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Arts and Culture (Theatre Reviews)

Two hours of anarchic cacophony and classic pop guaranteed to prolong the craziness of your week

2nd Star Productions does a lot right in staging Funny Money by Britain’s master of farce Ray Cooney. The pace of the frenetic comedy never drags. Actors are superb and spot-on in accents. Director Fred Nelson uses the stage for maximum clarity in this Gordian knot of accidents and lies. Jane B. Wingard’s set and Linda Swann’s costumes feel right. The problem is, it’s a farce. Or maybe that’s just me.
    If your thirst for confusion borders on the masochistic, if you relish sexual innuendo, if you appreciate blubbering drunks and screaming matches, if you’re either hearing impaired or wish to be, then this is the show for you. Just don’t expect the Americanized Chevy Chase film version.
    How many one-dimensional characters and compromising situations does it take to make a British farce? The more the merrier.
    Decorous accountant Henry Perkins (Gene Valendo) accidentally swaps briefcases with a criminal. Finding himself a trillionaire, he plans to abscond with the money — only to be thwarted at every turn. Darling but boring wife, Jean (Mary Wakefield) crashes from teetotaler to drunk the moment he tells her to pack. Crooked Inspector Davenport (Michael N. Dunlop) observes Henry’s giddy trips to the pub loo where he counts the money, follows him home on suspicion of solicitation and is shuttled off to the dining room to ponder a lie while he awaits his bribe. Bill the Taxi Driver (Zak Zeeks) arrives early with the airport shuttle only to be repeatedly sent to the curb to ponder more lies while he awaits his fare.
    Plainspoken Detective Sgt. Slater (Robert Eversberg) reports from the morgue that Mr. Perkins was found murdered, clutching a briefcase containing papers and a cheese and chutney sandwich. Thus, a family member must identify the body, but not until Sgt. Slater is shuttled off to the kitchen to ponder more lies while he makes tea for the grieving widow. Dinner guests Vic and Betty (John Wakefield and Samantha Feikema) take sides in the Perkins’ domestic dispute, culminating in a wife-swapping plan; Betty longs to travel and Jean refuses to leave, but Vic is a good sport and even gets himself embroiled in the deception. And then there is Mr. Big (Ronald Araújo), a drug lord who keeps calling for his burfcrse until Bill the Taxi Driver blithely gives him the address.
    Where’s Sherlock Holmes when you need him? How could two detectives in adjoining rooms hear hysterics without suspecting something? How does every compromising situation involve a cabal under the covers on the couch, convincing detectives it’s all one big bedroom romp?
    Despite the script, performances are commendable. Valendo displays priceless calm and trance-like incredulity in the midst of chaos. Zeeks is audacious and sexy. Dunlop is believable as the cop-on-the-take. And Feikema sizzles in her quest for adventure.
    Funny Money is two hours of anarchic cacophony and classic pop that is guaranteed to prolong the craziness of your week and generate a few belly laughs to cheer the winter blues.

Playing thru Feb. 16. ThFSa 8pm & Su 3pm at Bowie Playhouse, Whitemarsh Park: $22 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-757-5700; www.2ndstarproductions.com.

Bad Dates is a good night out

In theater terms, when an actor talks directly to the audience, it’s known as breaking the fourth wall. When Janet Luby does it in Bay Theatre Company’s latest, she’s not so much breaking a wall as she is opening a door. Through that door we join her as she shares her life, her attempts at love and a lot of laughs.
    Bad Dates is a one-woman show written by playwright, screenwriter and novelist Theresa Rebeck about Haley Walker, a 40-something single mom and restaurant manager in New York who is jumping back into the dating pool. Her first love, besides her unseen 13-year-old daughter Vera, seems to be shoes, as the four closets filled with them in the nicely rendered set attest. Keeping up a constant chatter as she models several pairs and several outfits, Luby engages us stream-of-consciousness about Haley’s failed marriage, her job, her daughter, her shoes and her frustrating, funny and sometimes heartbreaking dates.
    Luby has a knack for this type of theater, having been so effective a couple of years ago in Becky’s New Car as the bored and tempted wife who seeks understanding from the audience. Her charm, timing and physicality keep things moving through the 90-minute performance (plus a 15-minute intermission), even rising above the script’s brief but uncharacteristic dip into the maudlin after a particularly promising beau proves a no-show. Luby is such a strong actress that we also get evocative and quite funny caricatures of the other people who inhabit her life, from the gay law professor to the bug guy to the Romanian Mafioso who owns her restaurant. A one-woman show, yes, with so many personalities.
    As director Richard Pilcher puts it in his program notes, Bad Dates is not a chick play. It’s funny, it rings true and it certainly comes from a woman’s point of view. But in Luby’s capable hands, it’s a story that both sexes will enjoy. If my car is any indication, it will also generate quite the drive-home conversation.

Set designer: Ken Sheats. Costumer: Maggie Masson. Lighting designer/state manager: Eric Lund. Props: JoAnn and Mike Gidos. Sound design: Natalie Pilcher.
Thru Jan. 26. FSa 7:30pm; Su 2 pm at Chesapeake Arts Center, Brooklyn Park: $24+ $4 surcharge; rsvp: www.chesapeakearts.org.

Is the theft of your story a crime?

In Dignity Players’ long list of morality plays, Collected Stories is the crowning achievement. When a writing student mines her teacher’s private life for material, artistic license crosses the line from inspiration to confiscation. So says acclaimed author Ruth Steiner (played by Carol Cohen) of the transgression of heretofore-beloved student Lisa Morrison (Sarah Wade). Lisa claims she did only what her mentor taught her.
    Seasoned director Lois Evans’ leadership of a tiny stellar cast through a rich Donald Margulies script could earn this show the kind of recognition Colonial Players enjoyed in 2013: a Ruby Griffith Award for Margulies’ Shipwrecked!
    In the provocative ethical drama at hand, the intellectual professor Steiner has everything and nothing. Having forsaken marriage and children for a succession of young writers she adopts as secretaries/interns, she enjoys literary celebrity, a Bohemian Greenwich Village apartment and bittersweet memories of an affair 40 years earlier with one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, the middle-aged alcoholic Delmore Schwartz. She doesn’t like to talk about that. “Talking takes away the need to write,” she says, though she never does this writing.
    Lisa is a sycophantic graduate student: a bulimic WASP from a broken home who dreams of living Ruth’s life. Four years under Ruth’s tutelage transform her into a literary success with a short story collection of thinly veiled autobiographical tales. Then she panics. She fears she needs a novel to cement her reputation, but a writer writes what she knows and she’s written it all. So she quietly co-opts Ruth’s unwritten love story, shattering the friendship with her surrogate mum.
    In a play where image tells half the story, Cohen and Wade, aided by Jeannie Christie’s costumes, are transformed in a stunning role reversal: Cohen from mature role model to has-been frump and Wade from babbling bumbler to young sophisticate. I cannot imagine any two local actresses who could play Ruth and Lisa better.
    The only disappointments in this production are technical. The many long scene changes break the mood as audience conversation crescendos and time stretches to smoking-break lengths. On opening night, there was also an issue with crackly static in the absence of other sound effects. Both issues, though, can and should be resolved with experience, and neither negates the power of these performances. As added incentive, Dignity hosts poet Merrill Leffler of Dryad Press in a post-show discussion of authorial inspiration and ethics following the January 26 matinee.
    If all writers are rummagers, whose stories are safe?
    Come decide for yourself.

Stage Manager: Pat Browning. Technician: Julien Jacques.
Thru Feb. 1. FSa 8pm; Su 3pm at Dignity Players Theatre at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis. $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-266-8044 x 127; www.dignityplayers.org.

Don’t miss this gem of the American stage

Thomas Wolfe famously said, “You can’t go home again.” A decade before coining that phrase, he showed us why in his 1929 debut novel Look Homeward Angel. This thinly veiled memoir of a tumultuous youth in his mother’s Dixieland Boardinghouse made him a pariah in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, and a literary star to the rest of the nation. The 1958 stage adaptation by Ketti Frings won every major prize for American drama that year, and it still rings true and relevant.
    Compass Rose Theater’s beautiful production stars a talented University of Maryland grad, Shane O’Loughlin, in the lead role of Eugene Gant. A bookish young man, he yearns for education and escape from his overbearing mother, Eliza (artistic director Lucinda Merry-Browne), and his romantic but alcoholic father, W.O. Gant (Gary Goodson) Bret Jaspers costars as elder brother Ben, the cynical voice of experience who urges Eugene to flee. Who can blame them? Life with Eliza, the self-proclaimed “sharpest trader in town,” is no tea party. In a perpetual quest for cash, she puts the comfort of strangers above the needs of her own family, whom she manipulates into doing her bidding.
    Dapper Ben isn’t healthy enough to escape to World War I, as did his brother Luke (Chris Creane). So he helps in Father’s monument shop and passes the evenings at dingy Dixieland with a sympathetic older boarder  named Fatty (Janise Whelan). Big sister Helen (Kathryn Zoerb) and her husband Hugh (Dan Reno) are likewise caught in Eliza’s clutches as near servants. The other boarders are Uncle Will (Ed Klein); old Mrs. Clatt (Nancy Long); her son Jake (Eli Pendry); and a charming new arrival, Laura James (Lindsay Clemmons), who brings Eugene his first happiness and heartache. Dr. McGuire (Richard Fiske) is a frequent visitor to the home as well. Only the notorious Madame Elizabeth (Maura Claire Harford) never crosses the threshold, though she is on good terms with Father.
    From the melee, Eugene’s transformation from guileless gopher to mutineer is remarkable, culminating in a confrontation that will shake you to your weepy bones. Drawing equally on the strength of all the leads, this production gets four stars for credibility: from the sharp period fashions to the missing newels on the faded front porch to the manner of the family’s explosion with love and disdain. The only unbelievable part is Eliza and Father’s tantrum, which is too gentle on the set. I hope they go wild on closing night.

Director: Patrick Walsh. Set: Mary Goodson. Costumes: Linda Swann. Lights: Cecilia Durbin. 2.5 hours including one 15-minute intermission.
Playing thru Feb. 9. Th (except Jan. 30) FSa 8pm Sa Feb. 1 & 8 and Su 2pm at 49 Spa Rd., Annapolis. $35 w/discounts: 410-980-6662; www.compassrosetheater.org.

Come to feel, think and applaud

Many theater companies are neither willing nor able to move from a bubbly musical directly into a disturbing death-row drama based on real life. Colonial Players is the exception, following November’s Annie with Coyote on a Fence.
    Coyote on a Fence is what Colonial calls an “arc” show, more challenging than usual and typically appealing to a smaller arc of patrons. Opening night proved that this production is deserving of larger, not smaller, audiences.
    Bruce Graham’s play focuses on long-time death row inmate John Brennan, the middle-aged editor of the prison newspaper who writes obituaries of each inmate put to death. Brennan is a fervent but deluded believer in his own innocence. Most on death row say they, too, are innocent.
    Except Bobby Reyburn. A late-20s, anti-Semite racist who gets the cell next to Brennan after burning down an African American church and killing 37 people, Reyburn says he was called to his work by God and was spoon-fed hate by a trusted uncle.
    The interplay between Bobby, who welcomes his execution, and John, who has exhausted every legal avenue on the way to his, demands two actors who not only commit to their characters but are consistent in their interpretations even as their characters hit sharply emotional highs and lows. Thom Sinn as John and Eddie Hall as Bobby meet that demand. A lesser actor might have allowed the histrionic Bobby to become a caricature, but Hall, under the capable direction of Colonial veteran Edd Miller, never does so. He and Sinn together take the audience on a journey that makes us care about them despite their violent pasts.
    Prison guard Shawna (an earthy Kecia Campbell) keeps a close eye on things. But outside the prison, she meets an unseen reporter in a series of monologues. Among her topics are how she feels safer on the inside among convicted killers than in the real world. Shawna’s final monologue is a heartbreaker.
    Another reporter works his way into Brennan’s confidence. Nicely underplayed by Jeff Sprague, Sam Fried’s condescension and conflict over the death penalty are no match for Brennan’s passion.
    Miller is one of the few directors who successfully uses Colonial’s in-the-round space. His set design puts all the action on the floor in front of us, avoiding the annoying neck craning too often required to watch scenes in the theater’s corners. The two cells abut, with an outside recreation area marked by a stark wire fence and a small area representing Shawna’s bar.
    Adding to the stark aura is Carl Andreasen’s and Theresa Riffle’s haunting sound design, a near-constant drone of background voices occasionally interrupted by the scream of an inmate or the physical shock and loud finality of a metal prison door trapping us all.
    Frank Florentine’s tight lighting evokes the sterility of the place, from harsh lights dimming upon an execution to the eerie green illuminating the empty cell of the newly executed.
    Coyote is the 14th show Miller has directed at Colonial. His Going to St. Ives was awarded best play and best director in the coveted Washington Area Theater Community Awards in 2012. Coyote on a Fence is likely to attract the same consideration.
    Warning: Save the pre-show cocktails for post. The play runs one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission.

Playing thru Jan. 25 ThFSa 8pm & Su Jan. 19, 2 & 7:30pm at 108 East St., Annapolis. $20 w/discounts: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.

Grunge, hip-hop and Gen Y angst color this whimsical romance where mortals meet magic

The Annapolis Shakespeare Company has shaken up the Bard to magical effect with a 1990s’ setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that is da bomb! Grunge, hip hop and Gen Y angst color this whimsical story of romance, mischief and enchantment in Fairyland, where mortals meet magic and are none the wiser for it.
    Guest director Kristin Clippard, formerly of the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, has created a magical forest cloaked in fog and sparkling with frost under a pregnant moon. The walls are like birch bark strewn with carnations under a canopy of red, white and orange umbrellas backlit with twinkling lights. As the umbrella covers us in all types of weather, she explains, love can cover all our woes. And there is plenty of woe to go around.
    It should be a happy time; Duke Theseus (Stephen Horst) is marrying Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (Laurent Turchin). Guests have come from far and wide for the nuptials. There is Egeus (Nick Pinto) and his daughter Hermia (Amanda Forstrom), her friend Helena (Ashlyn Thompson) and Hermia’s two suitors: her beloved Lysander (Joel DeCandio) and preppy nerd Demetrius (Ben Lauer), who spurned Helena to pursue Hermia — this at her father’s behest.
    Lysander and Hermia are emo soul mates destined for turbulence in the parallel universe of Fairyland. Queen Titania (Turchin) has turned frosty toward King Oberon (Horst). Thus the king dispatches his meddling assistant Puck (DePinto) to enchant Titania with a love-at-first-sight potion. Embarrassment is the point, as the queen is expected to fall in love with a creature of the forest. She does: Bottom (France Vince) is a mortal endowed by Puck with a donkey’s head and tail. Watching this odd love unfold are the queen’s attendants: First Fairy (Valeka Holt), Peaseblossom (Gray West), Mustardseed (Samantha Nelson), Cobweb (Nicole Mullins-Teasley) and Moth (Miranda Savage).
    Meanwhile, the same potion causes both Lysander and Demetrius to pursue Helena, leaving Hermia in forlorn confusion.  
    Bottom is a member of an amateur theatrical troupe of tradesmen come to perform the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe for the royal wedding. This childish play-within-a-play features Piper Quince (Holt), Francis Flute (West), Tina Snout (Nelson), Snug (Mullins-Teasley) and Robin Starvling (Savage). With West in drag as Thisbe, it makes a hilarious finale to madcap shenanigans in the forest.
    This show is rife with potential for confusion both of Shakespeare’s making and this production’s double and triple casting. Yet it’s easy to follow, swinging with ease from extremes of tenderness to slapstick. Diction and gestures, so important to a modern understanding of Shakespeare, are crisp and clear. It’s energetic and creative with dancers of all shapes and ages doing cartwheels and back flips, and Puck literally climbing the walls.
    Music figures large with ’90s hits such as “Kiss Me” and the theme from Titanic alongside the traditional “Holly and the Ivy.” Fairy costumes are mostly neon and shredded denim, a grunge look that is vivid, if not magical, with odd makeup that is likewise jarring. Is that the Mario Brothers I see among the tradesmen’s denims and flannels? Whatever. It’s a hoot.
    There are no weak performers among this cast.
    DePinto shines for his remarkable versatility not only acting but also singing and playing guitar in a delightful duet with Holt, a fine dancer and singer. Horst brings a welcome vulnerability to both his royal roles, and Turchin her trademark frostiness. Forstrom and DeCandio exude a passionate infatuation that contrasts well to Thompson and Lauer’s more comic roles. Vince’s donkey is a perfectly lovable ass. And Nelson as a brick wall that raps Shakespearean couplets milks a gallon of laughs from a pint of dialogue.
    This Dream is two and a half hours of escapist frivolity that will win converts to Shakespeare. Alas, the senior set is likely to miss the cultural references that make this production unique.

Direction and Set: Kristin Clippard. Choreography and Lights: Sally Boyett. Costumes: Kristin Clippard and Maggie Cason. With Audrey Bertaux as Standby.
Playing thru Dec. 22, Th-F 8pm; Sa 2 and 8pm; Su 3pm at the Bowie Playhouse, White Marh Park. $24 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-415-3513; www.annapolisshakespeare.org.

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.

See what's coming to a stage near you this season

2nd Star Productions’ Children of Eden

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