Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Faith, Life, Schnapps and the Apocalypse Embraced in "The Last Hanukkah Christmas"

Matt Orme and Jamissa Spalding in The Last Hanakkuh Christmas.
Photo courtesy of Bunbury Theatre.

The Last Hanukkah Christmas

By Juergen K. Tossman
Directed by Juergen K. Tossman

Review by Rachel White

Entire contents are copyright 2012, Rachel White.  All rights reserved.

An aging holocaust survivor confined to a wheel chair, Klaus Klurman (Matt Orme) finds himself trapped in his basement with no knowledge of how he got there on Hanukkah Christmas.  Also with him is his former student and friend, Hyman Goldstein (Juergen K. Tossman), who is dead. When Klaus tries to escape the basement, Goldstein dryly points out that Klaus cannot go up the basement steps in his wheel chair. It’s a nifty little trap the author has created for Klaus. He is now a captive audience to the ghosts of his past, limburger cheese and apparently anyone who wants to escape the apocalypse that happens to be going on outside.

I came into The Last Hanukkah Christmas completely unaware that it was a series, but from hearing the audience’s reactions and their seeming familiarity with the story I soon picked up on it. I won’t say it didn’t take a lot of work and listening to understand who was who, but I got it.

The first act of the play is pretty engaging, and it’s always exciting to bear witness to a new play on opening night. The basement set is spare, but it is detailed with the odds and ends of Klaus’s life, which makes it feel like it belongs to someone specific. Klaus and Hyman are strong characters, and they joke around and share stories together. It is clear that they are old sparring partners, and their relationship as mentor and student is rich and compelling. There is a sense that they need something from one another. The plot is then further complicated by Klaus’s fear of death, the question of whether or not this is all Klaus’s hallucination, and of course the impending 2012 apocalypse.    

This is where things got a little messy in terms of story structure.  As the second act unfolds, the apocalypse comes into full swing and friends of Klaus begin showing up in the basement seeking shelter from the events transpiring outside. These characters include Greeda (Alyssa Tyne), a pregnant ex-prostitute; a cheerful albeit slow southern bumpkin, Fred (Mike Burmester); and an old family friend, Twilight (Jamisa Spalding).  They come in cheerfully bearing gifts of bread, schnapps and Limburger cheese. Klaus gives them advice, shares stories with them, and enjoys their company. But the plot – the reason why these characters are here, why they need each other – seemed to get lost. 

Part of the problem is that the question of how these characters found their way to Klaus’s basement and why they seem unsurprised by the doom spreading outside is never addressed. Characters seem unfazed by the fact that the world might end tonight. Had the reality of the apocalypse been embraced, the questions of faith, religion and how we treat ourselves, our unborn and each other would have come to the surface in a natural way as they often do in times of crisis and high emotion. 

As it is, characters seem to come and go as needed without a lot of difficulty or motivation, and this make potentially powerful moments seem overly trite or out of place.

There are some rich possibilities within the play, and what the author does well is introduce new and interesting conflicts into the mix. However, a lot of these didn’t get developed or were passed over, so their significance was lost.   

In one moment, Klaus advises Greeda, almost pleads with her, not to drink while pregnant to give her baby a chance. There was something there that the writer was really feeling, but the girl takes Klaus’s advice so quickly and without question that the scene felt unbelievable.

It seemed that Klaus had many things to teach these people. And my question became, What could he learn from them? The holocaust survivor is symbolic as the one who has witnessed ultimate horror. But what about the pregnant ex-prostitute?  What about the others?  The cheerfully dull country boy?  Is there more to them?  It made me wonder if they too had something to teach as well as to learn during what is (hopefully) not our last Hanukkah Christmas season.

The Last Hanukkah Christmas

December 13-23
Bunbury Theatre
at The Henry Clay Theatre
604 South Third Street
Louisville, KY 40202
(502) 585-5306

Monday, December 17, 2012

If Silliness Is Important When Choosing a Play to See for Christmas, Try These “Kings of Christmas”

The cast of The Kings of Christmas. Photo courtesy of The Bard's Town.

The Kings of Christmas

Written by Doug Schutte
Directed by Doug Schutte & Scot Atkinson

By Carlos-Manuel

Copyright © 2012 Carlos Manuel. All rights reserved.

It is the “Holiday Season” or “Christmas Time,” if you prefer. So, you say you want to go out and get in the spirit of the season by attending the theatre. You look online or in a magazine and you see there are several Christmas themed productions going on. Suddenly you find yourself having to make choices.

Forget about A Christmas Carol. It’s old and we all already know the story. Besides, it is cheesy and after all these years, it’s becoming a bore. Then you see A Christmas Story, another staple of the American Christmas popular culture. But hey, why pay money to go see something that you can actually see for free in the comfort of your own home? Besides, the staged show is exactly as the movie; really, there is nothing magical about it.

Suddenly you run your finger or your cursor over a title: The Kings of Christmas, an original show produced by The Bard’s Town Theatre and written by theatre founder, Doug Schutte.

You don’t know what the play is about. But there is a disclaimer: “This show contains language that may not be suitable for children.” That is a good sign because: (a) at least you know it won’t be cheesy; and (b) it has been done only once before. The show promises to be fresh, exciting and, according to the description, it is “brisk, irreverent, laugh-fill-fun,” turning the “Scrooge-iest types with holiday cheers.”

You decide to go see it, arrive at the theater, get yourself a couple of drinks, taking one with you into the performing space (one of the great advantages of going to see shows at The Bard’s Town), and settle into your reserved seat to be ready for craziness.

And crazy fun it is. From the beginning to the end, the show is packed with witty one-liners, over-the-top characters, and a plot that can only be conjured by someone who understands the meaning of theatricality.

These types of plays require a group of actors and a director who have a certain affinity with camp and melodrama mixed with a slight touch of sincerity. Luckily, the author, who also acts as a co-director, gathered a fine group of “leave-it-all-out-on-the-stage” actors who are not afraid to move beyond realism.

Mr. Schutte plays Uncle Frank; he opens the play with a monologue very much a la Christopher Duran: the writing, the delivery, the exaggeration all fit in within such realm.  He sets the pace and the mood for the rest of the cast, who easily follow his timing and energy.

The show is about The King Family, who are gathering together for yet another infamous Christmas celebration. They’ve done this for the last 10 years and have never missed it – no matter what. All would be okay if it wasn’t for Carter, the oldest of the children, played by Scot Atkinson who also has the double duty of co-directing. Carter is bitter, angry and disillusioned and has created a hard shell around him to protect himself from everyone. But on this particular Christmas visit, things are going to be different, of course. His life becomes a topsy-turvy series of events, each of them more outrageous than the next. And as audience members, we accept each of those events, mainly because the playwright has introduced a group of strange characters who have assuredly established their ‘weirdness’ from the very beginning.

Jake Beamer plays Kennedy, a wannabe magician (like his father) who is bad at everything magical yet believes he is better than Harry Potter. Harry Potter (as we all know) isn’t real but, apparently, to Kennedy, he is. Ben Gierhart portrays Clinton, the nerdy scientist son who isn’t very bright. Then we have Beth Tantanella as Wendy, the neighbor’s daughter. She is beautiful, sultry and very much infatuated (actually borderline obsessed) with Carter. And, finally, there is Jennifer Levine, playing the role of Carol King, the head of the family who has developed a double personality in order to deal with certain realities and issues. Of the lot, the weakest of them all is Ms. Levine, who doesn’t quite seem to find the character of Mrs. King. Having two personalities might be fun, but the duality isn’t explored as much as it could have been. I do understand she’s aware, as is everyone else in her family, that she’s pretending to be someone else. But, still, I didn’t believe her character at all, except in one of the flashback scenes where she wears a sparkling red dress and she seems to be “younger, prettier and happier.”

The first act seems very random and heading nowhere fast. In fact, there were times where I personally lost interest, either because “it was too silly” to care for the moment, or because I sort of knew what was coming. This could be dangerous, because if as an audience member you become bored, you might end up leaving at intermission, which is exactly what happened with the two couples seated next to me. The second act is more concrete; it explains how things happen and why they happened the way they did. In short, it brings logic to what seems to be missing in act one.

To make sense of the Kings’ family life, the playwright borrows the premise from A Christmas Carol, where a ghost comes to warn Carter about other ghosts coming to visit him. Things do not happen exactly as in the Dickens classic, but the main idea of going to the past, to the present and the future do follow suite. Then, at the end, with just enough sincerity to make us believe in Christmas once again, Carter’s protective wall breaks down, making him into someone who loves, feels and cares for everyone in his family, including Wendy.

Like the two couples who left, I personally did not like, or enjoy, everything about the show. But the audience (full house) who was there was in an uproar throughout the performance. This is mainly because the actors embraced their characters to the fullest and did not shy away from the silliness of it all.

So, if you want to go see a Christmas show this holiday season, pick The Kings of Christmas because it is silly, outrageous and well-acted. You won’t learn anything from it, but you won’t be disappointed either because the show is very entertaining. And if you have a couple of drinks beforehand, the show is even better.

The Kings of Christmas

December 13-16, 20-23 (all shows at 7:30). These shows typically sell out prior to the day of show. Tickets are $15, with $10 tickets for students and seniors.

The Bard’s Town
1801 Bardstown Road
Louisville, KY 40205

Monday, December 10, 2012

Little Colonel Returns to The Nibroc Trilogy with A Solid Production of “Gulf View Drive”

Gulf View Drive

By Arlene Hutton
Directed by Martha Frazier

Reviewed by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2012, Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Kelly Patton and Garret Patton appear in Gulf View Drive.
Photo courtesy of Little Colonel Playhouse.

Last season, Little Colonel Players mounted a thoughtful production of Last Train to Nibroc, the first in a trilogy of plays by Arlene Hutton charting the relationship of Raleigh and May, a young couple from Kentucky who meet during World War II. Now comes the final chapter, Gulf View Drive, with the same two actors who so successfully portrayed these characters the first time:  Garret and Kelly Patton.

A program note explains that it was decided not to mount the second play, See Rock City, because it was deemed to be too sad and unresolved, with the couple apparently separated, uncertain about whether they have a future together. Audiences are not always easy to come by, so it is difficult to fault companies for choosing as much for the marketplace as for artistic gratification. But I must confess disappointment at the missed opportunity of following the story through all three plays, especially since they have done a pretty good job once again.

We catch up to the couple in 1953, which positions the trilogy as neatly encapsulating the American post-war period on the cusp of Eisenhower-era prosperity. They are now married and living on the gulf coast of Florida with May’s mother, and Raleigh’s mother has come for an extended visit. After his sister Treva arrives to escape a troubled marriage, the stress and strain of Raleigh and May’s relationship begin to be explored in earnest, allowing the playwright to explore a moving family dynamic. What results is a scenario that finds satisfying dramatic resolution while forecasting societal changes that are still part of the social and political discourse today.

Garrett and Kelly Patton bring some of the same deep understanding of Raleigh and May that characterized their first attack on this couple, although the inclusion of other characters dilutes the impact slightly. Grace Poganski does well by Mrs. Brummett (Raleigh’s mother), but she is hampered somewhat by the writer’s insistence on grounding this character in tired mother-in-law clich├ęs that are the one truly weak aspect of the writing. It provides for some laughs and Ms. Patton, in particular, plays off Ms. Polanski’s well-turned judgmental barbs with great subtlety; but it remains a weakness.

As May’s mother, Mrs. Gill – who lives with the couple – Janet Morris finds the (comparatively) free spirit and compassion of the character, illustrating a sharp contrast between the two mother hens. Finally, Kristina Ramsey attacks the role of Treva with great energy that threatens to overcome the character but still manages to illuminate the conflicts within a complex and self-absorbed woman grappling with her own domestic troubles.

Although the early scenes suffered a few stumbled line readings and dropped cues, the overall pace of Martha Frazier’s staging was brisk, moving at just the right speed to allow the audience to connect with the characters.

Gulf View Drive

December 6, 7, 8, 14 & 15 at 8 p.m.
December 9 & 16 at 2:30 p.m.

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