Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Driving Miss Daisy at Dukesbay

Southern Comfort

by Michael Dresdner

   L to R: Syra Beth Puett, Malcolm J. West                                         photo by Jason Ganwich

If you are only doing one show in a season it had better be perfect. As luck would have it, this one is.

Driving Miss Daisy is the one and only play of the season for the fledgling Dukesbay Productions in its new quarters in the Merlino building, which also houses the Grand Cinema. Three ideally cast, outstanding actors make this play, directed by Julie Halpin, as good as it gets.

The setting is Atlanta in 1948, a time and place of societal rules and racial divides that dictate every step of the complex dance of social and business life. Daisy Werthern has just wrecked a brand new car, but still objects vehemently when her devoted son, Boolie, insists she stop driving. Daisy is a feisty, opinionated, proud, elegant 72-year-old Southern Jewish widow who wants no help, or interference, from anyone.

Over her objections, Boolie hires a mature black chauffeur named Hoke Coleburn to drive his mother. Hoke is the perfect foil for Daisy; proud, clever, picaresque, gentle, patient, and skilled in the ways servants gently guide their employers. Daisy distrusts him and resents his presence in her house, her car, and her life, but in the face of his deferential charm and almost endless patience, she slowly comes to accept him.

Through a series of short scenes covering the next 25 years, we watch the gradual transition from employee held at arm’s length, to what eventually becomes a deep and trusting friendship. The various scenes are often quite funny, always compelling, and ultimately, deeply moving.

Syra Beth Puett (who is from Alabama and thus comes by her accent honestly) plays Daisy as if the role were written just for her. She has the look, demeanor, attitude, rhythm, and voice down pat, and ages convincingly through the years. She’s so perfect that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing this role at all, much less doing it as well.

The same can be said for Malcolm West as Hoke. He’s got a delightful range of facial expressions paired with the right voice, accent, and demeanor to convince us he’s the real deal; that rara avis of menials whose confident self-respect, innate goodness, and genuine compassion can turn a cantankerous, suspicious, white Southern lady into a true friend.

Rounding out the cast is Robert Geller as Daisy’s adult son Boolie, and though his role is smaller, he turns in the same outstanding performance. He’s completely convincing as the gentle but firm, loving but sensible son who juggles a successful business, his own family, and the frequent demands of his mother.

Dukesbay’s space is perfect for this intimate show. A very wide, but not too deep stage faces just two rows of seats, the second of which is on a riser. Thus, everyone is close enough to hear every whisper and ideally positioned to see each facial expression.

A clever, tri-partite set, which uses lighting for set changes, lets the action take place at Daisy’s home, Boolie’s office, or the car in which Daisy and Hoke spend much of the play. David Wehmhoefer is responsible for both the set and lighting. The right period music (Nic Olson) and well-chosen costumes add their deft touch as well.

If this level of quality is any example of what we can expect from Dukesbay, then we are in for a real treat, and they are a most welcome addition to the South Sound theatre scene.

This is a sort run, so I’m going to urge you in the strongest possible tones to go see it. Yes, it’s that good.

Driving Miss Daisy
November 8 – 23, 2013
Dukesbay Productions

While you are at it, you might also want to check out Alec Clayton's take on this play at:

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Weir at TLT

A man walks into a bar…

by Michael Dresdner

from left: Robert McConkey, Brian Wayne Jansen, David Wright, Ellen Peters and Gabriel McClelland
photo by DK Photography

The best thing about The Weir at Tacoma Little Theatre is that there doesn't appear to be any acting in it. The cast is so good and so comfortable in their roles that instead of being aware of actors on stage, you get the feeling you've wandered, like a fly on the wall, into an Irish pub peopled with a batch of regulars. They sound and behave like familiar Irish barflies, even when their regular laconic routine is altered by one new visitor.

The barman, Brendan, adroitly and seemingly effortlessly played by Robert McConkey, hosts two of his obvious regulars. Jack (David Wright) is an older, salty character who fancies himself much more of a curmudgeon than he actually is. Jim (Brian Wayne Jansen) is a meek man, a blue collar, freelance worker cowed by life itself. They drink and engage in their normal, friendly chatter until Finbar (Gabriel McClelland), a local businessman, brings in an attractive young woman to whom he’s just rented one of his properties.

The presence of Valerie (Ellen Peters) adds a bit of sexual tension, both with the married Finbar and the three single men. She becomes the catalyst for their normal banter to give way to stories, each with some sort of supernatural twist, and each more recent in time than the last. They’re subtle, and could all possibly be explained with logic, though no one goes there. 

Ellen then tells her story, one of deeply personal, very recent pain, and touched only lightly with an eerie tag. It draws real compassion from all the men, and a palpable personal connection for the whole group.

After Finbar and Jim leave, Jack opens up with his own deeply personal story of lost love and missed opportunity, exposing his feelings far more than he normally does in his favorite watering hole. You are left with the sense that they've all opened up to a degree that prevents them from ever returning to their former superficial relationships with one another, and in turn, have permanently accepted Valerie into their circle.

The play was directed by pug [sic] Bujeaud on an absolutely perfect set by Blake R. York, with props by Katelyn Simpson, set dressing and scenic art by Jen Ankrum, and lighting by Michael Christopher. It’s the quintessential Irish pub, at least as we in the states imagine it to be. Costumes by Michele Graves, lighting by Michael Christopher, and subtle sound by Gabe Hacker all added to the realism of the tableau.

I have to admit I would have liked to have seen this in a more intimate, black box setting, but they managed to pull it off superbly even in this fairly large proscenium theatre.

My one bit of advice is to get tickets early. This is a very short run and the night I was there the theatre was packed.   

The Weir  
Nov. 8 to Nov. 17, 2013
Tacoma Little Theatre 

For another opinion, here's Alec Clayton's review of The Weir at his blog:

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Pride and Prejudice at Lakewood

Austen translation 

by Kaitlin & Michael Dresdner

Foreground: Jacob Tice (left) as Mr. Darcy, Tony Onorati (right) as Mr. Bingley      photo by Kate Paterno-Lick

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a novel adapted for the stage will, of necessity, be different than the original. Compacting a literary masterpiece like Pride and Prejudice into a two-and-a-half hour production requires adjustments, which is to be expected. If you are a fan of the 2005 movie version of this literary classic (the one with Keira Knightly,) but thought it needed more comic relief, you’ll probably love the Lakewood Playhouse treatment of Pride and Prejudice. However, if you are a die-hard fan of the original Jane Austen classic, you may be less than amused.

The play revolves around the Bennets, who have five daughters and no sons. Thanks to primogeniture, a distasteful male cousin will inherit their home once their father dies. That encourages their well-intentioned but vulgar mother to drill into her daughters, and anyone else within earshot, the importance of marrying into money and position.

The eldest, Jane, who is beautiful, modest, and so reserved of emotion and speech as to be often misunderstood, falls for wealthy Mr. Bingley, though that pairing is beset by obstacles from his family and the ever-present class imperative of never marrying below one’s station. (To quote a very different movie, where a chauffeur’s daughter falls for the wealthy family scion, “No one poor was ever called democratic for marrying someone rich.”)

The second, equally beautiful daughter, and the true protagonist of the play, is the intelligent, strong-willed Elizabeth. She is at first offended and repelled by ultra-wealthy, aloof, prideful Mr. Darcy, but gradually comes to see him in a very different light as the truth about him slowly trickles in.

The remaining characters fill out the broad palette of this societal tableau. The other daughters range from severely bookish and reticent Mary to unabashedly coquettish and ebullient Lydia. Relatives and acquaintances run the gamut from the imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh and the duplicitous Mr. Wickham to the thoroughly genial Gardiners. It’s a long play (easily two and a half hours,) with an abundance of mimed piano playing and real dancing, but it does eventually wind its way to a generally happy conclusion.

Rules of etiquette of the day made it almost impossible for people to speak frankly with one another, so there’s plenty of room for misunderstanding, privately nursed disappointments, and misguided reactions. That’s a large part of what creates the tension and frustration that drives both this genre and this story.

This version by Hanreddy and Sullivan, and directed by Casi Wilkerson, is substantially different than the original book. At times it seemed as if the story got the Disney treatment, where sour characters, like Mr. Bennet, are made more pleasant and likable, and distasteful archetypes, like Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins, become brassy, comic stereotypes. The vulgarization also extends to the language, which bounces back and forth between classical Victorian English, directly from the novel, and more modern phrases, often mid-sentence.

Steve Tarry’s well-executed Mr. Bennet was indeed more likable than his book persona. Both Shelleigh-Mairi Ferguson as Mrs. Bennet and Paul Richter as Mr. Collins kept the audience laughing out loud with their antic portrayals, and Annie Coleman’s Caroline Bingley almost out-sneered Cruella DeVille. Mind you, these are adaptation and direction choices, and like them or not, they don’t imply poor acting. Still, I doubt Jane Austen would recognize them as her own creations.

Other cast members stayed, in varying degrees, closer to the originals. The leads, Jacob Tice (Mr. Darcy) and Rachael Boyer (Elizabeth Bennet) were both excellent, though their direction had them revealing rather more overt emotion than early 19th century societal mores would have allowed. Some actors, including Tony Onorati as Mr. Bingley, Elena Easley as Jane Bennet, and Christa Knikerbocker as “plain” sister Mary Bennet, managed, in spite of what was going on around them, to turn in excellent portrayals that were also entirely true to their origins. They were a welcome anchor to the original literature and stood out by not standing out. The remainder of the fairly large cast was mostly appropriate and more than decent, providing a reasonable and stable platform for the leads. 

There was no set to speak of, and the sum total of furniture and props consisted almost entirely of a table, a tray, and a mismatched set of chairs. (One wag at intermission insisted there was no scenery because it had all been chewed.) Everything, from the oft-played piano to teacups and letters, was mimed. Even clothing got into the act. In one notable scene, Elizabeth reads a from an imaginary piece of paper and then mimes slipping it into a non-existent pocket on her costume. 

The many major locations and settings in the story were also left to our imagination, abetted by lighting changes (Niclas R. Olsen), rearranged furniture, and the dialog itself. While the minimalism of the scenic design worked well for the space, it may leave those unfamiliar with the story a little puzzled about where they find the characters in a given scene.

Costumes (Frances Rankos), a challenge to be sure, were mostly impressive with occasional gusts of anachronism. If you keep your eyes centered and avoid looking too closely at the hats and shoes, you’ll be fine. Music, consisting largely of necessary piano playing, fitted nicely and was well chosen.   

I’m sure that for many, this is a delightful indulgence; a chance to wallow in the genteel world of the Regency era without wading through the occasionally tedious novel. Pride and Prejudice is perhaps the standard bearer of what Oscar Wilde sneeringly called “the three volume novel,” and like all classics, is something everyone should experience, perhaps more than once. With its upbeat pacing and overt humor, this may be just the version you’d most like indulging in.

Pride and Prejudice
Nov. 8th through Dec. 1st 2013
Lakewood Playhouse