A User-Driven Site for Theater in Atlanta, Georgia
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Companies Reviewed#
The New American Shakespeare Tavern9
Actor's Express4
Theatrical Outfit4
True Colors Theatre Company2
Alliance Theatre Company1
Georgia Shakespeare1
Essential Theatre1
7 Stages1
Aurora Theatre1
Average Rating Given : 4.14583
Reviews in Last 6 months :

King Lear, by William Shakespeare
Fine Tragic Acting
Sunday, July 18, 2010
Strong acting pretty much all round, with Tim McDonough as Lear, Daniel May as Edmund, Chris Kayser as the Fool and very good work by Edgar and Gloucester, too.

This brought out, for example, Gloucester's sane desire for death as a powerful counterpoint to Lear's madness in reaction to realizing how badly he'd misjudged his children. And the Edgar-Gloucester 'Ripeness is all' dialogue about taking one's life was given enough time to register. Lear seems to be gaining wisdom in his madness in this interpretation - the Fool disappears once Lear doesn't need him for wisdom.

The women were only OK, occasionally inaudible from the balcony front row where we sat. The writing is thinner for the three sisters and if the male characters plumb the depths of their roles as they do in this production the women are bound to be overshadowed.

I felt the characters oddly almost never made connections with each other, maybe a deliberate directorial schtick? Except near the end, when Cordelia and Kent, Cordelia and Lear and the final survivors connect. Had a hunch they'd cut quite a bit - for example the Kent insult scene seemed short. This possibly allowed them to linger in the final act, letting Lear and others draw their conclusions with as much coherence as possible, a good choice.

The Sunset Limited, by Cormac McCarthy
Smoke and Mirrors
Sunday, April 4, 2010
Let me say at once that the sustained acting in ‘Sunset’ deserves a full five stars. Peter Thomasson’s riffs on injured pride and defensiveness are always a pleasure to watch and they suit the character of White down to the ground. E. Roger Mitchell is enormously likable and deftly expresses the intelligence of Black’s uneducated man. The actors manage to vary the tone, intensity and pace of their 100 minute argument so that the time we spend listening to them never hangs heavy. This is an acting tour de force.

Cormac McCarthy’s play, on the other hand, is a trickier matter. It provides satisfying drama but only the pretense of debate. It’s like watching a wrestling match that you know is rigged.

I remember in my early teens being challenged on my unbelief by an idealistic Christian classmate. Like White in this play, I had no desire to undermine my interlocutor’s faith nor to proselytize for atheism, merely not to be pestered for too long by an evangelizer. As I soon saw, arguments about faith boil down ultimately to “You have it and I haven’t.” Reasoning, such as appeals to the authority of the bible and to miracles, is circular. If I don’t accept the bible as revealed truth and don’t believe accounts of miracles, they don’t bolster the case for Christianity. While McCarthy lets White make this point towards the end of The Sunset Limited, it could have been uttered at the start, except then there would have been no play.

I haven’t spent a whole lot of time in the intervening decades contemplating the moves in this particular game of chess. So it took me a while to catch on that the play is fixed from the get go. Christian Black has miraculously saved Atheist White from throwing himself off the subway platform into the path of an oncoming train. On reflection, it’s a fairly absurd premise. How many determined subway suicides are so intercepted? The physics of it are iffy. But the play rushes us into not questioning this. Since the playwright says it happened, White cannot argue about it on our behalf and is faced with apparent evidence of a miracle performed by an ex-con. Instead, he argues about whether Jesus really speaks to Black, a debate that cannot get past “Yes he does” and “I find that hard to believe.”

Sunset is also fixed in that its atheist is a suicidal loner who hated his parents. There are plenty of atheists who are not suicidal and who love their parents and their children. Some share White’s pessimistic assessment of human nature’s flaws and the world’s fate, but there's no necessary connection. On the other side, Black has been a murdering hoodlum who only belatedly saw the light of God. An extreme version of the Christian idea that everyone’s a sinner does not really balance out the characterization of the atheist. There’s a lot of confusion about whether we are arguing about belief in Jesus or belief that life is worth living, or whether we are dealing with a case of severe clinical depression and / or severe social maladjustment, in which case the arguments are beside the point.

So lots of smoke and mirrors, as befits any attempt to justify the ways of God to man. It’s a fun exercise though, and the actors give it a hell of a workout.

King Lear, by William Shakespeare
O that way madnesse lies
Saturday, March 6, 2010

The tragedy of ‘King Lear’ comes to a glorious head in the storm scenes as the king looks inward. “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.” “I have ta’en too little care of this: Take physicke, Pompe, expose thy selfe to feele what wretches feele …” and so on.

Jeff Watkins makes the poetry sing beautifully as Lear disintegrates into madness. If he seemed a touch too vigorous for an abdicating king in the opening act, that actually gives him more scope to show us his loss of power and his daughters’ cruelty taking their toll. His sadly knowing smile, as he allows the Fool to tell him home truths for which he’d earlier banished Kent, speaks volumes. This performance grows on us persuasively, carrying through to the tragic and moving climax of reconciliation, dotage and death.

There is great work, too, from the other actors whose characters develop: Daniel Parvis as mad Poor Tom and Troy Willis as the loyal Kent in disguise as a servant, though the accent made a few lines indecipherable. The ‘insult scene’ between Kent and Matt Felten as the unctuous steward is alone worth the price of admission. Gabbled speech was a serious problem with Mary Ruth Ralston’s Fool and she is simply miscast as Cordelia: where is Veronika Duerr when we need her? Erin Considine and Laura Cole play Lear’s silver-tongued, disloyal and lecherous daughters almost like the wicked stepsisters in a pantomime Cinderella. It works. Matt Nitchie does the treacherous Bastard with great physical presence and tone, but sometimes his delivery is indistinct. In general the production could use greater insistence on clear enunciation. With lines these good, we don’t want to miss any.

‘King Lear’ ruminates, of course, on relations between somewhat despotic fathers and their children. It also shows us the workings of conscience, with two fascinating cases of speaking truth to power, both times to great cost. The moral actions of Cordelia, Kent, Gloucester, Edgar and Cornwall’s servant make this, for me, a more satisfying tragedy than Othello or Hamlet. It is well that the Shakespeare Tavern has brought this wonderful, mature play to us. Perhaps the most challenging of the plays to mount, it is also richly rewarding. Productions are too rare a treat: don’t miss your chance to see this one.

Good Boys & True, by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Good theatre, for sure
Sunday, February 7, 2010
Since I agree with the salient points of Playgoer's review, I'll avoid redundancy here and just underscore a couple of his findings. Tess Malis Kincaid is mesmerizing as the conscience-stricken upper-crust mother and Stacey Melich brings comic relief as her sexy, straight-talking younger sister. The set is so bad that someone like me, who rarely notices the visuals, found it distracting in scenes where actors were hidden behind gauze projection screens.

On the night I saw the play, the central character was played by the understudy, Barrett Doyle. Bravo, sir! He was superb, perfectly capturing the solipsism of the prep-school golden boy.

I have a slight beef with the play's cliched view of elite prep school norms and values that translates into somewhat cardboard roles for the students and coach. The women all have much more running room. It could be that real-life St Joes - Westminster in Atlanta - are governed by a cut-throat and self-seeking culture. I suspect that's an overblown diagnosis and that more nuance would have made the play more interesting. And while the central character's refusal to come clean with his mother makes the play's essential point (I'm not going to ruin it for you - go see for yourself) that silence does not make for a satisfying dramatic arc.

Yet these are minor reservations. Actors Express has staged another in its string of intelligent new works brought pleasingly to Atlanta.

Tranced, by Robert Clyman
You'll be Tranced too, if you liked Mauritius or Third
Sunday, January 17, 2010
Aurora’s strong production of the new play, Tranced, is on a par with two of last year’s best Atlanta shows: Mauritius and Third. The three works all feature forceful characters, strong dialogue and psychological insight. The lead theme of Tranced is richer than that of the other two plays: population removal in resource-rich Africa trumps stamp collecting and student plagiarism. The play explores the proper roles of psychiatrists, journalists and diplomats, disentangles its protagonists’ motives, probes their manipulativeness, poses questions about sufficiency of evidence and asks when an individual can be sacrificed to protect a community. Fortunately, playwright Bob Clyman on the whole manages to avoid clichés and predictable judgments. His plot has good momentum and almost more ironic twists than one can absorb in one sitting. At times, however, the political and moral ideas threaten to swamp the drama and reduce the characters to mouthpieces. But deft direction, a well-matched four-hander cast and a spot of good old sexual tension keep the threat at bay.
Maurice Ralston renders the private, controlling psychiatrist well, and is equally comfortable revealing his character’s desperate sense of shame. He does a nice job, too, of maintaining the unplaceable accent that is important to his identity. (It is sad that Atlanta – especially the Shakespeare Tavern - will lose Mo Ralston after he finishes this Aurora gig.) Naima Carter charms and convinces as the student daughter of a prosperous African family seeking hypnosis therapy. Chad Martin gives his somewhat two-dimensional part, as the young under-secretary at State, enough interest and depth to stay in the game. Cara Mantella, who also acted in Mauritius and Third, brings her magnetism, aggression and vulnerability to the part of the crusading journalist. She steamrolls Mr Ralston and Mr Martin in her duels with them, though they seem to enjoy the experience. If she steals her scenes, the play is none the worse for that.
As a confirmed inside-the-perimeter type I was a bit non-plussed to find a play as intellectually engaging as Tranced in darkest Gwinnett, and pleasantly surprised at the enthusiastic reception of the audience. All praise to Aurora for entrancing us with this fine play, finely wrought by a strong acting quartet.

Richard III, by William Shakespeare
Beware the ploys of a tyrant
Friday, November 13, 2009
The theme that comes across with dazzling clarity in the Tavern's current production of Richard III is the ease with which a clever sociopath can manipulate others into cooperating with his evil schemes. One keeps thinking that in his Crookback Shakespeare was forewarning us, in vain, against Stalin. But it’s easy to recognize a manipulator after the fact. Who should we beware of now and for the future?
The intricacies of the plot and the royal family tree are impossible to follow, even for an Englishman fairly well-versed in history, so don’t even try. The theme’s the thing that matters, and as corpses pile up that is impossible to miss. Several tableaux and individual performances are especially worth savoring in the production, too.
The Tavern does a lovely job with the acclamation scene, where Buckingham - who wanted to be Richard's Karl Rove and failed to grasp that Richard was his own Rove and then some - gets London's Lord Mayor and burghers (and the audience) to beg Richard to serve as king, while Richard pretends to be too busy with his prayers for such worldly affairs. The manipulation of a crowd is relatively easy.
In case after case, individuals who should know better are cajoled into falling in with Richard's dynastic plans, only to fall afoul of him once they lose their usefulness. The curse of dowager queen Margaret, powerfully played by Laura Cole, seems to slip the minds of the other nobles as soon as Richard begins with his blandishments. It is especially shocking that, in the last act, after he's eliminated ten named characters before our (and her) very eyes, he can still turn the dowager whose sons he has murdered in the Tower and get her to woo her own daughter to be his next bride. Drew Reeves and Heidi Cline are pitch perfect in this scene. These royals are so power-mad that they will forget everything for another chance to be on top of the heap, and Richard's Macchiavellian insight allows him to play their ambitions perfectly.
Another scene that deserves mention is Clarence's murder, where three strong actors play off each other superbly to bring out the humanity of Shakespeare's vision. Nick Faircloth once more has us in the palm of his hand, with warmth, naturalness and clear diction.
This is not Shakespeare's best play. Dramatic structure loses out to chronological verisimilitude. And the tyrant is not a sufficiently complex a character to hold our interest for three long hours. Crookback is more Marlovian than most of Shakespeare’s characters, which is fun for awhile but palls at length. Yet it is well worth seeing this production for individual scenes and performances, such as those singled out above; for the unusual number of strong female characters; and most of all for that overall sense of the vulnerability of political systems to tyranny that Shakespeare conveys so well.

As You Like It, by William Shakespeare
The Lie Valiant
Sunday, October 4, 2009
As You Like It's greatest pleasures include Shakespeare's witty speeches on the seven ages of man and seven types of lies along with such follies as the melodramatic encounter of Orlando and the lion, described by his brother. All of these are delivered - by Drew Reeves, JC Long and Mo Ralston respectively - with the fidelity, clarity and humor that show Tavern professionalism at its best.

Throw in highly likeable actors in the leading roles of Rosalind and Orlando - though I agree with Brad that some zing is missing in what felt like over-long scenes of wooing practice. Risk some foolery with Southern accents where it can do no harm. Season with some of the folio's prettiest music and marinate in the whole pastoral conceit of the Forest of Arden. Don't worry here about usurping of dukedoms - The Tempest, Measure for Measure or Lear are there to explore such political themes which merely lurk in the shadows of this comedy. And hey nonny no, you have one of the most approachable Shakespeare plays in a production fit to delight any jaded courtier or humble shepherd.

Jim Crow and the Rhythm Darlings, by Vynnie Meli
Intriguing work in progress
Sunday, July 19, 2009
It's tough to review Jim Crow and the Rhythm Darlings a couple of nights after seeing Blood Knot. Clearly, Essential Theatre's role in nurturing new plays is quite different from what Theatrical Outfit is doing with the tested-by-time modern classic from Athol Fugard.

As a workshop on what it might take to get from the ideas in Rhythm Darlings to the power and sensitivity of the accomplished Blood Knot, however, seeing the two plays in the same week is an intriguing experience. Vynnie Meli's play has a long way to go, but there are several dramatic moments that work well. The theme of a black girl jazz band touring the Deep and unreconstructed South during WW2 has plenty of interest. Throwing a Jewess alto sax into the mix, implausible though it sounds, is both based on historical fact and dramatically promising. The mutual incomprehension between her and an embittered Southern black band member also has great potential. We want to get to know these characters better and see whether they can develop convincingly, to become rounded humans who go beyond spouting at one another like college kids meeting in their first week as freshmen. The fact that we DO want to see and hear more is what suggests that the premise holds promise. The writing feels for now more like a series of episodes for a TV show than a unified stage play, and it might go either way.

While we're obviously not in the hands of masters like Kenny Leon and Tom Key, there's some effective work from the Essential Theatre cast, along with some awkward moments of over-acting. At times the actors made up in passionate delivery for what they were not given in richness of dialogue.

For those interested in the themes of this fledgling play or intrigued by watching a work in progress, it's a reasonably rewarding experience to catch this production of Rhythm Darlings.

Blood Knot, by Athol Fugard
Brutal honesty
Thursday, July 16, 2009
When two of the finest actors in Atlanta, reprise a tough-minded, classic play about the tragedy of racial prejudice, under the baton of the artistic director of the town's major theater, it's a must-see for serious theatre-goers.

White South African playwright Athol Fugard gets inside the skin of two brothers, one black, the other whitish, with supremely sensitive humanity. And Kenny Leon and Tom Key have the bona fides to represent these two brothers. Neither need be afraid to portray some rough stuff, including Mr Key's character hurling the obvious racial epithet at Mr Leon's in apparent betrayals of their brotherhood.

The play was written about apartheid South Africa in the early 1960s, but it did not feel dated at all, more's the pity. Things are unquestionably better in South Africa and in the Southern states than 45 years ago, though by no means are racial wounds healed in either place. And social tension based on ethnic differences often spill into violence and cause plenty of deeply personal sorrow - Uighurs and Han are just the most recent example of violent ethnic strife that comes to mind.

The set on the Balzer stage drops us right into the miserable squalor of an Afican laborer's hut. And the look on Tom Key's face, as he sits motionless before the play begins, is as grim as his surroundings. We know we're not getting off lightly from the minute we step into the theatre, and it's a powerful introduction.

Kenny Leon handles the challenging Sith Ifricin accent more smoothly than Mr Key. The latter's pronunciation swerves distractingly from word to word between British English, his own slightly Southern twang, an Indian intonation and the occasional intended Boer note. This may be less bothersome to listeners who can't tell a South African from a Brit accent.

Mr Leon has the more likeable character to work with and he deploys his considerable charm to draw us into the drama, which is just as well. Mr Key's portrayal of an inhibited, obsessive-compulsive god-fearing and highly conflicted white son of a black mother is intriguing but too grim to be sympathetic. I don't remember such humorlessness eleven years ago - though I could be wrong - and wonder if Susan Booth pushed for this tough approach, and if so whether it was a wise choice.

The play is difficult both because it does not generate easy sympathy and because it is somewhat enigmatic - how did the black mother come to have a son who can at least pass as white and appears to be very much white? Is the unseen mother intended only as allegory, as South Africa, spawner of unloved bastard children, at each other's throats? Why does the white brother come back to live with his sibling and why does he not work to earn money?

Whatever your answers to these questions, Tom Key, Kenny Leon and Susan Booth do justice to Fugard's brutally honest confrontation of racial agony.

The Mystery of Irma Vep, by Charles Ludlum
Harmless fun
Friday, June 19, 2009
The Shakespeare Tavern's Irma Vep is an extended Monty Python sketch, well played by comic actors Jeff McKerley and Dolf Amick. The guys are likeable, versatile and funny actors, pros at quick changes and physical humor. Vep's send-up of mediocre books, plays and films of the country estate / Egyptology / melodrama bent is amusing stuff. Someone - maybe Ludlam, maybe Cline and McKerley, it matters little - has even thrown in some of Shakespeare's purple passages to add heft to the send-up for a Shakespeare-oriented audience. Irma's set transforms the Tavern's usual backdrop to pick up every drawing-room comedy cliche.

This is light entertainment for people with the sense of humor that goes for skits, poking fun at worn-out convention, cross-dressing, musical jokes, bad puns and general silliness. It's not going to win any awards for profundity of insight. For all but the most dedicated Python fan, two hours of this is more than enough of a good thing. But on a hot summer night, what else are you going to do?

Zanna, Don't!, by Tim Acito and Alexander Dinerlaris
Saturday, May 30, 2009
By turns excruciating and embarrassing, this show belongs on a high school stage, not at Actor's Express. After the strong work AE has presented this year, Mauritius and Suddenly Last Summer, the bathos of Zanna Don't comes as quite a shock. It's as if Bacchanalia ended your dinner with a plate of Twinkies (an ersatz dessert that appropriately features in this dismal entertainment).

I know, I know, there is not a public high school in this benighted state that would tolerate the play's premiss, let alone permit guys to kiss each other on stage, however chastely. But that's no excuse for this pedestrian dreck.

As my highly GLBT-tolerant son pointed out with amused exasperation at his old man's demanding taste, 'gay musical' is a verbal redundancy, so what did I really expect? But just as Monty Python (or one of that ilk) used to brag of making Ben Hur look like an epic, Zanna Don't makes Sondheim's work look like musicals.

The whole thing reminded me in all its awfulness of Peachtree Battle, right down to the fact that the catchy pun of the title is its wittiest feature.

Look, it takes real pluck or total cluelessness to go out and deliver lines and belt out tunes this hackneyed and mawkish. Zanna's cast is plucky and not without talent. Nick Morett and Chase Todd in particular have mellifluous singing voices, although Todd's speaking treble as the perky school announcer / DJ is an early sign of how cringe-inducing this show is going to be. Not the first sign, however: the tacky set flaunts the fact that Zanna will be wall-to-wall kitsch, and if any intended tongue-in-cheekiness is too well disguised.

Clearly there is a market for unalleviated schmaltz like this, although there were unfilled seats last night at AE, unlike the evenings when I saw their quality work this season. Perhaps good taste wins out? Surely it is confusing for AE to offer its audience the sublime and the gorblimey without signaling any distinction.

Take it from me, this show is not for the bravehearted, and if you admired the Tennessee Williams you're going to want to curl up and die at this one.

The Tempest, by William Shakespeare
Ariel's show - special fx win
Sunday, May 24, 2009
The Shakespeare Tavern occasionally comes in for criticism that its stage always looks the same. Original practice tends that way. Well, this Tempest starts out with a lot of rigging and a lot of stormy noise, and several other scenes also use fantastical lighting effects to transform the usual appearance at 499 Peachtree. I especially enjoyed Ariel's (JC Long's) set piece in which he wafts false hands aloft under a red glare. His quasi-mohawk hairdo is impressive, too, and the indignant attitude towards servitude.

What does not emerge is any overall message from the play. One feels occasional disquiet at Prospero's manipulations of all and sundry, but there's no reinforcement of that or any other theme, so it becomes simply another of Shakespeare's fantasy plays.

Other impressions from a Tavern supporter who believes that tough love is the best approach for maintaining / improving his favorite local company's quality:

The relationships between Prospero and both Miranda and Ariel are sympathetically drawn. Jeff Watkins shares a father's feelings feelingly. The forgiveness scene with the King of Naples and Prospero's usurping brother is less convincing, but dare one say that the playwright has not provided much to go on for development? It's the only time that victim and villains meet - and the denouement scenes in Shakespeare often seem a trifle forced. Mr Watkins occasionally adopts a slightly mumbled diction that is surprisingly difficult to decipher in one so practised at declaiming pentameter as he.

One could not hear a word of dialogue during the opening tempest scene. It's probably superfluous verbiage, but missing it might have scared some of the less Shakespeare-confident in the crowd.

Miranda last night was an understudy who chose to play the girl as a mall rat in need of a mall. Easy laughs but undercutting the poetry and innocence of the role.

Yes, Mr Houchins as the king's disloyal brother is damnably annoying with that nervous whinny. Sometimes the effort to stick out of the crowd should be resisted.

Stefano and Trinculo, the drunks, are most entertaining in this show, as Mr Parves was not when he robbed the gravedigger scene of meaning in last month's Hamlet.

The same could not be said of the carolling goddesses in a scene that could easily have been left on the cutting room floor.

But even with that silly piece of business left in, the pace sizzled and we were out of the house by 10 p.m., a rarity for a Tavern production of their house scribbler. The house was packed, many were new to the place, and the reception was pretty rapturous. That matters more than the little cavils here expressed: the Tavern brings Shakespeare plays to life for a diverse audience - never a mean feat.

Blues for an Alabama Sky, by Pearl Cleage
Beautifully True Blues
Sunday, May 10, 2009
If you’ve been wondering whether or when to make the trek to True Colors’s new digs at Southwest Arts Center off Cascade Road, Blues for an Alabama Sky is the one for you. Incidentally, the trip takes under 30 minutes from midtown, mostly on freeway, so it’s hardly an ordeal even for a confirmed ITP-er like me. Blues playwright Pearl Cleage lives in Southwest Atlanta, making the new venue especially appropriate.

The play was commissioned and premiered by Kenny Leon when he led the Alliance. I saw it then, and still greatly enjoyed this new production. At one level it’s a compelling Prohibition-era story of a Harlem nightclub singer and her friends: a flamboyant dress designer, the community’s only black Ob-Gyn, a young woman who is starting family planning clinics, and a country boy just up from Alabama who is smitten with the singer. They are sympathetic characters and their relationships develop in a fast-paced, engaging plot. At another level, it’s a work that bravely explores a clash of moral values – in this case within the black community – over sexual behavior, homosexuality, abortion and birth control – debates that are not over yet. More universally, the play contrasts the easy tolerance of sophisticated big-city types and the narrowness of the less educated family-values folks, without entirely stacking the deck.

This strong material is well served by a pleasing set that permits rapid scene transitions and, above all, by talented cast and direction. Jasmine Guy as the flirtatious singer is a damaged woman, used by Italian nightclub owners and using everyone else around her in turn. Ms Guy resists the temptation to turn on the charm and blind us to her character’s unappealing side. In the single scene where she sings, her unaccompanied blues voice is perhaps underwhelming, but no matter. Eric Ware, whose credits include the Shakespeare Tavern and Alabama Shakespeare, is superb as her loyal friend, the outrageously gay dress designer. He delivers most of the play’s laugh lines and his arch put-downs are perfectly timed, yet he’s also convincingly tough and self-protective when forced to confront prejudice. From the warm reception Mr Ware’s character received, Bishop Eddie Long’s homophobic influence in these parts may be over-rated. Mr Ware’s warm boom of a voice seemed to tire towards the end of the play and the acoustics made it hard to hear every word in the back of the auditorium. Joel Ishman as the tired doctor and Cynthia Barker as the earnest young family-planning advocate are very likeable. Benjamin Brown has the right presence for the handsome, god-fearing country boy. They are an ideal cast and the fast rhythm of the drama never flags in their hands.

Kenny Leon is packing the new house off Cascade Road. In his curtain speech he talked about the new location and encouraged the audience to go into town to support other theater, but also to take advantage of no longer having to go downtown for theater, a sentiment that brought applause. It would be good if more white audience members found their way to True Colors shows. Mr Leon’s motto for playgoers is “Laugh, Think and Cry,” and his productions are very effective in achieving those responses, perhaps none more so than this Blues for an Alabama Sky.

Driving Miss Daisy, by A Play by Alfred Uhry
Charming revival of a slice of Atlanta history
Saturday, May 2, 2009
This revival of the Atlanta classic from 21 years ago, which went on to Broadway success, is superbly cast. Jill Jane Clements as the touchy Jewish widow, Rob Cleveland as her chauffeur and Bill Murphey as her son have exactly the right chemistry and evoke just the right tone for these scenes from Atlanta life from the 1940s to the 1960s. Robert Farley directed the Atlanta premiere and directs this revival, and we are in good hands.

It's a charming story, by turns corny, touching and harder-hitting. For anyone with an interest in Atlanta before the growth took off, whether native or newcomer, this will be a treat.

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
Polonius and Ghost steal the show
Friday, May 1, 2009
It is not entirely complimentary to the Tavern's production of Hamlet that Polonius and the Ghost steal the show. But it is wonderful that Tony Brown finds an endearing sparkle in his tedious courtier that makes his death the most regrettable in the whole tragedy. And Travis Smith's voice is made for Shakespearean poetry, all the more for his regional twang, so that his ghost and his player are commanding presences.

Matthew Felten reprises the leading part, still playing Hamlet as a callow youth no more apt to take responsibility for murdering Polonius and pushing Ophelia to suicide than a spoiled teen who's wrecked his mom's car. I was rooting for Laertes to finish him off in the fencing contest. Only a rarely gifted actor can take on the role of Hamlet and win, but Mr Felten does not make us believe Fortinbras's closing words that the Dane had the makings of a great king. On the other hand, Felten's clarity of diction is masterly: he brings out the meaning of every line and, however hushed his tone, he's always perfectly audible at the back of the balcony.

Mo Ralston's Claudius is convincingly politic and guilty. The scene in the chapel where he gains no comfort from prayer is movingly done, as is his resigned acceptance of Gertrude's accidental poisoning as punishment for his crimes. Nick Faircloth, Joshua Lee Jones and Jacob York are convincing, too.

The women are another story. Did the production set out to make a point about the playwright's misogyny? Ophelia's annoying and Gertrude is a stupid whore: not quite what the play calls for. And both highly experienced actresses babble inexcusably at times, their words lost to the audience. Incomprehensibility is also a serious problem for Doug Graham as Horatio, a shame because his looks and bearing are fien for the role.

In the player scene, Polonius acts the amateur critic, much as we do on this website. His response to Travis Smith's heroic rhetoric is a philistine "too long." I will take the risk of similarly being laughed out of court when I level the same criticism at the gravedigger scene in this production. An exhausted audience does not need a jarring drunk joke to take over the action so late in the tragedy.

Such cavils apart, the Tavern delivers strong work in bringing Hamlet to life, to the evident appreciation of a packed house. If a mostly young audience gets such a kick out of seeing the play, perhaps this uppermiddlebrow should stay behind the arras and admit that they know what they are doing at the Tavern.

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, by Eric Blau, Mort Shuman, Jacques Brel
Jacques Brel is not quite living at the Alliance
Sunday, April 26, 2009
The singing is very good, the cabaret set is evocative and lovely, the Alliance main stage space feels surprisingly intimate, the show entertaining. But Jacques Brel is inevitably missing.

A French colleague introduced me to Brel's records when I worked in Paris in the mid-70s. Brel's fierce humanity is touching and his voice had just the right mix of virility, vulnerability and Belgian outsider-ness for the poetry of his lyrics. It's impossible not to lose some of that in translation when a four-member American ensemble performs the songs, mostly in English.

And the casting choice to avoid impersonating Brel takes us farther from the real thing. Great voices are just not enough to carry the parts. While the actresses are appropriately a treat for the eyes, the actors lack Brel's handsome charm. Joseph Delleger sparkled at times, but his age and looks are not right for the role.

Craig Meyer - there's just no kind way to say this - has the looks and charisma of a mailroom clerk and dresses accordingly. To all appearances gay, he simply does not convince in the very heterosexual love duets. Sure, gay songwriters of an earlier era sublimated yearnings and laments for unrequited love in songs ostensibly about women. But that's not what Brel was doing. It feels downright awkward to watch the guys commiserating over their treatment at the hands of women when one of them pretty clearly couldn't give a rip. Surely the Alliance could have found an actor with as good a singing voice as Mr Meyer's, an attractive physique and heterosexual image. Does Daniel May sing?

The show got off to a chilly start, but in the fourth number, Timid Frieda, Steffi Garrard established a rapport with the audience. Shawn Megorden, standing in as understudy for Courtenay Collins, did an amazingly good job with Ne Me Quitte Pas, even her French sounding pretty authentic to this once-practised ear. She's not Jacques Brel, but her version of the song projected a range of emotions that exploited the lyrics very successfully. Craig Meyer for once fit the part as the fantasist in Madeleine, which in this version had less of the contempt that lurks in the original. The Saturday night audience - a bit on the stodgy, if not geriatric side - seemed unsympathetic to Brel's anti-war punchline in The Bulls, which was a pity. But Mr Delleger certainly knocked their socks off with Brel's greatest song of all, Amsterdam. That one requires ferocity, not lover-boy passion, to bring out the pathos of gritty port life, and Delleger provided it in full measure. I would have gladly listened to an encore. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]

Suddenly Last Summer, by Tennessee Williams
Powerful chamber work
Saturday, April 11, 2009
AE really does have an impressive batting average - a string of successful artistic directors and, under Freddie Ashley, a string of successful shows. Missing one of their dramas - musicals are not my thing - starts to look like setting oneself up for regret. (I wish I'd caught the previous Eubanks / Donadio show, for example.) Is there another theatre in town of which that can be said?

I won't reprise the previous two reviews of this production. Just want to endorse their conclusions. Powerful direction and acting, never a foot wrong. I imagine this play could be an irritating disaster if handled clumsily; at AE it's a pleasure to see it work so well.

The play's 'message' - the bit with bath houses and exploited third world pubescents - yep, I know I'm both being literal and trying to stir up trouble - seems potentially uncomfortable for AE's gay-oriented audience base, no? Or a sign of growing security?

The Extremists, by CJ Hopkins
Witty, subversive talking heads in US premiere
Sunday, April 5, 2009
Del Hamilton and Tim Habeger milk CJ Hopkins' script - in its US premiere - of all its self-avowed power to challenge our brainwashed view of the world. Hamilton dominates as a convincingly Cheney-like authority figure - who in subtle twists turns out to be the real subversive - playing against Habeger's genial, unthinking Everyman of a TV host.

Hopkins goes beyond satirizing the inanities of Orange threat levels and reports of unspecified terrorist chatter. He's aiming at the fake democracy of Republicans and Democrats and at the mind control of our ubiquitous, 24/7 media. One has to be pre-disposed to agree with him for the play to work, it seemed to me, because he can't really prove his points any more than happens on any late-night talk-show.

If anti-system notions scare you, only go to Seven Stages if you like to be scared. You wouldn't expect The Sound of Music at this theatre, after all.
You don't have to buy Hopkins' insistence that real change - as in the American revolution - can only come from killing the guys in power. (Though it must have crossed your mind that Wall Street insiders will never really change their ways unless enraged mobs of defrauded 401kers finally set some i-bankers to swing from lamp-posts - my example, not the play's.) Nor do you have to buy Hopkins' defense of post-structuralism. But you do have to have a passing interest in these issues, because the play is an extended dialogue on them, with no action to amuse or distract you.

One minor mystery raised by the script that a serious theatre buff may be able to clear up: did an English actor - maybe Antony Hopkins or Richard Harris - really go nuts on a London stage a couple of decades ago when playing Othello, wipe his makeup off and rant at the audience?

Miss Evers Boys, by David Feldsuh
Fine acting, but how's the conversation going?
Sunday, March 15, 2009
It's painful to watch the story of the infamous Tuskegee Study unfold, as well it should be. Hundreds of uneducated African-American sharecroppers with syphilis were kept without treatment for forty years to satisfy a medical researcher's curiosity, vanity or career needs and the US Public Health Service's wish for a control group.

Miss Evers' Boys is a study (or two or three) itself. Memorializing the overall scandal of a deeply unethical medical research program would be worthwhile for its own sake. Society still grapples with the related ethics of withholding treatments of unproven value in order to run placebo-controlled trials, which are the only generally accepted way to establish a drug's benefit. But this play is also a study of a good nurse (Jasmine Guy) who, obeying her medical superiors, knowingly betrays patients who trust her and whom she loves. The playwright lets us peek under his microscope at the slippery slope of moral compromises down which Nurse Evers is persuaded to slide - and it is all too realistic a sight. We also get a good look at the moral weakness of the doctor in charge at Tuskegee (TC Carson) and at the pressures he feels as a black professional in a white-dominated world. And then there's the white doctor (Bart Hansard) who appears to evolve from well-intentioned healer to a Mengele of a researcher over the forty-year span of the play.

The acting in the True Colors revival of the 1992 play is strong and sympathetic across the board. As usual, Kenny Leon is able to attract talent from the black showbiz world to do some real work on an Atlanta stage for a spell. In this case Jasmine Guy (whose credits include starring in TV's "A Different World" as well as acting in "Chicago") in the leading role establishes such a rapport that she almost breaks down our moral defenses. Without the charm, dancing prowess and, ultimately, the righteous anger of one of her surviving victims (Eric Little), we'd probably let her off the hook. Carson and Hansard both manage to find enough depth in their parts to be much more human than stage villains.

Yet worthwhile themes and great acting aren't enough to make the play compelling theatre. Don't get me wrong: if you've never seen Miss Evers'Boys, you should. But this was the second time for me, and there was something plodding and predictable in the writing that even this powerful ensemble could not lift. The general audience response was wildly enthusiastic, however.

Which brings us to a tough question about the conversation. Our new Attorney-General, Eric Holder, recently let slip a comment about American cowardice in the conversation on race. First let me situate myself as a comfortable, white, half-Jewish, liberal resident of midtown Atlanta, but also an immigrant, with only 30 years of living in this country. Perhaps that outsider status makes me foolhardy enough to try a few comments that will inevitably be misunderstood and give offense to some. But it could be useful to spark some discussion.

I think Holder is telling it like it is. Of the 350-strong audience at the Southwest Arts Center where True Colors is staging Miss Evers' Boys, maybe a dozen or so were white last night. OK, Cascade Road, where the new theatre is located, is famously the residential area for better-off black folks. But come on - a dozen whites out of 350 in the audience? Not much of a conversation going on there. We don't live in the same neighborhoods, which was one of Holder's points.

It's also as if the African-American audience is comfortable watching stories of their people's victimization and the white audience doesn't want to know. As a half-Jew I can both relate to the tendency to dwell on victimization and wish I could get past it. I'm not sure we - blacks or Jews - can get past the need to keep re-telling our terrible stories. Maybe the hurt and the fear run too deep. But I think it was Leslie Fiedler who said something along the lines that Jews will be able to shut up about the libel of Shylock when Gentiles acknowledge without prompting what a horror of a stereotype Shakespeare created. If there's little dialogue, the potentially healing acknowledgments from the old majority are not going to happen. And perhaps it's the awareness of the hurts that inhibit that very dialogue among people of goodwill.

Kenny Leon brought stories of the African-American experience - notably August Wilson's play cycle - to mainstream Atlanta during his tenure at the Alliance. Few could have done a better job of bridging the racial divide and promoting the conversation than Mr. Leon, with his charisma, self-deprecating humor and charm along with his smooth directorial skills. I wonder if he felt that he'd achieved some success or that it had largely been a dialogue of the deaf.

Let's hope True Colors will find ways to draw both African-Americans and the rest of us into their audience. That might mean in practice that the Southwest Arts Center cannot be their only Atlanta home. Yet at the same time of course Cascade Road has as much right to its own theatre facilities and quality productions as downtown or Little Five Points. It's a long schlepp, after all, from Cascade and New Hope Road to the Woodruff Arts Center or King Plow. It would be great if, for example, the Shakespeare Tavern could tour some of their shows to the Southwest Arts Center and draw full houses. That would help knit the city's theatre together. Not that one should indulge the illusion that attending a play is the same as having a conversation. Since theatre is not a conversation, does that make it OK if we do our theatre-going separately?

With apologies for throwing a few partly-formed thoughts out there on an explosive issue - and still with the hope that doing so produces more light than heat.

The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
Tavern Tonic for What Ails You
Sunday, March 8, 2009
The Shakespeare Tavern this month becomes Geoffrey Chaucer's Southwark Tavern, the starting point for that bawdy pilgrimage to Canterbury. Unrestrained by iambic pentameter, the Tavern ensemble revels in our first poet's rudeness. If you're looking for some light relief and easy laughs in these grim times - and who isn't? - The Canterbury Tales is your show.

The production is blasphemous - and not just in the way Chaucer intended: the Tales satirize the TV evangelists of fourteenth-century England. No, there is a more serious blasphemy involved. The Tavern's Artistic Director, Jeff Watkins, has allowed Theatre Gael's John Stephens on to the premises, where he has mounted a show that breaches the Tavern's strict tenets of original practice: period dress, no updating of settings or language, nothing to obscure the original writing. It must have required quite some blarney from Mr. Stephens to pull off this unorthodoxy, but then Chaucer is a slightly lesser deity than Shakespeare in the English canon. And most of us would struggle to decode Chaucer's language in the original.

So does it work to let an Irishman loose on the first English classic? Very much so. Chaucer's feat was to show us a cross-section of ordinary, sinning humanity and make us laugh at ourselves. Mr Stephens's production is true to the original spirit. It's been a few years since I last read the Tales, but the rhymes often had a familiar beat, too. The show presents some of the strongest characters on the pilgrimage and the stories they choose to make their points about life. Laura Cole vamps it up enjoyably as the world's first feminist, the much-married Wife of Bath. Matt Felten does a sinister turn as the Pardoner, enriching himself by selling holy relics to sinners. The Pardoner has a dark view of human greed and gives us a chilling tale to make his point. And Drew Reeves and Mike Niedzwiecki, as Reeve and Miller, duke it out drunkenly to prove which one is more dishonest and more cuckolded.

The Canterbury Tales is a great vehicle for the Shakespeare Tavern ensemble's good humor and quick-change talents. The opening night audience roared with laughter throughout. From six centuries ago and an ocean away, Chaucer's arrow still hits his target.

Mauritius, by Theresa Rebeck
Mauritius a Rare Find
Monday, January 26, 2009
Actors Express brings us an excellent production of Theresa Rebeck's "Mauritius": the fresh, vibrant writing and tight directing bring out exciting performances from some of Atlanta's finest actors, especially from the women. Cara Mantella is quietly sexy as a damaged girl next door fighting to salvage herself from family dysfunction and Kathleen Wattis is magnetic and infuriating as the manipulative ice-maidenly half-sister. The play is funny and touching in ways reminiscent of Joe Orton and David Mamet. Chris Kayser pretty much reprises his Glengarry Glenross character here, to great effect. Richard Garner as the bitter-and-twisted stamp nerd is a neat counterpoint to the driven characters around him, with the hyper-active Bryan Brendle champing at the bit for a deal. Not a dull moment and not a false word of dialogue - Rebeck seems a rare talent of a contemporary playwright, combining compelling plot with enough character depth to warrant stage performance. No vapid TV sit-com script plonked on stage (from which we suffer too often), this writing deserves the immediacy of theater. This will be one of Atlanta's best productions of the year.

Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe
Magic At the Marlowe Tavern
Monday, January 5, 2009
The Shakespeare Tavern has been magickally transformed into the study of a mad Renaissance German doctor this January. Among the welcome magical differences: you emerge with your backside less cramped than usual because it's a 90-minute show, unlike Shakespeare's super-sized helpings of kultur.

It's also good for Shakespeare fans to be reminded that Marlowe was nothing like the challenge for their favorite dramatist to out-write that Tom Stoppard pretended in the screenplay for 'Shakespeare in Love.' Marlowe's egoist proceeds towards his doom at such a breakneck pace that there's no suspense, no intriguing character development and precious little audience identification with the character. Macbeth Faustus ain't. What's more, the poetry has little that is memorable: "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships" is about the sum of it.

And yet, as a study of world-weary cynicism, Marlowe's doctor holds fascination still. The sheer intellectual mastery of Marlowe in the opening speech, Faustus's lightning review of his philosophical options, is breathtaking: Stoppard and Frayn are the only writers today with the brains to come close. The contemporary daring of the playwright in presenting an atheist who has the better of all the (admittedly brief) arguments also bears recognizing. And, since we're at the Tavern, is there the subtlest hint of a straight line from Faustus to Cabaret, another recent production? Any pattern here of English observation - call it prejudice, but with uncomfortable supporting evidence -of something kinky in the German soul that lacks self-control, humility and humanity?

The Tavern has often done a good job of creating an atmosphere of horror, and does not disappoint with this spooky Dr Faustus.

Entertaining, even chilling, food for thought, if less all-around nourishment than the Tavern's house writer typically provides.

Henry VI parts 1, 2, 3, by William Shakespeare
Tavern Aces English Pageant
Monday, November 10, 2008
If you survive the sword fights that break out all over Shakespeare's fierce look at England torn asunder in the Wars of the Roses, you'll leave the Shakespeare Tavern impressed at the range of acting talent that makes these plays so vivid and enjoyable.

Shakespeare has no patience with ineffectual, naive monarchs who let ambitious dukes get out of hand, but he gives enough distinctive character to each one for the Tavern's favorite veterans, like Tony Brown and Maurice Ralston, as well as newer company members like Danel Parvis as the weedy king, to sink their teeth into. The French court, well .... effete is not a French word for rien, and Paul Hester, Matt Nitchie and the audience have plenty of fun with the Shakespearean version of cheese-eating surrender monkeys.

Part I tells the Joan of Arc story, and while the play is unsympathetic to the witch, Mary Ruth Ralston gives her a powerful rendering, as the playwright surely intended. It must have been this play that drove the Irish George Bernard Shaw 300 years later to write one of his own best plays, St. Joan, cheering the freedom fighter against the brutal English military occupiers. That debate is proof, if needed, that even the lesser-known Shakespeare plays strike themes that resonate for all times and places. Power struggles, questionable patriotism, glorification of armed violence, the misuse of religion in politics - it's all here in Henry VI.

And don't worry about seeing all three plays or seeing them in order if you've missed part I. Shakespeare wrote them to be enjoyed individually: he was too deft a hand at writing box office draws to make that mistake.

A Lesson Before Dying, by A play by Romulus Linney based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines
Moving work of racial reconciliation
Saturday, November 1, 2008
Superb performances from the leading men make effective theater of this simple story of a black kid sent to the electric chair. Johnell Easter, Eric Little and Rich Remedios captivate their audience. The old cliche "not a dry eye in the house" applies: it is impossible not to be moved by this Lesson.

We seem about to elect a black President, so it is remarkable to look back just 60 years to how it was for rural Southern blacks.

The characters seem at first cartoonish, and the redneck sheriff and pompous preacherman remain so - art mirroring nature? - but the others make dramatic progress. It's a deeply hopeful play for all races.

Blood at the Root
by Dominique Morisseau
University of West Georgia Theatre Company
Almost, Maine
by John Cariani
Centerstage North Theatre
BattleActs! Comedy Improv Competition
Laughing Matters
Blood at the Root
by Dominique Morisseau
University of West Georgia Theatre Company
Daddy Long Legs
by John Caird (book) and Paul Gordon (songs)
The Legacy Theatre
Laughing Matters Winter Wonder Laughs
Laughing Matters
Midnight at the Masquerade
by The Murder Mystery Company
The Murder Mystery Company in Atlanta
Stories on the Strand
Atlanta Radio Theatre Company
The Bachelor! A Double Date of Death!
by Marc Farley
Agathas: A Taste of Mystery

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