Archive for the ‘Theater and Drama’ 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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Barter Theater Stage II “Driving Miss Daisy” is a Must See!

Sunday, October 19th, 2014
John J. Hohn,Writer and Reviewer

John J. Hohn,Writer and Reviewer

Barter Theater’s Stage II performances of Driving Miss Daisy continue through November 15. Go see the show!. If you have other commitments, cancel them. Driving Miss Daisy at The Barter Stage II is a once in a life time opportunity not to be missed. You may think you know the story from the movie starring Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman and Dan Aykroyd. But there’s no way the two dimensional silver screen, or worse, the flat screen set in the living room regardless of size, can match the intimacy and power of seeing actors at the top of their art perform this amazing play in the round.

Mary Lucy Bivins is a memorable Daisy. As the show opens, she is the consummate woman of her era, the 1950’s, as she is overly concerned about appearances and what others think. A widow, she is near the top of 1950’s Atlanta society, and oddly, uncomfortable in her affluence as she reminds others of her family’s poverty when she was a girl. Her pettiness attests to the rigors of growing up poor. Bivins plays her to perfection. Daisy denies being prejudiced after reeling off a litany of stereotype traits that she finds true of all black people. Daisy equates racism to hatred. Daisy doesn’t hate anyone. Thinking less of people because of their race, however, is another matter entirely in her mind.

The Barter Theater, Abingdon, Virginia

The Barter Theater, Abingdon, Virginia

Daisy’s African-American chauffeur, Hoke, is superbly played by Jasper McGruder. The audience realizes quickly that Hoke, though illiterate, is smarter and wiser than Daisy. He accepts her stubborn rejection of his services and her slights until she finally relents and allows him to help her. When Daisy discovers Hoke can’t read, she reciprocates by helping him master the skill. The common ground between Hoke and Daisy is struck more profoundly when they discover together that the temple has been bombed. Daisy does not want to believe it. Hoke, however, recognizes her victim-hood as something in common with his own. He has dealt with hatred all of his life.

Bivins is superb. She presents Daisy with all of her mannerisms, speech patterns, and nervous tics. The result is a toughly credible and moving performance. Daisy is the last of a vanishing breed, the pampered, sheltered woman of the house. Her role is enabled by her son Boolie who, despite his frustrations with his mother, looks after her dutifully. The height of Bevin’s performance is reached when, late in the play, she slips mentally back into time and frets painfully about disappointing her students. Her anguish is wrenching. Older audience members feel compelled to reach out to her and comfort her. Her fears and crushing remorse over imagined failings become a vision of what could lie ahead to the dreaded of all seniors. Hoke, rather than coddling Daisy as she has been most of her life, appeals to the woman’s stronger core and demands that she snap out of it.

McGruder is every bit the match to Bivin’s Daisy. Steady, patient, kind and selfless, Hoke takes charge of Daisy welfare. He plays Hoke with a strong, quiet dignity and becomes a commanding presence on the stage. Theater in the round is the perfect venue for an actor of McGruder refined skills. I sat within three feet of his performance. Everything about the actor – his eyes, his posture, his tone of voice, and his gestures – were thoroughly Hoke, clearly a man of generous spirit and hard-earned wisdom. Hoke is no Uncle Tom. He may acquiesce on trivial matters, but he staunchly defends his rights, his values and his prerogatives on matters affecting his dignity and pride.

Mary Lucy Bevins and Jasper McGruder as Miss Daisy and Hoke

Mary Lucy Bevins and Jasper McGruder as Miss Daisy and Hoke

Director Richard Rose puts the story of the relationship between the black man Hoke and the white Jewish widow Daisy on a precarious line in many respects. A fragility in the balance keeps the audience enthralled. At one point, the message seems to be that love needs to be protected by convention. How else account for Hoke’s devotion to Daisy and Daisy’s late-in-life delight with his company? As long as both know their place, then affection and care is possible. Surely, however, Playwright Author Alfred Uhry is not suggesting that social boundaries need to be respected in order for caring friendship to flourish. His message is more subtle, and Rose captured it by calling for restraint in his cast’s performances. The script could open itself up to thigh-slapping humor and serious social indictment, but Rose avoids these excesses and the show is much the better for it.

The message of Driving Miss Daisy is that love is always possible, despite differences in background, social standing, religious convictions, or race. It is possible when patience and understanding take a hand and little is at stake except the appreciation of another human being for who he or she happens to be.

Lighting Designer Camille Davis makes the stage seem many times larger than actual. Derek Smith’s set design hints at the vanishing Victorian era in architecture, thoroughly fitting given Daisy’s slow decline as her vitality fades with age. All of the actors age convincing, almost painfully in the case of Daisy and Hoke, as the play progresses – an achievement that the make-up artists backstage and costume designer Lee Alexander Martin deserve recognition.

This review was initially posted on the web site of bookpleasures.com, Norm Golden’s wonderful web site that provides exposure to self-published authors.

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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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Marilyn Monroe — Icon: The Life, Times and Movies of Marilyn Monroe

Thursday, April 17th, 2014
John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

Marilyn Monroe died on August 5, 1962, yet she has remained alive in the minds and hearts of people throughout the world ever since. While 600 books have been published about the actress, Gary Vitacco-Robles’ biography, Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, is a prodigious achievement that easily relegates the efforts of all others to obscurity.

Meticulously research, Vitacco-Robles digs for all the details; i.e. Marilyn’s attire, choices in reading, housekeeping habits — the minutia that is part of her day-to-day existence. The result is that the reader experiences Monroe almost as if she draws breath, steps out of the pages, comes into the house and sits down to chat.

With a sturdy, straightforward prose style, the author takes a balanced, compassionate approach to his subject. He begins with Ms. Monroe’s great-grandparents and traces her lineage through her out-of-wedlock birth to a mother who was hospitalized off and on throughout her life due to mental illness. Marilyn is shunted from household to household as a child. By the time she attains age 16, she is a ward of no less than 12 different caretakers. The impact of being abandoned, rejected, and abused is beyond calibrating.

Gary Vitacco-Robles, Author

Gary Vitacco-Robles, Author

Vitacco-Robles, a psychotherapist, reports objectively about the damage done Marilyn during her nightmarish childhood. About one of Marilyn’s early successes, he writes:

The little girl who had never been told she was pretty and who bathed in the dirty water left behind by others, now commanded attention. There was no turning back.

At another critical point in the text, he observes:

Marilyn compensated for her lack of parental support by endearing herself to motherly and fatherly figures who could help her attain her dream of becoming an actress . . . Acting had now become more a religious calling to Marilyn, and like spirituality, it provided her with purpose and meaning. 

Marilyn Monroe, Actress

Marilyn Monroe, Actress

The author offers clear insights as Marilyn matures and confronts her demons. He avoids the jargon of his profession and debunks many of the unsubstantiated claims of others. Marilyn, it turns out, did go into psychoanalysis very intensively at one time. In addition, she began working with Lee Strasberg in Actor’s Studio where she was required to delve deeply into her own emotional past to give power to her performances. She eventually gives up on her therapy sessions because she decides that they are not good for her. Strasberg and his wife, however, nurture her through her strongest film achievements.

The book is filled with quotes from the greatest stage and screen actors and directors of the era who testify to Marilyn’s power and sensitive delivery in her roles. She was, and often still is, seen only as a dumb blond, a sex symbol, but the author breaks through this stereotyping to depict Marilyn Monroe as an incomparable artist.

The author reminds his readers of the prevailing cultural values of the times. These references provide a backdrop of relevance to his subject’s struggles and triumphs. He presents a synopsis of all of the films in which Marilyn appeared, even those in which she had bit parts, and for good measure provides much more detail on each in an addendum. He takes the time to draw poignant thumbnail bios on many Hollywood personalities – actors, directors, producers, hairdressers, coaches – helping readers viscerally grasp the impact of Marilyn’s interactions with the people around her.

The book takes Marilyn’s story up to 1956, a year in which she goes over the top and finally achieves the recognition her hard work and extraordinary talent have earned. The author reports on Marilyn’s three marriages, giving a studied, objective view into each. Her first marriage to James Dougherty was arranged by her legal guardian when she was only 16 years of age. He abandoned her for the merchant marine. Then along came Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper, who was physically abusive, controlling, and jealous. The reader is treated to a good dose of adolescent behavior on the part of DiMaggio and Sinatra as the latter goads the ballplayer into breaking into an apartment one night where they expect to find Marilyn in bed with another. The author adds credence to his reports by using the testimony of friends close to Marilyn in writing about such incidents.

Nitpicking, the text is nearly flawless except in the handling of some proper names. Bennett Cerf is correct; not Bennett Cert. Bob Fosse; not Fob Fosse. And finally, is Miller’s home on “Goldmine Road” or “Gladmine Road?”

This review covers only volume one which ends with the marriage between Arthur Miller and Ms. Monroe, an event that surprised many at the time but makes perfectly good sense once those unacquainted with both parties grow to know them better. The second volume, according to the publisher, is due out at the end of the summer, 2014. Vitacco-Robles has written a monumental, definitive work on one of greatest actresses and enduring public personalities of all time. The next volume will carry Marilyn’s story forward to her untimely death in 1962. Readers have every right to expect that the same balanced, compassionate treatment will follow the actress through to what ultimately must be viewed as a horrible tragedy.

This review was initially written for and published in bookpleasures.com.

Thanks for visiting my web site. While you are here, I invite you to look through some of the previous posts and the other pages of the site. My novel Deadly Portfolio: A Killing in Hedge Funds, is available in the Kindle version through Amazon for $1.99. Watch for the sequel to it, Blood Lots, which is due out sometime this summer.

 

Duryea: The Movies — An Exquisitely Presented Book from BearManor Media

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

 

 

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

Duryea: The Movies, by Joseph Fusco, is another beautifully produced book by BearManor Media. The publisher presents books that are thoroughly researched and brimming with documentation including news articles, vintage photos and advertizing. Like so many other volumes from BearManor, Duryea: The Movies not only makes for an engaging first read but will serve the cinema aficionado as an excellent reference work that earns its own shelf pace in the viewing room.

The book opens with a brief biography. Duryea was not part of the volatile Hollywood scene at any time during his career. Or as Fusco writes,

The irony of Duryea’s career is that the man who created a roster of scoundrels, connivers, murderers and thieves was actually a mild man who enjoyed a fulfilling home life and a marriage that lasted thirty-six years and produced two sons.

Fusco traces Duryea’s career from the very beginnings with his bit parts in movies produced in the 1930’s, through his rise to stardom and top billing in 1950’s, and the roles in the 1960’s that featured his talents in strong supporting roles. During those years, Duryea appeared with all the legendary greats including Charles Laughton, Edgar G. Robinson, James Stewart, Gregory

Peck, Gary Cooper, James Mason, Jane Russell and Barbara Stanwick, to name only a few. Never memorable for yelling in the streets of New Orleans, as Brando did, or cursing the crew from the helm, as Laughton did, Duryea characterized himself as a “bread and butter” actor. His physical assets included a broadly handsome face, especially winning when he smiled; a distinctive reedy baritone voice, and a physical stature that blended into any scene without upstaging anyone. Fusco cites the actor’s genius lay in his ability to create a wide range of portrayals without ever abandoning his own natural if somewhat limited emotional range as an actor.

Author Fusco divides the book into sections based upon the time period and the prevailing popular themes of the day. Everyone of Duryea’s movies is discussed in the book with a very well written, concise synopsis that includes commentary on all theDuryea: The Movies – Book Cover

Duryea: The Movies - Book Cover

Duryea: The Movies – Book Cover

members of the cast and often the director and producer as well. The author delivers a balanced, thoughtful review of each

production. Readers will benefit from recalling the movies as Fusco discusses them. In fact, using the book as a guide to choose

movies on DVD would greatly enhance the viewing experience.

Fusco is an excellent writer and critic. In a paragraph devoted to Peter Lorre to illustrate, the author writes,

He was diminutive, with a reptiles tortured face and eyes that popped with he spoke. . . . In the movie, he is an obscene piece of putty in a tuxedo.

At a time when research is a snap because of the internet, a book like Duryea: The Movies reminds the reader that research need not be a clinical pursuit of the facts but a full and rewarding reading experience; a pleasure in itself, in other words, when presented as thoughtfully and artistically as Joseph Fusco does with BearManor Media publishers.

Link to Amazon listing: http://www.amazon.com/Dan-Duryea-Movies-Joseph-Fusco/dp/1593937377/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1392813491&sr=1-1&keywords=duryea+the+movies

Thanks for visiting my web site. While you are here, I invite you to look through the other pages or perhaps check on some earlier post. All comments are appreciated. Please use the comment area below. Deadly Portfolio: A Killing in Hedge Funds is currently available in paperback and Kindle. Kindle is just $1.99. Thanks. – John

 

 

Fredric March: A Consummate Actor by Charles Tranberg — Reviewed by John J. Hohn

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013
John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

#fredricmarch #cinema #thebestyearsofourlives

Charles Tranberg’s biography, Fredric March: A Consummate Actor, belongs in the library of every fan of theater and film in America. Tranberg’s masterful work follows March’s career from his Wisconsin boyhood through to his final triumphant appearance as Harry Hope in The Iceman Cometh released by 20th Century Fox in October, 1973. March was a man of the era and grouped among the many stars who, according to the author, “. . . excelled on both stage and screen.”

March, born Frederick McIntyre Bickle on August 31, 1897, showed an early interest in the stage. Graduating from the University of Wisconsin and after a short stint in the military, March moved to New York in the summer of 1920 to take a job in banking. Fate interrupted his corporate training in the form of an attack of acute appendicitis. During his convalescence, March realized he wanted above all else to be an actor.

Appearing alternately in Denver and New York, his big break came in the role of Tony Cavendish in The Royal Family by George S. Kaufman an Edna Ferber. Based loosely on the Barrymore family, Cavendish is modeled after John Barrymore. March’s imitation delighted the senior actor and for a time the character became a  near alter ego for March. The role followed March into films when he appeared few years later as Norman Maine in A Star is Born. David Thomson, David O. Selznick’s biographer, described March’s performance in the film as “the most compelling thing in the film.” The Judy Garland/James Mason production may be the most widely remembered, but critics praise March’s performance as more subtle and compelling that Mason’s.

MV5BMTk1NTAxNzg3Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjU4OTQwNw@@._V1_SX214_Tranberg’s book is extremely well researched. The author reproduces the text of letters, reviews, newspaper articles and the memoirs of peers and the author to track the March’s life from starting on stage to becoming a dominate presence in films. Tranberg is careful to let March’s peers fill in the picture of the actor. The book reads like who’s-who of the era with quotes from the best and brightest of the artists of the time.

March breaks into movies as silent films give way to “talkies,” where his stage training serves him well. For all of his casualness in front of the camera, Tranberg cites repeatedly how diligently March researched his roles, studied his parts, and paid passionate attention to the slightest details. The actor knew his own weaknesses and admonished his directors to keep him from “hamming it up.” As a result, his performances were consistently praised as polished, subtle, suggestive, and restrained.

Tranberg is an accomplished writer. Fredric March: A Consummate Actor gains momentum as the central character’s career expands and the roles become more demanding. Readers may want to watch March’s movies again given the details the book provides about the actor’s preparation, direction and execution.

Big Break . . .

March’s big break comes when he appears in the 1932 release of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The film is a box office success. Tranberg pays attention to the technical challenges—no computers anywhere in sight—in making the film, not the least of which is the on-screen terrifying transformation of Jekyll into Hyde.

Fredric March: A Consummate Actor -- Book Cover

Fredric March: A Consummate Actor — Book Cover

The transition from a refined, charitable doctor into a craven rapist-murderer is a curious clue to a side of March’s own personality that is mentioned again and again in the book by those knew the actor well. March, it turns out, was a groper and a womanizer, yet when his wife Florence was around he was a different man, as the author quotes Elia Kazan, “’Freddie was a child who couldn’t keep his fingers out of the cookie jar.’ When Florence did come over for a visit, March, as usual, became ‘another person.’” His wife tolerated his behavior, although it must have mystified some that a man capable of exquisite sensitivity on stage could be so disrespectful and invasive of the dignity of the women with whom he worked. With Florence, however, he was very protective, often lobbying to get her parts and promoting favorable reactions to her performances. Elia Kazan wrote of the couple, “I’d find, as I came to know him, that one of his pleasures was to be naughty and have Florence—his surrogate mother—chide him, ‘Now Freddie.’” Tranberg assiduously avoids commenting as the author on why March behaves as he does and never speculates about the formation of March’s personal character or the psychological forces that drive him.

Telling of the decades during which March worked are the contentious issues of censorship and blacklisting. During this dismal chapter in the industry, March is labeled a communist by irresponsible journalists, an allegation he forcefully denies. March and his wife were citizens of the world and thoughtful in articulating their liberal views. March ultimately won a retraction, but the rumor mill and vigilante press created a climate in which the author states that “it would be several more years before he (March) would be reestablished in motion pictures—mostly in leading character roles.”

Successes on Stage . . .

In addition to The Ice Man Cometh, March’s performances include many classics such as The Best Years of Our Lives, Seven Days in May, and Inherit the Wind. Tranberg rightfully spells out March’s successes on stage also. It is regrettable that all that is left of his performances are the rave reviews.

MV5BNTU0MTQyNjQ5Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMTI2NTk4._V1_SX148_CR0,0,148,200_Tranberg writes in a conversational style that is easy to read. The attention to detail the author demonstrates in his research, however, does not carry over to his copy editor who failed to catch a number of glitches in the text.. The cast list for the 1935 release of Les Miserables, for example, has Charles Laughton as Valjean, whereas Laughton played Javert. At another point, describing March’s USO travels, the copy reads “. . . a special command performance for the Shah—with whom March also played tennis with . . .” In another passage, the text reads “March said that the retraction gave he and Florence great satisfaction. . ..” A few other typographical errors appear in the quoted passages.

These blemishes, however, do not detract from the depth of the author’s presentation. Aptly titled, Fredric March: A Consummate Actor is a beautifully crafted history of a legendary actor and of the entertainment industry during his lifetime.

This review was initially published in a somewhat shorter form on bookpleasures.com. Thanks for visiting my web site. Please feel free to look through the other pages of my site. I invite you to comment in the area below about any of the content.

Barter Theater Stage II Presentation of “The Gin Game” — A Review

Friday, July 5th, 2013

John J. Hohn, Author

Perhaps a member of the audience needs to be at least 70 years old to realize that Director Eugene Wolfe missed the point of D. L. Coburn’s award winning play, “The Gin Game,” as it is currently being presented at The Barter Theater Stage II. Wolf  failed to grasp that he had three actors on stage, not two. The third actor, a presence really, is behind the door to the card room and is heard at times only in garbled gibberish, the way several voices all speaking at once sound at a distance.

The presence behind the door consists of the other residents of the elderly care home who are described as “glassy eyed” aged folks who babble meaninglessly and complain constantly about their health. The two principals in the play, Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey escape this tedious company by retreating to the card room—the room where nobody else ever goes. They do not want to be numbered among “intellectually and emotionally dead.”

A Virtuoso Performance

Mary Lucy Bivins delivers a virtuoso performance as Fonsia Dorsey, a 71 year old divorcee. Her portrayal is powerful, poignant and exquisitely nuanced. Too bad her director did not inspire the same level of artistry from her partner on stage, Richard Rose, who plays the aging and angry Weller Martin. Martin still seems eager to triumph somehow in life, even if it is in a game of cards. He is angry. In fact, that is about all the audience sees of Martin—anger, loud competitive anger. As an actor, surely Rose’s range is more expansive than what he projects. Anger can be expressed without yelling,after all, often in ways that are more terrifying.

Unlike Bivins, little in Rose’s portrayal shows that Martin is aware that his real antagonist lurks behind the door in the form of diminished capacity, pampers, and loss of identity. The blame for undershooting the role lies at the feet of Director Wolfe.

Martin and Dorsey are opponents at cards. Wolfe has them making the most predictable choices. They  fight each other for all the laughter it might produce. But the audience laughs at them, not with them. Weller and Martin, in turn, rant against the fate of their fellow residents, but never register a sympathetic note, nor dread, nor concern. They make it clear that they never want to be included among the other residents, but never give a hint of how threatened they may feel.

Failures as a Part of Us

Both Weller and Martin have regrets. Neither lived an apparently fulfilling life. Both are broke and on welfare. Both withhold the truth from the other in an effort to preserve their dignity. They confess their failures only when they recognize that by owning them they triumph for one more day over the ignominy of becoming non-persons in their dotage. Our failures are part of us, after all.

Martin induces Fonsia to play one more round of gin, ostensibly to give him a chance to eventually win. But the underlying reason in dealing the deck once more is to extend their unacknowledged conspiracy to push against the verdict in time when one or the other will be forced to join the unaware in the adjacent room. When Martin finally wins a hand, he accuses Fonsia of handing him the victory. She denies it, of course, but winning for Martin ends a quest. He abandons Fonsia, opens the door and  loses himself among the garbled voices beyond it. His departure leaves the audience guessing as to whether he departs because he is angry at Fonsia or because he knows that the victory he is being denied is winning at life.

Anger is a secondary emotion. Something always seethes beneath it. Perhaps in Martin’s case, it’s a storm of denial because sees the onset of his diminished competence which his losses at gin make obvious. Perhaps it’s fear because he knows he is losing control of himself. We never find out. In his bombast slams the door on any insight to what is really bothering him..

Dorsey’s final line, “Oh no.” is not that her partner has given up the card game in anger. Her dismay, rather, is as much for Martin as it is for herself because she knows that he has surrendered to his fate in joining the mindless souls in the room beyond, leaving her, cards or no cards, to fend for herself and alone. Bivins delivers the line perfectly. But her grief is lost on the audience because the her fear and Martin’s of the third presence is never brought to light under Wolfe’s direction. The audience, in fact, does not realize that the play ends with Dorsey’s anguished cry. It takes bringing up the house lights to let them know that the show is over.

The play is a must see if only to witness Bivin’s performance. Others may play Fonsia as well, but none will ever better her in the role.  She is memorable.

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Barter Theater Performance of “October, Before I Was Born” — Reviewed by John J. Hohn

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

John J. Hohn, Reviewer

The play October, Before I was Born, a gritty drama directed by Mary Lucy Blevins, takes place on October 4, 1960 with the explosion at the Aniline Building at the Tennessee Eastman Company complex. Conveniently, the television is disabled at Martha Matthews’ residence, which program notes tell the audience is a home supported by blue collar wages. The telephone, that marvel of the past century, is a holdover from the World War II era of party lines, which makes it impossible to place an emergency call. The audience gets it, quickly. This family, with the lives of loved ones at stake, has no way of knowing whether those closest to them have survived what the radio announcer, before he signed off, described as a holocaust.

Anne, portrayed by Ashley Compos, is seven months pregnant and was attending her baby shower when the shock waves from the explosion ended her party and wiped out half the town as well. She was rushed to her mother-in-law’s home which is also home to Houston, a convicted killer, who is on the lam sucking up whatever mom and dad can hand out, a position that fails somehow to restrain him from coming on to his brother’s wife in the midst of her distress. Martha, the mother-in-law, played by Tricia Matthews, is a durable country woman who holds her own in life because of the coping strategies she learned growing up as a coal miner’s daughter. She avoids. Her own husband may be a victim in the explosion, but she chooses instead to focus on Ann’s toe nail polish. “Strength and courage,” she proclaims, as the answer to Anne’s distress as well as her own in dealing with the long wait to find out whether their husbands are going to come home on both feet or in a box.

Here, the script fails. “Strength and courage!” Really? Think about it. Courage without strength is foolhardy. Strength without courage is a waste. Perhaps there is room somewhere in this redemptive formula for perspective beyond a fatalistic stoicism. “You can do this!” Martha encourages Anne as they head out the door for the delivery room. Anne is already in labor, and nobody doubts that she can see things through because, face it folks, she has no other choice.

Houston, the son, is played by Nicholas Piper who treats his role with a casualness that belies his character’s own history. The audience needs to be told that he is a killer and capable of spontaneous, uncontrollable rage. Nothing in Piper’s performance demonstrates this side of the man’s nature. The play takes place in the back country of Tennessee. Piper and the cast play it as if they were on the set to Happy Days, all scrubbed up and running errands for one another. Director Blevins missed the depravity of Houston’s attempt at seducing his brother’s wife. She missed the wife’s repugnance at his advance. Houston, his mother proclaims, failed to complete anything that he had attempted. Yet she treats him with an enabling tolerance that hardly seems in keeping with her awareness that getting from one day to the next requires toughness of spirit.

While Houston strolls about the set, fetching sodas and making sandwiches, the play is really about two women in the story. Anne should have been transformed from a whining narcissistic adolescent into a woman finally capable of facing life with the responsibilities that her mother-in-law sets in front of her. Martha, the mother, grimly aware from her childhood of how grief stalks her hard scrabble existence, should have shown her avoidance strategies collapsing into the terror of facing life without her husband. Both actors’ performances fell short of the mark. Anne’s insistence, “I can’t do this,” is treated as humor as it is obvious that, big as a house, she is going to have a baby. The challenge in the line was go beyond the humor to the desperation in the denial and the awakening in the character that none of us can have life as we want it.

Martha’s hopeful description of how life as usual will resume again when her husband returns home fails to convey how she, as the rest of us do, avoids thinking about the threats to our happiness by hiding in the mundane and predictable events of our daily lives. The challenge was to let the audience know that, regardless of how ordinary our lives are, every day is more special for never letting the awareness of that precariousness to drift completely out of mind.

This play skimmed the surface of what was, admittedly, a contrived script but it could have been powerful if the characters had realized the depths of the playwright’s intentions. For good reason, audiences are not often asked to sit through a 90 minute one-act play—that one act being all the longer for pauses that had the audience wondering if the professionals on stage had forgotten their lines. Regrettably, the gutsy script dissolved into sentimental slush under Director Blevins. It will probably be well attended and pass along in the history of The Barter Theater of one of its less notable productions.

Anticipating Mitigates Against Being in the Moment

Sunday, April 1st, 2012
Photo of Greg Hohn, Guest Contributor

Greg Hohn, Tranasactors Director and Guest Contributor

I haven’t exactly ignored what my son, Greg Hohn, has been doing in his theatrical and academic work over the past several years. I have been to several performances of Transactors, and I accepted an invitation to sit in on two of his classes, but I never expected that the work he was doing would have so many parallels in other fields, or life itself for that matter, until I began reading his articles. Well, it is Sunday, and he is back with another wonderful piece  about being in the moment in human relations and communication. Don’t anticipate that because it appears to be about improvisational theater that it doesn’t have much broader implications.  (as I did for a long time.)

Don’t Anticipate… REACT!

Expecting is the greatest impediment to living. In anticipation of tomorrow, it loses today. -Seneca

Our society seems to regard anticipation as a very valuable and necessary skill. Everyone seems to want to anticipate what’s going to happen or they’re ready to excoriate someone else for not anticipating something. I’m a fan of planning but not so fond of anticipation. Allow me to explain the slight but important difference between the two.

Planning is preparing for some future event. It is achieving a state of readiness for whatever may come. Part of planning is anticipating the range of possibilities that may arise. This foreseeing may be based on facts, experience, intuition, or blind luck and it’s an important facet of getting ready. Once an event—whether it’s a performance, meeting, conversation, or what-have-you—begins, anticipation loses its value and can indeed become a hazard.

There are a couple of improv exercises that illustrate well the drawbacks of anticipation. One is a mirroring game in which two people try to move together as one, alternating and sharing the roles of leader and follower. Another is an echoing exercise in which a speaker’s words are repeated as s/he says them by the listener(s). In each case, I can tell when followers and listeners are anticipating because they make really big mistakes.

Taking People Out of What is Happening

What anticipation is doing in these instances is taking people out of what is actually happening and into what they think is going to happen. They’re responding to their thoughts and not to the moment. This is not where you want to go, regardless of whether you’re an improv performer, a business leader, or a trial attorney.

A ‘real life’ example of the dangers of anticipation is one all too familiar to almost all of us. You’re having a conversation (or what passes for one) and doing the no-fun job of listening to the other person. It’s no fun because it’s much more fun to say your thing. So this other person is three words into her sentence and suddenly you’re thinking about what you’re going to say next. Been there?

Suddenly, at best, you’re only listening to a fraction of what a person is saying, which is kind of lonely and not very nice. At worst, you’re totally misunderstanding them. They may have sounded like they were going one way with their point when in fact they’re going another direction entirely. That’s no good and it gets worse as the stakes of the encounter rise. (more…)