Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas at Signature Theatre in Virginia

In the spirit of the rousing production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas now being performed at Arlington, Virginia's Signature Theatre, this here review would develop a Texas twang thicker than a Longhorn's prime rib.   For a good time, come on down to the Chicken Ranch.   Just leave the kiddies at home.  Not for nothing is Signature Theatre emphasizing the word Whorehouse in all of its advertising.

This is a well crafted revival of this late 1970's crowd-pleaser   The dancers heartily stomp Karma Camp's choreography.  The deep bordello red of Collin Ranney's set perfectly frames the story.  Kathleen Geldard's fanciful costumes evoke a storytelling quality, from the stereotypical cowboy fringe of Melvin P. Thorpe and his Dogettes, to the sensuous lingerie and fall away prom gowns worn by Miss Mona's girls.  Eric Schaeffer who shapes both the high comedy and the deep melodrama of this musical has thoughtfully directed the entire production. 

 If there is any flaw in this musical it comes from the play itself, only briefly hinting on the dark side of prostitution lest it interfere with the overall message of an intolerant minority shutting down a local institution, no matter how possibly troubling said institution may actually be.  That and a change in tone in the second act which leads to an ending that peters out rather than going out with a bang.

For this is the tale of the Chicken Ranch.  A wholesome house of I'll repute operating in Texas for more than a century.  The owner, Miss Mona Stangley gives generously to local causes and hosts the annual end of season reward for the Texas A & M Aggies football team.   When local radio personality and self appointed morality police Melvin P. Thorpe decides to crusade against the Chicken Ranch the local and state politicians are forced to stop patronizing the Chicken Ranch and close it down.

Christopher Bloch makes a terrific villain as Melvin P. Thorpe, embracing his single minded crusade whilst wearing a completely ridiculous ensemble.   Tracy Lynn Olivera brings a weary wisdom as the long suffering waitress Doatsy Mae slinging hash and zingers and singing well the song that shares her name.  Nova Y. Payton's Jewel raises the roof in Twenty Four Hours of Lovin'.  It is a shame that she only has the one solo, but as has been mentioned in other reviews she is slated to portray Effie in the upcoming production of Dreamgirls to which we all look forward to with excitement. Thomas Adrian Simpson's Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd may not be the hero that Miss Mona requires but he still comes across as a decent man forced to follow the letter of the law rather than do what he feels is right.

Second in importance only to Miss Mona herself are the talented young men and women who make up Miss Mona's Girls, The Doggettes and The Aggie Boys.  Signature Theatre has managed to find an incredibly talented ensemble of singers and dancers who raise the roof off of The Max stage.  The ensemble includes the choreographers daughter Brianne Camp who is also credited as Associate Choreographer.

As for the proprietor of the Chicken Ranch, Miss Mona Stangley?  The amazing Sherri L. Edelen brings her to vivid life.  Ms. Edelen is the fierce mother hen, protector of her girls and upholder of her standards.  She fights hard for her girls and her business, while holding a torch for the Sheriff.  She'll bring you joy in A Lil' Ole Bitty Country Place and a few tears in Bus From Amarillo.  Mostly she'll turn on the charm so that you just might want to extend your stay in The Best Little Whorehouse a little while longer.

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas will be performed in The Max theater at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia through October 7, 2012.  For tickets and other performance information please visit

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Merchant of Venice at the American Shakespeare Center

The true genius in the best of William Shakespeare's plays is his ability to challenge the audience's expectations.   The prejudices of the sixteenth century are ever present, but the stereotypes are frequently deepened.    And thus it is with The Merchant of Venice which features as its villain the usurious Jewish moneylender, Shylock.   In the brilliant "I am a Jew" speech and the despairing rant over his daughter's betrayal, Shakespeare gives Shylock a more rounded character that helps transcend the stereotype of the money-grubbing man seeking revenge.   Add to that the rich characterization provided by an actor at the top of his game and you have a compelling reason to journey to the Shenandoah Valley to seek out the high qualities of this production presented by the American Shakespeare Center.

The melancholy merchant of the title, Antonio (Rene Thornton, Jr.) agrees to help fund his best friend Bassanio's (Gregory Jon Phelps) attempt to win the wealthy heiress of Belmont Portia's (Tracie Thomason) hand in marriage.  Antonio's own money is unavailable as his merchant ships are at sea.  He agrees to borrow the money from Shylock (James Keegan), a wealthy Jewish moneylender.  Shylock, who has been harassed and suffered humiliation at the hand of Antonio and the other Christian merchants of Venice agrees to lend the money on one condition.  If Antonio does not meet the deadline for repaying the loan, he must forfeit one pound of his flesh.  Antonio agrees as he does not believe that he will have any trouble repaying the funds. Bassanio travels to Belmont where Portia is restricted by the terms of her father's will in how she chooses a husband.   Any suitor must select from three caskets, gold, silver, and lead.   If they choose correctly they will marry Portia.  If not, they cannot marry any other woman.  Meanwhile, Shylock's daughter, Jessica (Abbi Hawk) elopes with the Christian Lorenzo (Chris Johnston), taking with her a small fortune.   This additional betrayal hardens Shylock's heart, so when Antonio's ships fail to come in and he must forfeit on the loan, his life is in danger.   In the midst of happy marriages, the unhappy trial for Antonio's life looms large.   Judgments will be made with the aid of a surprising scholar of the law.

This is a play that can challenge the 21st century audience.  For not only does it feature as its villain a Jewish character bent on revenge for the wrongs that the Christian merchant of the title has done unto him, it also features uncomfortable behavior by the majority Christian characters towards the Jewish and African ones. The American Shakespeare Center has not excised the more uncomfortable language spoken by the heroes and heroines of the play.   Under the direction of Artistic Director Jim Warren, the language is not emphasized, but is matter-of-factly delivered.  Thus when Portia proclaims that she hopes not only that the Prince of Morocco fail in his attempt to marry her, but "let all of his complexion choose me so," she is declaring that she hopes that anyone of African descent not win her.  Yet, she delivers it not with malice, but as if it were the most natural thing for her character to say.  It is a credit to Ms. Thomason that she keeps Portia's attitude light and merry throughout the discussions of her various suitors.

For Ms. Thomason is a delightful, playful Portia.  The Blackfriars' stage encourages audience interaction.  In the scene in which Portia and her gentlewoman, Nerissa (Allison Glenzer) discuss the various suitors who have failed in their quest to marry her, Ms. Thomason and Ms Glenzer have a great deal of fun choosing audience members to illustrate their playful banter.  Ms. Thomason's Portia has mirth-filled charm throughout Portia's journey from object of love to deliverer of justice.

Ronald Peet and Chris Johnston bring comic delight to the roles of Portia's suitors, the Princes of Morocco and Arragon.   Mr. Peet seems to be channeling a little bit of Geoffrey Holder (cola nut, un-cola nut) and Mr. Johnston seems to have taken the brilliant costuming of designer Jenny McNee with zest and has managed to create the embodiment of farce.

Rene Thornton, Jr. has a quiet strength as the melancholy Antonio, the truest friend to Bassanio despite his lack of ready cash and has poignant quiet resolve at his trial where he is willing to accept his fate.   Yet, there is also the layer of menace in his contempt for Shylock and when Antonio determines the final penalty of the trial, the electricity within that scene among the leading participants of Portia, Antonio and Shylock leaves the audience breathless, riveted and ultimately unnerved by the proceedings.

To achieve that outcome, it is on the shoulders of the outstanding performance of James Keegan as Shylock.   Shylock is not an easy character.  With the modern mindset it is easy to play up the discrimination towards the character playing Shylock more as victim and less as the villain that Shakespeare wrote.   Make no mistake, Shylock is the villain of the play.  Yet, Mr. Keegan shades his performance with steely nerve as he subjects himself to Christian ridicule and with pure heartbreak at his daughter's betrayal.   The speech which Shylock gives seeming to be more upset by the loss of his money and jewels instead of his daughter comes across as the agony of a father knowing that his daughter's choice to abandon her faith means the end of their relationship.   During the trial you witness the release of the weight of all of the wrongs Shylock has suffered.   While you cannot wish for Shylock to exact his bloody revenge on Antonio you do understand his desire for it and that is the brilliance of Mr. Keegan's performance.   The uneasy end to the trial and the silent reaction of the audience would not be possible without Mr. Keegan's riveting performance.

William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is being performed in repertory with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Cymbeline, King John and James Goldman's The Lion in Winter through November 23, 2012.   For tickets and other performance information please visit