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

The Hunchback Variations – Review

12 Apr

The Hunchback Variations Directed by Greg Dean Written by Mickle Maher Staring Jeff Miller and Greg Dean

(l to R) Jeff Miller and Greg Dean. Photo credit: Anthony Rathbun

The Hunchback Variations

Written by: Mickle Maher

Directed by: Greg Dean

Starring: Jeff Miller and Greg Dean

Company: The Catastrophic Theatre

Run Dates: April 10 – May 2, 2015

 

Quasimodo and Ludwig van Beethoven walk into a bar and discuss Chekhov. Well kind of. Actually they walk into a panel discussion (featuring only them) to report on their collaborative attempts to identify and replicate the elusive and nebulous sound cue described at the end of Anton Chekov’s, The Cherry Orchard. The sound Chekov describes as, “Coming as if out of the sky, like the sound of a string snapping, slowly and sadly dying away.” Quasimodo and Beethoven have failed miserably in their efforts as they will tell you. And oh, yes … they’re both deaf.

If this sounds like the set up to some absurd egg-headed joke meant to tickle the brains of Mensa members you’d be half right. But thanks to playwright Mickle Maher’s terrifically funny for even non-geniuses script, whip cracking tight direction by Greg Dean and two outstandingly funny yet thought-provoking performances, this is a theatrical experience worthy of wide attention.

I’m calling Maher’s 40 minute long,  The Hunchback Variations, an experience rather than a play or even a show because the very structure of it is as absurd as its subject. On a set featuring only a black skirted long table outfitted with two microphones, two glasses and a generous pitcher of water, Quasimodo (a superlatively physical Greg Dean) lumbers in. Huffing and puffing under the weight of his generous hump and other corporeal maladies, he drags in several briefcases to the panel table and unpacks what looks like to be a flea market array of items. A violin, mini piano, wine glass, balloons, nuts and bolts and of all things, whip cream are among the voluminous booty. Dean, face half obstructed by a bug-eyed horror of a mask calling to mind a bad acid trip viewing of Phantom of the Opera, grunts and groans through the rotten couple of teeth that protrude his mouth as he sets up his station and waits for his panel member.

In sharp contrast Beethoven (played brilliantly suave without one iota of Deutschland in him) takes to the stage propless, wigless and in modern business dress with cool confidence, stopping to nod and smile to the imaginary crowds gathered to hear him speak. “Good evening”, he says with the dulcet tones of every stereotypical NPR announcer you’ve seen spoofed. “And welcome to the panel discussion on impossible and mysterious sounds. But first, an opening statement from Quasimodo.”

They are lines that will be repeated over and over during the performance that organizes it’s self as mini sketches with blackouts in between like a looping, surreally funny odd dream that you can’t seem to wake from. Each sketch starts with Ludwig’s welcome, altered slightly just to make sure we’re all still paying attention, followed by a despondent opening statement from Quasimodo bemoaning the pair’s failure and utter futility of the endeavour in the first place. All the while, a gently trilling piano plays in the background as though urging the men forward.

Do they hear it? Do they hear each other? They are both deaf we’re told, but they seem to understand each other. And the myriad of sound effects Quasimodo makes with his bag of tricks to illustrate the dozens of attempts made to replicated the sound seems to register with them both. “That is not the sound,” assures Beethoven to the audience after each of Quasimodo’s attempts.

While the structure is minimal, Maher has much to say. Quasimodo is defeated by the experiment yet shows his willingness to try and try again even though he believes the whole thing to be doomed. Beethoven, we learn, has barely contributed to the work at all (has he even read The Cherry Orchard?), is only mildly put off by their inability to reach perfection and instead seems confident in the fact that his reputation is all his needs for success. Through this juxtaposition of attitudes as well is the class, health, economic and happiness divide that differentiates these two characters, Maher introduces some wonderfully meaty questions. Is attaining artistic perfection possible or even desirable? Is there even such a thing as perfection in art? Which is more valuable, the artist that can only do one thing but do it perfectly or the artist who toils and slogs at many talents? Does positively propel creativity or is it only in misery and toil that beauty is created? Is it better to make a lot of noise and not be perfect or to be silent and have no one know you failed?

Most importantly, Maher makes us laugh even as we ponder these important questions. Dean’s direction gives ample room for the characters to one up each other in dual straight man absurdity and doesn’t ever rush the punchline. The comedy includes highbrow notions such as Beethoven flipping the pages of an Emily Dickenson novel in an attempt to make the elusive sound even though she wasn’t yet born at the time of Chekov’s play. The humour also comes from less lofty notions such as the ongoing argument between the pair about how it was unfair to hold the experiments in Quasimodo’s odorous mud hut when Beethoven has a lovely swishy flat they could have used.  It takes a confident director to breathe so much room for pause and reverberation into a script and Dean shows a masterful hand in the process.

Equally exquisite are the two performers. Dean’s Quasimodo is a lesson in less is more. Sure he’s a physical sight to behold on stage, but Dean never overplays it. Instead he finds subtle ways, like a constant slight tongue thrust or lightly worn English accent, to ensure we not only gawk at his character but listen intently as well.

With no costume, accent or any Beethoven-ism whatsoever to rely on, Jeff Miller delivers a terrifically controlled performance bathed in barely hidden smarm meant to charm and sooth all that listen. The perfect foil for Dean’s emotional Quasimodo, Miller keeps cool as an oily cucumber in his comedic willful refusal to admit defeat. As the sketches go on and on and Beethoven’s resolve begins to crack, Miller beautifully opens the door just enough for us to get a grand laugh at the maestro’s budding shame.

By the time the last welcome and blackout has occurred, we’re no further along in solving the Chekhov sound puzzle and Quasimodo and Beethoven certainly haven’t accomplished or discovered anything useful in their quest. But the gift of this production isn’t the definitive answer to the quandary or the journey of the characters towards the perfect sound, it’s the twang of thought we are left in consideration of what they failed at. And that to me, is the most important beautiful theatrical sound there is.

 

RATING

For the deep thinkers – Yes the premise is absurd, but don’t mistake comedy for fluffiness here. Maher poses big thinky questions that will leave you chatting wildly over your post show drinks. SEE IT

For those in need of amusement – I haven’t laughed this much at a show in an awfully long time. But take note, this isn’t necessarily an easy guffaw, snicker out loud,  joke a minute type of comedy. It’s smart and sly and sneaks up on you in places. In other words, Dumb and Dumber it ain’t. If you’re good with cleverness and a lot of quirk with your humour, you’ll be rewarded. MAYBE SEE IT

For the occasional theater goer – This is far too experimental and unstructured and frankly too much work for most folks. But then you probably already knew that after the first line of the review. SKIP IT

For theater junkies – Yes. For every reason I can think of Yes. Direction, script, design, performances and for the chance to see something terribly funny,  unique and risky that works. SEE IT

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vanities, the Musical – Houston Press Review

9 Apr

Vanities

(l to r) Shelby Bray, Danica Johnson and Robin Van Zandt. Photo courtesy of Theatre LaB.

 

Vanities, the Musical

Adapted by: Jack Heifner

Music and Lyrics by: David Kirshenbaum

Directed by: Jimmy Phillips

Starring: Shelby Bray, Danica Johnson and Robin Van Zandt

Company: Theatre LaB

Run dates: April 8 – May 3, 2015

 

Read my review of Vanities, the Musical for Houston Press at 

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

What I Learned in Paris – Review

5 Apr

What I Learned in Paris (3)

Detria Ward as Eve Madison in What I Learned in Paris. Photo credit David Bray.

 

What I Learned in Paris

Written By: Pearl Cleage

Directed By: Eileen J. Morris

Starring: Yunina Barbour-Payne, Cynthia Brown Garcia, Kendrick “KayB” Brown, Detria Ward, Mirron Willis’

Company: The Ensemble Theatre

Run Dates: March 19 – April 12, 2015

 

In reflecting on the aftermath of his successful efforts to get the first African-American elected as Mayor of Atlanta, bombastic lawyer JP Madison remarks with bittersweet insight, “Before I wanted something for him, now I want something from him.” The him he’s talking about is Maynard Jackson, the real life historic figure who served two terms as Mayor of Atlanta and the when is 1973, the day after the historical election. It’s one of those pithy lines that make you sit up, take notice and think that – yes, this playwright has something important to say. Not to mention the idea’s relevance today as the United States reflects on what its first African-American President has done and meant for black America. But if you expect this notion or any of the other social/political issues swirling around the black community at the time to get treated as anything more than a throwaway line or two in Peal Cleage’s thinly drawn but entertaining comedy, What I Learned in Paris, you’re at the wrong play.

Cleage, who was a speechwriter and press secretary for Maynard back in the day, has drawn on the heady time not to  school us on the struggle and successes of the era or to even reflect on how far or not things have come. Instead, Cleage gives us a by the books, sitcom-ish romantic story where new relationships are doomed and old flames ultimately win the day. Laughing rather than thinking is what this story is going for. Yes the missed opportunities are plentiful, but if you can put aside what this play might have been and settle instead for being mildly amused by what it is, all is not lost.

JP (an overly broad Mirron Willis) and Eve (Detria Ward marvellously putting the capital D in Diva and mixing it with a Flower Power sensibility) were once married. JP stayed in Atlanta to work with black political candidates and Eve went to find herself in Paris and San Francisco. They are reunited the day after Maynard’s election when Eve, hearing the news and wanting to contribute and be part of the action, comes back to Atlanta and the house she owns that is now being used as Maynards’s campaign headquarters. JP is coupled up with Ann (Yunina Barbour-Payne showing too little confidence in the role) a young woman in love with John (Kendrick “KayB” Brown giving a naturally terrific love-crippled performance) another member of Maynard’s campaign. John more than returns Ann’s feelings but is hamstrung because of his allegiance to JP and his belief that the two are legally married. Filling out the cast is Lena (a nicely understated Cynthia Brown Garcia) a get-out-the-vote professional who has made Eve’s house her home for the duration of the Maynard campaign.

While there isn’t much doubt as to who will eventually end up with whom, Director Eileen J. Morris keeps the pace quick enough that any boredom is easily brushed away by the expected yet amusing action on stage. The majority of the comedy comes courtesy of Eve, who is a stirring the pot force of womanly nature. When she isn’t dressing down JP for his “tone” she’s requiring that he engage in yogic breathing to make him more palatable to her.  She is a character who believes that it’s always time for champagne and isn’t beyond moving onto stronger intoxicants. Sashaying around in glorious caftans of riotous hues, Ward gives us a charismatic performance that finds the funny in the familiar and conjures undeserved freshness in the dialogue.

At odds with Eve’s grand fashion statements is the rest of the set and costume design. It’s as though Morris’s team blew all their 70’s ideas on Eve and just didn’t have enough steam to be bothered with the rest of it. James V. Thomas’  interior house design that serves the entire two act show , with its mushroom walls, tastefully neutral microfiber couch and IKEA like color block art pieces looks like something out of the neutered 90’s not the swinging 70’s. The two storey effect, with its staircase that the performers stomp and down  is a nice touch for visual diversity, but simply throwing a fern in a corner on the landing does not a period home make.

But if the set design is bland, Andrea Brooks’ costuming is confusingly inopportune. Other than Eve, none of the other characters seem to be channeling any 70’s sartorial vibes. Brooks clads the women in skirt or pant suits that look very similar to present day office wear and only gives us glimpses of the bell sleeved, platformed,  poly-friendly fashions that ruled the day. But it’s the men that fare the worst here. Where are the large lapels? Where is the longer hair? The wider ties? The pleatless flared slacks? None of it is present on stage, sapping the characters from time and place and even further neutering the social significance of story.

In the end I suppose the design doesn’t matter much. What I Learned in Paris may be set in the 70’s against the backdrop of one of the most important moments  in American black political history, but all of that is simply window dressing for what Cleage is really after – an African-American romantic comedy that doesn’t dwell too hard on anything but how to amuse. Like I said, if you can pack up expectations of anything beyond this, you just may crack an easy smile or two.

 

RATING

For social justice/political story lovers – The frustration of missed opportunities in this show will drive you mad. Not that there is anything amiss with giving meaning a comedic twist, but allowing the comedy to quash the meaning all together makes this is a no go for you. SKIP IT

For the occasional theater goer – Nicely paced light comedy with the barest whiff of social commentary might be up your alley this time. Despite the design disappointments, you’ll like the look and feel of the show and Ward’s Eve will give you many moments to remember. SEE IT

For the theater junkie – Even theater junkies deserve to sit back and just be easily amused once in a while. It’s too bad that this show tries to do it while ignoring all the potential it’s time and place offers. Ward and Brown are worth your attention here but there are also performance and design issues that will stick in your teeth. MAYBE SEE IT

 

 

 

 

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