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Richard III, by William Shakespeare
Please, think of the children
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
When you’ve achieved near-perfection, how can you possibly top it?

Opening a full year after the prodigious "Henry VI" trilogy, "Richard III" picks up right where Part 3 left off, with the scheming hunchback-who-would-be-king (Drew Reeves, reprising his role) speaking of his plan to take the throne. He is a villain for the ages, a tyrant who’s more than willing to mow down women, children and his own flesh and blood to get what he wants. And the story of his rise and fall makes for an epic night of theater.

Admittedly, unlike September’s superb "As You Like It," this is not a crowd-pleaser. It’s the sort of production that requires (and provides) a reference guide to prevent the audience from confusing the characters, who are all crammed onto one playbill page in itty-bitty font. The plot is so convoluted that even Cliff’s Notes would have trouble simplifying the storyline. Clocking in at over three hours, it is also Shakespeare’s longest play and proudly bears the infamy that comes with such a distinction.

But those who are drawn to plays such as "Richard III" are most likely anticipating great performances over plot. The role of Richard is a multilayered one, and Reeves dives into it with as much gusto as can be expected from an actor of his caliber and experience. The result is intriguing, although Reeves fails to mine any sort of sympathy for Richard. Granted, this is hardly a humane character, but a scene toward the end, in which the damned king is visited by the spirits of those he killed, could’ve been ripe for a revelation.

The number of people Richard murdered or ordered killed is staggering; just about every other actor in the production “dies” at his hand, including those who play his nephews, who are virtually children. It’s still early in the season, which means that the members of the current Apprentice Company are getting their feet wet in minor roles, and it’s fun to predict which ones will go on to create magic in future shows. As for the Tavern regulars, many of them are here as well, and in top form. Matt Nitchie, in particular, seems to be on a quest to prove that he can play anything; as the dying Edward IV and the murderous Sir Tyrrel, he is completely different but equally captivating. Heidi Cline and Tony Brown, as Queen Elizabeth and Lord Hastings, respectively, are also especially good here.

Comparisons to "Henry VI" are inevitable, as the War of the Roses drags on across all four plays. So how does "Richard III" stack up to his young predecessor? Is it just as good? The short answer is no, but few productions could stand alongside last season’s trilogy. Performance-wise, "Richard III" offers a satisfying continuation to the final days before the Tudors’ rise to power. It’s hardly an escapist fantasy, but it’s the perfect satiation for a Shakespeare aficionado craving an accurate staging of a major era in history.

The Mystery of Irma Vep, by Charles Ludlum
What a drag
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
It’s happened to every avid theatergoer at one time or another: you’re sitting in the audience and witnessing a tour de force. Everything – the script, the acting, the set, the costumes, even the sound effects – is pitch-perfect. The curtain falls for intermission and you anxiously count down the minutes until act two, hoping to be swept right back up in the magic. But bliss quickly becomes disappointment when the play suddenly seems to veer off course, throwing in implausible twists and causing characters to behave irrationally. Few things are more disappointing than a production that doesn’t live up to its promise or hype.

"The Mystery of Irma Vep" suffers from the opposite problem; the second act is considerably better than the first. It’s hard to give another chance to a play when you spend its intermission glancing back and forth between the playbill and your car keys, but try to look past the relatively uninspired first half. The storyline improves and the laughs come more frequently, but the show never quite redeems itself.

The final production of the Tavern’s season is a last-minute replacement for the originally scheduled "A Little Night Music." It stars a pair of beloved local comedians and boasts two exotic settings, eight characters and no fewer than 40 elaborate costumes. The script, however, reads as though Charles Ludlum wrote it for an Ed Wood-helmed film version of "Rebecca." It was first produced in Greenwich Village (figures!) in the mid-1980s, but feels more like something penned in the ‘40s or ‘50s, when its primary comedic elements – slapstick, double entendre – were considered cutting-edge and hilarious.

Dolph Amick and Jeff McKerley are Lord Edgar Hillcrest and his wife Lady Enid, respectively. They reside at Mandacrest, an English estate with a one-legged groundskeeper, Nicodemus Underwood (McKerley), and a diabolical maid, Mrs. Danvers . . . er, Jane Twisden (Amick). This is, in part, a drag show, and both actors tackle their garters and wigs with varying degrees of authenticity. The plot revolves around the mysterious death of Lord Edgar’s first wife, Irma Vep, which apparently occurred at the hands/paws of a werewolf. Edgar craves vengeance, while the eccentric Lady Enid simply hopes to become a suitable replacement, much to Jane’s disdain.

Classic literature is mashed up with mythology (rearrange the letters in “Irma Vep” and they spell “vampire” – OMG!) to create a story with lots of shrieking and not much substance. In addition to bloodsuckers and werewolves, the second act involves a detour to Egypt so Lord Edgar can awaken a busty female mummy (McKerley) whose first moments of resurrection are spent engaged in an entirely-too-long dance to Pink’s “Get the Party Started.” (So much for Original Practice.) Still, the actors manage to mine some comedy from the script and seem to have the time of their lives in the process. McKerley is in his element, soaking up the attention as he flounces and pratfalls his way across the stage. Amick’s characters are slightly more subdued, but his facial expressions and unshakable bravado, not to mention his chemistry with his costar, make him fun to watch as well.

However, the true star of this show is Renee Clark. She doesn’t have a single line, but her incredible piano playing – and she plays for virtually the entire two hours – lends heavily to the B-movie feel for which director Heidi Cline was undoubtedly aiming. Besides occasionally appeasing a sobbing Lady Enid, Ms. Clark provides a magical element to the production, and it would be sorely lacking without her music.

Yes, "Irma Vep" is supposed to be satire. Flubbed lines, bad puns and creatures of the night are acceptable in this genre. Shooting an impatient look to the control booth when a sound effect isn’t in sync with an actor’s movements may even be considered charming in the world of satire. But McKerley and Amick may as well be onstage yelling to the audience, “We’ve just ripped you out of the play! None of this is real! Don’t buy it – we certainly aren’t!”

Shakespeare wasn’t considered highbrow in his day, and humor-wise, his shticks probably aren’t terribly different from the ones employed here. But something about "Irma Vep" rings hollow. To use an overdone metaphor (in keeping with the play’s air of datedness), watching it is the equivalent of eating candy for dinner instead of the Tavern’s shepherd’s pie. It’s cute and fun for a while, but afterward you walk away feeling hungry. There is nothing on which to reflect. It’s pure escapism, but it doesn’t even manage to fully succeed at that. And after a steady season-long diet of Chaucer, Marlowe, Dickens and the Bard, the audience expects, demands and deserves more.

The Tempest, by William Shakespeare
“Let your indulgence set me free”
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
When you’ve got it, flaunt it – and the ASC has it in spades. This month’s play, "The Tempest," allows the company to showcase much more than acting ability; a variety of mediums, from original music to henna tattoos, are on prominent display throughout this whimsical production. It sounds a little self-indulgent, but these touches are woven in with such ease and professionalism that they add sparkle without being showy. And, as the trials and triumphs of Prospero the sorcerer (Jeff Watkins) are already sparkly enough, the additions allow the show to feel almost magical at times.

For those who don’t know, canned and prerecorded sound effects are never heard within the walls of the Tavern. Everything, from the roar of the ocean during a storm to a gentle swelling of music that signifies two characters falling in love, is produced by cast members either backstage or lurking in the balcony. The opening scene, in which a shipwreck dumps a band of wayward Italians onto the island controlled by Prospero and his teenage daughter Miranda (a delightful Mary Russell), is particularly compelling in terms of both visuals and sound effects. From there, the characters transform the bare stage into a tropical hideaway overrun with creatures that would sooner plot a visitor’s demise than welcome him ashore . . . until they are offered something to drink, anyway.

J.C. Long steals the show, as he often tends to do, playing Ariel, a spirit bound to Prospero. He flits around the stage in nothing but a loincloth and some intricate body art, singing, scheming and altering destinies. Long also composed much of the music performed throughout the play and accompanies these pieces on no fewer than three different instruments. Drew Reeves is also very good and quite energetic (a gross understatement) as Caliban, Prospero’s slave, whose plan to overthrow his master is foiled when a pair of shipwrecked miscreants (Nicholas Faircloth and Daniel Parvis) introduce him to alcohol. In fact, just about every member of the cast is given an opportunity to shine. While some character choices may be over the top – the giggly, flamboyant Sebastian (Andrew Houchins) comes to mind – the actors have amazing chemistry and play off of each other beautifully.

"The Tempest" is billed as a comedy, but this particular production digs deeper and unearths the play’s more affecting themes, namely innocence, romance, forgiveness and salvation. The purity of the love between Miranda and Ferdinand (Matt Felten) sets the tone for the play’s epilogue, in which Prospero releases Ariel and Caliban from captivity and then begs to be freed from his virtual prison of sorcery, not to mention his literal imprisonment on the island. After granting indulgence to those who wronged him, Prospero asks the same favor of the audience. Watkins does a brilliant job of humanizing a character that isn’t always viewed as sympathetic; denying the repentant Prospero what he craves is difficult. But even if you don’t find the sorcerer worthy of indulgence, there is still plenty to feast upon in this production – so indulge yourself.

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
Something’s [a little] rotten in the state of Georgia
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
The 2008-2009 Tavern season has followed an interesting trend thus far. It seems as though the productions of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works, such as the "Henry VI" trilogy, have been tour de forces, while the more popular plays failed to deliver. February’s "Romeo and Juliet" was a disappointment, and now "Hamlet," while more successful, isn’t quite living up to expectations either. Perhaps the gamble of producing “the world’s greatest play” has placed the Prince of Denmark and his crew atop an unreachable pedestal, leaving hyped audiences unsatisfied when perfection isn’t achieved.

This is not to say that "Hamlet" is poorly done. The staging is beautiful, as is the costuming, and the lighting is tasteful and effective. Acting is what makes or breaks a play, and this production is chock-full of flubbed lines, flat deliveries and characters breathing heavily after being slain (I’m looking at you, Nick Faircloth). For a handful of reasons, this "Hamlet" seems to have fallen somewhere below the level of quality that is the Tavern’s trademark.

Matt Felten, a gifted comedian, proves his versatility as the title character, and his performance is among the better ones. Amee Vyas is sweetly heartbreaking as the doomed Ophelia, and Travis Smith, who needs to perform at the Tavern more often, completely captures the audience in his major scene, where his Ghost of King Hamlet reveals the truth about his death. On the lighter side, Daniel Parvis is on hand to provide plenty of comic relief in multiple roles, and Tony Brown’s Polonius is alternately goofy and manipulative, making his untimely death a bittersweet one.

Maurice Ralston and Laura Cole are here too, playing husband and wife for the 85629th time. These two have been in or involved with just about every Tavern show so far this season –- heck, they were the only ones in "Doctor Faustus" -– and it seems as though the burden of all these commitments is finally catching up to them. Neither is remarkable, despite the fact that Claudius and Gertrude are two of the most intense roles in Shakespeare’s folio. Someone needs to send this duo on a three-week vacation right now so they can rest, rejuvenate and return ready to re-enthrall us with their usual brilliance.

Oh, and the play is long . . . very, very long . . . running well over three hours, when all is said and done. Thankfully, someone -– usually Felten, Brown, Parvis or Doug Graham, whose understated Horatio deserves more credit -– always arrives onstage just in time to save the show before it descends into tedium.

There is a reason why Shakespeare’s words have survived and thrived for centuries. The themes are universal, the humor is timeless, and his ability to appeal to people of all beliefs and backgrounds is worthy of the highest accolades. When Shakespeare is performed well, it’s explosive. But a litany of distractions that shouldn’t be seen in anything more advanced than a high school production (e.g. breathing corpses, incomprehensibly slurred speech, breaking character to laugh at a fellow actor –- which happens a few times among members of the ensemble) immediately takes the audience out of the show. And once attention is diverted, it is almost impossible to get back, no matter how powerful the script.

The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
Medieval mavericks make merry in Canterbury
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
A departure from Original Practice, no matter how brief, probably involved much debate and handwringing by the members of the Atlanta Shakespeare Company, but they ultimately decided to perform director John Stephens’ modernized adaptation of "The Canterbury Tales" this month. With sight gags galore, occasional instances of cheap humor, and sound effects ranging from a car engine to squeaking bedsprings, does the production still manage to please the typical Tavern audience? Well, thanks to the timelessness of Chaucer’s tales, the clever staging, and the near-perfect cast of eight ASC regulars, the short answer is – yes. This is a trip that you will definitely want to take.

So come climb aboard the Canterbury Tours bus and be greeted by your ever-cheerful guide (Rivka Levin). Your fellow passengers include a sultry five-time wife (Laura Cole), a silent young salesman (Matt Felten), a hard-boozing nun (Amee Vyas), an obnoxious Texan (Mary Russell) accompanied by her long-suffering husband (Nicholas Faircloth), and a pair of boisterous drunks (Mike Niedzwiecki and Drew Reeves) who refuse to stay in their seats. The journey is long but hardly lacking in entertainment, as everybody onboard has a story to tell.

Everybody also has ample opportunity to shine and, as a result, the cast does not seem to have the so-called weak link who would typically drag such a show through the mud. Cole covers miles of ground with her performances, from the Wife of Bath to an Italian “town tricycle” (several men get a ride) to Death herself, playing checkers with the versatile and always-funny Felten. Niedzwiecki, who usually seems to play the straight man, proves that he also has a knack for comedy; he, Felten and Faircloth (the king of goofy faces) make one heck of a trio. It’s so good to see Ms. Vyas back on the Tavern stage, a sentiment with which most of the men in the audience agree after seeing her in that Indian costume and Catholic schoolgirl uniform. From the house speech to the grand finale, Reeves’ antics leave everybody in stitches, and Levin gets the chance to show off not only her comedic side, but also her harp-playing skills and lovely singing voice. (Early in the show, she also does a Don Corleone impression that’s hilariously accurate.)

After her uninspired performance in "Romeo and Juliet," hopes were not high for Mary Russell. However, her turn in "The Canterbury Tales" completely atones for her past work (and proves that she should probably stick to comedy). She earns big laughs as an emphysemic old crone in the first act and, just when you think it can’t get any better, she reemerges as a noisy cradle-bound baby who more or less steals the show. Keep an eye on the baby in the final scene; her hilarious facial expressions are just a handful of the brilliant little touches that make this play shine.

It isn’t standard Tavern fare, but "The Canterbury Tales" is still a delightful diversion with something for everyone . . . well, everyone except the kids. (No, seriously. Don’t bring them.) Make the pilgrimage to Canterbury. It’s a worthwhile journey in every possible way.

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare
"Two hours traffic" becomes Atlanta rush hour
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
"My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
Prodigious birth of love it is to me,
That I should love a loathed enemy." – Act I, Scene 5

"Romeo and Juliet," arguably Shakespeare’s most popular play, is more than just the bane of ninth grade English students; it serves as an initial impression of the Tavern for many theatergoers. About half the people in the audience of the February 6 show, most of them in couples, acknowledged that it was their first visit to the venue. Unfortunately, judging by the lukewarm applause and halfhearted laughs peppered throughout “the two hours traffic of our stage,” it’s doubtful that many of them will return.

Tavern regulars appreciate the fact that the Atlanta Shakespeare Company always stays true to its sources while taking just enough risks to jive with a modern audience. Plenty of risks are employed in this production, helmed by Laura Cole with assistance from Maurice Ralston, who moonlights as Capulet. Sometimes it all comes together but, as a whole, this "Romeo and Juliet" leaves a lot to be desired.

So what went wrong? Ironically, one of the least effective choices was also one of the safest: the casting of Mary Russell. She is a solid performer, but her Juliet acts more like a child throwing a tantrum than a young woman consumed by a forbidden relationship, and Russell’s inability to fully explore this multilayered character renders it difficult for the audience to connect with her. Fan favorite J.C. Long’s Romeo is about one more platitude and some black nail polish away from being what today’s teenagers refer to as “emo.” He gripes and whines and sulks around the stage while trying his hardest to magically manufacture some chemistry with Russell; one is more likely to sympathize with the bright-eyed Paris (current apprentice Lee Osorio), with his hopeful smile and ever-present bouquet. This Romeo and Juliet’s relationship has all the depth of the modern kind that culminates in the couple shooting daggers at each other from opposite sides of the set while playing the “you are [not] the father” game with Maury Povich: it’s sloppy, superficial and hard to believe.

At least Daniel Parvis gets some, albeit not nearly enough, stage time to stretch his actor’s muscles with history’s most brazen portrayal of Mercutio – the perfect example of a risk that works. Whether he’s taunting his archrival Tybalt (Mike Niedzwiecki) or groping Juliet’s nurse (Erin Considine, a last-minute replacement who seems to be channeling Lorraine Swanson, Mo Collins’ befuddled and braying recurring character from “MADtv”), Parvis completely steals the show; his delivery of the “Queen Mab” speech alone is an extraordinary feat, and the plays sags considerably after Mercutio’s murder. Doug Kaye turns in another fine performance as Friar Lawrence, and Maureen Yasko (probably the strongest member of this season’s Apprentice Company) is memorable in her brief scene as the Apothecarie, even more than she is as Montague’s Lady.

"Romeo and Juliet"'s lighting is beautiful, particularly during the balcony scene, and the costumes are dazzling, as always. Drawing names for a chance to read the Prologue is a fun idea, although watching the raffle winner deliver the speech is ultimately more exciting than the title characters’ relatively chaste displays of affection. When all is said and done, the production feels much longer than its promised running time, and caring about its outcome becomes increasingly difficult. It’s a well-loved story with a smattering of standout performances, but this year’s "Romeo and Juliet" probably won’t win the Tavern any new fans.

Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe
Ninety minutes in hell
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
"Lo, Mephistophilis, for love of thee
Faustus hath cut his arm and with his proper blood
Assures his soul to be great Lucifer’s,
Chief lord and regent of perpetual night." -- Act II, Scene 1

Literal “hells on earth” have been a hot topic in recent news and pop culture. Examples of these modern infernos include Darfur, the Gaza Strip and the New American Shakespeare Tavern . . . well, only until January 25. In the meantime, Doctor Johann Faustus is using the space to conjure demons, tempt royalty and sell his soul to Satan, all before an unabashedly amused audience. (The administrators of my Catholic high school would’ve combusted had they seen me sitting there.)

Christopher Marlowe, widely believed to be an inspiration to the Tavern’s namesake, wrote "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" in the late 16th century for reasons unknown – possibly as a literary middle finger to the Christian faith he allegedly abandoned in favor of atheism, but more likely as a cautionary morality tale for his contemporaries. Interpret it however you’d like, as the play is nothing if not thought-provoking. How far are you willing to go for knowledge and power? Are a few moments of glory worth an eternity of anguish? Is God’s mercy truly endless, or does it come with terms and limits? Such questions are just as important and relevant today, if not more so, as they were during the reign of Queen Elizabeth.

Director Jeff Watkins brings a unique interpretation of "Faustus" to his theater that still manages to stay true to Marlowe’s ideal. The Tavern stage has been lowered, which allows audience members to sit there while the action unfolds on the main floor, thereby creating a sort of theater-in-the-round out of an already intimate space. Two Atlanta Shakespeare Company regulars – Maurice Ralston as the protagonist and Laura Cole as everyone else – do the work of ten actors in telling the story, with a little assistance from the backstage voices and sound effects of Nicholas Faircloth, Mike Niedzwiecki and Mary Russell, who makes a brief appearance as “the face that launched a thousand ships.”

Casting a woman as the fallen angel Mephistophilis was an unusual decision, but Cole’s powerful delivery and self-assured swagger ensure that it was no mistake; her enactment of the Seven Deadly Sins alone is worth the price of admission, and the action is positively set afire by her chemistry with longtime counterpart Ralston, whose portrayal of the tortured Faustus is undoubtedly just what Marlowe envisioned. It’s sometimes difficult to determine when Cole slides from her main role into a lesser one, unless it was Watkins’ intention to give the impression that Mephistophilis is actually taking on the shapes of the other characters Faustus encounters, in which case the confusion actually makes the play more fun.

The show starts with Cole circling the room, lighting the votive candles that grace each table, while Ralston delivers the opening monologue from the floor – literally. (Sitting toward the back of the stage probably means you won’t get to watch Faustus writhe in agony on the ground, but a balcony seat may cause you to miss Lucifer as he swoops from the ceiling to claim the doctor’s soul.) Big chunks of the play are performed mostly by candlelight, which ups the ante for something truly horrific to happen. And happen it does, despite Watkins’ decision to cut the script’s final scene, where Faustus’ students enter his study and discover his scattered limbs (an exclusion which may disappoint the patrons whose bloodlust wasn’t satiated with all the severed heads in November’s "Henry VI"). Instead, this version ends much as it begins, with Cole now putting out the candles and leaving Faustus (and the audience) in complete darkness, accompanied only by the aftershock of Marlowe’s message and resulting thoughts of morality, mortality and possibly even regret. What could be scarier than that?

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, by Tony Brown, adapted from the novel by Charles Dickens
Pretty as Mrs. Cratchit’s plum pudding
Friday, December 12, 2008
Being called a Scrooge is rivaled only by Grinch as the biggest Christmastime insult. True, both characters eventually become enveloped with the seasonal spirit, but for a while, their opposition to Yuletide festivities is so extreme that association with them should be enough to send any disgruntled tree decorator or holiday shopper running to empty his pockets for the nearest Salvation Army Santa in a gesture of “goodwill toward men.” But even if you’re feeling a little irritable and stingy this December, à la Mr. Scrooge, you’re still bound to find something to enjoy in the New American Shakespeare Tavern’s original production of "A Christmas Carol," with “original” being the key word.

This play is a purist’s dream; every word of dialog is taken directly from Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel. Everybody and their brother already knows the plot, but adaptor and director Tony Brown puts a spin on the staging by cutting down the cast to a handful of narrators and one cranky Ebenezer Scrooge, played to perfection by Tavern staple Drew Reeves. Props and costumes are kept to a minimum, placing most of the emphasis on the author’s words as they convey the story’s power and beauty. Brown also makes the decision to weave music into his production; all of the narrators are talented singers who blend gorgeous harmonies, and a few even show off their abilities on instruments like the violin (Mary Ruth Ralston) and guitar (Becky Cormier Finch) during key scenes throughout the show.

The performances are great with a handful of standouts, namely Paul Hester’s gentle Bob Cratchit, Rivka Levin’s bawdy Cockney charwoman and Matt Felten’s adorable Tiny Tim. Of course, the show belongs to Reeves, and it’s easy to simultaneously despise and pity his lonely Scrooge, especially as he begs the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (possibly played by a true spirit, as no actor claims this role) to alter his proposed future. His onstage cohorts back him up with rapid-fire dialog and carols both old and original; “Carol of the Bells” at the start of Act II is particularly beautiful. A few of the jokes fall flat, and a line or two may get lost in the shuffle of a scene change, but overall, it’s a seamless enactment delivered by performers who truly love and respect the material.

The differences between this and a more traditional staging of "A Christmas Carol" may leave some audience members feeling confused, but a little post-show reflection is all it takes for Brown’s production to reveal its true magic and appeal. And if you aren’t at least charmed by this clever take on an old classic . . . well, then “bah! humbug!” to you too.

Henry VI parts 1, 2, 3, by William Shakespeare
The "noble" Duke of York, he killed ten thousand men
Monday, November 17, 2008
"From Ireland thus comes York to claim his right,
And pluck the crown from feeble Henry’s head." -- Act V, Scene 1

Saying that the New American Shakespeare Tavern is a unique theater is like saying that it rains a lot in the Bard’s adopted hometown of London – it’s a massive understatement. Where else in Atlanta can you eat shepherd’s pie and drink Strongbow cider while watching authentic Elizabethan drama? How many other theater companies completely disregard the fourth wall? As an audience member, when was the last time an actor left the stage to harass you with the severed head of his character’s latest victim? A Tavern show is always a spectacle, whether you’re watching a non-Shakespeare work, a crowd-pleaser like "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" or even one of those dreaded histories . . .

If you missed Part I of "Henry VI," rest assured that seeing it is not imperative to your enjoyment of the equally entertaining Part II. Here’s a big selling point: it has severed heads. And these heads aren’t bargain bin Halloween masks; they’re custom made to fit the likenesses of the characters who lose them. Body parts and stage blood add an element of macabre fun to the production – the audience actually burst into applause after one beheading – but just be aware that a follower of the rabble-rousing Jack Cade (Andrew Houchins) may want you to become acquainted with these battle trophies. A word of warning: sitting in the balcony doesn’t guarantee your safety.

Part II picks up with the not-so-blissfully wedded life of King Henry (Daniel Parvis) and his French wife Margaret (Laura Cole), and the growing color-coded conflict between the Dukes of York (Maurice Ralston) and Somerset (Jacob York). With subplots and tangents galore, it isn’t an easy play to follow, and the Tavern does you no favors by continuing its tradition of assigning multiple roles to each actor, so try to stay on your toes. Basically, the Duke of York wants to overthrow Henry and uses commoner Jack Cade and his gang as pawns. When Cade’s rebellion is crushed, York begins an uprising of his own and ultimately slays both his rival Somerset and the Henry-supporting Lord Clifford (Doug Kaye). Meanwhile, the Duke of Gloucester (Kaye again), Henry’s beloved heir apparent, is murdered under the direction of Margaret’s lover, the Duke of Suffolk (J.C. Long), and the crooked Cardinal Beaufort (Tony Brown). Beaufort confesses his involvement on his deathbed, while Suffolk is banished and eventually – you guessed it – beheaded by pirates.

But even if you overlook a couple of plot points, there’s still plenty to enjoy, including the fact that the cast doesn’t seem to have a weak link. A handful of flubbed lines aside, the performances are solid at worst and spectacular at best, with most of the actors given the opportunity to show an array of emotions. Cole is amazing as the wicked Queen Margaret, although she seems to have abandoned the accent she attempted in Part I, but the true female standout is Heidi Cline. Her Duchess of Gloucester is accused of treason and exiled, and Cline’s gut-wrenching expressions of sorrow and fear on her way to the Isle of Man make for one of the play’s most powerful scenes. Matt Felten continues his unbroken streak of wrapping the audience around his finger – the scam artist Saunders Simpcox is a hoot – but Part II establishes a dark horse in the running for Funniest and Most Versatile Tavern Actor: Bryan Lee. Lee plays a variety of roles here – Peter the seemingly doomed servant, the snooty Clerk of Chatham, an Irish messenger (whose accent is spot-on) and even a woman – and nails every single one.

Jack Cade’s conversation with his cronies about what to do when they seize power is infectiously funny; keep an eye on Tony Brown as a big dumb follower with a permanent Cheshire cat grin. And Suffolk and Margaret’s parting scene is bursting with steamy passion that practically requires a cigarette after viewing. Some audience reactions may be “wrong,” per se (“I am slain!” probably wasn’t intended to be a humorous line), but the cast works its hardest to ensure that every new development is clear and nothing important slips through the cracks. Stay alert and soak up the fine performances and twisted story. And remember: if nothing else, at least it has severed heads.

Henry VI parts 1, 2, 3, by William Shakespeare
Roses are red, but can also be white; they tore England apart and led to a
Thursday, November 13, 2008
"Let him that is no coward nor no flatterer,
But dare maintain the party of the truth,
Pluck a red rose from off this thorn with me." -- Act II, Scene 4

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. That’s an important and all-too-relevant lesson, courtesy of George Santayana, but does history really have to be so boring? Absolutely not, when it’s in the ever-capable hands of the folks at the New American Shakespeare Tavern. Tackling all three parts of the beast known as "Henry VI" couldn’t have been easy, but the enormously talented cast and crew pulls it off with more gusto, not to mention bravado, than Shakespeare usually receives. Between the brilliant acting and the jaw-dropping fight scenes in Part I, you’ll instantly forget that this is the same material your high school history teacher was trying to cram into your head while you slouched in your back-row seat and doodled in the margins of your otherwise blank notebook.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that the play opens with a funeral; while a somber tone pervades the trilogy, there’s still plenty of room for humor, with a little of the standard “love at first sight” tossed into the mix. Part I depicts the inception of England’s War of the Roses and tells the story of how the teenage Maid of Orleans led her people to numerous much-needed battle victories before succumbing to her famous fate. A special nod goes out to Fight Director Drew Reeves, whose beautifully choreographed and utterly realistic battle scenes – and there are a lot of them – allow the show to rise head and shoulders (except when heads are being lobbed off) above most other regional theater productions.

Although she is not given top billing, Part I truly belongs to Mary Ruth Ralston. Her portrayal of Joan la Pucelle, better known as Joan of Arc, is more Shakespearean slut than saint (or schizophrenic, depending on who you ask) – a feisty fighter who swaggers, swears and sleeps with Charles VII of France (Paul Hester), among others. Ralston’s agility with a sword and raw emotion in her delivery make Joan simultaneously despicable and sympathetic. The only flaw in the performance is her occasionally waning French accent, but such an issue is easy to forgive when the acting is this good. And speaking of good acting, is there any role that Matt Felten, possessor of the world’s largest eyes, can’t play? As the simpleminded son of the Master Gunner of Orleans (Maurice Ralston), he earns some of the show’s biggest laughs, but as John Talbot, the poignancy of his decision to uphold his family’s honor and fight against France, even though it will most likely result in his death, is heartbreaking. However, the scene in which he discusses this outcome with his father, English knight Lord Talbot (Drew Reeves), is delivered in sing-song rhyme, which gives the dialog an unintended maudlin flavor.

It was Shakespeare’s intention to create three stand-alone plays when he penned his "Henry VI" trilogy, but the ending of Part I leaves a lingering desire for more. Will the gentle title character (Daniel Parvis) really wed the conniving Margaret of Anjou (Laura Cole), and what will happen when the inevitable love triangle forms between them and the slimy Earl of Suffolk (J.C. Long)? Who will come out on top in the War of the Roses – red John Beaufort of Somerset (Jacob York) or white Richard Plantagenet of York (Maurice Ralston)? And what about all of those severed heads promised in future acts . . .? One thing’s for certain: the Tavern has done its job when several audience members head straight for the box office after curtain call and clamor for tickets to Part II. Every history lesson should be this entertaining.

Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare
Cleopatra is a royal pain in the asp.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
"No grave upon this earth shall clip in it / A pair more famous." -- Act V, Scene II

It's hard to think of Cleopatra without envisioning Liz Taylor's elaborate costumes and stolid acting in the film that virtually bankrupted 20th Century Fox, but that doesn't seem to faze Joanna Daniel. As half the title of William Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra," playing through November 2 at the New American Shakespeare Tavern, Daniel is tastefully over-the-top, imbuing the coquettish queen with a fervor scarcely contained by the bare-bones set. Her powerful performance is top-notch, effortlessly conveying all of Cleopatra's complexities with none of the 1960s Hollywood schmaltz.

How unfortunate, then, that such a meaty female role is weighed down by the surrounding confusion. With a near-eternal running time -- long enough for two intermissions -- and approximately six thousand characters, "Antony and Cleopatra" has a tendency to snake along as lazily as the Nile. Sure, it contains all of our favorite Shakespearean elements -- undying love, battle, suicide, a trio of eunuchs somehow managing to get busy with the servants -- but the play takes a good half-hour to get going and never quite achieves the energy and verve that usually define the First Folio. (But opening the show with the aforementioned eunuch/servant action immediately engages the audience in a way that Elizabethan dialog cannot.)

Still, the actors, in true Tavern fashion, give their all. Daniel is engrossing and royally bitchy, mercilessly bulldozing anyone who gets in Cleopatra's way; a running gag involving a marble-eyed messenger's (Matt Felten) fear of bringing bad news to Egypt is very funny. Jeff Watkins' portrayal of Marc Antony, while slightly less memorable, is also stellar and sweeps the full range of emotions experienced by a man torn between his country and his true love. Antony's fellow triumvirs, Octavius Caesar (J.C. Long) and Lepidus (Doug Kaye), are strong and complex roles, and both actors rise to the challenge, particularly Long, whose Caesar seems entirely power-hungry and cruel, yet displays a softer side when offering Antony the hand of his sister Octavia (Anna Gorman). Other standouts include relative Tavern newcomer Tiffany Porter as Cleopatra's trusted attendant Charmian, and Felten, who reappears late in the show as Eros, a confidant to Antony who makes the ultimate sacrifice for his beloved friend.

When nearly every performer in a play has multiple roles, audience confusion is likely to follow, and "Antony & Cleopatra" is no exception. Most of the time, it's relatively easy to discern the changes in character (although this reviewer somehow kept mistaking Antony for Enobarbus, played by Maurice Ralston; maybe it had something to do with seeing Watkins with all that hair). But slapping two wigs on Gorman to differentiate between her flat Octavia and flatter Seleucus isn't quite effective enough to be believed.

However, many of the actors juggle two, three or even four roles with ease, including several members of this year's Apprentice Company, who are making their Tavern debuts with "Antony and Cleopatra." True, there is a vast difference in skill and confidence between them and the Tavern regulars, such as Long, Ralston and the always superb Tony Brown, this time playing attendant Alexas and messenger Proculeus. But it'll be fun to watch the newbies grow and come into their own over the course of the season.

Ultimately, "Antony and Cleopatra" is about the choices and sacrifices that two lovers must make when painful coercive forces come between them. The casting of Watkins and Daniel is pitch-perfect (in part because the real titular characters were roughly 53 and 39, respectively, when they died), and the play is worth seeing for the performances alone. From a rollicking meeting between the triumvirs and their rival Pompey (Joshua Lee Jones), which can only be described as a precursor to the modern frat party, to Cleopatra's death in her mausoleum (the use of a real snake is a nice touch), it's clear that the actors are in their Shakespearean elements and, at times, it's impossible to not be moved by their joy, sorrow and passion. Just be sure to have a cup of coffee on hand for the moments where the action starts to sag.

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by John Caird (book) and Paul Gordon (songs)
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by Marc Farley
Agathas: A Taste of Mystery
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by Marc Farley
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Midnight at the Masquerade
by The Murder Mystery Company
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