocaine addiction, the occult, Jack the Ripper (twice!) and even the Martian invasion envisioned by H. G. Wells. The one thing that, to the best of my knowledge, he has never been is the subject of a holiday mystery. Until now.

The story begins with a brief bit of business about Holmes, in disguise, finishing a case wherein he helps Scotland Yard apprehend an elusive pickpocket. Right away we are given good evidence that playwright A. S. Waterman has a sure understanding of the source material, since the original Conan Doyle stories often showed Holmes occupied in such smaller cases to satisfy his always restless intellect, and his use of disguise is legendary.

The Christmas setting could have been a cheesy, awkward element, but the plot, which involves a series of murders on three successive Christmas Eves, concerns itself more with doing the iconic character justice and less with straining the holiday connection. Besides, what better gift for mystery fans to find under the tree than a new Sherlock Holmes story.

A.  J. Green plays the world’s first consulting detective with authority and intelligence, while Dustin Perry was a loyal and dutiful Dr. Watson, sporting the evening’s best English accent to boot. Beth Olliges runs him a close second as the snooty Gardenia Welltower, with Rick O’ Daniel-Munger eliciting the most laughs with sure comic timing and understated delivery as the drunken Dr. Cecil B. Tubbs. Niles Welch was a disheveled delight as the highly eccentric Bramble Strange, and WhoDunnit veterans Penny Brill and Erica Goldsmith round out the ensemble with solid support as a sanguine charity worker and saucy lady-of-the-evening dressed in obvious, but still striking, red, including an outrageous feathered hat. (As in most WhoDunnit productions, this production is double-cast and you may encounter other actors when you attend.)

An intriguing Victorian mystery coupled with a tasty dinner is not at all a bad choice for an evening out (the chocolate cake with strawberry drizzle was delectable), and opening night advanced sales pushed the company into a larger room inside the Hyatt Regency Downtown, so they must be doing something right.  And the attention to detail includes a new rendition of the signature WhoDunnit musical theme performed by a scratchy violinist who could only be Holmes himself.

Sherlock Holmes and T’Was the Murder Before Christmas
November 19 – December 17, 2011
Seating at 6:30 / Show starts at 7:00
WhoDunnit Murder Mystery Theater
At the Hyatt Regency Downtown
320 West Jefferson Street
Louisville, KY 40202

"Damned Elusive Pimpernel" Is a Welcome Delight

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Book & Lyrics by Nan Knighton, Music by Frank Wildhorn
Directed by Sandy Richens Cohrs

Reviewed by Keith Waits

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

Before The Dark Knight there was Zorro, and before Zorro there was…The Scarlet Pimpernel?  The name of this elusive hero may not have the same resonance for modern audiences as the more immediately recognizable characters who were influenced by him, but the original outlaw hero hiding behind an ineffectual alter ego is right here in the guise of Sir Percy Blakeney.

Although he is placed in the historical context of the early days of the French Revolution by his creator, the Baroness Emmuska Orczy, Percy’s story is pure fiction, a fantasy of an English nobleman rescuing French aristocrats from “Madame Guillotine.” It is a grand adventure story here adapted into a pretty fair musical. Originally produced in New York in 1997, the score is sound enough, with a handful of better-than-average songs and some deliciously campy scenes of Percy and his compatriots, the “League of The Scarlet Pimpernel.”  They are portrayed as not the most masculine bunch in the first place, but as we watch Percy train them in the fine art of foppishness so they will not readily be suspected of being heroic or fearless, the resulting superciliousness is hilarious to behold, culminating in the triumphant number “The Creation of Men.”

Director Sandy Richens Cohrs clearly delights in such scenes, which expose the hollowness of cliché images of masculinity and play well for modern audiences accustomed to a broader spectrum of male iconography. If it makes the remainder of the story seem a little more traditional, closer to so many other costumed adventures, it at least is given a spirited reading by a skilled cast.

Brian Douglas Barker makes a very charismatic Percy, and opening night found him in fine voice. Jennifer Poliskie was every bit his equal as his wife, Marquerite St. Just. Their strained relationship gives the story nice tension and forces her character into the action. Gary Tipton brought his wily veteran’s eye to the villain Chauvelin; and the same is true of Rich William’s Robespierre, who elicits solid laughs with his broad comic French accent.

The remainder of the cast delivers solid support and, if not all strong singers, the group harmonies in the chorus were smartly arranged and effectively delivered. Most importantly, everyone seemed to be having fun onstage, which resulted in a buoyant energy throughout the evening. One of Ms. Cohrs' strengths as a director/choreographer is in knowing exactly what demands she can place on performers of varying degrees of experience in the skills required for musical theatre. The movement was simple but suitably graceful or slapstick as was required at any given moment. My only quibble on this subject was the climactic duel with swords, which lacked any sense of threat or danger. If this scene could have contained one-half the bravura displayed by the “League of The Scarlet Pimpernel,” it would have helped avoid a slight downturn in the show’s impact in the closing moments.

The quality of the vocals, particularly from Ms. Poliskie and Mr. Barker, is assured, and I was grateful to hear them, sans microphones, in the intimate environs of The MeX. The pre-recorded score was a cut above the usual examples, less tinny and with slightly fuller arrangements, although there were several times the score and the cast seemed to be competing against each other. Some tweaking of the volume would be warranted, I think. 

The original production of The Scarlet Pimpernel met with mixed commercial and critical reception, but the show apparently has something of a cult following. I found it to be funny and entertaining — a musical that doesn’t take it itself too seriously, embraces silliness (always a virtue) and has not been so often produced as to have worn out its welcome. The opening night audience was full, but not quite sold out, and received Pimpernel with enthusiasm.

Featuring: Brian Barker, Jennifer Poliskie, Gary Tipton, Bryce Blair, Kathy Todd Chaney, Aaron Davenport, Eddie Dohn, Katie Hay, Carolyn Holbrook, Amber Hurst, Sydney Jones, Angela Mayfield, Brian Morris, Janet Morris, Jeremy O'Brien, Josh O'Brien, Kim Perry, Richard Ray, Jim Reid, Howard Whitman and Rich Williams.

The Scarlet Pimpernel

November 18, 19, 25 & 26 @ 8 p.m.
November 20 & 27 @ 2 p.m.

The As Yet Unnamed Theatre Company
The MeX Theatre, The Kentucky Center
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Scaled-down Figaro Is Still Fully Spectacular

The Marriage of Figaro

By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte based on the play by Beaumarchais
Directed by Lillian Groag

A review by J. Barrett Cooper

Entire contents are copyright © 2011 J. Barrett Cooper. All rights reserved. 

The Kentucky Opera continues its season with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Opera Buffo Classic The Marriage of Figaro at the W. L. Lyons Brown Theatre, sans the accompaniment of the Louisville Orchestra. The ongoing dispute between the Orchestra and its members’ Union has the Opera’s leaders choosing to forego the use of them this time around, and the result is an evening of fun, frolic and surprising intimacy.

The plot synopsis of Figaro, if we were to draw it out, might resemble an ink blot test. We have disguise, deception, feudal rights, manipulations, letters, secret trysts in the garden, weddings, double weddings, triple weddings, missing children, found parents! The sets, sumptuously designed by Eric Allgeier, are awhirl with the machinations of a cast of characters – clad in stunning Baroque couture designed by Howard Tsvi Kaplan – that spin the story of the happy-go-lucky former Barber of Seville, now valet to the Count Almaviva, Figaro. Carlos Manzon plays the titular role with just the right amount of silliness; and his love for his fiancé and maid to the Countess, Susanna (Anya Matanovic), is a joy to watch as the trials and tribulations unfold throughout the evening. Ms. Matanovic is simply beautiful. Gifted with a soprano voice that is at once like silk and steel, Ms. Matanovic is enchanting. I cannot say enough about her presence and command as well as her comic timing.

These two are enmeshed in a love-web that tangles and untangles throughout the evening, with a crew of wonderfully played Buffo characters who, down to the last chorus member, delight and take full advantage of their time on stage.

Dr. Bartolo (Paul Corona) and Marcellina (Cindy Sadler) are priceless as the conniving pair bent on getting Figaro. The farcical revelation is a highlight. As Count Almaviva, Kelly Markgraf is the perfect foil for Manzon and Matanovic, as his braggart, Lothario-ways are thwarted at every turn. All are strong in voice, showing that Kentucky Opera does not scrimp on getting the best available talent in Opera today.

As the strong supporting cast is made up of Kentucky Opera Studio Artists, you would expect a drop off in talent and presence. If you expect that you will be completely wrong. This group of young singers is probably the best from top to bottom that I’ve seen in my years of watching the opera.  Ryan Connelly (Don Basilio) is strong; Noel Bouley (Antonio) has magnificent presence, and it’s fun to watch his inebriated stumblings; and Abigail Paschke (Barbarina) is lovely and silly. Chorus stalwart James Butterfield is bumped to do a wonderful job as the lawyer Don Curzio.

Besides the voice and presence of Matanovic, there are two others who really make this production one that I won’t forget for some time. Ms. Claire Shackleton, also a Studio Artist, assumes the role of Cherubino, a page in love with the Countess Rosina. Ms. Shackleton delivers a spot-on performance with a superb mix of boyish puppy love and comic timing that is text book. I loved her! If she and her fellow studio artist Abigail Plaschke are the future of the Opera world, then it is in good hands.

That brings us to Ms. Yunah Lee, who last year bedazzled us with her sublime Madame Butterfly. This time around, Ms. Lee again triumphs in the role of the heart-broken Rosina, Countess Almaviva.  Her offerings of “Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro” and “Dove sono i bei momenti” are strong and palpable. Her voice, along with that Ms. Matanovic, is captivating.
Of course none of this would be worth talking about without the sensational direction of Ms. Lillian Groag, whose deft use of the stage, comic sensibility and razor-sharp eye for picture is evident in every scene. It is the best use of a chorus I’ve ever seen.
This incredible cast, along with the director and designers, were supported by three artists in the pit of whom special note must be given. Joseph Mechavich (Conductor and Harpsichord) along with Repetiteuse Lisa Hasson and Pianist Sheldon Miller accompanied on piano and harpsichord, which made for a night in the theatre to remember.

Due to the monetary necessity of going without a full orchestra, Kentucky Opera has presented us with a scaled-down accompaniment that, despite its economy, manages to fully capture the heart of this piece. It is funny, heart-felt and intimate. I felt as if I was in the drawing room of some European mansion, where this stellar production was being performed just for me.

The Marriage of Figaro

November 18, 2011 @ 8:00pm
November 20, 2011 @ 2:00pm

Kentucky Opera
At The Brown Theatre
233 West Broadway
Louisville, KY 40202

Friday, November 18, 2011

Exhibit Review by Katie Levy: ART IN THE DARK – The Digital Immigrants at Swanson Contemporary

Reviewed by Katie Levy

Entire contents copyright 2011 Katie Levy. All rights reserved.

“DiscoTanqu” by Brad White
It is not often you get to see art in a small, dark, windowless environment instead of the typically high-ceilinged and well-lit space with clean white walls.  Conventional wisdom suggests it would not be advantageous to your average exhibit to be placed in such a space.

Oxygen, the show currently on display in the basement at Swanson Contemporary, is not your average art exhibit. Hanging on the walls in the basement space are five high-altitude oxygen tanks designed for the B-17 Bomber during WWII now repurposed into pieces of art, each by a different member of the artist collective, The Digital Immigrants. Each piece is for auction online at where you can bid on these tanks through the end of November, with 50 percent of all winning bids going to the Wounded Warrior Project. (

Participating artists include David Denniston, Brianne Derolph, Andrew Lundberg, Nathaniel Underwood and Brad White. All five of these Midwestern artists took their heavy piece of vintage machinery and transformed it into something drastically different from its original purpose. In addition to these somewhat haunting oxygen tanks, each artist has an additional piece, allowing the viewer to contrast the similarities or differences of the techniques used with the oxygen tanks against their usual work.

“Rationizer” by Brianne DeRolph
White’s piece, “DiscoTanque,” took me by surprise. At first glance, you see the leaden exterior of the tank, the rigidity and seriousness of purpose visually manifested by the seams and ridges running horizontally and vertically across its surface. The dim lighting and dark walls of the basement space draws out the soft, dim, blue glow coming from the tank’s interior. Implanted into the surface are what seem to be several oculi. As the glow pulls the viewer closer, one discovers that there’s more to the piece than first meets the eye. Staring through what is essentially an eye piece, one is transported inside the piece. A black-and-white, ever-expanding and contracting checkerboard pattern makes up the space. This near optical illusion gives the piece the “disco” part of its title and manages to create a stark contrast between the exterior and interior.  White’s artist statement perfectly sums up the feeling this piece creates with words like “stress” and “tension, ” with references to over-stimulation relating to information overload.

Another vessel that was particularly compelling was that of Brianne Derolph. Her oxygen tank, “Rationizer,” was transformed into the type of old gumball machine/toy dispenser where you’d deposit twenty-five cents and out popped a trinket inside a small clear case. After realizing that Derolph’s tiny containers are empty, it dawns on you that it is an oxygen dispenser. While fun and quirky at first, with the warm glow illuminating the oxygen capsules, discomfort sets in as the artist seems to be asking, “How long before the air we breathe is rationed, too?”

The exhibit was curated by Brad White, who is seeking to develop new models for delivering art to the audience, questioning both the functionality and economics of tradition methods. Certainly unconventional spaces and art auctions are not necessarily new ideas, but the marriage of the two into the cyberspace format is still uncommon and can fairly be characterized as experimental in the Louisville marketplace.


Also: Barbara Crawford: Four Decades of Photography

On display through November 26.
Online auction through November 30 at:

Swanson Contemporary
638 East Market Street
Louisville, KY 40204

When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again For a Modern Age

Larry Mitchell in ReEntry at Actors Theatre.
Photo by Alan Simons.

Written by Emily Ackerman & K.J. Sanchez
Directed by K.J. Sanchez

A review by Keith Waits

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

There is a definite tension present in the documentary play concept used in ReEntry. Although we are told at the top of the show that all of the dialogue will be “real” words drawn from extensive interviews with soldiers and their families, the delivery of those words in the format of a play, however effective, remains unmistakably artificial. The slick production uses dramatic lighting, music, and projected images to punctuate the stories of men and women attempting to return to civilian life after multiple tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, making a powerful case about the profound lack of understanding we have of their experience.

The observations culled from these interviews are often refreshingly unexpected. One that is particularly impactful is how a great many men and women in uniform feel awkward about being “thanked” for their service, in spite of the popular internet campaign encouraging people to do just that. At another point a Marine sarcastically complains about hearing about “war fatigue” among the civilian population. The two ideas together underscore one of the underlying themes of ReEntry: that many of the problems military service personnel face originate from the public’s misunderstanding of complexity of emotions soldiers often have about their service and a sense of guilt about the almost complete lack of comparable sacrifice from anyone other than military families. In other words, maybe it is more our problem than theirs. Where once we ignored returning veterans, have we now overcompensated with a patronizing attitude?

The material is fascinating and insightful, even if the parade of small scenes and monologues begins to grow a bit tedious over the course of 90 uninterrupted minutes, becoming, at times, a bit pedantic. The five actors deliver measured and forceful work. Yet so much of the dialogue is spoken directly to the audience that an academic, lecturing tone becomes unavoidable, and the “reality” of the source overcomes the opportunity for a discovery of greater nuance and depth that a fictional narrative might have perhaps allowed. Larry Mitchell’s portrayal of a C.O. delivering a briefing to families of military about to reenter civilian society helps frame the material, and he persuasively conveys a complex set of attitudes that merge the traditional, ramrod cliché of a steadfast Marine with a more subtle and contradictory sensibility. There was also nice work from Ben Rosenblatt, alternating the roles of two young Marines with a knack for rapid-fire contemporary speech patterns. Brandon Jones was a stalwart presence as the more seasoned characters, although his rich vocal delivery stubbornly remained superficial in its impact; an impassioned work without depth. Jessi Blue Gormezano suffered the same difficulty to a lesser degree, although she managed to find some better opportunity in the later portions of the script. Samerrah Luqmaan-Harris manages to execute three contrasting characters with some nicely delineated shifts in body language and attitude, her face suggesting the profound weariness of a much older character with supple transitions.

Whatever its limitations, ReEntry takes on a valuable mission with a thoughtfulness and willingness to engage the audience fully in the contradictions of the subject that is to be admired. Each performance includes a talkback discussion with the cast, emphasizing the consciously educational civic mission of the show’s creators, and it certainly seems a worthwhile endeavor.

November 15-December 17, 2011 
Actors Theatre of Louisville 
Pamela Brown Auditorium
Third & Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Derby Dinner Offers Tuneful, Faith-Based, Holiday Fare in "Sanders Family Christmas"

Janet Essenpreis as June Sanders and Paul Kerr as Burl Sanders in 
Sanders Family Christmas. Photo courtesy of Derby Dinner Playhouse.

Sanders Family Christmas
Written by Connie Ray
Conceived by Alan Bailey
Directed by Bekki Jo Schneider

Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley

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

Sanders Family Christmas is the second part of a trilogy of shows:  part one is Smoke on the Mountain, and part three is Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming. But don’t worry if you haven’t seen the other two. There is not enough story in this chapter to sustain one show, much less a trilogy.

The setting is a Baptist Church in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina, on Christmas Eve in 1941. We are meant to believe we are watching these assorted old-timey characters performing their Christmas pageant for their congregation, and on that level it succeeds. The performers make the audience another character in the piece and it’s easy to imagine that we are seeing the real thing. So, your enjoyment will depend on whether this is your cup of tea or not.

What little storyline there is involves the Sanders family of performers putting together one more show before their son goes off to World War II. And while that’s not a very uplifting subject for a Christmas show, it isn’t even mentioned again after the first act so we are left to wonder, what was the point?

Performances are all top-notch, however, and we’ve come to expect no less from the Derby Dinner Playhouse. Especially nice turns are provided by Paul Kerr and Rita Thomas as the Mom and Pop of the family; Kerr in particular does a nice job with a very moving (and lengthy) monologue recounting a WWI memory, and Thomas gets most of the show’s few laughs giving a unique spin on a stereotypical character.

The standout performance, however, would have to be Cary Wiger as Reverend Mervin Oglethorpe, an obvious Mama’s boy still grieving the loss of his mother while trying to simultaneously present his Christmas pageant and woo the lady of his dreams (a cute character played by Janet Essenpreis).

The cast performs mostly gospel music with a few Christmas songs thrown in for good measure, and it’s during these moments that the cast really gets to shine. I personally think I would rather have seen this cast simply perform the songs as a concert than the way they are presented here, with Connie Ray’s rather thin script trying to tie them together. Director Bekki Jo Schneider does her best with the material, but at the Tuesday night preview performance I attended, I had a sense that even DDP’s regular audience were getting restless in between the musical numbers.

All in all, it was an entertaining evening if not among the playhouse’s best offerings; and for anyone looking for Holiday offering with a more faith-oriented spin, this might be just the ticket.

Featuring Janet Essenpreis, Scott Bradley, Bill Hanna, Paul Kerr, Jim Schweickart, Rita Thomas, Tina Jo Wallace and Cary Wiger.

Sanders Family Christmas

November 15-December 31, 2011

Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive
Clarksville, IN 47129
Tickets (812) 288-8281
Toll Free - 877.898.857

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Rough Road: Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project 1975-1977

“Boys with Guns” by Bob Hower.

Reviewed by Mary Margaret Sparks

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

Rough Road: Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project 1975-1977 is a celebration of Kentucky history.  It all started in 1975 when three Louisville photographers – Ted Wathen, Bob Hower, and Bill Burke – traveled to all 120 of Kentucky’s counties photographing the communities during the U.S. bicentennial celebration.  Thirty-five years later, the exhibition is on display at the Frazier History Museum.

I’m a nut for nostalgia, history and anything documentarian, so I was eager to check out this exhibition, a part of  the 2011 Louisville Photo Biennial.  Walking into the museum, a teaser of large black-and-white photographs line the hallway toward the elevator. I was particularly struck by the piece “Fiddlin’ Bill Livers” by Bill Burke.  The photograph shows an older black man playing the fiddle with a young white child standing next to him. Both figures are looking off at the same point to the photographer’s left, and they seem to be surrounded by smoke or fire.  The background provides a spiritual, ghost-like atmosphere but is also intimate and personal.

The exhibition features over 80 large black-and-white photographs ranging from landscapes to portraits. Along with the photographs are historical cameras, artists’ journals, quotes and video interviews with the photographers.  Audio from Pentecostal preacher Luke Walters and of choirs singing hymns plays throughout the rooms.  In an interview with Bob Hower, he talks of his experiences with Luke Walters, whose quotes also line the walls of the show.  By listening to the artist’s memories from that event, I was able to view the photographs in a new light, enhancing my experience as a viewer by enlightening me about the culture of rural Kentucky.

Much of the work is hung in sets such as the series on Tobacco Farming and Coal Mining.  With mountaintop removal and coal mining being such a controversial and sensitive issue in Kentucky today, I was interested to view photographs on the subject from the ’70s.  Ted Wathen’s photograph “Homes and Mountaintop Removal” shows a white house in the foreground with mountaintop removal happening on the mountains behind the farmland. Wathen’s use of shadows in a strictly black-and-white medium is extraordinary – contrasting the starkness of the white (appearing pure and innocent) with the dark coal and mountains in the background.  Other interesting photographs in the series include a burning coal truck by Hower and a portrait of a black lung victim by Wathen.

A few other photographs that stood out to me were “Boys with Guns” by Hower featuring a close-up portrait of two young boys. One is carrying a rifle, and both boys exude a serious and calm quality while also looking extremely fragile and innocent.  I also enjoyed the collage photo “’57 Chevys” by Burke.  It provides a lighthearted and humorous dissonance to the more serious work in the exhibit that weighs heavily on the viewer.  I also enjoyed another light spirited photograph entitled “Couple with White Cadillac” by Hower. This piece is how I imagined the 1970s – big bell bottoms, large white Cadillac, and frizzy afro hairdos. 

Rough Road: Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project 1975-1977 will be on display at the Frazier History Museum through January 2012.  The exhibition is a new venture for the museum, helping to establish them as a cultural institution, not just a place of history.

The Frazier History Museum also has an exhibition entitled My Brother My Enemy about the Civil War on display through April 2012.  Opening on December 10, the museum will be unveiling their new permanent collection of toy soldiers that will be on display throughout the entire building.  And of course visitors can view artifacts from the Royal Armories of England. The Frazier History Museum is the only museum outside of the Tower of London to exhibit these items.

“Fiddlin’ Bill Ivers” by Bill Burke.

The Frazier History Museum is located at 829 Main Street. 
They are open Monday-Saturday 9AM-5PM, Sunday 12-5PM.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Theatre Review by Craig Nolan Highley: Phantom Band

By Krista Knight
Directed by Alec Volz

Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley

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

Anyone who has lived to be an adult has lived through life as a teenager. And chances are they have also experienced the heartaches that go hand in hand with the difficulties therein. Walden Theatre has captured that spirit of pathos all too well in their current production of Krista Knight’s Phantom Band. Sort of the result of what you’d get if you crossed The Breakfast Club with The Twilight Zone, a talented cast brings this heartfelt and at times heartbreaking story to life under the sure direction of Alec Volz.

Raylene (Callie Trawick) is determined to create a marching band in her senior year at Santa Cruz High School, an institution plagued with all of the teen anxieties, fervent desires, and fiercely protected secrets you’d expect. This would be a difficult enough task without the arrival of Camille (Rosemary Wilson), a British exchange student with the classical musical mastery Raylene and her friends are all striving for. But as the story progresses, we learn there is more to Camille than meets the eye as the real world collides with the metaphysical. Ultimately, the lesson learned is that there is no easy solution to life’s problems, even with access to the supernatural.

Knight’s script is oddly structured. The first half of the story plays out like a typical teen "dramedy," setting up the various characters and the problems their lives are throwing at them. There are some hints at the beginning that something otherworldly is going on, but they are so vague and subtle that when the fantastical elements kick in halfway through, the tonal shift is somewhat jarring.  It’s also somewhat difficult following the story’s timeline, as little is said at first to indicate how much time has passed between each scene; for example, at one point the characters all appeared wearing various costumes, and the scene was more than half over before someone mentioned it was Halloween.

Script and story issues, however, are more than made up for by a solid production. I haven’t seen many Walden shows, but I am always impressed by the talent displayed by the young performers – in this case one middle school student and eight high schoolers. There was not a weak member in this cast, but there were some standouts:

Emma Wesslund was amazing in the dual role of sisters Donna (a substance abuser about to hit rock bottom) and Michelle (substitute mom to Donna’s troubled son). She so convincingly conveys the two disparate characters that I didn’t at first realize they were both the same actress! Ciaran Brown is a true joy to watch as woefully nerdy Tint, forced to contend with braces on his teeth that cause him to speak in an almost incomprehensible lisp and not at all fazed to have the useless position of piano player in a marching band. And Jake Nichols gives a heartbreaking performance as Donna’s troubled son Dieter, the emotional center of the piece.

It is also worth noting that when the script calls for the characters to make music, these incredibly talented kids play their own instruments and do so beautifully.

If I have any suggestion at all to improve their performance, it would be to be careful not to rely too heavily on props. Swinging a tennis racket to emphasize a point, for example, or pulling a hat off your head and wringing it in your hands, can be an effective visual. Just be careful not to overdo it or it can easily turn into a crutch.

Alec Volz has done an amazing job of eliciting such strong performances from this group of young actors, and his and Lily Bartenstein’s set and lighting design add a nice touch of eeriness to the proceedings.

Given that this is a student production, I was a little shocked at the adult language (more than a couple of F-bombs were dropped) and themes, so I would hesitate to recommend this to a pre-teen crowd.  But I would imagine that many adults and older teens would strongly relate to a lot of the points made here. So for them, this is a show not to be missed.

Starring Ciaran Brown, Taylor Cowles, Nick Duong, Dion Kohler Jr., Broke Morrison, Jake Nichols, Callie Trawick, Emma Wesslund, and Rosemary Wilson.

Phantom Band

November 10-19

Walden Theatre
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 40204

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Theatre Review by Keith Waits - Broadsword: a heavy metal play

By Marco Ramirez, Directed by Amy Attaway

Reviewed by Keith Waits

Entire contents copyright 2011 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Tonight I experienced a rare instance of transcendence in a theatre. In its final moments, Broadsword: a heavy metal play elicited in me a profound visceral reaction that caught me off guard. A feeling of genuine apprehension that made my heart skip a beat and my breathe stop for an instant. To describe the scene would certainly be a spoiler, and even the details of the stagecraft employed might seem unremarkable in print, but the mysterious alchemy of ingredients worked their magic and resulted in a thrilling climax. I have no idea if anyone else in the audience felt quite the same way, but it was a memorable moment for me.

The story of Broadsword concerns itself with such ephemeral experience as it explores the past history of three members of a heavy metal quartet who have come to mourn the loss of one of its members, Richie. Sixteen years after they brushed up against success and artistic achievement, they find themselves confronting a mystery surrounding Richie’s years of seclusion in his mother’s basement and his disappearance six months earlier. The basement was their former rehearsal hall and is filled with instruments, amplifiers and what appears to be years of detritus resulting from, what we learn, was a dark and dangerous obsession. The work of Scenic Designer Karl Anderson and Properties Designer Heather Lindert is exemplary, and the scene only lacks the dank, funky smells that would almost certainly accompany such a location.

Much of the play consists of the band members working out the complex emotional baggage gathered over the years and never exorcised. The strong cast makes the most of these exchanges, and these scenes ground the action sufficiently so that the introduction of a supernatural element seems surprisingly organic and doesn’t throw the tone of the material out of balance. That element is worthy of The Twilight Zone and conjures thoughts of Robert Johnson at the crossroad overlaid on the image of Brian Wilson locked away in pursuit of perfection.

It is a marvelous idea – one potent enough for me to wish the playwright would revisit the text to develop it just a little further than it currently allows. Or perhaps this particular production doesn’t reach its fullest potential. In either event, as good as it is, Broadsword just falls short of greatness.

That still leaves us with a smart script characterized by colorful dialogue and a sure eye for the detail of the relationships. Scott Anthony plays Nicky, the group’s drummer and bitter misanthrope, and has the luck of the lines. Almost everything he says is funny and biting, and Mr. Anthony displays a sure understanding if what makes him tick. His work is filled with swagger and cocksureness. Michael Mayes is his equal as Tony, Richie’s brother and the lead singer whose attempt at a solo career triggered the band’s demise. The character is a well-observed mix of the conceited gloss of the front man and the working-class roots of a kid from Rahway. Brandon Cox nicely captures the affability of the member who perhaps has less conflict with any other member and who seems the most regretful that things never worked out.

Another character, Dr. Thorne, introduces both a greater depth to the mystery and some measure of explanation. He is played in suitably enigmatic fashion by Tom Luce. Another otherworldly figure is the Man in White, intended to represent the easy temptations of becoming a rock star, and perhaps much more. Robert McFarland has the requisite languid and seductive presence, but this usually reliable actor’s energy seemed a little off opening night.

Another character, Becca, was once Broadsword’s Chief Groupie but is now as weary and disappointed as the rest. In truth, the character seems underdeveloped and a little cliché in the writing, yet Cara Hicks' fully realized portrayal almost makes you not notice. It is a good example of an actor pushing the character beyond the text, and Ms. Hicks communicates so much through her physicality and body language. Just before that magical climax, she has a delightful moment where she casts off her weary burdens and becomes again, for an instant, that young acolyte hanging on every power chord, and she manages it entirely without words, a pure and unfettered expression of childish delight.   

As a theatregoer, I live for such moments, for they transcend the particular details of lights, props, whether the seats are comfortable or how noisily another patron is unwrapping a cough drop, and insert us fully into the lives of the characters and the action of the play. It is the magic of live theatre, and its potential exists every time a dedicated group of theatre artists place themselves on a stage and invite you along for the ride. Whatever its faults, Broadsword, a heavy metal play does this forcefully, giving its audience a vivid and memorable experience.

Broadsword, a heavy metal play

November 11, 12, 14, 18, 19 @ 8pm.

Theatre [502]
Parkside Studio inside The Iroquois Amphitheater
1080 Amphitheater Road
Louisville, KY

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Music Review by Carol Larson: The Choral Arts Society and Bourbon Baroque

November 6, 2011

Entire contents copyright 2011 by Carol Larson. All rights reserved.

Henry Purcell, composer, 1659-1695.

What a grand partnership:  the Choral Arts Society under the baton of James Rightmyer; and Bourbon Baroque, Louisville’s period instrument ensemble. This is a match made in heaven. 

The Program began with the Funeral March from the Oratorio (Sacred Drama), Saul, by Handel. This movement is a funeral anthem for Saul and his son Jonathan. The music is gorgeous and the long sustained phrases were beautifully executed by the Orchestra.

The next piece was Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, written by Henry Purcell, the greatest English composer before Handel. Mary was the wife of William of Orange who took the throne in 1688. Mary died in 1694 during the smallpox epidemic. This piece was an incredible experience. The eerie drum procession created the funeral mood of the piece. The music of the March was sad but a beautiful blend of brass sounds. The choruses and brass canzone were quite stunning. Conductor James Rightmyer did an excellent job, demanding precise rhythms of the orchestra and straight, blended tones of the chorus.

We now leave the Baroque period and come forward to the 20th century to the music of English composer Herbert Howells. Howells studied at the Royal College of Music under Charles Villiers Stanford, Hubert Parry and Charles Wood. He also was a good friend of Ralph Vaughn Williams, who was his mentor. The motet, Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing, was written shortly after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and is dedicated to Kennedy's memory. This work is considered to be Howell’s finest a cappella anthem. The chorus did an amazing job – the close harmonies were so in tune that they were as clear as a bell. It was magical!

The afternoon ended with the Magnificat in D major, BWV 243, by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is scored for orchestra, five-part chorus and soloists. The text is taken directly from the Gospel of Luke. The scene is the Virgin Mary visiting her cousin, Elizabeth, who is pregnant with the future John the Baptist. After Mary greets Elizabeth, the child moves in Elizabeth's womb. Elizabeth then praises Mary for her faith and at this point Mary speaks what is now known as the Magnificat.

The choruses in this piece were performed at very brisk tempos, which seemed a little frantic at times; however, the solo and ensemble sections were very solid.

This was a beautiful concert and I hope these two ensembles partner again very soon to give us more beautiful music. Bravo to Mr. Rightmyer, the Choral Arts Society and Bourbon Baroque. 

The Choral Arts Society and Bourbon Baroque
St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church
639 South Shelby Street
Louisville, Kentucky