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Find out as six young playwrights speak out in Twin Beach Players’ 11th Annual Playwright Festival

Twin Beach Players has unusual success in getting kids to say what’s on their minds. Over 11 years, youngsters from elementary to high school have taken to the Kids Playwright Festival stage, writing plays that describe the world as they know it.
    The Player and the Festival are “safe spaces for kids of all backgrounds to express themselves,” says company president Sid Curl. “Kids feel they can be themselves and have fun doing it.”
    At the same time, the annual competition and festival introduce young people to the camaraderie and teamwork needed to get live theater productions to work.
    From Kids Playwright Festival, alums have even made it big, with internationally published plays, small roles on popular shows like House of Cards and original plays on the Charm City scene.
    Six-dozen aspiring thespians are creating this year’s festival, as authors, actors and stage hands. Two dozen submitted plays. Half a dozen — all girls — earned the honor of seeing their words come to life in the words and gestures of actors in front of families and friends. That talented cadre also earns cash prizes of $100.
    After three years of acting, recent homeschooled high school grad Taylor Baker tried her hand at playwriting this year. Objection! won, she says, because it not only “breaks the fourth wall — drawing the audience in — but also is funny.”
    Sisterly competition brought younger sister Sidney Baker to this year’s stage with her Shoes, Pizzas and Spirits. “It’s a twist on A Christmas Carol,” she says, created to please theatergoers who, like herself, tire of the same old play every December.
    Rising Northern High School ninth grader Leah Hartley is a two-time winner. Last year she wrote about art and friendship. This year’s Science Mistakes was a challenging new subject for her. And, she thought, for the competition because, she says, “nobody writes about science.”
    Wrong.
    Cousin Elizabeth Kieckhefer, a home-schooled sixth grader, tracked her with Amber’s Science Lesson.
    Science would have been a natural subject for aspiring meteorologist Lucie Boyd, a seventh grader at Northern Middle School, and second-time Festival winner. A couple of years back, her play about meteorologist Doug Hill won a countywide school competition. Instead, for this year’s festival she wrote a sequel to her last year’s winner. “I love reading mysteries and learning about history in school,” she says. The Mystery of the Hum of Nachitti combines both ­interests.
    Sadie Storm, a seventh grader at Plum Point Middle School, is the most experienced Twin Beach Player, with the company since second grade. As an actress, Sadie poured her heart into her roles. One of her proudest moments was her director’s praise for her work in a very small part. “Passionate about social change,” her debut as a playwright is Changes, a play about bullying that, she hopes, is “better than the boring ones she sees at school.”


Playing thru August 14. FSa 7pm, Su 3pm, North Beach Boys and Girls Club, 9021 Dayton Ave., $7, rsvp: www.twinbeachplayers.com.

Boldly focusing on character development makes this the best of the new Trek films

For Captain Kirk (Chris Pine: The Finest Hours), boldly going where no man has gone before is surprisingly boring. As his five-year mission to explore the universe as a diplomat for Star Fleet continues, he’s looking for a way to break the routine of space travel.
    Kirk seeks a position on a space station. Meanwhile, his second in command, Spock (Zachary Quinto: Tallulah), plans to leave the Enterprise to ensure Vulcan survival. Before they abandon their crew and seek out new futures, they are sent on one final rescue mission to an uncharted planet.
    Things go wrong, as they often do when on one final mission. The Enterprise is ambushed and destroyed by Krall (Idris Elba: Finding Dory). Most of the crew is captured.
    That leaves big jobs for the few who escaped. Spock and Bones (Karl Urban: The Loft) seek to uncover Krall’s origins. Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin: Green Room) search for their captured comrades. Scotty (Simon Pegg: Ice Age: Collision Course) searches for signs of life.
    With interesting characters and an exciting plot, Star Trek Beyond is the best of the newest set of Star Trek movies. While past sequels have rehashed classic plots, director Justin Lin (True Detective) moves beyond the Kirk/Spock dynamic to give the characters room to grow.
    It’s a refreshing take on familiar characters, based on a clever script from Simon Pegg and Doug Jung.
    The Bones/Spock pairing is especially successful, with Urban doing some fine comedy as the curmudgeonly doctor. We also meet an interesting new character. Jaylah (Sofia Boutella: Kingsmen) is neither a love interest nor a damsel in distress. Kirk remains a smug jerk, perhaps as a send up of William Shatner.
    It’s not perfect. Despite the fearsome Krall, nothing much is at stake. You know from the beginning that no one important will die. Hints are so obvious that you know how it will end. Some action sequences are too dark to see.
    Star Trek Beyond has no deep message, but it does have an excellent rescue sequence that features transporters, phasers and motorcycles. All together, it’s the perfect film to help you beat the heat.

Good Sci-Fi • PG-13 • 122 mins.

I ain’t afraid of no all-female reboot!

Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig: Zoolander 2) hopes to earn tenure at Columbia. The professor is smart, serious and laser focused; but her career is put in jeopardy when a book resurfaces on Amazon. Co-authored with her former best friend Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy: Central Intelligence), the book considers the science of ghosts.
    Erin co-authored the book on ghosts with her former best friend Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy: Central Intelligence). When no one believed them, Erin walked away from ghosts — and Abby.
    All that changes when MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones: Saturday Night Live) finds a mysterious device attracting ghosts to the Big Apple.
    Erin, Patty, Abby and her new partner, the slightly unhinged engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon: Finding Dory), the newly formed Ghostbusters set out to save New York.
    Smart and funny, Ghostbusters is a worthy reboot of a classic. It is, however, a very different beast. It pays tribute, with all six original cast members making appearances, but it’s astute enough not to copy. With humor that’s more modern and self-referential, the reboot focuses on what it’s like to navigate the world as a woman.
    When director Paul Feig (Spy) announced his all-woman take, internet comments ranged from mildly misogynistic to vile.
    Instead of dismissing the vitriol, Feig leaned in, making internet commenters part of the story. The women are constantly harassed online and dismissed because of their gender.
    Ghostbusters works so well because of this cast of women. Both Jones and McKinnon do comedic heavy lifting, earning laughs and kicking butt. McKinnon creates an unforgettable oddball.
    A surprisingly strong member of the ensemble is Chris Hemsworth (The Huntsman), with his brilliant take on the bimbo secretary.
    Though humor and cast are refreshing, there are flaws. Like most movies about the supernatural, it doesn’t stand up to close examination. And Feig spends too much time on Wiig and McCarthy when he has an ensemble of stronger characters to pull from.
    Still, as far as summer blockbusters go, you’ll laugh, reminisce and even see Slimer. I was heartened by young girls leaving the theater excited about careers in physics so they could create cool machines like Holtzmann. It’s about time the princess culture was bucked for careers in ghost busting.

Good Comedy • PG-13 • 116 mins.

Two dogs learn how to navigate the big city in this cute comedy

Max (voiced by Louis C.K.: Horace and Pete) is a terrier living an idyllic life in New York with his owner/soulmate Katie (Ellie Kemper: The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). They go for bike rides, share dinner and snuggle up to sleep. Max couldn’t be happier.
    Except that every day Katie does the almost unforgivable: She leaves. Most pets in Max’s apartment building spend their time alone socializing and binge eating, Max waits doggedly for Katie’s return. He stares at the door. He whines. He consults the neighbor cat.
    Max’s loneliness ends when Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet: Modern Family). The new dog is loud, big and attention-getting. Max hates him on sight and plots to rid himself of the interloper.
    Duke thinks the same about Max.
    Trying to one-up each other, the feuding dogs get lost far from home. It’s a big city out there, filled with loud noises and scary creatures. With no idea where home is, they find themselves hunted by a demented band of human-hating ex-pets.
    If the story sounds familiar, it’s probably because you saw it in 1995 when it was called Toy Story. Similar in plot points and major themes, The Secret Life of Pets is a furry version of the Pixar classic. It doesn’t delve so deeply into themes like fear of being replaced, jealousy and learning to accept others. But it does provide some great jokes about dog and cat behavior.
    Chances are, if you’re a pet owner, you’ll find a character that reminds you of your own fuzzy friend, from loyal Max to indifferent, taunting Chloe (you guessed it, a cat). The world of pets is given interesting little touches, and it’s fun to watch dogs shout at squirrels to get off their turf.
    The brilliant voice cast is loaded with comedians, from C.K. to Kevin Hart to Jenny Slate, each knowing exactly when to push a line or pause for comic effect. Albert Brooks (Finding Dory) is particularly delightful as Tiberius, a hawk who wants friends but must fight his raptor urge to eat them.
    Filled with silly laughs, clever observations and just a bit of scatological humor, The Secret Life of Pets will appeal to little ones and keep adults entertained. Jokes are solid and performances strong.
    If you have children who don’t like creepy crawlies, be aware that the 3-D show features snakes and gators snapping directly at the audience. There’s no need to pay extra to traumatize your child.

Good Animation • PG • 87 mins.

These talented kids will get your laughs

Annie Get Your Gun is a classic musical based on real people in the days of America’s western expansion. Buffalo Bill’s traveling performance entertained people from all walks of life with the best shot around, Frank Butler. That is, the best shot around other than Annie Oakley.
    The story of the girl who could shoot better is brought to life by Talent Machine, a local theater company that has been getting kids on stage since 1987.
    Talent Machine’s president Lea Capps believes in her young troupe, so there’s no “dumbing down” anything — as youth theater companies may do, performing junior versions of famous plays and musicals.
    Capps’ dedication to performing the authentic plays and musicals pushes her pupils further, allowing their talent to grow. Talent Machine’s Annie Get Your Gun delivers belly-busting laughter, foot-tapping music and talented actors to boot.
    “There’s no business like show business,” proclaims the fame-hungry Wild West ensemble. The message resonates with the budding thespians, children from ages seven to 15.
    “It’s my favorite song in the musical,” says eighth-grader Thomas Crabtree, who plays Mr. Adams.
    Talent Machine cultivates kids’ interest in theater into real talent with the help of dedicated volunteers who for this show created costumes and sets that seemed to step right out of the sharpshooting days of Annie Oakley.
    Michelle Nellum, who trained the spotlight on the young stars, had never planned to get involved. When she and her family moved locally a decade ago, a cousin invited her to one of Talent Machine’s extremely popular Easter breakfasts hosted by Buddy’s Crabs and Ribs. When daughter Maya, then around three, saw what kids not much older than her were doing, she wanted to join them. Maya wouldn’t be satisfied with dancing in the aisle. Now Maya and her mother encourage other friends to join.
    “As it’s 100 percent volunteer, Talent Machine keeps costs low for everyone,” Nellum says.
    On stage, actors and actresses lose themselves in their characters. From Annie’s rustic accent to the mesmerizingly perfect tap dancing and the children’s ability to push through sound equipment malfunctions, Talent Machine knows how to prepare its actors for their big night. Off stage, the actors were more than happy to meet new fans.
    Nine-year-old Lucy Dennis, answered my questions about the musical as though she was regularly hounded by the paparazzo. Lucy, who has been in seven Talent Machine productions, was also inspired to join after watching a breakfast show. Much as she loves acting and dancing, she aspires to be a vet.
    If you have a free night this weekend and want to change up the usual Netflix routine, see Annie Get Your Gun before Talent Machine moves onto its second summer performance.
    Remember, there’s no business like show business!


Thru July 17: ThFSa 7:30pm, Su 2pm, Key Auditorium, St. John’s College, Annapolis, $15, rsvp: ­www.talentmachine.com.
 

Neither scary nor entertaining, it may be time to kill off this franchise
 

In a semi-near future, America has a novel way of coping with crime: The Purge. One evening a year, all crime — including murder — is legal. The New Founding Fathers tout the Purge as a ritual release that’s good for society. In practice, it’s opportunity for social engineering as rich whites kill poor minorities.
    Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell: Crossing Lines), a Purge survivor, seeks to end the bloody tradition. It’s her campaign pledge as a presidential candidate. Lest she ruin their murderous fun, the New Founding Fathers make her the target of this year’s Purge.
    Roan’s ally is Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo: Captain America: Civil War), who couldn’t bring himself to purge his son’s killer.
    Will Leo change his mind about the benefits of the Purge? Can Roan survive the night? Will this franchise survive its simplistic philosophy?
    The problem with The Purge: Election Year is that its message comes before its story. Rather than sympathetic characters, you get preaching about bad old white men. Worse still in a film about the oppression of racism, most of the minority characters are underwritten, stereotypical and appear only to save whites or offer them emotional support.
    Leo, the star of the second film, has little to do in this one. Once his character had a full emotional arc; now he’s reduced to grimacing, running and shooting. Roan is a screaming damsel. She chides all the killers, while the movie makes it obvious that killing is the only way to survive the night. This paradox makes her look weak and foolish.
    Director James DeMonaco (The Purge Anarchy) makes the colossal mistake of abandoning the gritty B-movie feel that made the second Purge fun. On three he’s returned to his roots, ineffectually proselytizing to the popcorn-eating masses. This film sounds like a poorly researched philosophy paper. Without charm, pacing or creativity, it becomes a slog on par with surviving Purge night. Even the threats are laughable: Half the movie features a pack of teen girls in skimpy dresses menacing people in a car illuminated with twinkle lights. The other big bad is a pack of frail old men who may gum our heroine to death.
    Neither scary nor entertaining, The Purge: Election Year is the kind of mass-market thriller that will satisfy no one. There’s not enough blood to satisfy horror buffs, and political thriller junkies will find the simplistic story unbearably dull. Avoid this purge night.

Poor Thriller • R • 105 mins.

Stellar, but still shocking after all these years

When Jonathan Larson’s rock opera Rent, loosely based on Puccini’s La Boheme, debuted 20 years ago to a Pulitzer and Tony for Best Musical, it felt so edgy, so raunchy, so shocking with its cast of young radicals: the addicts, the drag queen, the bisexual, the stripper. Despite evolving societal norms and newer crises eclipsing the AIDS epidemic, this blockbuster still has power. With a pulsing beat and haunting earworms, it follows an unforgettable cast of characters for one year as they wrestle with the seven deadly sins and private turmoil only to realize that happiness lies only in living each moment as if it were their last.
    Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre has assembled a stellar cast of singer/dancers for this production, starting with Tim German as Mark, the videographer who records it all and learns the price of success when his creative genius meets corporate TV greed. At issue is his coverage of a housing firestorm surrounding former roommate Benny (Matthew Walter), who has turned ruthless landlord since marrying into money. When Benny padlocks the building and a tent city sprouts up, the cops and the media are there. So is protest artist Maureen (Loghan Bazan), Mark’s attention-whore ex who left him for an attorney named Joanne (Andrea Greenwald).
    When Mark’s old friend Tom Collins (Christian Gonzalez), a mathematical genius, rolls back into town, he is rolled by gangstas on the street and rescued by a cross-dressing Angel (Nicholas Carter), who becomes the love of his life (Today 4 U). As both men are HIV positive, their support group plays a large role as the story progresses. Mark’s other roommate, guitarist Roger (David Colton), is similarly afflicted and spends the whole show composing his magnum opus (One Song Glory and Your Eyes) before the virus that killed his girlfriend claims him. Roger is a content loner until he meets Mimi (Athena Blackwood), an exotic dancer (Out Tonight) and Benny’s sometime girlfriend. It’s complicated, but Roger and Mimi’s affair is the catalyst for most of the show’s greatest hits, including Light My Candle, I Should Tell You, Another Day and Without You.
    Momentum is slow to build, especially regarding a secondary plotline that has Angel killing Benny’s dog by drumming. But once things get rocking, they don’t stop.
    Greenwald is dynamite with German in Tango Maureen and with Bazan in Take Me or Leave Me. Bazan’s bizarre protest piece, Over the Moon, way eclipses the film version. German and Colton’s Living in America is raw and driving, while Gonzalez and Carter slow the pace in the dreamy Santa Fe and I’ll Cover You. The ensemble impresses with powerhouse solos by Kylie Airin Sjolie and Gabe Taylor (Seasons of Love), Kyle Gonzalez (Will I), Wesley Williams (No Day but Today). Amy Matousek, Katie McCarren, Elizabeth Pittman, Lilibeth Rabang and Brian Shatt provide solid backup.
    Details are fun. Remember the Lycra and shredded denim invasion? Pay phones and bricklike cell-phones? Technological innovations like flashlights serving as spots lend poverty-chic, and the onstage band feels as natural as your noisy neighbors. Best of all, live footage of Mark’s films projected onstage provide intimacy and immediacy.
    The take-away is this: Forget regret, or life is yours to miss.
    If you fly the rainbow flag and like your rock intellectual and irreverent, don’t miss Rent. Runs two hours and forty minutes with intermission. Rated R for adult themes and language.


Director: Andy Scott. Music director: Paige Austin Rammelkamp. Choreographer: Casey Lynne Garner. Stage manager: Jen Schiller. Set: James Raymond and Jeff Huntington. Costumes: Kristina Marie Martin. Lights: Matt Tillett. Sound: Rob Glass. Video: Babs Weiss. Musicians: Rammelkamp, Ken Kimble, Kevin Hawk, Jeff Eckert and Declan Hughes.
Playing thru July 23, Th-Su plus Weds. July 13 & 20, 8:30pm, 143 Compromise St., Annapolis. $22 rsvp: 410-268-9212; www.summergarden.com.

A little girl learns the importance of friendship and family in this charming tale

Orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill: The 4 O’clock Club) leads a lonely life in London. Already very grown up and smarter than her peers, she follows the matron to ensure that bills are filed and snipes at the drunks who wake the other orphans. Her only friend is an orange tabby cat. Sophie’s busy life also means she doesn’t have time for frivolities, like sleeping. She’d much rather stay up and read.
    Late one night, Sophie spies something peculiar out her window. Lurking in the alley is a very tall man — some 30 feet tall. Terrified, Sophie does what any child would do: She hides under the covers. Her strategy doesn’t work, for she is scooped out of her bed and taken to Giant Land.
    There, she learns her captor is the BFG, short for Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance: Bridge of Spies). He is the only non-cannibal giant in all the land. That’s good news for Sophie, but she’s still captive, and the BFG refuses to take her home now that she’s seen him.
    As Sophie and the BFG bond, the other giants catch a whiff of the child. Hulking brutes that dwarf the BFG and feast on the bones of children, the giants want Sophie.
    Can the BFG keep Sophie safe? Will she ever return to England?
    Based on the beloved children’s book by Roald Dahl, The BFG is a sweet, silly film that should appeal to older children and Dahl fans. Director Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies) makes a story that is both delightful and visually stunning. He carefully crafts a distinctive London and Giant Land with storybook appeal.
    As the Friendly Giant, Rylance is a wonderful fusion of technology and performance. Created through motion capture and technological rendering, Rylance’s giant is wonderfully detailed; you can even see his pores. But all the fancy computer graphics in the world can’t guarantee a good performance. Here Rylance delivers, filling the BFG with such warmth and kindness that you find yourself charmed.
    In her big-screen debut, Barnhill is also charming, equally at home bossing the BFG around and helping him catch dreams. She’s a good actress who doesn’t push her childlike enthusiasm too hard.
    Still, this is not a film to see if you have a low tolerance for whimsy and quirk. The BFG speaks in a language of Seussian terms and malapropisms.
    Dahl fans and families with children about six or over should delight in this tale of two lonely people creating their own dreams.

Good Children’s Film • PG • 117 mins.

 

A great comic team in search of a worthy project

Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart: Ride Along 2) peaked in high school. A star athlete, top student and class president, Calvin had it all. He was the prom king and married the prom queen. Everyone knew he’d be the big success in his class.
    Too bad.
    Calvin grows up to be a boring accountant resentful of the rut his life has become. He balks at his wife’s suggestion they go to their high school reunion, fearing that his old friends will mock him.
    Bob Stone (Dwayne Johnson: Ballers) has the opposite trajectory. A friendless nerd in school, he was tossed naked into a school assembly by bullies. As Bob stood, the target of laughter, Calvin gave him his jacket to cover himself.
    After high school, Bob changed his name, dropped a ton of weight, picked up a ton of muscle and joined the CIA. At least that’s what he tells Calvin when the two reconnect via Facebook.
    Calvin is pleased to reconnect — until bullets start flying. Is Bob CIA or a rogue agent hunted by the agency?
    Silly and unimaginative but with a stellar cast, Central Intelligence is a rare film where flaws are overcome by the chemistry of the lead actors. Johnson’s natural charm allows him to sell even the most ridiculous lines, and it’s a treat to see him as the wacky one instead of the buff action guy.
    The usual source of buffoonery, Hart is also playing against type. As the straight man to Johnson’s loony Bob, he shows a great aptitude for reacting to chaos instead of creating it, proving himself a more nuanced actor.
    The chemistry of its leads is about this movie’s only virtue. Director Rawson Marshall Thurber (We’re The Millers) is so ham-fisted that every plot twist is easy to guess and tension is absent. Celebrity cameos are a distraction, but not a very good one.
    Johnson and Hart make a great comic team in search of a project worthy of their talents.

Fair Comedy • PG-13 • 114 mins.

An impressive troupe of young people takes on one of the most challenging races in theater

Producing a Shakespeare play is similar to running a marathon. It’s grueling, frustrating, thrilling and exhausting — and that’s just training.  Maintaining forward motion through the entire course is an accomplishment for any age.
    Twin Beach Players youth production of Much Ado About Nothing has taken on that challenge with great success. 
    Framed at the end of World War II, Twin Beach Players’ Much Ado is a largely festive story made even more spirited by the smart and snarky banter between the fiercely independent Beatrice (Neha Chawla) and the perpetual bachelor Benedick (Cameron Walker). There’s a shadier side as well involving a malicious scheme by the military leader’s illegitimate brother (reimagined here as a sister), Don Jon (Olivia McClung). The ne’er-do-well sets her plan into motion to spoil the wedding of young Claudio (Conor Reinold) and their host’s daughter Hero (Ashley Venier).
     Teeming with elements of trust and deceit within families, friends and romance, the storylines lead to both triumph and disaster. 
    While fondness for Shakespeare and familiarity with the story are helpful, they are not necessary to enjoying this aspiring production. Actors Chawla and Walker set the over-arching tone for the exuberant physicality that helps keep the plot moving when the language — at times challenging for even experienced actors — threatens to bog the performance down. The two offer laugh-out loud moments and engage the audience. The central romantic story is sweet and its actors expressive.
    Other notable performances come from Travis Lehnen as Leonato, E.J. Roach as Don Pedro, Olivia McClung as Don Jon, Aaliyah Roach as Friar Francis and Andrew Brinegar as Antonio. 
    The mood of the era is well set with the sounds of Glenn Miller-esque tunes on a tinny radio, complemented visually by military uniforms, Hepburn–style slacks and charming vintage dresses. Some of the best-staged scenes were teamed with excellent lighting choices, for instance when the entire backdrop glowed in twinkling lights as the full cast launched into a joyful swing dance.  All is supported well by a young tech staff who keep the show rolling at a decent clip.
    Without question this is a teen production and at moments the mark was missed. But those moments were, in a way, appreciated. Otherwise, we might forget we are watching an impressive group of young people taking on one of the most challenging races in theater.


Two and a half hours with an intermission. Thru June 26 FSa 7pm, Su 3pm, Boys and Girls Club, North Beach, $10 w/discounts, rsvp: www.twinbeachplayers.com.

(For Friday performance, arrive very early to enjoy the North Beach Farmers Market to ensure decent parking.)