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Articles by Jim Reiter

The best of times and worst of times brought to vivid, emotional life

The most famous first lines in literature — “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” — may make you fear you’re in for a dry history lesson.
    Not so with Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s A Tale of Two Cities. As soon as actor Brian Keith MacDonald follows that opening, you realize this production is going to be about the fire of feelings, not the dust of historic facts. Thereupon, it becomes impossible not to go with this revolutionary ride.
    Lara Eason’s adaptation of Dickens’ 1859 novel is concise, filtering out a few characters and situations to put on stage the very basics of the book that so many read in high school. (Most lists have A Tale of Two Cities as the top-selling book of all time, excluding the Bible and other religious books often given away.)
    We’re in England and France before and during the French Revolution, with the aristocracy’s long years of entitlement and cruelty punished by the revolutionaries, whose self-justified actions are just as cruel.
    This production runs only one hour and 45 minutes including intermission, but if anything, the power of Dickens’ story and the clarity of his characters’ feelings are enhanced by that brevity. That’s due in very large part to a cast of seven actors, including MacDonald, who plumbs the depths of each main character even as they quickly switch to playing multiple others.
    MacDonald plays the cynical drunk Sydney Carton, who turns out to be the hero. Patrick Truhler gives us Charles Darnay, the French noble who changes his name out of disgust at his family’s treatment of the peasants. Richard Pilcher is Doctor Manette, imprisoned in the Bastille for 18 years. James Carpenter is Jarvis Lorry, Manette’s friend. Laura Rocklyn is Doctor Manette’s daughter Lucie, loved by both Carton and Darnay, and the central character tying everything together. Joel Ottenheimer plays Monsieur Defarge, the wine shop owner who becomes a revolutionary leader. Amy Pastoor plays his wife Madame Defarge, whose cruel back story is hinted at in such speeches as “Tell the wind and fire where to stop; not me!” Each of these actors does a remarkable job switching from role to role in a way that clearly delineates the character of the moment so that the audience keeps up easily with the action.
    Director Sally Boyett, the company’s founder and producing artistic director, keeps the pace moving with nary a scene change in the small, 70-seat, black-box space. The play is beautifully choreographed so that the action is constant, yet the emotions remain the focus. Lighting designer Adam Mendelson’s illumination is so focused and appropriate that it acts as another character.
    It’s very likely, of course, that you’ve read the book. It’s not very likely that when you did you were kicked in the gut by the emotions and raw power of the characters that are brought to life so vividly in this sincere and succinct production.


Stage manager: Sara K. Smith; Sound designer: Gregory Thomas Martin; Fight choreographer: Amy Pastoor; Dialect coach: Nancy Krebs.

FSa 8pm, Su 2pm & 7pm thru Aug. 2. 111 Chinquapin Round Rd., Annapolis. $35 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-415-3513; annapolisshakespeare.org.

Whodunnit? Ask the audience

When Charles Dickens died 145 years ago this month, he left behind an unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Release was scheduled in a dozen installments between 1870 and 1871, but he finished only six. Afterward, it became a bit of a cottage industry to take on the novel’s completion, including deciding which of Dickens’ characters was responsible for the murder of the title character.  Would-be Dickens met with varying levels of success. One that turned out quite well is the version that kicks off Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre’s 50th season.
    With book, music and lyrics by Rupert Holmes (earworm warning: Holmes is perhaps best known for his 1979 hit “Escape … The Piña Colada Song”), the show debuted in 1985 and won Holmes five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Original Score. Lighter and broader than the novel, this musical Drood’s action and audience are in an old-time English music hall, a show-within-a-show complete with emcee and cast playing not Dickens’ characters but music hall performers playing Dickens’ characters.
    And what characters they are, an English town’s worth of winking whackies, led by a triad of top talent. David Merrill has a great time as John Jasper, Drood’s schizoid uncle and choirmaster. Paige Miller is the sincere ingénue Rosa Bud, Drood’s betrothed after whom Jasper lusts. Emily Lentz is Drood in a traditional cross-dressing role. All three have wonderful voices, and Merrill’s and Miller’s especially soar on the operatic “The Name of Love and Moonfall,” sung after he confesses his love for her.
     As the proprietor of the Music Hall Royale, Erik Alexis excitedly introduces us to the actors and their characters and guides us through the story with old jokes and a fine voice. His duet with Merrill on “Both Sides of the Coin,” a 100mph patter-song romp through an actor’s confusion when playing two parts, is a highlight of the night.
    As the newcomers from Ceylon, Casey Lynne Garner and DJ Wojciehowski stir things up nicely as siblings Helena and Neville Landless. Wendell Holland’s Reverend Crisparkle is perhaps not the upstanding man of the cloth he wants us to believe. As Princess Puffer, an opium den denizen, Maribeth Vogel offers up a fine “The Garden Path to Hell” in describing how a boyfriend turned her to a life of sleaze. Several other fine characters anchor the show, including Ethan Goldberg as Durdles, the usually drunk stonemason, and Stephanie Bernholz, doing a fine job with the stick puppet that plays Durdles’ Deputy.
    Connecting all of these characters to the plot might take more space than allotted here, so let’s just say that when Drood ends up murdered, there are plenty of suspects, plus a new character who comes on to investigate. This being a musical based on Dickens’ version of Drood rather than the brooding, dark and incomplete novel, it’s all tied up with a happy ending. Several, in fact.    
    Whodunnit? You get to decide.


Director: Andy Scott. Music director: Ken Kimble. Choreographer: Elysia Greene-Merrill. Stage manager: Kristy McKeever. Costumer: Jackie Colestock. Lighting designer: Drew Fox.
 
Playing thru June 20. Th-S plus W June 17 8pm: 143 Compromise St., Annapolis. $22; rsvp: 410-268-9212; summergarden.com.

The music is timeless as life ­imitates art

Is it life imitates art? Or art imitates life? Either way, when Kiss Me, Kate hit Broadway back in 1948, winning a Tony Award, it marked the first time that Cole Porter’s music and lyrics integrated into a stage story, moving beyond showcasing Porter’s clever musical banter to pushing the story along. The story, told in show-within-a-show technique, is the on-and-offstage comedy of errors of the producer, director and star of musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Fred Graham, his ex-wife and costar Lilli Vanessi, and a comic cast with some very fine voices.
    Brian Binney nails Fred’s egoism, has a fine voice and cavorts across the stage with a jumpiness that mirrors his desperation to ensure that the show goes on. He is desperately trying to keep Lilli from quitting after she discovers his lust for Lois Lane, the sexy young actress whose boyfriend owes some very bad men some very big bucks. As Lilli, Brenda D. Parker is as convincingly egotistical as Fred. She has a powerhouse voice that is flexible enough to move from ballad to comedic in a matter of measures. As Lois and Bill, her boyfriend in arrears, Amy Greco and Nathan Bowen give us a pair of sure-footed hoofers and singers who seem born to the stage of old, whose attractions were soft shoe and solid voices, not special effects and remakes.
    The story is frantic and funny, but it’s the classic Porter songs that keep the audience — at least those of a certain age or interest in Broadway history — thinking a-ha at recognizing tunes that turned out to be timeless. The hit parade starts with the company announcing “Another Op’nin’, Another Show.” As the parade passes by, we’re mesmerized by Parker’s beautiful “So in Love” and riotous “I Hate Men,” Greco’s and Bowen’s “Why Can’t You Behave?” and, opening Act II, Jared Shamberger’s turn as Paul energetically leading the company through a very nicely choreographed “Too Darn Hot.” Special mention to the bassist in the orchestra — either Jeff Eckert or Steve Hudgins in the program — who plucks a very jazzy accompaniment on the latter.
    Other chestnuts, from “Wunderbar” by Binney and Parker to Greco’s “Always True to You in My Fashion,” keep the parade of hits coming. When two toughies, played by Josh Hampton and Michael Iacone, show up trying to collect from Bowen’s Bill and end up a part of the cast, they bring a cool liveliness to the goings-on that culminates in a hilarious “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” that seems to go on forever — and deserves to.
    Costumes by Linda Swann are colorful and fun. Director Roy Hammond and choreographer Rikki Howie Lacewell keep the pace moving. Stage manager Joanne D. Wilson keeps the scene changes short. The live orchestra led by Joe Biddle does a nice job moving the music without overpowering the singers, quite an accomplishment when an orchestra of more than a dozen is playing in a relatively small 155-seat venue like Bowie Playhouse.
    2nd Star’s Kiss Me, Kate brings us old Broadway that’s as good as new. It’s comedy, romance and music that were built to last. Judging by the vitality of 2nd Star’s production, tickets likely won’t.


Playing thru June 27, FSa 8pm; Su 3pm: Bowie Playhouse at White Marsh Park, Bowie; $22 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-757-5700; 2ndstarproductions.com.

Set to music, Oscar Wilde is twice as funny

It’s ironic that when Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest premiered in 1895, many critics loved its humor but were taken aback at its lightness, its refusal to take on heavy social or political issues of the time, as most dramas had done. The irony is that it’s exactly this drive to escape the heavy responsibilities of “position” that impel Jack Worthing to create an alter ego, Ernest, through whom Jack can live a life untethered by the demands of position.
    Even so, Wilde’s Earnest was quickly acclaimed one of his greatest works, and certainly his greatest comedy, one that moved the audience to laughter consistently and whose dialogue and characters rang so true that even today the plot seems as likely as life. Take this thespian froth, add music that stays true to the times and the story, and you end up with the hilarious hit that The Colonial Players of Annapolis is displaying on its in-the-round stage through May 16.
    Director Rick Wade — a long-time directing, acting and playwright veteran of Colonial Players (Wade wrote the book for the group’s version of A Christmas Carol, a three-decade Annapolis tradition) — knows just how to make the most of that stage. Along with set and floor designer Edd Miller and lighting designer Frank Florentine, Wade turns Colonial’s theater into a garden of comedy, with pastel flowers lining the walls behind the audience, a floor just as beautiful, lights constantly in motion and set pieces cleverly rearranged during quickly choreographed scene changes ranging from London flats to a country garden.
    Worthing, played by Eric Hufford, and his pal Algernon, played by Steven Baird, have a nice camaraderie on stage, giving the little digs that friends do. When Algernon, whose cousin Gwendolyn Jack is in love with, figures out Jack’s Ernest ruse, the plot takes off. It’s a plot that, because of Wilde’s intricacy with words and humor, requires direction that keeps the pace moving. In turn, the cast must have the talent to not only portray these characters brightly but also to reject the temptation to allow the pace to trip up a basic acting requirement: The audience must hear and understand you, especially in the round, when the actor is always facing away from at least one section of the audience. This cast gets the job done.
    From the impossible patter of “A Handbag Is Not a Proper Mother” to the round of “My Eternal Devotion,” some very nice voices are on display here. But never does the music take precedence over the comedy.
    This is a stellar cast. Erica Jureckson as Gwendolyn and Sarah Wade as Cecily, the young ward of Worthing, work very well together, especially when singing “My Very First Impression,” an irony about their ability to size up a man on first glance. Greg Jones as Lane, Worthing’s valet, is top-notch and in fine voice in “You Can’t Make Love,” with Sherri Millan’s servant girl Effie, about the many burdens of upper classdom that prevent their enjoying … ahem … life to its fullest. As Gwendolyn’s mother Lady Bracknell, Barbara Bartos is the picture of rigid elitism in that “handbag” song and throughout. And as Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble, Dianne and Duncan Hood get plenty of laughs but serve up a touching dose of mature puppy love as well as dance around their feelings for each other in “Metaphorically Speaking.”
    There are others, including several smaller characters who do double duty keeping the scene changes brisk, often getting their own tee-hees. The bottom line here is every audience’s top priority in a comedy: Keep things moving, and make us laugh. They do, and you will.


Playing thru May 16: ThFSa 8pm; Su 2pm: Colonial Players Theatre in the Round, Annapolis; $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373; thecolonialplayers.org.

Bold choices — for these homesteaders and Bowie Community Theatre

Since the mid-1960s, Bowie Community Theatre’s bread and butter has been mysteries, comedies and classics. Still, it has never shied away from taking on lesser-known material with depth and message. It has found such a gem in Pearl Cleage’s 1995 production Flyin’ West. This is a beautifully written piece that brings to life the oft-ignored story of how former slaves in 1898 moved west — Kansas, in this case — toward a life of self-dependence.
    A small story with a big impact, Flyin’ West demands actors who can plow the depths of their characters’ pasts to bring us dual realities. On the one hand, that’s what they lived as slaves. On the other, it’s the hope they feel as they simultaneously work to make their town of Nicodemus an enduring success and ward off speculators who see dollar signs across the acres.    
    Director Estelle Miller has assembled a cast that makes us feel the warmth and love they have for each other, their determination to create a town that will prosper and the indignities of having darker skin at a time when whites had no legal barrier preventing them from committing all sorts of abuse.
    More specifically, this is a story of four very strong African American women, with a cast doing justice to each. It all takes place at the home of Sophie Washington and Fannie Dove, 30-something homesteaders who have opened their home to Leah, their 70-something neighbor whom they do not want to be alone during the oncoming winter.
    As Leah, Sandra Cox True gives us the past: several very touching monologues about what it was like being a female slave who had another slave forced on her to bring healthy male children to the plantation. Her story about that first time, at age 13 — and subsequent stories about the babies being taken away — are heartbreakingly real. Yet True also gives us some wonderfully funny and dry responses in her back-and-forth with the other characters … including the story of how she learned to bake an especially tart apple pie.
    As Fannie, Lolita Marie gives us the present. She bickers with Sophie, flirts with neighbor Wil Parish and seems to have aspirations of ensuring that the hardscrabble homesteader’s life doesn’t preclude having some of the finer things; she made sure their fine china went with them from Memphis to Nicodemus. Marie’s Fannie is gentle and perceptive.
    As Sophie, Kecia Campbell gives us a taste of the future as the strong-willed visionary whose singular purpose in life is to leave behind the past and forge ahead by doing all she can to ensure that Nicodemus remains in the hands of her people. She plans the layout of the town just as she plans her own future, and Campbell’s characterization is spot on. She has no intention of playing second fiddle to anyone, whether a slave overseer or the male-dominated society she faces.
    Brawnlyn Blueitt plays younger sister Minnie with appropriate innocence and tentativeness, growing stronger as she and her baby survive the abuses of her husband. Hard to believe this is Blueitt’s stage debut.
    Neighbor Wil is the good guy neighbor who would do anything to help the women, especially Fannie. Darius McCall is quite appealing; his Wil is a touch dimmer than the others, but his loyalty and strength manifest when the time comes for him to be the protector.
    Frank is Minnie’s husband. A mulatto born of a white man and a slave mother, Ben Harris walks a bit of an acting tightrope as Frank. The character as written threatens to fall into cliché: frustrated self-hating drunk gambler who hits his wife and wants to sell their land. But Cleage doesn’t quite allow Frank to cross that line, and Harris’s performance, while potent, is subtle enough to make us believe Frank’s self-loathing and explosiveness.
    It all takes place on a beautifully realized set of a see-through house by set designer Dan Lavagan, lit nicely by Bowie Playhouse veteran pro Garrett Hyde. The pace on opening night was occasionally tentative, both with the actors’ lines and long scene changes, all of which are sure to tighten up as the run progresses.
    One can hope: the show started at 8pm. Act I ran 1.5 hours, and it all ended about 10:50. Nearly three hours is long even for a musical, much less a straight play. But that’s a minor caveat considering the importance of this story.
    This brilliant script brought to life by riveting performances adds another chapter to how the West was won.


Playing thru April 25: FSa 8pm; 2pm Sa April 18 and Su April 19: Bowie Community Theatre, White Marsh Park, Bowie; $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 301-805-0219;  bctheatre.com.

Intimate setting, top-notch acting, taut direction and high production values bring this classic to life

For this classic, less is more.
     The Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s production of Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility, uses a script nicely streamlined and adapted to the stage by Jon Jory, whose versions of other classics like Pride and Prejudice the company has presented over its brief history. As impressive as the script’s fidelity to the novel is Annapolis Shakespeare’s confidence in its ability to tell a complex story with nary a set piece other than a few chairs and a trunk.
    After spending time at the Bowie Playhouse, Annapolis Shakespeare moved into its Chinquapin Round Road facility just a couple of years ago, and began doing its plays there even more recently. By using a less-is-more philosophy — and knowing that solid talent and direction are quite a bit more important to good storytelling than extensive sets and facilities — producing artistic director Sally Boyett nicely adapts to the company’s small, 70-seat space.
    In the case of Sense and Sensibility, Boyett gives us the classic story of two young sisters. Elinor is filled with sense and prudence, a level-head. Marianne is filled with sensibility — emotion, romance — and always speaks her mind. Though written in the late 1700s, Austen’s work remains loved, read and performed because she captured ideas and feelings that are essentially timeless.
    This story of love, laughter and heartache is brought to us by a cast of actors led by Laura Rocklyn as Marianne Dashwood and Rebecca Swislow as Elinor Dashwood. Rocklyn’s Marianne is a charmer, attracting us via her refusal to hold her tongue as well as the humor of what she says when she does speak. Rocklyn and Swislow work very well together; this is a pair that you can believe are sisters.
    They and their widowed mother, played nicely by Sue Struve, are forced to move into a small cottage after their half-brother (the elegant Brian Keith MacDonald) and his wife, played to the hilt of vanity by Renata Plecha, decide that they prefer to take the family estate and force the trio out.
    Evicted, they settle in a small cottage in Devonshire, near the home of her cousin John Middleton and his wife, who welcome the three openly, soon introducing them to local society. As Middleton, Richard Pilcher is gregarious and warm, quite the opposite of what they had experienced before being forced out.
    But Sense and Sensibility is not so much about society connections as it is about the two girls and the suitors who come calling: Edward Ferrars (Patrick Truhler), whose engagement to another is kept secret but who becomes attracted to Elinor; John Willoughby (James Carpenter), a charmer but a cheater whose engagement to Marianne is presumed by many but never official; and Colonel Brandon (Joel Ottenheimer), a tall, good guy who takes on the charge of the daughter of a woman he loved but was not allowed by family to marry, and who falls in love with Marianne.
    All three give us tightly drawn and distinctive characters, each bringing their unique backgrounds to bear on the present, and each revealing to us the chemistry that has formed their affections for the sisters.
    As always with Annapolis Shakespeare, costumes are expansive but true to the period, lighting of the small space is imaginative and evocative and Boyett’s choreography of scene changes keeps things moving apace, with each scene blending into the next clearly yet with nary a visual or verbal gap.
    In other words, less is more: an intimate setting, top-notch acting, taut direction and high production values are more than enough to bring this classic to life.


Production stage manager: Sara K. Smith. Lighting design: Colin Dieck. Costumes: Kat McKerrow. Dialect coach: Nancy Krebs

Playing thru May 3: FSa 8pm (and 2pm, Sa April 4); Su 3pm: Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Studio 111, 111 Chinquapin Round Rd., Annapolis; $35 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-415-3513; www.annapolisshakespeare.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.

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.