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Arts and Culture (Theatre Reviews)

Everybody gets into the spirit

Mayhem meets knee-slapping ­comedy when the Herdmans collide head-on with the Christmas story.
    Barbara Robinson’s Christmas alternative — it’s no Christmas Carol — is a good choice for Twin Beach Players: Both have to do with a small town where everybody has a part to play in making Christmas.
    The fictional small town’s kids have grown weary of wearing bed sheets to play the same role and speak the same lines year after year in the annual church pageant. Boredom yields to horror when the Herdmans come to town.
    The dirty half-dozen Herdman kids bully their way into the cast and hijack the pageant. With no idea what’s going on — they don’t even know the Christmas story — they make up a script as they go along.
    As we watch, the pageant turns into a huge, hysterical mess.
    Forty-six of the town of North Beach’s real-life children, from preschoolers to teens, are inspired, whether as angels, shepherds or Herdmans — who’ve stolen the key parts of Mary, Joseph, Herod and the Wise Men.
    In this community of theater, parents leave the audience to take the stage alongside their kids. Ten adults stay on-stage, enjoying their roles as avidly as the kids do.
    The audience is enchanted, moved from tears to side-splitting laughter in no longer than it takes to blink.
    The theater — normally a Boys and Girls Club gym — is decorated for the holidays. The young cast’s singing of classic carols — including “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Away in a Manger,” “We Three Kings” and “Silent Night” — open our hearts. Recorded Christmas music continues during the short intermission.

Playing F & Sa 7pm, Su 3pm thru Dec. 15 at the North Beach Boys and Girls Club. $12 w/discounts: 410-286-1890; www.twinbeachplayers.com.

A moving Veterans Day tribute to World War II wives

Mid-20th century, the weekly magazine was the premier delivery of news, culture, values, information and all things current. Photo-laden Life Magazine was one of the stalwarts. The Cover of LIFE — written by Louisiana native R. T. Robinson in 1992 — recalls that era.
    In 1943, three newly married brothers from rural Louisiana enlist in the war effort on the same day. In a not uncommon tradition of the time, all three wives move in with the brothers’ family. LIFE Magazine assigns a female overseas correspondent to cover the story as a fluffy woman’s piece. The allure of a cover story is too irresistible, so offended hard-boiled New Yorker Kate Miller travels to Louisiana.
    She finds a story more nuanced and complicated than she expected.
    Robinson’s play is not perfect, but it is often funny, with well-written dialogue and a surprisingly strong after effect.
    Caity Brown as Tood, wife of the youngest brother, and Diane Sams as journalist Kate Miller carry the emotional intensity. The best scene features these two at a picnic, discussing their hopes and ambitions. Different as their values are, each displays touching empathy for the other.
    Sams plays her reporter all Rosalind Russell: quick, sharp and to the point, but with a touching vulnerability. Brown plays Tood as a family peacemaker who longs for grander vistas.
    As Aunt Ola, the mother of the three sons, Kathryn Huston is utterly believable, in both routine and crisis. One wants to see another play about Aunt Ola and her life.
    The other two wives are Weetsie (Rinn Delaney) and Sybil (Terra Vigil). Weetsie has funny lines, but her religious nature and capitalist tendencies could be better defined. Sybil is depicted as a happy party-girl. She should, but does not, change at the end of the second act.
    Whisper Washington’s performance as local reporter Addie Mae would be enhanced by more vocal projection.
    The southern accents are well done. Speech rhythms are not quite slow enough to be accurate, but the inflections are correct and appropriate.
    Director Bob Sams also collaborated on stage design, which is sparse and effective. On the other hand, quick, two-person scenes are not so successfully staged, and scene changes slow the pacing.
    It was a nice directorial touch to give a curtain call to the unheralded theater workers who place props and move furniture.
    At intermission a British World War II bride introduced herself. The banter, easy laughter and obvious fondness she shared with the five friends who brought her to the show made a life mirror to The Cover of LIFE. On opening night, real life imitated theatrical LIFE.

Playing FSa 8pm Su 2pm thru Nov. 23 at Bowie Community Theatre. $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 301-805-0219; www.bctheatre.com.
Director: Bob Sams. Set designers: Sams and Gerard Williams. Producer, Joanne Bauer. Stage manager: Jeff Eckert. Sound designer: Dan Caughran. Lighting designer: Costume designer: Brigid Lally. Hair and makeup designer: Maureen Roult. Props: Faith Leahy-Thielke. Garrett Hyde. Theatre techs: Walter Kleinfelder, Peter Dursin and Al Chopey.

Do you think watching three men silently eat olives would be funny? In Art, it is hysterical.

Dignity Players opens its 2013-2014 season — dedicated to the Power of Art — with Yasmina Reza’s 1998 Tony Award-winning comedy Art.
    Art is a 90-minute one-act comedy about relationships, truth, white lies and, of course, the meaning and value of art.
    Serge (Kevin Wallace) has splurged (wildly!) on a piece of modern art. His friend Marc (Tom Newbrough) is appalled, both by the price and the work, an entirely white canvas decorated with white lines. Yvan (James Gallagher), another friend, tries to mediate the conflict between them but gets caught in the middle.
    Director Clarice Clewell, who has an affinity for productions of thoughtful comedies populated by small casts (she directed Stones in His Pockets at Dignity Players and Trying at Colonial Players) has assembled an experienced, versatile and talented onstage crew. Off-stage she has also nurtured other talents as some volunteers take new theatrical off-stage roles joining others who are veterans.
    The single set by Laurie Nolan is sparse as it has to represent all three men’s apartments. The single change made to connote differences in the apartments is the choice of one piece of art, representing each man’s different sensibilities.
    Sound designer Jim Reiter (whose program notes are so whimsical they deserve mention) noted that the three actors in this production are “the Mount Rushmore of actors in Annapolis.” The reference is accurate in terms of craggy faces but misleading in terms of stoic stoniness.
    All three are keenly adept at using takes, double-takes and audience asides to highlight the comedy of words. Expressions run the gamut and amok. Do you think watching three men silently eat olives would be funny? In their hands, it is hysterical.
    Kevin Wallace shows us a Serge who is by turns mesmerized, delighted and awed by his new artistic purchase. He is hurt and pained by his friends’ lack of appreciation and understanding of why this piece of art is so important to him. Wallace conveys all this with expressive facial contortions and by a stance with arms constantly akimbo or crossed.
    Tom Newbrough’s Marc is a more tightly coiled character. But watch out for those arching eyebrows that give away his true feelings and bring us into his world. While Newbrough is the catalyst of the conflict, he is also the stabilizing center of this swirling trio.
    James Gallagher’s Yvan, who has the flashiest monologue, transcends emotions as he gallops from disbelief to confusion to patronizing agreement to hurt angst, landing on pained bafflement until all ultimately ends well. Gallagher gives the most introspective and self-absorbed performance, punctuated by the funniest of droll expressions.
    Together they make Art both thoughtful and funny.

Playing Th-Sa Sept. 19-21 & 26-28 at 8pm; Su Sept. 22 at 3pm at Dignity Players, Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis: $20 w/age and Th discount: 410-266-8044 x 127; www.dignityplayers.org.

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