Saturday, July 09, 2005

Charlottesville Reviews: Tom Jones, Rounding Third, Damn Yankees

I meant to post these reviews last week, when at least one might have done some good. But alas, I was in Arkansas for a week, with absolutely no access to the Internet. I couldn't check e-mail for nearly two weeks, which led to a sense of profound isolation while I was away, and a gargantuan backlog of e-mail once I returned home. Not all of the Natural State lives in a state of nature, but the town where my parents live keeps a tight rein on internet access: Even AOL is unavailable, because the local bank retains a monopoly on local dial-up and DSL access.

At any rate, Charlottesville has officially entered the summer theater season with a bang, thanks to the last regular production of LiveArts' 2004-2005 season, Tom Jones, and two baseball-themed shows to open the 2005 season of Heritage Repertory Theatre (or HRT, as locals call it). Of the three, only Rounding Third is still playing -- though not for much longer -- and since I thought it the least of the three, I think I can safely say that these particular reviews have passed their sell-by date.

Tom Jones at LiveArts: Distilling Henry Fielding's thousand-page opus into a mere two-and-a-quarter hours is no easy task. Coleridge claimed the plot was one of the three most perfect ever written (his other candidates were Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Jonson's Alchemist), and it served as an inspiration and role model for Charles Dickens.

I wish playwright David Rogers had been up to the task of translating Fielding's generous spirit and deep moral convictions to the stage, but his adaptation falls flat on both counts. Fielding's expansive sensibility has been replaced with a cramped, quasi-Victorian morality, so that most of the characters onstage seem shallow caricatures of their former novelistic selves. Allworthy, Fielding's all-too-fallible moral compass, is reduced to ridicule, while the scheming hypocrite Blifil (incidentally, one of the best character names in all of fiction) becomes a simpering fop. Rogers doesn't give Jones enough time to pursue his infamous sexual peccadilloes, so that at the end of the play our hero is every bit as virginal as when he started. The lack of any real vice in the play makes Jones's true love, Sophie Western, appear rather priggish -- in the novel, her concern over Jones's character is perfectly legitimate.

Still, once you get past the deficiencies in Rogers' adaptation (not an easy task), you have to admit that LiveArts has turned it into one hell of a good show, with vibrant performances, impressively fluid staging, plenty of physical comedy, and even a musical number or two. Paul Koch is nearly perfect as Jones; he has the looks and charisma of an eighteenth-century rake, though his accent is a bit unstable. As Sophie, Karen Weaver is a pleasant enough ingenue, though her character doesn't have enough to do. Mark Richardson (last seen at UVA in The Ives Have It) does as well as anyone could with Rogers's Blifil, turning him into a credible comic villain, though not even the considerable talents of Michael Swanberg can restore Squire Allworthy to Fielding's grand conception. Supporting actors seem to fare best: Ginger McCarthy draws the lion's share of laughs as a beleaguered inkeeper, while Bill Williamson, as a swift-moving judge (despite his girth), takes some fairly familiar low-comedy shtick and works it to the wall. As Partridge -- whom Rogers has assigned the unenviable task of narrating the action -- Jeffrey Lambert is an amiable companion, affecting the same high-county accent he adopted earlier this year for the Four County Players' production of 1776.

Murray Howard's split-level set is a wonder, always suggestive of time and place without depicting them literally. Its only drawback is that, because of the strange configuration of the LiveArts "mainstage" space, the scenes occurring on the upper tier are difficult for some theatergoers to actually see. Director Francine Smith makes the most of her resources as well, managing fairly elaborate scene changes with astonishing efficiency. She choreographs the slapstick antics beautifully, and keeps the show moving at a breakneck pace. The production's most inspired touch, however, is the improvised accompaniment from local pianist Art Wheeler: Wheeler, who is better known for accompanying silent films, gives each onstage joke an extra, memorable punch.

On the whole, Tom Jones brings LiveArts' uneven 2004-2005 season to a rousing, crowd-pleasing finish. Although LiveArts is "only" a nonprofessional community theater, it has become well-known for its professional-caliber productions, and Tom Jones shows off the company's talents to best advantage. (Tom Jones closed on June 25.)

Rounding Third and Damn Yankees at Heritage Repertory Theatre: Charlottesville's professional summer theater is often known as "drama for old people," and it doesn't seem particularly interested in altering its usual bill of fare: Well-produced, generally uninspired productions of established theatrical successes. For innovation, Charlottesville turns to LiveArts; for standard-issue regional theater, we go to HRT.

That said, Richard Dresser's Rounding Third is the sort of off-Broadway show one might expect to see at LiveArts: It's a two-character drama about the trials and tribulations of Little League coaches during a not-so-typical baseball season. Alas, although Little League coaching would seem like a foolproof subject for theater, in Rounding Third the national pastime takes a back seat to the domestic disasters and facile politicizing we've come to expect from Dresser. This play is crammed to the gills with parental dysfunction, divorce, infidelity, death, class issues, and economic displacement -- and that's not even the half of it.

Our two coaches are the blue-collar Don (played by Martin Beekman), who favors winning at all costs, and the white-collar Michael (Richard Warner). The tall, thin Beekman and short, pudgy Warner certainly look their parts, and together they could make a fairly effective comedy team on the order of Abbott and Costello. As baseball coaches, however, I didn't believe them for a second. On the night I saw them, both actors displayed an unfortunate tendency to stumble over their lines.

Of course, even Olivier couldn't have made a good evening out of this play, which begins as "Scenes from the Class Struggle in Suburbia" ... and just stays there for the duration. Dresser can pile incident after miserable incident on his hapless characters (and the equally hapless audience) until everyone looks and feels like Job, but he can't turn his characters into fully realized human beings, or make us care about what happens to them.

The other problem with Rounding Third is sadly common with two- and three-character plays: They tend to tell, rather than show or suggest, important actions. Don tells us about problems with his son; Michael tells us about his wife's death; Don tells us about his lust for a neighbor's wife; Michael tells us about his crummy, low-paying job. The dialogue feels about as organic as Velveeta cheese. By the end of the play, when Dresser finally offers some present-tense action on the baseball diamond, it's too little, too late.

At over two hours, not counting intermission, Rounding Third runs much longer than it should -- and director Douglas Sprigg's stop-and-go pacing (as well as scene breaks that go on forever) simply accentuates the interminable length. With shoddy direction, problematic acting and a thoroughly mediocre script, HRT's Rounding Third strikes out.

On the other hand, HRT's "big" summer musical -- Damn Yankees -- manages to hit, if not a home run, at least a backfence double. With an experienced director, an audience-tested property and nearly infinite resources, this is as much of a "sure thing" as Charlottesville theatergoers are likely ever to see.

Since Damn Yankees is damn near critic-proof, may I state for the record that I do not like this damn show? The score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross offers nearly all its highlights in the first half of Act I, and gives its main character a number of sappy ballads that would have been better off cut. The book -- and for this production HRT used the original 1955 book, instead of a streamlined version for the 1994 revival -- creaks, croaks and dawdles; the first act alone is an hour and forty-five minutes, longer than the first half of Fiddler on the Roof! The second act, at least in the 1955 version, is an incoherent muddle, and leaves the protagonist entirely offstage at what should be the show's climactic moment. And are audiences in 2005 supposed to believe that after the main character leaves his wife for six months without so much as a word of explanation, she gladly takes him back without even a word of reproach?

On the plus side, Damn Yankees has two terrific songs: the infamous baseball kick-line number "Heart" (reprised at every conceivable opportunity), and "Whatever Lola Wants." It has a solid comic character in "Mr. Applegate" (a.k.a. Old Scratch) -- who ultimately displaces the protagonist as the show's male lead -- and a likable if not particularly well-drawn supporting character in the temptress Lola.

The actress playing Lola needs to be a powerhouse singer and a top-notch dancer ("with the emphasis on the latter," as Lola sings), and any actress who essays the part will inevitably labor in the legendary shadow of Gwen Vernon, who originated the part. Heather Mayes, a terrific actress in her own right, plays Lola in HRT's production -- but good as she is, she's no Vernon. Although she handles the vocal and acting duties with ease, she's never as comfortable with her dancing as she needs to be.

The star of this show, such as it is, is Geno Carr, who gleefully hams it up as Applegate. His camp histrionics seem out of place in the first act, when Applegate is something of a sly puppet-master, but they're perfectly at home in the second, when the Devil gets tangled -- quite ineptly -- in his own strings. Other actors fail to make much of an impression: Rob Marnell, in the role of "Joe Hardy," has a lovely light-baritone voice and all-American good looks, but he never gets a chance to strut his stuff. I want to see Marnell again in a much better show. The sole supporting player of note is Catherine Ogden, who takes the thankless (and woefully underwritten) role of deserted housewife Meg Boyd, and breathes unexpected life into it.

So far, I've made this production sound like an overall disappointment, with occasional highlights. But thanks to veteran director Bob Chapel, the show floats above its myriad inconsistencies and shortcomings on a cloud of audience goodwill. As a director, Chapel doesn't seem to have a vision to speak of -- his shows lack any special or distinctive touches, striving instead for Broadway-level polish and professionalism. Fortunately, Chapel knows how to give a show momentum, and that makes him exactly the right director for Damn Yankees, which frequently sputters and stalls out. He keeps this show on its feet and moving, and solid performances ensure a good time for all (or nearly all).

At the moment, HRT is batting .500 with its 2005 season. It's a terrific average for a major-league hitter, but not so good for an established regional theater -- especially one as loath to take genuine artistic risks as HRT. Damn Yankees, which played in UVA's cavernous Culbreth Theater, closed July 2. Rounding Third is playing at UVA's tiny Helms Theater through July 9.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Photo of the Week: Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma AL, 2002

Pettus Bridge, Selma AL, originally uploaded by My Stupid Dog.

For a standard Fourth of July image, you'd expect flags, sparklers, colonial buildings, three-cornered minutemen hats, or other patriotic regalia. This bridge in downtown Selma, Alabama -- named after a low-ranking Confederate officer, like most things in the Deep South -- hardly seems an image of national pride. On March 7, 1965, it became an emblem of shame.

In the civil rights movement, the date is better known as "Bloody Sunday," when Alabama policemen stationed on the bridge rioted against thousands of peaceful protesters who simply wanted the state to acknowledge African-Americans' basic right to vote. There was nothing new in their tactics: For years, police had met civil-rights marchers with dogs, fire hoses and billy clubs (and participated in a separate, "unofficial" campaign of terrorism, murder, and mass intimidation on the side). This time, however, network-news cameras were rolling, and the nation was finally outraged at what it saw. Two weeks and one federal court order later, the troopers on this bridge stood aside, and allowed the marchers to pass. The subsequent fifty-mile march to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery lives in civil-rights history, and paved the way for a national Voting Rights Act.

Today, the Edmund Pettus bridge is the unofficial centerpiece of the "Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail," commemorating the Voting Rights March of 1965. For me, as a Gay man, the bridge has another meaning: It reminds me that a government can restrict the rights of free people only for so long; that free people will rebel, as if by instinct, against arbitrary oppression. As long as our nation can remember the principles of individual liberty on which it was founded, freedom will triumph against the evil of tyranny and terrorism.

But alas, the South has embarked on another campaign against the rights of its citizens, this time with the blessing of the federal government. Now Gays and Lesbians are under the iron heel: Last year, my home state of Virginia passed a law so broadly worded that it might well deny same-sex couples not only the opportunity to marry, but also the right to form private contracts. (The Virginia GOP wants to turn this law into a state constitutional amendment.) Both Democratic and Republican candidates for governor officially oppose all adoption by same-sex couples, so it's clear that, regardless of who wins the upcoming election, Gay and Lesbian families will find themselves under attack. And with a slate of politicians at the national level who seem to believe that a word like "America" or "democracy" means whatever they say it does, I don't see much hope of relief anytime soon.

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