Archive for the ‘Regional Theater’ Category

Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Was Comes” Wows Audiences at The Barter

Monday, September 26th, 2016

#BarterTheatre #RayBradbury #SomethingWicked

John J. Hohn - Writer, Reviewer and Commentator

John J. Hohn – Writer, Reviewer and Commentator

Breathtaking production values are both the strength and the weakness in The Barter’s current presentation of Something Wicked This Way Came. The costumes transport the audience beyond the nostalgic world of the 1950s, the time period for the play, into a fantasy world full of amazing and frightening creatures.

Act I begins ominously with Jim Nightshade (Barrett Guyton) and Will Halloway (Joseph Matthew Veale)  greeting a lightning-rod salesman who’s sleazy pitch prophesizes that Nightshade’s house will be struck and burned to the ground. A mystery fueled by dread is in the air and randomly reinforced by threatening distant rolls of thunder. Once underway, Act I is so shrill that it is almost painful to sit through. Nighshade is all for bringing on whatever trouble awaits, while Halloway takes the side of caution. Emphasizing the point that both boys are only 13 years old, they tussle and yell at one another about the intriguing arrival of a carnival. Guyton and Veale inject their roles with adolescent exuberance – no doubt as directed. They romp vigorously around the stage. As a result, several things the playwright may have intended gets lost.

Halloway is a good lad. He tries to get Nightshade to be careful, avoid cursing, and generally be more thoughtful. Trouble is, aside from the lines he recites, Halloway’s dynamics mirror Nighsade’s. Push. Yell. Push some more. Yell louder. Nightshade is a voyeur. Halloway pleads that he come away from the window in a gratuitous scene intended supposedly to dramatize the difference between the two boys. Perhaps a contrast is being established. One boy, Halloway, wants to live by the rules whereas his pal, Nightshade, wants to break out from under them. Neither character, their slight differences notwithstanding, gives us much to like. When Act I ends we really don’t care what happens to either of them. Teenagers have a full repertoire of manipulative behaviors available. Ask any parent of a teenager. The two guys on stage come off as one dimensional.  Seduction, intrigue, curiosity are not in the mix. Simple bombast carries the action.

Too Much Reflection . . .

The Barter Theatre, Abingdon, VA

The Barter Theatre, Abingdon, VA

Before the carnival makes a formal entrance into town, a hall of mirrors appears. Playwright Ray Bradbury seems to suggest that too much reflection in life is dangerous. A person entering the hall of mirrors is exposed to images of the self that span a lifetime. Life is the mystery. It’s not quite clear why this is terrifying. Whether to accept where we are at any given point or pine, as Mr. Halloway (Will’s father) does, for our younger days is a universal predicament, a passage on the path to self-acceptance. But the hall of mirrors is a horror. Looking back is fraught with peril. No ambiguity here. Nightshade charges ahead disdainful of any threat. Halloway wimps out in the challenge to restrain him.

Act II, gratefully, begins with a quiet dialogue between Will Halloway and his father, played by Rick McVey. Mr. Halloway is 54, an old guy as the script would have it. Most of his life passed before he knew what was going on. His son is his principal achievement. He’d give just about anything if he could run again as his son does. Mr. Halloway is a wiser parent because he can recall his boyhood. The rapport between father and son is almost too idealistic to be credible, especially as the father vividly recalls his boyhood and recognizes how life is for his son. Halloway, for all his sanguinary recollections, becomes the protagonist, usurping the distinction from the boys who carried Act I with their hi-jinks.

Pushing ahead, Act II turns into a nightmarish extravaganza. The carnival arrives, or maybe it was there all along. The hall of mirrors, introduced in Act I, takes its place near a fantastic carousel with elegant horses – man, what elegant horses! The carousel becomes the center of action. Both attractions produce the same dreaded outcomes. They take people backward or forward in time, and if the reaction of the cast means anything, then falling victim to either is terrifying. Except for Jim, of course. He wants to become older right away. Perhaps he’s trying to out run his rage.

A Bad Dream . . .

Joseph Matthew Veale and Barrett Guyton as Will land Jim

Joseph Matthew Veale and Barrett Guyton as Will land Jim

As in a bad dream, things that are assumed at one point become not true at another, and there is no accounting for why things turn as they do. The playwright indulges all kinds of license. Miss Foley is taken back physically to her childhood self only later to appear again returned to her adult self. She brushes off the terror of the experience as if it were nothing. Jim and Will have their ears stopped by Mr. Dark but later come back onto the scene understanding everything being said. A lot happens that just doesn’t matter. One of Mr. Dark’s sidekicks, also a villain, is turned into a boy and later, after being executed in an electric chair, a zombie. It doesn’t matter. The audience never liked him. It is all utterly unnecessary.

The plot buried deep underneath the flamboyant staging is that Jim needs to be saved from the carousel, which is to say, from himself. He is so eager to grow older he removes the lightening rod protection from his home with his mother (figure that one out – he wants her dead, burned no less?). But to round up, everyone, including the nonchalant townspeople strolling by as if not a thing in the world is amiss, needs to be safe from Mr. Dark, powerfully played by Nick Koesters.

Age and wisdom ultimately prevail. Mr. Dark and his horrible minions feed on the fear the mortals in the town. Halloway, played most credibly by the able Rick McVey, puts the Act II on his back and carries it in a 10K uphill soliloquy during which he instructs the audience on everything. Good thing, too, because bewilderment reigns at this point. Dark and his entourage are so scary, it is really difficult to know what their intentions are or how they are ever going to vacate the town square. Evil, yes; but not very aggressive. Jim, Miss Foley and Mr. Halloway are drawn into the menacing carnival world but all escape unscathed. After all, the uninvited guests are wicked which is not necessarily to be equated with evil.

Readers’ Digest . . .

Halloway figures it all out. There’s an antidote for fear. Laughing past the cemetery. Right. Turns out, laughter is the cure. “Where’d you’d put the most recent Readers’ Digest, dear?” Halloway enjoys the last laugh. His son steadies his aim in destroying the Dust Witch, (got to be some symbolism there somewhere) and at 54 he finds he can run with the boys again.

The Horses from the Carousel - Magnificent.

The Horses from the Carousel – Magnificent.

The actors, to a person, turn in excellent performances. The play is a gaudy muddle. Audiences will end up dazzled and confused, reminiscent of an old salesman’s adage, “If you can convince them with logic, baffle them with BS.” The problem with the play could be in the script. Leaving an actor to explain everything in the middle of Act II suggests we are seeing a draft rather than a finished script. None of the characters draw upon the sympathy of the audience. Mr. Halloway is the only character with any depth. No tears of relief are shed in the saving of Jim. No joy in the downfall of Mr. Dark. The plot builds very little tension. Dark and his carnival finally go away. The audience jumps to its feet at the curtain because they have been wowed by the staging. The costumes are amazing. The set, except for the unexplained visage of Felix, the Cat peering over all the proceedings, is fanciful and fun. Richard Rose’s direction seems to dwell on the obvious at the expense of the subtle and the nuanced. If it is loud, then it’s got to be good. Then, again, the script may not have much that lends itself to shading and contrast.

Rose gets credit, however. His Something Wicked This Way Comes manages to be very entertaining and off-the-chart dramatic without being very good drama.

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Cast Overcomes Flawed Script in The Three Musketeers at The Barter Theatre

Monday, September 14th, 2015
John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

The Three Musketeers was presented for the first time ever on Saturday, September 11, 2015 at The Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA. Artistic Director Richard Rose made sure his audience was aware of the occasion in his opening remarks. Over they years, The Barter has many notable successes in presenting dramas that were not originally written for stage. Whether the company will enjoy the same with this play was still somewhat in doubt at the final curtain, although with the audience on its feet for an ovation, all bets are on the side of a good run.

The performances by the cast are uniformly strong. Joseph Matthew Veale is perfect as the young, idealistic D’Artagnan who arrives in Paris with a letter of introduction from his father that will allow him to enlist in the King’s Musketeers. Veale is an energetic presence on stage, thoroughly the young man from the country that he claims to be. His strong voice and athletic moves convince the audience that he will succeed at whatever impossible feats he attempts. He is at a loss for words when he meets the beautiful Constance. Their encounter is delightfully humorous and goes beyond the laughter to reveal a thoroughly believable innocence in D’Artaganan – a point of contrast with almost everyone else in the story, save Constance herself.

The plot gets underway quickly as D’Artagnan’s letter is stolen by the nefarious Rochfort. Rochfort is the strong-arm henchman of arc-villain Cardinal Richelieu. Nick Koester, as Rochfort, is an arrogant, cruel sociopath who takes his orders directly from Richelieu. Koester has the physicality for the role and delivers a flawless performance. Richelieu, meanwhile, is impeccably portrayed by Michael Poisson. Poisson brings a chilling surgical touch to the dark role of Richelieu as he delivers his more vicious lines with rapier precision. His final concession to D’Artagnan is a calculated acceptance of his circumstances, and the audience is left feeling Richelieu is not going away; he may have lost a battle but the war will go on.

The Barter Theater, Abingdon, Virginia

The Barter Theater, Abingdon, Virginia

Nicholas Piper as Monsieur de Treville is also perfectly cast. Piper plays Treville as the politically savvy commander of the Musketeers, a position that must have been as muddied for him as it was for the audience in that the King has soldiers as does the Cardinal, and they are often at odds with each other as well as the musketeers. Yet Treville always seems to know the score even without being entirely sure of where his own men are in the city. His Musketeers respect him, although any one of them could physically get the better of him. It must be the touch of the director, Katy Brown, that Piper, like other major characters, refuses the easily accessible melodramatic reading and chooses a more mater-of-fact delivery that makes his performance credible, perhaps all the more so because it runs counter to audience expectations of swashbuckling histrionics.

Sean Maximo Campos as Athos might bring Johnny Depp to mind for some in the audience. Personal tragedy drives the wily Athos, and Campos delivers as much as any audience has a right to ask in the final but unfortunate scene of the Act I. Porthos and Aramis, competently played by Andrew Hampton Livingston and Justin Tyler Lewis respectively, exchange quick witted repartee with their buddy Athos. Hannah Ingram’s Milady de Winter is a reserved villainess, stealthily in step with the other characters. The audience knows from the onset that she is a really bad lady. Ingram’s confident portrayal never lets the image slip.

Annie Simpson plays Constance Bonacieux, the youthful blond beauty with whom D’Artagnan is smitten. And why not. Simpson is angelic. One of the funniest lines in the show takes place when D’Artagnan falls to his knees proclaiming love to Constance upon first seeing her. Bewildered, Constance looks to her father. “He’s from the country,” her father observes as if it explains everything. The father, by the way, is played by the versatile Zacchaeus Kimbrel. Kimbrel appears in several key roles. His portrayal of the narcissistic, affected King Louis is wonderfully funny.

Derek Smith’s set design captures the darkness of the story line. Not everything turns out OK, after all, as American audiences might like. Sumptuous costume design by Howard Tsvi Kaplan dispels any notion that Musketeers is to be dismissed as mere fantasy.

Richard Rose has pushed the envelope for The Barter several different times during his years as the Artistic Director. The Three Musketeers is another one of his laudable efforts. It remains to be seen, however, whether Rose’s reach has exceeded his company’s grasp. The acting, under the very capable direction of Katy Brown, is superb. Stage combat is seriously dangerous stuff. With the season advancing, perhaps the actors will become more relaxed in the combat scenes. In the first show, however, the action was awkwardly hesitant. Audiences accustomed to cinematic portrayals may find the sword fighting to be noisy, staid and unrealistic.

The Barters Three Musketeers (l to r) Campos, Lewis, Veale and Livingston

The Barters Three Musketeers plus one (l to r) Campos, Lewis, Veale and Livingston

The program does not list a playwright. Katy Brown is named dramaturge. The weakness in the show is not in the acting, the direction, or any of the production qualities. It’s in the script. Without giving the show away, the action in Act I is sustained by the suspense that Richelieu’s plot is going to bring down the queen. The plot is resolved before Act I ends. No tension whatsoever sustains the audience in the final scene of the act which comes off as something thrown in by the playwright to quickly background the audience for the rest of the play. This is where Campos puts Athos through a tortured drunken soliloquy about his own tragic past. Athos’ intoxication as the reason for his disclosure. Drunkenness is a gimmick, in other words, because there is nothing in the story line motivating Athos to confess to anything. The entire scene has the audience wondering where the plot is going next. It’s great acting; but bad drama.

A better script would have placed snippets of Athos’ past history earlier in the act. Milady de Winter should have been handled in the same manner and it would have created more intrigue for her character. Perhaps her fleur de lis branding would be discovered earlier. Other credible means hinting at the relationship between the two could be worked into the script. Curiosity should have been building about these two major characters throughout. As it is now, the justification for the last scene of Act I is not presented until after intermission in Act II. It would have been far better to sustain the suspense of the Cardinal’s plot to discredit the queen through the end of Act I or even beyond and integrate Athos’s tragedy organically into the flow of drama.

As it stands, the drama comes off as two one act plays strung together with the last scene of Act I serving as a lynch pin. Perhaps this weakness in the story line was to be overcome by thrilling sword fights and swashbuckling action. It wasn’t. There is good writing in the script but the basic development of the story is fatally flawed and unworthy of the legendary Dumas. The entire script needs a reworking that it is not likely to get.  It would be challenging task, but if the play has a future at all, the hard work of rewriting is needed to rectify its defects.

Audiences are nevertheless likely to be pleased throughout the current season with The Three Musketeers which is a tribute to The Barter, its production staff, and its company of fine actors.

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My Fair Lady — Uproarishly Fresh and Engaging

Monday, September 15th, 2014
John J. Hohn, Author and Reviewer

John J. Hohn, Author and Reviewer

My Fair Lady, the musical, has been around for years. Several of its songs have become standards. The iconic cast of the 1964 film featuring Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn, Wilfred Hyde-White and Stanley Holloway spring to mind as the standard against which all other performances should be measured. Richard Rose, Artistic Director, demonstrated tremendous confidence in his own company to present the musical, currently playing at The Barter. To succeed, his cast and crew must move its audience away from the ossified half-century mindset and applaud a fresh, invigorated presentation of what Lerner and Lowe envisioned in creating their classic. Rose’s confidence has been rewarded. The staging of My Fair Lady is a tumultuous, uproarious, and eloquent success, easily among the Barter’s finest productions of the last thirty years – the period of time this reviewer has been attending their shows.

To meet the challenge of banishing audience preconceptions, Director John R. Briggs needed overcome the limitations of the somewhat smallish proscenium stage. Choreographer Amanda Aldridge and Dance Captain Hannah Ingram are the power behind Briggs’ efforts. Together they blow away all the physical constraints with dance numbers that all but vault over the heads of the enthralled audience. The dancing is crisp, jubilant and great fun.

Larger Than Life . . .

The Barter Theater, Abingdon, Virginia

The Barter Theater, Abingdon, Virginia

Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s costuming, especially in the dances, explodes with color, making every scene larger than life, an exuberance of skirts, petticoats and bloomers. And for contrast, the actors in the tent scene at Ascot are impeccably posed in formal garb. The play brims with energy and draws the audience into the performance, letting them get joyfully lost in the space on stage, an involvement masterfully sustained by Daniel Ettinger’s sets.

My Fair Lady cast members can sing! Holly Williams, as Eliza Doolittle, brings a sterling clear voice with the strength that convinces listeners that Eliza is, from beginning to end, a powerful woman. She is thoroughly believable. The top of her range is operatic in power and resonance. Rick McVey’s big earthy baritone, whether singing or speaking, is a wonderful match with Eliza. Nick Koesters, as Alfred Doolittle, brings so much energy to “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” that both numbers become show stoppers. Koesters is as good as can be seen anywhere. Koesters, Zacchaeus Kimbrell and Andrew Hampton Livingston, as a trio in “Little Bit of Luck,” blend exquisitely. The auditorium reverberates with their harmony. Justin Tyler-Lewis is a perfect Freddy. He looks the part and his version of “On the Street Where You Live,” is fresh and convincing, to be appreciated especially given the number of schmaltzy renderings by popular artist over the years.

Holly Williams as Eliza in My Fair Lady

Holly Williams as Eliza in My Fair Lady

Director Briggs never forgets that the concept to the play is anything but frivolous. Eliza’s growth from a flower girl eking out a living in the dingy London slums to an elegant, beautiful maiden and the toast to London society is a huge transformation, but only of appearances. Briggs could assume his audience would be full of grey-haired Buick owners who want to be taken in by something breezy and light. George Bernard Shaw, however, wrote the play in part as a satire of the pompous social values of the middle-class and the wealthy. Shaw’s satire with his insistence on the primacy of the human soul remain sturdily in place. Briggs did not allow it to get lost.

Holly Williams turns in a memorable performance. She lovable with a dirty face and adorable all cleaned up. Rich McVey, in what must be one of his best roles ever as Henry Higgins, is a commanding presence. McVey plays the role; not the audience. Higgins’ arrogance is great fodder for humor, but McVey shrewdly gives us the paradox; i.e. that the shallow man has a great deal of depth. McVey’s performance is flawless, both intricate and broad. Intricate in that he pays scrupulous attention to Higgins’ mannerisms and habits; broad, in that Higgins is staunchly self-absorbed and impervious to the reactions of others. Higgins hardly comes off as lovable, yet the audience believes, as Eliza does, that he is – despite how impossible he may be from day to day. As Williams gives us Eliza with a soul, McVey matches her in giving us Higgins without a heart.

A Joy to Watch . . .

Nick Koesters and Cast in "Get Me to the Church on Time"

Nick Koesters and Cast in “Get Me to the Church on Time”

Nick Koesters is a show in himself. His performance with the cast in “Get Me to the Church on Time” is easily one of the best numbers anyone can hope to see anywhere. He is a joy to watch. He sweeps the audience away, brings them to their feet and has them cheering him on. His portrayal of Alfred Doolittle is a new benchmark, perhaps one beyond surpassing.

Michael Poisson . . . har . . . har . . . har  . . . is perfect as Colonel Pickering. Always reliable, Poisson ably fills the middle ground between the pompous Higgins and distressed Eliza. Pickering’s care and concern for Eliza becomes the model for her of what is appropriate and reasonable to expect. As a foil to Higgins, Pickering approximates Shaw’s  ideal wealthy man who acts with respect and feeling for others regardless of their station in life.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Zacchaeus Kimbrell is a very convincing Harry. Musical Director Lee Harris hopefully realizes a good portion of the standing ovation is for him and his partner in the pit, Jerry C. Greene. The pair sounds like six times their number.

(l to r) Michael Poisson, Rick McVey and Holly Williams on stage.

(l to r) Michael Poisson, Rick McVey and Holly Williams on stage.

The program notes state that Shaw wanted Eliza and Higgins to go their separate ways at the end of the play. Director Briggs adopts Alan J. Lerner’s ending. Eliza and Higgins come together in the final scene, leaving the audience to speculate about their future together. The Briggs’ choice to use Lerner’s ending is dreadfully unfortunate as it panders to a fading stereotype with Eliza subserviently presenting Higgins with his slippers as the show draws to a close. The play’s message in 1912 was revolutionary and still relevant today, but the final scene harkens back to the 1950’s of Ozzie and Harriet. Eliza transforms herself, for what? To wait on Higgins who never professes love for her and hardly changes at all in the way he acts toward her.

Shaw’s ending is drama;  Lerner’s, cute entertainment. Briggs  could  have struck  middle ground somewhere and at least ditched the  slippers.

My Fair Lady at The Barter Theater is so exhilarating and lush, however, and scores its points so powerfully that the trite last scene will be the first forgotten. The joy of the show will live in the minds of those who see it for days and days afterwards. My Fair Lady is musical theater at its best. Go see it.

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