ARSENIC AND OLD LACE – A DELIGHTFUL COMEDY OF TERRORS AT OUR OWN LAKE CHARLES, LA ACTS THEATRE

 

 

 

 

The Addams Family was an endearing bunch of creepy oddballs. Appearing like zombies, witches and vampires they were actually a loving Mom, Dad, kids and extended family of rich and philanthropic homeschoolers.

The family of Queen Eleanor and King Henry II, in the classic Lion in Winter were not so companionable, and battled continuously with each other throughout the play. Different members bond with, then betray, each other, jockeying for power, land, revenge, attention, or love. At the end of a particularly vicious argument with her husband, Eleanor, left sitting on the floor in the doorway, gathers herself together and to self-console muses: "Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?"

The Guardians of the Galaxy is a band of violent and ethically questionable outlaws and vigilantes who come together as a family unit in part to (re)raise Groot, who is a sentient tree. (See my review on that one here .)

NONE of them have anything on the Brewsters.

The premise of Arsenic and Old Lace is that Mortimer, a once cynical-of-romance theater critic, now totally smitten and freshly engaged to Elaine, the girl next door, goes to his sweet, loving, maiden aunts’ home for a visit and to break the good news.

In residence is his adorable Uncle Teddy, who thinks he is President Theodore Roosevelt, periodically charging up the stairs he knows as San Juan Hill and digging grave sized locks in the basement, which he thinks is the Panama Canal. Hovering in the background is the ominous, but so far absent, other brother, Jonathan. And so the stage is literally set for this very black and very funny slapstick comedy about a family which would put the Guardians on alert, make the Addams Family startle, and have both Henry and Eleanor running for cover. Bodies pile up and are switched like the plates of tuna in Noises Off or the suitcases from What’s Up Doc, identities are hidden and a good time is ultimately had by all…except for the corpses…in Arsenic and Old Lace.

I hesitate to say more for the benefit of those readers who have not seen either the play or the brilliant 1944 movie directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant. If you don’t know the story it is just too delightful to spoil. If you do know some of the details then it will be like going back for seconds of your favorite ice cream.

Clay Hebert, the director and Officer Klein, is a familiar and welcome face from every stage Lake Charles offers. He has a resume which spans from McNeese's Theater to ACTS, and from Lake Charles Little Theatre to the Bayou Players and independent film productions all over Lake Charles. Clay artfully guides this fairly large cast through the quick draw and fast paced humor of Arsenic, which is to comedy what very dark and deliciously bitter semi-sweet morsels are to chocolate chip cookies, skillfully leading his troupe over that tightrope between horror and humor.

Louis Barrilleaux, another talented veteran of ACTS, LCLT and McNeese for over 20 years, is Mortimer, the eye around which this storm circulates.

Kelly Rowland and Sarah Broussard, respectively as Martha and Abbey Brewster, age themselves convincingly 50 years to play Mortimer’s adorably naive and unassuming aunts whose home is the site for some rather….unexpected events. Both ladies have degrees in performance, Kelly in music and Sarah in theater, with a wide and diverse range of acting credits.

Rebecca Harris, an actress with an impressive resume, is Mortimer’s confused but stalwart fiancee.

Aaron Webster, a self-described reluctant actor, is eminently creepy as Jonathan, the ne'er-do-well prodigal brother.

Brahnsen Lopez, another stage veteran, plays Jonathan’s would-be repentant colleague, Dr. Einstein (not Albert).

Matt Dye, local radio personality and frequently cast in small but scene stealing roles, does it again as Teddy.

Mark Hebert, Dusty Duffy, Dylan Conley and Kathy Heath round out the cast with memorable supporting characters.

 

The set is terrific, creating the authentically homey, gentle parlor of two elderly aunts, making the sinister events all the funnier for the contrast, complete with two sets of stairs and a landing up and through which Teddy has the freedom to charge with abandon, a window seat which can house…various and sundry… and French doors through which the characters are free to pop in and out.

I was privileged to interview Diki Jines, master electrician on the set and will have his interview clips up shortly below, talking about the set, its design and a little background.

Timing and blocking are very key, especially in this comedy of terrors and Clay has the tempo and coordinated actions and responses wound like a Swiss Cuckoo clockwork.

It’s a joy to watch a stage full of such talented veterans work smoothly together, and the fact most are old friends and/or fellow thespians, who have trod the boards often together, helps catalyze the chemistry that makes this play full of intimately connected characters work. These performers know each others’ rhythms and make the most of their considerable pool of experience to bring us a delightful evening of fun and fright, chills and chuckles, comedy and carnage, shocks and snickers, jocularity and jump scares.

So go warm up — or chill out — in anticipation of Halloween at ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. But be sure to BYOW. (Bring your own wine.)

BUY TICKETS HERE, OR CALL (337) 433-2287

LITTLE WOMEN – ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES I’VE SEEN IN YEARS

SHORT TAKE:

Artfully modernized, faithfully told beautiful adaptation for the contemporary audience of the classic story, Little Women.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Everyone. Anyone. All ages. Please go, bring friends.

LONG TAKE:

We know this story extremely well, inside and out. I’ve read the book. I’ve taught it as part of our curriculum several times over the span of homeschooling six kids.  I have seen a number of filmed versions including the appalling one where Katherine Hepburn was way too old to play Jo and a lovely one with Susan Sarandon as Marme. Our family was IN the danged play at our local community theater 12 years ago. My second oldest daughter played the lead, Jo, and the rest of our family either had parts on stage, behind the scenes or were present for every rehearsal cheering their siblings on. We’ve incorporated lines and expressions like "love lornity" and how French is a "silly slippery language" from the play into our traditional family sayings. Shoot, with four girls of our own, there were times I've felt as though we were LIVING scenes from Little Women…but I had never truly appreciated the story of Little Women until I saw this 2018 modernized film.

Little Women, marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of the source book, has been refurbished to modern day and is arguably one of the best movies I have seen in years. The film makers have adapted this Civil War era story to the 21st century with the same skill as the innovative Cumberbatch-Freeman Sherlock updated the original Conan Doyle invention, or Steve Martin refreshed Cyrano de Bergerac into the whimsical Roxanne – that is to say with both seamless, creative invention and great respectful affection for the source material. It is a testament to the timelessness of the concepts foundational to Louisa May Alcott’s novel that it translates so well, but it is the talent of the gifted screenwriter Kristi Shimek, newbie director Clare Niederpruem and the actors that makes it blossom onto the screen.

For the benefit of anyone suffering the misfortune of not being familiar with the story, the premise of Little Women follows Jo March from childhood to womanhood as she and her sisters grow and mature together in the warm embrace of loving parents and stalwart friends through joys, embarrassments, mistakes, misunderstandings, and the other comedies and tragedies of life.

For those who are blessed with a familiarity of the subject, rest assured the writer and director have a love and respect for the material. The tale has not been changed by the displacement in time, but is transformed into an image more familiar and therefore more accessible to 21st century audiences, without altering a single iota of character development, story arc, or theme. John Bunyan’s famous Christian allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, is as notable here as it was in the original script and novel, forming the underlying themes of passage from human frailty and sin to redemption, suffering the travails of life with forgiveness, courage, and love. Instead of the Civil War, the father is deployed overseas. Instead of letters they have Skype. The charity the original characters perform for a starving mother and children next door is done at a homeless shelter. The children are homeschooled and the social faux pas are appropriately updated to reflect the unwiseness of modern youth. As many lines as can be are pulled directly from the book, but updates, where needed, are appropriately made.

I’ve known Lea Thompson was a fine actress ever since I first saw Back to the Future at the theater in 1985. I was floored to discover, some 20 minutes into the movie when Marty goes back to the past, that the same woman who played a dowdy, overweight, burnt out, disillusioned and embittered alcoholic was NOT in fact 50 years old but a brilliant little 24 year old actress who nailed the tragic first version of Lorraine in the opening scenes of that now famous movie. She hits the bull's eye again in Little Women as Marme, the gentle, warm and archetype maternal figure of the March family.

I was honestly not familiar with any of the other cast members before seeing this Little Women. Most harken from TV shows and B movies, but every one of the performers is not only tremendous in their roles, but fit into and shape their characters so perfectly I will have difficulty ever thinking of these March family members and friends as anyone but them (with the except of our own family members, of course).

Sarah Davenport is perfect as the high strung, impulsive, often unthinking and deeply emotional Jo. Allie Jennings ditto as Jo’s favorite sister and alter ego, the gentle, kind and resolute Beth. Melanie Stone is lovely as Meg, wanting nothing more than to be a wife and mother. Elise Jones and Taylor Murphy playing the younger and older Amy, respectively, do a great job of the self absorbed and easily smitten youngest sister without losing Amy’s vulnerability. Lucas Grabeel steps into the part of Laurie with just the right combination of awkward and delightful as the lonely young man next door anxious to join a family. Ian Bohen as the caring and insightful Professor Freddie Bhaer, Bart Johnson as the warm and loving Papa March, Michael Flynn as Laurie’s kind and thoughtful grandfather Mr. Lawrence, Stuart Edge as Brooke, Barta Heiner as Aunt March and even Goober the cat contribute their support to this brilliant and beautiful film adaptation for the contemporary audience.

The dress and sets are simple and fit the time and place of a family of well cared for and spiritually sound young women. The sweetly fitting soundtrack is decorated with modern day songs which accurately reflect the needs of the film's moods. Most of the action takes place in and around the March and Lawrence homes. The filming style is of flash – backs and forwards – as time moves on and memories are rekindled by events in Jo’s dynamic present. And I really enjoyed the cinematically creative and tasteful way Ms. Niederpruem conveyed the passage of time.

Go see this wonderful version of Little Women. Read the book either before or after…or both…and gain a fresh new appreciation for this enchanting, inspiring and enduring tale of spiritual growth, family strength and the power that love and faith have over the buffets and trials of life. Bring Kleenex.

TEXAS SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL – ASTONISHING ACCOMPLISHMENT AND WELL WORTH THE TRIP TO CHARMING KILGORE, TEXAS

In Kenneth Branagh's brilliant comedy A Midwinter's Tale, about a disparate group of actors trying to put on Hamlet during the Christmas season in a very short period of time, Joe Harper pep talks to his discouraged cast: "In Shakespeare's theater, a six week season would have produced 35 performances of 17 different plays including, at times, four world premieres."

Well, theTexas Shakespeare Festival, outdoes even the Bard in their 33rd season, managing the Herculean task of 47 performances of six plays in a scant four and one-half weeks, plus accomodating a guest company from China who does a 7th one-night-only show.

Graciously hosted by Raymond Caldwell, the Founder and Artistic Director, and John Dodd, the Managing Director, the TSF company started June 28 and closes July 29. They give nine performances each of two different Shakespearean plays, and three other classics, plus seven showings of a new children's show. This year they did a 1920's musical version of Shakespeare's romantic comedy Love's Labour's Lost about a King and three of his friends who forswear women for 3 years just before political circumstances require they meet with the lovely princess of France and her three equally lovely attendants. They also did the rarely seen Shakespeare play King John, covering this seminally incompetent and often cruel king in the best possible light Shakespeare could muster. The other classics were Moliere's Tartuffe, a comedy exposing the hazards of entertaining hypocricy, and, the musical version of the old classic serio-comic The Rain Maker, about a man who comes to a drought stricken town promising to change the weather, only to change the dynamics of the townspeople instead. They also did four performances of The Belle of Amherst about Emily Dickenson and 7 showings of the children's play The Lovely Stepsister.

While only the four major plays are left and then only this weekend, it is worth noting that the TSF is well worth the distance you might have to travel to get to this small, friendly, spotlessly clean, theater-geared and devoted Texas town. The food in the restaurants is varied and great, the hotels comfortable, plentiful and inexpensive. If you want to combine a theater vacation with an outdoorsy flavor you can also rent a cabin in nearby Tyler. The theater, itself, has stadium seating where there is no bad view.

The crew and staff at the Ann Dean Turk Center, where the festival resides, are extremely accomodating, resourceful, and very attentive to all the patrons' needs. Ice cream, snacks and coffee are available before the show and during intermission. The gift shop is small, quaint and stuffed with wonderful, high-quality memorabilia at reasonable prices. Blankets are provided for the more easily chilled visitors as the powerful air conditioning keeps the Texas summer heat forcefully at bay.

Along with the plays, the festival also features: live orchestral music, a talent showcase of the actors' musical and varied gifts, backstage tours, "open change-overs" where a docent explains the balletic process as the crew can transform the entire set from from a small country town to an 18th century parlor in under 90 minutes, panel discussions and more.

And if you want to audition – COME ONE COME ALL – as they make the rounds starting in the not too distant future, constantly looking forward to always making the next season better than the one before. You can come audition in person, catch the scouts as they tour the country or submit a video and resume. Get the details from their website: Texas Shakespeare Festival auditions.

I was privileged to be granted an interview with Briana (Bri) Thomas who played: a singing Jaquenetta in Love's Labour's Lost, Mariane, the put upon daughter of the foolish Orgon in Tartuffe, and the delightfully perky gal Snookie in 110 in the Shade. Her parents and grandparents came to celebrate and encourage her as she made her exciting and talented debut with the TSF. The beautiful and delightful Ms. Thomas graciously agreed to allow me to record our talk. Please enjoy the videos below.

 

So wherever you are coming from, it is worth the trip to attend the TEXAS SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL – and if not this year, clear your calendars to attend the 34th season starting in June 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FERDINAND – THE BULL IS NOT THE ONLY ONE WHO WAS CONFUSED

SHORT TAKE:

Ferdinand has a poorly thought out plot based upon the charming 1936 kids' book The Story of Ferdinand, of a gentle bull who would rather smell flowers than fight. John Cena does a fine job bringing the main character to life but his charming portrayal is buried under lazy writing, unappealing side characters, and an inconsistent universe.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

Little kids will get a kick out of it but it will quickly fatigue the older siblings and the attending parents who bring them.

LONG TAKE:

Every animated movie works within its own universe. For example in Snow White the animals acted like animals – kind of in tune with the leading lady but behaved much like the furry critters you or I might run into.

In Bambi or Finding Nemo the animals were again confined to animal limitations but the story was seen from their POV so we, the audience, could understand what they were saying and their mental capabilities were anthropomorphized.

Mickey Mouse, however, was an entirely different perspective. He stands up straight, wears clothes, speaks and actually has a pet. He and his friends are, basically, humans who look like animals. They drive cars, have opposable digits, live in human styled homes and speak the Queen's English.

Bugs Bunny is, again, another species. These guys are animals – they are hunted and it would not be considered murder – by Elmer Fudd (that is if he could ever catch the loveably infamous bunny). Bugs lives in a hole in the ground which he has dug, though it has rugs and chairs. Bugs not only speaks and walks on his back legs, wears clothes when the occasion demands it – though he usually sports only his "natural" fur – but he outsmarts every human that appears on the scene, plays a ukulele, makes snarky comments, coins witticisms and can do things nothing on Earth can. He can tunnel through the Earth at breathtaking speed, and survive falls and impacts which in a more realistically created world no living creature would survive. His movements can be unnaturally fast when the need arises at a speed Superman would admire – changing clothes, moving from one place to another, conjuring any number of Acme items to fit the needs of the moment – in seconds. In short, come to think of it – Bugs is not just ANTHROPOmorphized. Bugs is SUPERANTHROPOmorphized. In other words, Bugs is a creature not just given HUMAN attributes but envisioned with SUPERhuman attributes. Bugs is Superman and Harry Potter wrapped up in a fuzzy New York accented bunny rabbit suited con man.

All these worlds are very different from each other. And aside from the outliers, like Pluto in the Disney world – who acts like a regular normal, though unusually intelligent, dog, despite the fact Goofy is also a dog but anthropomorphized – these worlds generally do not merge.

I am a science fiction fan and am willing to accept all manner of outrageous premises…….IF the creators stay within the confines of the Universe they have created.

The problem with Ferdinand is that the writers couldn't decide on the parameters. It was the same problem had with The Secret Life of Pets. In both cases animals were established as normal creatures living with humans. They were assigned the normal limitations of animals supplemented by the extravagant definitions allotted through serendipitous and impossibly well timed environmental factors. They could, for example, blithely depend on perfect balance and the timely arrival of things such as clotheslines and moving girders to keep them aloft if they chose to scale down several stories of a building but they had trouble opening human doors without opposable digits, etc. BUT when Max, a terrier gets lost they come across a gangster bunny who can carve fully functional keys out of a carrot by chewing on them AND turn the key in the lock and other creatures can drive cars – completely outside the parameters of the universe they established. Finding Dory made the same mistake- by stepping outside of the rules of its universe.

And so it its with Ferdinand. Bulls and dogs and goats and hedgehogs act more or less according to their natural limits, and although we can understand them humans can not…that is until the writers paint themselves into a corner. Then suddenly critters can drive, convincingly do the hula in front of humans, and do a creative coordinated dance off including breakdancing with horses. One minute Ferdinand can not roll across a yard in imitation of a hedgehog, the next he is Moonwalking. This makes no sense.

In addition, the side characters, who in other movies so often steal the show, are off putting. The competitive German prancing horses next door act like an effeminate Nazi with his two fawning groupies. They gratuitously insult the bulls without context, purpose or wit. The goat, Lupe (Kate McKinnon), I assume is supposed to be their version of a "Dory" character – clueless but well meaning. Instead she is disgusting, creepy looking, annoying and unappealing. She drools, eats things then throws them up, attracts flies, sports two eyes that make her appear dead, has two protruding bottom teeth, and says offensive, occasionally inappropriate things.

The character of Ferdinand himself as voiced by John Cena is charming. I would love to see a sequel with this character but only with a far better script and almost none of the side characters. I did like Angus but am biased because he is voiced by my favorite Dr. Who persona – David Tennant – in full Scottish brogue.

And for all you sports fans Peyton Manning does the voice of Guapo.

In addition, the story leaves practical holes not really filled.

SPOILERS

Once Ferdinand escapes the bullring and his friends go to his home farm: HOW could a simple flower vendor feed all those enormous animals? Wouldn't the departure of his entire stock bankrupt the bull trainer? Even if Ferdinand used reward money (which we are never shown he gets so we're really spitballing here) for "defeating" the matador won't the bull trainer simply buy more bulls with it who will be doomed to the same fate Ferdinand and his friends escaped?

I know it's only a kid movie but those hanging points could have been EASILY dealt with even if only in credit sketches: the flower vendor hiring the bulls out to plow. The bull trainer turning his business into a petting zoo. I know it's just a kids' story but these loose threads were a distraction. The writers should have done SOMEthing to bring closure to this story.

In short – there's nothing really WRONG with Ferdinand. But there's not much really right with it either. Go read the book instead.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI – IT’S…STAR WARS. WHAT MORE COULD YOU WANT???

 

Have you ever gone into your parents’ attic, rummaged around and found an old favorite toy – a Teddy bear, a plastic sword, a doll house or an old board game? Suddenly you are flooded with the warm fuzzy nostalgia of childhood and the uncomplicated excitement of an anticipated adventure with like minded companions.

In a slightly different scenario, but one which will tie in to the previous analogy, have you ever been to a foreign country which had a McDonald’s? Amidst all of the unfamiliar occasionally unidentifiable store front names, the Golden Arches stands out like a beacon. It doesn’t matter where in the world you go – if there is a McDonald’s, even with a variety of specials particular to the indigenous population, you will still be able to get the same Big Mac in Lesieux, France that you could get in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin or Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Sitting in a dark theater as the simple words “A long ago time ago in a galaxy far, far away” appeared on the screen in deliberate graphic print quality circa 1977 followed by the signature trumpet Star Wars fanfare I couldn’t help but laugh in delight. Now 58, when Star Wars first came out I was 18 years old. As I have repeated in my own cautionary refrain many times to my children – the only reason an 18 year old is now considered a legal adult is because of the Vietnam War. In short, when Star Wars premiered I was still a child.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, arrived on the screen 40 years 6 months and 20 days after the premiere of Star Wars (later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope much to the confusion of many inasmuch as there was no Episode 1, 2 or 3 for many years to come) but who’s counting, right?

During that time we have watched Luke and Leia   be born, grow up, and grow old. Many of us have grown up and grown older right along with them.

How does this all tie in? Simply.   Star Wars doesn’t change. Despite the moderate improvements in special effects the world of Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda and Darth Vader, Emperor Pallapatine and the Cantina on Tatooine is the same now as it was when we were all much much younger. A few of the trimmings might be tweaked but it’s still the same Star Wars I came to love fresh out of high school.

Like the dusty rediscovered Teddy Bear or the Big Mac purchased in Tokyo, the opening scenes of Star Wars: The Last Jedi are familiar territory to those of us who have tread these paths for 40 plus years of 7 movies, dozens of Halloween Vader masks, uncountable action figures, Youtube analyses, spoofs, comic books, Yoda backpacks, Millenium Falcon bed sheets, fanzines, shipping theories and both canon and non-canon books. This is not strictly speaking a negative thing. Nor is it a criticism, any more than someone who is fond of vanilla ice cream might note that there is a gallon or two of Blue Belle in the freezer.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi breaks very little new ground, does not further the conflict between the dark and light sides of the Force much, or do more than mildly massage the dynamics of the characters we have come to know and love. Even those coming later to the party like Rey (Daisy “Murder on the Orient Express” Ridley), Finn (John Boyega reprising his role from The Force Awakens) and Poe (Oscar Isaac – the only really good thing in Suburbicon) fall into step with their predecessors – Luke, Leia and Han.

MAJOR SPOILER FOR ANYONE WHO HAS NOT SEEN STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

The entire gang is here minus the significantly notable (and I continue the debate with my kids as to whether or no it was entirely unnecessary) exception of Harrison Ford as Han Solo. Mark Hamill is the aging Luke Skywalker, Anthony Daniels is C3PO, Frank Oz voices Yoda, and Peter Mayhew continues as Chewbacca. Princess Leia, too, has a major role to play, even though, ironically, the actress who played her, Carrie Fisher, has in fact, actually passed away. (Hail the bizarre technology of CGI which enhanced Ms. Fisher’s last screen moments into a fully fleshed out part.)

The premise of Last Jedi is that Rey, the street urchin who discovered her powerful Force sensitivity in the previous Force Awakens, tries to get an extremely reluctant, jaded and worn out Luke to rejoin the fight against the Empire. At the same time the last remnants of the rebel forces attempt to escape the pursuing clutches of the Imperial Fleet directed by Emperor Snoke (Andy Serkis) and lead by General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), in a caricature of evil Nazi-like officer. Hux seems to have, through a kind of Peter Principle, risen through the ranks to the limits of his capabilities, probably because of the attrition resulting from the execution of previous failed commanders. This is a source of mild amusement to the audience.

Which brings us to the one singular added refreshing ingredient to this familiar but very welcome recipe – the sense of humor which has been incorporated into the characters. There has always been an element of comedy – mostly the droids banter and the snarky comments from Han. But for the most part the other characters were straight men. Now, with a certain seasoning, they have allowed characters like Luke to include a few one liners and humorous moments. guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-1366x768-guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-6474It seems that Guardians of the Galaxy has set the Gold Standard of humor, converting the likes of the Thor franchise from an almost medieval melodramatic fraternal conflict to a sibling rivalry which occasionally plants tongue firmly in cheek and wisely no longer takes itself too seriously, throwing in moments which might otherwise be considered bloopers. Star Wars has reaped the benefits of this informant as well, levitating the mood in much needed relief from its darker more sinister moments.

All in all Star Wars: The Last Jedi shows there’s plenty of steam left in this railroad or should I say fluff in this Teddy bear.

In short Star Wars: The Last Jedi is………Star Wars. And I wouldn’t want them to change a thing.