Thursday, February 17, 2011

Pride and Prejudice

Peppered with wit and passion, Jane Austen's insights into social mores and morality are as relevant today as they were during her time of calling cards and introductions. No one is immune to the powers of Austen - not Hollywood, not writers who churn out sequels and prequels and sometimes zombies, and not the Orlando Shakespeare Theater. Who could resist a story that begins with such a line as, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in the possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife?" Pride and Prejudice's classic opener sets the stage for love, disappointment, and deception. But don't worry; you can always count on a very happy ending, indeed.

This deliciously choreographed Regency Era romance is a delight to behold. The casting is sublime - who could be a better Mrs. Bennet than Anne Herring? Jack A. Smith's period costumes - regimental uniforms, billowy gowns with matching bonnets, and stylish suits - rival anything I have seen in the movies. Director Thomas Ouellette makes sure that the story progresses without dragging, which many long productions with large casts can. However, I do think that Jane Austen may have been a bit shocked by all the kissing.

The cast of characters is long, but I can safely say that everyone embraced their inner Austen. Michele Vazquez and Avery Clark are the star-crossed lovers, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. They must be channeling Austen herself in the proposal scene. Robin Olson's Lady Catherine De Bourgh gives a whole new meaning to the word diva, and Michael Daly brings the funny as the oafish Mr. Collins.  I was a little disappointed in Trent Fucci's Mr. Wickham; he could have used more charm and less anger. Wickham was always more about appearances than substance.

Don't miss this production of the classic romance, Pride and Prejudice now showing until March 20th.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream

The course of true love never did run smooth... especially when fairies are casting spells and fathers are threatening marriage or death. So it goes in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the latest production of the Orlando Shakespeare Theater. A convoluted story with a love quadrangle and a play within the play, A Midsummer Night's Dream demands your entire attention or you are left floundering in confusion. 

The Shake's first rate cast entertains and amuses. The fairy costumes are sublime while the rest of the cast is dressed in 80's garb - inspiring me to listen to new wave ditties and dance by myself (a la Billy Idol). The fairies are charming with their frolicsome and undulating movements and trilling and clicking language all their own. Intermittent musical interludes give us a break from the Shakespearean language and are a welcomed change.  My favorite scene by far would have to be the fight in slow motion by the two pairs of lovers - it's a visual that can't be missed.

There were several stellar performances of note. Michael Daly as Nick Bottom captivated the audience with his comedic timing, impressions, and surprisingly - his singing voice. You can say that he stole the show. Courtney Moors as the put upon Helena (my favorite of the star crossed lovers) and Michele Vazquez as the desirable Hermia put in performances as seasoned vets instead of newbies in their debut season. They both can deliver their lines to perfection while screaming at the top of their lungs in the middle of a cat fight. With the agility of an acrobat and the ability to switch from conniving and petulant to innocent and wistful in the blink of an eye, Claro Austria shines as mischievous Puck. Rounding out the cast are Wynn Harmon in two roles - Theseus, Duke of Athens and Oberon King of the Fairies; Sara Ireland also in two roles as Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons and Tatania, Queen of the Fairies; as well as the other half of the love quadrangle Avery Clark and Walter Kmiec as Lysander and Demetrius. Kudos to Harmon and Ireland for doing double duty. I'm sure one Shakespearean role is difficult enough to learn, but two...

Although it seemed as if the second half would never end, and I noticed one person asleep in the audience, A Midsummer Night's Dream is a fun-filled and surprisingly fresh production directed by David Lee. The show continues at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater until March 19th.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Chaps! A Jingle Jangle Christmas

The world would be a better place if everyone was a cowboy. But you'd have to abide by the cowboy code! What code, you ask.  It's 10 simple rules to live by and it originates from Gene Autry, America's Favorite Singing Cowboy.

Gene Autry's Cowboy Code:

  1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
  2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
  3. He must always tell the truth.
  4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
  5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
  6. He must help people in distress.
  7. He must be a good worker.
  8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
  9. He must respect women, parents, and his nation's laws.
  10. The Cowboy is a patriot.

We should all be cowboys!
During WWII in London, a traveling singin' cowboy show, Tex Riley and his Radio Roundup, get themselves lost on the way to perform a live BBC Christmas Eve broadcast to the boys fighting on the frontlines (and a live audience).  The only ones to make it to the studio on time is spunky Mabel Carter, the stage manager, with a trunk full of costumes in tow, and three musicians. Leaving only Mabel, the musicians and the BBC crew to pitch in and put on the show. In true cowboy fashion, they pull themselves up by their borrowed boot straps and put on a rootin' tootin' good time show. YEEHAW!

Chock full of cowboy ditties, Chaps! is a toe-tapping, hand-clapping, heart-warming release from all  the Christmastime hubbub.  Usually, the Orlando Shakespeare Theater's  Christmas productions teeter on the brink of slapstick comedies (not that I don't love Every Christmas Story Ever Told), but this show has a bit more heart (without being sentimental) and a ton of musical talent.  But don't get me wrong, there are lots of laughs, too. Patrick Flick has directed a delightful balance of both.

Is it just a coincidence that Melissa Mason's character is named Mabel Carter? Could this be an homage to country music and Grand Ole Opry legend Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family? Either way, Mason does justice to these down home tunes with her tinny country twang - plus she can yodel, which is no small feat.  The BBC crew consists of guitar picking Michael Gill as Archie Leitch, Philip Nolen as stuffy Leslie Briggs Stratton, Mark Whitten as uptight and asthmatic Miles Shadwell, Michael Edwards as jolly Clive Cooper, and Brandon Roberts as Stan the sound effects man. Gill opened the show with a respectable cowboy rendition of "I'm an Old Cowhand" (which gave me a flashback of an I Love Lucy episode... I got wind of it). Whitten, with the assistance of Edwards, was hysterical as the dummy singing "The Ballad of Curly Joe." It's a visual that cannot be missed. Speaking of Edwards, I was surprised to see that this is his debut season with Shakes. He just seems familiar or better yet, comfortable. With his smooth cowboy voice, he fits right in.  In an uncharacteristic supporting role, Philip Nolen added his charm and finesse to the production as the inebriated and cross-dressing BBC announcer turned saloon gal. I don't know if it was part of the act or an organic reaction, but the rest of the cast had a hard time keeping a straight face as he belted out "I'm Gonna Tell Santy Claus On You." Roberts, Shakes comedy staple, still gets the laughs even without uttering a word.

I have to mention the musicians that backed the production: Ted Henderson, guitar; Matt Tonner, Bass; Daniel Flick, Fiddle/Mandolin; and Michael Gill, guitar. They blended into the background (except Gill), but contributed the backbone and backbeat of the show.  And I would be remiss if I did not mention Daniel Flick's music direction. In fact, the entire production team deserves a round of applause - especially Bert Scott for his spot on set design.

Not even the Jerrys can stop this production. Git yourselves all gussied up and y'all come to this here Orlando Shakespeare Theater production by December 26th, or you'll be plumb out of luck. And remember, be a cowboy this Christmas, and all year long.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Turn of the Screw

It is that time of year again, when thrill seekers of all ages flock to local theme parks to scare themselves silly, ghosts and ghouls are abundant on television, the movies are overrun with the paranormal, and local theater companies do their best to frighten the audience. Imagine if you will a secluded gothic mansion in the English countryside, two mysterious deaths, one wide-eyed governess and two orphans left to their own devices and you have the makings of a gloomy Victorian ghost story. Based on the novella by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw has always proved to be a bit of a conundrum to me. Is there any coincidence that the characters are confronted by riddles throughout the story. I think not. I have read the story, watched several film versions and now on stage, and I'm still not quite sure what happens.

Are there really ghosts? Is the governess going crazy? What did Miles do at school to get himself expelled? Why doesn't Flora talk? And why does the uncle insist that he should never be contacted regarding the children? All questions that are never really answered. Oh, many things are alluded to but nothing is clearly stated. Could it be more ambiguous? No, I don't think it could.

I usually enjoy the bare bones approach of this company's use of sets, props and even cast members, but this Anne Hering directed production of The Turn of the Screw relies too heavily on the audience's indulgance. There are only two members of the cast - Suzanne O'Donnell as the governess and Eric Hissom as everyone else - the narrator, the uncle, Miles, Mrs. Grose, and even sound effects. Flora is invisible. It gives the production a bit of a comic bent. And to be honest the first several minutes of the play were more funny than scary. Or was that the plan, to catch the audience off guard? The dark and moody set is sparse - a painted backdrop, a few chairs and a staircase. The staircase landing doubles as upstairs rooms (use your imagination).

O'Donnell and Hissom are regulars of The Orlando Shakespeare Theater company. Hissom was beguiling as the uncle and a little sinister lurking about the stage imitating the wind or a bird's lonesome cry. But I found the switches between young Miles to eldery Mrs. Grose distracting. Although entertaining, the character changes definitely took away the fright and added tongue-in-cheek silliness to the production. However, O'Donnell's bloodcurdling scream brought back the fright and her often out of breath delivery put you on edge. The audience is captivated as it watches her slow decent into... well, I'm not really sure into what - is it madness or terror?

Although my attention was held throughout this entire production, I've never really enjoyed this story. I guess I am bothered by too many unanswered questions. Are the children possessed or is the governess going nuts? Or is it both? You be the judge when you see The Turn of the Screw now playing at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater until November 7th.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The 39 Steps

Hitchcock meets The Carol Burnett Show in the Orlando Shakespeare Theater's production of The 39 Steps. Filled with comedy shticks, innuendo and creative use of minimal cast and props (requiring a bit of an imagination from the audience), The 39 Steps is an adaptation of the novel by John Buchan and the movie by Alfred Hitchcock.

The cast of four, a combination of newbies and seasoned regulars, manages to bring to life numerous characters with thick accents and several hats to wear. Spencer Plachy in his debut season as handsome fugitive, Richard Hannay... and only Richard Hannay appears in almost every scene. Although his soliloquies slow down the momentum of the play, his accent is impeccable and the only one I could discern. Astute at physical comedy, he received a rousing hand of applause as he agilely squirmed his way out from under a dead body, pretended to walk along the outside of a train, and fell from a makeshift bridge.

In her debut season, Deanna Gibson, the only female in the cast, channels Carol Burnett as Annabella, Margaret, and Pamela. And considering Burnett is a comic genius, Gibson has big shoes to fill - whether she intended this homage or not. She comes closest as Annabella, the German (her nationality is questionable) spy, with an accent so thick I was lost most of the time. But I found myself transported to my youth watching a skit from the TV show starring Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman.

Brad DePlanche and Brandon Roberts round out the cast as - according to the dramatis personae - Clown 1 and 2 respectively. Taking on multiple roles - sometimes in the same scene, DePlanche and Roberts prove to be both adept at physical comedy and character development. Amazing with quick changes of clothes and accents, this comedy team keeps the audience laughing throughout the entire show. Although some of their antics wear thin, their overall effect is fun and frolicsome. And if only Roberts looked more like Lyle Waggoner than Don Knotts, they would have captured the entire cast of The Carol Burnett Show.

I thoroughly enjoyed the unique use of props (or lack thereof) throughout the production. This theater company never fails to amaze me with their sparse but essential use of scenery, lighting and sound to create the ambiance of a show. I especially enjoyed the shadow puppetry segment.

I know that it was all part of the scripted comedy, but it did get old trying to discern what the heck everyone was saying due to the over-the-top, thick accents. And speaking of getting old, many shticks were played to death - the DUM DUM DUM every time the 39 steps were mentioned was the most annoying. But overall, this Jim Helsinger directed production keeps you entertained - and isn't that the point.

The 39 Steps runs through October 10th.