Sunday, July 28, 2013

All's Well That Ends Well at the American Shakespeare Center

Girl, he's just not that into you.

The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia's third offering this 25th anniversary season is William Shakespeare' All's Well That Ends Well. This comedy is, as director Ralph Alan Cohen states in his director's notes, one of two plays in which Shakespeare seems to tell the audience how to feel about the play. Famously labeled over the centuries as a problem play, All's Well That Ends Well is a mature comedy that really posits that happily ever after is not always as happy as it seems. The acting company brings out all the comedy, romance and rich characterizations that Shakespeare created, but when all is said and done, the ending of this play is a troubling one. By choosing to not make changes to that ending to make it more satisfying, Dr. Cohen and his cast are presenting this play as Shakespeare intended. It is an evening of theater in which you may well find yourself pondering the outcome for quite some time.

The Countess of Rossillion is recently widowed and her son Bertram accedes to his father's title. Still a very young man he is made a ward of the King of France and his summoned to court. Helena, the daughter of the Countess' famed physician, also recently deceased, pines for Bertram knowing that as a poor physician's daughter she cannot hope to marry the far above her station Count. The King of France is deathly ill and has given up all hope of a cure. Helena decides to travel to the French court to cure the King using one of her father's famous remedies. The King agrees to undergo the treatment, but if Helena fails she will die. If she succeeds she may choose any of the unmarried men at court for her husband.

Helena succeeds and chooses Bertram. Bertram protests against the marriage even though the King grants Helena a rich dowry. They are married and Bertram swears that he will not consider Helena his wife unless she gets his father's ring from his finger and his pregnant with his child. Encouraged by his follower, the boastful Parolles, Bertram flees France for the war in Florence. Helena decides to follow him. There are tricks and twists before Helena gets her happy ending.

There are many delightful secondary characters in this play and it is through them that the majority of the very funny comedy ensues.  The fusty old lord LaFew, wittly portrayed by Rene Thornton, Jr. matches wits with the Countess' clown, LaVatch, endearingly cute with wonderfully crisp delivery of his many, many puns by Gregory Jon Phelps. Benjamin Curns is a perfect flamboyant, cowardly braggart as Parolles. His many foibles and follies that lead to a very funny comeuppance for his character is a major highlight of the production.

Allison Glenzer is the calm, rational center as the wise Countess. Emily Brown is sweet and sly as Diana, the object of Bertram's lust in Florence. Tracie Thomason threads a careful path between being a pining lovelorn girl and a strong virtuous heroine, managing not to trespass into stalker territory. Her performance makes you believe that Helena deserves to win her love, although given what she's in love with, we still question her choice.

Dylan Paul has one of the more difficult leading man roles in Shakespeare's comedies. Face it, Bertram is a jerk. Fortunately, Dr. Cohen has his cast emphasize the many times that Shakespeare calls Bertram young and a boy. For in the text, it is clear that Bertram is a very immature young man. He is not yet, of age having been made a ward of the court. His behavior towards his forced marriage is one of the rash and the foolish and his willingness to be advised by the blowhard Parolles also shows just how immature Bertram is. Mr. Paul's Bertram still comes off as quite the charmer. It is easy to see why Helena falls in love and Diana is partly dazzled by him. Yet, it is the unpleasant aspects of Bertram's behavior that show how Mr. Bertram carefully navigates this difficult role. In the end, Helena wins him, and Mr. Paul shows appropriate remorse and love towards Ms. Thomason's Helena. The question becomes does the audience believe that all is well in the end.

William Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well is being performed at the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriar's Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia through November 29, 2013. It is being performed during the summer season in repertory with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Bob Carlton's Return to the Forbidden Planet. In the Fall these productions will be joined by Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida and Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops To Conquer. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Spin in the SigLab at Signature Theatre Virginia

Signature Theatre is giving audiences the chance to see the birth of a new musical through their SigLab program. For a very reasonable price of $30 a ticket it is possible to see this very good production of a promising new work before it travels to South Korea for its next incarnation.

Yes, South Korea. Spin, based on the South Korean Film whose English title translates to Speedy Scandal, is a fun confection of musical theatre just perfect for a summer date night. The staging is minimal, reusing the set from the recently closed production of Company. With a very witty book by Brian Hill and music and lyrics by Neil Bartram, there are  a few places where the script could use some tweaking. This is to be expected in a brand new play. The creators are best known for their very short lived Broadway show, The Story of My Life. It's easier to predict a much longer life for Spin.

Evan Peterson was once the lead singer of a popular boy band. He struck out on his own and his solo career tanked. Evan now hosts an early morning music contest show. His rival, Richard Riddle, is the local gossip reporter looking for a juicy scandal to bring him fame. A popular caller to the program is Makalo, a young woman searching for her father. Evan discovers he's Makalo's father when she shows up on his doorstep with a grandson in tow. To force a connection, Makalo becomes a contestant on the show. When a viral video brings the local show national exposure Evan faces a dilemma.  Will he ride the exposure to revive his own career or acknowledge his new found family. Meanwhile, Richard is sniffing around trying to expose Evan's secret for his own personal gain.

Spin is filled with a lot of fun characters and the small ensemble under the direction of Eric Schaeffer makes them fully realized human beings.  The studio chorus not only provides the typical background singers for the tv show within the show, they also act as a all-knowing chorus commenting hilariously at certain points in the story.

Young Holden Browne is sweet and adorable as the grandson Jesse. Stephen Russell Murray starts out rather ominously as the potential internet stalker, Danny, who turns into a slightly creepy yet sweet love interest for Makalo. Erin Driscoll does her best with the only normal person in the story, the teacher Allison Reynolds.

Our villain comes very close to stealing the show. Bobby Smith as Richard Riddle is a slimeball through and through. Yet he wins cheers not jeers when he opens act two with the great production number, "Everybody Loves a Scandal." If this production is Helen Hayes eligible, do not be surprised to see Mr. Smith remembered come nomination time.

Carolyn Cole has become a welcome staple of Signature productions since she played Tracy in Hairspray. Here she gets to show off her amazing rock and roll belt as Makalo. Yet, under her emotional armor there is a vulnerable young woman desperate to connect with the father she never knew and Ms. Cole is compelling in both the comedic scenes and the heartbreaking emotional core of the story. Highlights include her biting delivery of the song, "All I Wanted From You." On a gentler note the trio "Little Frog"sung by Ms. Cole, James Gardiner's Evan and Jamie Eacker's Latrissa Washington is a sweet little gem about family connection.

Another long time Signature veteran tackles the boy singer who doesn't want to grow up Evan Peterson. At first you may feel that James Gardiner is too young to play a grandfather. The script provides the clues to the math. These are teenage pregnancies  Evan sleeps with Makalo's mother when he was 15, Makalo is 22 and has a 6 year old son. That makes Evan at the most 38. So, while it seems implausible making the character a grandpa in his late 30's leads to some very funny moments, especially when he trains his grandson to be his wingman. Mr. Gardiner embodies the devil-may-care playboy yet he taps a great inner strength to pull off the yearning to really belong to a family that Evan hides so well.

Spin is being performed in The Max theatre at Signature Theatre through July 27, 2013. It is being produced in association with OD Company. For tickets and other performance information please visit

For a great article on the origin and development of this show please read The Washington Post theatre critic Peter Marks article at

Monday, July 1, 2013

Return To The Forbidden Planet at The American Shakespeare Center

Welcome aboard the Intergalactic Spaceship Albatross. Captain Tempest and the Damage Control Crew invite you to accompany them on a routine survey mission. Who is the mysterious, yet strong as nails new Science Officer? Why does she abandon the crew at the first sign of trouble? Can Bosun Arras (all around good guy), the Navigation Officer (knows where they are going) and Cookie the lovelorn ship's cook help Captain Tempest as their ship hurtles towards the mysterious Planet D'lliria? What of the long-lost scientist Dr. Prospero missing for years after his wife Gloria sent him into hyperspace not knowing their precocious baby daughter Miranda was stuck on board the shuttlecraft? Will the Albatross survive the asteroid field and the strange creatures that threaten the ship? Will Dr. Prospero succeed in creating the world-changing secret formula he's strived to perfect for the past several years? Will Captain Tempest resist the charms of the nubile Miranda? Will Cookie fight the Captain for Miranda's love? Is the Damage Control Crew the greatest rock and roll band in the history of Staunton, Virginia? For answers to these questions rush right down to the American Shakespeare Center where rock and roll has taken over the Blackfriars' Playhouse.

Return to the Forbidden Planet, written by Bob Carlton, takes the classic 1956 science fiction film, Forbidden Planet, loosely based on William Shakespeare's The Tempest, adds dialogue from several of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets (and a bit of Christopher Marlowe sprinkled on top), then throws in a jukebox full of 50's and 60's rock and roll classics to create a really fun evening that will leave your ribs aching from laughing, your hands sore from clapping along and a smile that comes from seeing a show that just exists to give you a great time. The plot is very silly and the talented repertory company is clearing enjoying embracing their over-the-top characters, letting their hair down and having a blast showing off their vast musical skills.

If you are familiar with how the American Shakespeare Center stages Shakespeare plays you will know that members of the company are talented musicians and singers who perform music before each performance and during the intermission. Music Director Chris Johnston has taken the twelve actors and made a great acoustic rock and roll band out of them. They all get their moments to shine musically and what a breath of fresh air to attend professional musical theater and not have the actors miked so they can be heard over the music. By choosing to go acoustic Mr. Johnston and Artistic Director Jim Warren create a balance between the instruments and the voices that makes the audience engage more closely with the actors.

Every character is perfectly cast. Dylan Paul is handsome and dashing as Captain Tempest, although its very clear to the audience that he's really, well, not too bright (it's a good thing he's pretty). He's well matched by his leading lady the sweet teenager-in-love Emily Brown as Miranda. Her protective father, the brilliant mad scientist played by Rene Thornton, Jr. shows that he's perfectly comfortable taking the lead on one his  rock numbers.

It takes a special person to don the faithful robot Ariel's very shiny skates and John Harrell comes very close to stealing the show just with his first entrance. Lee Fitzpatrick as the mysterious Science Officer plays buttoned-up and no-nonsense sensibility, just as a highly qualified scientist should.  Ms. Fitzpatrick lets her hair down joining in the rock-and-roll madness once her character's secrets are revealed. The real scene stealer is Gregory Jon Phelps as the lovelorn Cookie. Tormented by unrequited love, Mr. Phelps delivers his heart not on his sleeve, but with his mad saxophone skills. Many a young lady in the audience could be heard sighing every time Cookie gets his heart broken.

Jim Warren clearly had fun directing this show and with the help of the aforementioned Mr. Johnston's music direction, Stephanie Holladay Earl's classic rock dance choreography and Erin M. West's mod space uniforms, the American Shakespeare Center is transformed into a rock-and-roll palace. If you are looking for Shakespeare with a twist, Return to the Forbidden Planet is Shakespeare as a malt shop sundae with your sweetheart after school.

Bob Carlton's Return to the Forbidden Planet is being performed in repertory as part of the 25th anniversary summer season at the American Shakespeare Center with William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Alls Well That Ends Well through December 1, 2013. In September Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida and Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops To Conquer will join these shows in repertory. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Parental advisory: Return to the Forbidden Planet contains very little that parents would find objectionable. There is, however, one utterance of a common four-letter word as part of a joke and it is briefly repeated.