Friday, August 13, 2004


It's vacation time, gentle reader. See you at the end of the month.

The State of the American Theater in West Virginia

I've had a chance to see two outdoor dramas in West Virginia. One is semi-professional, while the other is a community production. Both are quite good, and in its own strange way, the community production might be even better.

1. Theatre West Virginia's Honey in the Rock is written by Kermit Hunter, the man who gave us Unto These Hills in Cherokee, NC. Hills may be the best outdoor drama in the nation, surpassing even Paul Green's Lost Colony. (Hunter wrote Hills as an MFA project, under the tutelage of Green himself. It's not surprising, then, to find several of Paul Green's signature touches in the play: The procession, the focus on community rituals, the thoughtful deployment of traditional music.) Honey has moments that match Hills in terms of emotional power, but it's an extremely uneven show that hasn't always aged well. The show is much less than the sum of its parts, and one suspects it could use some revision to bring it more in line with contemporary sensibilities.

Honey was written in 1962 for West Virginia's centennial year, and naturally enough, it depicts the mountain folks' decision to secede from the slaveholding Confederacy at the onset of the Civil War. Despite the violent subject matter, Honey is surprisingly tasteful and restrained. Hunter depicts battle scenes with tableaux vivantes and simulated slow-motion, so that the action is dirgelike, instead of exploitative. The extended finale of Act I earns both horror and tears, and is worth the price of admission in itself; it is unusual, innovative, even poetic.

The play depicts a New River valley community, but concentrates primarily on the Morgans. Taken together, they constitute a rarity in contemporary American theater -- a tender, self-reliant and fully functional family unit. The loving relationships between these loving family members provide the play with its most memorable moments, and one can't help wishing Hunter could have explored them more. The result might have been less action-packed, but it might have helped the play gain a more loyal following.

Alas, Hunter frequently abandons his main characters altogether, and resorts to tired gimmickry. Most of Hunter's dramas feature at least hokey "Indian dance," which tends to involve some sort of fire. Hunter seems to have begun the tradition with the "fire-hoop" dance of Horn in the West, and he never saw fit to abandon it. Even though the plot of Honey in the Rock features no Native American characters whatsoever, Hunter opens the play's second act with another exotic Indian dance. No flaming hoops here, though, and no connection whatsoever to the rest of the drama. This time, extras in "redface" play ring-around-the-rosy with a natural gas spout. At the end, the head shaman extinguishes the gas flame by jumping on it, prompting irreverent audience members to joke about how getting dragged to an outdoor drama really burns their ass.

The actors in Honey are quite good, the comic relief genuinely funny, and the dialogue only so-so. I suspect Civil War buffs (of whom there are many more now than there were when the play first premiered) will find the play's chronology laughably askew. Mostly, Honey in the Rock succeeds on the level of stage spectacle, which is fine by me. The show runs through August 21.

2. Every summer, the community of Logan, WV, stages an all-volunteer production of Thomas Patterson's The Aracoma Story in nearby Chief Logan State Park. The setting is a bit too close to the park's main road, which means that the theater gets much more ambient traffic noise than it should. But otherwise, it's a lovely amphitheater, with a nice stage.

Patterson, a drama professor at UNC Chapel Hill, wrote this play in 1952. Back then, audiences must have found it pretty shocking, what with its depictions of murder, warfare, torture, and interracial romance. When it comes to violence, The Aracoma Story can be as extreme and unsettling (if not quite as graphic) as a Quentin Tarantino film -- yet since the show contains no swear words and no explicit sexual content, local parents often bring very young children to see it. The kiddies get the bejeezus scared out of them, of course, and squall at the top of their lungs until their parents drag them out.

There's a lot to love in this show: It's unusually dark, with undercurrents of angst and violence. Even the requisite plea for tolerance and universal brotherhood seems anguished, as if the playwright were unsure of its possibility. I know I'm making The Aracoma Story sound like a deep work of art, which it isn't at all: As is all too frequent in outdoor drama, the play's Native American exoticism can be downright embarrassing. But the play itself is well crafted: The romance between Shawnee "princess" Aracoma and English soldier Bolling Baker makes for a solid framework, and the backdrop of the Indian wars transforms it into gripping theater. Best of all, unlike much outdoor theater, Aracoma offers an uncommonly rich vein of irony and ambiguity; it's one of a handful of outdoor dramas with something like true literary merit.

Town and park namesake "Chief Logan" appears during the play's most gripping scene, delivering the speech which made him famous (and which Thomas Jefferson praised as a marvel of natural oratory):

I appeal to any white man to say, if ever he entered Logan's cabin hungry, and he gave him  not meat: if ever he came cold and naked, and he cloathed him not.   During the course of the last long and bloody war Logan remained idle in his cabin, an advocate for peace. Such was my love for the whites, that my countrymen pointed as they passed, and said, `Logan is the friend of white man.' l had even thought to have lived with you, but for the injuries of one man. Colonel Cresap, the last spring, in cold blood,   and unprovoked, murdered all the relations of Logan, not even sparing my women and children.  There runs not a drop of my blood in the veins of any living creature.   This called on me for revenge.  I have sought it: I have killed many: I have fully glutted my vengeance: for my country I rejoice at the beams of peace.  But do not harbour a thought that mine is the joy of fear.  Logan never felt fear.  He will not turn on his heel to save his life.  Who is there to mourn for Logan?--Not one.

Patterson was wise to use these words uncut and unaltered: Logan's eloquent outrage sets the play up for an ambiguous, uncomfortable climax. Aracoma's community suffers a terrible fate -- not because the people there embrace, or fail to embrace, ideals of racial tolerance and universal brotherhood, but because her husband decides to be a nice guy at exactly the wrong time. The obvious message here is that in the midst of open warfare, a leader must fight whether he wants to or not -- and very often he has to fight dirty. If he doesn't, he brings disaster not just on himself, but on everyone and everything he loves. Bolling Baker learns the hard way, that war is no time for a unilateral expression of goodwill. (John Kerry might do well to see this play, n'est-ce pas?)

The last thing one would expect to find in popular American theater is a genuine sense of tragedy. The sense here is not as profound as Shakespeare or the ancient Greeks, of course, but it doesn't have to be. I have been told over and over that we Americans may understand schadenfreude well enough, but we simply don't do tragedy. Yet The Aracoma Story offers abundant evidence to the contrary: Here's a tragic drama that an entire community has embraced and made its own. Granted, Patterson doesn't leave the story on such a grim note: He attempts to temper the story's harsh ending with old-fashioned spiritual schmaltz, a strategy that (from my perspective, at least) actually makes the play grimmer.

The Aracoma Story is located roughly an hour's drive south of Charleston, West Virginia, in Chief Logan State Park. It runs through August 14, and with ticket prices ranging from four to eight dollars, it's one of the best bargains in American outdoor drama. Catch it if you can.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Gay Stuff

Today has been a big day for Gay-themed news. Unfortunately, most of the news is bad.

Virginia's HB 751: More Legal Higgledy-Piggledy from the Christian Right

Here's the precis, gentle reader: A lesbian couple gets a civil union in Vermont. They raise a child together. A few years later, under what sounds like intense psychological pressure from her friends and family, the child's mother decided she was "ex-Gay," and the couple decided to undergo a civil divorce. As is customary for such cases, a Vermont family court decided that the birth mother must share child custody with her former partner.

What's a poor Christian girl to do -- other than abide by the court's decision, that is? Why, she can take her kid to Virginia! Religious extremists are sheltering this woman and her daughter, in the hope that our commonwealth's newly enacted HB 751, which may void any private contract between persons in a same-sex relationship, will invalidate not only the women's civil union, but also the decision of a Vermont family court.

I doubt this will happen. This custody case was tried out of state, and state courts don't usually reverse other states' judicial decisions. But HB 751 gives the case a wicked twist which might lead a court to do the same thing, at least in effect. The Vermont decision awarding child custody seems to bestow a benefit usually associated with marriage on a same-sex relationship. A Virginia court could decide that the Vermont decision must stand, but that under HB 751 the commonwealth can do nothing to enforce it.

Stay tuned, folks. This case could get really ugly.

Jim McGreevey

The governor of New Jersey has resigned from office, after admitting that he conducted an extramarital affair with another man. My heart goes out to the poor guy and to his family, of course -- but most of all, I think I sympathize with the "other man." It couldn't have been easy dating a married, closeted, Catholic father of two. I've dated Catholic men, and I can testify that "Mother Church" has become quite abusive to her Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual children. Worst of all, the abuse these Catholics receive from their church is frequently displaced onto the people they love most.

By now, any emotionally healthy relationship the two might have shared is probably over. Even if the two are still connected in some way, they'll have to face this storm of publicity alone. Anti-Gay Republicans will start attacking every guy ever linked to McGreevey, always searching for signs of homosexual conduct. Most likely, the only thanks McGreevey's ex-lover will receive for helping the governor out of the closet will be an ugly public "outing" of his own.

Anyone who works in the Gay community, even in a volunteer capacity, encounters dozens of stories like this one. (Here are three.) The governor's family will receive no shortage of sympathy, and he may find a comforter or two for himself in the long months (years?) ahead. But I doubt the "other man" in this story will have such abundant resources to draw on -- especially if he's closeted, as McGreevey was before today.

That Mess in California

Finally, in a bit of news which surprised absolutely no one, the California supreme court ruled that San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom overstepped his authority when he approved thousands of same-sex marriages earlier this year. The decision was absolutely right.

However, the court made no mention of whether California's anti-marriage statute is constitutional. When a married, same-sex couple from Massachusetts moves to the West Coast, same-sex marriage advocates will be able to mount a genuine legal challenge. If such a lawsuit isn't already in the works, it soon will be.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

More on the state of opera in America ...

My loyal reader responds in italics, and I continue the discussion ...

If opera is expensive it is because it costs a great deal of money to produce. But it's worth it.

Now this statement is a myth. Opera can be produced on the cheap -- and probably should be done that way more often. The same friend who decries the "bourgeois" banality of Charlottesville's Ash Lawn Opera has told me about Jeune Lune, a Twin Cities troupe currently staging Bizet's Carmen in a former warehouse (the acoustics must have been pretty bad)

The physical resources for this production, other than a cast of singing actors and actresses, include a unit set, three tables with chairs, period costumes, and two pianos for accompaniment. This is pretty minimal, even by Ash Lawn standards. Yet inventive direction and excellent performances help this show to connect with audiences in a big way, even though it's still performed in the original French.

That's more than I can say for most "Met-Lite" productions at your typical subsidized Urban Performing Arts Center.

US opera companies do not just repeat the same old Italian and German operas. They also do American operas.

Paradoxically, it's easier to find American classical music in Europe than in America. Thanks to Naxos' "American Classics" series, this sorry situation is improving a bit -- but only a bit. Ash Lawn Opera occasionally performs an American opera, though they haven't done one since Adamo's "Little Women" a few years ago. As far as I know, Ash Lawn is the only professional or semi-pro opera troupe in the area to perform American opera in the past five years. Aside from the Spoleto Festival, operagoers see American works only a handful of very large cities -- New York, Chicago, D.C., and oddly enough, Houston TX.

And most have supertitles so the audience can understand. The Metropolitan Opera's Met titles have been a great success.

Supertitles are no good; they're distracting, and they're too obviously derived from "art-house" cinema. The idea of having audiences "read" during a movie or a stage performance reflects Anglo-American purism. Other cultures don't insist on the language barrier: At the Wien Staatoper, Puccini and Copland are performed in German translation. The choice makes sense, and it doesn't seem to detract from the cultural cachet of the place. American opera troupes might do well to follow their example, discard the opera's original language, and perform in English.

Broadway shows are also expensive, but no one complains.

Oh, but we do! I remember one wag years ago joking that the top Broadway ticket price in dollars, corresponded to the age of an average theatergoer, and that both had "topped out" at seventy-five. Now, of course, Broadway prices range from about $100 to $450 (I wanna be a Producer!) -- though presumably the theatergoers' age hasn't risen at the same rate. Yet exorbitant ticket prices make patrons and producers extremely risk-averse; you're not going to spend the equivalent of your daughter's college fund on an evening of theater that there's even a slight chance you won't enjoy.

And you don't have to experience opera live to enjoy it.You can hear the Met's live broadcasts, see their telecasts, VHS and DVD performances,listen to complete operas on CD, etc.

Unfortunately, the Met broadcasts on National Public Radio, and telecasts on Public Broadcasting System. For my money, NPR, PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts are the three greatest problems facing American culture today. NPR and PBS don't reach beyond the typical audience for the arts; the NEA, on the other hand, has an educational, "eat-your-spinach" approach to culture that wrings it of all interest and delight. If the US government can play a role in promoting the arts (a dubious proposition at best), it has yet to find a method that works.

Many people do, but the myth that opera is stuffy, boring and elitist unfortunately prevents many people from doing so.

Opera as a musical form is not inherently elitist. Far from it. When done well, opera offers primal emotions and passionate human stories, things which an audience quickly takes to heart. Baz Luhrmann's spectacularly popular Broadway production of La Boheme managed to find this connection with audiences, though I'm also informed that Luhrmann shamefully worked his young cast to the point of exhaustion. (He's a fun director on the whole, but perhaps he should stick to movies.)

Unlike Luhrmann, America's opera companies seldom display the imagination or intelligence to make these shows work as theater. Instead, they prefer to mount elaborate, dramatically inert stage spectacles. Alas, their emphasis on sets and props over singers and story doesn't just result in boring theater; it drives ticket prices up, and compels opera companies to spend more time cultivating wealthy donors and government grants. In the struggle for money, the audience is usually left behind.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Reader Mail: Opera in America

I've received an interesting letter from a friendly reader, and I feel it deserves a response:

Hello Mr. Hulsey! In one of your latest posts you describe opera in America as "Elitist" and "stuffy". I could not disagree more with you. The term "elitist" implies that US opera companies are trying to exclude people. Nothing could be farther from their intentions. In fact,they are trying very hard, and successfully, to attract more people to opera, and I have never found opera in any way stuffy, any more than any other kind of entertainment in America.

The notion that opera is stuffy and elitist is nothing but a myth. I have been contributing to the collective music blog,and my latest posts have been on myths about classical music; I suggest you see them. If Opera in America were stuffy and elitist it would not be anywhere near as popular as it is today.

Well, first of all, most of the "fine arts" in America qualify as "stuffy and elitist" -- contemporary theater, classical music (orchestra and chamber), arthouse cinema, gallery exhibits, museums, and so forth. Even Broadway musicals, once the most vulgar and lively of entertainments, have entered the realms of high "NP Art": Fifty years ago, a show like Mel Brooks's The Producers would have played to "tired businessmen" (and the female lead would have stripped to her skivvies at least once), but now it's slowly mildewing before a genteel audience in the Kennedy Center Opera House. As a "high" art form, opera is merely another victim of the American propensity to seal all acknowledged works of art into airtight glass cases, and mummify them for posterity.

And opera is white-elephant art, at least over here. It is (over)produced in "performing arts centers" and feted at high-society galas, but there's still a strong sense that middle-class joes and janes lacking MFA degrees in music need not apply. Ever. It doesn't help that American opera companies (outside of a few major cities) tend to perform the same 19th-century Italian and German warhorses over and over, or that they perform these works in languages that the audience can't possibly understand. I tend to think that opera companies overdo sets and costumes in an attempt to ratchet up the spectacle, and I don't much approve of that impulse: It creates needless expense, often (alas) of taxpayer money. But since the sets and costumes may be the only part of the show that an audience can respond to, it may not be proper to complain.

Still, European companies take a very different approach to opera, attracting people from all levels of society, going a bit easier on sets and heavy costumes, and (except in Britain) performing these works in the vulgar tongue. Also, many of these European operas work on a sense of audience patriotism: The Italians claim Verdi, and the Germans Wagner (regrettably), in the same way we Americans used to claim Stephen Foster and George Gershwin.

Still, American opera companies don't want to exclude people -- at least, not actively -- and they're working on outreach of a sort. From what I've seen and heard, I don't think they're doing a very good job of it. They don't seem to understand how to connect with minority and working- to middle-class audiences, let alone how to create a genuinely entertaining production without all the high-tech gimmickry. I suspect the best hope for expanding opera's audience beyond the wealthy and overeducated lies with troupes operating outside the mainstream, like Sideshow Opera Company and Ash Lawn Opera in Charlottesville. Alas, these groups are rare now, but with a little encouragement from the public, we might see more in future.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Dog Days: LiveArts, Heritage Repertory Theatre, Ash Lawn

For the past month or so, Charlottesville has had an abundance of theater. Heritage Repertory Theatre and the Live Arts Summer Theater Festival have offered four repertory shows apiece; Ash Lawn Opera has produced two shows, both of which are still running. Even our local Bardophiles have gotten into the act with a bare-bones outdoor production of Much Ado About Nothing. I haven't seen Much Ado, and don't intend to: Reviews have not been good, even by Charlottesville's fairly undemanding standards.

Which points out the problem with this year's summer season: We've had a lot of theater, but very little good theater. The LiveArts Summer Theater Festival had the best batting average: Three out of its four productions were at least worth seeing, though only one (Jane Martin's Anton in Show Business) was truly successful. Heritage Rep, on the other hand, has been unusually lackluster this summer, with only one of its four shows (Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy) worth a look at all. Ash Lawn Opera has one good show (Barber of Seville) and one dud (Annie), and even the higbrow Shakespearians seem to have exhausted their goodwill. Without further ado:

Barber of Seville at Ash Lawn: A friend of mine calls Ash Lawn Opera "incredibly bourgeois," and he's absolutely right. But given that opera in America tends to be incredibly elitist (and stuffy), I think Ash Lawn represents a step in the right direction. When you go to an Ash Lawn production, you know what to expect: A cast of up-and-coming singers, relatively spare sets and costumes, a live chamber orchestra, and an intimate space where everyone can get a good look at the performers. Productions tend to be family-friendly and are sung in English, which means that many children view their first opera here. Shows seldom run over two-and-a-half hours -- which all too often means that they've been severely edited and trimmed. Ash Lawn has cut Rossini's Barber of Seville by about forty-five minutes, but only die-hard opera buffs are likely to notice.

The cast offers plenty of well-turned singing and sharp comic timing, with Daniel Teadt a standout as Figaro the barber. Teadt possesses not only a robust baritone and matinee-idol good looks, but also a dry sense of humor which makes the most of every throwaway wisecrack. Wojciech Bukalski and Matt Boehler give broader comic turns as, respectively, the lecherous Dr. Bartolo and the sneaky singing master Don Basilio. Bukalski has the best voice in the cast, with a lovely bass-baritone that commands respect; Boehler's voice isn't as impressive, but his rubber-faced antics always elicit laughs. With such excellent comic turns in supporting roles, it's no wonder that the actual leads seem underwhelming in comparison: Jay Morrissey plays Count Almaviva with a slightly frayed Irish tenor, while mezzo soprano Debra Domanski acquits herself well in the ingenue role of Rosina, despite some obvious vocal strain in her lower registers.

Joe Musumeci's set design is somewhat more elaborate than usual (and the opera's sole scene change is very cleverly conceived). Nick Olcott's direction, on the other hand, comes off as slightly perfunctory, and he misses several obvious possibilities for comic business. Granted, this Barber of Seville isn't as uproariously funny as it might have been, but it's a pleasant evening out, especially for older children and teens. On the whole, it's a pretty typical Ash Lawn production.

Annie at Ash Lawn: There are dozens of Broadway musicals well-suited to young opera companies. Ash Lawn Opera has proven beyond any doubt that Annie, with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin, is not among them.

Rebecca Rizzo plays the title role, even though she's well in her mid-twenties (she's either twenty-four, twenty-five, or twenty-eight -- I forget which). The lead in a show is a tempting offer, but I wish she could have turned it down. During the performance I saw, it was painfully clear that her attempts to sound like a prepubescent Broadway belter had taken a toll on her voice. Rizzo croaked and creaked through practically the entire second act. Let's hope she can get through next week without inflicting any permanent damage to her vocal cords. She's too promising a talent to lose.

Troy Gordon plays bald old Daddy Warbucks, though the producers at Ash Lawn neglected to shave his head or provide him with a skull cap. Gordon portrays Warbucks's affectionate side well enough, but doesn't succeed in conveying the unlikable or irascible aspects of this character; as a result, Warbucks's transformation from hard-hearted industrialist to first-class softie never registers. As Miss Hannigan, Angela Stockman looks and sounds like a refugee from a women's prison movie. Jason Ferrante, previously seen in Sideshow Opera Company's Turn of the Screw, is surprisingly well cast as Hannigan's brother Rooster. Ferrante in particular has a well-trained lyric-tenor voice, which is largely wasted here.

Having an opera company perform Charles Strouse's music merely underscores how second-rate much of it is. "Tomorrow" is the show's only memorable song, although "It's a Hard Knock Life" was recently (and embarrassingly) sampled for a Jay-Z rap album. Other songs seem treacly and trite, including "NYC," "Maybe," "I Don't Need Anything But You," and even the comic "Easy Street." Director Nick Olcott seems eager to get this show over with as soon as possible, cutting about fifteen minutes' worth of material (including the second-act finale). I understood his feeling.

Snoopy!!! at Heritage Rep: In 1967, a musical revue based on Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts comic strip charmed off-Broadway audiences, and eventually ran for over 1500 performances. Eventually the show received a Broadway revival with some new and reworked material, winning critical accolades and even a few Tony awards. It's one of the most-performed shows in the country, and it boasts a well-written book and terrific score.

But that show was Clark Gesner's You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Snoopy!!! came five years later, with a completely different creative team, in a feeble attempt to duplicate the earlier musical's success. It ran for only 150 performances, and closed quietly.

There's a reason Snoopy!!! bombed. Nearly every song in the show feels and sounds like something in You're a Good Man. "The Big Bow-Bow" echoes "Suppertime," "Edgar Allan Poe" resembles "A Book Report on Peter Rabbit," and "Just One Person" (probably the sappiest finale to any show, ever) is a defective clone of "Happiness." Most numbers are instantly forgettable, though "Poor Sweet Baby" -- a torch song that depicts Peppermint Patty's apparently sexual longings for Charlie Brown -- is so thoroughly wrong-headed that it dropped jaws all over the theater. Snoopy!!! is quite possibly the worst show ever staged at Heritage Rep, and one wonders what possessed the company to try it. (Presumably they wanted to attract the family crowd -- but with its sexual and political subtext, this isn't even a good show for kids.)

For this show HRT has assembled an amazingly talented cast -- and stranded them. Technically, Snoopy!!! belongs to Brandon Ellis, who doesn't play the title character so much as mark time with show-biz shtick. As Peppermint Patty, Lindsay Northen proves that she would make a better Annie than Rebecca Rizzo; as Charlie Brown, Frace has nothing to do, and makes little impression. (Northen and Frace played the male and female leads in last year's smashing How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.)

Ken Lambert's direction plays up the cast's energy, but manages to squander the script's mere handful of genuinely funny lines. On the whole, Snoopy!!! is the sort of dismal experience that leads mild-mannered theatergoers to beat their spouses and run down little old ladies. I've only had two evenings at the theater worse than this, and I hope never to have one like it again. Yet the Snoopy!!! cast survived 19 performances of this schlock without flying into swearing fits -- a tribute either to their professionalism, or to the resilience of youth.

Driving Miss Daisy at Heritage Rep: Alfred Uhry is the most overrated playwright in the American theater today, and Driving Miss Daisy -- a ninety-minute, three-character chamber drama -- may be his most overrated play. It's trite, disjointed, and condescending; if it's meant to tell us "Something Important" about racism, it's that people should be nicer to their ignorant darkey servants. The characters feel more like social types than flesh-and-blood human beings. "Hoke," the chauffeur, more than earns his name with embarrassing minstrel-show dialect -- and I wish the play could have depicted something of Hoke's life beyond his employment with Southern Whites. Even though DMD is brief by Broadway standards, it still has long stretches of dead air. The final scenes seem strangely timid, and fail to provide either a climax or a catharsis. Driving is dull, dull, dull.

Heritage Rep gives this show a better production than it deserves, with three small stages arranged side by side (rather like the set of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). Performances are excellent, and although Uhry can't give these characters anything to do (other than grow old), he does provide them with some meaty dialogue.

Wonderful World at LiveArts: As a little boy, Richard Dresser must have enjoying pulling the wings off of flies. I say this, because Dresser's play Wonderful World offers an equally sadistic vivisection of one extended WASP family. All the requirements are here: The hard-drinking mother who complains about her loveless marriage, a frightening harridan who manipulates her spineless husband until she divorces him, a passive-aggressive girl who seems to kowtow to her fiancee's every whim -- until she leaves him. (Apparently, all unhappy families are alike, at least in contemporary theater.) The play has deft writing, crackling wit, and a climax that leaves audiences devastated.

Under Mark Valahovic's direction, actresses fare much better than actors. Jen Hoffmann shines as the ruthless wife Patty, while Karen Woolcott gives a smartly turned performance as mother Lydia. Priya Curtis is more uneven as Jennifer; she must make a convincing transition from weak-willed doormat to independent woman, but the shift was too sudden and drastic for me to buy it entirely. David Rain Wilkerson captures the humor of his character if not quite the humanity; Seth Maxwell's frantic behavior grows repetitious after a while.

I wish Wonderful World could have been more humane and/or uplifting. But for what it is, it's good.

Jar the Floor at LiveArts: Cheryl West's five-character comedy-drama about four generations of African-American women starts out well enough, then devolves into what feels like the longest episode of Oprah ever. This is the sort of play where, when a mother tells her daughter how much her stepfather loved her, we know that the stepfather was a child abuser. (Again, in the theater all unhappy families are alike.) There's even a scene where the women dance around the kitchen table, the mother of all chick-flick cliches.

The cast is generally strong. Edna Jakki Miller, Richelle Claiborne, and especially Rheva Williams give intelligent, crackling performances; Jamie Johans plays well off the other actresses without quite creating a character of her own. The only truly weak link is Monica LaShonda Jennings, who seems unable to enunciate or convey any emotion whatsoever. Yet the best cast in the world couldn't disguise the thinness of the script, the explicitly misandrist bent of West's writing, or the ill-conceived, unsatisfying ending.

Indoor Pleasure Garden: Monologues at LiveArts: I wanted to mention a marvelous program of monologues and two-character sketches, presented on July 30 in the LiveArts Downstairs Space. Where else could one see pieces from the two-woman Cathy and Mo Show, an excerpt from Christopher Durang's Laughing Wild, and Paul Rudnick's riotous Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach in little more than an hour? This may have been the highlight of LiveArts' Summer Theater Festival -- which automatically makes it one of the best (and smartest) shows in Charlottesville this summer. I like to end things on a positive note.

The LiveArts festival closed on July 31, and HRT's season ended on August 7. Ash Lawn Opera and Shakespeare at the Ruins are currently the only theater in town, and both of them close on the 15th. If you're in the area, I recommend Barber of Seville without reservation.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]