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Articles by Jim Reiter

A very good play balancing good ­fortune with bad luck

“To live in poverty is to exist in a war zone,” award-winning Colonial Players director Edd Miller notes in the playbill for Good People. “Not necessarily with bullets and bombs but with situational choices of conscience.”
    Do choices pull people out of poverty? Determine our lot in life? Or is it luck? Or hard work? Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and Miller ask us not to decide but to ­consider.
    The 2011 drama is set in South Boston, or Southie, in 1998, but its questions are timeless and beyond boundary.
    To help us do that Lindsay-Abaire gives us Margie (with a hard “g”), a middle-aged single Southie mother who loses her job at a dollar store because she’s always late, usually because her adult handicapped daughter can’t be left alone. Margie doesn’t want a handout, just a job that will pay the rent. To find that, she sets aside her ego and reluctantly asks help from her years-ago boyfriend Mikey, an Irish lace doctor who escaped from the neighborhood and got rich because … luck? Hard work? Choices?
    Act I sets us up with the firing by young manager Stevie, with Margie and her friends Dottie and Jean urging her, sometimes hilariously, to look up Mikey. Turns out he has no work to offer. But he has an extravagant birthday party coming up, and Margie invites herself. When she hears by phone that the party is off because of a sick child she believes she is being disinvited lest she won’t embarrass Mikey in front of his non-Southie friends. She goes anyway and is mistaken by Kate, Mikey’s wife, for a caterer picking up dishes that weren’t used because the party was indeed canceled.
    Identities straightened out, Kate invites Margie to chat, much to Mikey’s dismay. Now fly the slings and arrows of good fortune versus bad luck.
    With Miller at the helm, this fine cast navigates the stream of comedy at the surface of much of this show while personifying the undercurrents of deception, despair and distrust. Shirley Panek gives us a Margie who shouldn’t be likeable, but is, thanks to Panek’s deft ability to deliver a stinging yet funny blow to the ego while allowing us to see the pain in her eyes. It is a riveting and emotional performance.
    Likewise, Ben Carr takes Mikey beyond a caricature of a local boy who made good to a finely crafted multidimensional character who relishes his success but, under Margie’s jealous glare, becomes so defensive that his own doubt about luck vs. work show through. Panek and Carr click, so for the audience Margie and Mikey do, too.
    As Kate, Ashley Spooner does some navigating as an elite African-American inexperienced in the past lives of Mikey and Margie. Her Act II performance in a long, yet riveting, three-person scene moves from elitist to understanding as flaws in her husband and their marriage are revealed.
    Karen Lambert’s Jean and Bernadette Arvidson’s Dottie are fine Southie friends, delivering hilarity that resonates with despair. As Stevie, the young store manager whose mother was the women’s friend, Glen Pearson displays the nervousness of a character appearing as the cause of despair.
    Director Miller’s multi-use set cleverly moves from a store alley to a Southie house to a bingo hall to a well-off doctor’s living room all with minimal movement — clear proof that in theater in the round, less is more. His cast keeps the pace moving, and each is clearly invested not only in what we see of their characters but also in what we can feel is so subtly moving under the surface.
    Good People is very, very good.


About two hours, 15 minutes with intermission. Stage manager: Herb Elkin. Costume designer: Dianne Smith. Sound designer: Theresa Riffle. Lighting designer: Frank Florentine.

Thru June 25: ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm, Colonial Players Theatre, Annapolis, $20 w/discounts, rsvp: ­www.thecolonialplayers.org.

Life, love and inspiration from a humble hiding place

The miracle of Anne’s work is that no matter our background, it feels like she is talking directly to us. Indeed. Those are the words of Steve Tobin, the director of Compass Rose’s beautifully constructed production of The Diary of Anne Frank. In the playbill’s director’s note, he goes on to say, “The triumph of her story is that more than 70 years later we are still telling it, and still being inspired to be better members of the human race.” The wit and wisdom generated by a young teenager stuck for two years in the crowded upper rooms of her father’s workplace in Amsterdam as the Nazis surrounded city blocks to ferret out Jews still resonate today because Anne’s energy love for life and intelligence are timeless. But it was, of course, the extraordinary circumstances that make her diary, and its recovery, close to a miracle. At Compass Rose, Tobin and his cast and crew completely commit themselves to the universal truths of this story, and the result is an emotional, suspenseful and sometimes funny tale of life, love and inspiration. Mia Goodman is young, but her acting credentials are impressive even for an adult: Ford’s Theatre, Arena Stage and Signature Theater, to name a few. Goodman pours every ounce of that impressive pedigree into her portrayal of Anne. She’s a typical young teen, but with a depth of understanding of her situation that manifests itself not so much in fear as in optimism. When Hanukkah threatens to slip by uncelebrated but with a prayer, Anne comes to the rescue with a special homemade gift for each of her compatriots. In this scene and others, Goodman gives us an Anne whose buoyancy and love cannot be contained by her circumstances. When she writes in her diary she talks directly to the audience, and Goodman’s depth as an actress, combined with her youth, make us believe she is indeed talking directly to each of us. Goodman’s performance is, in a word, captivating. Her supporting cast achieves the same standard. As Mr. Frank, Steve Lebens is wise, understanding and brave in a very impressive performance. Alicia Sweeney gives us a Mrs. Frank who displays an inherent love and generosity that cracks when one of the other adults is caught stealing food. Jenny Donovan does a fine job as Anne’s sister Margot. As Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan, the guests whom the Franks generously offered hiding, Bryant Centofanti and Jill Kyle-Keith are suitably contentious. Their son Peter is very nicely played by Eli Pendry, who subtly allows Peter’s teenaged nervousness and awkwardness to wane as his friendship with Anne grows. Edd Miller is impressive as Mr. Dussel, the latecomer whose demanding crankiness melts into an acceptance of his situation and a love for the family who have taken him in. And Rachael Murray is effective as Miep, everyone’s connection to the outside world. Helping transport us into a cramped 1940s hiding place are the multi-level set by Tobin, appropriate costumes by Beth Terranova, props by Joann and Mike Gidos and lighting by Alex Brady that is so emotionally effective it almost acts as another character. Anne Frank’s words on the page are inspiring. In the hands of these outstanding performers, they, and we, are transformed. We understand how, despite her circumstances, she could write: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”


About two hours with one intermission.

Thru April 17. Th 7pm; F 8pm; Sa 8pm (and 2pm April 9 & 16); Su 2pm, Compass Rose Theater, Annapolis, $38 w/ discounts: www.compassrosetheater.org; 410-980-6662.

Colonial Players presents a laugh-filled farce with Boeing, Boeing

French playwright Marc ­Camoletti’s Boeing Boeing made a successful takeoff overseas in 1962, playing for seven years in London. But on Broadway three years later, it stalled after 23 performances. A movie version with Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis was widely ignored. But a 2008 Broadway revival was a hit, and that version has landed at Colonial Players in Annapolis.
    Bernard (Brandon Bentley), an American living near Orly Airport in Paris, is juggling three fiancées, each an air hostess: Gloria (Debra Kidwell), the American; Gabriella (Sarah Wade), the Italian; and Gretchen (Rebecca Gift) the German. Making meticulous use of airline timetables and the complicity of his French housekeeper Berthe (Cece Mcgee-Newbrough), Bernard has managed smooth flying for his ruse.
    Along for the bumpy ride comes Bernard’s old pal Robert (Colin Hood), a nervous naïf from Wisconsin who can’t believe his friend’s luck in keeping “one up, one down and one pending.” Robert finds himself more than a witness when the planes get faster and weather sets in. That’s when the wit hits the fanjet, and the laughs start to soar.
    As Bernard, Bentley knows how to deliver a punch line and lands several. But by overdoing his physicality, he seems to be trying too hard for a cool, calm lothario. His later breakdown as things … well, break down … is more believable, so perhaps he’ll get comfortable with his sexy baritone and good looks and settle into the role more comfortably as the run progresses.
    As Robert, Hood uses his comic chops to perfection, taking his jittery body and voice right to the edge of credulity and then stepping back just enough so that we not only believe him but also share a certain empathy. He lands a nice transition from nervous pal to would-be lothario.
    As Berthe the housekeeper, Mcgee-Newbrough walks a similar comedic tightrope, balancing physical comedy and character without falling into caricature. Her lines are funny. but what she does with those lines is even funnier. Her almost silent but quite physical reaction when she first discovers that two of the fiancées have somehow infiltrated the flat at the same time is 15 seconds of comic angst that alone are worth the price of admission.
    As the stewardesses, Kidwell, Gift and Wade shine. Wearing brilliantly colored stewardess costumes by designer Christina McAlpine, each maintains a credible accent and her own brand of clichéd character — but it’s in the clichés that the comedy works.
    Gretchen is the dominating German whose voice and body are whip smart and just as stinging. Gift maintains the dominatrix attitude with aplomb; a long early scene with Robert flies by as she and Hood circle and collide hilariously. Wade’s cooing Italian and Kidwell’s Betty Boop-like cosmo girl each commands her own entertaining niche, while still being brilliant at the ensemble work that the play demands.
    Director Scott Nichols, who also chose the fun 1960s soundtrack, keeps the timing tight. Even on opening night there was nary a blip.
    So fasten your seat belts, put your tray tables up and fly on over to Colonial for a laugh-filled flight to farce.


ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm & 7:30 thru March 12. 108 East St., Annapolis, $20 w/discounts, rsvp: 410-268-7373; thecolonialplayers.org. Two and a half hours with intermission.

Stage manager Dave Carter; Set designer Alan Zemla; Lighting designer Eric Lund.

Reconsider what you think you know about relationships, sex and power

“Colonial Players might just want to bring playwright David Ives on as a resident artist. Last year, Ives’ witty version of the 17th century French farce The Liar won the company the coveted Ruby Griffith Award from the British Embassy for best all-around production by a Washington-area community theater. Now, Venus in Fur — Ives’ take on a stage version of Venus in Furs, the 1870 novel by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch — is equally entertaining and a perfect fit for Colonial’s intimate theater-in-the-round.
    Yes, Sacher-Masoch is the man who, unwittingly, gave us the term masochism, and as this play within a play progresses, it’s not easy for us as an audience to discern the difference between masochism and sadism. And that’s the way Ives intends it.
    Venus in Fur starts with thunder and lightning that portends the battle of the sexes we’re about to see, as playwright/director Thomas Novacek, cranky and spent after a day auditioning actresses without any classical training or “a particle of brain in their skulls,” is lamenting his plight on the phone with his fiancée. In walks young Vanda Jordan, profane, brash, beautiful and all wrong for the part. But she convinces Thomas to read her for the role, acting the male part himself, and we are off on a trip that is sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing, but always riveting.
    Is it a coincidence that her name, Vanda, is the same as the character’s (well, she admits, her name is Wanda but her parents always called her Vanda)? Is it just solid preparation that she comes with a big bag seemingly with a closetful of costumes, both his and hers, that are perfect for the roles? Is it coincidence that, after telling Thomas she quickly scanned the script’s pages on the train ride over, she actually has it memorized?
    As Thomas and Vanda, Jeff Mocho and Natalie Nankervis are a fine match. He is the slightly nerdy, khaki-clad writer trying to bring to life a book he finds as deep and full of meaning as the cultists who read it in 1879. She is the firestorm that rips through his smugness by calling the book soft-core porn.
    Both actors do a fine job moving quickly from their characters into the characters in Thomas’s play, with Nankervis especially effective switching off present-day Vanda’s excitable vocal staccato and sliding right into what can best be called a seducing dominatrix — with her subject more than willing to be the submissive. Both are able to give us a laugh-out-loud line (and there are plenty) one minute, while the next draw us into the emotions and motivations of the modern and 1870 characters they are portraying. It’s truly fine acting.  
    Set designer Ricardo Seijo has turned Colonial’s stage into a very realistic yet generic New York rehearsal hall, complete with fluorescent lights and fire sprinkler pipes along the ceiling and a brick wall along one side with realistic sealed windows that hint at the color outside while simultaneously reminding us that we are captives to … what? The theatrical process? The director-actor dynamic? The degradation bestowed by a dominatrix?
    Eric Lund’s stark at one moment and ethereal the next; lighting and Ben Cornwell’s sound add to the mystique that carries us from present day into 1870 and back. Kaelynn Miller’s costumes for Vanda, meanwhile, might make even the most jaded of theatergoers feel just a touch voyeuristic … which is exactly what Vanda would want, of course.
    If all this sounds like you’re in for an evening of whips and chains, fear not. This is a finely crafted script, nominated for a Tony Award in 2012, brilliantly brought to life on Colonial’s in-the-round stage by director Jim Gallagher and his stellar cast. Gallagher’s deft directorial hand and the complete believability of Mocho and Nankervis carry us on a visual and emotional journey that has us questioning what we think we know about relationships, sex and power.


About 90 minutes with no intermission. ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm (and 7:30pm Jan. 17) thru Jan. 23. Colonial Players Theatre, Annapolis, $20 w/discounts, rsvp: 410-268-7373.
 
Director: Jim Gallagher. Producer: Jason Vaughn. Stage manager: Shirley Panek; Set designer: Ricardo Seijo. Lighting designer: Eric Lund. Sound Designer: Ben Cornwell. Costume Designer: Kaelynn Miller.

A funny, heartwarming holiday present from a local theater company that has been making Annapolis grateful for 67 years

Morning’s at Seven could be dated or boring, this 1930s’ play written about a quartet of aging sisters in Middle America. Instead, Annapolis veteran Rick Wade’s deft direction combines with a timeless script by playwright Paul Osborn and some of this area’s most experienced actors to make us laugh while tugging at our heartstrings.
    The family is sure to remind you of your own, especially at this time of year. Cora and Thor (Lois Evans and Mike Dunlop) live next to her sister Ida (Carol Cohen) and Ida’s husband Carl (Duncan Hood). Aaronetta (Dianne Hood) the old maid, lives with Cora and Thor. Esther (Sharie Valerio) and her husband David (Greg Anderson) live nearby. Homer (Paul Valleau), Ida and Carl’s son, has been engaged to Myrtle (Sherri Millan) for seven years but hasn’t yet introduced her to the family.
    It’s a cast whose experience and commitment to their roles create interplay and chemistry that reminds us consistently of what it’s like to laugh with family members one minute and hate them the next. Love never fades, but it does go into hiding.
    The love among these sisters is palpable, and their frustrations are tangible. Evans’ Cora is the leader of the pack, her maturity and big sisterly attitude enduring even when her little sisters are in their late 60s and early 70s. Cohen’s Ida is a nerve-wracked wife trying to figure out why Carl keeps having “spells.” Duncan Hood gives us a Carl whose spells are manifested in his entire comedic body; yet his comedic mastery never gets in the way of the empathy we feel with a man of age who doubts where he’s been and where he ought to be going. Similarly, Dianne Hood gives us an Aaronetta who wonders what she’s missed by remaining single — while harboring a secret that might explain why she made the choice so many years ago.
    As the edgy 40-something who has been engaged for years but can’t seem to pull the trigger, Paul Valleau makes Homer a combination of Ida and Carl, physically funny without crossing into caricature. Valleau’s work here is splendid and matched by Millan’s nicely underplayed Myrtle.
    Anderson’s David, who hates it when his wife Esther visits her sisters, does a nice job as the rigid in-law who looks down on the rest of the family. We’ve all experienced those, right?
    The heart of this play is the four sisters; Valerio, Evans, Cohen and Hood work so well together that it’s easy to believe they’re related. These talented actresses convey the pathos and commitment needed to make us care as much as if we were sitting at Osborn’s premiere. I can’t get too much into the plot because it wraps up with a few nice surprises; suffice it to say that Morning’s at Seven is written and performed timelessly.
    One quibble: When a play set in 1930s middle America focuses on sisters in their late 60s and early to mid 70s, it’s a distraction to see three of the four with auburn-dyed hair. Fact is, in the 1930s getting one’s hair dyed was a long, painful and expensive process, typically undertaken by younger women who were often looked down upon for doing it … except for the platinum-haired movie stars who literally bleached their hair. At least a hint of gray would have been more real in a cast of older women playing older women.
    But as I say, that’s a quibble. It doesn’t take away from the acting, from the relationships we are privileged to witness and the overall feeling that Morning’s at Seven gives us, especially during this time of year when family is the focus.
    Top-notch acting and direction, a beautiful backyard set complete with tree limbs hanging from the ceiling, sharp lighting and a nice musical score all combine to make Morning’s at Seven a funny, heartwarming treat. It’s a nice holiday present from a local theater company that has been making Annapolis grateful for 67 years.


Two and a half hours with intermission. Thru Dec. 13. ThFSa 8pm, Su Nov. 29 2pm & 7:30pm, Su Dec. 13 2pm, Colonial Players Theater, Annapolis, $20 w/ discounts, rsvp: 410-268-7373.
 
Producer:  Tom Stuckey. Stage manager: Andy McLendon. Set design: David Pindell. Floor design: Carol Youmans; Lighting design: Frank Florentine. Sound design: Theresa Riffle. Costume design: Dianne Smith.

 

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.

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.