Saturday, March 26, 2016

Annapurna at Ensemble: Powerful but Uneven

     Sharr White’s Annapurna (2011), directed in its regional premiere by Lynn Meyers, starts off as if it’s the sequel to one of Sam Shepard’s classics.  Those crazy, intense lovers in their surreal spaces end up twenty years later in a trailer park.  However, as the play progressed, it became apparent that it was the last embers of a romantic tragedy.  As I said about Ensemble’s earlier production of White’s The Other Place last season, I don’t want to give too much away about the story behind the plot because it becomes far more intriguing than it initially appears.  

Parlato and Pugh*
     Dennis Parlato gives a masterful performance as Ulysses, immediately establishing a complex, all-encompassing rhythm.  He’s playing a semi-legendary character (sort of what Denis Johnson might have been like if he hadn’t kicked drugs and alcohol) faced with a major figure from his past.  Unlike his namesake, he’s not going anywhere; he’s running out of time and is trapped in space.  It took me a while to warm up to Regina Pugh as Emma, even though I have always admired her work.  Susan and I thought she seemed as if she was in a light comedy at the beginning, while Katy and Lisa thought she was finding a way for her character to cope with the initial situation.  Pugh always makes definite choices in her acting, which I respect, but they didn’t all work for me here.  However, after the first half hour, she began to match Parlato beat for beat, resulting in a powerful climax.  
The Horrifying Set
     When we sat down as a group, Neil said, “Eric will have a tough time with this set.”  It’s the type of design that gets a Tony nomination and three cheers to Brian c. Mehring for it and for the lighting and to Shannon Rae Lutz for the properties.  It’s a life-size singlewide trailer that was built in the late ‘70s (my Mom has the same kitchen cabinetry) and has been inhabited by someone who’s somewhere between a nuclear slob and a toxic hoarder.  I kept looking for the mummified pet that shows up on Hoarders, but fortunately Ms. Lutz didn’t go that far.  I tried to avert my eyes from looking at it full on because it was like driving by a head on collision.

     There are some clarifications needed from the script.  Annapurna is a collection of mountains in the Himalayas and becomes significant because of Ulysses’ writing.  Katy pointed out some inconsistencies in the exposition details.  This is an established script so it cannot be changed, but I wonder why the original director or a dramaturge didn’t point this out to White.  Also, did Emma buy groceries in Missouri because there isn’t a Piggly Wiggly in Colorado – the setting of the play?  Is this in the script or a choice by Lutz? 

*Photo from Ensemble Theatre website.
Annapurna runs through April 10, 2016.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Mothers and Sons: Almost There

     Terrence McNally’s Mother and Sons (2014) has been directed with clarity by Timothy Douglas in the Thompson Shelterhouse space at Playhouse in the Park.  When I read it in his Selected Works:  A Memoir in Plays (2016), I found its characters’ sense of loss and rage, tempered somewhat by the passage of two decades, poignant and moving.  I warned Neil that there would be tears at the finale.  There were, but unfortunately they weren’t mine.

The Cast of Mothers and Sons*
     The play is a sequel to McNally’s teleplay André’s Mother (1990), where André Gerard had died of AIDS and his lover Cal, Cal’s family and their friends hold a memorial service for him that his mother attends, but she’s unable to come to terms with any of it or fully express herself.  Twenty years later, Katharine, André’s mother, unexpectedly visits Cal.  He has married a younger man and they have a son.  This is a ghost story in which André haunts both Katharine and Cal in very different ways.   The tone moves from politeness to anger, regret and, finally, reconciliation.  

Alvin Keith and Stephanie Berry*
     Alvin Keith and Ben Cherry are very strong as respectively Cal and his husband Will.  Stephanie Berry has the elegant demeanor and beautiful legs called for in the script.  She’s a technically accomplished actress, but she’s emotionally warm and seems accepting, which goes against the initial essence of the character.  The payoff of her character’s thaw seems more muted than in the script.  During the preview we saw, she had a couple of struggles with her lines.  There’s an intriguing, unspoken edge in casting Keith and Berry that strengthens this production, which wouldn’t be there with white performers as in the initial New York productions.  Austin Vaughan plays the youngster Bud with vivacity.  

     Junghyun Georgia Lee’s set design evoked an upper-middle class apartment in New York’s Central Park West; the color and proportion of the chaise couch rooted the play in its milieu.  The lighting was sharp except for the peculiar last cue (and it’s in the script) where it brightens intensely before the blackout.  Neil thought it was supposed to be symbolic and I think he’s right, but it wasn’t necessary because that came across in the relationship between the characters.  The costumes were appropriate, but Katherine’s dress didn’t fit as well as it could have; I caught Berry discreetly pulling it down.

     All in all, this is a good production of an important contemporary script that shows how much life has changed for gays and straights in the decades since AIDS was an immediate death sentence.

Mothers and Sons runs through April 17, 2016.
*Photos from Playhouse in the Park website.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Actors Theatre of Louisville still takes risks with The Humana Festival

     It’s always worth a trip to Louisville in March-April to see one of the world premieres at Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) as part of the Humana Festival.  This is the 40th year of the festival and the line-up of plays seems intriguing this year.  We decided to call for a couple of tickets, stop for lunch at Havana Rumba (or Jack Fry’s or Hammerheads or the new Game, take your pick), and go to a 4 p.m. matinee of Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday.  The synopsis told us something, namely that it was about a woman who’d played Peter Pan onstage when she was younger and her family living in Iowa.

Kathleen Chalfant
     We discovered while reading the program that the cast included Kathleen Chalfant, a great stage actress we’d only seen on film and TV, Scott Jaeck, whom I saw a number of times in Chicago while I was in college, and Keith Reddin , author of some of the most stylistically adventurous comedies of the 1980s including Rum and Coke and Highest Standard of Living, and other top actors we’ve seen on various TV series as guest stars.  Les Waters, artistic director at ATL, directed as he has four other works by Ruhl.  Amy Wegener, ATL literary manager, was the dramaturg.  (This means she does lots of research for directors and actors on existing plays and works as an editor with new plays, especially world premieres like this one).  London based designer Annie Smart was responsible for the set.  Everything sounded great.

The Entire Cast in the Hospital Scene*
     During the prologue, Chalfant immediately connected with the audience as the central character Ann (I wondered if the audience was mesmerized by the actress or the character and I have to say in retrospect it was Chalfant’s magic) and got things off to a bright start.  Then the curtains were pulled back to reveal a naturalistic hospital set that looked more contemporary because of its color scheme than the 1990s mentioned in the program.  An elderly man was dying, surrounded by his grown children and for anyone who’s been at a deathbed, it’s not something that’s immediately entertaining and Ruhl did little to make the experience specific to that group of characters or deeply resonant to an audience.

Wendy and Peter*
     The cast was challenged by a number of factors that it met head on.  First, Chalfant’s Ann never made sense as someone who never grew up and needed reassurances from her brothers.  However, she valiantly made this as truthful as she could.  Lisa Emery’s Wendy, the youngest sibling, had all the desperation of a middle-aged person lost in the family shuffle and unwilling to deal with anything difficult or mature.  Ann seemed like a second mother to her brothers, namely the iconic Wendy, whereas Wendy made much more sense as Peter Pan.  Second, Ruhl loves to shift gears between a gently realistic comedy-drama and a whimsical approach to fantasy and connections to myth (Greek in the past, but J.M. Barrie here).  It seemed charming and original a decade ago in The Clean House, but this script never went deep enough in fleshing out the siblings nor strongly enough in connecting them to the Peter Pan archetypes and then the actual Pan characters and situations in the third scene.  Where was the dramaturg in this?  When was this draft of the script completed?  

     The major challenge at this matinee was an elderly audience member who fell up some stairs about halfway through the performance and what seemed like a dozen audience members and the house management staff tried to assist.  No one whispered so it was pretty obvious what was going on.  At one point, the house doors were opened to the street for the EMT to assist and then transport the patient.  The performance never wavered, which the audience credited to the cast with a standing ovation.  However, no one from the theatre ever informed the audience what had transpired at the end of the performance and the situation continued for about a half hour.  If Ruhl had been present, she would have seen something remarkable:  the audience, for the most part, was more interested in what was going on with the audience member that fell than it was in the story onstage.  

     If this were reported to her, I’d hope she’d consider revising the play.  The first thing Neil observed was that it wasn’t finished and he was right.  The fantasy elements, while lovely, are not woven densely enough into the texture of the aging Iowa siblings’ story and the relationships between those characters are not detailed enough for an audience to really care.  There’s nothing that would offend any audience member even though the specter of political discourse is raised yet quickly dropped and that’s a problem.  It’s a safe, mild play in which a group of wonderful actors provide far more substance to the proceedings than the play merits at this juncture.  Ruhl’s very hot right now (she’s actually a little overrated) so I doubt any of this will be recommended to her and most likely this current script version will be produced elsewhere because of her name.

     However, we don’t mean for this review to keep audiences from attending the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville.  There are other scripts and productions going on that are probably wonderful.  We’ve seen other terrific shows there in the past and we’ll certainly return.  One note to Waters and Wegener:  what about reviving one of Reddin’s scripts?  I bet they still hold up.

*Photos by Bill Brymer for ATL

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Don’s Party

Smart, rude, and relevant

     Bruce Beresford’s Don’s Party (1976) was barely released outside of Australia, but thanks to TCM (and probably Netflix), it’s available.  It’s a party movie that really gets wild.  As the character that becomes the political butt to everyone else, says, “I’ve never met so many university educated people that are uncouth.”  Like Shampoo (1975), Don’s Party takes place during what was an important election.  In this case, it was 1969 and the Labour Party was supposed to narrowly defeat the two-decades incumbent Liberal Party.  

The Cast of Don's Party
     Most of the characters support Labour and met in college fifteen years previously as either students or instructors.  Unlike the American college reunion movies The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1981) or The Big Chill (1983), there’s neither sentimentality nor nostalgia for the past.  Most of their lives haven’t worked out the way they thought they would, but that doesn’t really come out until the end and it’s not the reason they behave the way they do.  The one really successful couple, which has been more recently added to the mix, is cold, narcissistic, and single-minded.

The Pool Scene
     The acting ensemble – stars in Australia, but little known here – possesses a force that reminded me of really good American movie acting from the ‘40s or ‘50s.  The rhythm felt partially improvised and the primary emotions of lust, frustration, and anger roll in waves.  Neil thought it looked like 1969, though I was somewhat unsure.  Director Beresford made more movies in Australia (including the great war tragedy Breaker Morant in 1980) before following Hollywood’s siren call in the 1980s.