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Archikulture Digest

Number 59 - 2007 July and August Summer Sale Edition

It's summer. Hardly anything is going on. I'll be at the beach. Call if you have a show, and I'll see you in September!

Gypsy
By Jule Styne, Steven Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents
Directed by W. Robert Sherry
Starring Margo Moreland, Elizabeth Weisstein, Jennifer Finch
Rollins College, Winter Park FL.

If it wasn't for stage moms, there might be a few more happy, adjusted people in the world. Rose (Moreland) never made it on stage, and she substitutes her daughter's lives for her own as she pursues the fading vaudeville circuit. Baby June (Christina Pitts) is adorable in that syrupy way that charmed America 100 year ago, and finds a B-list success that Rose milks until she develops her breasts and turns into the Older June (Finch). A shift in marketing doesn’t help cash flow, and June flees with one of her supporting dancers. That leaves Rose and Louise (Weisstein) to fend for themselves in a seedy burlesques house, where Louise takes to stripping. When Louis finds the fame and wealth Rose never had, Rose is miffed, and looks back on her life in the blow out final number "Curtain".

"Gypsy" comes as close to the canonical Great American Musical as any other show you can name. Packed with hits ("Let Me Entertain You", "Everything's Coming Up Roses") and a loveable story of success after struggle, it succeeds on nearly every level. Sherry's stage direction and Jason Wetzel's musical direction finds all the warmth and pathos the story puts forth. Ms. Moreland belts the songs on a clever set with a runway and stage arch that brings the cast perilously close to falling in the orchestra pit. The Kiddy Acts are suitably schlocky, and June in both her incantations feels perfectly comfortable in here role as a perma-child. Louise, however, feels weak as the stripper. She never succeeds in making her act erotic, and it's hard to buy her success in the final scenes.

As a parent, you have some sort of right to influence your offspring, but it's patently unfair to make them replicate what you dreamt for yourself and failed, or worse, at what you succeeded in doing. Rose pushes her dream onto everyone around her, and while the abuse makes them stronger, it robs them of what they might have dreamt and done them selves. While the singing, dancing and spectacle are outstanding, this is still a cautionary tale - guide your children, but when they are old enough to sass back, consider letting them make their own decisions. If they're happy, you should be happy.

For more information on the Annie Russell Theatre at Rollins College, please visit www.rollins.edu/theatre/index.shtml

The Piano Lesson
By August Wilson
Directed by Belinda Boyd
Starring David Tate, Sidonie Smith, Michael Baugh
UCF Conservatory Theater, Orlando, FL

Some times you inherit a ghost, other times you install it yourself. Boy Willie (Tate) wants that piano his granddaddy carved with scenes of slave life, his dad stole fair and square, and he can turn into 100 acres of farm land back home in Mississippi. His sister Bernice (Smith) prefers to keep this only remaining relic of her family's past, but once Boy Willie sells his truck load of watermelons, only Bernice stands between him and buying the land his ancestors worked as slaves. Surrounding the pair is a cast of perfectly drawn black stereotypes - womanizing Winning Boy (Alex Lewis), preacher and elevator operator Avery (Kenneth Dowling), and subservient Doaker (A. C. Sanford). As the fight intensifies, the ghost of Mr. Sutter haunts the house. Boy Willie knows more than he lets on as to who pushed Sutter into that well. It will take more than removing the piano to exorcize these people's lives.

There's everything to love here - the cast fully embraces the stereotypes, and joyfully lampoons them to the Looney Tunes level. Dowling's Avery has a real knack for the preachers cant, and as he warms up to saving Boy Willie, the audience seems ready to give him a solid "AMEN!" Smith plays the consummate no-nonsense uptight black woman, with no tolerance for Boy Willie's shenanigans, yet unable to remove him from her life. Tate finds a perfect balance of swagger and desperation, and Winning Boy seems ready to steal his grandmothers gold teeth with a deck of marked cards.

Backing the action on stage is one of the cleverest UCF sets ever - a scrim of wall paper fades into disrepair as we approach the attic full of carved ancestors howling in faceless pain. Preshow and intermission are filled with a hidden chorus singing spirituals and works song. The black homeland is still deep in unrepentant Sunflower County, Mississippi, and the industrial north a virgin land to be explored and conquered. The times were both trying and thrilling, and while civil rights were a generation away, economic rights went to those willing to work. Rights with out means to enjoy them are meaningless, and Wilson's storytelling captures a central struggle of Black America - dwell in the past, or moving into the future? Either choice requires giving something up, and the decision can tear a family apart.

For more information on UCF Conservatory Theatre, visit www.theatre.ucf.edu

What You Don't Know About Women
Musical Direction by Christopher Leavey
Starring Heather Alexander and Luerne Herrera
Winter Park Playhouse, Winter Park, FL

None of us know that much about women, but not for lack of trying. The obsession with shoes, a deep need to move heavy furniture, and the weepy moments when watching Oxygen - all a complete mystery. That make Winter Park Playhouse's attempt to clarify so heartwarming, even if they restrict the lecture to selections from lesser known musicals. In this low keyed musical evening, Heather Alexander and Luerne Herrera sing an enthusiastic explanation, backed up by the ever watchful Chris Leavey. The selection intentional aims for solid songs rarely sung, even if Ms. Herrera's version of the Judy Garland standard "Come Rain Or Shine" sneaks past the censors. Later we learn that the slutty "Everybody's Girl" comes form a show called "The Steel Pier" as Ms. Alexander sings it with more gusto than a girl should show in front of her hubby.

Some women turn to alcohol, others to chocolate, and while Ms. Alexander threatened to get a drink from the bar, she held onto her professional standards. Ms. Herrera, however, folded to her baser desires and ate most of a box of chocolates while singing "On My Own." While her vocalization was none too clear, it was one of the funniest things I've ever seen on stage. You may not learn much about women, but this much is clear: Chocolate is always the right size and color, and never gets returned.

For more information on Winter Park Playhouse, visit www.winterparkplayhouse.org

Bathory - The Blood Countess
Written and Directed by John DiDonna
Starring Peg O'Keefe, Nicky Darden, Samantha O'Hare, John DiDonna
Empty Spaces Theater Company at the Orlando Shakespeare Festival

Jesus, like the king had little to say about anything in 16th century Hungary. As a long war with the Ottomans wound down, authority rested in the hands of whoever lived in the castle and priests were in no position to censure their masters. Rugged terrain, isolation, and mysticism made any action justifiable and nearly impossible for a weak central authority to rout out. Countess Bathory may be the worst of the lot, but I doubt she was unique. Her particular hobby was beating peasant girls to death and bathing in their blood. Bad as that sounds, it’s the gossip that upset the king - Hungary wanted acceptance in a larger Christian Europe and Countess B was an embarrassment. King Matthias became so disgusted he sent is Minister Lord Thurzo (DiDonna) to tighten up royal discipline. The Bathory name was most important - Count Bathory fought with the king to oust the Turks, and if something wasn't done to keep up appearances, it might be hard to get in the European Union later on.

Murder required Motive, Opportunity and Method. In this dark and disturbing production, Countess Bathory is played simultaneously by three actresses. Innocent Bathory provides motivation - she's bullied by a domineering mother in law (Peni Lotoza,) seduced by her cousin Klara (Babette Garber), and goaded by the local witch coven. When you're bored by Sodom and hubby is far away at war, murder seems a reasonable weekend sport. Stateswoman Bathory (Peg O'Keefe) shows us Opportunity - clever enough to conceal her actions and viscous enough to seek a steady stream of victims, she laughs off accusations and drafts the creepy Ficzko (Blake Logan) to help her harvest more bodies. Ironically, it's her scrupulous record keeping brings her down. Most bothersome is the Legendary Bathory. She lives by the old dictum "Show don’t Say" as she graphically strips, beats and murders of one young servant (Beth Harless), then pours blood on herself and most of the cast.

There's a splatter zone, and it's not just in the gallons of special effects. We've refined the bloody habits of past eras into the iconic cartoon world of Halloween. DiDonna forces us back to the roots of this apparently harmless tradition. Surrounded by stage violence, edited news reports, and special effects, we've lost the horror of sudden and senseless death. Bathory takes us back down into this Black Persona lurking inside of us, and while her motives are repellent, the Countess's action do have a logic, twisted as it may be. Here's the real splatter - we inflict painful, brutal death on each other for no reason other than "we can." Whether you prefer to blame sin or statistical mechanics is of no import. It just happens. Now that's scarier than anything Universal can pull out of its makeup kit.

For more information on Empty Spaces Theater Company, visit www.emptyspacestheatre.org

Most Happy Fella
By Frank Loesser
Directed by Ed Weaver
Starring John Mansell, Sara Barnes, Piper Rae Patterson, Dave Sucharski
UCF Conservatory Theater, Orlando FL

This seldom-done production seems to break many of the unwritten rules of musical theater - not everyone pairs up, disgust transforms to deep love without much motivation, and the big blowout numbers do little to push the plot forward. These problems were written in by Frank Loesser, but UCF's massive crew makes them fade into the curtains with their sheer energy and skill. Tony (Mansell) finds the years slipping by, but a chance meeting with sweet voiced waitress Rosabella (Barnes) leads to a romance-by-US mail courtship. Tony's nervous about his age and never goes to musical theater, so he foolishly sends a picture of his much younger assistant Joey (Sucharski) instead. When Rosabella arrives in rural Napa Valley, she discovers the deceit as Tony wrecks his truck and needs 12 weeks of close attention by any available young woman. I must have glanced away, but Rosabella immediately forgives Tony and latches on to him, even though Joey is cuter and much more interesting. Rosabella's close friend Cleo (Patterson) drops in, mostly to meet uber-nice Herman (Taylor Jeffers) and sing the splashy but essentially irrelevant "Big D - Dallas" that keeps our toes tapping through intermission.

The story is weak and hackneyed, but director Weaver's brilliant choreography of the 30-plus cast made spectacle plaster over the cracks in the story. The highlight of the many dance numbers was "Standing on the Corner" done as the Cotton Eyed Joe. The "Big D" rated a close second, as Cleo and Herman had a real stage chemistry. Still, Mansell's Tony projected a persistent charm, and I'm completely stricken with Ms. Barnes' voice and while the romance was iffy, they were the most enjoyable couple overall. Best supporting characters were the three chefs Pasqual, Ciccio, and Giuseppe (Benjamin Smith, Jason Clement, and Yaniv Zarif.) They sang, they danced, and they juggled cheese. It was more fun than any chain Italian restaurant.

Maybe Loesser was trying to break the Musical Comedy mold, but Tony's older sister Maria (Megan Wiley) was a truly tragic - her every emotion was tied to her brother, and she's set adrift for no good reason by his pursuit of Rosabella. Joey drifted off as well; he announced his intentions early on and stuck to them, although his biggest internal conflict was whether to stick around for dinner. "Most Happy Fella" gets Broadway revivals periodically and with mixed results. It's an acceptable story, but not in the top 10 list for musicals. UCF shows they can make a mountain out of this molehill, and I congratulate them for that.

For more information on UCF Conservatory Theatre, visit www.theatre.ucf.edu

The Mousetrap
By Agatha Christie
Directed by Larry Stallings
Greater Orlando Repertory Theatre, Orlando FL

Now I know where "Colonel Mustard in the Drawing Room with a Coal Scuttle" came from. A blizzard besets Monkwell Manor as young Mollie (Kimberly Luffman) and Giles (David Strauss) open for their first day of business as a guest house. The usual collection of red herrings and eccentric characters drift in with the snow - stiff Major Metcalf (Eric Kuritzky), blustering Mrs. Boyle (Paula Keenan), suave yet creepy Paravicini (Kevin Sigman), swishy Christopher Wren (Glen Howard) and sexy Miss Casewell (Sarah Lockard). Each has a secret, each has motive and opportunity, each may or may not be guilty of an offstage murder. It's up to efficient Detective Trotter (Daniel Petrie) to sort it all out.

The show has a pleasant period charm, and fits well in the College Park church hall in which it's staged. One problem that bedevils the show is inconsistent accents. Kuritzky and Strauss keep a stiff upper lip, but other cast members wanders in and out of British, or just gives up and speak American. As to acting, Petrie's Trotter does the best job; he's efficient, ruthless, and intimidating. Sigman's Paravicini feels over the top as the Italian suspect without portfolio even as he avoids the pregnant question "Exactly where are you from?" If anyone stole the show, it was Mr. Howard - his role involved overacting, but some how he made more sense than anyone else. Odd things happen on stage as well - when characters wished to avoid Trotter's questions, they either studied the elaborate set intensely, or like Lockard, went and stood in corners until the next scene.

Of course, I won't give away the ending, but intermission discussions were surprisingly prescient and figuring out the killer never seems the real point of the show. We read and enjoy mysteries not so much to solve the puzzle, but to partially enter a dangerous world of words. Our bodies are never at risk, but we can pretend they are, and that's worth the visit.

Shylock
Written and Directed by Gareth Armstrong
Starring Steven Patterson
Orlando Shakespeare Theater
Orlando, FL

"They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat!" That pretty much summarizes all of Jewish history, and except for the food, that captures this rather unusual one-man show that deconstructs "The Merchant of Venice." Steve Patterson, a tall, wild eyed man appears as Tubal, Shylock's only companion and only the second Jew ever mentioned in the Bard's works. With only 8 speaking lines, Tubal is down there with the Third Lord, Second Merchant, and Drunk: Fill the crowd scenes, say a word or two, then double or triple up in some other bit part. Minor as the role may be, it’s the cook view of the castle, and that's where all the good gossip arises. From that vantage, author Armstrong takes a really good term paper and brings it to life. We examine the text of the play, the role of Jews in post-medieval history, racism, anti-Semitism, and what it is that keep Jews Jewish through more trial and tribulations than any other race seems to endure. That's a lot of material from only 8 little lines.

While this may sound tedious, it's actual a gripping piece. My eyes never left Patterson, and the coughing and fidgeting indicative of audience tedium never evidenced itself in the tight confines of the Goldman Theater. Tubal was a bundle of energy, probing and questioning everything thrown at him except the fundamental rightness of his ethnicity. Some segments were uncomfortable, some touching, but all relate back to the fundamental question of "Why does everyone pick on the Jews?" The answer is vague, but think of the fat kid in grade school - he was just different enough to make you feel superior, and he couldn't fight back. That’s where Tubal leaves the audience: sympathetic, aroused, and craving a plate of Latkes.

For more information on Orlando Shakespeare Theater, visit www.orlandoshakes.org

Return to Forbidden Planet
By Bob Carlton
Directed by Joel Warren
Musical Direction by Steve MacKinnon
Starring Cherish Glaze, John Gracey, Jim Meadows, Vicki Burns
Theater Downtown, Orlando, FL

In space, no one can hear you laugh. And in "Return to Forbidden Planet," you couldn’t even hear laughs in a regular atmosphere. This musical is a hybrid of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and a 1956 Sci-fi film often regarded as the beast of the era. The dialog comes from the 16th Century, set from the 26th, and the music from an oldies station somewhere in Lake County. Captain Tempest (Gracey) guides his interstellar crew to the Forbidden Planet in search of his missing Science Officer (Burns) and meets long-lost Prospero (Meadows) and his babe-a-licious daughter Miranda (Glaze.) Prospero tapped a mysterious power from a long lost civilization and releases his Japanese horror monster id to attack Tempest's ship and crew. Robot Ariel (Saenz) helps beat off the monster, and everyone flees to the nearest space bar to commiserate over Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters.

It's hard to say what happened here, but the audience sat stonily for at least 20 minutes before there was anything resembling a giggle. That's a shame, because everyone on stage was singing, talking, and dancing about as well as you could hope. Amada Warren choreographed the eye catching dancing, and the cast in general did an excellent job with the songs. Prospero's theme was "Please don’t let me be misunderstood", and Cookie (Eddy Coppens) did well with "She's not there". Perhaps the only weak singer was Glaze, her lead on "Mr. Spaceman" simply lacked volume.

Maybe it was the rushed delivery of the Shakespearean lines lifted from Hamlet through Henry the 4th. Perhaps it's the serious tone of the source - Forbidden Planet was never a comedy, and The Tempest isn't particularly funny either. Whatever the cause, I kept waiting for either "Rocky Horror" or "Menopause the Musical" to break out, but by the end I just felt Lost in Space.

For more information, please visit www.theatredowntown.net

The Heidi Chronicles
By Wendy Wasserman
Directed by Katrina Ploof
Starring Leander Suleiman, Alexis Jackson, Todd Allen Long, Michael Marinaccio
Mad Cow Theater, Orlando FL

Old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill, and that’s why idealism shines brightest in the young. In the fetid days of Vietnam and Eugene McCarthy, Heidi Holland (Suleiman) discovers politics of the most liberal kind - free love, free drugs, and voting Democrat without shame. All her friends are out to change the world - Scoop Rosenbaum (Marinaccio) runs a radical paper with an unpaid circulation of 362, Peter Patrone (Long) struggles with revealing his homosexuality and medical school, while Susan Johnson (Jackson) discovers boys and feminism. Heidi works the art world, and while she knows what's best for women in general, she's not so good at picking what's best for her. It's sort of a "Think local, Act global" problem. Her bumpy relation with Scoop crashes on his desire for a non-competitive wife who won’t notice his girl friends, and Heidi spend life bouncing from minor triumph to minor disaster. It's a classic "Getting what you want doesn't make you happy" story.

While the story has it strident moments, it's really about a woman who is loved, but can't find it on her own terms. Suleiman looks both lost and timeless, and somewhere in the second act you know she's likely to spend here golden years with three cats and a subscription to the New Republic. Marinaccio continues to refine the Perfect Jerk persona he's rehearsed since the Impact Theater days - he can charm the pants off a nun and then steal her crucifix. Heidi's good advice comes from the soft and stable Mr. Long, everywoman's Ideal Gay Friend, while Jackson's over-achieving Hollywood producer role shows there is an alternative to idealism, and it pays much better.

We loll in an infusion of nostalgia here, with feminist slogans substituting for furniture and a flicker of iconic photos flashing on a screen giving a sense of time passing. Motown music provided a uniting thematic element, and we are forced to judge results by two tests - happiness with today's situation, and the results of yesterday's ideals. I suspect the world is slightly better for all of our agonizing, and who would deny us ex-hippies this minor pleasure of believing we did it all by singing loud?

For more information on Mad Cow, please visit www.madcowtheatre.com

Largo Desolato
By Vaclav Havel
Directed by Lani Harris
Starring Andrew Clateman, Melissa Mason, Courtney Moors
UCF Conservatory Theatre, Orlando, FL

There are plays written for presentation, and there are plays written for suppression. The old Soviet Block generated most of the latter, and "Largo Desolato" feels typical of the genera. In an ill defined time and place, neurotic author Leopold Nettle (Clateman) awaits incarceration for a rather thick philosophical tome that sounds less readable than Das Kapital. An efficient police state insures he has no appeals, so he waits, afraid to even go for a walk. His wife Suzanne (Mason) openly dates his best friend Edward (Jo Crandall) and exchanges pleasantries with Nettle's mistress Lucy (Moors). The potential of a gloriously public prison term absorbs him, leaving no time for writing. Nettle finds to his dismay that notoriety brings its own problems as a steady stream of weirdoes pass through his parlor, each hoping for salvation from this balding little man.

While there is a clearly delineated under-current of menace "Largo Desolato," there's plenty of slapstick - maybe even too much. Nettle's physical comedy is superb, and coupled with his Ringo Starr look and Groucho mannerism he draws nearly all the laughs in the show. Rather than finding occasional humor to break tension, we are never sure whether to laugh or cower. Lucy seems more like a wife than a girl friend, and Suzzana seems more a drop-in guest than a ccuckquean wife. More comic action comes from the Two Sydneys (Kyle Crowder and Michael Cox) who bury Nettle under stacks of tedious documents pilfered from the paper mill. They're goofy high school students who represent the Common Man, but not as well as the creepy Three Chaps (Nathan Smith, Blake Borah, and Brandon Peters.)

This show feels long, and many of the jokes wore out before the dialog did. Havel repeats large blocks of text, which does have an interesting effect when said by the differing power centers of the story, but only at first. Despite these flaws, this is a rare show and worth seeing just for bragging rights. The line between hallucination and paranoia can easily blur, particularly when fear drives all open statements behind a veil of illusion and non-prosecutable culpability. If nothing else, this shows how a few decades in a totalitarian society can teach you a sense of humor - there is no other way to survive.

For more information on UCF Conservatory Theatre, visit www.theatre.ucf.edu

Equus
By Peter Shaffer
Directed by Thomas Ouellette
Starring Eric Zivot, Michael Nardelli
Annie Russell Theater, Winter Park, FL

The crime was a horrendous as it was seemingly pointless. Six horses were blinded by troubled 17 year old Alan Strang (Michael Nardelli), a boy who seemed to adore the species. Before they lock him up for a very long time, magistrate Hesther Solomon (Erica Leas) drops him off with child psychologist Martin Dysart (Eric Zivot). For the next two hours, we follow Dysart's journey as he discovers Alan's motivation and his own fears. The crime occurred for a solid if twisted reason, and by the end, we all feel that we, too, could fall into Alan's trap, or push someone we love off that cliff of insanity.

This is one of Rollins' finest projects in recent memory. Zivot's Dysart is earnest if over worked, but he is soon as obsessed with Alan as Alan is with horses. His delivery is analytic and anguished, and in Alan he finds the son he never had. For his part, Alan slides easily between psychosis, snotty adolescence, and the completely absorbed horse lover. His parents are part of his problem, but not an excuse for what he did. Mother Dora (Megan Borkes) worries about his eternal soul while father Frank (Joseph Bromfeild) prefers tough unionism, but seem too young for the role. The story is set in rural England, but there's a confusing mix of accents, with Hesther, Alan and Frank sounding the most English, and everyone else leaning toward a neutral American sound.

The set design (by Alan Cody-Rapport) reflects the arty minimalism of the 60's. A series of tall and a bit wobbly beams alternate as the stalls for the horse stable, and Dysart's office. Incidental furniture folds up from the floor as needed and murky lighting deepens the mystery of "Why?" One of the coolest elements of the show is the wrought aluminum horse heads worn by the actors portraying the denizens of the stable. They hang on the back wall, neither art nor animal. As needed the supporting actors slide into them, and they clip clop around the stage with metal hooves. All that’s missing is the smell.

This complicated psychological piece holds multiple strata of meaning, not unlike the Greek archeological sites Dysart visits on his annual vacation. We touch on worship, sexuality, bad dreams, and our ability to transfer a part of ourselves into another person, animal or even an object. While the story is notionally set in The Present, there's a dated feeling from the early 60's psychobabble. In a very fashionable ending, Dysart boldly announces he can heal Alan, but only at the cost of his own mental health. Different in detail, but not in results, Alan's case differs little from the hundreds of other damaged children that pass though Dysart's career. Why this one matters is the reason you might want to see this show more than once.

For more information on the Annie Russell Theatre at Rollins College, please visit www.rollins.edu/theatre/index.shtml

And the World Goes 'Round
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Musical Direction by Christopher R Leavey
Concept by Scott Ellis. Susan Stroman and David Thompson
Winter Park Playhouse, Winter Park, FL

Kander and Ebb have written some of the most memorable music of the late 20th century. Their distinctive style underlies such great shows as "New York, New York," "Cabaret," "Chicago," and many lesser pieces like "The Rink" and "70, Girls, 70". The theme song "And the World Goes Round" begins the show with a rendition by Laura Hodos, but it reappears occasionally as a motif uniting the loosely related songs and styles. Most of this material lurks in the back of our collective conscience, but you won’t always remember where there came from. "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup" bemoans the fast pace of today and blames our loss of gentility and manners on Starbucks. Tim Evanicki popped off a winning version of "Sara Lee" complete with cardboard-box Carmen Miranda conga line. He returned later for a touching "Mr. Cellophane" from Chicago, one of 4 songs from that popular show. Jennifer Lynn Warren spearheaded another Chicago number "All that Jazz" which nearly had the audience singing along, scary as that might sound.

WPPH co-founder Heather Alexander covered songs from The Rink and Funny Lady, including the plaintive "Colored Lights" and "How Lucky Can You Get?" Newcomer Robert Buchanan showcased "We Can Make It", again from "The Rink." Between the steady supply of costumes and set changes, the only weak spot was an odd arrangement of "cabaret", which felt a bit spaced out and not nearly as naughty as the regular arrangement. These are the high points of the K&E partnership, and a great all singing, all dancing, all talking snapshot of the last 40 years of American show tunes.

For more information on Winter Park Playhouse, visit
http://www.winterparkplayhouse.org

Comedy of Errors
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Pat Flick
Starring Robby Pigott, Daniel Harray, Brad DePlanche, Brandon Roberts
Orlando Shakespeare Festival, Orlando, FL

I love it when a good Shakespeare fart joke comes together. In what must be the most improbable plot from the Bard, two pairs of twin brothers are bound to each other by blood and gold, and then split apart by shipwreck and chance. Both pairs find themselves in Ephesus, one set a respected citizen and his servant, and the other a well fortuned travelers. Miraculously, there dear old dad Aegon (Bob Dolan) shows up right about then, but is in danger of beheading for having been born in Syracuse.

The story pivots on the identical looks of the 2 twin sets. Antipholus of Syracuse (Pigott) is pleasantly surprised at the welcoming reception the Ephesians give him. They hand out gold, cash, and dinner invitations freely, even though he's been in town less than a day. His twin, Antipholus of Ephesus (Harray) has the worst of it - he's arrested for failing to pay debts, locked out of his own house by shrewish wife Adriana (Suzanne O'Donnell) and beaten by a courtesan (Jennifer Drew) he turns to when the spare key is missing. Similar fates await the servants, Dromio of Syracuse / Ephesus (De Planche, Roberts). The local boy is beaten and sent on endless wild goose chases while the newcomer gets all the easy jobs.

What sets this production apart from other "Comedy of Errors" I've seen the complete abandonment of the plot in pursuit of slapstick humor. With the wildly ludicrous plot, the first time anyone thinks about why anything is happening, the show slips apart. We are spared that eventuality by good casting. DePlanche has a long history of comic support roles in OSF shows; this is one of his best. His highlight came with the extended fart joke sequence in the second act. With half the mass, Brandon Roberts gets picked up and run around stage more than anyone else. Anne Herring appeared far too briefly as the Abbess late in the last act, even though she got to push a cart of fish around before intermission, and the Pigott/Harray roles were filled with excellent slow burns and snappy comebacks. It's hard to imagine a better set of players.

The energy this show packs blows you away, there's never a slow moment or a missed joke. With it's new, easier to pronounce name, Orlando Shakespeare Theater is out of the gate running with a stellar opener - a Shakespearian comedy that's really funny!

For more information on Orlando Shakespeare Theater, visit www.orlandoshakes.org

Five Women in Havana
By Ree Howell
Directed by Kathleen Lindsay
Womens' Playwright Initiative

Sometimes life hands you a lecture on the joys and evils of communism, and there's no way to sneak out. The agitprop was getting pretty thick in this World Premier play when the cast stripped down to their underwear, which brightened the political dialog immensely. This amazing transformation came halfway through the first act of "Five Women in Havana", this season's WPI full length finale. The premise intrigues - as a category 5 hurricane bears down on Cuba's aging infrastructure, five women are trapped in a seedy hotel until the weather clears or the building falls down around them. Two Americans (Janet Raskin as Harriett, Christine Padovan as Rachel) and Cuban expatriate Pilar (Vanessa Sotomayor) meet the fanatical Castro supporter Juana (Noel Miner) and her cynical cousin Maria (Jenifer Catalano). Tension turns into bonding and a tired debate on the virtues and vices of Cuba vs. America, but then we get personal - each woman reveal her deepest, darkest secrets, all of which seem to involve cheating men.

While the show careens from idea to idea and plot points fly like lawn furniture in the eye of a storm, the capable cast sketches believable and sympathetic women. There are laughs scattered throughout, some intentional and a few not. The strongest chemistry flows between Juana's idealistic communism and Marias's more skeptical nationalism. Both want out of the Worker's Paradise, and their fight over a man is the best developed back-story in the show. Catalano's Pilar takes the lead on the tango dancing sequences, which were good enough to enjoy but not so good as to be unbelievable. Rachel had the nicest undies and the most open ended story - an awkward impregnation with no real clue as to motivation or potential resolution.

Director Lindsay pulled an entertaining evening out of a very rough script (which was read by WPI in June but not revised). This story has a great premise and lots of promising story leads scattered thought it, but it some revision might make it easier for a good cast to make it a heart-breaker of a relation play, and not have to struggle to keep the shingles from flying off.

For more information on Womens' Playwright Initiative, please visit www.WomenPlaywrights.com/

The Odd Couple
By Neil Simon
Directed by Paul Castaneda
Starring Larry Stallings and Shelly Ackman
Greater Orlando Actors' Theater, Orlando FL

Oscar Madison (Ackman) rattles around an empty apartment after his wife and kids left him. His life is equally as empty until his closest friend, the neurotic, hypochondriac obsessive-compulsive Felix Ungar (Stallings) moves in. Since Oscar is a slob and Felix sorts his pocket change by date, they immediately bicker like they've been married for 25 years. Their poker buddies offer advice, but it takes a disastrous date with the ditzy but potentially available Pigeon Sisters (Mia Sophia and Lindsay Trefz) to really drive them apart. Oscar wants sex, but Felix is perfectly happy being unhappy.

G.O.A.T. is the latest contender in the Orlando community theater sweepstakes. I had bad feeling just before the show when a collection of PVC pipes crashed to the ground, only to be followed by muted profanity and the furious tearing of gaffing tape. Things immediately improved when the show opened, with a string of well executed jokes and physical comedy. While Mr. Stallings can be a bit stiff, that stiffness worked well against Ackerman's burning desire to have someone in his life, just not this uber-nudge of a friend. The supporting poker players keep up their end of the deal - Speed (David Strauss) look like a young Art Carney, and Roy (Sam Skelton) was nearly as wound up as Ackman. Even cop Murray (Dean Walkuski) and cheapskate Vinnie (Robert DelMedico) got all there jokes right, even though Mr Simon didn’t give them the really good ones.

While the audience was small, and the location well of the local theater axis, this was a great start for a new company. The talent is there, and the space in the Anglican Church has wonderful acoustics and a great feeling of openness. "Odd Couple" is a robust play, but in the hands of these talented players, it was both touching and funny.

Bent
By Martin Sherman
Directed by John DiDonna
Starring Daniel Cooksley, David Lee, and Tommy Mangieri
Empty Spaces Theater Co at The Orlando Shakespeare Center, Orlando FL

It's true the Nazis killed millions, but they did something nearly as bad along the way - they killed people's free will before they put that bullet in their head. Max (Cooksley) and Rudy (Mangieri) live in the sort of prewar squalor one might see in "Cabaret." Rudy dances at a drag club, and Max invites storm troopers home for sex. No one minds until a coup against Hitler fails, and our boys are sent on the run, only to end up on the midnight train to Dachau. That’s where their will is broken - survival requires you to relinquish any feeling of humanity toward anyone, including yourself. Max learns this from the wily Horst (Lee) and they spend the second act moving an enormous pile of rocks while debating the meaning of love. Love does not win the debate.

The first act is the creepy one, with the boys (and everyone else in the world) failing to catch on to the Nazi plan until it's too late. Crises grow and grow, from "Can't make the rent" to "Can't get food" to "Can't survive the night." The Empty Spaces Nazis are particularly intimidating - with the uniform and arm band, I wasn't sure I wanted to make eye contact with them, particularly when they passed out the patches pegging each of us as criminal, political, Jew, or gay. The second act was the heartbreaker - things couldn't get much worse than they were - death was a certainty, and the only question was today or tomorrow. Lee's Horst (and that name is never mentioned on stage) is a scared rabbit - he sees death, but nearly sees a path out. Death with no choice is statistics, but when almost think you can get past it, its tragedy.

"Bent"; is creepy and gripping, and the issue of homosexuality subsumes to the greater question of survival. We can only survive by cooperating with each other, and the Nazi strategy effectively short circuited that natural inclination. That's the clear message - without each other, we are nothing.

For more information on Empty Spaces Theater Company, visit www.emptyspacestheatre.org

Pericles, Prince of Tyre
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Denise Gillman
Staring Michael Marinaccio
Mad Cow Theater, Orlando FL

If Shakespeare ever wrote a shaggy dog story, this is it. Pericles (Marinaccio) gets some dirt on King Antiochus (Kevin Reams), forcing him to flee for his life. He spends the next 3 hours and 20 years on an adventure filled tour of the Greek world, with treachery, unexpected kindness and three complete shipwrecks. By curtain Pericles has new friends, new enemies, a wife and child, and an uncertain claim to his old throne and a distant new one. His wife (Sara Jane Fridlich) was mistaken for dead, his daughter Marina (Sara Lockard) enslaved by pirates, and a whisper of incest and cannibalism lurks behind the motivational curtain. Its "Perils of Pauline" set to iambic pentameter.

This long hard journey into the sea is made light by the masterful direction of Mad Cow stalwart Denise Gilman and the effervescent Mike Marinaccio. While the story is straightforward, the settings and motivation would get murky without some gentle exposition from Gower (Tommy Keesling.) Pericles finds a good friend (and good actor) in Jo Crandall's Helicanus, and local favorite Jamie Kline covers many of those First Lord, Second Sailor and Third Fisherman parts that The Bard loves so well.

The set is as minimal as the story is extended. There's a half cylinder for the actors to tussle over - ship, throne, and isolated rock all flow from it. This play feels a bit more rambling than others from Shakespeare, and from that feeling springs some controversy over a potential collaboration. None of that matters - this show is rarely performed, and is a must see for all dedicated English majors.

For more information on Mad Cow, please visit www.madcowtheatre.com

Shee Haw
Conceived and Choreographed by Blue
Babyblue Star Productions
Footlights Theater, Orlando, FL

For over 15 years, "Hee Haw" provided America with what it needs most - corny jokes, busty women, and maudlin songs. Blue and her VarieTEASE company use this classic syndicated show as a template for a wild evening of live, lip synced, and flat out funny singing. The loose premise is a TV show run by the singing duo Toy Clark and Fuck Owens. There's some preshow antics about a feud between Owens and Dolly Parton (Danielle Hunter), but soon we enter the down home ambience of Cornfield County. Besides Owens and Clark, local favorite Missy Sammy does a creditable Minnie Pearl imitation, although I suspect half the audience has no idea why there's a price tag hanging off her Sunday bonnet.

The musical covered all over the map - there were classics like "Elvira," "These Boots are Made for Walking," and "Walking After Midnight," as well a newer numbers like "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy." The highlight was a trippy lip sync of "Stairway to Heaven" by Ms. Parton, which surprisingly enough is off a real album. There was enthusiastic if disorganized tap dancing by the Patty Cakes, and the jokes? Well, they were pretty corny.

Despite all the campy weirdness, there was a real story buried in here. When Dolly sang Stairway, she was a goner and for as good a reason as anyone ever gets killed on stage. As she went, there was a sort of strip involving more underwear than most women use these days, and a sort of tear formed in my eye as the show wrapped up. I know a few of you out there don't really appreciate C&W, but after exposure to the VarieTEASE version, you might rethink your position, at least for a few hours.

For more information on VarieTEASE, please visit Myspace.com/Vtease

Phobias
Conceived and Choreographed by Ann DeMers
Music by Kevin Becker
Empty Spaces Theater at the Harwood-Watson Dance Studios
Orlando, FL

I used to fear Modern Dance, but the electroshock cured that, so I thoroughly enjoyed this thematically conceived evening of dance and motion. John DiDonna's Empty Spaces Theater covers some very eclectic ground, but the thrust into dance is a pleasant surprise.

Their dancing explored sixteen of our best loved fears, from Topophobia to Coulrophobia. Not all of these were interpreted strictly as dance, but some as spoken word (Fear of Strangers) or even as small skits (Fear of Flying). The strongest dance number was the opening Freak Out sequence, where the entire cast came on stage, pressed their noses agianst the 4th wall, and broke down. A young woman knelt shivering in front of me, whimpering. I did what I always do in that situation; I ignored her as hard as possible. Other noteworthy segments include Fear of Heights, which involved the cast balancing on cheap chairs, and the Fear of Eye contact segment, where John Bateman attempted to stare me down. There's an overhead projection cueing us to the phobia about to appear on stage, which cheated us out of guessing the fear itself. At least they could have used the correct medical term, which would have challenged the audience.

The females on stage were the real dancers, and I wish I could sort them out well enough to discuss them individually but the program was a bit ambiguous. The three males were easier to sort out; I've seen all of them on stage around town. Dancing wasn’t their strength, but they gave some balance to the cast, particularly for the Fear of Intimacy number. As the fears ran out, there was a quick wrap-up called "Helping Hands" which showed some interpersonal attempts to defuse the fears. That's all well and good, but if there's a monster under my bed, I don’t want to meet it, no matter how friendly it might be.

For more information on Empty Spaces Theater Company, visit www.emptyspacestheatre.org

All the World's a Stage...
Summer Stage 2007 Summer Spotlight
Coordinated by Mark Brotherton, Amanda Wansa, Mark Koenig
UCF Conservatory Theater, Orlando FL

I was a little leery of a show that has three columns of directors, but was pleasantly surprised by this ensemble piece that involved virtually all of the UCF theater majors and their instructors. Too many cooks can spoil a soup, but this was more of a dim sum table. Each little piece worked wonderfully, and they all flowed in a completely logical sequence.

Structure is what made it work, as they chose Shakespeare's "Seven Stages of Life" to arrange this collection of skits, scenes, songs and spoken word pieces. There's no point in detailing the lot, but a few high points stick out. Michael Pettey put a nice twist on "Tone of Voice," a coming of hormone piece featuring a young man struggling in a singing audition as his voice alternates between suave adult and adenoidal child. Another cool monolog comes from Christine Perez as she reads "Good Credit." She just got her first credit card, and she's out to use it all today, before mom finds out.

As we get to the sexy segment, Khristy Chamberlain and Taylor Jeffers do the fun, fun "Just Friends". More then just good buddies, these two share all the benefits, including unusual applications of chocolate sauce. Following this is the soldier segment overseen by Tad Ingram. This is the most coherent, successful part of the evening, with the creepy "Three-Five-Zero-Zero" introducing us to the strange language of battle, then revealing the fog and futility of war with pieces of "All Quiet on the Western Front," "Nurse's Diary," and "A Piece of My Heart." After all this, they did give peace a chance with a full ensemble version of John Lennon's "Imagine."

As we reached the end of the evening, Gary Flannery dances a long and heart-rending "Mr. Bojangles" with choreography by Bob Fosse. It's not exactly a downer, but it pulled tears out of more than a few eyes.

UCF has some real talent, both in the student body and in the dedicated instructors, and it's good to see them on stage together exchanging skills and enthusiasm. This show only ran one weekend, but the talent could carry it for a full run. This is theater at its most entertaining.

For more information on UCF Conservatory Theatre, visit www.theatre.ucf.edu

Happy Birthday, Wanda June
By Kurt Vonnegut
Directed by Tim Debaun
Starring Christian Kelty, Jennifer Gannon, Daniel Cooksley
Theater Downtown, Orlando FL

So what makes you a man? Harold Ryan (Kelty) believes in killing and bossing women around, while Dr. Norbert Woody (Daniel Petrie) prefers pacifism, a peace sign, and a nice Chardonnay. Splitting the difference is vacuum cleaner salesman Herb Shuttle (Cooksley). He'll go see a fight, but not get into one as that might scare off a customer. It seems Harold went missing for eight years, and while he drank the Blue Soup, the world changed - both his wife Penelope (Gannon) and Mutual of Omaha have written him off, and no one is interested in his histrionics, not even young Paul (Jeremy Ashton,) the son he never met. There might be a reunion, and there might be a murder suicide, but not even Ryan's bosom companion Col. Hopper (Larry Stalling) knows what might happen next.

I've known Kelty a long time, and he can still scare the crap out of me onstage. His rendering of the hunter-killer Ryan details a psychotic and bipolar man, partially disconnected from reason and reduced to little more than preprogrammed motions. He struggles to adapt to the change, as his world struggles to adapt to him and neither has a good time of it. His opposites are the coolly logical Petrie and the comical Cooksley, making a tense triangle that Gannon wishes would just evaporate. She's grieved for the past, but now wants peace and respect more than a good scrogging. After all, scroggings are a dime a dozen.

Set on a calm 60's set designed by the superb Paul Horan, "Wanda June" might be read as an anti war statement, an adaptation of the Odyssey without the dog, or an existential reflection on the meaningless of life. Watching over the show is a little Wanda June, played by the precocious Tianna Stevens. She was whacked by an ice cream truck, and now spends her days in heaven playing shuffle board with the ex-Nazi Butcher of Yugoslavia (Cooksley again). Her joy balances the misery of Ryan; she exclaims, "I'm so glad I got here early!" Maybe you can’t go back, but catch this tense thriller before it escapes to the theatrical afterworld.

For more information, please visit www.theatredowntown.net

Hate Mail
By Bill Corbett and Kira Obolensky
Directed by Jay Hopkins
Jester Theater at Studio Garage, Orlando, FL

Rich boy Preston Dennis Jr. (David Almeida) hates out-of-town and unmet Dahlia (Trenell Mooring). Some cheap souvenir broke in his flight bag, and he takes a perverse pleasure in suing small people for small mounts of money. Small to him, but life shattering to them, and Dahlia is just his most recent target. She needs the souvenir sales job to stay alive while making it as an art photographer, and his lawsuit begins a long involved correspondence that takes them from animosity to sex to mailing dead lizards. By the end of the relation they swap not only emotional positions but financial ones as well - a sort of a Town Mouse/Country Mouse inversion.

Almeida's Preston takes the more educational journey, alienating his trust fund parents and ending up as an orderly in a nursing home. His motto seems to be "think small", but his earnest efforts make that seem the most logical of all paths. Mooring gets the bitchier role, as Dahlia resents a more self-centered energy demanding support for her projects and pet peeves, while Preston makes the shift from self-centered to outward bound earlier on in the relation. Both seem a bit distant from each other, and the best humor came from the fight scenes bracketing mercifully short Sappy Pet Names period of the romance. When Preston mails a sequence of dead lizards to Dalia, he threatens further escalation beyond the Gila monster level. He may be bluffing that he can go farther, but that might just be Guy Talk - Alameda seems too frail to take on a Komodo singlehandedly, but I believe Mooring could.

Writers Corbett and Obolensky explore what we don’t like to acknowledge - love and hate aren't that far apart. Strong emotion is strong emotion, and while cuddly love may be more fun for the parties is involved, we outsiders really prefer the Battle Royal. Blood-spurting, slam-down action always draws the bigger crowd - no one ever gossips about the happily married. You'll' love "Hate Mail" - send it to the ones you love the most.

For more information on Jester Theater Company, please visit www.jestertheater.com

Carl F Gauze is a wealthy but reclusive student of the arts, semi-retired from a stellar career as an insurance calendar salesman. His real fortune derives from his great grandfather, Herman S. Gauze, who invented the sterile surgical dressing in Zurich shortly before the First World War. Because of Switzerland's neutrality and the obvious humanitarian uses of this bandage during the tragedy, he amassed a vast fortune selling the dressing to both sides. He's recently been looking at bikes, and can't decide between a Harley Fat Boy or a Vespa. Decisions, decisions...