Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking – Houston Press Review

11 May

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Alex Morris and Byron Jacquet. Photo courtesy of The Ensemble Theatre.

Two old Black Guys Just Sitting Around TalkingWritten by: Gus Edwards

Directed by: Eileen J. Morris

Starring: Byron Jacquet and Alex Morris

Company: The Ensemble Theatre

Run Dates: May 7 – 31, 2015

Read my review of Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking for Houston Press at http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/two-old-black-guys-just-sitting-around-talking-is-a-thiny-drawn-disappointment-7407853

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche – Review

4 May

5 Lesbians

 

(l – r) Adriana Dominguez, Autumn Clark, Sammi Sicinski, Melanie Martin and  Inmge Kellerman. Photo by Ruth S McCleskey

 

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche

Written by: Evan Linder and Andrew Hobgood

Directed by: Ruth S McCleskey

Starring: Adriana Dominguez, Autumn Clark, Sammi Sicinski, Melanie Martin and  Inmge Kellerman

Company: Boiling Point Players

Run Dates: April 30 – May 9, 2015

 

Read my review of 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche for Houston Press at 

http://blogs.houstonpress.com/artattack/2015/05/5_lesbians.php

 

Tristan & Yseult – Thoughts

30 Apr

Following their astonishing? Brief Encounter and The Wild Bride, the beguiling players from Kneehigh return to St. Ann’s Warehouse with this glorious adaptation of Tristan & Yseult. Based on an epic ancient tale from Cornwall, Tristan & Yseult revels in

The company in Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult. Photo by Richard Termine.

 

Tristan & Yseult

Written by: Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy

Adapted and Directed by: Emma Rice 

Company: Kneehigh presented by Alley Theatre

Run Dates: April 24 – May 24, 2015

 

My first standing ovation in Houston.  And a hearty one at that. For those who’ve just started reading my reviews here in the US, that may seem like no big deal. I’m a theatre critic after all, I see hundreds of shows a season, many of which I rave about. So getting to my feet at the close of a show can seem like an inevitable outgrowth of the gig.

Let me assure you it isn’t.

I rarely if ever give a standing ovation, preferring instead to illustrate my grand like and or love of a production with the far more civilized sitting ovation customary in London. The reason my bum remains in seat is this –  I feel that far too often North Americans rise up at the end of a production, not because they are rapturous, but because it’s the thing to do.  Plus if they were being really honest, legs are often cramped by closing curtain and folks fancy a bit of a stretch.

Anyway, back to my upright and vertical clapping. I suppose it’s a bit ironic that it was a British troupe’s production that got me to go anti London in my show of appreciation. But trust me, seeing Kneehigh’s wildly creative production of Tristan & Yseult would have made even Stephen Hawking jump up with joy.

Truthfully, I hadn’t planned on filing a review for this show. But Murphy’s Law, I saw it, I beyond adored it, and now here I am compelled to write about it. Or at least jot down some of my impressions of it in a stream of musing kind of fashion.

 

Wagner, who’s Wagner?

Yes the plot these days most associated with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, is the same. King Mark sends his faithful Tristan out to claim Yseult as a prize bride after her brother is killed by the King in battle. Chemistry in the form of pheromones and mixed up love potions conspire to throw Tristan and Yseult into mad love/lust for one another. “This is a story of love”, we are ominously told. “And we are all in it.”

What we aren’t in is a traditional production. Forget the operas and the poetry and the really horrid James Franco movie, this adaptation by Emma Rice (who also directs) is a fantastical orgy of lust, heartbreak, comedy, music, dance, acrobatics and audience interaction that grabs you by the collar and doesn’t let go for 2 whirlwind acts.

 

Digging in the dirt

In leitmotif fashion, we are told that a communion dress, wedding dress and shroud are all white. Why not black, we’re asked? With white, “Dirt loves it, blood loves it, and sin loves it”. So terribly hard to keep clean.

Just one beautiful example of Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy’s sumptuous writing for this show. Yes this production is a feast for the eyes, but never once does it forget that the words behind the extravaganza matter just as much.

 

“I get it but I shouldn’t get it”

This was a comment I heard a young man gleefully say to his mother at intermission. I had to laugh as I know exactly what he meant. Yes we get the plot, but storyline is distinctly secondary with all the visual and aural fireworks that are on offer for us.

There’s the band of hoodie-wearing, knit-vested and bespeckled musicians looking like a hipster version of Devo playing everything from Nazareth’s Love Hurts to Daft Punk’s Get Lucky to some decidedly sweeping orchestral music.

There’s the all in white Jackie O resembling narrator whose derision for love due to her lack of it slithers through the show like a bitter snake.

There’s the black windbreaker nerdy clan who hang out in the Club of the Unloved and serve the show as ensemble characters called Lovespotters, Brutes and Animators.  Providing everything from acrobatic tech assistance to fourth wall breaking gags to musical interludes, these dear unloved souls provide some of the evening’s most cleverly amusing bits.

There’s Yseult’s maid Brannigan, here a man in dress, whose comedic timing makes us laugh until we hurt but then turns that hurt into genuine pain for all of us to feel.

There’s an uber cool industrial set with steel catwalk, circular wooden riser and pulleys and levers that may be low tech but nonetheless provide the most astonishing physical and visual effects.

There of course are the pair of lovers, whose love potion scene including a jaw dropping, gravity defying, erotic high-flying dance, is at once one of the sexiest and funniest scenes I can imagine.

I could go on and on as there are literally dozens of superlative characters and bits and performances and oh so wonderfully smart pieces of direction and set /sound/lighting design. But I really do think this is a show best experienced as fresh as possible in order to revel in the wonder.

 

But if you HAD to describe it as a whole….

Well you asked, so here’s my best attempt.

It’s a mashup of Cirque du Soleil, Shakespeare, Blue Man Group, Monty Python, Robert La Page, rave culture, Revenge of the Nerds and Alt Rock all tied into an emotional bow that will have you swooning one minute and nursing a broken heart the next. It’s risky and funny and energizing and emotional and exhausting in all the right ways.

There, did that clear it up?

Yes or no, my advice would be to not worry about what it’s like and to just go and see what it is.

Bad Jews – Houston Press Review

21 Apr

Stages Repertory Theatre - "Bad Jews" rehearsal at Jewish Community Center.

Amy Michele Mire, Tasha Gorel, and Kevin Crouch in Bad Jews. Photo by Bruce Bennett.

 

Bad Jews

Written by: Joshua Harmon

Directed by: Jordan Jaffe

Starring:  Amy Michele Mire, Tasha Gorel, Jason Duga and Kevin Crouch 

Company:  Stages Repertory Theatre and Black Lab Theatre, produced in cooperation with and presented at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston. 

Run Dates April 14 – May 3, 2015

 

Read my review of Bad Jews for Houston Press at http://blogs.houstonpress.com/artattack/2015/04/bad_jews_review_stages.php

The Cherry Orchard – Some Thoughts

16 Apr

Cherry

Celeste Roberts as Lubov and Kregg Dailey as Lopahkin. Photo credit: Pin Lim

 

The Cherry Orchard

Written by: Anton Chekhov

Directed by: John Johnson

Company: Classical Theatre Company

Run Dates: April 8 – 26, 2015

 

No time for a full review on Classical Theatre Company’s production of The Cherry Orchard, but if you’ll permit, some thoughts….

I need to bring up eggplant. No, I’m not having some kind of produce-inflicted nervous breakdown; it’s just that when thinking about Anton Chekhov’s final play, The Cherry Orchard, the glossy purple fruit mistakenly called a vegetable comes to mind. Bear with me, I’ll explain.

I don’t care for eggplant. I’ve tried it in all its various forms… fried, whipped, baked, smeared, but it just doesn’t suit my palate. I know I should like it. It’s past being trendy, is a staple in so many cuisines and is beloved by many. Plus it’s good for you in that vitamin, mineral, antioxidant kinda way. But try and taste as I might, I can never muster anything more than, a half-hearted, “it’s OK” reaction to it.

Theatrically, The Cherry Orchard is my eggplant. I know I should like it. I know it’s revered. I am well aware of why it’s such an important piece and all the nifty things Chekhov oozed into it. Plus I know there are many in my profession that would have my credentials taken away for even suggesting that it doesn’t float my boat. But honesty above optics – that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

On a more serious note, I’ve seen many incarnations of the play and not once have I felt the sum total of the experience matched what I wanted from this piece. Classical Theatre’s effort falls into this same category for me. It’s good, very good in spots, but the parts that leave me cold are a chill I can’t shake.

For those that don’t know the play – here’s the cliff notes:   It’s the turn of the 20th century and a recently penniless aristocratic Russian woman and her family return to their family estate and surrounding beloved cherry orchard. The land and house are being auctioned off in order to pay the mortgage. The family has the chance to save the land and house, but instead blithely do nothing about it. In the end, a former serf become rich businessman buys the estate and chops the orchard down to make room for new housing development. Chekov takes aims at both sides of the economic divide in this play, skewering each for their frivolity and shallowness.  Many have thought it to be heavy and dreary – Chekov always meant it as a dark comedy.

So, my bias firmly communicated, onto the production…..

 

What works?

Set Design

Ryan McGettigan’s set design is a lovely minimalist interpretation. Interiors come to life with just a few salmon coloured velvet couches, chairs and a simply carved small wooden bookcase that becomes the odd object of lustful affection. The use of an open parasol and a picnic bench serve to conjure a park setting with the same lovely economy.

But it’s McGettigan’s cherry orchard that really brings the simple beauty to the set. Flanking the entire upstage length as a kind of pseudo backdrop are three stick figure trees. It would look like a Charlie Brown Christmas kind of joke but for the dozens of white with pink origami blossoms that are dangled with invisible string from and above the branches, making them seem as though they are falling rising in the air at the same time. The sense of calm and comforting whimsy this evokes is a nice foil to the angsty and at times incongruous action happening on stage.

Performances – well most of them

There are a good handful of strong performances in this production as I’ve come to expect from Classical Theatre. Of particular note are Celeste Roberts as the frivolous and at times imperious Lubov, Mark Roberts as the inanely talkative and infantile Gaev, Mathew Keenan as the humorless intellectual Trofimov and Erin Kidwell as the understandably frustrated and lovelorn Varya.

Chekhov has set up characters that talk nonstop but never truly hear each other. Or themselves for that matter. This is a cast that is up to task without tipping the production over into an absurdist genre.

The scene changes

It’s not often that I give special mention to how props are moved on and off the stage, but here director John Johnson has choreographed it such that notice is asked to be paid.

With the lights dimmed and over the pleasant trill of orchestral upbeat music, Johnson stages a productive business that has his cast moving, arranging, adding and subtracting set pieces like graceful worker ants. As the characters waltz on an offstage, arranging props here and there and occasionally stopping to silently chat, it’s like watching a Chekhovian ballet play out and it’s delightful.

But take note, this should not be a passive looking. Johnson has cleverly snuck in some very funny bits during these interstitials that dissolve sweetly in your mouth like good inside jokes.

 

What was problematic?

Comedic direction

Johnson has a confident hand in this production, allowing the serious oddness and the messages conveyed to stand on their own without too much fuss. However when it comes to the funny bits, Johnston overcompensates in what I assume is a desire to eschew the play’s reputation as a heavy downer and instead highlight the humour.

It’s an admirable desire, but in doing so, Johnson cheapens things by  injecting  ill-fitting slapstick moments that go for the easy laugh instead of the witty nod. To name a few – A foot that is injured in order to con money is shown to us jumping in glee once the handout is given. A flirting maid is allowed to ham it up to the point of farce.

They may be small events in a two act play, but they happened enough that it felt as though the production was groaning and straining with the effort to BE FUNNY.

Lindsay Ehrhardt as Dunyasha

Ehrhardt’s performance as the flirty maid mentioned above was the one weak link in the otherwise strongly acted production. Much of the blame here goes to Johnson for allowing her to tip towards uninteresting silliness in her efforts to lust or fret or show disdain. This in combination with a delivery that seemed far more modern and out of step with the rest of the cast, made Ehrhardt appear like the miscast piece in an otherwise nicely crafted puzzle.

 

Verdict?

Even with its issues, Johnson and his team offer up a solidly fine show. I can’t say that I gleaned anything new or exciting about the work from this production. And I can’t say that I walked away liking the play any more or less than I had previously. Perhaps this is due to a blockage on my behalf where The Cherry Orchard is concerned or maybe this occurred because the show didn’t dig deep enough to inspire. There is probably blame enough on both sides of that argument.

Meanwhile if anyone has a killer recipe that they swear will change my mind and make me a lover of eggplant, I’m all ears.

Mamma Mia! – Houston Press Review

15 Apr

Mamma Mia Fox Theater

(l to R) Bailey Purvis, Georgia Kate Haege and Sarah Smith. Photo credit Joan Marcus. 

 

Mamma Mia!

Lyrics and Music by:  Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus 

Book by: Catherine Johnson

Company: Broadway at the Hobby Centre

Run Dates: April 14 – 19, 2015

 

Read my review of Mamma Mia! for Houston Press at 

http://blogs.houstonpress.com/artattack/2015/04/mamma_mia_1.php

 

Over the River and Through the Woods – Houston Press Review

13 Apr

Over the Hill

The cast of Over the River and Through the Woods. Photo credit: Scott McWhirter

 

Over the River and Through the Woods

Written by: Joe DiPietro

Directed by: David Hymel

Starring: Louis A. Crespo Jr., Scott Holmes, Jeanette Sebesta, John Stevens, Anne Boyd and Theresa Hunt.

Company: Theatre Southwest

Run Dates: April 10 – May 2, 2015

 

Read my review of Over the River and Through the Woods for Houston Press at:

http://blogs.houstonpress.com/artattack/2015/04/over_the_river_and_through_the_woods.php

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