Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Steel Magnolias

Gossip and life-long friendships abound in Truvy's Beauty Salon in a scene from the Woodland Opera House production "Steel Magnolias" opening Friday, Oct. 16, and running through Nov. 8. From left, seated, are Emily Delk and Danielle Barnet and, standing, are Nancy Agee, Deborah Hammond and Lenore Sebastian. Karen Alexander/Courtesy photo   

The beauty shop in a small town is the perfect place for good friends to relax and spend an hour, or a day, or a lifetime. Truvy’s Beauty Shop in Chinquapin, Louisiana, is just such a place.

Truvy’s is the setting for Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias,” now gracing the stage of the Woodland Opera House, under the direction of Jason Hammond. The story, based on the life and death of Harling’s real-life sister who died in 1985 from early diabetes, opened off-Broadway in 1987 and closed in 1990, after 1,126 performances.

The all-star movie, with Dolly Parton as Truvy and Julia Roberts as the dying Shelby was a hit when released in 1989. The play then reopened on Broadway in 2005 for a short run, closing after only 136 performances.

It continues today as a popular play for community theaters, and its success depends greatly on the talent of the six women who populate the salon, all good friends who have seen each other through good times and bad times over the years, women who are “as delicate as magnolias but as tough as steel.”

The strength of the show is in the camaraderie of the women, and according to Deborah Hammond (Truvy), the cast came together much as the women they are playing. “The rehearsal process seemed less like work and more like having the opportunity to laugh and visit with good friends each night.”
The chemistry of this cast and their enjoyment of each other came through loud and clear to the audience throughout the play.

Hammond was outstanding as Truvy, big and bold with an open heart and an ear for all the town gossip. Hammond not only brought Truvy to life, with a spark that resonated with the audience, but she was impressive in her hair styling skills as well!

Patricia Glass is Annelle, a new employee at Truvy’s, who is hiding her own secrets and who is very timid at first, but gains self-confidence and eventually fits right in with everyone else.

Danielle Barnett is glowing as Shelby, who comes in on her wedding day to have the finishing touches put on her hair. The show really revolves around Shelby over two years — her wedding, her fragile health, her desire to have a baby, and the sad consequences of that decision, though she hides her condition so well it’s very difficult to believe she is sick.

Shelby’s mother M’Lynn is played by Emily Delk, who has a complicated yet loving relationship with her daughter. M’Lynn has the least to do for the first three scenes, but her raw emotional breakdown in scene four breaks your heart. She’s really the only one of the women who shows extreme emotion and she does it beautifully.

Lenore Sebastian is Clairee, former first lady of Chinquapin. She has a quick wit and a way of diffusing tension with humor. She has a love-hate relationship with the town curmudgeon, Ouiser.
Nancy Agee’s Ouiser, is loud, brash and inappropriate. She apparently dislikes everybody and says things like “The only reason people are nice to me is that I have more money than God.” Yet she is believable in those few instances when she lets her humanity show through the wall she has built around her.

The cast has the advantage of a beautiful set on which to work. Jason Hammond and John Bowles have created a beauty parlor so realistic that the only thing missing was the smell of hair spray and other chemicals. There was, however, one problem with the set, depending on where you sat. Our seats were in the fourth row, on the right, and the couches in the lounge area completely obliterated our view of the second hair-cutting seat. Since M’Lynn spent a good deal of the first scene in that chair, having her hair set, I rarely got a view of her.

This is a story of long-lasting friendship and the close bond among women who have been through so much together. In the right hands, this is a beautiful story that will resonate with anyone who has needed the support of her friends in joy and in sorrow. Fortunately, the Woodland Opera House has the right hands.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche

The cast of B Street Theatre's “5 Lesbians Eating A Quiche”
includes, from left: top row, Elisabeth Nunziato and Stephanie Altholz,
bottom, Amy Resnick, Amy Kelly and Tara Sissom B Street Theatre/Courtesy photo

“5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche,” by Evan Linder and Andrew Hobgood, now at the B Street Theatre, may be one of the funniest 60-plus minutes I’ve ever spent in the theater. I did talk with two people who didn’t like it at all, but judging by the others around me, they were definitely in the minority.

It is 1956, when Americans lived with the threat of communism and a nuclear attack, and when same-sex attraction was still the “love that dare not speak its name.” Somewhere in middle America it is the long-awaited day of the annual Quiche Breakfast of the Susan B. Anthony Sisters of Gertrude Stein, whose motto is “No men. No meat. All manners.”

The group’s board of directors, all self-described “widows” costumed and coiffed like the most extreme Stepford Wives (costumes by Paulette Sand-Gilbert), are there to get the festivities started.

By the end of the evening, you may never look at quiche in the same way again.

The audience, all of us (male and female) also “widows,” becomes part of things when name tags are slapped on us as we enter the theater (I was “Nora,” my husband was “Eula”).

The play is rife with innuendo, double entendres, metaphor and repressed sexual tension. We learn that the egg is the most perfect food, the closest food to Jesus, that quiche is the staff of life and that meat should never, ever taint the ingredients of a quiche.

Director Buck Busfield has assembled five of the funniest ladies in the Sacramento area — Elisabeth Nunziato, Amy Kelly, Amy Resnick, Stephanie Altholz and Tara Sissom — and each is in top form in this hilarious comedy.

Resnick is Vern, the mannish woman, who wears boots with her dress, walks with a swagger, and sits with legs spread apart. She is the chairman of the buildings and grounds committee and has turned their meeting room into a secure bomb shelter, since the Red Menace is a real threat. She made a couple of mistakes, though, that will greatly affect the others.

The threat becomes reality midway through the play when a nuclear bomb is dropped and the women realize they are safe, but have to remain in their shelter for up to four years. That’s when things get out of control and they realize that they are safe to express their true feelings. In short order, everyone in the audience is admitting that he or she is secretly a lesbian and Nunziato drops the biggest bomb of the night.

The quiche-eating scene is easily the funniest of the evening, though Sissom ultimately makes the biggest splash.

The plot is absurdly ridiculous, but also surprisingly emotional and in the end it demonstrates how far we have come in the past 50-plus years.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Circle Mirror Transformation

L to R: Heidi Masem, Trent Beeby, Woody Fridae, and Linda Glick
I’ve never heard such a quiet audience in my life.

Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” was quite a change from Winters Theatre Company’s usual wacky comedies, and the new young director, Andrew Fridae, had warned the audience there would be silences in the show that might seem uncomfortable and not to worry that the actors had forgotten their lines. Throughout the play, the audience was in rapt attention so that during the silences you could hear a pin drop.

The director has ignored the Community Center stage and built instead a platform along the back wall of the room on which he has created the look of a studio where an “acting class” is taking place, led by Marty (Linda Glick) a 55-year-old acting instructor who teaches by communication exercises rather than by actual acting scenes. Glick, an instructor of such courses in real life, I was informed, is obviously perfect in the role of instructor, mentor and participant in the activities.

There are four in her class. James (Woody Fridae, father of the director and former mayor of Winters) is her husband and their relationship will come under some scrutiny throughout the evening.

Schultz (Trent Beeby) is a 48-year-old divorcee, full of insecurities, newly single, and hoping the class will help his self-esteem.

Theresa (Ana Kormos) is a 35-year-old gorgeous but lonely woman, harboring her own relationship problems and doing a lot of sublimating.

Lauren (Heidi Masem) is only 19 and hopes the class will prepare her to audition for an upcoming high school production of “West Side Story.” She is the typical sullen teenager, but still serious about doing well in this class.

The play is divided into two acts and each consists of three weeks of the six-week class. Each “week” is a series of acting exercises, some of which may seem silly, but which, over the course of the six weeks, shows how the group has come together, and has grown and been changed by their experiences.

Along one wall of the studio is a large mirror, donated by Sally Teaford, which allows the class to concentrate on the exercises, and not on always facing the audience, which can see them in the mirror when they are looking away.

Director Fridae explained to me that this is a “naturalistic play,” meaning that the action attempts to create the illusion of reality. Fridae (and playwright Baker) succeeds so brilliantly that the audience was totally into what was going on on stage.

This was the second-most-produced play in the United States after its 2009 premiere, perhaps because of the small cast and perhaps because of that “naturalistic” approach, but it’s not as simple as it may seem because it requires a team of top-notch actors who relate well to each other. Fortunately, just such a mix is featured in this show.

Throughout the evening, relationships among the participants form and dissolve. One particularly touching exercise involves one person getting up, introducing him or herself as another member of the group and then giving an introduction based on that person. Some of those introductions were quite touching, especially when the actor speaking addressed something within the person he or she was representing that that person had not realized.

“I am a real artist,” for example, was a real revelation to the person about whom the comment was spoken.

Another surprisingly effective exercise was a conversation between two people where they could each use only one nonsense word, “goulash” and “ak-mak,” for example. The exercise began awkwardly, but as the participants became comfortable with the exercise, an actual conversation began to be discerned.

Things work so organically that one wonders if the actors might be improvising, but it’s all scripted beautifully and directed so expertly that it ends up being a new theatrical experience for all. It’s not until the cast takes a rather unusual bow that you realize it has been a play and not a real-life experience all along.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Sense and Sensibility

Teddy Spencer as Edward Ferrars and Laura Klingaman as Elinor Dashwood
Whatever did young women do to find a man in the days before online dating sites?

Jane Austen seems to have had her own 18th-century, based on the plot of her most popular novels. Her “Sense and Sensibility” is currently having a delicious run at Sacramento Theatre Company, opening its 71st season.

Austen wrote this work in the form of letters, in 1795, at the age of 19, which may explain why she writes so knowledgeably about the thoughts and emotions of young women. It was not published until 1811, by which time Austen had changed the form to a narrative and the title to “Sense and Sensibility.” Its author was the anonymous “A Lady.”

The story follows the fortunes and misfortunes, the loves and heartbreaks of the plucky Dashwood sisters and the wicked and wacky characters who surround them.

Lenne Klingaman is simply outstanding as Elinor Dashwood, the “sensible” sister. She is noble to a fault in controlling her feelings for Edward Ferrars (Teddy Spencer), and later her disappointment in him. (Ferrars also takes a brief hilarious turn, as his brother Robert.)

Lindsey Marie Schmeltzer is sister Marianne, the drama queen who feels love is a waste until she is swept off her feet (literally) by roué John Willoughby (Kevin Gish), who will later break her heart.
This is a superior cast, but outstanding among them are Matt K. Miller, playing the kind of role he does so well as John Middleton, the affable squire who offers lodging to the Dashwood women after they are forced out of their own home. Miller plays Middleton with all the ebullience of Dickens’ Fezziwig.

Adding wonderful comic moments is Laura Kaya as Mrs. Jennings, mother-in-law to John, a substantial woman with a voice that shatters glass, an effervescent personality, and a big heart to boot.

Also in the comic department is Tara Henry as Mrs. Palmer, the ditzy wife of dour Mr. Palmer (Ron Dailey). Mrs. Palmer always finds something to laugh at and when she gets together with Mrs. Jennings, they are as funny as Lucy and Ethel off on some wacky caper.

David Campfield gives a subdued but solid performance as Colonel Brandon, hopelessly in love with Marianne, yet constantly rebuffed by her.

Special mention must be given to the marvelous sets by Renee DeGarmo, which, assisted by tech crew and cast members, roll in and out, twist and turn, and create several beautiful settings without a break in the action of the actors.

Jessica Minnihan’s costumes were beautiful, but I did feel sorry that everyone wore the same clothes for the entire show.

In the end, one always wonders if sense or sensibility will win out, and happily for the Dashwood sisters, they learn to combine them both for a happy ending.

That old guy in the ads would be so pleased.