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Arts and Culture (Theatre Reviews)

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.

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.

Song and dance liven up the first book of the Bible

Family legacies of love, anger and rebellion define Shakespeare, fairy tales, soap operas and the oldest story of them all, The Book of Genesis, recounted in 2nd Star Productions’ Children of Eden with exquisite beauty. This is a show the whole family will love by Stephen Schwartz, creator of Broadway legends Godspell, Pippin and Wicked. Heart breaking and humorous, it recounts Genesis in songs ranging from lyrical ballads to pulsing dances, Gospel and even soft shoe.
    In Eden, Father (Chris Overly) creates the heavens with a spectacle of lights in “Let There Be.” Next come Adam (E. Lee Nicol) and Eve (Caelyn Sommerville) in the doting “Father’s Day.” Eve’s “Spark of Creation” is glorious, as is the Father’s “Grateful Children.” Revel in “The Naming” of a delightful menagerie. Hear the sibilant snake (Robbie Dinsmore, Dakarai Brown, Tara Hebert, Erin Lorenz and Malarie Novotny) seduce Eve in five-part harmonies in “In Pursuit of Excellence.” Cry with Adam when he is torn from Father in “A World Without You,” Follow the couple’s discordant “Expulsion to the Wasteland,” where they express redemptive joy in parenting Cain (Creed Jackson) and Abel (Andrew Sharpe) in “Close to Home.”
    See history repeat itself when adult Cain (Austin Dare) blames his parents for their plight “Lost In the Wilderness” and disobeys his father, striking out for pagan lands. Mourn when Abel (Daniel Starnes) catches the blows intended for his father and Cain’s descendants are forever marked by his sin. By the Act I finale, your heart will break with Eve’s in her twilight song, “Children of Eden,” a glorious farewell to her countless descendants.
     Act II opens with a spectacular African-inspired song fused with Asian-inspired dance in “Generations of Adam.” The first act’s earth-toned rags are replaced by an array of colorful stripes and silks as we meet Noah (Nicol) and Father making preparations for the flood. Noah is to bring Mama Noah (Sommerville), his sons Ham (Dinsmore) and Shem (Brown), their wives Aphra (Erica Jureckson) and Aysha (Geneva Croteau), his youngest son, Japheth (Starnes) and his chosen bride, any girl who does not bear the mark of Cain.
    Of course, Japheth chooses the forbidden Yonah (Alexandra Baca), whom he persuades to stow away in their romantic duet “In Whatever Time We Have.”
    The carousel-inspired orchestral “Return of the Animals” enchants with its parade of 11 species, from anteaters with flicking tongues to towering giraffes and elephants. Then comes the starving time, Yonah’s discovery and Noah’s agonizing decision: “The Hardest Part of Love.” In Schwartz’ retelling, the severe God of the Old Testament softens as Noah releases all his children to different corners of the world, and Mama Noah leads the ensemble in the rousing Gospel anthem “Ain’t It Good?”
    Opening night of this charming spectacle would have been divine except for one colossal problem: Father, aka God Almighty, had laryngitis. As Overly’s impressive stage credits don’t include miracles, 2nd Star was short sighted to have no understudy for this pivotal role. Nicol and Sommerville, however, are vocally stunning, if a bit mismatched; she’s fresh as a spring rainbow and he’s ripe as Indian summer.
    The vocal ensemble and orchestra sound better than ever, with shining performances and a powerful chorus of storytellers led by soloists Alexandra Baca, Shannon Benil, Cheryl Campo, Kimberly Hopkins, Mary Wakefield and Chad Wheeler.
    The set is a simple stepped landscape backdrop, draped with flora, with ark and flood superimposed. Special effects including thunder and lightning are impressive. Costumes reflect civilization’s advances, though Adam’s AppWorld tattoo begs for justification.
     “The hardest part of love is letting go,” warns Schwartz, and this is true of his musical as well. I plan to return when God is feeling more like himself, and I suggest you do, too.


With Nathan Bowen, Wendell Holland, Charlize Lefler, Sophia Riazi-Sekowski, Samantha Roberts, Gene Valendo, Maia Vong, A.J. Williams and several adorable kids. Director and choreographer: Vincent Musgrave. Set designer: Jane B. Wingard. Costumes: Linda Swann, Carrie Dare and Beth Starnes. Musical director: Joe Biddle. Lights and sound: Garrett R. Hyde.
Playing thru Oct. 25: FSa 8pm; Su 3pm at Bowie Playhouse at White Marsh Park, Bowie; $22 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-757-5700; www.2ndstarproductions.com.

There’s a window of time when things must happen. If we let that window close, it’s gone and we don’t get it back.

Fasten your seatbelts as we blast off for Colonial Players’ 66th season with Rocket Man, Steven Dietz’s 1998 serious comedy about the road not taken.
    Act I counts down like a comedy sketch with a disturbing undercurrent.    Act II is a space shuttle with frequent stops between grim reality and a fifth dimension of beautiful and bittersweet extremes where life runs backward and youth presages the end of possibilities.
    In this surreal postcard from another dimension, you’ll meet Donny (Ben Carr), a landscape architect in the midst of a midlife crisis; his ex-wife Rita (Laura E. Gayvert); their resentful teen Trisha (Paige Miller); Donny’s best friend Buck (Timothy Sayles), a widower with a Noah complex; and Donny’s unacknowledged soul-mate Louise (Shirley Panek), a former co-worker turned divinity student.
    Donny thinks that in another world it could have all turned out differently. To make the most of his remaining time, he has quit his job and jettisoned his worldly possessions to dedicate himself to studying the stars through his attic skylight. He is strangely calm for a man on the brink.
    Given a second chance at life, Rita thinks we’d all make the same mistakes in new and interesting ways. She rants about Donny’s self-centered forgetfulness, while Trisha rants about finding her possessions strewn across the lawn for strangers to take.
    Who is right, Donny or Rita?
    Does he travel to another world, another time or a dream? Does our personality destine us to repeat history?
    The playwright isn’t saying, but everyone has a theory, the cast included. That’s why all are so invested in their roles.
    Carr doesn’t so much act the character of Donny as inhabit him, his face a palette of moods and thoughts that transcend words.
    As Donny’s friend, Sayles is sweet comic relief with perfect timing and a quirky manner to foil the sad insanity that surrounds him. He is miscast only in that his full head of hair lends absurdity to his bald jokes.
    As the insomniac sage Louise, Panek appreciates her character’s inability to transcend the careful detachment she cultivates.
    As daughter Trisha, Miller melds maternalism with emotional distance.        As ex-wife Rita, Gayvert demonstrates an unexpected girlishness in her reunion with Donny, though before that change of personality in Act II, it’s hard to understand why Donny might miss her.
    In life “we demand the illusion of involvement,” Donny says, and that’s what the technical aspect of this show provides. With a set deliberately barren and depressing, designers achieve stunning moods with a soundtrack of space-inspired hits from Donny’s youth and a light grid that debuts with this show. When Donny blasts off into the heavens to the title tune, bathed in a visual wash of dancing galactic blue pinpoints, the gasping audience is also transported.
    In this trip to the road not taken, we are encouraged to “travel further, dig deeper, live more and sing life.” If you can handle ambiguity, you’ll love the play. If not, bring a philosophical friend to help resolve questions.


Director: Scott Nichols. Set designer: Edd Miller. Sound: Kaelynn Miller. Lights: Terry Averill. Costumes: Hannah Sturm. Stage manager: Herb Elkin. Music designer: Jim Reiter.

Playing thru Sept. 27: ThFSa 8pm; Su 2pm (plus 7:30 Sept. 14) at Colonial Players Theatre in the Round, East St., Annapolis; $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.

Always look on the bright si-ide of life …
 

     There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who get Monty Python, and those who don’t. The dividing chasm is willingness to accept silliness. Python’s humor is physical (Google Silly Walk), yet it has an underlying winking, silly intelligence that the don’t-gets … well, don’t get.
    Fortunately for Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, the opening night audience for Monty Python’s Spamalot was filled mostly with gets. Based largely on the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail — but borrowing from plenty of other Python hits — the Mike Nichols-directed Spamalot premiered on Broadway in 2005 and won three Tonys, including Best Musical. Some of the humor that is directly aimed at a Broadway audience full of Python fanatics fell a little flat in Annapolis (case in point: the Mel Brooks-ish “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway … if you don’t have any Jews”). Some noticeable opening night tentativeness between orchestra and chorus will tighten up over the five-week run. But this is already a delightful production creatively directed by Jeffrey Lesniak and highlighted by stellar individual performances.
    Even if you haven’t seen the movie (and by all means, do, it’s timeless!), you’re in for a silly good time.
    As some Broadway musicals use a thin plot to string together strong songs, Spamalot uses its thin plot — Arthur and his knights searching for the Holy Grail — to string together classic Python comedy bits and a few songs. The songs are meant as much to skewer Broadway musicals as to push along said plot. Python founder and writer Eric Idle wrote the lyrics and book. A parody of Arthurian times, Spamalot revolves around King Arthur (a droll Ruben Vellekoop) and his knights of the “very round” table. The knights are the stars of this show.
    Each plays several roles with comic timing and delivery — not to mention the various speaking and singing voices — all spot on. Standing out in the voice department is David Merrill, whose Sir (Dennis) Galahad gets things moving with a hilarious diatribe about the woes of the working class. He then joins the Lady of the Lake (Alice Goldberg) for a satirical yet lyrical jab at formulaic Broadway called “The Song That Goes Like This.” Merrill’s tenor is a treat. Later he shines as the famed Black Knight, insisting “it’s just a flesh wound” after losing his limbs to his challenger. He reappears as Prince Herbert’s overbearing father, getting into a hilarious back and forth with two guards who can’t quite grasp the concept of “stay here.”
    The other knights — Sir Robin (Fred Fletcher-Jackson), Sir Lancelot (Joshua Mooney) and Sir Bedevere (DJ Wojciehowski) — each contribute several comedic turns. Notable is Mooney as the French Taunter (“I fart in your general direction!”), the Knight of Ni and, of course, Lancelot, whose sexuality is confirmed for him by the singers of “His Name Is Lancelot’ (“he likes to dance a lot; he wears tight pants a lot”). Other standouts: a very funny Steven Baird as Patsy, the king’s dedicated coconut-clopping sound effects toadie; and Austin Heemstra, who narrates things as the historian and gets his own laughs as Not Dead Fred, the Minstrel and Prince Herbert.
    In addition to the very effective duet with Merrill on “The Song That Goes Like This,” Goldberg’s Lady of the Lake takes another shot at Broadway tunes when she returns to the stage in “The Diva’s Lament” (“whatever happened to my part? It was exciting at the start …”).
    Perhaps the most famous Python song of them all, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” opens Act II (and returns very effectively after the curtain call) exclaiming “When you’re chewing on life’s gristle, don’t grumble, give a whistle.” Originally sung in Life of Brian by a chorus of the crucified, it works, very well, here.
    Also working very well is the multi-level castle set by Dan Lavanga and the wide variety of colorful costumes by Linda Swann. Only God and Eric Idle (one and the same in this show) know what was going on behind the scenes during those quick changes.
    Don’t think that because Spamalot runs through August 31 you can just gallop on over and secure a seat. Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre has a hit in this one, so the Holy Grail around Annapolis this month may be securing two tickets, not one chalice.


Music director: Steve Przybyiski. Choreographer: Rikki Howie Lacewell. Stage manager: John Nunemaker. Lighting designer: Matt Tillett. Sound designer: Dan Caughran. About 2 hours and 15 minutes including intermission.

Playing thru Aug. 31: Th-Su 8:30pm at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre. $20; rsvp: 410-268-9212;
www.summergarden.com.

Plenty of solid hits light up nine innings

     Colonial Players’ One-Act Play Festival has been a biyearly summer event since 1999. This year’s installment, THIS AND THAT, presents nine plays across two slates, THIS and THAT, running on alternating dates. The Festival is an occasion for novice directors, production staff and actors to produce known and unknown works under the tutelage of seasoned mentors. Thus, such talents as Rick Wade, past Colonial  Players president and author of the company’s classic A Christmas Carol, appear alongside theater newbies or actors who are cutting their directorial teeth.
    This year’s directors, in the order their shows are listed, include Dave Carter, Timothy Sayles, Rebecca Feibel, Robin Schwartz, Cseni Szabo, Scott Nichols, Dave Walter, Mark T. Allen and Lelia TahaBurt. Their stories range from comedy to tragedy, yet a theme in all but one is that things are not as they seem.

THIS, playing July 25 and 27
     Jerry Casagrande’s Among Shrubs and Ivy, which debuted in 2011 at Silver Spring Stage, follows John (Robert Eversberg) through a decade of vacations at a seaside campground owned by crusty Korean War vet Frank (Martin Hayes). With few but powerful words, they bond over their shared love of the property, their families and the value of continuity in a changing world. With Laurel Kenney, Gregory Anderson and Chloe Kubit.
    Me and My Shadow is a riotous look at duplicity when two classmates reunite with inner voices in-tow, speaking unspeakable thoughts. Playwright Rich Orloff’s forthright comedy follows an insecure writer, Susanne (Bernadette Arvidson), and her Super Ego, Susie (Rosalie Daelemans), to a luncheon with Susanne’s successful publisher friend Jacqueline (Kathryn Huston), and her Id, Jacquie (Peggy Friedman). Even the waitress, Andrea (Laurel Kenney), is funny as Andi (Kubit) expresses her candid thoughts about her customers.
    Sure Thing by David Ives is a take on the dating game reminiscent of Groundhog Day. Bill (Brandon Bentley) and Betty (Sarah Smith) grapple with pick-up lines and small talk, rejecting each other’s overtures with a game show buzzer until they stumble on the right formula for starting a relationship.
    James H. Wise’s comedy Mugger in the Park, voted an Audience Favorite at last year’s Watermelon One-Act Festival in Leonardtown, continues to delight with Kathryn Huston’s portrayal of Selma, the stereotypical little old lady who is stuck up by a thug (Jason Vaughan). Selma prevails with her retinue of complaints, kvetching and clever one-upsmanship. Martin Hayes and Robert Eversberg play Selma’s husband and a second thug.
    In Tough Cookies, by Brett Hursey, a date fizzles when the waiter (Jason Vaughan) can’t supply an entitled jerk, Chaz (Brandon Bentley), with a fortune cookie worthy of its name, while his date, Roxanne (Kenney), racks up paper compliments and blessings.

THAT, playing July 24 and 26
     Queen of the Northern Monkeys, by Jason Vaughan, presents a snippet of life from the 1957 Roman holiday of Danish Baroness Karen Blixen (Carol Cohen), aka Isak Dineson, who wrote the memoir Out of Africa. This lovely episode of her life, exploring her friendship with American literary titan Eugene Walter (Kevin Wallace) and her secretary Clara (Erica Jureckson), feels more like an excerpt from a larger work than a complete work in itself.
    Jeff Stolzer’s award-winning satire Emergency Room pokes fun at the broken healthcare system, pitting a patient (Kim Ethridge) against a corrupt hospital where the doctor and billing clerk (both played by Erica Jureckson) and security guard (Richard Atha-Nicholls) conspire to keep her captive. The exaggerated premise would be funnier if not for the frustration and sick humor.
    Rick Wade’s Foxgloves is a smart intrigue that takes place at an airport bar where widower Dennis (Danny Brooks) and his traveling companion Jerry (Atha-Nicholls) discover how much they have in common. Bernadette Arvidson plays the sympathetic waitress.
    Alien Love Triangle, by Katherine Glover, is a hilarious sci-fi thriller starring Richard Atha-Nicholls and Erica Jureckson as two astronauts studying life and finding love with K’Sh, an amoeba-like creature with three heads (Kubit, Sam Morton and Brooke Penne). 
    Some productions are more polished than others, but each slate offers at least a couple solid wins. It’s summer fun for sultry nights with a seed of surprise.


This and That: One Act Play Festival. Stage Manager: Ernie Morton. Sound: Brittany Rankin and Richard Atha-Nicholls. Lights: Eric Gasior and Shirley Panek. Costumes: Hannah Sturm and Kaelynn Miller. Set: Lyana Morton and Edd Miller.

Playing thru July 27, Th thru Sa at 8pm and Su at 2 at Colonial Players, 108 East St. Annapolis. $10 per slate or $15 for both; rsvp: 410-268-7373; thecolonialplayers.org.