Saturday, July 31, 2004

Lady Windermere's Fan

Ghost Light Theatre Festival has opened at the Veterans Memorial Theater with its first of four mainstage productions, Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” directed by Emily Henderson.

This is a play which centers on the strict morals of Victorian England, when courtesy and manners were valued above personal conflicts. One did not air one’s dirty laundry in public. Into this world comes a situation rife with delicious innuendo and the whole town is talking about it.

Lady Windermere (Alicia Hunt) is about to celebrate her birthday and has received an ornate fan as a gift from her husband . She is visited by the gossipy Duchess of Berwick (Betsy Raymond) and her daughter Lady Agatha (Madelyn Ligtenberg) and told that her husband has been seen calling on a woman of bad reputation, a Mrs Erlynne. The Duchess intimates that Lord Windermere has been giving this woman large sums of money.

Lady Windermere finds her husband’s secret bank book showing substantial payments to Mrs. Erlynne and concludes that the rumor is true and that her husband has been unfaithful. What's more, Lord Windermere (Anthony Pinto) asks her to invite Mrs Erlynne to her birthday gathering. She refuses but her husband sends the invitation anyway and Mrs Erlynne (Maddy Ryen) comes to the party. There is a near confrontation between the two women.

Lady Windermere decides she can no longer live with her husband, and runs away to join an admirer, Lord Darlington (Blake Campbell-Hyde), leaving behind a good bye letter for her husband. The letter is intercepted by Mrs Erlynne, who pursues her and persuades her to return home without Windermere finding out. Unfortunately, Lady Windermere leaves her new fan behind.

Later the men gather at Darlington's place and the fan is found but Mrs Erlynne appears and says that it was she who left the fan, thereby ruining her own reputation by being in a gentleman’s apartment and also ruins her chances of marrying Lord Augustus Lorton (Davis Wurzler). The motive for this act of self sacrifice is revealed to the audience, but not to Lady Windermere, who never does learn that Mrs. Erlynne is the mother she thought died when she was a child.

The cast give generally fine performances, with one or two rising above the level of competent. Maddy Ryen as Mrs. Erlynne does an excellent job. We aren’t sure if she’s a sympathetic character or a blackmailing shrew, but in the end she discovers that she has a heart and has feelings for the daughter she abandoned long ago.

In the minor role of Mr. Cecil Graham, Nick Bettencourt gets the most out of the wit of Oscar Wilde. Wilde was the master of the bon mot and this play is rife with them. (“I can resist anything but temptation,” “It is absurd to divide people into the good and the bad. People are either charming or tedious,” “History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality,” “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes,” etc.) Unfortunately, many of them fall flat, but Bettencourt’s delivery is the most effective.

The scene is one of the strongest in the play, a group of men sitting around smoking, drinking, and discussing life.

Betsy Raymond, in her small role as the Duchess of Berwick is appropriately bitchy, as she revels in her opportunity to be the bearer of bad news to poor Lady Windermere. Madelyn Ligtenberg as her daughter gets the most out of a role where all one has to do is say “yes, Ma-ma.”

Costume design by Randi Famula is outstanding in the gowns for the women, though there were some problems with fit on the men’s costumes, probably because they were evening clothes pulled off the rack. Someone should make certain, however, that the actors wear the appropriate socks. Green socks and white socks do not go well with the evening attire, and when the men sit down and stretch their legs out, the socks are impossible to overlook.

This is a good production, not a great production. Director Henderson has done a good job of moving her cast around the stage and her vision of the play and the era is good. The main problem with it may be that Oscar Wilde needs an older, more seasoned cast to wring all the subtleties out of the script.

Lady Windermere’s Fan continues August 1, 4, and 6 at 8 p.m., and August 2 – the program says 11 p.m., but surely it must mean a.m.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

My Avisia Winger

Have you ever wished you could be in on the ground floor of something special? Imagine what it must have been like to have been at the first productions in the Old Palms Playhouse, to watch things grow and develop over the years, to see the fame spread, to watch people come from far and wide because everyone had heard of The Palms Playhouse.

Well, this is your chance to be present at the opening of another funky playhouse which certainly has all the potential, and definitely the enthusiasm of its founders, to continue to build on a solid beginning.

Barnyard Theatre at the Schmeiser Historic Barn on Rd. 31 is presenting My Avisia Winger, with remaining performances July 29-31 at 8:30 p.m.

It’s a new theatre company, comprised of Davis High graduates and Acme Theatre alums. It’s a new theatre, an old barn owned by the Hunt family, and converted by director Stephen Schmidt and crew into an interesting, if somewhat unorthodox theatre. And it’s a new play, written by Davis High graduate Brian Oglesby, expanding on a short story he wrote for Marilyn Hauber’s creative writing class, expanded into play format with the help of a UC Irvine research grant.

How much more “groundbreaking” can you get?

What’s more, it’s a good, well-acted play.

This is a tour de force for Nick Herbert, in the role of the husband. Avisia Winger (Jennifer Provenza) is his wife and the play centers around the effect that an accident, of which we initially do not know the details, has had on both Avisia herself and on her husband. It shows how who the husband is affects his response to the accident. Herbert’s opening monologue alone goes on for pages and he is the glue that holds this show together, with his narrative and his interactions with Avisia.

The time line becomes blurry and it’s not always readily apparent if we are in the here and now, or at some time in the past. Memories jump around from Avisia’s childhood to the days immediately prior to and immediately after the accident, to the present day, and back again. It’s not until the final scenes that we are able to put it all together (and the denouement will leave the audience mulling over the clues that were dropped along the way and wanting to come back again to see the show once more and try to put all the pieces together, knowing, now, what the final picture is supposed to be.)

Jennifer Provenza gives a solid performance in the title role of a woman born to privilege and exclusivity who becomes a famous philanthropist on the death of her father, and who has suffered a tragic accident. Following the accident, Avisia is dramatically changed. Her best friend becomes the imaginary Gazak. She tries to draw her husband into her fantasy, as he attempts to lure her back to his reality.

It is unfortunate that Provenza’s delivery is not consistent. Many of her lines, some of which had significant bits of information, get lost when she must turn away in order to play to all parts of this “theatre in the square.”

Others in the cast play multiple roles. Joe Cohen is the Doctor, Person X, and Beau. Colin Wallace is In-State, Mailman, and Deliveryman. Krystal White is Robin and Artist (she was also the costume designer for the show)..

Scenic design by Ian Wallace is unusual and makes good use of the configuration of the Schmeiser barn. The audience almost become guests in the house, sitting so close to the table or Avisia’s piano. (I might suggest a careful sweeping of spiderwebs in the audience area, however, as some of the upright beams in the section where I was seated were quite heavy.)

Tiffany Michael’s lighting design was dramatic, especially in the flashback scenes.

No specific listing is made for sound design, but whoever was in charge of the sound effects deserves a solo bow. In one spot specifically....well, to say more would give it away, so I won’t. But those who were there were still talking about it after the show ended.

The cast and crew of Barnyard Theatre have thought of everything, from the guy with the bug spray so that everyone who enters the barn can be well protected against the critters flying in from outside during the show, to the member of the crew who rounded up the farm’s dog and took him outside so the play could begin, to the crew with flashlights waiting outside afterwards to escort patrons to their cars.

One would hope that this is not the last that we will see of Barnyard theatre. It’s an ambitious and impressive beginning. They are off to a good start.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

The Fantasticks

Does a show, written in the 1960s and designed to celebrate a simpler time, still play in the cell phone, computer games, ipod 2000s? 

It does, if the show is the immensely popular “The Fantasticks,” the longest running show of any kind in United States history and the longest running musical in the world.  “The Fantasticks.” with book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt, is a legend of musical theatre, playing off-Broadway at the Sullivan Street Playhouse from 1960 until its closing in January 2002.  It returns to Music Circus after an absence of 37 years.

What is the appeal of a show with essentially no set, save for two benches, no fancy costumes, no special effects, no razzle-dazzle lighting, and only 4 musicians in the pit? 

Perhaps it appeals to the youth in all of us.  The Narrator, in his opening song, asks us to “try to remember a kind of September when life was slow and oh so mellow...”  We then share the fresh love of two youngsters, the beautiful falling in love, the painful falling out of love, the joy of discovering that love was there all along.

In less talented hands the story may not play quite so successfully, but electricity and chemistry fairly ooze out of the 8 members of the cast of this production.  They draw us in instantly and we are lost in this simple world, remembering our own kinds of September.

The Montagues and the Capulets could take a lesson from the two fathers in this play.  The parents want their kids to marry and figure that the way to drive them together is to forbid them to see each other. 

Don Mayo is Hucklebee, The Boy’s father.  He has a big voice and glides around the stage like melted butter. 

The Girl’s Father, Bellomy, is played by Steve Routman, fastidious man with the precision of an accountant.

Their second act duet, “Plant a Radish,” is delightful.

As The Girl (Luisa), Yuka Takara is irresistible.  From the moment she is introduced as a 16 year old girl, longing for her own true love and going through the dramatics that accompany teen age angst, she intoxicating.  She sings beautifully and her duets with The Boy are delicious.

James Snyder as The Boy (Matt) has an open honesty about him.  His love for Luisa is palpable.

The central figure is The Narrator (Norm Lewis).  Lewis is tall, commanding, and mesmerizing.  He holds the audience in the palm of his hand with his opening song and keeps them there throughout the show.

Debbi Fuhrman has an amazing impact as the mute who acts as the wall between the gardens of the two families, and supplies the minimal props that are used.
The buffoons, Henry (Sal Mistretta) and Mortimer (“the Man Who Dies”) played by Chris Weikel add a delightful Shakespearean touch to the story with their faux abduction of Luisa.

All’s well that ends well, and after some sadness, The Boy and The Girl discover that true love doesn’t lie any farther than the back yard.

If you have never seen “The Fantasticks,” by all means take this opportunity to acquaint yourself with theatre history.  If you have seen “The Fantasticks,” treat yourself to a new cast and a delightful production.