Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the American Shakespeare Center

"Love is your master, for he masters you;"

The American Shakespeare Center tackles one of William Shakespeare's earliest plays with a high-energy romp through The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  While other Shakespearean plays have the reputation of being problem plays, The Two Gentlemen of Verona contains what is probably one of the greatest jerks to appear on the Elizabethan stage.  Yet, in this production, under the skillful direction of Ralph Alan Cohen, the ensemble deftly navigates the trickier aspects of the story creating an almost satisfying happy ending.

The two gentlemen in question are best friends Proteus (Gregory Jon Phelps) and Valentine (Grant Davis).  Valentine is leaving for the court of the Duke of Milan (John Harrell).  Proteus stays behind unwilling to leave his love Julia (Tracie Thomason).  Proteus' father Antonio (James Keegan) sends his son to Milan where he is reunited with Valentine, now head over heels in love with the Duke's daughter Sylvia (Abbi Hawk).  Proteus instantly falls in love with Sylvia and plots to win her from Valentine at any cost.   Add into the mix clownish servants, a band of merry outlaws, Julia disguised as a boy,a dog and many strange and silly episodes later the lovers are eventually reunited and we come to an slightly awkward happy ending.

The American Shakespeare Center has assembled a group of actors for its summer and fall season that are of excellent quality.   Many old favorites return and are joined by a few newcomers and others who return to the company after a few seasons absence.   Benjamin Curns and Alison Glenzer are merry and delightful as the two clowns Launce and Speed.  Ms. Glenzer in particular is crisp of tongue rapidly delivering Speed's humorous quips.   Mr. Curns manages to elude the axiom that one should not perform with children or animals by delivering a wonderful comedic performance while sharing the stage with the special guest stars who are portraying Launce's dog, Crab.

The American Shakespeare Center is partnering with Augusta Dog Adoptions for the run of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  Each week a different dog available for adoption is portraying Crab. The American Shakespeare Center should be lauded for providing a platform and assisting homeless dogs in finding their forever homes.   Audience members are introduced at the beginning of the show to the featured dog and instructed to visit the box office to find out how to adopt the guest star or other dogs.   Bravo.

Returning to the human stars of the show, Abbi Hawk is regal as Sylvia the object of both Proteus and Valentine's ardent desire.  Tracie Thomason makes Julia a petulant lover at the beginning of the play who grows into heartbreak as she witnesses Proteus' betrayal of her constant heart.   Grant Davis plays well the heroic Valentine suffering through the obstacles his best friend places in the way of true love.

It was wise to place the troubling Proteus into the hands of company veteran Gregory Jon Phelps.  Proteus is an absolute jerk and the audience let Mr. Phelps know their feelings loudly as he first became the ardent suitor of Julia and then the wicked betrayer of Valentine and Sylvia.  The ending of the play is problematic as Proteus physically attacks Sylvia before realizing how far he has sunk from the bounds of decency.  Yet, Mr. Phelps wins back the audience by showing true remorse in that troubling scene.   While we may not accept Proteus' easy reconciliation with Julia, Mr. Phelps makes the audience believe that Proteus may yet earn that redemption.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is being performed as part of The American Shakespeare Center's summer season through November 23, 2012, along with William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and James Goldman's The Lion in Winter.   These plays will be joined in the fall by William Shakespeare's Cymbeline and King John.   For tickets and other performance information please visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com.

For information on Augusta Dog Adoptions and the guest stars appearing as Crab please visit www.augustadogadoptions.org.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart--A Reflection

The first medical cases of the disease we now know is caused by HIV were first described thirty years ago.  There is an entire generation of people who have grown up since then who have no idea of the struggles to recognize this dangerous modern-day plague, to work through the stereotypes and stigmas associated with it and to recognize that, even now, HIV/AIDS is a world-wide health crisis.   Playwright Larry Kramer wrote an angry cry in the wilderness The Normal Heart in 1985.  The play was a raw condemnation of the 1980's establishment's responses to the emerging epidemic equally attacking the medical establishment for its slow response, the government for dismissing the crisis as a white gay male problem and the media for not realizing the rapid spiraling scope of the disease and not giving the crisis the front page coverage it deserved in a more timely fashion. It was through Mr. Kramer's passionate words and the off Broadway production at Joseph Papp's Public Theater that the artistic community started to document the scourge of HIV/AIDS.

The Normal Heart was not the only theatrical work of the time period to address HIV/AIDS.  As a matter of fact, one of the reasons that the first time that The Normal Heart appeared on Broadway was in its 2011 Tony Award-winning revival is because another play dealing with the health crisis, William H. Hoffman's As Is premiered during the same 1985 season and a decision was made to keep The Normal Heart in production at the Public which ensured it a longer run.   Yet, The Normal Heart is as crucial and relevant to the 21st century audience as it is in 1985.   This was no mounting of a period piece where we can safely proclaim that those were the bad old days and the world has come so far that we can look back on those quaint times and be relieved that life is so much better now. It most assuredly is not.

1981.  Thirty years ago. Everyone born since then has lived with HIV/AIDS as a reality.   For them, HIV/AIDS is no longer the automatic death sentence it was in the 1980's.   The stigma that led to the horrific treatment of a dying patient being thrown away with the garbage so vividly described by the character Bruce Niles in The Normal Heart may no longer occur in these supposedly enlightened times.   The fear mongering of the 1980's was a time during which the home of the Ray brothers in Florida was burned out of fear that these children would infect their town.   It was a time when the television series St. Elsewhere received criticism for deciding to infect Mark Harmon's promiscuous Dr. Robert Caldwell with HIV through heterosexual contact.  Today in the American Adventure pavilion at Walt Disney World's EPCOT in the montage of American heroes for the past sixty years is the face of Ryan White.   How many of the tourists recognize the young AIDS activist banned from attending his middle school, who put an ordinary face on those who contract the disease, and who died at the young age of 18 in 1990?

The Normal Heart can feel preachy at times.   Yet, when those words are preached by activist Ned Weeks it feels perfectly normal given how Mr. Kramer has written the character.   The lone female character in the play, the no nonsense Dr. Emma Brookner delivers a rousing condemnation of the complacency of the medical and government bureaucracy whose slow response to the growing crisis is emphasized by the ever growing list of names projected on the walls of the set of this production.  In the end of this emotional play, the audience feels shock, anger, despair and a desire for knowledge that was literally handed to the audience attending the Broadway production in flyers, sometimes handed out by Mr. Kramer himself.

When the play closed on Broadway there was hope that a national tour would develop.   Yet, in these days when crowd pleasing musicals can easily book theaters from coast to coast it is much harder for plays to receive the same generous touring dates.   It is heartening that The Normal Heart is receiving  an important run at Washington, DC's Arena Stage through July 29, 2012 and will subsequently be performed in San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater September 13 - October 7, 2012.  More importantly a film version will finally reach movie theaters in 2014.   

The Normal Heart may depict the history of a past generation's struggle with HIV/AIDS, but it is as important in 2011/2012 as it was in 1985.    If you have the opportunity to see this production do so.   If you have influence at a theater company to produce your own production of this play try to get it done.  The wider the audience for this piece, the better chance that this important part of history will not fade into memory.

The Normal Heart is being performed at Washington DC's Arena Stage through July 29, 2012.  For tickets and other performance information please visit www.arenastage.org.   The Normal Heart will be performed at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater September 13 - October 7, 2012.   For tickets and other performance information please visit www.act-sf.org.   The film of The Normal Heart will be released in 2014.   For information on the film please visit imdb.com.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Harvey at Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54

"In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.  Well, for years, I was smart.  I recommend pleasant."

Every once in a while, a professional theater company revives an old chestnut, a play or musical that has been regulated to community and student productions.   That is not to say that the world of amateur theatrics cannot produce a well-acted, thoughtful production.   Yet, when the pros decide to make a revival with the resources available to give it spit and polish, the results give theater-goers a chance to revisit an old friend and delight in the wonders that visiting such a friend can bring.

Roundabout Theatre Company brings a gem of a production of Mary Chase's Pulitzer winning comedy, Harvey.   Yes, there are those who have reviewed this production that lament that Harvey won the Pulitzer over the vastly more meaty drama of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. Yet, when one looks at the context of when the two plays were produced on Broadway near the end of World War II, one can see, perhaps, the reason that the gentle Harvey was embraced so near the end to so horrible a conflict.

Here we have the tale of Elwood P. Dowd, an eccentric middle-aged man, who delights in his daily imbibing of alcohol and the encounters that he makes with the people he meets.   Elwood mostly delights in his friendship with Harvey, a pooka spirit that has taken the form of a 6' 3" invisible white rabbit.   This deeply troubles his sister, Veta, worried that Elwood's eccentricities are ruining her social standing and the prospects for her daughter, Myrtle Mae. Veta is determined to have Elwood committed to a mental sanitarium.   The ensuing encounters with the doctors and staff of the sanitarium lead to misunderstandings.  Just who is the one needing the intervention? And, more importantly, is Harvey real?

Director Scott Ellis has shaped this production in such a way that the material feels fresh despite the situation and conflicts being well and truly of the time in which the play was written.  It was a good decision to cut the second intermission from the original three act play as the pace of the play subsequently moves at the right speed.   Jane Greenwood's costumes and Tom Watson's hair and wig design compliment the actors even those stuck in medical uniforms.  David Rockwell's two-sided set shows the old-fashioned, yet ornate Dowd estate and the clinical yet, strangely inviting sanitarium.  Obadiah Eaves' original music and sound design gently supports the play inviting the audience into the world of Elwood and Harvey.

The acting ensemble is taut and Roundabout has assembled some terrific stage veterans, some of whom prove the adage that there are no small parts only small actors.   Carol Kane is a prime example of this taking the small role of the head psychiatrist's wife, Betty Chumley and injecting her performance with delightful silliness as she portrays a society wife who views her husband's diagnoses as an obstacle to getting to a reception on time.   Rich Sommer as the thuggish orderly Duane Wilson uses his imposing frame well, yet proves adept at physical comedy as he manhandles poor Veta.  Larry Bryggman proves yet again why he is a mainstay of the New York stage as Judge Gaffney whether exasperated at having his golf game interrupted or trying to navigate his legal duties to both Veta and Elwood.

In the pivotal role of Dr. Chumley, the head of psychiatry who ends up forever changed by his encounters with Elwood and Harvey, Charles Kimbrough who normally portrays the role was absent from this performance.   In his stead, his understudy Jeffrey Hayenga proved himself more than a competent replacement clearly showing the madcap unhinging of this logical man's world view.

Jessica Hecht is perfectly batty has Veta. Veta has her own life-changing journey and Ms. Hecht brings comedic fun to the unraveling Veta. Whether it is protecting her society maven friends from her brother's antics to surviving a treatment in the hydro tub, poor put-upon Veta is in sure hands in Ms. Hecht's performance.

Jim Parsons made an impressive Broadway debut in the spring of 2011 in the acclaimed revival of The Normal Heart.   Here he tackles the leading role of Elwood P. Dowd under the twin challenges of the iconic Jimmy Stewart film performance and his own status as Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory.   It is a testament to Mr. Parsons that he takes Elwood and puts his own stamp on the role.   Mr. Parsons is charming.   One wishes to travel to Elwood's small town, accept his card and invitation to join him for drinks at Charlie's and pass a few pleasant hours giving up reality just as Elwood has chosen to do.

And as for Harvey?   He has a commanding stage presence in his well-tailored suit.  His stage mischief seems harmless and his performance brings joy to us all.

Mary Chase's Harvey is being presented at Studio 54 by Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City through August 5, 2012.   With Charles Kimbrough, Tracee Chimo, Angela Paton, Holley Fain, Morgan Spector and Peter Benson.   For tickets and other performance information please visit www.roundabouttheatre.org.