The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe – Houston Press Review

27 Jan

Stages_IntelligentLife

Denise Ferrell in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Photo by Bruce Bennet.

 

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

Written by: Jane Wagner

Directed by: Kenn McLaughlin

Company: Stages Repertory Theatre

Run Dates: January 20 – February 15, 2015

 

Read my review for Houston Press at

http://blogs.houstonpress.com/artattack/2015/01/the_search_for_signs_of_intelligent_life_in_the_universe.php

Waiting for Johnny Depp – Houston Press Review

27 Jan

Depp

Brooke Wilson as Rita Donatella. Photos by Christian Brown.

 

Waiting for Johnny Depp

Book and Lyrics by:  DeeDee O’Malley and Janet Cole Valdez 

Music by: DeeDee O’Malley, Janet Cole Valdez and Bettie Ross

Directed by: Bruce Lumpkin

Company: TUTS Underground

Run Dates: January 22 – 31, 2015

 

Read my review of Waiting for Johnny Depp at Houston Press

http://blogs.houstonpress.com/artattack/2015/01/waiting_for_johnny_depp_review.php

Metamorphoses – Houston Press Review

19 Jan

Metamorphhoses

Erica Bundy in Metamorphoses. Photo courtesy of Bayou City Theatrics Staff.

 

Metamorphoses

Written by: Mary Zimmerman

Directed by: Colton Berry

Company: Bayou City Theatrics

Run Date: January 17 – February 1, 2015

 

Read my review of Metamorphoses for Houston Press at

http://blogs.houstonpress.com/artattack/2015/01/metamorphoses_review.php

Tigers Be Still – Review

16 Jan

Tigers

Ty Doran and Lindsay Ehrhardt In Tigers be Still. Photo courtesy of Black Lab Theatre.

 

Tigers be Still

Written by: Kim Rosenstock

Directed by:  Jordan Jaffe

Company: Black Lab Theatre

Run Dates: January 15 – 31, 2015

 

Just like Dorothy and her gang in Oz wrung their hands over “Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!”, so too are the women in Kim Rosenstock’s play afraid of the wildlife beyond their front door. Rightly so it seems.  Subtract the lion and the bear, add a modern-day, hyper real, semi absurd setting and you are left with a real tiger lurking around loose, sprung mysteriously from the local zoo and billed an extreme danger to anyone who may encounter it. A big predatory cat is nothing to laugh about, but truth be told, these women have personal troubles of their own that make a sharp clawed, flesh eater seem like an also ran in the list of reasons they can’t get themselves together.

Tigers Be Still, a darkly comedic and at times excessively quirky play, introduces us to two sisters and their mother, all suffering from depression of different genesis. Grace (Lindsay Ehrhardt) is mired in the self-pitying indulgent swamp of despair brought about by the infidelity of her betrothed. Eschewing the ‘best revenge is living well’ philosophy, Grace has moved back home where she spends her time sleeping on a “dirty couch that smells like tears” and cuddling a Jack Daniels bottle for comfort. When she’s not passed out or obsessively watching Top Gun (fast forwarding to the Berlin sound-tracked Take My Breath Away loves scenes) Grace spends her time stealing items, inanimate and otherwise, from her ex’s apartment in an effort to make him deal with her and by association, her pain. Wanda, the mother, is an invisible character, hidden away in her upstairs room, embarrassed to seen due to dramatic weight gain brought about by immune deficiency medication. To make matters worse, she’s recently and suddenly been left by the girls’ father, making her isolation even more momentous and her intrusive/gossipy phone calls downstairs to connect with the girls even more ghoul-like.

But it’s twenty-something Sherry (channeling a twitchy, neurotic, stammering mix of Lisa Kudrow and Sally Hawkins) that the show centers on. With a newly minted art therapy degree, very little self-esteem and no work prospects (or boyfriend as her sister points out), Sally spirals down into her own black dogness, moving back home and sharing the self-pity couch with her sister. That is until Mom calls up an old flame, Joseph (played with wonderfully straight man absurdity by Justin Doran), to ask that he use his position as school principal to find Sally a job. We learn that Joseph and his teenage son (rising young talent Ty Doran) need Sally as much as she needs them. The loss of their wife/mother has left the pair with their own slice of depression. Joseph channels his into worrying about the tiger (which by now we realize is both a literal and metaphoric fear/danger/illness for all the characters in the play) and fretting about his son’s ability to cope with his mother’s death. Zach displays teen aggression and angst to mask the fact that he is secretly sleeping in his mother’s shoe closet as a way to hide from his own complex feelings about her death and his part in it.

Rosenstock’s jaunty, idiosyncratic dialogue is given nice tempo by director Jordan Jaffe who allows the surreal nature of the story full breadth without sending things over top. In the more serious bits, Jaffe beautifully focuses our attention, not on the weirdness of the story, but rather the personal struggle and growth of his characters. Two scenes in particular, a bristly exchange between father and son over a lasagna dinner and an opening of wounds mixed with a failed flirtation in a shoe closet are wonderfully insightful gems in this production. The comedic elements, while amusing in circumstance, aren’t given the same love and attention. Sometimes rushed, other times falling prey to the one dimensionality of the humour (as when Grace calls her ex’s cell phone to sing Bette Midler’s The Rose to his voice mail), Jaffe never seems to punch things up enough to elicit more than a mild giggle from us.

Claire “Jac” Jones’ small set mimics well the claustrophobic nature of depression and the oddness of the narrative. A dingy floral couch strewn with stuff at the women’s house serves as both sadness-central for the sisters as well as an art therapy office for Sally to try to get through to Zach.  But it’s Jones’ rendering of the male space that visually scores. Affecting the emotional and aesthetic deficit that men feel when the woman in their life is gone, Jones strips bare their space with nothing but the basics, table, chair, gun. Of particular note is the one nondescript, brown hued painting hung askew on the wall. You just know that it would be righted if mom was still around.

Depression may be strangely funny and sad in Rosenstock’s hands, but she also wants us to know that it’s something that can be overcome. In the end, each character slays their own personal tiger and manages to get on with life one way or another. It’s a satisfying, if a tad too neat, ending that offers up some wonderful visual and even sweetly touching moments. Yes we’ve spent nearly two intermissionless hours with these odd ducks and their quirkiness may have worn itself thin at times. But in the end, we can’t help but cheer for each character as they take the step towards health.

 

RATING

For those touched by depression – Isn’t that everyone these days? Who doesn’t know someone or that’s had to deal with depression? Tigers Be Still doesn’t exactly fall neatly into the depression play category. It’s got the bathos to be a dark comedy, but it’s also got moments of pathos, heart-wrench, absurdity and corny uplift. So perhaps no matter what flavour your want your depression narrative to be, there’s something here for you. MAYBE SEE IT

For the occasional theatre goer – This is a play that has an identifiable arc where easy to swallow conclusions do happen. And for almost two hours, the cast does its best to entertain. But the abundance of quirk and absurdity (of the non-farcical kind) may just be to twee for your tastes. SKIP IT

For the theatre junkie – One of your main disappointments with the show (aside from the ending wrapped in a pretty bow) will be that Rosenstock has nothing new to say about depression. Sure her characters are quirky and the tiger metaphor is a clever one, but then what? Still, under Jaffe’s mostly strong direction, there are nuggets to savour in this production. Go for the parts and don’t be all too concerned with the sum. SEE IT

 

 

 

 

Putting it Together – Review

10 Jan

Putting it together

L-R: Christina Stroup, Justin White), David Wald, Terry Jones and Tamara Siler. Photo courtesy of RicOrnelProductions.com

 

Putting it Together

Word and Music : Stephen Sondheim

Devised by: Stephen Sondheim and Julia McKenzie

Directed by:  Andrew Ruthven

Musical Direction by: Luke Kirkwood 

Company: Main Street Theater

Run Dates: January 3 – February 1, 2015

 

Has Stephen Sondheim written so many songs about relationships, marriage and the stresses of searching for, maintaining and fighting about love that he can put them all together to create a credible story arc? Apparently he thinks so. That’s the conceit anyway behind the 1992 Sondheim mash-up musical, Putting It Together, which takes thirty or so numbers from the song master’s repertoire of musicals and films and loosely strings them into a two-hour story line.

The narrative, such as it is, concerns an older and younger couple dealing with issues and complexities in their respective relationships while at a Manhattan cocktail party. Many of the usual numbers are there either in full form on in snippets, including songs from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Merrily We Roll Along, Dick Tracy, Sunday in the Park with George, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

So yes, unlike Sondheim’s previous song cycle show, Side by Side Sondheim, which was a true revue (as opposed to ‘review’ which is how we are instructed to approach this production) Putting it Together does offer some kind of contrived narrative journey for the audience to go on. But here, under Andrew Ruthven’s direction and musical staging, the already overly manufactured and empty experience of listening to Sondheim’s brilliant songs taken out of context, squished together and forced to play nice with each other feels even more hollow and glib.

To be fair, Ruthven doesn’t have much to work in terms of story or the tiny Ovations Night Club space he must work with. Utilizing the maximum amount of the cabaret-style space, Ruthven moves his cast through the audience, up the staircases and onto the second story balconies at the back of the stage in an effort to bring some kind of trajectory to the show. At times it works, but more often than not we feel that the staging is desperately trying to fill in for the fact that there just really isn’t much to sink your teeth into here.

More problematic is the music, courtesy of the three-piece band on stage and under the musical direction of Luke Kirkwood. Even if the show’s narrative pleasures are severely hamstrung by its form, we should at least be allowed to revel in the delicious lyrics that make up Sondheim’s songs. But for most of the first act, the sound level of the piano and percussion competed too heavily with the lyrics, making it a straining experience to fully hear some of the performers. In other cases, such as in the beloved “Ladies who Lunch” number, the arrangements seem to have been fed through a Musak filter and burped back at us, now resembling the pedestrian soundtrack one hears at the supermarket.

Which leaves the cast. Despite all the roadblocks stopping this production from being a gratifying experience, a fully capable performer could have elevated the show to at least a satisfactorily fun time. Sondheim’s songs are such emotional and intellectual gems that simply singing them well isn’t enough. To truly do them justice, you need to display strong actorly chops to bring out their beauty. This was the case with only three of the performers.

As The Observer (a narrator kind of character drawn to help move things along), David Wald’s delivers a breezy performance that isn’t afraid of going a little over the top in his numbers (in particular, a funny, hammy, Buddies Blues). Wald is the energizer bunny in the bunch and his enthusiasm is infectious onstage. Christina Stroup as the Younger Woman outshines them all with her powerful voice that knocks numbers like “Sooner or Later” and “More” outta the park. But what truly elevated Stroup’s performance was her ability to emote and inhabit. As drop in the bucket as the musical numbers are in this show, Stroup did her darndest to bring some kind of inner life to her character and won our attention as a result. No one however was better at bringing character to the stage with subtle finesse than Justin White as The Younger Man. White’s clear voice entertained in all of his numbers, but it was his ability to actually get in the head of the character singing the various songs that made his performance a standout. So much so that halfway through his solo, “Marry me a Little”, I would have happily put him up for a role in a full Sondheim production.

Tamara Siler as The Wife and Terry Jones as The Husband didn’t fare as well. Siler’s strong voice just couldn’t make up for the fact that her delivery was far too emotionally vanilla to carry any substance. In, “Could I Leave You”, a spitefully funny song, Siler seemed to run through the motions, sapping all the fun out of the number. She improved somewhat in the second act and managed to do some justice to “The Ladies Who Lunch”, but again missed the opportunity to become a strong character instead of simply a strong singer.

Jones, with a soothing if a bit thin voice, seemed to have no idea who it was he was playing. Where was the sexual tension and menace in his “Hello Little Girl”, here repurposed as a seduction of the younger woman? Where was the frustration and resentment in “Country House”? And where was the melancholy in, “The Road You Didn’t Take”? His was an unfortunately absent performance that neither did justice to the songs nor the energy of the rest of the cast.

It’s hard to say that two hours of Sondheim songs isn’t a pleasant way to spend an evening, but then on some level these really aren’t his numbers. Not in this production anyway and I suspect not in this format at all.  Putting it Together may have satisfied calls for Sondheim to produce yet another review (revue) for his adoring audience, but by putting his work together in this fashion, the whole effort crumbles and suffers.

 

RATING

For Sondheim fans – While it’s lovely to hear the songs  live, and at times performed well here, there is so much lacking in production, context and arrangement that nerve grating is sure to ensue. SKIP IT

For Sondheim newbies – The songs will seem pleasant and funny enough to your ear and will hopefully be an entrée into the full works for you at another time, but the strained plot and differing talent levels might leave you wondering what all the fanaticism is about. MAYBE SEE IT

For the occasional theater goer – Two hours of songs in an arc that has little to no tension or action will probably not be your idea of a good night in the theater. SKIP IT

For the theater junkie – A show and a production that strips a theater genius’s revolutionary song writing prowess and renders the work limp and obvious. That’s something you don’t need to see. However, take note to remember the name Justin White and buy a ticket to the next show he’s in. Fingers crossed it’s a better use of his talents. SKIP IT

 

My Name is Asher Lev – Houston Press review

8 Jan

Asher Lev

(l to r) Bradley Winkler, Kara Greenberg and Adam Gibbs in My Name is Asher Lev. Photo courtesy of Theatre LaB.

 

My Name is Asher Lev
Adapted by: Aaron Posner
Directed by: Ed Muth
Company: Theatre LaB
Run dates: January 8 – February 1, 2015

 

Read my review at Houston Press at http://blogs.houstonpress.com/artattack/2015/01/my_name_is_asher_lev_review.php

Ho Ho Humbug – Houston Press Review

9 Dec

Ho ho humbug

Scott Burkell in Ho Ho Humbug. Photo credit: Gabriella Nissen

 

Ho Ho Humbug

Written by: Scott Burkell

Directed by: Phillip Lehl

Company: Stark Naked Theatre

Run dates: December 4 – 24, 2014

 

Read my review of Ho Ho Humbug for Houston Press at http://blogs.houstonpress.com/artattack/2014/12/ho_ho_humbug_review.php

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