“The Gospel According to…” – A Review (2018)

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The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and the Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord (by Scott Carter)

A growing amount of the modern forms of entertainment lack that aspect that art and theater typically target and thrive upon: the demand for mental interaction and the inherent intuition on the part of the viewer or reader.  When Scott Carter was penning this impossible interaction between three of the world’s most famous and influential thinkers, he must have remembered that greatness comes from loss and mistakes; that it is also born out of perseverance and drive; and, perhaps most significantly, greatness stems from an absolute addiction to seeking and examining potential answers to the most cryptic questions of this world, regardless of the era in which one lives.

Luckily for theatergoers of First Presbyterian Theater’s final show of the 2017-2018 season, these cryptic questions are the crux of the exchange between Thomas Jefferson (d. 1826), Charles Dickens (d. 1870), and Count Leo Tolstoy (d. 1910).  Each man enters a solemn room with his most recent memory being the moment he died. Once they learn one another’s identity and general attitude toward religion and philosophy, the story shoots off in a flurry of intellectual perspectives mixed with light-hearted humor.  

Scott McMeen returns to this stage as Jefferson and provides an optimistic performance as the former president and framer of the Constitution.  This season, he warmed our souls as Ebenezer Scrooge in the modern take on A Christmas Carol.  Here, McMeen rations the widely accepted and respectable historic view of Jefferson with an introspective glance at a man whose morals on paper were, perhaps, not as sound in reality.  

Brian Enrnsberger treats us to a confident and quite humorously pompous version of Charles Dickens. While Ernsberger has performed with FPT and other Fort Wayne theaters in the past, his return to the Summit City stage fills a six-year void.  With occassional quips to “his” own works throughout the discourse among all three men, Ernsberger successfully captures the often-exaggerated aloofness of the British author.

Rounding out this tremendous trio, Thom Hofrichter enters as Count–but don’t call him that!–Leo Tolstoy.  With his convincing Russian accent, Hofricter exhibits his passion for language, philosophy, and religion in convincing fashion.  This play brings an end to Hofrichter’s twenty-first year with the theater as its Managing Artistic Director.

The story examines some of the most controversial issues of mankind, but the title is indictative of the premise of how each man had at one point in his life rewritten the opening four books of the New Testament.  The arc of this after-life summit of great thinkers examines how each man from his generation and region contemplated the biblical text and specific passages. Citations to exact verses are identified, but when some disparity and disagreement evolves, the action of the play ignites.  These men are humans after all, so even in death they find themselves desiring to be heard, wanting to be right, and verbally sparring over their points of view.

Director Chance Parker suggests that the play takes each character “on a journey through essential questions pertaining to life, truth, and faith in every meaning of the word.”   Parker, a recent graduate from IPFW, co-directed this season’s Red with Hofrichter.

Jeannie Pendleton’s resume in costume design is deep and respectable, and she brought her talents to this cast and performance.  Each character is not only distinctive in reputation and language, but each man’s clothing represents another facet of his personality and perspective.  

Rae Surface and Austin Berger return to FPT for this performance with positions as technical director/set designer and light board operator, respectively.  Surface’s simplistic set is suggestive of a cleared mind in the after-life. Though the props are minimal, they function appropriately throughout this dialogue-heavy performance.  

Bill Lane is the projection designer and operator, and Sara Ihrie–a freshman at Snider High School–returns to the sound board after a successful stint in the same position for the theater’s previous play, Hamlet.

One does not need to have a deep understanding or experience with each of these men’s accomplishments or publications for the story and its themes to resonate.  The universality of the themes shines through in each scene. Upon its conclusion, audiences are all but forced to contemplate the same issues for themselves and how the shared points of view apply to their surroundings.  This serves as a formidable end to another outstanding season from the various casts and crews who work tirelessly at the First Presbyterian Theater.

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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.