Thursday, July 28, 2011

Oklahoma Revived at Arena Stage

To quote the show, Arena Stage "couldn't pick a better time to start in life."  Arena Stage under the capable direction of Artistic Director, Molly Smith, christened the Fichandler Stage with the 1943 groundbreaking musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!    Was it risky to inaugurate a new performance space with a musical that has become popularly produced over and over again in professional, community and academic venues?   Not when the gamble is as vibrant and exhilarating as this production. And it is a brilliant decision to revive the show for a three month run this summer so that even more people have a chance to revisit an old friend in such a fresh production.

Oklahoma!  a simple boy loves girl, girl loves boy, but danged if they'll admit it to each other story is rousingly brought to life in the theatre-in-the round Fichandler. The acting ensemble is strong from the dancers of the chorus to the small roles of the community to the leading men and women.   It is a testament to Ms. Smith's vision that her decision to cast actors of different ethnicities works in this production.   It seems natural that Aunt Eller and Laurey are African American, Curley is of hispanic origin and, of course, Ali Hakim, the peddler appears to be middle eastern.   It is the melting pot of America all seeking the American dream of prosperity and the promise that comes from the eminent decision that the Oklahoma Territory is about to become the newest state in the union of the United States of America.    But, more importantly it is talent of this acting ensemble that makes the multicultural casting seem natural and not forced.

E. Faye Butler is the commanding moral compass of the show as Aunt Eller.   Yet she is both fun with a terrific sense of humor and easily takes charge when circumstances warrant it.   As Curley, Helen Hayes Award-winner Nicholas Rodriguez could croon the phone book and the women in the audience would swoon.  Mr. Rodriguez was wonderful as the male lead in Arena's The Light in the Piazza, and he proves with Oklahoma! that he has the stage presence and the voice to do justice to any musical leading male role. 

Eleasha Gamble was a very last minute replacement to play the leading role of Laurey during its original production last Fall.    She literally was cast the weekend that preview performances began.   The Thespian saw the very first performance that she gave and she was still "on book" carrying her lines in her costume when she needed to refer to them.   It was a very brave performance, yet Ms. Gamble's talent and acting instincts were not handicapped by the circumstances. It is a joy to see how her Laurey has evolved since that very first performance.  Her Laurey is both down-to-earth and longing for the romance that Curley promises.   Yet she has the defiant stubborn streak of a young woman who will not go to the box social with Curley just because he (and the entire community) expects her to do so.    Ms. Gamble has a beautiful soprano voice and good stage instincts.  

Aaron Ramey is menacing, yet tragic as Jud Fry.   The set designer, Eugene Lee, has created a claustrophobic smokehouse home for Jud that rises and falls from the depths of the stage, demonstrating Jud's position as social outcast.    Mr. Ramey brings poignancy and menace to his solo, The Lonely Room.

As the male half of the "comic" couple, Cody Williams has the heart-on-his-sleeve naivety of Will Parker down flat.   As a classically trained dancer he brings bravado to the rousing "show stopper" Kansas City.    As his lady love, Arena Stage has discovered a future star of the stage in June Schreiner.   Ms. Schreiner is a rising Senior at The Madeira School who trained for two summers in the Arena Academy program.    She is a revelation being the right age for Ado Annie, and brings an innocence to her awakening desires that not every production's Ado Annie always possesses.  This is perfect example of the right actress of the right age allowing a fresh perspective on a classic comic character.  The comic love triangle is completed by Nehal Joshi's Ali Hakim, who brings comedy and pathos to the traveling peddler.

The entire chorus of singers, dancers and small roles are perfectly cast.   Standouts include Hugh Nees as Ado Annie's father and the beautiful dancing of Hollie E. Wright and Kyle Vaughn in the Dream Ballet.  The choreography of Parker Esse is rousing where it needs to be, romantic and fluid in others, simply perfectly wed to Ms. Smith's direction.

The costuming by Martin Pakledinaz, lighting by Michael Gilliam, and set design by Eugene Lee combine to place the audience squarely in the world of early 20th century pioneer life.
Please note that beginning with the August 9th performance, the role of Aunt Eller will be portrayed by Terry Burrell.

Oklahoma! will be performed at Arena Stage through October 2, 2011.   For tickets and performance information please visit

The Reduced Shakespeare Company's The Complete World of Sports (Abridged) at the Kennedy Center

From the hallowed halls of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, three intrepid RSCPN sports reporters, Austin Tichenor, Matt Rippy and Reed Martin dare to achieve what no fool has attempted afore in this or any other lifetime...they attempt to condense in four short quarters, two halves, nay, the play heard 'round the world, The Complete World of Sports (abridged).

The Thespian has had the privilege of being exposed to the Reduced Shakespeare Company's brilliant repartee and has seen many of their previous madcap abridgments, including The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),The Complete History of America (Abridged), The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged), All the Great Books (Abridged) and Completely Hollywood (Abridged).   The Thespian viewed their newest work, The Complete World of Sports (Abridged) this past fall in Richmond, Virginia.   At that time, the show was in an emerging work. The dialogue, gags, and vignettes were in place, but there were moments that needed the repetition of performance in front of many different audiences to hone and shape this two hours traffic upon the stage.

So, has The Complete World of Sports (abridged) improved.    Is it a home run, gooooal, touchdown, unhorsing (that's joust talk), perfect 10, or any of a number of sports cliches?   The Complete World of Sports (Abridged) is at its heart, a fun, high-energy marathon through the ages.   While not a linear journey through the history of sports the show is broken down into categories and continents and divided amongst the four quarters of the evening.   Our intrepid RSCPN reporters  bring laughter, groans, cheers, winces and smiles as they charge through an incredible array of sporting events. If you think of an obscure sport they probably cover it in the show, or a close cousin of the sport.   They even cover cheese wheel rolling, a proud English sport with a very violent history.

Without giving too much of the evening's entertainment away, highlights include the invention of sports from the dawn of mankind, golf, insane sports mostly invented in the British Isles, women's sports history, the Olympics and a marvelous mad dash finale that will leave the audience breathless and in need of a hit from Reed Martin's ever present inhaler. 

The persevering performers sweat, strain and literally risk life and limbs to entertain their audience.   Austin Tichenor brings his razor sharp wit and charm as he fences his way to victory. Reed Martin uses all of the skills he learned as a graduate of The Bill Kinnamon School of Professional Umpire Training and Ringling Bros. Clown College as he plows through a defense that crumbles in front of his Heisman worthy offense.   And Matt Rippy, not only is he the heartthrob, he has no right to be that graceful in rhythmic gymnastics.    All three easily deliver gold medal performances.

Being that The Complete World of Sports (Abridged) is quite literally a brand-new show, there are some growing pains to get through as the "Bad Boys of Abridgment" (quoted from the program) polish and perfect this athletic gem.    A few of the transitions, mostly in the first half of the show seem a bit abrupt. The use of blackouts for endings of scenes is less abrupt than it was in Richmond, yet still occasionally appear too abrupt. Despite these minor quibbles, The Complete World of Sports (Abridged) is clearly on par with the many quality shows this company has reduced since 1981.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts through July 24, 2011.  They will continue to perform The Complete World of Sports (Abridged) in many venues in the fall of 2011.   Please visit their website for performance dates and locations.    

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Clybourne Park, revived at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

The power of words.   Talking, yet not communicating.  Fear of change.  Fear of the different.   Bruce Norris' revelatory play, Clybourne Park, is a thought-provoking examination of class, race, gentrification, resistance to change and the use of language to invoke your point-of-view.   Inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin In The Sun, Clybourne Park takes as its setting the home, located at 406 Clybourne Street, that the Younger family of  Raisin has put a down payment on in white suburbia, and in act one, examines the story from the point of view of the family that is selling said home. In act two, the same home, and its neighborhood face another turning point that will change it forever.

As a starting point, Mr. Norris has taken the role of Karl Lindner, the only white character from Raisin and greatly expanded upon it. Karl Linder represents the Clybourne Park Neighborhood Association and in A Raisin In The Sun, he visited the Younger family to offer to buy back the house in order to prevent them becoming the first black family to live there.  Karl Linder is defter in his persuasions to the Younger family than he is in Clybourne Park.  Here, perhaps because he is more comfortable amongst people he feels are like-minded, Mr. Linder can become a force of nature against what he perceives is as a threat to his natural order of the world.  Mr. Linder is the focus of the diatribes of the changes in society.  It is to Mr. Norris' credit that Clybourne Park focuses on Russ and Bev, the middle-aged white couple selling the home and the harrowing reason that the home is being sold.

Given the race relations of the 1950's it is important to show the reasons that a home in a neighborhood such as Clybourne Park would be sold to a black family.  It is clear that the home has enough darkness enveloping it and the family within to prevent it from being sold to anyone else.   Mr. Norris leisurely envelops the audience in the chilly marriage of Russ and Bev, the artificial friendship between Bev and the family housekeeper, Francine, and the subtly hostile relationship particularly between Russ and Karl and even, Jim, a local pastor.   Thrown into this charged atmosphere are Francine's husband, Albert and Karl's wife, Betsy.   

The act simmers to a slow boil, as Russ, in particular has no patience for his concerned white neighbors.  Clybourne Park has failed his family when they needed the support of their neighbors.   Russ has no patience for the neighborhood's alarm that this home has been sold to a black family.    Yet, Karl Linder pushes his views, more harshly than the character did in his original incarnation in Raisin, and the other characters, at first with reticence and the constraints of polite society contribute their  views until they threaten to boil.  In the end, no one has their views changed, and we are left with Russ and Bev, heartbroken, struggling to bury their painful past and move away from Clybourne Park to an uncertain future. 

Act two takes us fifty years into the future.  It is 2009, once again the little house has been sold, yet the situation has reversed.   406 Clybourne Street has become a decayed shell.  Now located in a majority black neighborhood, the conflict revolves around the young white couple who have purchased the home and plan to demolish it to build a substantially larger structure.  We have entered the world of gentrification.  This time it is the black residents, Kevin and Lena, who represent the neighborhood's concerns, fighting to keep the architectural character of what they perceive as an historic black neighborhood from being superseded by the proposed, for lack of a better term, McMansion, which, like the conflict of the first act, will change the neighborhood forever.  

There are more diatribes in act two, yet, the sentiments and points of view expressed echo the concerns of the 1959 house.   Again, the audience is left with no clear resolution.  No one's viewpoint is changed, many hurt feelings occur, and the dark secret of this doomed property looms over the proceedings.   Clybourne Park ends with only questions that the audience must take, digest, and ponder.

This production is a remount of Woolly Mammoth's 2010 Helen Hayes Award-winning production and the cast has returned intact.  The ensemble is a perfect unit and the performances are uniformly excellent.   Most of the cast portrays dual roles.  Chris Dinolfo is the exception, and he brings pathos to his small role of Kenneth.  Michael Glenn traverses his well-meaning Jim and reasonable Tom.  Jefferson A. Russell navigates the strictures of the 1950's Albert, and the charmingly forceful Kevin.  Dawn Ursula walks the same tightrope as the 1950's Francine and the passionate, outspoken Lena. Kimberly Gilbert is fascinating as the sheltered because she is deaf Betsy and the equally determined Lindsay bewildered and defensive that anyone would object to her dream home.

Mitchell Hebert is in turns, closed off, distant, and justifiably angry as Russ, a father and husband who allows his emotionless facade to shatter in the faces of the neighbors he sees as the catalyst for the destruction of his family.   Jennifer Mendenhall is heartbreaking as Bev a wife and grieving woman who fights to maintain the stoic dignity that society is determined she must present to the world.  Both actors do well in the act two minor roles of Tom, a workman, and Kathy, a lawyer.

Cody Nickell takes two deeply unlikeable characters, Karl and the young husband, Steve, and turns them both into fascinating studies of men who care little for the niceties of discussing precarious subjects as long as their viewpoint prevails.   Both Karl and Steve steamroll the other characters, yet similar to the blowhards on talk radio, Mr. Nickell makes the audience unable to turn away in disgust.  The audience is instead mesmerized into wondering how far these will go to prevail in their respective arguments, and will anyone on stage commit violence towards them if Karl and Steve don't see the need to back down and shut up.  It is a wonderful performance.

The direction of Howard Shalwitz is deftly handled particularly with the added challenge that some audience is seated behind the set.  James Kronzer's set design is remarkable and The Thespian recommends watching the intermission transformation from the tidy home of 1959 to the decaying shell of 2009. 

Woolly Mammoth is to be commended for giving the audiences ample opportunity to discuss the issues raised in Clybourne Park.   Audience dialogues are being held following all  Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening performances.  Town hall  Mammoth Forum discussions will be held at 5:15 p.m. On Sundays July 31, August 7 and August 14.  .  Artistic forums will be held at 5:15 p.m. On Saturdays August 6 and 13.  You do not need to see the matinee performance to attend the forums.   For information on specific speakers as well as Woolly Mammoth podcasts please visit their website.

Clybourne Park will be performed at Woolly Mammoth through August 14, 2011. For tickets and other performance information please visit