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Twin Beach Players stages to scare

Twin Beach Players is making a habit of scary world premieres. This Halloween, it’s H.G. Wells’ unsettling science fiction novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, adapted by playwright-in-residence Mark Scharf. Last year Scharf adapted The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to Twin Beach Players’ time and place; in 2013, he gave us Frankenstein.
     “I try to keep it simple,” Scharf said, “having an appreciation for the resources Twin Beach Players provide. It tickles me that a small community theater can successfully take the kind of risks that Twin Beach Players have, incorporating original music to an original adaptation with costumes and special effects make-up. Performing this way, you’re playing to win, and people will come to support you.”
    In this spooky production directed by Players’ president Sid Curl, Scharf made his mission “to capture H.G. Wells’ vision of what it means to be human and in pain.”
    The set is minimalist in black. In the background a cycle of original futuristic-sounding tribal music mixes with jungle sounds, tickling the imagination about what the Frankensteinian doctor might be up to on this island.
    To eerie effect, the 17-member cast of adult and young actors plays both human and hybrid creatures. Among the humans, Ethan Croll conveys shipwrecked Edward Prendick’s unexpected plight with pensive and intense demeanor. Jim Weeks transforms Montgomery from rescuer to conspirator. Rick Thompson capably projects a scheming and sinister Dr. Moreau.
    Among the hybrids, Melly Byram plays Moreau’s servant; Angela Denny, a Dog-Creature; Angela Knepp, the indeterminate Sayer of the Law, Brianna Bennett, an Ape-Creature; Jenny Liese, a Puma Woman; Alayna Stewart, a Leopard-Creature; Mickey Cashman, a Hyena-Swine-Man; Laura Waybright, a Fox-Bear-Witch; Olivia Phillips, a Satyr; and M.J. Rastakhiz, a Wolf-Bear-Man. They wear Skip Smith’s transformative special effects make-up and make effective physical and vocal character choices.
    I suspect that over a few performances they’ll master their pacing, which on opening night tended to ­be sluggish.

Thru Nov. 1. FSa 8pm (except 9pm on Oct. 31); Su 3pm. Trick-or-treat show Th Oct. 29 7pm: pay as you may; free popcorn nightly for costumed playgoers, Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maryland, 9021 Dayton Ave., North Beach. $15 w/discounts, rsvp: 410-286-1890, ­

Moving rifts on the decline of jazz and a family

“Jazz is life.” So says Jim Reiter, director of Colonial Players’ Side Man, billed as an elegy for a lost love and a lost world. Both jazz and life, he explains, are propulsive, rhythmic and sometimes distorted improvisations where we all riff on the expectations set before us.
    Unfortunately, musicians can’t riff on life as easily as they can on a tune, which is the point of this autobiographical tragicomedy by Warren Leight (producer of TV’s Law and Order). Winner of the 1999 Tony Award winner for Best Play, this show about the decline of jazz and its effect on Leight’s dysfunctional family is a shot of heartbreak, heavy on nostalgia, with a chaser of resentment.
    Clifford Glimmer (Jason Vellon) is the glue holding this show — and his family — together, narrating 30 years of recollections as a voyeur on his past. The sensitive white sheep of the family, he seems too sensible to be the offspring of Gene and Terry. For as he puts it, “the rocks in her head fit the holes in his.”
    Gene (Timothy Sayles) is a brilliant but unambitious trumpeter destined for obscurity as a sideman to the greats. Playing backup to the likes of Dizzy and Sinatra, he improvises life by eking out weekend gigs to supplement his welfare checks. He means well but is more devoted to his art and fellow artists than to his family.
    Terry (Mary McLeod) is the long-suffering wife to “that rat-bastard.” A naïve divorcée trapped in a neglected marriage, she finds comfort and tragic transformation in the bottle as Gene devotes himself to his music and his pals.
    Al (Richard Koster) is a Romeo trumpeter. Ziggy (Richard Estberg) is a trumpeter with a repertoire of bad jokes and a speech impediment. Jonesy (Ben Carr) is a trombonist with a uniquely philosophic outlook and a calamitous heroin addiction. Because every band needs a groupie, there is Patsy (Ali Vellon), the vixen waitress and serial seductress.
    As characters and as actors, they are a compelling bunch. Jason Vellon and McLeod are tearjerkers, sharing some of the tenderest moments when she is at her most hysterical.
    Likewise, Carr knows just how to coax the most pathos from his pitiful junkie without crossing the line to disdain. Sayles’ character is maddeningly oblivious to just how maddening he can be. Koster and Estberg are attentive to the details that convey musicianship, such as blasting a few notes on an instrument or listening with keen appreciation to an extended musical passage shared with the audience. Ali Vellon shows impressive range, swinging from seductress with the band to mother figure opposite her real life husband, Jason.
    Most of the cast, however, is skewed older than is convincing for a play that spans three decades.
    My main quibble is with the playwright for dispensing with two major plot points effortlessly. The resulting denouement feels a bit like the end of a windup toy’s run.
    The design team deserves kudos for the split set — half living room and half lounge — that is just shabby and smoky and greasy enough to feel real and raw with authentic touches like metal TV trays. Simulated television broadcasts with pulsing spotlights to illuminate the small screen evoke a familiar hominess.
    If you love jazz, you will love this play. If you don’t love jazz, you will still find this a moving and meaningful show, if a bit long in places.
    Adult language, drug references and mature themes. Two hours with intermission.

Director: Jim Reiter. Stage manager: Herb Elkin. Set designer: Carol Youmans. Sound: Sarah Wade and Reiter (music). Lights: Eric Lund. Costumes: Fran Marchand and Paige Myers.

Thru Oct. 31. ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm, plus 7:30pm Su Oct. 25, Colonial Players, 108 East. St., Annapolis, $20 ­w/discounts, rsvp:

A character study of a despot who knew more about marketing than writing code

Some men are born great. Some men achieve greatness. Some have to reboot several times before they get there. That was the case with Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender: Slow West), the sometimes CEO of Apple Computer. Covering Jobs’ life at three crucial product launches, this biopic focuses on the obsession, cruelty and fanaticism that drove him from CEO to outcast — and back again.
    In 1984, Jobs is debuting Macintosh. The computer has been his baby from the start, and he is demanding and demeaning to the team scrambling to ensure it works at the launch. He snarls at marketing executive Joanna (Kate Winslet: Insurgent), threatens harried engineer Andy (Michael Stuhlbarg: Pawn Sacrifice) and ignores co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen: The Interview).
    In 1988, Jobs has been ousted from Apple and is about to launch his new venture, NeXT.
    In 1998, Jobs is back at Apple, earning credit for saving the company from insolvency. As he prepares to launch the iMac, he is once again visited by Sculley, Wozniak and Andy.
    In each launch, Jobs encounters his daughter Lisa, who he refuses to acknowledge as his child. The girl longs to make a connection, but Jobs keeps her at arm’s length with comments as casually cruel as those he casts on his subordinates.
    Engrossing, funny and heartbreaking, this film crafts a character study of a despot who knew more about marketing than writing code. Jobs isn’t likeable, but he does seem realistic. It’s refreshing to see a film treat its subject as a human being instead of a saint.
    Director Danny Boyle (Trance) plays subtly with his medium to enhance the film, with each of the three sequences shot on a different film stock: 16mm film, 35mm film and digital film. It’s a brilliant choice that gives an almost subconscious cue that the story and time are shifting.
    Fassbender sinks his teeth into the role of genius jerk. His Jobs is just funny enough and just smart enough to get away with his behavior. He shows visceral distaste for human interaction he can’t control. When Lisa throws her arms around him, Jobs goes rigid, hands poised to reciprocate, but steadfastly refusing.
    Still, much like the computers Jobs loves, the film has flaws. The script by Aaron Sorkin (The Newsroom) is crisp and full of great dialog, but the redemptive ending feels unearned and disconnected.
    Whether you wait with bated breath for the latest Apple product or roll your eyes every time you pass a crowded Apple store, Steve Jobs is a fascinating character study of the man who changed the way we interact with computers.

Good Drama • R • 122 mins.

As You Like It plays simultaneously

In tribute to the master of macabre, Annapolis Shakespeare Company kicked off its 2015-2016 season on Edgar Allan Poe’s death day with the world premiere of Gregory Thomas Martin’s play in his honor. Descending the back steps to the 1747 cellar pub in historic Reynolds Tavern in Annapolis, you feel as though you indeed have entered a bygone era. The room you are shortly ushered to is small and dimly lit.
    In part it’s the exposed brick walls, wooden beams and brick inlaid floor. Simple sconces light the dark room. There is an open fireplace and five high tables and chairs for the audience. Two candles sit atop each table.
    Crumpled sheets of paper have fallen to the floor under another high table and chair by the bar. While you eat, Poe, played by Broadway actor Brian Keith MacDonald, pulls back a red curtain and slips into the small room. He sits alone at the table by the bar, dressed in black but for a white shirt, mumbling, looking through notes and writing at a simple wooden writing desk.
    A barkeep, played by Renata Plecha, is dressed simply in brown, her hair tied back in a bun. She tidies up the bar, then lights the second candle on each table.
    These two resident company actors share the stage with you, the audience. Over the next hour, you hear many famous Poe works — including Annabel Lee, Lenore and The Raven — joined together to give a glimpse into Poe’s fragile state of mind and heart during his final days.
    McDonald evokes varying intensities of exultation and angst as Poe. Preparing for the role, he not only learned the script but also researched what Poe’s contemporaries said about him. Sharing the stage with Plecha also helped. “She provides a wonderful contrast,” he told me, “helping pull Poe in and out of his mental realities.”
    Plecha transitions easily through her roles as Barkeep, Eliza and Poe’s Muse. Of her roles she says: “Eliza, Poe’s love, appears to Poe through flashbacks of events in Poe’s life, representing hope and love. The Muse inspires a lot of Poe’s writings, which turned darker after Eliza dies.”
    Research into Poe and his Eliza (Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe) supports her characterization, as well. “All is happening in Poe’s mind,” she told me, “and the space is so intimate that every moment has to be believable.”
    Deliberate movements and vocal variety add depth to both McDonald’s and Plecha’s characters.
    Sally Boyett, producing artistic director of the Annapolis Shakespeare Company and director of Poe, commissioned the play and collaborated with the native playwright in support of the company’s mission to create new works, making them and classics accessible to all audiences.
    Poe “seemed like a good fit for the fall season, the Reynolds Tavern and Poe’s ties to this area,” Boyett said. She adds that this show is a “cerebral production that puts Poe’s own words in a new context.”
    In keeping with its mission, the Company will provide a variety of offerings this season including two Shakespeare plays and five classics that are, Boyett says, “adaptations through a modern lens.”
    Poe plays on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Included in the single ticket price of $75 is a three-course prix fixe meal, gratuity, soda and iced tea and a seat near the actors. A cash bar, coffee and tea are additional. Two half-hour acts are separated by a 10-minute intermission.
    Meanwhile, the company’s second offering, William Shakespeare’s comedy, As You Like It, opens this weekend.
    As You Like It is Boyett’s modern adaptation set in 1930s’ Appalachia. It includes classically trained actors doubling in roles, bluegrass music, vocalists and much more.
    While simultaneously performing in Poe, Plecha will portray the roles of Celia and Phoebe in As You Like It, which she calls “a play on how love manifests itself in different forms.”

Poe: thru Nov. 25 TuW 6:30 dinner, 7pm show, 1747 Pub at Reynolds Tavern, Annapolis. $75; rsvp: 410-415-3513;

As You Like It:  Oct.17-Nov. 15 FSa 8pm, Su 3pm, also 2pm Sa Nov. 7 & 14, Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Studio 111, 111 Chinquapin Round Rd., Annapolis. $25-$55: 410-415-3513;

Necessity is the mother of interstellar invention in this great film

Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon: Interstellar) wakes up alone on Mars.
    In a raging sand storm, Watney’s Aries III team abandoned the Red Planet, leaving behind what they assume is his lifeless body.
    He comes to alone but with a wire jutting out of his abdomen and suit and through his bio-monitor. He struggles back to the expedition’s temporary housing unit, and, in bloody initial scenes, operates on himself.
    Resolve and quick action solve his immediate problem. Longer term, the shelter has oxygen and food, which he can ration to last for a few hundred sols.
    Yet he’s stranded on a planet where nothing grows, with dwindling water and oxygen. His line to NASA was demolished in the storm, and even if he could contact mission control, help is nearly four years away.
    To survive until then, Watney gets creative. As a botanist, he can science out out how to grow food on a barren planet. But can he figure out a way to get home? Or is he doomed to die a Martian?
    Thrilling and often funny, The Martian is science fiction at its best. It is, in essence, a Robinson Crusoe tale set in space.
    Director Ridley Scott (Exodus: Gods and Kings) weaves Watney’s story of survival with the story of the NASA engineers who realize he is alive and are desperately trying to save him. It’s a testament to Scott’s sense of timing and storytelling that he’s able to make jet propulsion nerds and NASA suits as interesting as a man trapped on Mars.
    Scott has assembled an impressive supporting cast, featuring Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña, but the film unquestionably belongs to Damon.
    Though Scott and Damon create a strong sci-fi adventure, The Martian isn’t perfect. Some supporting characters, especially the astronauts played by Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan, are thinly drawn and barely justify their share of two hours and 20 minutes of screen time.
    Long, layered and utterly engrossing, The Martian is a sci-fi film for people who don’t particularly like sci-fi.

Great Sci-Fi • PG-13 • 141 mins.

This light comedy closes the generation gap

Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro: The Bag Man) isn’t adjusting to retirement. Widowed and 3,000 miles from his son and granddaughter, Ben feels imprisoned in his Brooklyn townhouse. Life is reduced to funerals, busywork and widows who want to pre-heat his lasagna.
    A flyer advertising senior internships at an Internet startup leads him back into the workforce, but his new career takes some adjustment. He’s a suit in a sea of hoodies. He uses a clock instead of consulting his cellphone. He listens when people talk. He’s doesn’t know how to turn on his computer.
    Ben’s ineptitude rankles company founder Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway: Interstellar), who thought senior internships a dumb idea. Overcommitted and flighty, she is Ben’s polar opposite. She’s trying to have it all but seems to be losing everything one piece at a time. Investors want an experienced CEO in her place to manage the company’s massive growth. With her job and family threatened, Jules turns to wise old Ben when he proves a cool head in a crisis.
    Can Ben learn how to survive in a modern office? Will Jules figure out how to have it all? Why do only the men get to dress in hoodies and jeans?
    The Intern is a confection: Sweet, enjoyable and bad for you in large quantities. Director Nancy Meyers’ (It’s Complicated) newest is better at cultivating lifestyle envy than developing characters. Brooklyn brownstones are done in open layouts, airy colors out of Pottery Barn catalogs and enviable kitchens. Outfits are impeccable or comically bad.
    Meyers has never been particularly interested in her characters. Jules is a textbook neurotic. It’s supposed to be adorable that Jules and Ben bond, but it’s notable that she becomes sweet or caring only with someone who makes his living stroking her ego. Hathaway does her perky best to make Jules’ manic energy likeable, but the character is underwritten.
    Ben is a role De Niro could perform in his sleep. His old-school advice that transforms the office isn’t so much generational knowledge as common sense.
    Meyers’ reflections on feminism are equally light. Meyers falls back on clichés to show how hard it is to be a working mother.
    The Intern isn’t a terrible film. The locales are pretty, the humor light and the characters funny. Nothing of consequence happens, nor does anything offensive. If you’re overdue for an outing with your mother or grandmother, make a date for The Intern.

Fair Comedy • PG -13 • 121 mins.

The FBI makes a smalltime hood a kingpin in this engrossing drama

When James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp: Mortdecai) looks you in the eyes, it’s too late. Cold, calculating and amoral, Bulger leads the Winter Hill Gang.
    Though he’s fierce and feared, Bulger is fairly smalltime. His reputation extends only to the edges of the South Boston neighborhood he rules. The Italian mafia uses superior numbers and muscle to keep Winter Hill in check.
    To make his move, Bulger finds help in the form of John Connolly (Joel Edgerton: The Gift), an FBI agent who grew up in the neighborhood idolizing Bulger and now sees him as opportunity. If he can turn Bulger, he’ll be able to take down the Italians.
    Bulger at first sneers at turning snitch. But as the Italians press, he acquiesces. Now, everything Bulger does is protected under his status as an FBI informant. The feds, in turn, fight his mob war.
    Clear to take over Boston, Bulger sweeps a bloody path through the city. Still enamored with Bulger and thrilled with the Bureau attention his mob case has gained, Connolly decides he can’t afford to bring Whitey down. So he hides evidence that Bulger is killing and mentions the names of snitches to Bulger.
    As bodies pile up, the Feds can’t ignore Bulger. Can they bring down the new crime prince of Boston?
    Based on the true story of the FBI’s deal with the devil, Black Mass is an uneven film anchored by Depp’s great performance. Director Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) tries to make the movie about the relationship between Bulger and Connolly. But Connolly and his FBI counterparts are underwritten and uninteresting drags.
    Depp, on the other hand, is electric. His performance is free of the quirks and ticks that have made him a caricature of himself. Bulger is a viper, still and calm until he strikes. Black Mass is Johnny Depp’s revival.

Good Drama • R • 122 mins.

Grandma, what crazy eyes you have.

Becca (Olivia DeJonge: Hiding) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould: Chevy) have never met their grandparents. The ­family has been estranged since their mother (Kathryn Hahn: Tomorrowland) ran off with her high school teacher.
    Fifteen years later, reconciliation is on the horizon. Mom schedules a weeklong visit for the kids, who are thrilled. Becca, an aspiring filmmaker, hopes documenting the trip will bring her family back together. Tyler, a rapper with ready sarcasm, wants to give his mom a weeklong break with her boyfriend.
    So over the river and through the woods to grandparents’ house they go. Nana (Deanna Dunagan: House of Cards) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie: Daredevil) live on a remote farm. There is no cell phone service, but there are fresh cookies and lots to explore.
    Nana seems like the dream grandmother. She bakes. She fondly tells stories. She skitters on all fours through the house wailing and naked. If that last one doesn’t quite remind you of your own grandmother, you’re not alone; Becca and Tyler have concerns, too. Pop Pop explains that she’s got a form of dementia. Every evening she sundowns, getting violent and disoriented. That’s why bedtime is 9:30pm.
    But Pop Pop isn’t exactly normal, either. He wanders the house in a daze and makes frequent trips to a mysterious locked shed.
    In turns hilarious, ridiculous and creepy, The Visit is a combination of brilliance and idiocy by writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (After Earth). He is a sucker for ludicrous twists and silly stories. On the other hand, Shyamalan is masterful at building tension and bringing in humor. A tense exploration of the crawl space under the house diffuses into humor instead of a jump scare. We ride an emotional rollercoaster, never knowing what will happen next.
    The Visit is not perfect, but it is the best Shyamalan movie in 15 years.

Good Comedy/Horror • PG-13 • 94 mins.

The refueling obviously failed because this sequel is running on empty

Frank Martin (Ed Skrein: Tiger House) is the man you call when you need a ride. Specializing in getaway driving and difficult car-related missions, Frank and his car can do anything — except obey the speed limit.
    A solitary sort, Frank now tries to reconnect with his pensioner father (Ray Stevenson: Insurgent), a former spy. He also takes on a new contract for Anna (Loan Chabanol: Third Person).
    When he discovers the job is helping three beautiful women bank robbers, Frank refuses to help — until they show him footage of his kidnapped father. But helping these thieves brings on the Ukrainian mob.
    A reboot of the Transporter series starring Jason Statham, The Transporter Refueled is an anemic action film with few thrills, ridiculous plot lines and no charm. Director Camille Delamarre (Brick Mansions) crafts slick action sequences with no substance. Characters fly through the air, dodge bullets and land punches with seemingly no effort.
    The lazy action is compounded by ridiculous storytelling. A subplot about the horrors of sex trafficking features countless shots of rhythmically gyrating panty-clad posteriors. The female bank robbers are, in essence, sexy Barbies used to reward our hero and his dad for acknowledging that forced prostitution is wrong. It would be insulting had the writers given these women character.
    Along with casual sexism and defiance of the laws of physics, the action formula demands a charismatic hero. Skrein looks good in a suit, but he lacks both the physicality and the charm to pull off the role made famous by Statham.
    Oddly, the only person in the film who shows flashes of charm is Frank’s father. Stevenson, who must need to make a mortgage payment to be working on such dreck, steals every scene. Watching, you wonder how such an engaging personality raised a son who is the cinematic equivalent of cold oatmeal.
    The Transporter Refueled is a rare film that fails on just about every conceivable level. From plot to acting to action to the cars, it’s a lemon.

Poor Action • PG-13 • 96 mins.

If it’s entertainment you’re after, seeing this one is elementary

Fancy a spot of mystery to sharpen the old mind after summer’s idyll? Then you must check out Sherlock’s Last Case by Charles Marowitz, showing at Colonial Players through September 26. While I am forbidden by Colonial and Scotland Yard to divulge the particulars of this brilliant whodunit, trust me when I say Annapolis’ grand dame of amateur theater has produced another winner with this escapist spoof, rich in one-liners and plot twists.
    Here we have Sherlock Holmes (Jim Gallagher), sleuth extraordinaire, at his best: an aficionado of violin, fencing, handwriting analysis, history, chemistry, psychology, yoga and Jiu Jitsu, with a peerless intellect and ego to match. So what if Marowitz’s Sherlock is a touch more pompous than we remember? He has earned that privilege, especially since he dispatched his evil nemesis, Dr. Moriarty.
    Enjoying retirement at his cozy Baker Street home, Holmes is ensconced in silk settees and smoking jackets, listening to chamber music and bantering with his loyal associate Dr. Watson (Nick Beschen), that jolly good fellow. Blessed is the man who can count on such an indulgent friend. There’s also efficient housekeeper Mrs. Hudson (Lisa KB Rath), upon whom they both rely for sustenance and the civilizing touch of a woman. She also comes in handy for amusement, as Holmes loves to joke about her parsimonious Scottish nature. Other than such entertainment and the newspaper, however, life is so boring that Holmes has taken to the opium pipe with renewed gusto.
    Then a letter arrives from Moriarty’s outraged son, Damion, followed by a visit from his daughter, Liza (Erin Leigh Hill). A delicate auburn-haired beauty who catches Holmes’ attention with her fair looks and temperament, Liza understands her late father’s faults all too well and has come to arrange a truce between Holmes and her brother, who resides in (shudder) America. No sooner has she left, however, than a mysterious assailant hogties Watson in the closet and threatens Holmes with death. Enter the venerable Inspector Lestrade (Morey Norkin), and by scene three the thriller is off and running.
    Marowitz’s script, winner of the Louis B. Mayer Award, challenges the audience to solve the perfect crime by thinking beyond the evidence and taking nothing for granted. It also entertains with such a rich repertoire of parodies and puns that you will find yourself stifling laughter so as not to miss the next zinger.
    This production, directed by Beth Terranova, is brilliantly cast with Gallagher delivering a spot-on Sherlock. Beschen, though a touch soft-spoken, brings lovable new dimension to the typically circumscribed Watson. The Victorian costumes — by Carrie Brady with Regina Todd — are stunning, and the accents — coached by BettyAnn Leesberg-Lane — melodious. The only hole in this show is the lighting: so dark during the two key suspense scenes as to be soporific, and so bright with black light effect at curtain as to be blinding.
    This is a don’t-miss, even for those who, like yours truly, don’t ordinarily go in for mysteries. If it’s entertainment you’re after, it’s elementary.
    Two and a half hours with intermission. Includes simulated smoke, gunfire and blood.

Th-Sa 8pm, Su 2pm, plus 7:30pm Sept. 13 (Sept. 13 only, students free with available seats at curtain time); thru Sept. 26. 108 East St, Annapolis, $20 w/discounts, rsvp: 410­-268-­7373.