THE GIVER – AN ORWELLIAN TALE FOR THE YOUNGER AUDIENCE

SHORT TAKE:

Dystopian, cautionary tale of the quietly, dysfunctional society, which has chosen the security of “Sameness” over independent thought, strong emotions, or variety, and the boy tasked to be the new “Receiver” of all the memory experiences everyone else has rejected.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Appropriate for any and all ages but the sophisticated concepts and deliberately monochromatic presentation may be unengaging for younger audience members.

LONG TAKE:

 

The Giver, is a societal fiction parable based on the children’s novel of the same name by Lois Lowry, which follows the character arc of a boy named Jonas. Jonas, played by Abram Conner, lives in a society which has rejected individuality and Free Will for the unquestioned “security” of Sameness. They believe that to be given a choice is to risk making a mistake and enduring pain.

To that end there are no strong emotions, memories of anything except what needs to be known for their chosen jobs, or even color. Differences are not tolerated and those who fall outside of the exacting parameters of what is acceptable: the old, the lame, the unhappy, even twins for the “confusion” they could bring – are relegated to Elsewhere by an unseen but loudspeaker commanding “Committee”. No one is to ask where “Elsewhere” is, there is no reference to any higher authority than the Committee, and God, as well as His gift of Free Will, by default, has been excluded as well. As a result, morality is what the Committee says it is and all acts commanded by them are accepted. A chilling thought with chilling consequences.

Jonas is surprised, (which surprise is apologized for by the Chief Elder), by being chosen as the next Giver. The Giver’s job is to hold, then pass on to the next Giver, the unwanted knowledge and experiences of the human race. The Giver is an advisor to the unseen but unquestionably obeyed, Committee, providing them with perspective they do not have, when faced with situations for which they are unprepared. For example, his is the voice of reason to not shoot down a plane which has accidentally overshot their air space.

But while there is no violence or discord, there is also no mercy or love. Babies are produced by what one might consider “brood mare” humans and then assigned to a parental unit constructed and assigned by the “Committee”. No natural births or normal intimacies are permitted but routinely squelched with medication. Only Jonas and the Giver feel anything deeply.

This is a brave and difficult to play to produce as emotions, interactions, and even colors are muted to beige and gray. The only meaningful actions take place in Jonas’ mind as the Giver gifts him with memories of things like snow and hills, which have been eliminated with “climate control” and geographical obliteration.

Director Kris Webster had the challenging task of creating a world without hues or music and few sounds outside of the actors subdued voices. Only as Jonas learns of the world “before” does he emote or perceive color.

Abram Conner, as Jonas, carries a large load on his young shoulders as the primary conveyor of emotion and personal complexity, having to act out what neither the other characters nor the audience can see. Scott Holtzman, as the Giver, is the weary voice of one who has been burdened too long with all the joys and woes in the troubled past of the world and functions as the one source of true fatherhood to Jonas. Jordan Gribble plays Jonas’ “assigned” father, Taylor Novak-Tyler his chosen mother and Annie Hachtel as his selected sister. Kane Todd and Ashley Dickerson are Jonas’ school companions, Aaron Webster is the Chief Elder and Margaret Martin is one of the aging members of the community. The troupe has the imposing task of having to rein in every actors’ instinct to emote, in order to portray this Orwellian environ, which has more in common with 1984 than you might expect in a child’s story.

The props are minimalistic as in Our Town with chairs and tables and a sled being brought on and off as the needs be. The mood is very reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery with an air of over-supervised gloom hanging over the story. The clothes are gray and unadorned, the furniture is drab and featureless, even the books are (at first) without color.

A play which includes veiled topics of euthanasia, failed tries at utopian societies, and Free Will is strong fare for a story aimed at a youth demographic, but The Giver playing February 8 – 18, 2019 at ACTS Theatre, will lend (see what I did there?) itself to spirited conversation in the debate about the cost of relinquishing one’s Free Will in the name of what appears to be the Ultimate Nanny State.

So, the moral might suggest, when thinking about the possibilities of a world without conflict or pain, without discord or obstacles to overcome ….. be careful what you wish for.

THE CARPENTER – NEW DARK COMEDY OF ERRORS PREMIERING AT THE ALLEY THEATRE, HOUSTON, TX – COULD HAVE USED A BIT OF – RECONSTRUCTION

SHORT TAKE:

Clever, amusing and dark comedy of errors, Texas-style, which would have benefited from a couple more runs through the drafting process.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults ONLY for gratuitous profanities and bawdy behavior.

LONG TAKE:

 

The Carpenter, making its world premiere run now through February 10, 2019 at the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas is a clever but flawed play. Written by Houston’s own Rob Askins as part of the Alley’s All New Festival in 2017, the play is a loose — a very VERY loose version of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper – though that is only my observation. I did not see that reference in any of the interviews with the playwright.

 

First let me say that the Alley Theatre is a GORGEOUS venue where there are NO BAD SEATS! And I admire the Alley for staging and lending so much time and effort to new innovative plays. So kudos and plaudits to one and all involved with this production.

The story is about two half-brothers who meet for the first time as adults in a bar. The older brother, Gene, is a hard drinking, womanizing, bad-decision-making ne’er do well who introduces himself to the audience Our Town Stage Manager-style at the beginning of the play with a soliloquy espousing his own personal, somewhat profane, world view. The younger brother, Dan, is an up and coming programmer about to make the sale of his life. Despite never having met they bear a significant resemblance in the way they look and dress and their personal preferences in beer. Dan lets slip he is getting married that weekend and with vague promises of getting together again some time makes  a hasty retreat. Gene, slyly winking to the audience, justifies his ominously referenced future actions with an analogy about the envy one primitive must feel for his sibling who has learned to climb, being able to thereby achieve a spot closer to the sun.

Gene’s predictable and unwanted appearance at the pre-wedding festivities in Dan’s soon-to-be in-laws, very posh, Dallas, Highland Park home, is compounded by Dan’s humiliation-inspired fabrications about Gene being the Carpenter who will build for his bride, Terry, a gazebo for the wedding.

I won’t tell more above the SPOILER warning sign because I don’t want to ruin the fun for those who want to be surprised, but I suspect Mr. Askins, to his credit, was informed in his plot choices by many of Shakespeare’s comedies of error and mistaken identities.

Before I launch into a Cinema-Sins style critique let me advise that The Carpenter IS a lot of fun and I enjoyed the romp, but was frustrated by the fact it could have been so much better.

BEYOND HERE BE SPOILERS

I understand the desire modern playwrights have to make cheap emphasis with expletives and even bawdy sexual references, but the plethora of them in this play is not only lazy writing and off putting, but undermines those moments when a carefully chosen profanity or innuendo might have had the impact the author was looking for. But by the time those chosen moments arrive we are numb to any effect.

The stage was gorgeous. I was not privy to the script so do not know how much of the stage craft was dictated by the playwright’s instructions and how much was the director’s responsibility. On first glance it was stunning. A bright white, elegantly appointed living room with an embarrassment of evidence that a wedding was being planned in a wealthy Texan home: couple photos and balloons, a stuffed paper mache ostrich and a box of stuffed white doves, and a large framed photo of their (probably prize winning) horse Bodacious. Large cushioned foot rests by a large sofa would serve as a collection spot for the actors to lounge and play on. And right in the middle was a dazzling gold festooned curved staircase leading up to an ample second floor. Eight openings in the stage, up and down stairs and into the audience area, provided an enormous amount of flexibility for the performers, which served well as the action heated up and the exits and entrances became flights and chases.

The trouble is that the staircase blocked a lot of the action. Had it been far downstage it would have served the same purpose but not gotten in the way. There is nowhere in the audience where some of the action wasn’t obscured, no matter how clever the blocking for the actors.

SERIOUS SPOILER

The mood throughout the play is slapstick humorous with a teensy touch of the sinister while promising that all will be well in the end – sort of like Noises Off meets Two Gentlemen From Verona. But nowhere in the play does the author or director prepare you for the sharp left turn into film noir, Agatha Christie territory it takes in the last five minutes. To its credit there is a Thornton Wilder touch of moralizing, tying Gene’s speech in the beginning to a warning about the inevitability of fate that comes, in one form or another, to us all – that we must be prepared because it can come when we least expect it. But in a turn as twisty as the elegant stairs in the Alley Theater itself, but more fitting to the middle of Deathtrap than the much lighter play The Carpenter leads us to believe it is, we suddenly jumped to the end of a far darker story. Kind of like finding out the comedian who you thought was playing a heart attack for laughs really — died. (Which actually happened to Dick Shawn).

But even this would have worked had the denouement occurred in the middle of the play with time to incorporate the event into the warp and woof of the story OR had there been any indication that one or the other of the brothers had had a darker past than was inferred. I, frankly, fully expected one more twist to rectify this contradiction in mood before blackout, but none came. Instead it was a payoff without adequate set up.

When you call something The Carpenter, especially when the main character wags on in a homiletic fashion, it is not unreasonable to expect a few Christian themes or at least a nod in that direction, but despite the backdrop of a marriage there was none. Even the ceremony was thrown at the couple by the bride’s best friend during a particularly ridiculous action scene as a dressed up civil ceremony with delusions of New Age druidism.

Then there’s Terry, the rich and indulged but confused and sweet fiancée who really only wants to love and be loved by Dan. But in the play’s final minutes, and without sufficient justification or provocation Terry goes from being like the loveable but ding batty Gracie Allen to Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd.

The reaction of Venus, Gene’s stripper girlfriend, to the climactic scene is uncharacteristically, but plot conveniently, bland, exiting without real purpose, leaving us wonder where the firebrand we initially met went.

While perhaps Mr. Askins is suggesting that we all wear masks under which are monsters, the transformation is unexpected, under prepped and jarring.

If it was supposed to be a comedy, the characters should have all received a certain justice. If a tragedy, then they all get some kind of comeuppance, even if that is death. But there was only a little of both and not enough of either to be satisfying.

There are also a LOT of “in-jokes” about Google in particular, the tech world in general and the current political scene, which will age very poorly. Granted, this kind of nod to a contemporary audience dates from Greek plays (Aristophanes’ ribald Lysistrata was written as a protest against what he saw as the waste of life in the Peloponnesian War), to Groucho Marx (Animal Crackers – whose song “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” was titled as a lampoon of a notorious Hollywood coke dealer). But where those classics used such frippery as decoration, throw-away lines which a modern audience can ignore and still enjoy the play, Mr. Askins leans so heavily on current events that ticketholders 20 years from now may be scratching their heads in confusion at half of the jokes.

The acting was fun as Gene and Dan imitated the mannerisms and eccentricities of each other, first in jest and sarcasm and latter in more earnest. Everyone else was a broad caricature: Terry, the Texan equivalent of a Valley girl, Claire her promiscuous best friend decked out like a walking fashion extravaganza, Kip as Terry’s rich Texas father drunkenly shooting at the ceiling with his ever present oversized rifle, Steve as Dan’s best friend-promoter in his golf outfit-style mismatching clothes. They were funny and heroically gave it their all, but the script lent them insufficient material. (Upper left reading clockwise: Cass Morgan – Cheryl – Dan’s mom, Ken Wulf Clark – Dan, Wade McCollum – Gene, Jessica Savage – Claire, Buddy Haardt – Steve, T. Ryder Smith – Kip, Brooke Wilson – Venus, Valeri Mudel – Terry, Molly Carden – Dan’s down-to-Earth sister).

If I have mentioned a lot of other stories: Our Town, Noises Off, Sweeney Todd, Deathtrap, it is because this play feels more derivative that it should have. It is as though Mr. Askins did not have the courage of his fundamentally interesting convictions and hid behind a lot of references. That is a shame because I believe he had something fairly important to say – that life is short and death will one day come for all of us. But his heavy handed awkward treatment of this message got a bit ….. buried, if you’ll excuse the pun.

While I was glad I went and it IS worth the ticket price, I think Mr. Askins has promise but it was not completely …. nailed down… in The Carpenter.

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LUTCHER THEATER – A FONT OF THEATRICAL TREASURES AND A REVIEW OF SOMETHING ROTTEN

SHORT TAKE:

Go to the Lutcher Theater in Orange, Texas to take advantage of all its theatrical delights.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Everyone, depending on the age appropriateness of the play being offered.

LONG TAKE:

Something Rotten has come and gone from the Lutcher Theater, but more about that later.

My husband and I have been to this lovely performing arts venue, the Lutcher Theater, many times. They are nestled in Orange, Texas at 707 W. Main Ave. and their season never disappoints.  You can get tickets here for the shows remaining season and for information for seasons to come.  We highly recommend you frequent this treasure. From the well chosen plays to the building itself, where there are no bad seats, we suggest you discover for yourself the Lutcher Theater and all the theatrical magic it has to offer.

Recently we traveled to see Something Rotten. I mean, it isn’t rotten. Well, the play we saw IS Something Rotten, but it is not, in fact, ANY kind of rotten. It really is, actually, wonderful. Nominated for dozens of awards, the play garnered Christian Borle the 2015 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Cleverly conceived and amusingly told, Something Rotten’s title comes from a line in Shakespeare’s most well known play, Hamlet, when Marcellus, a soldier who has seen the ghost of their deceased king, warns that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” But the play Something Rotten is most definitely NOT – rotten.

Something Rotten musically tells the story of the two Bottom brothers, Nick and Nigel, who are rather good playwrights. However, they have the great misfortune of being contemporaries of, and therefore, competitors with — Shakespeare.

The tone is self-parody but the execution is erudite. While the whole thing is a hoot and laugh out loud funny in the witty lyrics and energetic pacing, it is steeped – DEEPLY – as you might expect, in Shakespearean language.

HOWEVER, EVEN if you’ve never heard a word of Hamlet, or Much Ado; if you think of Othello as only a board game and MacBeth may as well be in Swahili for all the sense it makes to you, you will still find Something Rotten very entertaining, but then you’ll miss the rich pudding of inside jokes. Almost every line, situation, and concept is referential to a Bardian play, and skewed by droll songs into a reflective parody. It’s comical and self-aware, often skating right up to that fourth wall but never quite breaking it.

And if that were not enough, there are homages to dozens and dozens of other Broadway shows. In the song, “A Musical,” for example, there are at least 20 allusions to other Broadway outings from Suessical to Sweeney Todd, from Annie to Evita. But you have to be quick to catch all the lines of lyric or iconic musical phrases.

And anachronisms abound. It’s a translation, if you will, of what the Renaissance might have been like in London, seen through modern eyes. Shakespeare is treated like a rock star, holding MTV-style stage performances of his sonnets and signing autographs on women’s bosoms. In “It’s Hard to be The Bard”  he moans of his own self-doubts in having to one-up himself with every play – a sentiment which I’m sure can be shared by every high performing actor and director in Hollywood. While the Bottom brothers moan their financial doldrums and the older brother loathes the far more successful Will Shakespeare in “I Hate Shakespeare,” his younger brother Nigel is a fan.  Frustrated and desperate, Nick seeks out the fortune teller, Nostradamus, who sings his predictions of the future, in “A Musical.”

Meanwhile, Nick’s wife, Portia, decides to dress up like a man and go out to earn some much needed rent money in “Right Hand Man,”and Puritans seek to close Nick down or have him beheaded. If the names and some of the situations ring a Shakespearean bell, that is because they are supposed to.

To get a delectable taste of the show watch here as the Broadway cast performs two songs on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

The costumes are period, the performers we saw were child-on-a-sugar-high, contagious level energetic. I do not know what troupe you might see but the musical lends itself to an upbeat, feel-good time for all.

But it is not FOR all audience members. The language can get rough and, while nothing is seen or done, the topics of conversation occasionally veer into the bawdy.

While no longer, at the moment, in Beaumont, you can catch this little gem on its tour around the country. And if you can’t catch up to it geographically, do not dismay. I predict that some day soon this will be transformed into a movie. It’s too delicious not — to be. (See what I did there?)

 

GREEN BOOK – MUST SEE COMEDY-DRAMA LESSON ON HISTORY AND HUMANITY

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF GREEN BOOK REVIEW

 

SHORT TAKE:

Excellent buddy dramedy based closely on the real life friendship between a black gifted but haughty pianist and the thuggish but fundamentally noble white bouncer he hires to chauffeur him during a concert tour through the Deep South in the 1960’s.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Any mature mid-teen and up but with parental discretion due to language, the examination of extreme racism during this time period and some conversation topics.

LONG TAKE:

Green Book is one of the most delightfully charming movies I’ve seen in a long time. The story is about a New York Copacabana bouncer, Tony Vallelonga, conventionally bigoted for the 1960s, hired as the driver for a brilliant black pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley, for a concert tour through the Deep South.

Based on a true story, Tony Vallelonga was already a part of Hollywood. The real Vallelonga appeared in movies like Goodfellas. His son, Nick, wrote and helped produce this movie based upon interviews with him and Dr. Shirley about this road trip taken when Nick was a little boy.

The title refers to the name of the catalogue the men use as a guide for the places that black people were allowed to go – the hotels, vacation spots, tourist areas, bars, and gas stations where black people could stay without fear of harassment from regional authorities and punitive local ordinances. The title comes from its author, Victor Hugo Green, a New York postman and a black man. The book was published yearly from 1936 until 1966, when Civil Rights Law made it, thankfully, obsolete.

The unlikely pair are wonderful to watch. An entire play could have been made just out of their time in the car together as they exchange observations of the world from their own unique perspectives. Tony is white, tough, with a mediocre education, naive in his own way, and world-wise in others, who lives in a simple small house with his devoted wife and two boys,  living somewhat hand to mouth, between jobs, even willing to engage in a hot dog eating contest for an extra $50 towards the soon-to-be due rent. Shirley also grew up poor, but after being recognized for his gifted playing has become an effete, sheltered, black man residing in an artfully appointed apartment literally above Carnegie Hall. He distances himself from his black heritage in particular and most people in general. Both have much to teach the other.

We get a tour of 1960’s Americana, from the gift stands at the local gas stations to the tough bars, and the “coloreds only” seedy hotels to which Dr. Shirley is relegated because of the color of his skin.

The acting is Oscar-worthy. Mortensen, stepping, chameleon-like into the skin of this gruff and uneducated but likeable and protective bodyguard, is almost unrecognizable in physique, mannerisms or even speech patterns from such previous characters as the seduced professor Halder from Good or the incorruptible hero Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. Along with the accent, the body movements and facial expressions of Vallelonga, which surviving son Nick claimed were so accurate they brought him to tears, Mortensen gained 45 pounds to get into character. Mortensen’s Vallelonga is a three-dimensional character from moment one on the screen throughout. Brutal and thoughtful, principled and amoral, loving father, devoted faithful husband, and violent bouncer, Mortensen creates a completely recognizable person from characteristics which could have lent themselves to a cliched caricature.

Mahershala Ali (small parts in Hidden Figures and Hunger Games) does an excellent job of portraying the stiff and defensive Shirley while incorporating the subtle chinks in his armor through which the unassuming Vallelonga connects. His Shirley is sensitive and subtle with a tough core of dignity, principle, and determined courage.

Linda Cardellini (Daddy’s Home) is lovely as Tony’s devoted wife, Dolores. In real life the Vallelongas were happily married for 41 years until her death in 1999.

In addition there is the fantastic music, and delightful songs played in classical mode by Dr. Shirley. The background soundtrack was written by Karol Bowers whose hands, through the miracle of CGI, physically sub for the gifted Dr. Shirley piano performances. Much effort went into blending Ali’s physical performance with Bowers piano playing prowess and it works very convincingly.

Peter Farrelly, whose credits up until now mostly amounted to questionable  movies such as Three Stooges, Movie 43 and Shallow Hal, has really found his inspiration in this script. Green Book is masterfully crafted – balancing the natural humor that comes from people simply interacting with each other against the tragic drama of abuse, condescension and indignities which black people endured all over the country during the 1960’s. Every detail is complete and period – from the gas station gift stands full of trinkets to the chandeliered restaurants and the florid night clubs.

By all accounts the script details both their trip and their characters very accurately, coalescing experiences described in interviews with both Vallelonga and Shirley. The only liberty taken was that the road trip lasted, not two months, but a year and a half! While taken directly and in detail from real life, the story still serves as an allegory. Vallelonga is an  example of the transformation America was making from the caricature perceptions of minorities to the informed friendships and respect which would soon be crafted, blossom and become commonplace all over the country.

Historically educational, were it not for the rough language, admittedly appropriate to the characters, their occupations, times and places, and one scene depicting a massive character flaw of Shirley, this movie would be family-appropriate. As it is, while I very highly recommend this movie, it is only for midteens and up and even then only upon the discretion of a pre-informed parent. The language is not confined to profanity, but is littered with historically accurate racial epithets often casually included in conversation.

This is a movie both men should be very proud of having made. It touches on very sensitive racial issues from the ’60’s but does so with politically incorrect good natured humor, an acknowledgement of the past with both its virtues and its mistakes, and attention to detail in authenticity which would have made any history professor proud.

With its slice of the past, the inspirational character learning curves, the marvelous music, and the splendid performances, time going to see Green Book is time well spent.