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Arts and Culture (Theatre Reviews)

Listen up to tease plot from prattle

Colonial Players bills the World War II drama Watch On the Rhine as the first in their American Standard series, “presented for the nostalgia of older audiences or introduction to younger patrons.” As winner of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play in 1941, this play would seem a good choice. It has star appeal: The hit film featured Bette Davis and Paul Lukas, who won an Oscar for Best Actor. It is historically compelling: A call to arms for a pre-war America grown complacent in the face of global discord. It smacks of scandal: Dramatist Lillian Hellman was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee because of her membership in the Communist Party.
    Yet for all its relevance and fine execution, this two-and-a-half-hour golden oldie feels moldy.
    Commenting on social conventions among the Roosevelt era’s upper middle-class, the play revels in trite gossip and quotidian trivia. It opens with irascible Fanny Farrelly (CeCe McGee-Newbrough), the widowed matriarch of a suburban D.C. mansion, preparing for the arrival of her daughter Sara (Theresa Riffle), whom she hasn’t seen in 20 years, along with Sara’s German husband, Kurt Muller (John Coe), and their children Joshua (Eli Pendry), Babette (Katie McMorrow) and Bodo (Andrew Sharpe).
    By way of preparation, Fanny barks orders to her butler, Joseph (Daniel M. Lopez II) and her live-in housekeeper, Anise (Mary MacLeod). She badgers her bachelor son David (Benjamin Wolff) about every aspect of his life that falls short of the standard set by his late father. She discusses with her houseguests, Count Teck de Brancovis of Romania (Timothy Sayles) and his young wife Marthe (Shannon Benil) such pressing issues as the weather, menus, jewelry and the social aspects of ambassadorial life. When she finally meets her son-in-law and grandchildren for the first time, it is with left-handed compliments and outright insults veiled as teasing. One understands why Sara stayed away for two decades.
    For one mind-numbing hour, we learn little more than the fact that the Mullers are impoverished and itinerant because of Kurt’s anti-Fascist work … that the Count and Countess are equally but secretly penniless … that Marthe is unhappy in her marriage … and that David is perhaps interested in her.
    The goldplate on their civility ­tarnishes when Teck rifles Kurt’s luggage for clues to his mysterious background. Teck, as it turns out, is an opportunistic aristocratic who know that Kurt is wanted for political crimes against the Nazi party. Being a gentleman, however, he offers to forget he ever saw Kurt in exchange for $10,000 hush money. Feeling that he must return home to save the lives of three colleagues, Kurt takes the blackmail into his own lawless hands and bids a tearful goodbye to his family. Fanny is left to cope with the realization that her world is no longer the safe cocoon she supposed it to be.
    Despite the play’s slow start, when the action finally comes, it explodes like a grenade. Meanwhile, the cast works hard to push their characters beyond their stodgy trappings. McGee-Newbrough brings a mix of condescension and compassion to her dowager widow. Sayles makes a suave and ominous villain. Wolff is the perfect put-upon eldest child, and Benil evokes our compassion as the embittered child bride. MacLeod is so comfortable as the long-time maid that she feels like ­family. As for the more sympathetic Mullers, Coe and Riffle blend a feeling of genuine affection with an air of mystery, while the children are models of comportment and cosmopolitan ­sophistication.
    The exquisite set features period antiques and a console radio that croons big-band swing. The costumes are sumptuous with gowns in moiré, chiffon and lace, and the men wear silk smoking jackets as they puff on their fruity pipes. The nostalgic trappings are so nice that they almost make one yearn for that simpler, more elegant time. Almost.
    In an era of sound bites where life is cheap both at home and abroad, this show may try your patience rather than keep you engaged. There are, however, exceptions: History buffs, amateur sociologists and enthusiasts of black-and-white cinematic classics will find this morality tale interesting.


Director: Terry Averill. Set designer: David Pindell. Sound: Sarah Wade. Lights: Matthew Shogren. Costumes: Bonnie Persinger. Fight choreographer: Mark Allen.

Playing thru Mar. 21: ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm (and 7:30pm Mar. 8): Colonial Players Theatre in the Round, 108 East St., Annapolis; $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.

You’ll get feeling as well as fun in this play on why actors do what they do

The quality that 2nd Star Productions brings to its big musical productions is exemplified not only by sold out houses but also by recognition among its peers. 2nd Star last month received 21 nominations from the Washington Area Theater Community Honors, a local collaborative of amateur theaters that judge each other’s shows and present awards in March. Only one of those nominations is for a non-musical, A Soldier’s Story. The majority were for the highly acclaimed Hello Dolly and Children of Eden. 2nd Star’s range is illustrated by its nonmusicals, as evidenced by that dramatic A Soldier’s Story, and more recently the intense and well-acted 12 Angry Men. Now, on the other end of that spectrum, comes the comedy farce I Hate Hamlet. The plot: Andy Rally (Zak Zeeks), a young, successful TV actor, comes to New York from Los Angeles after his hit show has been canceled. He rents a large, gothic apartment from real estate agent Felicia (Nicole Mullins). The apartment was once occupied by famed actor, womanizer and drunk John Barrymore (Fred Nelson). Andy isn’t too high on his agent Lillian’s (Carole Long) offer for him to play Hamlet in a Shakespeare in the Park production. He’s even less enthralled with his girlfriend Deidre’s (Malarie Novotny) determination to stay chaste until they are married. He’s tempted by his Hollywood buddy Gary’s (Daniel Douek) offer of millions to give up the New York theater life and do a TV pilot. Where to turn for guidance? And for a damned good sword fight? Barrymore himself, of course. As the ghost of Barrymore, not exactly alive but still very much kicking as he haunts his old digs, Fred Nelson stalks the stage with the intimidation of a star so macho that even his black tights strain against the testosterone. From his fluid physicality to his well-modulated voice, Nelson brings us a Barrymore who, for all his weaknesses in life, demonstrates a genuine passion for the stage and a compassion for those charged with playing the character many consider Shakespeare’s most difficult role. As Barrymore cajoles and convinces Andy to take on Hamlet, he also comes to grips with lost love in the form of Lillian, with whom he had a fling back in the day. A highlight of this show is the tender and funny scene between the two as they dance, quietly, in the dark and come close to rekindling that youthful lust. Long and Nelson are two fine actors. Their ability to take a fast-paced farce on a brief detour of affection is a fine lesson in the less is more school of thespianship. That’s a school that Zeeks as Andy seemed to graduate from as the second act rolled around. His first act of too-punched punch lines and overwrought volume eased into a more nuanced second act that offered a much clearer window into his character. Perhaps it was opening-night excitement, and as the run progresses the talented Zeeks will ease more comfortably into the role and reject the temptation to force things. He’s got the character right; he just needs to share Andy with the audience rather than hit us over the head with him. Director John Wakefield keeps the pace moving at a good clip, though he could have reined in some unnecessary mugging. Nowhere in the script — though it’s been a long time since I’ve read it — do I recall a strange accent indicated for the character of Gary. Douek is funny in the role and has wonderful stage presence, but too many of his lines are lost as the audience strains to understand this unidentifiable dialect. As always, Jane Wingard’s set design is a winner. Along with Garrett Hyde’s lighting, it invites us to settle in for an evening at Barrymore’s. Mary Wakefield’s costuming of Barrymore is spot on, though the bunny slippers on city girl Deidre were a cheap-laugh-seeking misstep. Quibbles aside, I Hate Hamlet is a funny, fast-paced and at times warm look at why actors do what they do. Thanks to Nelson’s mastery of the stage and his keen sense of when to envelop the audience and his cast mates in broad theatricality and when to simply tell a story, we’re treated to a farce that has feeling. Playing thru Feb. 22: FSa 8pm; Su 3pm (and 8pm Feb. 19): Bowie Playhouse at White Marsh Park, Bowie; $22 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-757-5700; www.2ndstarproductions.com.

A farce to be reckoned with

The Liar adapted by David Ives
is a farce guaranteed to brighten lives.
Iambic pentameter is the way
This hilarity comes to modern day.

Written long ago by Pierre Corneille
Steve Tobin directs this quite funny play.
There’s a fine cast of players, they all shine.
And costumes and sets that all bring to mind
1600s’ France, where our play we find.

Fred Fletcher-Jackson’s the liar of note
The guy whose adventures are merely gloat.
Jackson’s Dorante is very uncouth
he just cannot seem to tell us the truth.
He meets two women, Lucrece and Clarice,
But the names get mixed, and the plot’s unleashed.
Meanwhile his father’s betrothed him away,
To one of the two? Well, I shall not say.

Geronte is the father, played by Marc Rehr
A doting dad, who thinks his son’s quite fair.
Rehr’s character shines, he takes us along
as Geronte wonders what’s right and what’s wrong.

Rebecca Ellis and Natasha Joyce
Give Lucrece and Clarice wonderful voice.
Their solid acting and stage presence make
Their way with a punchline easy to take.

Jeff Sprague as Cliton, servant of Dorante  
keeps the pace moving as fast as you want.
Sarah Wade’s twins, Isabelle and Sabine
Are two odd sisters, one flirty, one mean.

Seth Clute’s Alcippe, Ethan Goldberg’s Phileste,
Each get their own laughs with vivacious zest.

The silent Mike Winnick and Nicole Musho
Both play such intricate parts in this show.
They keep the set changes moving along
and get a few deserved laughs of their own.

As led by Tobin this cast is stellar
So good they can get laughs from a crueller.

Iambic pentameter’s not my thing
and it’s clear that my lines, they just don’t sing.
But if you want to laugh, let me just say
Colonial Players has the right play.

The Liar’s a romp, and it moves apace,
Tobin makes creative use of the space.
So hie yourself down to East Street, and fun.
For great entertainment, this is the one.


Director: Steve Tobin. Assistant director: Dave Carter. Stage manager: Ernie Morton. Costumer: Linda Swann. Set designer: Krisztina Vanyi. Lead carpenter: Dick Whaley. Lighting designer: Alex Brady.
About 2 hours and 30 minutes including intermission. Playing thru Feb. 7: ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm (and 7:30pm Jan. 25) at Colonial Players Theatre in the Round, East St., Annapolis; $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.

Feel the tension of holding fate in your hands

Twelve Angry Men was first produced in the mid-1950s as a play for television, then reworked for the stage and, of course, the famed movie with an all-star cast led by Henry Fonda. Having sat through the trial of an inner-city young man accused of murder, the all-male jury must come up with a unanimous decision of guilty or not guilty. On first vote, it’s 11-1 in favor of guilty. The lone holdout — a meticulous middle-aged man sticking to his convictions among 11 of his peers who want to convict and go home — has enough questions about the seemingly obvious case that reasonable doubt, racism and the fragility of justice permeate the play — sometimes slowly and sometimes with an explosion of passion.
    2nd Star Productions is known for staging big musicals at the 150-seat Bowie Playhouse, with the occasional straight play tossed in. For Twelve Angry Men, 2nd Star has teamed up to present the drama in the Odenton space used by a new arts group, West Arundel Creative Arts, to provide visual and performing arts classes to local children.
    The large, open first floor of an office building is upon entry a little off-putting, what with the fluorescent lights and low ceilings that are the antithesis of most real theater spaces. The stage space is simply a long table for 12 in the middle of the floor, with one wall separating backstage from stage and providing for entrances and exits. With the actors on the same floor as the audience — who surround them on three sides — and with the entire room lit, audience members often see as much of each other as of the cast.
    But director Jane Wingard and a very capable cast soon turn our attention from each other to center stage, where sincere and very carefully crafted characters make us feel the tension of holding the fate of a life in one’s hands.
    2nd Star sets the play in the present day. The addition of several African-American cast members to the deliberating dozen creates some interesting counterpoint to the script, which, while written in a far different era, now, especially in the context of recent events, reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
    The protagonist in this case is juror No. 8, played by Gene Valendo, a 2nd Star veteran who brings a polite yet passionate determination that despite the overwhelming odds, the road to reasonable doubt must be followed through to its conclusion. Valendo does a fine job here, balancing his character’s solid belief that a youngster shouldn’t be put to death unless the case against him is irreproachable, with the points made by others who insist guilt has been proved.
    Juror No. 1, the foreman, is deftly played by Brad Eaton, whose interest in wrapping up a guilty verdict quickly is soon surpassed by his responsibility to keep things under control. The de facto foreman, in fact, ends up being juror No. 4, played by Ben Harris with an initially cool detachment and insistence that everyone be heard. His detachment simmers until, later in the play, it erupts into an angry nearly physical confrontation with juror No. 10, a racist whose rant about how they are not good for anything and are guilty by skin color takes the breath away from the entire room — including audience. As embodied by Tom Hartzell, this juror’s racism of the 1950s reminds us that, 60 years later, we still have a long way to go.
    As juror No. 3, Ken Kienas is effective as the angry man whose frustration votes changed to not guilty spills over into near violence. That effectiveness could be even more real with a bit more modulation in his voice, which at first is always set to 10 on the volume knob. Jerry Khatcheressian, another local community theater veteran, gives us the sincerity of one who has come to this country from far worse conditions than he meets in the U.S.A. as juror No. 11. The rest of the jurors — Richard Blank, Larry Griffin, Daley Gunter, Nick Thompson, Anders Tighe and Andre Foster — all prove that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
    A few misplaced ad-libs and a touch of slowness in cue pickup during the first act gave way in the second act to the all-in dive into these characters.
    This is a true ensemble effort that takes playgoers out of the fluorescence and drop ceilings of an Odenton business space into a dirty, cramped big-city jury room whose air is heavy with the weight of determining justice.


    Judge: Kim Ethridge. Assistant director: Steve Andrews. Lighting and sound technician: Matt Andrews. Stage manager (and guard): Joanne Wilson. Two hours with intermission.

    ThFSa 8pm; Su 3pm: West Arundel Creative Arts, Odenton. $22 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-757-5700; www.2ndstarproductions.com.

This community collaboration ­delivers a sleigh full of holiday cheer

What do you get when you introduce a variety of memorable Christmas characters and nursery rhyme originals to a romantic hero and two scheming evildoers plus their naughty toy followers?
    A recipe for holiday cheer, Babes in Toyland, adapted for the stage by Twin Beach Players’ president Sid Curl, with additional dialogue by Matthew Konerth and Valerie Heckart.
    The play has undergone adjustment since it was first performed by Twin Beach Players in 2009, Curl reports. As well as reworked dialogue, a Master Toymaker antagonist was added. Two casts of children plus a few adults form this 70-member community ensemble.
    Directed by Rob and Valerie Heckart, this colorful holiday spectacle overflows with cuteness. From the moment our memorable fairy tale and nursery rhyme favorites take the stage, the audience, both adults and children, is rewarded with a spirited and playful performance.
    We meet Mother Goose, Mother Hubbard and their fabled family of youngsters: Jack and Jill, Little Miss Muffet, Bo Peep and her wandering sheep, Mary Contrary, Simple Simon, Curly Locks and Boy Blue. Polly Flinders, Georgy Porgy, the rascally-yet-playful Rodrigo and Gonzorgo brothers, and Tom Tom are also part of the family. In concert with Santa’s busy elves and toys, all merrily stroll about the stage and sing their opening song to an accompanied, taped rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus.”
    As the plot unfolds, we meet the ruthless Barnaby, owner of much of the town neighboring the North Pole, who is intent on transforming the village into an amusement park and on wedding Mary Contrary in exchange for pardoning Mother Hubbard’s rent debt. Partnering with him is the Master Toymaker who has plans to replace the vacationing Santa Claus and rule the North Pole.
    All is not lost when Delancy Marmaduke, a puppeteer by trade, comes to town and is smitten with Mary Contrary. Nursery rhyme children provide support for Santa’s elves, while marching soldiers square off, horrid toys clash and Santa returns in a force of polar opposites.
    Sight gags, strobe lights, diabolical laughing, conga lines and interactive engagement draw laughter from the audience. Bright and imaginative costumes and expressive portrayals set off simple stage lighting and set design, taped songs and timed holiday background music. Despite publicly acknowledged technical issues, actors and crew embrace the challenges to perform admirably together. That is the spirit of community.
    Does it take a village? You bet it does. Santa’s village.


Fri., Sat. 7pm; Sun. 3pm: North Beach Boys and Girls Club. $12 w/discounts: 410-286-1890; www.twinbeachplayers.com.

A beautifully staged and wonderfully acted ­communications breakdown

Written in 1980 by Brian Friel and set in a fictional village in agricultural Ireland in the early 1800s, Translations deals with the imperialism of encroaching England, the tradition of language and the refusal to compromise that tradition for communication’s sake. The Masqueraders’ production is beautifully staged and wonderfully acted, which makes a questionable artistic choice all the more unfortunate.
    The setting is a hedge school, in this case a very realistic and near life-sized barn where a local schoolmaster teaches a handful of students the classics in Latin and Greek. Few of the students know the world outside their little village. The alcoholic Hugh, the schoolmaster, drills them like a master sergeant. His son Manus is an assistant of sorts with aspirations to run his own school. Owen, the successful other son, returns as a translator for two English army engineers. Their charge is to map the area and rename the places in a way more friendly to English — thus, bastardizing their traditional names.
    Both Irish and English characters speak their own languages, but the audience hears only English, except in place names.
    As Owen and the English orthographer Lieutenant Yolland work, Yolland falls in love with the Irish land, culture and hedge school student, Maire, who also is the apple of Manus’s eye. Tension rises when Yolland goes missing. When Manus leaves as well, heartbroken, he looks like the guilty party.
    On a search party, English soldiers go on a rampage. Captain Lancey (Jonson Henry) threatens first to shoot all livestock if Yolland is not found within 24 hours, then evict the villagers and destroy their homes if he is not found within 48 hours. Henry enters with humor, but, as does the play, becomes the harbinger of bad things to come.
    Jett Watson as Owen and Josh Goetz as Yolland strike a nice camaraderie as they take the stage. Comedy, marked by Yolland’s constant referral to Owen as Roland, eases into drama as the Englishman takes offense at his own work, figuratively evicting a people from their land by changing generation-old names. Watson is especially effective as he finds himself at the center of not only familial tensions, but political and martial ones as well.
    As Hugh, Leith Daghistani gives us a likeable yet military-like schoolmaster who seems to love his village but is prepared to take over the national school that will come to town and be open to all. Chris Hudson as Manus, Michael Donovan as Jimmy Jack, Bubba Scott as Doalty, Clara Navarro as Sarah, Portia Norkaitis as Maire, Megan Rausch as Bridget all bring the locals to life. They give us humor — this is in places a very funny show — as well as anger.
    A five-piece combo (calling themselves the Dropkick Middies after the well-known Irish rockers Dropkick Murphys) plays very good Irish music before the show and between acts. The set is a marvel, an almost life-sized multi-level barn that also houses Hugh and Manus. Huge, rustic and wooden, looking like it might have been trucked in from South County, this is one of the more beautifully realized sets I’ve seen in any area theater for quite some time.
    So why taint such realism by projecting images of various Irish locations along the back? It’s justified in the program by director Christy Stanlake as giving “a sense of presence to the characters’ homelands” and showing “the profound relationship between the specific lands and their original Irish names.”  Throughout the play, when an Irish locale is pronounced correctly, its image is projected onto the set. When the wrong or Anglicized name is used, the image disappears. It’s a clever idea in theory. In practice, it confuses the audience. Not having read the director’s notes, many thought the images were technical miscues. They are hardly recognizable because the back of the set is uneven wood, exactly like an old barn, not a smooth screen made for showing slides.
    Worse — and this is the inexcusable part — the very good work of this cast of actors must compete with the double distraction of these images popping on and off and also being projected onto the actors’ faces and bodies. When the images are wiped away, we feel relief that we can finally see, unmarked, both the beautiful set and these very talented actors.
    Sometimes less is more, and sometimes an idea that clearly doesn’t work needs to be discarded, regardless of how creative it sounded in theory. The actors, and their audience, deserve better.


Playing thru Nov. 22: FSa 8pm at Mahan Theatre, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis. No on-yard parking; walk thru Gate 3 with photo ID (16+). $12; rsvp: 410-293-TIXS.

 

Can you stretch your comfort zone into 18th century debauchery?

Give The Theatre at Anne Arundel Community College credit for refusing to play it safe, for going out on a theatrical limb in its choice of productions.
    Last spring’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, as complex and raucous as any musical you’ll see, was a case in point. The current Les Liaisons Dangereuses is another example of the theater’s propensity for asking itself, and its audiences, to stretch beyond their comfort zones.
    You may know Les Liaisons Dangereuses from the 1988 movie with John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close. That was just one of several adaptations of French author Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel of the same name. The novel described the dangerous manipulations of former lovers Le Vicomte de Valmont and La Marquise de Merteuil, two aristocrats who treat love, lust and the feelings of their prey as little more than their own little chess game, with human hearts and bodies as the pieces on their board.
    Valmont wants to seduce Madame de Tourvel, the virtuous wife whose husband is out of town. Merteuil, meanwhile, is angry because Cécile Volanges has been pulled out of the convent to marry a former lover. When Valmont falls in love with de Tourvel, Marteuil becomes jealous. She and Valmont turn their fantasy league into a battleground of the sexes, winner take all. Hearts are broken and lives destroyed.
    Revealing too much of the plot would reveal too much of what is designed to keep you as interested in these two players as you are disgusted by their hubris. The bottom line is that these are nasty people, inflicting their nastiness onto others as sport. Director Kristen Clippard, whose previous work you may have seen locally with the Annapolis Shakespeare Company, does an admirable job taking us back to the 1700s. The pace moves right along, from the characters’ dialogue to the tightly choreographed scene changes.
    The set is ingenious, majestic and beautiful. Instead of the usual painted flats, we have regal gilded frames flanking see-through material that not only allows us to observe the comings and goings of characters but also provides cleverly lit placement of two bedchambers and a climactic sword fight. Costumes are as beautiful as the set; clearly no expense was spared in securing era-appropriate finery.
    As Valmont and Merteuil, Erik Alexis and Aladrian Wetzel do a credible job keeping the pace of a dialogue-heavy piece. Their back-and-forth helps the audience understand the machinations they are planning. Each does a nice job enunciating, critical in a piece translated from French.
    But the spark needed to help the audience believe that these two are former lovers was missing, as was the maliciousness that should underlie their immoral string-pulling. Perhaps it was opening night jitters, and subsequent performances will see them relax into the calculating chemistry the two must share with the audience.
    The supporting cast is solid overall, though in several cases, as with the leads, a little more emotional connection would help link individual performances with the whole. Especially natural in their roles are Natalie Carlisle as de Tourvel, giving us the virtue and uncertainty of one of the few women who, at least at first, is able to fend off Valmont’s advances, and Kat McKerrow as Madame de Rosemonde, Valmont’s aunt.
    This is a show worth seeing, beautiful visually, with Clippard and the cast doing a fine job keeping things moving. All that’s needed is for some of the cast to sink their teeth into what drives these multi-dimensional characters, and to connect with each other. This, in turn, will strengthen their connection with the audience, so that we can feel the inherent danger of these dangerous liaisons.


2.5 hours with intermission. Playing thru Nov. 16: Th 7:30pm, FSa 8pm; Su 2pm at Robert E. Kauffman Theater at AACC Pascal Center, Arnold; $15 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-777-2457; boxoffice@aacc.edu.

You’ll see Shakespeare at its most involving and theater at its finest

In four years of existence, Annapolis Shakespeare Company has enriched the local theater scene not just by providing a venue that focuses on the classics, but also by doing so with productions that are engaging and accessible. The Company has achieved its goal of becoming a professional company. Now, Annapolis Shakespeare Company moves from the Bowie Playhouse to its own black box Studio 111 on Chinquapin Round Road in Annapolis. The space is smaller, but the standards remain high.
    Case in point: the current production of Macbeth, perhaps Shakespeare’s darkest and bloodiest work. Producing artistic director Sally Boyett and her team show us Shakespeare at its most involving and theater at its finest: imaginatively staged, crisply directed and solidly acted. Audience proximity to the action — the 50 or so seats surround the small stage floor on three sides — means you can literally feel the insanity of Macbeth (Brit Herring) and Lady Macbeth (Rebecca Swislow) as their ambition turns to murder and madness.
    Herring and Swislow are both excellent, giving their characters a fiery chemistry not just for each other but also for power. Herring’s mad exclamations to the audience and his delivery of several of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies (“tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” upon the death of his beloved), are in-your-face menacing. Swislow’s “out damned spot” to the blood on her hands as she sleepwalks evokes fear as well as a bit of pity for her.
    Michael Crowley’s Macduff, Kim Curtis’ Duncan and Brian Davis’ Banquo are standouts among the talented supporting cast of 10, each playing several roles. As the three witches who predict Macbeth’s rise and fall, Renata Plecha, Vanessa Bradchulis and Stephanie LaVardera are downright chilling. The three can be cartoonish in lesser hands, but this trio gives them a substance that convinces us they must be of the underworld.
    All of this is achieved with nary a set and few props. It’s acting that lights the passion of this production, acting that is supported by Nancy Krebs’ vocal coaching, the modern costumes of Maggie Cason, sound effects by Gregory Thomas Woolford Martin, believable fight choreography by Amy Pastoor and ethereal lighting by Steven Strawn and Preston Strawn. It all adds up to an experience that evokes the eeriest of eerie and the most evil of evil. That little black box theater sure felt like the early 1600s.

Playing thru Nov. 24: FSa 8pm; Su 3pm: Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Studio 111, Annapolis; $35 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-415-3513; www.annapolisshakespeare.org.

Cast, staging and pace threaten to leave you breathless

There is nothing like the rat-a-tat of briskly delivered dialogue to transport an audience to a different time and place, and Colonial Players is currently doing the job atop the broad shoulders of Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men.
    If you think having seen the movie is enough, think again. First time director Jeff Sprague has hit the trifecta with this production: a believable cast, intelligent staging and a vocal pace that sometimes threatens to leave you breathless. It’s a completely different, and much more involving, experience made intimate by Colonial’s in-the-round space.
    First, the cast. From the lowest of the enlisted to the bigger-than-life commanding officer, Sprague has assembled a company so believable that they make you feel everything about what it’s like to be stationed at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, except perhaps the exhausting heat. Jamie Austin Jacobs is stellar as Lance Cpl. Harold Dawson, who along with his buddy Pfc. Louden Downey (Fred Fletcher-Jackson) is accused of murder after a “code red” — Marine lingo for a hazing of sorts — kills a fellow Marine who wasn’t measuring up. Every barked line evokes empathy for this dedicated warrior who was following orders, and the fraternal care he provides the less-aware Downey earns our sympathy. Dawson’s evolving admiration for Navy Lt. Daniel Kaffee, the smart-talking Harvard grad assigned to defend him, is well-crafted and a pleasure to witness.
    Kaffee’s fast-paced dialogue starts off with smart-assed one-liners the character uses to hide the fact that his propensity for plea-bargaining has kept him from seeing the inside of a courtroom. Paul Valleau (who will be replaced for the November 6, 7 and 8 shows by Jeff Mocho) admirably shows us a Kaffee whose passion for justice, and for his defendants, grows with each piece of evidence that they were ordered to perform the code red.
    Kaffee’s Navy legal team is rounded out by Erin Hill as Lt. Cdr. Joanne Galloway, who outranks Kaffee and initially resents his lack of interest, and Brandon Bentley as Lt. Sam Weinberg, the family man who believes the defendants picked on a weakling. Opposing them is Capt. Jack Ross, a savvy prosecutor played by Pat Reynolds. Throughout the production these four anchor the fast-paced drama with the occasional touch of comedy that is so mandatory to prevent the emotion on the stage from slipping into monotony.   
    Also outstanding are Ben Wolff as Jonathan Kendrick, the Bible-verse-spewing lieutenant who gives the order that leads to a fatal code red; and Bill Coffin as Matthew Markinson, the guilt-ridden captain whose unwillingness to stop the code red pushes him to a point of no return. Both Wolff and Coffin are so natural in these roles that you’d think they’d just stepped off the base and onto the stage.
     Of course, the bigger-than-life villain in the piece is Colonel Nathan Jessep, the commanding officer of Gitmo. After Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth” became the catchphrase of the early 1990s, you’d be forgiven for thinking the same character might appear on the stage. He does not. He does not have to because David Thompson has made Jessep his own, a character almost manic with power, whose complete belief in the rightness of any decision he makes is shrouded in the myopic vision that protecting his country comes at any cost. Thompson’s verbal attack of Kaffee after he admits to having ordered the code red is downright scary — yet eerily effective in forcing us to understand his motivation. He is wrong, yes, but he is convinced he is right, and Thompson’s passionate portrayal makes us think twice.
    Now, the staging. This is a complex play with a lot going on, and pacing is critical. Sprague meets the challenge by avoiding the usual director trap of cutting the lights, throwing on some music and changing the scene. Every setting is already on the stage, and the characters simply move from one to the other as the lights fall and rise, or as a quartet of Marines marches on and off doing various running cadences. This makes the rat-a-tat of the action match the rat-a-tat of the dialogue, and the audience as a result is captivated.
    Speaking of that dialogue: It is real and it gets graphic. It is so believably delivered by every character that it’s hard to discern the least experienced from the veterans. That believability has the audience looking at each as a real person, not a character. Kudos to Sprague, whose own military background undoubtedly contributed to the realism on display here, and kudos to each of the young actors who have so invested themselves in their characters, no matter how small.

Stage manager: Ernie Morton. Assistant director: Theresa Riffle. Set and floor designr: Terry Averill. Lighting designer: Shirley Panek. Sound designer: Theresa Riffle. Costume coordinator: Beth Terranova.
Playing thru Nov. 8: ThFSa 8pm; Su 2pm: Colonial Players, Annapolis; $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.

Hearts beat in time with the building suspense

Twin Beach Players’ Halloween season production of the eternally terrifying Legend of Sleepy Hollow took seven months in the making — from spooky sound effects to thick fog and period costumes to uniformly spot-on acting.
    Eerie sound effects help transform a gymnasium into the town and forest of Sleepy Hollow, where I edged forward on my seat as suspense built to the hair-raising climax.
    Washington Irving gave us this story now embedded in American tradition, and he himself appears to tell it to us. As Irving, Kurt Kugel leads us through the play with his supernaturally quiet narration.
    The nervous, studious and awkward Ichabod Crain, played brilliantly by Justyn Christofel, comes as a new teacher to a town haunted by a Headless Horseman. My heart went out to Ichabod as he fell hopelessly in love with the town beauty, Katrina Van Tassell (Brianna Bennett) much to the dismay of her suitor, town brute Abraham “Brom” Van Brunt (Ethan Croll).
    Brom captures the role of the bad guy as he makes it his duty to teach the schoolmaster a lesson in humility and gathers the boys of Sleepy Hollow to scare Ichabod.
    Tales are told of the Headless Horseman’s rampage through the woods that Ichabod is willing to brave to attend a party at the home of the apple of his eye, who has herself invited him.
    When Ichabod cuts in on Brom to dance with Katrina, Brom plans revenge: confrontation with the Headless Horseman.
    Each character in the supporting cast of townspeople has distinct charms. There are gossips, troublemakers, clowns and bystanders who don’t know what to make of the new schoolmaster — nor he of them and their tales.
    Dawn Dennison’s costumes are perfect to period.
    The basic stage conveyed many settings, such as a handful of human trees with long, skin-hugging, black-gloved arms reaching to the sky and creeping thru Ichabod’s hair as if they were twigs in a haunted forest. Children played forest animals, with an opening dance number led by an adorable spirit (Koral Kent) who makes a huge impression, all without speaking a word. She wisps in and out in her pumpkin costume with the grace and poise of a ballerina. When she places a pumpkin into the hands of the Headless Horseman, she seems immune to terror.
    Don’t miss this spooktacular production of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Playing to full-house crowds opening weekend, it’s sure to sell out as Halloween approaches and the barrier between worlds grows thin.


The original production of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was adapted for Twin Beach Players’ by resident playwright, Mark Scharf, who also penned last year’s production of Frankenstein. Pioneer Drama Service will publish both scripts.
 
Playing thru Nov. 2: FSa 8pm; Su 3pm; plus 9pm Oct. 31 at North Beach Boys and Girls Club; $15 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-286-1890; www.twinbeachplayers.com.