Hamlet (Review)

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This year’s Shakespearean installment at First Presbyterian Theater in downtown Fort Wayne features an all-female cast that presents The Bard’s famous vengeful son in a truly refreshing manner.  Readers are probably familiar with the highly publicized footnote that men and boys were the only performers before-, during-, and shortly after Shakespearean-era theater.  Thus, what can any cast–five hundred years after Shakespeare’s death–do to breathe new life into this story of vengeance?  While this highly talented troupe of Hamlet remains true to the Elizabethan era language, the performance simultaneously serves as an appealing alternative to those familiar with the tragedy and as a progressive introduction to Shakespeare for any young audience member.  

I’ll spare you the synopsis for two clear reasons: You either know the play (probably from high school or college), or you don’t know the play.  Members from both of these camps should catch this two-week running because Shakespeare’s words and plotlines have a proclivity to offer more to an audience each and every time. This performance can be a fantastic opportunity to ease the uninitiated into the pinnacle of the classic tragedies.  For those who know the text but have yet to see it performed live, there may not be a better opportunity to have “See a Shakespearean play” struck from a bucket list.  Lastly, for those who have seen a film version, read the play, or viewed a mixed-gender live performance, please note that it is likely that this female cast will still impress and provide something different than ever before.  

Halee Bandt exhibits great range in emotion and presence as young Prince Hamlet from the opening sequence to the final critical moments.  Her masterful handling of multiple dense monologues establishes her among the elite performers to grace this historic stage.  Fort Wayne theater veteran Kate Black excels as Claudius, whose staunchy presence builds the required, obvious tension throughout each scene.  Nancy Kartholl, who recently appeared in Faith Healer as Grace, thrives as Polonius, whose protection of his daughter and whose loyalty to the king serves as a recurring battle with the title character.   Returning to the stage after a decade-long hiatus is June Rambo, whose performance of right-hand-man Horatio was among the most noteworthy of this large cast.  Additionally, newcomer Izzy Chilian proves she belongs in the theater with her impressive secondary role as the prince’s love interest Ophelia. Kira Downey, an admitted fan of Shakespeare, astounds as the Ghost.  Her passion for Shakespeare’s language is apparent and her performance arrests the audience in each of her scenes.  Finally of note, the roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are executed quite well by Tala Munsterman and Marissa Steiber, respectively.  The remaining actors of this outstanding twenty-member cast all serve as worthwhile catalysts throughout the play.  

Directed by Thom Hofrichter, Hamlet might be just what American society needs in 2018.  While it may be too soon to state that the play is experiencing a coast-to-coast resurgence, the themes within it could not be more relevant.   In his director’s notes, Hofrichter suggests there may be more to the opening line “Who’s there?” than just the curiosity of a soldier who is not sure if he’s just seen the spirit of a recently deceased king.  The play has existential undertones and guides audiences to find a part of themselves in Hamlet.   The oft-quoted reflection monologue (“To be or not to be…”) potentially encapsulates a second level of self-identity and self-worth when performed by a female.  

Not to be overlooked with this performance is the costume design of Jeanette Walsh.  Through an atypical, erratic pattern, each character’s clothes work well to suggest a profound sense of individuality–a theme that has always been apparent in this play but is even more so in this production.  IPFW theater professor John O’Connell lends his deep resumé as fight director.  Additionally, Rae Surface returns as the technical director and appears as two separate characters.   

This sturdy ensemble cast carries with it the shadows of generations of women who, it stands to reason, were unsung heroes on some level in society.  This direct challenge of theater traditions, especially with the expectations that accompany any of Shakespeare’s titles, sends a clear message that those traditions must stay in the past.  It further serves as a vivid reminder of what had to happen over the past several centuries for the public to have access to Shakespeare’s work performed by a cast of females who range from middle-school aged young ladies to seasoned stage veteran performers.  

 

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(2018) Review of Red – Performed at the First Presbyterian Theater (Ft. Wayne, IN)

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Local Acting Mainstays Want ‘To Make You Think’

The new year at First Presbyterian Theater begins with a riveting performance of John Logan’s 2010 Tony Award-winning play Red.  This two-week stint at the venue features a duo of remarkable actors: Thom Hofrichter and Kevin Torwelle.  Hofrichter also co-directs this play with Chance Parker.  

Readers will no doubt recall the first of these two performers.  Co-starring as prolific American artist Mark Rothko, Hofrichter has been directing and organizing the FPT for twenty-one years.  Torwelle, a nine-year acting veteran, plays Rothko’s fictional young assistant Ken as Rothko prepares his largest and priciest commission for The Four Seasons restaurant in New York City in the late 1950s.  

Audience members may not immediately recognize the name Mark Rothko unless they have been involved in the study of American painting.  This review is not going to be a lesson on Rothko, but a slight understanding of his work and legacy can be useful artillery for those who attend this outstanding drama.  Regardless of your familiarity with Rothko, his contemporaries, or art history in general, the teacher-student dynamic swarms the stage from beginning to end.  

In under ninety minutes and with no intermission, Hofrichter and Torwelle successfully challenge a bevy of themes and aspects of human nature.  It’s irrelevant that the assistant’s character of Ken is fictitious because he is clearly representative of Rothko’s friends, fans, critics, and his subconscious.   Rothko, at this point in his life, had already enjoyed success and was one of the few artists who could live comfortably solely on the income his artistic work provided.  Thus, he has evolved from a “starving artist” to a “hardened artist” who is contemplating what future generations will consider to be his legacy.  Hofrichter’s performance surges throughout the play in this mentality.  Among the early remarks he makes to his new assistant is that art must have “tragedy in every brushstroke,” which embodies the artist and the performance.  Hofrichter exhibits Rothko as a pained and uncomfortable human being who has no interest in being anyone’s father, teacher, mentor, or friend.  

Torwelle counters as Rothko’s fictional foil.  His character’s mental growth and confidence blossom with each scene, leading up to the culminating discourse of their final moment together.  

Through five scenes, the play covers two years of time between artist and assistant.  The on-stage action is woven into the drama beautifully, but the powerful, inspiring language is what sets the trajectory for these monumental final few minutes.  

“What do you see?” Rothko asks Ken at the outset.  It becomes suddenly obvious that he’s not just talking to the young, enthusiastic artist who cannot believe he’s being hired to work with the living legend.  The question, it turns out, is for the audience to consider as well.  Rothko’s character further drops poignant takes such as “You cannot be an artist until you’re civilized!” and “That’s business, not art!” Torwelle’s Ken, however, emerges from the verbal assaults received early on and eventually matures into Rothko’s sparring partner about life, art, and philosophy.  

Later, in a visibly active moment between the two, they discuss the power of color and the connotations we build for the entire spectrum.  The assistant’s torrid past eventually unfolds and brings new depth to their relationship.  These elements are no doubt why the play won a Tony; however, the directors’ notes point out that some viewers “see this play as an impenetrable wall of philosophy.”  Thus, we return to the central question—What do you see?–but now with an emphasis not on the first word, but rather the third.  

Co-directing with Hofrichter is recent IPFW graduate Chance Parker.  He directed Ballad 423 and 424, and he has been a performer and stage manager in his young, promising career.  In the spring, he will direct the final show of the 2017-2018 season at FPT.  

Jeanette Walsh returns as costume designer.  In a play about artists, Walsh pieces together a perfect visual rendition of each character’s personality and mentality.  

Rae Surface and Sheila O’Rourke re the technical director and dresser/backstage crew respectively.  Austin Berger, who recently performed in last autumn’s Faith Healer is the stage manager and board operator.

One of the most tempting opportunities I had with this review was simply to write the words “Go see this play” a few hundred times.  Each of the moments spent viewing the action and dialogue between these two performers will remind anyone of the significance of being a mentor, a student, a teacher, a trainee, or anything in that realm.  

Paste Magazine’s Top 50 Albums of 2017

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Here are my quick takes on this year’s list (a slow work in progress)

Here’s Paste Magazine’s list, in case you want to read how professional reviews are written instead of what’s below.

#50 – #46:

#50 – JD McPherson- Undivided Heart and Soul.   I’m going with “upbeat modern rockabilly”. It’s not at all like modern country, but there’s a tinge of down-homeiness going on here.  

#49 – Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer – Not Dark Yet.  This sister folk duo surprised me with the light lyricism and superb musicality.  A great listen to kick back to on a night at home!

#48 – Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings – Matter of Time.  I started off my treadmill action in 2018 with this beauty this morning.   Jones excels again with this record filled with positive vibes in a turbulent time in the US.   I highly recommend checking out this one when you need a boppy pick-me-up!

#47 – Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights – I’m a sucker for soft-toned female singer-songwriters.  If that’s sexist, I’m sorry.  I’m among the newest Julien Baker fans, however, after listening to this gorgeous album.  There are suggestions that this album is about the ending of a relationship, but I also caught a glimpse of satisfaction and renewal intertwined in the lyrics.

#46 – Weaves – Wide Open.  This one didn’t really grab me, even though it had all the normal pre-requisites to be right up my alley:  A Canadian band with some boisterous lyrics and heavy guitars.  I’m glad I gave it a shot, but this album felt too teeny-boppy (hints of early Weezer and Oasis come to mind) for my taste.  Perhaps I was just in the wrong mood when I listened.

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#45 – Wand – Plum.  This….was interesting.  There were 2-3 intentional lulls of sound that acted as preludes to a tune.  Some of the songs were catchy and probably become more tolerable with consequent listens.  I wasn’t hooked, but there were some bright spots along the way.

#44 – Sallie Ford – Soul Sick.  This is overall some easy-going, boot-tapping, gritty rock.  There is some dark imagery and lyricism, but there are other very moments where the upbeat tempo gets me outta my seat and bounce around the room.

#43 – David Bazan –  Care.  I did about five minutes of research, but I couldn’t place where I know this voice.  I was very confident it was on a soundtrack from the late 2000s–possibly starring Zach Braff or Jason Bateman.  Anyway, I can see this type of singer-songwriter on those sorts of higher-budget indie films about 30-40 year-old men going through some type of crisis.  This pinpointed identity may not appeal to all readers, but rest assured, Bazan’s album is still worth the listen.   

A Christmas Carol (Review)

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Imagine.  

This one word is a direct order from the cast of this new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic holiday tale A Christmas Carol from author Jack Cantey.  The seven-member cast, who begin by introducing themselves with their real name and their various parts (I’ll get to that), request that the audience imagine the scenery, the setting, and the situation.  

Of course, it is highly likely that anyone reading this is also familiar with the Dickens story that tackles greed and benevolence as the life of Ebenezer Scrooge is examined through the past, present, and future. Thus, it becomes a challenge for any adaptation to stand out unless it has with it some clever artistic liberties.

It was Dickens’ language that thrilled Cantey as he prepared this script, although he notes that the actors were without an “established, unchanging text” prior to this premiere run.  The inventiveness of this new adaptation calls for less attention to elaborate stage design and costume changes and much more focus toward pinpointing the essence and key phrasings from Dickens’ original tale.  It should be noted that Sophia Young’s set is exquisitely designed for Cantey’s vision. The stage suggests a frosty winterscape along with a projected yellow image at the top-center that will play its own small role throughout the performance.  

With a small cast of seven, some familiar characters from the original version and/or popular adaptations are dropped.  This stripped-down script still includes the chief characters (Scrooge, Fred, Tiny Tim, and the Ghosts just to name a few) in order to create the required dynamics of the heartwarming tale.  Through the use of scene-introducing voiceovers coupled with the occasional inclusion of a live narrator, Cantey’s adaptation contains a limited amount of lengthy monologues.  

The seven-member cast is chock full of locally grown talent.  Because various scenes from Scrooge’s life are presented, each of the four male members of the cast play a version of the infamous penny-pincher. Simultaneously, each of the three female cast members successfully complement these scenes through strong renditions of multiple significant characters.   

FPT veteran Scott McMeen, while playing the eldest Scrooge, captures the essence of the burdened man in the counting-house and convincingly exhibits the likeable man who redeems himself with his remaining family.  Rachel Dostal’s dynamic Ghost of Christmas Past and loveable Tiny Tim characters serve as the adhesive to this compacted adaptation.

Billy Hofman takes on a younger Scrooge, Old Joe, and Fezziwig, who again serves as crowd favorite. Kyle Nelson, who recently performed in An American Lynching: The Emmet Till Story in Indianapolis, excels as Bob Cratchit throughout the play, but his six other roles are not to be dismissed. Kendallville native Allison Brandgard serves as the Movement Director as well as six total characters–most notably as Belle and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.  The overall choreography of this performance led by Ms. Brandgard is among its best features. Ashley Shewman shows off her advanced acting chops with performances as Fred Scrooge and Belle, but her strongest presence is as Mrs. Cratchit.  Lastly, Fort Wayne’s own Dalen West does an extraordinary job in his laundry list of roles, including a very humorous man-child who is summoned to purchase some poultry.  As The Reader throughout the play, West further provides textual notes that serve audience members young and old.  

Christina Connelly, the Assistant Director, also reads the voiceovers.  These short lines occur at the beginning of each scene and work quite well as a short preview to the forthcoming action.   Jeanette Walsh’s costumes are predominantly simplistic blacks and whites, which evoke a subtle nod to common oppositions found in all art: life vs. death and good vs. evil.  The technical director is Rae Surface, who has loved being involved with FPT during this, her first season.

Even though Cantey admits he was hesitant to write this adaptation along with FPT’s Managing Artistic Director Thom Hofrichter because so many adaptations exist, he states in his program notes that both of them wanted to tell this holiday tale “in a fresh way.”

This fresh approach is immediately apparent as the entire cast hauntingly discusses a recent death during the opening scene.  Over the next ninety minutes, the audience is whisked away through the pages of the famous author while a visually aesthetic experience unfolds before them.  Through the use of creative staging, lighting, and puppetry, Cantey has created a stirring, modern take on the classic tale.

 

Review of “Faith Healer” 

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This is my first published review.  It appeared in the October 11, 2017 issue of “Whatzup” in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  I want to thank my colleague Kevin Smith for recommending me and helping me have this opportunity!

For decades Hollywood movies and romance novels have leaned on consumers’ unwavering desire to be entertained without the nuisance of actually thinking. They apply formulaic plot lines and rarely add little more than a short-term distraction with no real substance. Conversely, live theater audiences flock to their seats because they expect to be entertained and to gain perspective. If you prefer the latter of these two groups, you will not be disappointed if you see Faith Healer, currently running in the lower-level theater of First Presbyterian Church.

At some point in life, many people may internally or externally debate whether or not faith ever really means anything or actually has any real impact. These and other questions of the soul and of our existence–and more directly how our faith in others affects each of us–are presented in this performance, which runs until October 21 in downtown Fort Wayne.  

In a drama that also deeply explores issues such as Truth and Shame, Thom Hofrichter’s 2017-2018 season directorial debut at the historic First Presbyterian Theater shifts internally and examines many of life’s toughest questions. Hofrichter chose this drama rather selfishly, he admits in his director’s notes, because he has been a long-time admirer of the language and themes of Irish playwright Brien Friel’s introspective, soul-examining play. Theatergoers are in for a monologue-driven wallop starring three seasoned First Prez veterans.

The three main characters each recall multiple events they experienced together while travelling through Wales, Scotland, and Ireland from the late 1950s to the late 1970s.  

FPT mainstay Austin Berger leads off this performance as Francis Hardy, a likeable but heavily flawed man who has spent his adult life examining his own existence and abilities through decades of performing a one-man travelling exhibition as a self-described “Faith Healer.” Because there is nary a scene where multiple characters interact, Francis (”Frank”) begins this tale by revealing what could very well be his truest self more to a non-existent listener than he apparently ever did to the two people who devoted their lives to him. It is only when the other two characters later present their stories that the audience begins to question if anything he’s said so far is true.  

Co-star Nancy Kartholl, whose FPT resume includes highly esteemed roles such as Vivian Bearing from WIT and Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello,  exquisitely performs the rather tainted and unrefined Grace Hardy. Going against the wishes of her father, she chose a life with Frank, who, when they met, seemed to be her life’s missing puzzle piece. Ironically, Grace, clearly jarred by the events recalled during her lengthy monologue, exhibits anything but what her name might indicate. Kartholl arrests the stage as she achingly dispels information that Frank had either conveniently omitted, forgotten, or perhaps did not actually occur whatsoever. Enter: the audience’s aforementioned role in deciphering the Truth.

The third member of this tragic-laden threesome is Teddy, Frank’s manager, played by a visibly (intentionally) shaken Daniel Bulau. Previous audiences of FPT might recall his stirring performance as the lovable Herman in On Golden Pond. In this role, Bulau’s Teddy, the lone American character of the trio, appears to offer an air of authority at first, but his natural ability as an entertainment manager to rake in naive customers through fast talk and quirky, sage witticisms becomes more and more obvious, forcing the audience to sort out which character has been the most truthful as they have now all recounted contradictory details of the same general memories.

In the final scene Berger as Frank returns as the final witness in this case where the audience is judge and jury. Though omitted here for obvious reasons, trust that some surprises and key insights are in store for the audience who should be thirsty by that point for a satisfying explanation.  

By the way, a subtitle I considered for this review was “In Vino Veritas” because the use of- and memories shared about alcohol adds an arguably unsavory but tremendous function in the audience’s goal in filtering out the truth from each character’s recollections.  

As for the additional production team, it is of note that Jeanette Walsh’s costume designs subtly and cleverly depict what each character has come to be at given points in time. Coupled with the these costume choices, the simple set functions quite nicely for such a series of four dense soliloquies. According to the production notes, Rae Surface (technical director) is no stranger to Fort Wayne theater but is fairly new to First Prez, and the light and sound operator-slash-stage manager is Associate Pastor for Children Bill Lane.  

This play demands your attention and patience. Audiences are bound to have varying opinions of what really happened among these three characters, but that’s among the powerful effects of live theater. In two two-scene acts, this performance lasts a little more than two hours, including one ten-minute intermission.  

“Find the Bad Guy” – Jeffrey Eugenides (2013)

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Finally got around to reading this story from The New Yorker from almost a year ago!  He’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite contemporary writers!

Don’t read any more of this short analysis without reading the story yourself.  For example…here ya go.  Click the following words

“Find the Bad Guy” by Jeffrey Eugenides

Hey!  You’re back!  If you’re really wise, upon finishing this essay, you’ll seek out a couple more reviews and perhaps decide to write one  yourself.  That is, of course, unless you are Jeffrey Eugenides.  (If you are he…Hey, buddy!)

Okay.  I’d like to talk briefly about two elements of this story that stood out.  Prior to this story, my experience with this author was zilch, unless you count watching the movie The Switch dozens of times late at night with my wife.  Charlie D. is, hold on now, a rather likable guy.  Sure, he made a poor decision during a booze-induced, wife’s-outta-town depressive state.  Who hasn’t?  Seriously, though, let’s step down from our high horses for a few and evaluate the guy.

The guy is a jokester who loves his kids and tries to love his wife.  He’s very good at measuring distances with his eyes, but that talent was superseded by his inability to properly read a temporary restraining order.  There’s no doubt that the relationship with the babysitter should not have progressed in the manner that it did; Charlie seems filled with regret when thinking of that version of himself.  It’s a deal-breaking event, but he’s slowly returned to civilized behavior.

The fire pit, on the other hand, is a wonderful symbol.  Throughout the story, we learn its varying value to the key players–it’s a wasteland to his wife, a sanctuary for Charlie, and a rite of passage for the sitter.  For anyone who has experience with doomed relationships, the situations here become (ahem) close to home.

Poem Review: David R. Slavitt’s “Titanic”

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Titanic

Who does not love the Titanic?

If they sold passage tomorrow for that same crossing,

who would not buy?

To go down…We all go down, mostly

alone. But with crowds of people, friends, servants,

well fed, with music, with lights!Ah!

And the world, shocked, mourns, as it ought to do

and almost never does. There will be the books and movies

to remind our grandchildren who we were

and how we died, and give them a good cry.

Not so bad, after all. The cold

water is anesthetic and very quick.

The cries on all sides must be a comfort.

We all go: only a few, first class.


Wining and Dying:  An Analysis of “Titanic”

Approximately twenty years ago, many people turned their attention toward the infamous Titanic disaster.  Hollywood created a film based on the event, and interest grew in the minds of children and adults.  About ten years prior to that, David R. Slavitt published his poem “Titanic” that suggests a less popular philosophical notion.  This poem, while reminding a general audience of a tragic event, posits that humans would be inclined to knowingly die on a ship such as the Titanic and meet a similar fate.  In short, his speaker declares, there does not seem to be a more exciting and rapid method of inevitable death.

“Who does not love the Titanic?” opens this poem.  The speaker begins casually, as if beginning a conversation over coffee.  Before the end of the opening stanza, a hypothetical situation is stated.  Should people be offered to board the ship bound for certain peril, our speaker believes only logical thinking individuals would take that opportunity.  Later, the speaker reminds us—rather directly and grisly—that “[w]e all go down, mostly/alone.”  Immediately afterward, though, he reminds us that the elegance of the ship cannot be duplicated anywhere else in the world.  This notion continues throughout the poem.  While a vast majority of people do not get to decide their own method of death, the speaker is suggesting a utopian demise.

To further his case, the speaker offers predictions of the aftermath of this hypothetical death.  While it seems obvious any given person would like to be remembered or honored upon their death, the speaker takes it a bit further.  He states that the world would be “shocked” and that “books and movies” would “remind our grandchildren who we were/and how we died, and give them a good cry.”  This brutally honest vision of a deceased observing those left behind, it seems fair to say, is something the speaker believes is universal.  What, he might be saying, is the point of living if no one will remember anything we did?

To finish the dismal view of death, the speaker reminds us that perishing in the cold waters of after a ship crashes into an iceberg.  If one must die, should not the rapidity be an appealing factor?  The line “The cries on all sides must be a comfort” might disturb a reader, but it does offer a vision that makes death a little easier to accept.  The final line, as it should, summarizes this speaker’s perspective.  “We all go” could not be more direct and obvious.  “[O]nly a few, first-class” is perhaps his advice to the reader.  Death is inevitable, so why not enjoy it?  It seems like the obvious choice.

Slavitt’s poem touches on the popularity of the Titanic and the unpopularity of death.  Poets have long evaluated this final moment of life and have, for centuries, suggested advice or commentary on our mortality.  Slavitt’s angle is refreshing and deceivingly persuasive.  No one who ever reads this poem or this analysis will escape death.  Thus, if given the opportunity, we would most likely like to die in an elegant manner and be remembered generations afterward.