SAM AND ELVIS: EXCELLENT PRO-LIFE INDIE ABOUT A TEEN, HER AUNT AND A STUFFED DOG *

SHORT TAKE:

Well made indie film about the relationship between a foster teen, her eccentric aunt, and a pro-life message.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older teens and up for some mild cussing but mostly for the conversation and plot topics of family violence and teen sexuality.

LONG TAKE:

Who would have thought you could make a charming (mostly) family friendly comedy about a dead dog, an abused foster child, and her eccentric aunt. Well director Jeffrey Ault manages to do just that in the movie Sam and Elvis. Based on Susan Price Monnot’s play titled Dead Dogs Don’t Fart, with the screenplay written by a collaboration between Monnot and Ault, the story is about a bright but defensive and hostile orphaned foster teenager named Samantha played by Marcela Griebler placed in the care of her Aunt Olina played by Sally Daykin who in turn lives alone with her taxidermied dog Elvis.

This little indie film starts off a bit clunky as Olina expresses her doubts to Elvis, avoids an incessantly ringing phone and eats the random junk food she finds about her cluttered home. However, it finds its footing quickly once the aunt and her ward are brought together and bounce their strong personalities against each other.

The acting demands occasionally become significant but newcomer Griebler holds her own. Rounding out the cast are Pete Penuel as Larry, Olina’s platonic friend and Sara Hood as Rebecca, the well-intentioned and overly sincere but somewhat inept social worker who serves as occasional comic relief.

Ault uses simple and natural settings and clothes that likely came out of the actors own wardrobes. This is to the plus, as the focus is correctly placed on the relationships involved. The other production values like cinematography, sound and the background music are sterling and perfectly meet the mood of this small gem filmed almost entirely within Olina’s house.

People speak their minds in Sam and Elvis. No polite pussy footing around impolite or bad behavior. No tip toeing around differences of opinion. And in this there is a large plus in the negative.

What I mean by that is – despite circumstances which emerge in the plot, which I won’t divulge but you can easily guess, at no time does anyone consider abortion as an option for anyone. At no time is it suggested that an unborn baby is merely a “fetus” or some other euphemism for unborn child, which circumlocution liberals and pro-death dealers fling around like a shield to disguise the holocaust level murders they champion. A baby is called a baby regardless of whether it is in or out of a womb. And that is a breath of fresh air.

There is a bit of mild cussing sprinkled throughout and the topics of domestic abuse and teen sexuality make Sam and Elvis inappropriate for younger teens. But the powerful message of familial bonds and respect for life shine forward making Sam and Elvis a definitely should-see film.

* AND IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN THIS MOVIE PLEASE CHECK OUT UNPLANNED – THE STORY OF ABBY JOHNSON, THE FORMER ABORTION ACTIVIST AND DIRECTOR OF THE PLANNED PARENTHOOD FACILITY IN BRYAN, TEXAS, WHO CONVERTED TO THE PRO-LIFE MOVEMENT IN ONE EPIPHANAL MOMENT.

SCREWTAPE LETTERS – A RIVETING LIVE PERFORMANCE OF THE C.S.LEWIS CLASSIC

 

SHORT TAKE:

A fascinating one-man play based on the C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters – the letters from a senior demon to his nephew/student demon.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone old enough to read and understand the source book: The Screwtape Letters. As a rule of thumb….13 years old and up.

LONG TAKE:

My husband and I spent a disturbingly delightful and entertaining 70 minutes with a demon the other afternoon. The demon’s name was Screwtape and he is the creation of one C.S. Lewis. Lewis is the author of the children’s Narnia series as well as deeply philosophical books like The Four Loves, science fiction like Out of the Silent Planet, religious apologetics like Mere Christianity, theological guides like The Problem of Pain and self-mortifying confessions like A Grief Observed.

Lewis was a prolific writer and a deeply committed, practicing Christian who made the long, arduous and painful, but soul fulfilling journey from casual Christian to atheist to devout believer.

For those unfamiliar with the book, The Screwtape Letters is a precursor to the “found footage” movies so prevalent today but created for far more ennobling reasons. The preface to the book Screwtape warns of the dangers of either denying the existence of devils or, contrarily, indulging in an “unhealthy and excessive interest” in them. The first half of the warning reminds me of the line in The Usual Suspects by “Verbal” Kint who admonishes his listener that: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” The latter half of the warning brings to mind a comment by C.S. Lewis that this book was the easiest for him to write but also the one that made him most uncomfortable – so much so that he resisted the urgings of his publisher and the general public to write a sequel. He did, some years later, write a short piece entitled Screwtape Proposes a Toast, which, in a condensed version opens the play.

In any event, C.S. Lewis in his preface to Screwtape Letters, states he will not explain how these letters “fell into my hands”. Suffice to say they are a collection of correspondence between Screwtape, a senior demon in Hell, to his nephew/student/lesser demon, Wormwood. In these letters Screwtape attempts to instruct Wormwood in the fine art of seducing a soul (referred to as his “patient”) away from “the enemy” (God) to be food for the denizens of Hell.

During the course of his instructions, Screwtape exposes many of the subtle fallacies and self-delusions to which people who call themselves atheists, as well as those who think of themselves as Christians, can fall prey (my choice of phrase here both gruesomely punny and deliberate).

One would not think that a one-man play dramatizing what amounts to a series of theologically themed short essays could be either interesting or funny. But this play is both. This is a credit to both the wry, dry wit of Mr. Lewis as well as the construction of the play itself. The set is fairly sparse, creating the allusion to a well-to-do Englishman’s smoking room, (smoking – like brimstone. See what I did there?), with two unusual additions. One customization is the twisting ladder which reaches up to the ceiling upon which one can climb to retrieve and send posts via an attached pneumatic tube. The second inclusion is of Screwtape’s wordless, androgynous assistant demon, Toadpipe, who, in the production we saw, is costumed like an evil Papagano from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, all in artificially colorful feathers from head to toe. He/she has no lines but grunts and growls and pantomimes his/her obsequiousness and occasional little mutinies.

The performance was riveting, compelled as we are to breathlessly await the determination of whether the man about whom they communicate will succumb to Wormwood’s ministrations or successfully resist the abyss of Hell.

There is an interesting tension created by Lewis, in that the protagonist, the one with whom audiences, in the overwhelming majority of plays, are naturally manipulated into sympathizing, is a demon from Hell. Resisting the impulse to root for Screwtape, as the protagonist of the tale, is similar to the same pull of temptation which each of us must continually struggle. This odd conundrum reminds us how easy it would be to find ourselves in the clutches of a Wormwood – or that we might already be in this danger. Fortunately, in Screwtape’s commentaries on his increasing frustrations with the failures of his nephew, we are also shown how to extricate ourselves.

We saw Screwtape at the beautiful Jeanette and LM George Theater in Houston, but it is only playing through March 17, 2019. However,  it will be playing at many future theaters to come and you should catch it when you can. OR a community theater in your locale should contact the Dramatic Publishing Company and see about performing it.

In addition, I must compliment the A.D. George Theater whose self-proclaimed mission is:

To produce compelling theatre, from a Christian world-view, that engages a diverse audience.

Screwtape was our first experience with this theater and it promises to most definitely NOT be our last.

BRAVO to the George Theatre and C.S. Lewis!

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."

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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.