Monday, January 30, 2012

Conversation, Community, and the Arts: Post-show Discussions at Actors Theatre

By Kathi E.B. Ellis.

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Kathi E.B. Ellis. All rights reserved.

On January 12 and 19, Actors Theatre of Louisville hosted community conversations, following the performances of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, with an invited panel of community activists engaging in a dialogue with audience members.

On both evenings, panelists and audience members at Actors Theatre of Louisville grappled with a perennial area of discomfort: how Louisville handles issues of race relations, filtered through the issues addressed in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. Diaz’ script is a brilliant deconstruction of race in early 21st century America, with Hispanic, African-American and Asian characters working within the white-monopolized media system. Panel moderator the Reverend Doctor Rhashell D. Hunter moved deftly between production-inspired comments from audience and panelists alike and audience testimonies that spoke to the deep-seated challenges faced in the increasingly multi-cultural community that Louisville is becoming. 

Panelists included Lara Miramontes, Americana Community Center; Ben Ruiz, volunteer with and board member of community non-profit organizations supporting Hispanic/Latino populations (both evenings); Sundar Sridharagopal, founder of Techneek.Biz  and active in business leadership circles (January 12); and Sonja Grey, president of the Louisville Urban League Young Professionals (January 19).  The panelists spoke both to the vibrancy of communities of refugees and immigrants, and to the overt and more subtle forms of discrimination each of them face on a regular basis. Panelists were careful to acknowledge the strides that Louisville has made in working with and supporting communities of refugees and immigrants, the ‘internationals’ as Ms. Miramontes identified them.  Mr. Ruiz averred that Louisville is ahead of the curve compared with other cities in the way that dialogue has been established with these new communities.  Nonetheless, both panelists and audience members returned to the challenges faced by the browning of the country and Louisville, and how patterns of communication are shifting from the black-white paradigm of much of the twentieth century to the more complex interactions between all ethnic communities as well as the interactions between them and the white community.

Many of the audience members who spoke addressed the issue of white privilege – an attitude that many whites carry with them, albeit unconsciously – that permeates communications and relationships across the cultures. It was also stated that there are few safe spaces in our community in which we can have this kind of conversation – maybe ATL has found a niche with this initiative – and there were times when it was an uncomfortable conversation. These are difficult ideas to hear; framing conversations of ‘other-ness’ generates strong passions, and we don’t often get practice articulating these ideas, which can lead to hostility and defensiveness – and, yes, those moments occurred during these dialogues. Nonetheless, audience and panelists kept coming back to wanting to respect all cultures and each of us as individuals –  a good starting point to continue this conversation with a broader cross-section of the community.

An unanticipated testimonial happened towards the end of the first evening. The fight director for the production, Al Snow, was introduced and he took to the stage, microphone in hand, to deliver a passionate and articulate analysis of the veracity of the script’s illustration of racism, based on simple stereotypes, within the world of pro-wrestling. He attributed the success of this formula to the geographic isolation of the U.S., relative to other parts of the world where multiple cultures have lived cheek by jowl for centuries. Do those countries always get multi-culturalism right? No. But fear and anger (the emotions he identified that promoters manipulate) are generated by lack of knowledge and familiarity of the other, which is a frequent condition in our country. The following week audience members spoke to the way the play articulates the roles we play within our families, cultures and communities, and how we shift those roles when we interact with different cultures, power structures and communities, frequently playing the role that the dominant culture ‘expects’ us to play. Speakers found strong parallels between their own experiences and the dynamics portrayed in the world of “Chad Deity” with the experiences of the Hispanic and Asian characters as they interact with African-American and white characters.

These post-show conversation demonstrated how an energetic, comic and poignant production can generate a discussion that we can take back into our community at large, and not just leave in a theatre, that audiences can go back into the world changed by their theatrical experience as Dr. Hunter said, wrapping up the final conversation.  It’s an indicator of the vitality and relevance of the arts in this community that around a hundred people chose to stay after a production to talk about how the arts can impact issues in our community.


Kathi E.B. Ellis is a member of the Lincoln Center and Chicago Directors' Labs and an associate member of the Stage Directors & Choreographers Society. She has attended the LaMama Directing Symposium in Umbria, Italy, and is featured in Southern Artisty, an online registry of outstanding Southern Artists.  Her directing work has been recognized with nominations for the South Florida Theatre Carbonell Award.  Locally, Kathi is a member of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, a founding principal of StageLab theatre training studio, and is part of ShoeString Productions an informal producing collective. She has written book reviews and articles for Southern Theatre, the quarterly publication of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and was a contributing writer for JCPS' textbook for the 11th grade Arts and Humanities survey course and for YouthArts Tapestry, a Kentucky Arts Council publication.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Theatre Review: In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)


Cora Vander Broeck and Grant Goodman in Sarah Ruhl's, In the Next Room (or, the Vibrator Play). Photo by Alan Simons.

In the Next Room (or, the Vibrator Play)
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Laura Gordon
A review by Scott Dowd.
Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Scott Dowd. All rights reserved.

Though the title and main gag of Sarah Ruhl’s costume comedy, In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), is generated by the work of Thomas Edison and Victorian-era electrical experimentation in general, the heart of Ruhl’s play is more closely aligned with the spirit of Henry David Thoreau and his pursuit of an authentic life.

The Victorian’s suppression of sexuality — especially female sexuality — is well-chronicled in the novels of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters who were, in Ruhl’s own words, some of her early inspirations. In the Next Room anticipates Freud’s work (at the time of the play Freud was still studying the genitalia of eels at the Laboratory for Marine Zoology in Trieste) but accurately draws on the work of some early practitioners of women’s health inspired, perhaps, by Mesmer’s ideas of magnétism animal published a century before. That is not to imply these practitioners worked primarily for the good of their patients; they were most likely employed by the husbands or fathers of these women to correct perceived imperfections that made them less suitable helpmates — the situation Ruhl establishes as we meet Mrs. Daldry (Cassandra Bissell), brought by her husband to receive treatments for hysteria from the self-obsessed Dr. Givings (Grant Goodman). Dr. Givings uses the latest in electrical stimulation to entice the body’s tides to move and clear the blockages, keeping these sufferers from vigorously fulfilling their duties. Meanwhile Dr. Giving’s own wife, Catherine (Cora Vander Broek), is consigned to the next room and disallowed access to his most interior space. She is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with her own role as wife and new mother.

It is Catherine’s dissatisfaction that gives the play its animus. Simulated masturbation (tastefully hidden beneath clinical drapes) and double entendres are sophomoric in the word’s most literal sense. Ruhl uses this device in abundance to the obvious delight of the opening night audience; but it would have made thin broth without the deeper layers of flavor provided by Catherine and the wet-nurse she is forced to employ (Tyla Abercrumbie). While on the surface the characters deal with the idea of relationship and the oppressive realities of women’s role in the Victorian Era, the essential questions that emerge are more personal, “How do we live authentically? What does that look like? What do we lose in achieving it? Are we willing to make that exchange?” Perhaps most often ignored when considering these questions Ruhl asks, “What responsibilities does authenticity require of us?” A brilliant motif develops in the subtleties of the relationship between Sabrina Daldry (Bissell) and Dr. Giving’s assistant Annie (Jenny McKnight). Many men will, I suspect, experience vindication in its dénouement unintended by the playwright. To say more would be a spoiler, but I encourage men especially to look beyond the obvious elements of this scene.

Ruhl also lifts up the interesting phenomenon no less in evidence today than in 1880 whereby men and women often share space but on separate, parallel planes. While the male characters of In the Next Room carry on their insular lives, making plans and decisions for their wives and dependants, the female characters make connections with themselves and each other that pass unnoticed. Even the painter Leo Irving (Matthew Brumlow), a less impetuous Kirillovich to Catherine’s Karenina, is able to catch only a glimpse of the interior lives of the figures he captures.  This idea is restated in scenic designer Philip Witcomb’s beautiful design that incorporates two circles that meet, but fail to intersect. The set is also indicative of Ruhl’s Victorian story-telling style, filled with bagatelles and embellishments often streamlined out of modern theatre. Costume designer Lorraine Venberg’s beautiful, well-made couture has the authentic look of the period without the cumbersomeness that would have made the action of the play impossible. Her solutions were elegant and noteworthy. 

In the Next Room succeeds because Ruhl embraces both the absurdity and underlying tragedy of life and offers in the end some hope, yet to be realized, that we may learn to embrace our freedom with a sense of restraint and maturity that might allow each of us to live a more full and balanced life in community. 

In the Next Room (or, the Vibrator Play)
January 24 – February 18, 2012 
Actors Theater of Louisville
Pamela Brown Auditorium

Third & Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Friday, January 27, 2012

Theatre Review: dirty, sexy, derby play


The cast of dirty, sexy, derby play. Photo courtesy of Finnigan Productions.

dirty, sexy, derby play

Written and directed by Brian Walker

Reviewed by Keith Waits

Entire contents copyright 2012 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

First, and I cannot imagine this is a fresh observation, that is a very, very good title. For anyone, but especially for native Louisvillians, those four words might hold a lot of promise, so the play itself has a great deal to live up to.

For the most part, it delivers on that promise. Filled with raunchy dialogue and fierce confrontations, almost all of it turning on the sex lives of four married heterosexual couples, it is funny as hell and most certainly not for the faint of heart or easily offended. It is advertised with a disclaimer announcing, “Adult content; intended for mature audiences only,” and it is a warning that should be taken seriously (there were walkouts on opening night). While there is no onstage nudity, save one briefly shirtless male torso, there is an abundance of profane and graphic talk about sex and body parts. Some of it may be sophomoric, but the intention seems to liberate taboos and secrets that push the characters into life-changing moments of epiphany and acceptance; and in that, it largely succeeds.

The plot places the eight characters at a 1974 Derby Day party in Louisville, approximately one month after the famous series of tornadoes swept through the city, leaving the most devastation of any natural disaster since the 1937 flood. The time and place are meant to offer an excuse for the occasion to be more than a Derby party: the hostess means to stir up the pot by framing the soiree as a “key” party; the infamous social phenomenon in which women go home, and ostensibly to bed with whoever’s keys they draw out of a bowl. Various other provocative party games precede this climactic event which, to nobody’s, least of all the audience’s, surprise, fails to produce the desired result.

Mr. Walker does a nice job fitting his characters to established stereotypes before he begins to explode things, so we can feel a little bit of comfort before the fireworks commence. The device of having all eight deliver introductory monologues while the other actors freeze starts to grow tiresome after the first six or so, and threatens to rob the first act of momentum, but once achieved, he accelerates the action at a pace commensurate with the rapid consumption of vodka grasshoppers (synergistically available to patrons at the bar downstairs). The action builds to wilder and crazier levels of outrageousness that would seem over-the-top if you could stop laughing long enough to notice. After the intermission, the second act opens with a bit of surrealistic business that is so tightly structured in the staging that dirty, sexy, derby play achieves a moment of pure theatrical invention that elevates it to something more than raunchy period comedy.

It is material that demands high energy and certain commitment in the playing, and here is the cast that can make it happen. Briana Clemerson is sassy as the hostess with a wicked plan, Vanessa, and Corey Long is just right as her angsty husband who imagines he can have his cake and eat it too. Todd Zeigler is as good as I have seen him as Tim, a masturbation-obsessed teacher who is as uptight as his polyester leisure ensemble suggests, while Elizabeth Cox, so adroit at more serious fare, delightfully has the time of her life as his wife, Lana. Andy Epstein’s character, Victor, as written comes off as a little too obvious in his repression at first, but the actor carefully renders dignity with subtle effect that builds to a wonderful climax. As his wife Francine, Leah Roberts fearlessly embodies the least sympathetic character with requisite acid and sure comedic timing. Finally, Eric Welch and Sarah East make a forceful entrance as Dennis and Theresa, a raucous white-trash couple who push the limits of the piece but play their larger-than-life roles with such ferocious skill that they manage to keep things grounded while shooting the moon. Michael Roberts does yeoman work as a utility player, solid support playing primarily a wide variety of telephone prank victims.

The stage at The Bard’s Town, with centrally placed double doors, is well-suited to the period accurate set and costumes that, thankfully, are understated enough to support but not draw attention away from the action.  

This is a daringly conceived play, solid in its ideas and so tantalizingly close to a polished finish, but also containing moments that seem a little rocky and redundant but are here overwhelmed by the confident players and smart direction. Still, I can easily imagine this script being produced outside of this region, despite its Derby City locale; a vastly appealing social comedy drawing other small companies like flies to honey. I missed the original production of the play and count myself grateful that Finnigan Productions saw fit to “remount” (pun as intended as they come) the play so I could partake of the experience cherished by so many others.

Editors note: dirty, sexy, derby play will soon be published and available at Carmichael’s and other local bookstores, as well as

dirty, sexy, derby play

January 26, 27, 28, February 2, 3 & 4 @ 7:30 p.m.

Finnigan Productions
at The Bard’s Town
1801 Bardstown Road
Louisville KY 40204
(502) 749-5275

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Literary Review: Pulphead


John Jeremiah Sullivan. 
Photo © Harry Taylor Photography


by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Paperback, $16

Review by Katherine Dalton
Entire contents copyright © 2012 by Katherine Dalton. All rights reserved.

There are characters out there we love to hate, and in hating them we feel all the painful satisfaction of scratching a chigger bite.  That kind of armchair-invective is an easy emotion.  More psychologically disruptive are the people we hate to love, and for me, John Jeremiah Sullivan is one of those. 

Mr. Sullivan can both report and write, and he can sometimes breach the printed divide lying between him and us in a way that will make the essay, all over again, the literary form I love best.  But what a son of a gun he is.

There are no bad pieces here, and some of them are terrific, including the opening essay “Upon This Rock,” about Mr. Sullivan's adventure driving a 29-foot RV to a Christian music festival in the Ozarks.  There he makes the friendly acquaintance of some hardscrabble Christians who take his number even as he takes theirs. 

He makes fun of these men, a bit, and takes several swipes at Christianity in general and Evangelical Christianity in particular.  But he is honest enough to do three things you won't normally find a regular contributor to Gentleman's Quarterly doing:  he writes about his own teenage Evangelical phase, admits that he has doubts about his doubts, and pays his debt to the men whose lives he has publicized by quoting the one statement born-again Darius asked him to include:  “You can say we're crazy, but say that we love God.”

The piece ends with one of the most beautiful lines I can remember reading on glossy paper—a line that is, characteristically, both reverent and irreverent.  Mr. Sullivan has embraced the postmodern zeitgeist.  But he has made it his own.  And that is why, though I prefer pieces like the one on cave art in Tennessee, I will read him even when he writes about Axl Rose.

Writers, if they really have something to say, must be willing as well as able to say exactly what they mean.  And that is both technically and emotionally difficult.  Honesty is always rare enough to be valuable, and I value it in Mr. Sullivan – despite the smart-aleck asides here and there, or the purposefully casual use of the f-word.  There is also a certain cultural blindness in him – a generational thing, perhaps — evident in, for example, “Mr. Lytle:  An Essay.”  This is a long, beautiful, evocative appreciation of the Southern Agrarian writer Andrew Lytle which deservedly won several awards but which will also be, for many years, the last damning nail in the coffin of Mr. Lytle's personal reputation. 

Perhaps Mr. Lytle deserved to be exposed in this way.  But it is strange to read a piece so mixed with affection and destruction, and so painfully self-revealing of the author, too.  The intimate charitableness the then-young Mr. Sullivan showed Mr. Lytle is not, perhaps, unusual; people have done stranger things out of affection, or obligation, or a desire to connect with a mythic past.  But to a reader just old enough to remember what privacy was like, it is disconcerting to see a writer throw his away, even when such revelations help make his essay artistically remarkable.

Though born in Louisville, Mr. Sullivan had a Northerner for a father (former Courier-Journal sportswriter Mike Sullivan), grew up in Indiana, now lives in North Carolina and has never lived here.  Still, you can call him a Kentucky writer – he's wrestling with Kentucky all the time.  His first book, Blood Horses, is in part a long love letter to the Bluegrass (punctuated by an occasional raspberry), and in Pulphead Kentucky shows up again and again, in asides about his mother's relatives in Lexington, in the long article about 19th-century polymath Constantine Rafinesque.  Some of Sullivan's work is maddening.  All of it is good.  Reason enough to read him.

Katherine Dalton is a contributing editor to Chronicles Magazine and to  Her essay “Fidelity” was included in Wendell Berry:  Life and Work (University Press of Kentucky).  She lives in Louisville.

Theatre Review: Almost, Maine

Neil Brewer & Jayme Thomas in Almost, Maine
Almost, Maine
By John Cariani
Directed by Neil Brewer
A review by Kate Barry
Entire contents are copyright © 2011 Kate Barry. All rights reserved.
Love is in the air in a fictional town in Maine. Its inhabitants are literally falling for each other, giving each other heaping mounds of love and mending broken hearts. I had the chance to catch the opening night of Wayward Actors’ Almost Maine, a delightfully simple series of scenes all about love. It’s the type of show that warms the heart in the middle of a dreary winter.
Neil Brewer took the reigns as director and actor for this production. When I see this type of situation in productions, I am skeptical of the end product. Has the director fairly balanced his time between creating a performance that is entertaining and engaging while wearing the hat as actor? Has he done a good job with directing himself? Well, Mr. Brewer can rest assured that he has done a fine job. He provides a strong comedic performance in the first act, during a scene with Jayme Thomas, as he portrays a man who is learning what can hurt him and what he needs to be afraid of. His appearance in the second act, as Rebecca Chaney’s long lost love, was comparatively muted and less memorable as, in comparison, it lacked a certain chemistry and longing.
Brewer’s choices as director were smart for this type of show. Using a minimal set design consisting of sparse props and an exterior of a house, Brewer keeps the audience’s attention on the acting. What I liked most about this production was the dreamy conclusion of each scene. As lovers unite or find inner strength in some cases, a pool of blue and green lights spill on the stage proving a powerful visual and lasting impression.  
Highlights from the cast include Mason Stewart and Rebecca Chaney’s prologue and epilogue as a couple who expresses their love for one another for the first time. They were just tender and adorable as can be. Michael McCollum and Julie Mayfield were a couple of sweethearts in a scene titled “Her Heart,” where a woman carries around the pieces of her broken heart and McCollum tries his best to fix it. Sara E. Renauer and Mason Stewart conclude the first act as a squabbling couple determined to literally and figuratively give their love to each other. Second act kicks off with Sean Childress and Craig Nolan Highley as two men comparing notes of sad and bad dates. Little do they know that they have fallen for each other, by all definitions of the phrase. Katie Graviss and Frank Whitaker bring the evening to a close as a couple of best friends who are initially in love with each other. Graviss is a rough tomboy and Whitaker is her smitten pal who humorously and desperately attempts to woo her in this scene reminiscent of When Harry Met Sally.
Wayward Actors Company has put together an adorable romantic comedy up in the MeX Theater. The entire performance runs around two hours and each scene flies by, leaving me wanting more.
 Almost, Maine
Wayward Actors Company
January 20, 21, 23, 27, and 28, 2012, at 8 pm.
January 29, 2012, at 2 pm.
The MeX Theatre at the Kentucky Center for the Arts
501 W. Main St.
Louisville, KY 40202

Monday, January 23, 2012

Theatre Review: Godspell


The cast of the YMCA of Southern Indiana production of Godspell.


Music & Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by John Michael Tebelak

Directed by Bryce Blair
Choreography by Kathy Todd Chaney
Musical Direction by Daniel Main

Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright 2012 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Godspell is an exuberant production nearly swallowed up by a difficult, unforgiving venue. The cast performs with great energy, singing and dancing with reasonable skill and measurable commitment, but the cavernous proscenium within a gymnasium space dissipates that energy and allows an echo that would challenge any staging of any play, much less a musical. Limited lighting and sound capabilities further hamper the earnest good efforts of director Bryce Blair and his crew.

Yet, the good effort and estimable skills manage to make evidence of themselves despite the technical obstacles, and the staging attempts to make virtue out of vice by, for example, having the cast frequently come off the stage and use the aisles, since the lights in the auditorium had to be on during the play.

It also avoids the dated quality of the clown/hippie asthetic typical of many productions by keeping the costumes contemporary. But the music is what matters, and a four-piece band does a fine job with the score, while Musical Director Daniel Mann keeps the vocal arrangements tight while providing some intricate guitar lead as a member of the band. He is joined by Kim Hartz on piano, Ben Mattius on drums/recorder/violin, and Bart Jones on bass guitar.

The key roles of Jesus and John the Baptist/Judas are intriguingly played by brothers Josh and Jeremy O’ Brien, respectively, underscoring the bond between betrayer and betrayed. They are joined by an ensemble of Jason Potts, Jennifer Poliskie, Kathy Chaney, Brian Morris, Tony Singleton, Kira Tash, Jacque Singleton and Sydney Jones-O’Brien. Some of this group display better skills for musical theatre than others, and the staging places them carefully to achieve maximum effect. Kathy Chaney’s choreography keeps the whole group moving ( Godspell is a show that should be always moving) with steps that engage the audience  without ever proving too difficult for the mixed skills of the performers.

Mr. Blair does pull a few rudimentary tricks out of his pocket for the finale, and manages to make this production an affecting one, even if one wishes he could have found a more welcoming venue, if only so that the talent onstage could have its full impact on the audience. Yet, one has to recognize a certain level of courage required to soldier through such challenges as bravely as this troupe of players. Finally, this is a winning Godspell, worth visiting in its second weekend.


January 20, 21, 26, 27, 28 at 7:30pm
January 22 at 2:00pm

YMCA of Southern Indiana
Performances will be held at the Griffin Street Center
(1140 Griffin Street, New Albany, Indiana)

Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for seniors/students

For more information
(812) 283-9622 Ext. 118 or

Theatre Review: Julius Caesar


Julius Caesar

Written by William Shakespeare.
Directed by Alec Volz

Reviewed by Keith Waits.

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

One reason Shakespeare lives on is that the best of his plays say things about the human experience that are still relevant today. In this production of Julius Caesar at Walden Theatre, the action is placed in a modern-day political context that casts Kyra Riley, an African-American actress, as the title character. If this conjures thoughts of both Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, it is no accident, and the parallel is made explicit by the Shepard Fairey-like image of her that appears at the top of the play.

Meanwhile, Brutus, Cassius, Casca, and others, are dressed in the sleek, stylish business suits of modern day political operatives. It frames the story as a commentary on contemporary politics that illustrate the elasticity and universality of the play’s themes. Additionally, clever use is made of digital technology, as Caesar receives the famous warning, “Beware the Ides of March” as a Twitter message to her PDA that we see projected on a screen that is positioned as part of the backdrop, and key events including Caesar’s assassination are captured on smartphones operated by characters onstage.

In order to reinforce this focus on the political dimensions of the play, director Alec Volz has dramatically cut the latter parts of the play, so that the armed conflict that result in the aftermath of Caesar’s death are condensed down to a few swift scenes. Although drastic, the protracted machinations of warfare are not really missed. In fact, the very remoteness of the military action could even be taken as a further parallel to the modern day relationship of U.S citizens to the conflicts their own armed forces have most recently been engaged in.

The cast executes the material with authority, and Hank Paradis as Mark Antony, DJ Nash as Brutus, Katie Scott as Cassius, and Kyra Riley as Julius Caesar were standouts. Chris Lockhart brought nice “Dixie” flavor to his Decius, and Courtney Doyle was measured and grave as Calphurnia, Caesar’s wife. Interestingly, the idea of the title character being in a same-sex relationship is handled in such matter-of-fact fashion that it hardly registers among all the political intrigue portrayed onstage.

When Marc Antony steps up to microphone to deliver the famous funeral oration for the slain leader, the connection to the image of modern day politicians is complete. I half expected to see a teleprompter, forgetting for the moment that the speech is notable for being extemporaneous, but the concept of populist rhetoric leading the public like a carrot on a stick is deeply resonant with current events, as Walden Theatre does once again something it has done so very often: find relevance to contemporary experience in the classics.
Julius Caesar
January 19-21 and 26-28 @ 7:30
January 21, 28 @ 2:00pm

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

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Theatre Review: Frog’s Milk / Pump Works

Rebecca Henderson, Jeremy Sapp, Pattie Crawford & Tom Dunbar in Frog's Milk Pump Works. Photo by Kevin Robinson.

Frog’s Milk / Pump Works

Written by Rebecca Henderson and Heidi Saunders
Directed by Keith McGill

Reviewed by Keith Waits

Entire contents copyright 2012 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Frog’s Milk / Pump Works is unlike any other show currently onstage in Louisville. The result of two separate short scripts being joined together to emphasize shared themes of human connections overcoming loneliness and solitude, it joins oral storytelling tradition and character driven dramatic structures in uneasy alliance.

The evening began with a brief warm-up from noted Kentucky Storyteller Cynthia Changaris that included a tale-old and brief acapella song performance. Rebecca Henderson then took the stage in the guise of “The Bluegrass Gypsy” to further engage the audience with some participatory chants before she settled into her “Frog’s Milk” story. There is a good deal of fey charm and physical grace in Ms. Henderson’s work, but there is also a self-conscious aspect that works against the story’s having its full impact on the audience.

Heidi Saunder’s short play, “Pump Works”, involves a woman whose septic tank is in need of attention, and the two plumbers who have come to do the job. It was more successful because the writing is focused and succinct, and it was well played by the three actors. Pattie Crawford was a striking and charismatic feminine presence, while Tom Dunbar and Jeremy Sapp brought good presence to the masculine plumbers.  The underscoring of the feminine and masculine seemed important to the action but was not overstated.

Director Keith McGill stitches the two together with some care, interjecting the three actors into Ms. Henderson’s monologue and then having her carry some of her poetic language across the action of the play in similar fashion, but to me there was a fundamental contrast between these pieces of material that prevented them from being fully integrated, or, conversely exploited to a fuller purpose, so that the relationship between them was never satisfyingly reconciled.

Yet, credit is due to any effort that experiments with cross pollinating forms and sparking unorthodox collaborations, and the enterprise seems to hold potential. The most effective bridge between the two was the excellent piano accompaniment of Frank Richmond. His original music was reminiscent of the piano scores heard alongside silent films; never overshadowing the action, but providing flavor and establishing tone throughout. The music emphasized the shared qualities that likely inspired this collaboration in the first place.

Whatever my reservations, the production enjoyed a warm reception from a sell-out crowd on opening night, and was accompanied by a buffet of salad, burgoo and cornbread that cut down on conflicts with food service and made for a tasty repast.

Frog’s Milk / Pump Works

January 20. 21, 26, 27, and 28 @ 7:30pm
January 22 @ 2:30pm

The Rudyard Kipling
422 West Oak Street
Louisville, KY 40203
Call 502-267-6915 or email for ticket reservations. For dinner beforehand, please call the Rud 502-636-1311

Theatre Review: The 7-Shot Symphony


Metromix Emily in air during The 7-Shot Symphony. Photo courtesy of Live Action Set.

The 7-Shot Symphony

By Matt Spring and Ryan Underbakke
Directed by Ryan Underbakke

Reviewed by Todd Zeigler

Entire contents copyright 2012 Todd Zeigler. All rights reserved.

I have never felt so inferior in all my life.

I’ve thought through at least three different leads for this review, and that’s the only reaction that I as a theatergoer, writer, and performer could possibly have that does Minneapolis-based Live Action Set’s The 7-Shot Symphony justice. And I mean it in an awed, utterly inspired way. If our own much-lauded Le Petomane Ensemble chose one show, rehearsed it for seven months and then toured it for two years? Imagine what would result. That kind of experience is upstairs at The Bard’s Town this weekend only.

The 7-Shot Symphony is a cyclonic web of classical forms lassoed with skilled hands by a talented group of dance- and commedia-based performers, cinematically underscored by a country-western three-piece. Classical myths are imported (along with a handy-dandy primer in the program explaining the varied source material) into Deus County, an appropriated dot on the map of America’s own mythic past, The Old West.

Deus County is populated with faces and types that are familiar on many fronts. There’s county sheriff, Odin Graybeard, and his deputy sons, Tyr and Thor; saloon minstrel John Orpheus and his mute bride from the old country, Eurydice; Masamune, the silent gunslinger who will only draw on those who deserve it; and a host of other pistol-packing saddle riders. Live Action Set achieves an amazing multi-layered effect of making these timeworn tales viscerally vivid while intertwining them in such a way that the Symphony becomes an epic tale all its own.

As with Le Petomane, the impressiveness of the tale’s construction is compounded by its performance. Watching the ensemble work is like seeing fireworks for the first time: jaw-dropping. Costume pieces are the only foreign elements employed to establish place and time. Every setting, prop and character is created using only the contortions of the performers. Within a span of seconds they transform from an arm-linked mountain range for a four-finger horse to a pair of saloon doors which become a zooming camera eye to pinpoint a sniper’s deadeye aim. It’s a never-ending dance through eight “movements” that is a wonder to behold.

Watching this show, I was reminded of my favorite high school teacher. He would look sympathetically on those of us struggling to figure our way out of our teenage bewilderment and provided us with these stories – these lessons. We could see that for millennia there have been tales of good and evil, honor, acting nobly in the face of insurmountable odds, unintended consequences, and justice. He introduced us to the idea that the world does have an order, a sense to it that would guide us as adults. Now, in an adult world, when things makes less sense than it did to a teenager, it’s comforting to know these tales still have merit to artists who are willing to look at them with fresh eyes and remind us about that order. Important, vital theater says things we need to hear, and 7-Shot Symphony is rewarding listening.

When it comes to a review, I prefer to wait a day or two before appraising a performance, intending to let the intended effect settle before I evaluate. This review is a rush for me, and I’m reluctant to provide unadulterated praise. Constructive criticism should always be a goal. I try and try, but simply can’t dilute my initial reaction. The 7-Shot Symphony is something really special.  Do not miss this because it is quite literally going away. Hopefully The Bard’s Town will bring them back soon.

The 7-Shot Symphony
By Live Action Set

Featuring Mark Benzel, Travis Bolton, Andy Carroll, Joey Ford, Damian Johnson, Emily King, Matt Riggs, Dustin Suggs, Derek Trost, and Jenna Wyse

January 21 at 2 p.m.
Sunday 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m.

The Bard’s Town
1801 Bardstown Road
Louisville KY 40204
(502) 749-5275

Theatre Review: A Little Night Music


Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by John R. Leffert
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright 2012 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

A Little Night Music has been enjoying resurgence in popularity. Undoubtedly prompted by the hugely successful 2010 Broadway revival that featured Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury, who were then replaced by the even more formidable team of Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, this is the second local production of the season.

Having missed the other local effort, I am free from easy and obvious comparison, so this new entry from CenterStage, must stand or fall on its own merits. I am happy to report that this production stands up very well; a sumptuous and enchanting affair that is only held back by the limitations of the book. Adapted from the classic 1955 Ingmar Bergman film, Smiles of a Summer Night, the story, however witty the dialogue, maintains a certain chilly, Scandinavian reserve that makes the show less accessible than other great Sondheim shows. There is little to engage the audience the way the lurid violence and melodrama of Sweeney Todd or the delightfully deconstructed Fairy-tale charm of Into the Woods helped make those shows so memorable.

Yet, this IS Stephen Sondheim, and the beautifully structured score is magnificent and executed here by one of the strongest vocal ensembles yet assembled by director John R. Leffert. It begins with a chorus of five who sing as much as the principals and establish tone and atmosphere with stately presence and intricate harmony. They are: Jeff Sammons, Margot Woolridge, Christy Shircliff, Cory Vaughn, and Tymika Prince.

The main characters form around a famous stage actress and two of her lovers, their wives, a son, a daughter, and a couple of randy servants. There is also her mother, a wealthy older woman confined to a wheelchair who is given to wry and funny observations, and she is played with sly, vinegary charm by Barbara Meyerson Katz.

Colette Delaney is quite wonderful as the actress, Desiree Armfeldt. Vain and pretentious but the object of affection for two competing lovers, she effectively captures the mix of qualities that keep her always the center of attention but largely superficial until the second act number, “Send in the Clowns”. It is one of the most famous songs from any Sondheim score, the emotional highpoint of the show, and it is here given an exquisite reading by Ms. Delaney.

Russ Dunlap is very fine as Fredrik Egerman, the former lover with whom she is reunited, giving a rich and nicely colored delineation of the aging lothario who struggles in his marriage to a teenage girl. As the young bride, Emily Fields sings beautifully and nicely renders the appropriate superciliousness. As his son, Henrik, Kyle Braun fearlessly plumbs the dark comedy of a clerical student tormented by lustful desire. Lauren McCombs is a highlight as their servant, Petra, whose sexual appetite also runs comically high. It falls to her to follow “Send in the Clowns” with her own solo, “The Miller’s Son”, and, while not quite as impactful a piece of music, Ms. McCombs acquits herself admirably. Desiree’s current “dragoon” lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, is played by Rusty Henle with earnest good effort and good feel for the comedy, but he did not seem quite at home in his role in comparison to the rest of the cast. As his long-suffering wife, Jamie Tobelmann nearly steals her scenes with adroit comic timing and wry delivery of some of the best lines in the script. Peyton Evans does a good job as Desiree’s young daughter, Fredrika.

The design team has outdone themselves here, with a spare but striking set comprised of tree trunks captured within several large frames that, despite their wintery look, seemed somehow exactly appropriate. These were contrasted to vivid effect by lavish costumes from Shana Lincoln that were near perfect. This truly was one of the best looking shows I have seen at CenterStage, and, given their history of well-mounted productions, that is saying something.

Not every company can do justice to Sondheim’s complex and witty harmonies, but CenterStage does as splendid a job as one might wish for, proving once again that, at the top of their game, they are hard to beat for first-class musical theatre in Louisville.

A Little Night Music

January 19 – February 5, 2012

JCC CenterStage
Linker Auditorium
3600 Dutchman’s Lane
Louisville, KY 40205

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Theatre Review: Fiddler on the Roof


Fiddler on the Roof
Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Book by Joseph Stein
Directed by Sammy Dallas Bayes

A review by Kathi E.B. Ellis
Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Kathi E.B. Ellis. All rights reserved.

John Preece leads the cast of Fiddler on the Roof.

Tuesday, January 17, saw the opening of the PNC Broadway in Louisville's 2011-2012 season – an odd calendaring eventuality in itself as long-time impresario Brad Broecker acknowledged in his enthusiastically-received curtain speech. More than that, the season – filled with must-see titles (Mary Poppins, Billy Elliott) and the ever-intriguing Blue Man Group – is opening with that “Timeless Classic of American Musical Theatre” (per the program cover) Fiddler on the Roof.  And therein are both the hook and the challenge. Since its 1964 stage debut and 1971 award-winning movie version, Fiddler has been produced at all levels of theatre.

This production is directed by Sammy Dallas Bayes, who has been associated with Fiddler on the Roof as performer (1964), choreographer (1990) and now director since the earliest days of the production. He also was designated by Jerome Robbins to maintain the original choreography for future productions of the show; and it’s this contribution to the show’s history that may be a key to the longevity of its success and consistency over time.

Audiences come because they love the music, the characters and the universal story of survival against all odds. Indeed, if audience members sitting within earshot on Tuesday night are typical, many of us know the lyrics word for word – if not always note for note.  But, because audiences know and love Fiddler, we also bring strong preconceptions about what our experience should be.

For me, my experience on opening night was mixed.

I came to the theatre having seen the movie many times:  the 1983 London revival with Topol, several stage versions at community and high school theatres, as well as the lackluster 2001 tour at the Louisville Palace.  And I have a hand-carved “Anatevka” sign that still hangs in my home from a long-ago production in which I was involved. 

My initial mixed reaction came with the show curtain, a perfectly innocuous forest vista.  This conjured up a vague suggestion of Russian woods, in a color palette that spoke to early 20th century painting. A scenic convention of the period, this was then contradicted by the movable scenic pieces, with no traditional backdrop, once the show curtain flew up at the top of each act. An additional issue resulted from a far house left seat that enabled me to see not only the onstage action but also actors waiting for entrances and technicians upstage of Tevye’s house. An unfortunate bonus was also not being able to see the upstage right area of the stage – missing, for example, Fyedka (Michael Shultz) and Chava (Chelsey LeBel) in the ballet sequence.

As the familiar music and lyrics and iconic dance steps of tradition filled the Whitney stage and auditorium, I was faced with another conundrum. Here were men and women dancing together, holding hands, as they circled the stage. Yet later in the production Perchik (Joshua Phan-Gruber) breaks a serious social taboo when he teaches Hodel (Sarah Sesler) to dance, and then invites her to dance with him at the wedding; even when the Rabbi (Billy Holly) concedes that the "good book" doesn’t explicitly forbid dancing, he places a handkerchief in his hands, between his female partner and him, when he dances. The issue of how the genders interact in this traditional society is so significant to the turning points of the story that this opening image disturbed me…undermining as it does a central motif of the rest of the story.

Mr. Preece’s Tevye arguably carries the show. And he is at his best when he allows the music and text to carry his characterization. The scene between him and Hodel when she leaves home was one of the most poignant and powerful of the evening – two humans quietly grappling with an untenable situation for both of them. According to Mr. Preece’s program bio, he has performed this role close to 2,000 times over the spread of several decades. It’s clear he knows how to move the audience to tears and to laughs; he knows how to elicit the reliable laughter.  But there are times when that choice interrupts the rhythm of the scene, when trusting that the laugh would happen, without a helping hand, would have been the stronger choice; for example, the final goodbye between Tevye and Lazar Wolf (David B.Springstead, Sr.).

The show is also arguably Tevye’s, but even a poor milkman needs appropriate support. Perchik’s passion for the potential new order was effectively drawn, as was the growing relationship between Hodel and him. Motel (Andrew Boza) was a delightful foil to Perchik, demonstrating how the quiet and persistent can find the strength of their convictions, albeit differently from those who are more outspoken. Hodel and Chava found a touching dignity in their life choices. The bottle dancers were energetically precise in this signature sequence of the show. Their long, black, formal coats flicked outwards, revealing surprisingly rich-colored linings, a contrast to the drabber daily costuming, signifying the importance of ritual in community traditions. Less successful was the sequence in the tavern with the Russian soldiers; their interruption of the celebration between Tevye and Lazar Wolf was vocally unremarkable, and the dance sequence did not rise to the level of precision of the previously noted sequence. I found the primary females to be a trifle strident. Golde (Gerri Weagraff) is a strong presence within her family, but I wasn’t moved by “Do You Love Me,” the one time when the text permits Golde a moment to let down her guard. Yente (Kristin Moore) was played primarily for laughs – and successfully so – but again, a choice that makes it more challenging to hear her desire to travel to Jerusalem. On opening night, Brooke Hill’s Tzeitel struggled with her higher register during “Matchmaker” and repeatedly demonstrated that, vocally, she was her mother’s daughter.

Even with tempos that at times felt a little pushed, for example “Sabbath Prayer” and “Far From the Home I Love,” Act One clocked in at around an hour and forty minutes, with the end of Act Two bringing the total production in as a three-hour experience – long by today’s audience attention spans. I was bemused by people leaving minutes before the end of the show. If you made it through two hours and fifty minutes, why not stay for the final number and the promise of new lands? The vast majority who stayed were enthusiastic in their response to the performance, giving Mr. Preece a standing ovation and the whole company sustained applause.

Once more, Fiddler on the Roof is proving its staying power. With themes of tradition and change, exclusion and solidarity, faith and love, almost everyone in any audience will find some moment with which they have a fundamental connection; and from that moment, the story grabs hold of us. After almost fifty years, that’s…nice to know…

Fiddler on the Roof
January 17-22, 2012

PNC Broadway in Louisville
The Kentucky Center
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202