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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

1917



Released:  December 25, 2019.


Running Time:  1 hour, 59 minutes.

Rated:  R for violence, disturbing images, and language

And now for something completely different.

For the first time, Theater Colorado is reviewing a film, namely 1917, the World War I story nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and the winner of 3 Oscars (Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects);

I’m adding 1917 to the mix here because my theater reviews will be sporadic.  Movies are much more accessible to a large audience, and I’d like to reach more readers with relevant content on Theater Colorado.

*****

I grew up in an era of World War II movies, featuring mostly patriotic themes and glamorizing war.  John Wayne was in most of the ones I remember; Back to Bataan, Flying Leathernecks, and the like.  The Americans were the brave heroes; the Germans and Japanese were the bad guys.  Violence was more implicit than explicit. 

World War I films have been fairly rare in my experience, with the possible exception of
Warhorse (2011).  1917 is not just one of those rare films about the “war to end all wars”, but, in my view, the most realistic and important war film since Saving Private Ryan.  

The first 30 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s 1998 Saving Private Ryan may still be the most disturbing combat footage ever. It is a graphic demonstration of the chaos of war and random, instantaneous death in battle.  Until seeing Saving Private Ryan, I had harbored a glorified vision of combat.  Spielberg showed us an ugly reality that I will never forget.  1917 is not just 30 minutes, but nearly two hours of intense, disturbing, edge of your seat combat.  It will haunt me just as Saving Private Ryan has.


As the film opens, we get a long shot of a peaceful meadow.  The camera zooms back from the meadow, and we meet two Lance Corporals, known best by their last names, Blake (played by Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George Mackay).  They are ordered to report to their commander for orders, where they are tasked with a suicide mission.  They are to cross enemy lines through “no man’s land” to warn other British units to call off an attack planned for the next day.  British intelligence has learned that the German army laid a trap for the1,600 attacking soldiers.  The attack will be a massacre.  No one really thinks Blake and Schofield will survive the first 10 yards, much less complete the mission, but they somewhat reluctantly follow their orders.  Blake, we learn, has been picked for the mission because his brother will be among the 1,600 victims of the German trap.

(R) George Mackay (Schofield) and (L) Dean-Charles Chapman
The trek through the combat zone is indeed a nightmare; the courage of Blake and Schofield is utterly overwhelming.  Faced with certain death at literally every step, the Lance Corporals resist, persist, and dare to move on against the longest of odds.  As to whether they are successful, you’ll have to see for yourself.

Director Sam Mendes has done Spielberg one better.  He shot 1917 in one continuous take…or at least mostly in one take, with some editing magic.  The effect is to give the film a “first person” perspective.  You follow the the story as if you’re there in real time, seeing what the actors see, hearing what the actors hear, and walking miles in their shoes.  Needless to say, it’s damn scary to be walking in those shoes.  



Some movies are entertaining.  Others teach us life lessons.  1917 is the latter.  We too often take for granted the suffering and sacrifice of the young men and women who volunteer to put their lives on the line.  1917 won’t let you take that sacrifice for granted.  Victory is not won by the generals in the large battles.  It’s won by the foot soldiers, the sailors, and the airmen who achieve small victories at great personal cost in their own personal war.  Those small victories won by individual men and women are what wins the larger battle.

Without being preachy, 1917 will give you pause about the purpose and value of war.  The film doesn't take sides, but it's difficult to justify the carnage even on the small scale of a couple of days in the lives of two Lance Corporals.  Regardless of the outcome of any war, the losses far outweigh the political gains that may be won.  It is axiomatic that some wars are inevitable and necessary, but that does not diminish the cost in lives lost and lives forever changed.
American Cemetery, May, 2015.
Photo Credit:  Bill Wheeler

I stood in the American Cemetery in Normandy, and I stood at ground zero in both Nagasaki and New York City.  These are places where the cost of war is undeniable.  1917 took me back to those moments when I was forced to acknowledge the state sanctioned mass murder we call war.  I don’t know if 1917 should have won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2019.  I didn’t see very many of the other nominees.  But I do know it’s the best film I've seen in a very long time.  


Ground Zero, Nagasaki.  February, 2010.
Photo credit:  Bill Wheeler

NOTES:

Some movies look great on a large television.  Other movies, however, look best when seen on a huge screen in a darkened theater permeated with the scent of popcorn.  1917 is one of those movies.

There are many ways to recognize the sacrifice and service our veterans.  Don't hesitate to do so if you can.

Working for peace is a noble if lost cause.  The effort is worthwhile even if the results are meager.


Photo Credit: IMDB.com, Bill Wheeler

Director:  Sam Mendes 

Written by:  Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns


PARTIAL LIST OF CAST (see full list here):

Lance Corporal Blake:  Dean-Charles Chapman

Lance Corporal Schofield:  George MacKay

Sergeant Sanders:  Daniel May

General Erinmore:  Colin Firth

Sunday, February 9, 2020

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder




A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

Company:  Stagedoor Theatre Adult Company

Venue:  Stagedoor Theatre, 25797 Conifer Road, Conifer, CO 80433

Book and Lyrics by:  Robert L. Freedman

Music and Lyrics by:  Steven Lutvak

Based on a novel by:  Roy Horniman

Running time:  2 hours, 40 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission)

Date of Performance:  Saturday, February 8, 2020, 2:00 PM performance.


You can’t judge a book by its cover, and you certainly can’t judge a play by its title.  Any title using the words “Gentleman,” “Love” and “Murder” is bound to conjure up images of romance, tragedy, drama, and mayhem.  Stage Door Theatre’s “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” (hereafter “Love and Murder”) is not a romance, nor a tragedy or a drama.  Surprisingly, it’s a highly entertaining musical comedy triumph.

“Love and Murder” opens with a warning for the faint hearted:  “LEAVE NOW.”  Ignore it.  It’s bad advice.  This is a high energy comedy that won four Tony awards (including Best Musical) in the 2014 Broadway season.

Since I don’t do spoilers, I’ll limit my comments on the plot to saying that palace intrigue can be a dangerous game, but the results can sometimes bring about righteous justice.  The plot doesn’t dwell on the morality of “gentlemen,” “love,” or “murder,” except to squeeze every possible laugh out of each.

Stage Door Theatre is a small company in small venue.  “Love and Murder” is a huge production for any company.  That Stage Door attempted “Love and Murder” isn’t a big surprise though; the company has been overachieving for some time.  That they nailed this production demonstrates that Stage Door is punching far above its weight.




The cast is uniformly excellent.  Chris Burroughs brings his “A” game in every scene, whether he’s dabbling in love or crime.  He’s an accomplished and talented singer who seems to glide through the show effortlessly. Burroughs plays off his female leads with a wink and a smile, charming everyone in the room.

Chris Burroughs (Monty) and Jennasea Pearce (Sibella).
Those female leads, by the way, are a joy to watch…and to hear.  Both Maria Giovanetti and Jennasea Pearce are songbirds of the first order.  It’s easy to imagine both in a talent pipeline straight to Broadway.

Clyde Sacks has the dubious honor of playing (by my count) ten characters in “Love and Murder.”  Two of those characters are women.  I doubt many actors would take on such a challenge.  Sacks makes it look like the most natural thing to do.  He skillfully draws bold lines around each of the nine characters, making them distinctly different.  He’s got a gift for comedic timing.  His scene with Burroughs for “Better with a Man” is hilarious.  In fact, if one adds up the laughs in “Love and Murder,” the lion’s share belongs to Sacks.  

The technical gears that drive the performance were well done.  Dean Arniotes’ set is versatile and functional.  Susie Couch’s costumes are gorgeous.  The small orchestra is invisible while putting out a professional sound track for the cast.  Lights and sound were effective without being intrusive. Every detail, right down to Chris Burrough’s marvelous wigs, was spot on.

If one is to pick any nits here, a stage hand made a brief unschedule appearance onstage, and a camera prop got misplaced.  That’s it.  From start to finish, “Love and Murder” is a polished, professional and highly entertaining production.  

Stage Door marshaled a small army of actors, musicians, technicians, and assorted volunteers to make this show happen.  The list below is long, but still partial.  It’s clear that each and every person involved in “Love and Murder” gave 100% to guarantee the success of the show.  This is a personal hat tip to those involved, whether listed below or not.  Well done.




NOTES:

This show gets a PG rating for some vulgar gestures.  

The performance scheduled for Friday, February 7 was cancelled due to the 15-20 inches of snow that fell during that day.  Due to the cancellation, tickets for the remaining performances may be scarce.

This show closes on February 16, 2020. 


Photo Credit: Stage Door Theatre, Rachel McCombs-Graham.



CREATIVE TEAM:


Director/Choreographer:  Gerry Hansen

Music Director:   Caitlin Conklin

Production Manager:  Susie Couch

Assistant Choreographer:  Meg Chilton

Dance Captain:  Jennasea Pearce

Technical Director/Set Designer:  Dean Arniotes

Set Construction:  Dean Ariotes, Biz Schaugaard 

Painter:  Cat Harris

Lighting Design:  Steve Tangedal

Sound Design:  Dean Arniotes

Orchestra:  Caitlin Conklin, keyboards, Alec Michael Powell, woodwinds, Danny Barsetti-Nerland, percussion, Lisa Kriss, violin

Costume Design:  Susie Couch

Costume Manager:  Maren Wood

D’Ysquith Costumes:  Colleen Hughes

D’Ysquith dressers:  Susie Couch, Denise Taylor

Costume Crew:  Karen Maurer, Colleen Kirkpatrick Hughes, Jennasea Pearce, Lina Ramirez

Wigs:  Chris Burroughs

Props:  Tracie Paschall, Ella Spoor, Gavin Maurer, Gerry Hansen, Clyde Sacks, Robin Booth 

Light Board Operator:  Jon Weeks

Stage Manager:   Ella Spoor

Stage Hands:  Julia Harrison, Leilani Battersby


CAST:

Monty Navarro:  Chris Burroughs

Asquith D’Ysquith, Jr., Lord Adlabert D’Ysquith, Reverend Lord Ezekiel D’Ysquith, Lord Adlabert D’Ysquith, Sr., Henry D’Ysquith, Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, Major Lord Bartholomew D’Ysquith, Lady Salome D’Ysquith, Pumphrey, Chanucey D’Ysquith:  Clyde Sacks.

Sibella Hallward/Ensemble:  Jennesea Pearce

Phoebe D’Ysquiith/Ensemble:  Maria Giovanetti

Miss Shingle/Ensemble:  Susie Couch

Miss Barley/Ensemble:  Ashley Devine

Lady Eugenia D’ysquith/Ensemble:  Marcelina Ramirez

Tour Guide/Ensemble:  Scout Halpern

Tom Copley/Ensemble:  Jeremy Carr

Inspector/Ensemble:  Gavin Maurer

Magistrate/Ensemble:  Keith Rabin-Hoover


Glad to be back.



I ran into one of my theater friends recently.  He told me that he thought I had “dropped off the face of the earth.”  As Mark Twain once said, “reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated.”

That said, though, this is my first post to Theater Colorado in nearly 2 years. I dropped out of the theater hobby because it was time for a break.  My hobby had turned into a job, and it was not the kind with tangible rewards (no paydays).  I was spending weekends seeing shows, and weekdays writing up my thoughts.  Each post is a 4-6 hour task, not including the travel time and seeing the actual show.  At the end of each year, I did a "Bill's Best" post.  It was eating up ALL of my free time.

Beyond the time commitment, I was having some issues in the darkness of the theaters.  My vision (especially in theatrical fog) was noticeably reduced.  My somewhat diminished hearing made it difficult to hear lines, especially when sung.  And since I do not take notes during a performance, it became more difficult to remember the details of the performance.

So I’m going to try again.   I’ve gotten better at compensating for the issues in the darkness.  But I won’t go back to wall to wall posts.  It’s a quality versus quantity problem.  Updates will be sporadic but ongoing.

Although I took a break from writing, I never took a break from seeing some amazing productions.  If you weren’t aware, most theaters comped my ticket(s) in the past.  From now on, I’ll see the shows I want to see and I’ll pay for them.  Whether I write up a review will be a case by case decision.  My first post will be Stage Door Theater’s “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”

Thanks for all the support you have given to Theater Colorado since it started in 2012.  Much appreciated.  Not a day goes by that I don’t get hits on Theater Colorado.  It’s nice to know that people still occasionally stop by to check it out.

Bill

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Thespiana 2018 Short Play Festival







2018 Thespiana Short Play Festival

Venue:  Cottonwood Center for the Arts, 427 E. Colorado Avenue, Colorado Springs CO.

Running time:  2 hours, 30 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission).

Date of Performance:  Sunday, July 1, 2018.


If all the world Is a stage, then Thespiana is the Colorado Springs realization of Shakespeare’s concept.  An incubator for new work, Thespiana is in its third year as a launching pad for aspiring writers.  The good news is that Thespiana is tapping a mother lode of local talent.  The not so good news is that you won’t get a chance to see it again until 2019.  It’s an annual event, one weekend, two performances.  Keep an eye on this page for next year’s lineup.

The 2018 version was a profound melange of comedy, drama, and music.  These are all works in progress, so part of the plan is to get feedback from a real audience, and in my case, from one who sees a LOT of theater.  I’ve never written a script myself, so my comments may well miss the mark at times.  But still they should be taken as sincere thoughts about what works, and at times, what could work better in these short but provocative readings.


Story Time

There’s a reason why actors are wary of working with dogs and children.  They’re both potent scene stealers.  In Chuck Cabell’s Story Time, Winter Haverkorn (a first grader) and Bryce Haverkorn (a third grader) are in complete control of their scenes.  They are at once sassy and eloquent, with a full display of childhood innocence set against a background of adult issues.  

Story Time is packed with a number of profound issues, from alcoholism to mental health, with excursions into grief and the stigma of mental health care.  That’s a lot of issues for a 20 minute performance, any one of which would be ample material for a full length play.

The destination here is a recognition that sometimes we all need help to get through our crises.  This could be a stronger script if it dealt with just the children’s struggles or just with the adult’s challenges.  Together they seem to overload the message.  (I was somewhat disturbed that the children were not the first priority for getting help.)  A sharper focus on fewer issues would help Story Time get to the point.



And The Winner is…

Reality TV is a fat target for comedy, and writer director Jeff Schmoyer has a lot of fun roasting the genre.  He makes a an unspoken but important point.  We all too often live our lives vicariously through others, and it’s an empty life. Schmoyer sends an eloquent, pointed message about the silliness of obsessing about “reality” TV.

Ken McKay (Husband) reads his lines with a straight face even though Schmoyer’s script makes him a helpless, hopeless caricature.  McKay skillfully connects with our frustration for the endless teases Reality TV uses to hook their audience.  

And The Winner Is… is engaging, entertaining, and very creative.  However, I don’t see how it could be expanded into full length script.  The strength of the script is its frustrating tease that never delivers.  Two hours of that tease would be difficult to endure.

I’m not a fan of “reality” TV, so I may be a bit biased.  But Schmoyer’s script confirmed my judgement that the genre is not a “reality” I am familiar with.  My TV has an on/off switch, and I use it.


Iron and Gold

Mark (music) and Lauren Arnest (music/lyrics) are working on a massive project:  a musical about robber barons, railroads, and labor in 19th century America.  Iron and Gold is not a finished product yet, but the abbreviated Thesepiana version makes me anxious to see the full length production.

For their contribution to the 2018 Thespiana, the Arnest team assembled some of the finest voices in Southern Colorado:  Neika Rosenberger, Erik Brevik, Peter Tuff, Meg Prymus and Todd Teske took the operatic score to places I never expected.  I was at the edge of my seat, leaning forward to get a better look at these accomplished and very talented voices.  When they finished, the full house at the Cottonwood gave them a thunderous round of applause.

Mark and Lauren Arnest gave us some of the musical bits of Iron and Gold, but none of the book that tells the story.  That makes it difficult to evaluate.  But if the book is as compelling as the music, Iron and Gold could be a very big deal when it’s finished.



Borscht Belted

Warren Epstein is a talented guy.  Borscht Belted is ample proof.  His abbreviated version at Thespiana 2018 is a preview of the full length production in January 2019 at the Millibo Art Theater  

Borsch Belted is a solo performance, with all tasks done by Epstein himself.  He is the playwright, director, and performer (as well as serving as the Thespiana M.C.).  Epstein revisits an interview with the comedian known as “The King of the Borscht Belt.”  The New York Borscht Belt produced a huge number of stand up comics in the 1950s-1990s, many of whom went on to bigger and better venues (Alan King, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, and Buddy Hackett, to name just a few).

Epstein incorporates the the traditional Jewish humor style in his presentation, sprinkling some witty one liners throughout the performance.  True to the tradition, Epstein uses self deprecating humor (“I get no respect”), and insulting zingers (‘I took my mother-in-law on a pleasure trip…I drove her to the airport”).  

Epstein’s reading was smooth, giving an impromptu appearance to a detailed script.  As he finishes his work for the January, 2019 premier of Borsch Belted, it might be useful to diverge somewhat from “The King of the Borscht Belt.”  Throw in some Buddy Hackett, Peter Sellers, Groucho Marx or Jerry Lewis.  While “The King” didn’t go on to the same success as many of the Borsch Belters, he did something just as important.  He carved out a niche and made it into a successful career in the Borsch Belt. 


Elevated

Elevators…2 minutes in close contact with complete strangers.  It’s awkward; the protocol requires limited eye contact with your fellow vertical travelers.

Sue Bachman’s Elevated puts us in an elevator…one where eye contact is not the worst problem the passengers encounter.  Bachman puts us in a creepy elevator where apparently anything can happen…and does.

The story arc involves some serious self reflection; if you’re in a creepy elevator, perhaps your life has taken a turn for the worst.  The introspection is interesting; elevators only go up and down.  Sometimes we need veer off in a new direction.  Bachman’s “Elevator Woman” makes that change in direction.  That’s where the otherwise serious Elevated veers into silliness.

I won’t spoil Elevated with too much detail.  That said, though, the climax is entirely unexpected, jarring, and ultimately unsatisfying.  Perhaps in the next version the climax will be foreshadowed, making it more meaningful for the audience.


Temptations of a Playwright

Judith McKay’s Temptation of a Playwright is an interesting take on the creative process.  Picture Gwen (Mary Sprunger-Froese), a mature woman who would like to do something meaningful with her life.  She wants to write a play, even though she’s never done anything of the sort.  

How does one write his or her first play?  McKay skips past the basics; Temptations of a Playwright is not about inspiration, qualifications, or experience.  It’s about exposing oneself before a reader, an audience, and potentially the world at large.  Playwrights usually draw from his or her personal experience.  That takes courage.

Given the changing nature of privacy, questioning the reduced privacy for a writer is legitimate.  Gwen is not sure she’s ready to bare her soul.

The subject matter here is interesting, at least to me.  However, I’m not sure a wide audience would relate to the personal privacy struggles of becoming a writer.  Artists whose personal struggles are much more substantial often have a wide influence (Ernest Hemingway committed suicide, Vincent Van Gogh mutilated his ear AND committed suicide).

McKay’s subject (the creative process) has been done before.  A quick read of some other works might be helpful in fleshing out the travails of the creative process.  I recommend Seminar by Teresa Rebeck, and Ghost-Writer by Michael Hollinger.


10 Minutes

Phil Ginsburg entered his work Flush in the 2017 Thespiana Festival.  It wasn’t the last performance.  Flush was later produced by the Manhattan Repertory Theatre in New York City.  That’s a significant accomplishment for both Ginsburg and for Thespiana.

Ginsberg is back in 2018 with 10 Minutes, a somewhat satirical take on the end of the world.  His characters live out the last 10 minutes of their lives onstage, waiting for the nuclear bomb blasts that will destroy all life on Earth.

Ginsburg’s characters get their last chance wrong.  Rather than using their last 10 minutes productively, say to connect with loved ones, Man (Tom Paradise) and Woman (Kathy Paradise) immerse themselves in banality.  In this case, one dies as one lives; empty, meaningless lives end in emptiness.

Ask yourself the question:  what would you do with the last 10 minutes of your life?  Nuclear bombs aside, we will all eventually face those 10 minutes.  Your answer matters; there are no “do overs” for that last chance at getting things right.  

Ginsburg’s10 Minutes is a depressing take on the value of these lives…and the inevitable deaths of the characters.  We may not all live inspiring successful lives, but we are hopefully not as lost and pathetic as Man and Woman.  

10 minutes is both thought provoking and entertaining, but expanding it into a full length play will be challenging.  10 minutes is nearly all we can take of Man and Woman.  Retitled as 2 Hours, Ginsburg’s Armageddon would be as difficult to watch as it would be to write.

Thespiana

“All the world is a stage.”  Colorado Springs included.  Thespiana is a vital effort to put emerging work on display.  Catch it next year if you can.  You’ll be entertained, challenged, and inspired by your talented neighbors and friends.  And someday you can say you saw one or more of them before they became famous.


NOTES:

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts…(from As You Like It by William Shakespeare).


Photo Credit:  Bill Wheeler


CREATIVE TEAMS:

2018 Thespiana Short Play Festival

Producer:  Chuck Cabell

M.C./Narrator:  Warren Epstein

Stage Manager:  Jessi Hampton

Video/Recording:  Chris Lewis

Lights/Sound:  J.D. Morgan


Story Time

Playwright:  Chuck Cabell

Director:  Sue Bachman

Brad:  Jacob Hacker

Cal:  Bryce Haverkorn

Clover:  Winter Haverkorn

Nana:  Joan Valentine



And The Winner is…


Playwright/Director:  Jeff Schmoyer

Husband:  Ken McKay

Wife:  Mary Sprunger-Froese

TV Host:  Mike Miller

TV Man 1:  Sam Suksiri

TV Man 2:  Charlie Ammen

TV Woman/Mom/Lawyer/Camille:  Joan Valantine



Iron and Gold

Playwrights/Directors:  Mark Arnest, Lauren Arnest

Bad Girls:  Neika Rosenberger, Meg Prymus

One-Second Thoughts:  Erik Brevik

Love Duet:  Peter Tuff, Neika Rosenberger

Brothers:  Todd Teske, Peter Tuff

Song for the Knights of Labor:  Peter Tuff, ensemble.



Borscht Belted

Playwright/Director/Actor:  Warren Epstein



Elevated

Playwright/Director:  Sue Bachman

Elevator Woman:  Joan Valentine

Stairwell Man:  Mike Miller

Susan:  Mary Sprunger-Froese

Rough Man:  Charlie Ammen

Man in Suit:  Sam Suksiri

Skate Boarder 1:  Jacob Haker

Skate Boarder 2:  Anthony Cramer


Temptations of a Playwright

Playwright:  Judith McKay

Director:  Robert Tiffany

Roger:  Robert Tiffany

Gwen:  Mary Spunger-Froese


10 Minutes


Playwright/Director:  Phil Ginsburg

Man:  Tom Paradise

Woman:  Kathy Paradise.