Monday, January 28, 2013

Pit and Balcony's "God of Carnage" snortingly funny

From left, Erica Tatum, Bill Federspiel, Erinn Holm and Dave Ryan (on his cell phone) in "God of Carnage"

review and photos by janet i. martineau

Beat line in  the show at Pit and Balcony’s “God of Carnage” production: “Puking seems to have perked you up.”

Simply written and read here it does not seem all that funny, right? But coming out of the mouth of actor Bill Federspiel with all the sarcasm his voice can muster, and following what has just transpired on the stage, it is snorting funny. So funny you can easily slip into a giggling fit.

Which is to say, this comedy of bad manners -- translated into English by Christopher Hampton from the French original by Yasmina Reza -- is hilarious and hits close to the bone on behavior we’ve all been guilty of displaying,

The storyline: The son of Annette and Alan (Erinn Holm and Dave Ryan) has, in a school fight, knocked out the two front teeth of the son of Veronica and Michael (Erica Tatum and Federspiel).

Erinn Holm in a fit of barfing
Both couples are well to do, and are meeting at the tony home of Veronica and Michael, at their invitation, to try and work things out in a civil discourse. It all starts out well, but rapidly decays into a battle of wills which grows funnier and funnier and even more physical.

And it’s not just the one couple against the other either. The spouses often turn on each other. Nor it is just about the school fight and missing teeth -- in fact, it rarely is.

Brilliantly written, an innocent comment or physical action early on in the play will crop up later in another guise. Everything, even a word, is a prop. Among them: tulips, a cell phone and a land line, rum, a hamster, a picture frame, a blow dryer, names of endearment the two couples have for each other, a queasy stomach, superhero heroes, a purse.

The cell phone and land line are particularly funny. Ryan’s character is an attorney who is constantly answering his cellphone for long-winded business calls -- increasingly annoying the other three and even the audience (a wonderful lesson the play delivers are the rude use  of cell phones).

As for the land line -- second funniest dialog of the show. The mother of Federspiel’s character calls frequently on it over medical problems. At one point in the show, when the two couples are going at it full tilt, it rings, Federspiel goes over to it, grabs the receiver in anger and barks into it, “Who the fuck is this! (pause) Oh, hello mother.”

While the script is a gold mine of lines and situations, it needs a cast who can deliver it with the body English and voice inflections required. Fine line between character and caricature. And it needs a director to keep it interesting since it is a one-set, conversational piece that runs 90 minutes without an intermission.

All four actors are delightful -- delivering characters we can love and hate at the same time, flawed ones but human too. They work as one, making it an ensemble piece, and their comedic (or anger) timing is spot on.

And director Robin Devereaux-Nelson keeps them moving -- often with false moves to leave by the visiting couple or another trip to the bar.

Another plus of the show is its gorgeous set designed by Suzy Reid and lavishly furnished. Not sure if it was intentional or not, but the couple whose son lost his teeth (supposedly the good couple),sit in red chairs while that bad couple with the loutish son occupy a black sofa.

 Whatever the case, fun fun fun show. And listen closely...Ryan will explain its title.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Saginaw Choral Society's Broadway Showcase tickles the funnybone

review and photos by janet i. martineau

Feathers flew on Saturday during the Saginaw Choral Society’s annual Members’ Showcase....and artistic director/conductor Glen Thomas Rideout made good use of it!

When last year the choral society announced it was no longer going to do this program after nearly a decade, many of us were heartbroken. Thankfully cooler heads prevailed and it returned this year with a program titled “The Bright Lights of Broadway.”

Suellen Estes in "To Keep My Love Alive"
Perfect theme .. who does not love Broadway show tunes. And into that mix of the usual heart-tuggers like “On My Own” from “Les Miserables,” “Hello Young Lovers” from “The King and I” and “Make Them Hear You” from “Ragtime” -- all of them beautifully performed by, in order, Kathleen Scott. Mary Walk and Ah Templo! -- the members got silly with their selections.

Wonderfully silly.

Not all Broadway show tunes are serious.....they spew venom, arrogance and jealousy too, as well as an ode sung by a woman to her many, many husbands. So it was that laughter filled the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church on Saturday (and hopefully Sunday with the second performance).

Alto Suellen Estes was a woman dressed in red (boa included) and rings galore, oozing of high class wealth and with hilarious vocal and facial inflections, to sing of an odd collection of husbands who met their early.demise in “To Keep My Love Alive” from”A Connecticut Yankee.”

A few of her boa’s feathers fell to the floor in the process -- which was early on in the program. 

Tenor Jim Smerdon, dressed to the hilt as the arrogant “Very Model of a Modern Major-General” from “The Pirates of Penzance.” entered from the back of the sanctuary, harassed partons along the way and then barked at the chorus. He always showcases such wonderful acting skills.

Sopranos Kathy Bocade and Cole uglied up as much as they could to sing “Stepsisters’ Lament” from “Cinderella,” with lots of jealous inflections, as the beautiful prince and Cinderella danced before them.

And alto Betty Mayor and baritone Matt Zielke got in each others face in “What Is This Feeling” from “Wicked.” Starts out sounding like they love each other then gets more and more full of bitter dislike.

Robert Hart, who always delivers a flute solo at these affairs, served up a surprise with incidental music from “Death of a Salesman.” Who knew? And he served it up with dialogue from the drama.

Betty Mayer, Matt Zielke in  "What Is This Feeling"
Later he and his daughter, Catherine Hart, teamed up on the title tune from “Beauty and the Beast.” This also has become a hallmark of these annual showcases -- children joining their parents.

Another highlight was soprano Nancy Stevenson dressing up like Carol Burnett’s charwoman to sing “Broadway Baby” from “‘Follies.” Gosh she has a beautiful voice.

We cannot list the entire performance crew -- there were 21 numbers in all. And sorry, more serious singers, that  you are being slighted. Suffice it to say it was a totally satisfying program.

Besides, we have to leave room for the dessert reception/kitchen crew -- from which we caught hell Saturday since apparently last year we did not mention them. 

Part of the Members’ Showcase tradition is a HUGE dessert buffet for patrons. Enough good stuff prepared or brought by choral society and church members that you could feed all of China. Bravo to marshaling it crew.

Oh, and that opening graph reference to Glen Thomas and the fact Estes lost some of her boa feathers. Well, at some point he must have picked up one of them somehow -- or plucked one from her -- because he used it in his closing comments to issue an invitation to the next choral society concert in its season of a “Colors” theme.

(More photos from the concert are on the Arts Saginaw Facebook page.)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Bay City Players "And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little" offers fine performances

Denyse Clayton,  left, and Cathie Stewart

review and photos by janet i. martineau

Remember that old Bette Davis line “hang on, it’s going to be a bumpy ride”?

Well, it certainly applies to the play “And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little,” which opened Friday at the Bay City Players.

We have no idea what playwright Paul Zindel was trying to say in this 1967-penned dark comedy, let alone make sense of its ending.

But what an evening spent with three dysfunctional sisters who finally get on each others last nerve and let it all hang out -- along with an intrusion by a neighbor couple with issues of their own..

Oooh the anger, the bitterness, the jealousies, the grudges, the long-simmering thoughts, the habits that annoy...they all bubble to the surface when snooty and estranged Ceil (played by Jessica Booth of Saginaw) returns to the family home in hopes of convincing Catherine (Debbie Lake of Saginaw) to commit their deranged and super vegetarian sister  Anna (Cathie Stewart of Midland).

All three are educators -- teacher, assistant principal, superintendent -- as is the wife (a guidance counselor) of the neighbor couple. So much of the humor in the script comes from their careers (in particular from Catherine, a stickler for proper usage of words).

Much fun fodder is provided by Anna’s zealous vegetarian bent and abhorrence of anything made from animal skins. Catherine serves up the most outrageous of meals, with full commentary,  all the while snacking from a box of chocolates which is not what it advertises. The shared humor of what the audience knows but not all the other characters know is very much a part of the fun.

Thee also are a couple of reallllly sick stories told within the script (and yes, we were laughing at them’s that kind of play).

And then there is this gun ....

While we wish director Susan Meade had created a show with a little more energy and movement overall, there is no denying her cast rises to its part in the process.

Stewart in particular delivers a wonderful performance as a woman on the edge, maybe even in the middle of, a nervous breakdown. Her face is an ever-changing array of twisted expressions. In a flash she goes from relatively calm to a screaming rage. She is unkempt  and always in pajamas. Wonderful performance and a stretch for Stewart in her acting career, the demands of which she reaches.

From left, Debbie Lake, Cathie Stewart and Jessica Booth
Lake is the title character. 

Driven to distraction by living with her mad sister, both of them damaged goods thanks to their mom who has recently died, and to Catherine’s own deep unhappiness due to Ceil, she hits the drink pretty hard throughout the show.  -- but oddly never really acts tipsy. 

What Lake does act, however, is the inner rage that boils like a tea pot as the day progresses and the sarcasm in her voice is delightful. She also can get pretty red hot angry.

Booth has the straight man role, in a sense. She is the uptight and upscale sister who has been gone from Catherine’s and Anna’s life and who, by her reappearance, opens the long-festering wounds and is usually the brunt of the verbal barrage. But from start to finish Booth maintains that aloofness, making her the character we love to hate.

Things kick into high gear when Fleur and Bob Stein (Denyse Clayton Midland and Tom Osborne of Auburn) arrive from the neighboring apartment -- all dressed up and with tons of skeletons rattling in their closet which are set loose.

Clayton is spot on as always, playing a woman with a large ego that barely hides her insecurity, And Osborne, gone too long from the local theater scene, is a top notch  as a jerk of a businessman, a crude and bullying human being with the sharpest tongue of all. But worry not, the sisters will prevail.

All of the cast members also deliver top-notch diction and projection -- a growing rarity. And they also sport body language and voice inflections that further sell their characters.

The set is gorgeous, and food real -- even a drink blended on stage.

So make of it what you will, its script and message. Maybe is just meant as a dark comedy. Perhaps instead it is saying we all are a little bit mad, have skeletons hiding in our closet, let the past too much influence the present, are as dysfunctional as the next person -- and that a little bit of humor can help us with all that. Or maybe a good stiff drink.

Dunno. Weird show but fun.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Midland's "Avenue Q" delivers abundant laughs with irreverent puppets

review by janet i. martineau

“Avenue Q.”


Not sure what is the most delightful about this Midland Center for the Arts production -- watching the superb work of its ensemble cast or listening to the deep, deep laughs of the audience enjoying the musical’s irreverent lines and songs.
Whatever the case, this show is a must see if you can adjust to the idea that nothing is sacred and that puppets can enjoy enthusiastic sex. That the song titles include “It Sucks To Be Me,” “The Internet Is for Porn” and “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” That you can adjust to the fact this is a puppet show for adults.

Besides, beneath all those dirty laughs is a musical soooo full of heart and insight into the human pathos; a musical that sends you out the door feeling a little bit better about life and its fine, fine lines.

What is remarkable too is how director Bill Anderson Jr. leads his cast of 12 not only into a strong (and diction perfect) delivery of lines and songs but also into being attached (9 of them) to and manipulating hand puppets who are supposedly saying the lines and singing the songs. The audience can plainly see both the faces of the actors and the faces of the puppets...which will they, should they be drawn to?

And then, just to further complicate things, a couple of the puppets need a second handler -- one who says nothing but moves in sync with the speaking actor, so close together there is no room between them. What must that feel like as an actor?

Adam Gardener as Rod, a character with identity issues, is the most accomplished of the puppet people. He and his puppet are, from get go, one and the same. He also manages to just slightly hide himself behind his puppet so it becomes the most real.

But then there are Kyle Bagnall as Nicky, Rod’s roommate, and Stephen Fort as Trekkie Monster, who create voices that are unreal and thus add another element. There is Marci Rogers as Lucy the Slut, whose pole dance body language matches that of her puppet’s. Kate Fort and Katie Hicks as the two tiny Bad Idea Bears who hover like spaceships and act as one.

Cara Baker has one of the non-puppet roles -- a Caucasian actress cast as an Asian woman named Christmas Eve, with Asian accent and body movements right on. And Stephanie Mattos cast as (yes) Gary Coleman, convincingly playing a male and with some of the best lines which she delivers with a perfect touch.

Heidi Bethune is a heart-breaker as Kate Monster, seeking love in her life and hoping to set up a private school for monsters. And Andew Southwell is the perfect sadsack as Princeton, a recent college grad with no job and no purpose in life.

The answer is, as least for this person, we watch both the puppets and their human actors...taking both in some of the time, somehow, and at other times focusing on just the puppet or just the human. What fun.

Matching Anderson’s excellent direction is Kelli Jolly’s choreography that has this cast gliding across the floor like robo devices, always in motion but smoothly and naturally.

The set is a two-sided Avenue Q series of apartments, some of them reversable to show interiors. Bravo to Anderson who directs them to move QUICKLY (mostly by the cast members) and without a stop in the action (unlike a recent show in Midland in which the set changes labored).

The action also includes video footage that is great fun...and at one point three cardboard boxes sing as humans manipulate them.

FYI to those who attend shows running the next two weekends -- when the cast comes into the audience and hats are passed during “The Money Song,” they are taking up a real collection of money to donate to the producers of “Sesame Street.” So get your money out because, as the musical states, it feels good to give.

Monday, January 14, 2013

SVSU theater students win big at Kennedy Center regional festival

by janet i. martineau

Three theater students from Saginaw Valley State University won top honors during last week’s five-day Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Region 3 Festival which took place at SVSU.

And one of them, though three rounds of acting competition, bested 248 other actors to win one of the two prestigious regional Irene Ryan Acting Scholarships awarded at the festival. 

Rusty Myers, a theatre major from Breckenridge, received the Irene Ryan by performing scenes and a monologue lasting three, five and six minutes as the rounds progressed. Myers’ partner in presenting the scenes was Lexee Longwell, a theatre major from Howell.  
Rusty Myers in "Strange Snow"

A senior at SVSU, Myers has amassed a long list of acting credits at the school -- among them the brutish Stanley in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the boozy professor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” the angry Vietnam vet in “Strange Snow” and the Hairy Man in “Wiley and the Hairy Man.”

Said Myers of the award, “This is a high  watermark in my career and something that will most likely spring board me into something far greater than I ever imagined for myself.”

Cameron Thorp, a theater major from Vassar, took first place for his prop design, and Mara Berton, a theater major from Howell,  was honored for her excellence in stage management -- both for their work in the SVSU production of “Buried Child.”

Myers, Thorp and Berton will advance to the national Kennedy Center festival in Washington, D.C., in April.

The regional Irene Ryan win earned Myers $500 in scholarship money, and his regional win is a first for SVSU. At the nationals, the two Irene Ryan winners will each receive a $2,500 scholarship.

Cameron Thorp and prop display
“It is immediately going to give these students connections to industry insiders,” said SVSU associate professor of theater Ric Roberts of the trip to D.C.. “Many casting directors and agents are on hand at the finals because they want to meet the top theater students in country. 

“These students are going to be exposed to people that, under ordinary circumstances, would take many years of auditioning in New York to get exposed to. Basically, they’re jumping ahead two or three years in their careers.”

Roberts also lauded Isaac Wood, an SVSU  freshman theater major from Flint, who with his partner Mykaela Hopps of Bay City made it to the final round of the Irene Ryan Award Acting Scholarship competition.

“Making it to finals in your freshman year is almost unheard of,” Roberts said.

The weeklong festival at SVSU brought more than 1,200 theater students from 67 colleges and universities in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin and included full-length productions of six plays.