Friday, September 21, 2012

DINNER WITH FRIENDS • Dramatic License Productions

As the plays opens, married couple Gabe (Christopher Hickey) and Karen (Michelle Hand) are telling their good friend Beth (Sarah Cannon) all of the details about their latest vacation.  Beth has brought over her kids to play with Gabe and Karen's kids, but her husband Tom (Chad Morris), is out of town on business.  In the middle of lemon almond polenta cake, a visibly shaken Beth tells her friends that Tom has left her.

Sarah Cannon (Beth), Michelle Hand (Karen)
and Christopher Hickey (Gabe).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Breakups between couples usually always result in some level of tumult in the family, but Donald Margulies's Pulitzer Prize-winning comic-drama, takes a look at how divorce can yield more casualties than just the couple who has decided to go their separate ways.

Alliances are immediately drawn when Beth explains the situation.  Apparently, Tom has fallen in love with another woman.  Karen sides with Beth, and Gabe tries to remain out of the fray.  Later that night at Beth and Tom's house, Tom unexpectedly stops by -- he can't get out of the airport because of bad weather.  Tom is livid when Beth tells him that she's broken the news of their split to their friends, as they were supposed to break the news to Karen and Gabe together.

Sarah Cannon (Beth) and Chad Morris (Tom).
Photo credit: John Lamb
In an effort to explain his side of the story, Tom drives to Karen and Gabe's, but Karen has already made up her mind and heads up to bed.  The men hash it out, and Tom's story causes Gabe to consider Tom's viewpoint, and take a look at his own relationship with his wife.

In the second act, we time travel back to when Tom and Beth were first introduced by Gabe and Karen.  *Sigh*…  Happier times.  Skipping ahead again, during subsequent meetings between Karen and Beth, as well as Gabe and Tom, we get a peek at how their individual perspectives, and friendships, have changed.


Sarah Cannon (Beth), Chad Morris (Tom),
Michelle Hand (Karen) and Christopher Hickey (Gabe).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Under Gary Wayne Barker's flawless direction, each of these four top-notch actors completely disappear into their roles.  Hand and Hickey make a perfectly believable couple -- equally believable when their mutual wavering starts to show.  Cannon is marvelous as Beth, offering up a full range of emotions throughout, and Morris plays Tom with astute clarity.  Jason Coale's set was cool.  I like to think of it as a "sliding tilt-glass" set, with walls and panels moving in and out to accommodate various locations, along with the help of Peggy Knock's props.  Nathan Schroeder's lighting and Jane Sullivan's costumes were also perfect, and "invisible".  Kudos also to Joseph T. Pini's sound design, especially, "the kids upstairs".  This was a great production all-around, and I must say, there was a fire alarm just minutes before the end of the first act, and everyone, especially the guys, weren't ruffled a bit.

Go see it.  It's playing until the 30th.


Michelle Hand (Karen) and Christopher Hickey (Gabe).
Photo credit: John Lamb
DINNER WITH FRIENDS

Written by Donald Margulies
Directed by Gary Wayne Barker
Dramatic License Productions, Chesterfield Mall (upper level entrance, next to Houlihans)
through September 30 | tickets: $22 - $25
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Cast:
Sarah Cannon (Beth), Michelle Hand (Karen), Christopher Hickey* (Gabe), and Chad Morris (Tom).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Jason Coale; lighting design by Nathan Schroeder; costume design by Jane Sullivan; sound design by Joseph T. Pini; props mistress, Peggy Knock; stage manager, Johanna Beck.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

GOODBYE, RUBY TUESDAY • HotCity Theatre

This play was first introduced at HotCity's GreenHouse Festival, where new plays are workshopped and shown to the public.  Now, here we are, a few years later, and Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday is currently receiving its world premiere with strong direction, a spot-on cast and pitch perfect creative contributions.  The only thing it doesn't provide is easy answers.

Nobody in Lynn Hallaby's family can quite figure out what her deal is.  Lynn (Nicole Angeli) has come home to say goodbye to her family.  Seemingly out of nowhere, she's decided to hop on a Greyhound and head to Alaska to work on a commercial fishing boat, and the bus leaves in one hour.  Everyone in the family is desperately trying to get her to stay.  Her mom, Margie (Peggy Billo), even tries to hide her duffel bag under the sink.  Her father Hudson (Joe Hanrahan), offers to take her fishing, like they used to do when she was a kid -- to no avail.  Her brother Kelly (Charlie Barron), who thinks of Lynn as being "so drastic", insists that this just doesn't make any sense, and that she must stay.  Maybe only for his sake.  Kelly is gay, and has come out to everyone but his parents, and he and Lynn obviously have a close brother/sister relationship.  Lynn's husband Ray (Eric White), is also left angry, hurt and confused over her decision.  During an exchange with Lynn and Kelly, we learn that she unsuccessfully tried to "check-out" a decade earlier, but we never really learn why.  What we do learn is mostly revealed through the scenes with Lynn and her brother, and things escalate when Lynn's husband shows up.  Even Gary (Rusty Gunther), Kelly's boyfriend, tries to get under the surface of why Lynn has come to this decision, but like everyone else, he gets nowhere.  Kelly decides to come out minutes before Lynn has to leave, and here we see her take control of the situation, calm her parents, and emerge as the level-headed one, but she still holds her stance as needing to get away from her surroundings to save herself.

Nicole Angeli (Lynn Hallaby) and Peggy Billo (Margie Hallaby).
Photo credit: Todd Studios
This play unfolds in a leisurely pace that, under Bill Whitaker's careful direction, draws you in, but the script doesn't come with any real explanation of the emotional underpinnings of our main character, Lynn Hallaby.  There are hints about her past, but the reasons for her decision are cloaked in unanswered questions.  Not every play comes with a nicely tied bow at the end right?

Nicole Angeli's remarkable subtleties as Lynn make her the one you become the most invested in, as this unknowable character that everything ultimately hinges on.  She's funny and heartbreaking, but in the end, along with the relationship with her brother Kelly, whom Barron plays with a wide range of authentic emotions, keep their cards close to the vest.  Billo also turns in a fully present and sincere performance as Margie.  Watching her, along with Joe Hanrahan as her loving but out-of-touch husband Hudson, when other scenes are going on, is admittedly quite interesting.  Gunther makes for a sensitive Gary, Kelly's boyfriend, and Eric White turns up the heat when we are introduced to him in the second act.

Nicole Angeli (Lynn Hallaby) and Charlie Barron (Kelly Hallaby).
Photo credit: Todd Studios
Sean Savoie's comfortable, well-equipped scenic design makes you immediately feel like you're in the Hallaby house, and is complimented commendably by Michael Sullivan's lighting design, Jane Sullivan's costume design, and Zoe Sullivan's subtle sound design.

I would think that many of us have gone through a period where we feel like we're drowning, and know something -- anything has to be done, even though we may not have a clue what it is we need to do.  In that regard, maybe Lynn has a leg up on the rest of us.  Check it out.  It's playing until the 22nd.


Nicole Angeli (Lynn Hallaby), Eric White (Ray Arendt),
Rusty Gunther (Gary White), Charlie Barron (Kelly Hallaby),
Joe Hanrahan (Hudson Hallaby),  and Peggy Billo (Margie Hallaby).
Photo credit: Todd Studios
GOODBYE, RUBY TUESDAY

Written by EM Lewis
Directed by Bill Whitaker
Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd.
through September 22 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3pm and 8pm, Sundays at 7pm

Cast:
Nicole Angeli (Lynn Hallaby), Charlie Barron (Kelly Hallaby), Peggy Billo* (Margie Hallaby), Joe Hanrahan (Hudson Hallaby), Rusty Gunther (Gary White) and Eric White (Ray Arendt).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Sean Savoie; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; costume design by Jane Sullivan; sound design by Zoe Sullivan; stage manager, Mary Jane Probst.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

ADDING MACHINE: A MUSICAL • R-S Theatrics/Soundstage Productions

The last joint production of Soundstage and R-S Theatrics is quite a challenging choice.  Adapted from Elmer Rice's 1923 Expressionistic play, the musical premiered at the Next Theatre in Evanston Illinois and opened off-Broadway in 2008 at the Minetta Lane Theatre.  It received many off-Broadway nominations, and won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical.

The characters in this black musical comedy are not your typical musical theatre types.  Set against a score of complicated rhythms and quirky melodies, these people's lives are bleak, with just about everyone going by numbers instead of names -- like cogs in a machine.  Yet this show has a way of making you want to root for this cheerless, long-faced bunch, even though they may not strike you as likable at first.  The drudgery of their lives is by some means relatable.

Rachel Hanks (Alto Ensemble),
Bradley J. Behrmann (Tenor Ensemble),
Kimberly D. Sansone (Mrs. Zero), Chuck Brinkley (Mr. Zero)
Nick Moramarco (Bass Ensemble) and Anna Skidis (Soprano Ensemble), 
Photo credit: Autumn Rinaldi
The prelude sets the gloomy tone, with the ensemble (Rachel Hanks, Bradley J. Berhmann, Nick Moramarco and Anna Skidis) reminding us that, "In numbers, the mysteries of life can be revealed".  They function as the Greek chorus and fill minor roles along the way.  After that, we're introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Zero (Chuck Brinkley and Kimberly D. Sansone).  The clever staging, faithful to the original, has the couple in bed, but standing up, with pillows placed behind their heads and a couple of ensemble members holding up a blanket across them.  I'm pretty sure if you looked up "relentless henpecking housewife" in the dictionary, you would find a picture of Mrs. Zero.  In the opening number, "Something to Be Proud Of", she badgers Mr. Zero about everything from the latest movie and how they never go downtown to see them, to idle gossip, to how she was a fool for ever marrying him.  Ouch!  Mr. Zero…  Poor bastard…

Maggie Murphy (Daisy Devore).
Photo credit: Autumn Rinaldi
Next we see Mr. Zero at the office.  He's a bookkeeper who jots down numbers by hand and adds the figures for his company.  In a wonderfully monotonous fugue of sorts, "Harmony, Not Discord", the female office workers call out numbers while the guys daydream about beer, what the time is, and girls, all in counterpoint.  One of the workers, Daisy Devore (Maggie Murphy), has a thing for Mr. Zero, but although Mr. Zero has a thing for her too, he doesn't have the nerve to do anything about it.  They do both nurse fond memories of a company picnic where they spent some time together, though.  Zero thinks he may be up for a promotion, considering it's his 25th anniversary at the company, but his boss (Reginald Pierre) has other ideas.  After calling him in to the office, the boss tells Zero that they're having him replaced by new-fashioned adding machines.  Cheaper to operate, and no mistakes.  Mr. Zero cracks up and has a violent response to this unexpected news, but drags himself home in the middle of the wife getting ready for a party that night.  This number, "The Party", is another showcase of the off-beat score, and the cast and musicians handle it well.  The party is interrupted then the cops show up to haul Mr. Zero off to the pokey due to the result of his one act of nerve.  With a last prison visit from the wife, and the befriending of fellow prisoner, Shrdlu (Antonio Rodriguez), condemned for his own horrific crime, act one ends.

Chuck Brinkley (Mr. Zero) and Antonio Rodriguez (Shrdlu).
Photo credit: Autumn Rinaldi
Zero and Shrdlu's fates play out in the second act in the after-life of the Elysian Fields, where they're joined by Daisy, who couldn't bring herself to live without Mr. Zero.  But even in Heaven, Zero has no nerve and is more at home dealing with numbers than words.  At one point, Daisy grieves that she "might as well be alive".

There's no credit for the scenic design -- it's basically just a black curtain backdrop along with a few props, but that's all this show really needs.  The lighting design, courtesy of Rob Bauwens, adds a great deal to the mood of the play, along with Cat Baelish's costumes of shapeless grays and blacks, with only Zero, Shrdlu and the Boss in white.  The ensemble members did a great job nailing down the rhythms in this show.  Brinkley made for a sympathetic Mr. Zero and Sansone presented a nagging Mrs. Zero -- filling their parts well.  Murphy and Rodriguez delivered their numbers wonderfully as the romance-starved Daisy and the psychotically funny Shrdlu, and Pierre also had a great presence in his non-singing roles.  Some of the trickier portions of some of the songs fell a little out of pocket when I saw it preview night.  It may take a performance or two for everyone to settle into this tough score. 

Reginald Pierre (The Fixer) and Chuck Brinkley (Mr. Zero).
Photo credit: Autumn Rinaldi
This musical is anything but conventional, but its eccentric syncopation and surprising melodies are fascinating to me.  I felt the same way when I saw it in 2008 off-Broadway, and I admire the fact that director, Christina Rios, had the guts to mount it.  Check it out.  You may not get another chance for a long time.


ADDING MACHINE: A MUSICAL

Based on the play The Adding Machine by Elmer Rice
Book/lyrics by Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt
Music by Joshua Schmidt
Directed by Christina Rios
The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through September 16 | tickets: $18 - $20
Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm

Rachel Hanks (Alto Ensemble),
Bradley J. Behrmann (Tenor Ensemble), Nick Moramarco (Bass Ensemble),
Anna Skidis (Soprano Ensemble),
Kimberly D. Sansone (Mrs. Zero) and Chuck Brinkley (Mr. Zero).
Photo credit: Autumn Rinaldi
Cast:
Chuck Brinkley (Mr. Zero), Kimberly D. Sansone (Mrs. Zero), Maggie Murphy (Daisy Devore), Reginald Pierre (The Boss/The Fixer/Charles), Antonio Rodriguez (Shrdlu), Anna Skidis (Soprano Ensemble/ Mrs. One/Mae/Prisoner's Wife), Rachel Hanks (Alto Ensemble/Mrs. Two/Matron), Bradley J. Behrmann (Tenor Ensemble/Mr. One/Prisoner) and Nick Moramarco (Bass Ensemble/Mr. Two/Prison Guard).

Creative:
Costume design by Cat Baelish ; lighting design by Rob Bauwens ; stage manager, Kelly Robertson; musical direction by Leah Luciano; percussionist, Devin Lowe.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

GOING TO SEE THE ELEPHANT • Mustard Seed Theatre


The title of this 1982 play that ushers in the sixth season of Mustard Seed Theatre, was an American idiom that indicated overwhelming emotion, and according to Belle "Maw" Wheeler (Nancy Lewis), it means going over the hill to see what's on the other side -- checking out the "unknown".

When the lights come up on Daniel Lanier's beautifully rustic set, we're drawn into Osbourne County, Kansas on July 3rd, 1870.  Preparations are underway for an Independence Day celebration the next day, and while Sara (Emily Baker) does the laundry and unsuccessfully tries to get milk from their cow Jezebel, Maw Wheeler, Sara's mother-in-law, is poring over a book that depicts the maps of the world.  Maw is restless, and is thinking about heading out to Colorado, once her daughter-in-law's baby is born.  But there's not too much time to think or talk about all that -- there's work to be done.  It seems that these hard-wrought frontier women always have work to do.  One of their nearest neighbors, Etta (Jessica Haley), ventures alone to visit them and see how the party planning is going.  Between the wild animals and the sometimes hostile natives, a young woman walking so far alone is a dangerous proposition in these parts, but Etta's lonely and needs the company.

Nancy Lewis (Belle "Maw" Wheeler)
and Emily Baker (Sara Wheeler).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Although fond of and protective of Etta, the Wheelers don't have much time to entertain her either.  In addition to the July 4th party, they are also hosting Mr. Nichols (who is heard but never seen), and his wife Mrs. Helene Nichols (Suki Peters).  The Nichols are from "the city" up North but moved out West and sank their savings into some land that they had high hopes of making their own, but things didn't work out that way.  The trek was unforgiving, and Helene's husband became ill along the way.  They headed to Maw Wheeler's due to her reputation as a gifted woman with some solid medical knowledge.  Helene is itching to keep moving, but Maw insists that her husband is still too ill.  Throughout the course of the play, the back-stories of each woman are slowly revealed through engaging interactions and monologues.  Although Helene initially seems vastly different from Sara, we learn about the tragic losses of their children, and that even the "innocent", Etta, has already had some horrific experiences of her own.  Going to See the Elephant takes a thoughtful look at the cost of dreaming about going over the hill to see if the grass is greener, and the cost of firmly planting your feet and accepting your current surroundings in a harsh land, where fear always seems to lay just beneath the surface, and tears are a luxury.

Suki Peters (Mrs. Helene Nichols), Emily Baker (Sara Wheeler),
Jessica Haley (Etta Bailey), Nancy Lewis (Belle "Maw" Wheeler)
Photo credit: John Lamb
This play draws you in with wonderfully compelling performances.  Emily Baker as Sara sets the tone with her lovely singing of songs from back in the day.  She fills Sara with compassion and sound judgement, but she would rather just get the work done instead of dreaming of far-off places.  Nancy Lewis, reprising her Kevin Kline award winning role of Belle "Maw" Wheeler, in a production of the sadly now defunct Orange Girls Theatre, injects Maw with raw guts and wisdom, still not considering herself beyond the capability of steering her own life by the horns.  She's tough as nails (and can handle a double barrel shotgun when roaming wolves approach), stubborn as a mule, but a dreamer, full of hope and curiosity.  Suki Peters' story as Mrs. Helene Nichols takes a little longer to unfold, but once it does, she keeps you on the edge of your seat with surprises of unseen grit of her own.  Jessica Haley's Etta Bailey is the youngest, and most breakable, but again, hearing her story makes you realize there's more sustainability there that meets the eye.

Nancy Lewis (Belle "Maw" Wheeler)
and Suki Peters (Mrs. Helene Nichols).
Photo credit: John Lamb
The costumes courtesy of Jane Sullivan and provocative lighting design by Michael Sullivan handsomely compliment the feel of the play.  Zoe Sullivan's sound design also adds much to the mood, from the night-time sound of crickets to the threatening howls of passing wolves.

All of these women have had to shoulder their fair share of heartache dished out by their often cruel surroundings, and on the way home from seeing this play, I didn't automatically turn the ipod on.  That doesn't happen often.  It's like I wanted it all to sink in a bit.  It's nice when that happens.  Go See the Elephant for yourself, though!  It's playing until the 16th.


GOING TO SEE THE ELEPHANT

Written by Karen Hensel and Elana Kent
Directed by Deanna Jent 
Mustard Seed Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd.
through September 16 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm

Cast:
Emily Baker (Sara Wheeler), Jessica Haley (Etta Bailey), Nancy Lewis (Belle "Maw" Wheeler) and Suki Peters (Mrs. Helene Nichols).

Creative:
Scenic design by Daniel Lanier; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; costume design by Jane Sullivan; sound design by Zoe Sullivan; dialect coach, Richard Lewis; stage manager, Patricia Duffin.

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