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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Ghosts

Sharon Andrews as Helen Alving in Theatreworks production of Henrik Ibesen's Ghosts.

This post can be seen at the Colorado Springs Independent website.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Wait Until Dark




Playwright: Frederick Knott, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher


Venue:  SaGaJi Theater, Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale Street, Colorado Springs CO.

Running Time:  2 hours, 15 minutes (includes 10 minute intermission) 

Date of Performance:  Sunday, October 25, 2015.

It’s October, and that means a lot of local theater companies go to their dark side.  It’s the horror season, when vampires, zombies, and assorted monsters break out on stages everywhere.  That’s not exactly my cup of tea; fake blood, technical effects, and exaggerated costumes seem more silly to me than scary.

That’s what makes Wait Until Dark the perfect October show for me.  It doesn’t require a vivid imagination; the horror is all too real.  With no special effects and no monsters, Wait Until Dark is scary because it could happen to any of us.  Susan (Jessica Weaver) is a little more vulnerable than most of us (because she’s blind), but we’re all painfully aware that we are vulnerable to a home invasion by determined and desperate bad guys.

Even though I suspect most readers are familiar with the plot, I do not want to give away too much for those who are unfamiliar with the story.  If you haven’t seen the play or the film, Susan, who is alone at home, is the victim of a complicated criminal plot that brings the bad guys into her apartment.  Being blind, she cannot defend herself very well, but it turns out that she can still outsmart some very clever bad guys.

Wait Until Dark has been around for a while.  The play premiered on Broadway in 1966, with Lee Remick in the role of Susan.  It became a successful film in 1967, with Audrey Hepburn as Susan.  Jessica Weaver is following some very capable actors, but she is obviously not intimidated in the slightest by the star power that has preceded her.
Jessica Weaver as Susan.  Waiting.  Until.  Dark.

The role of Susan has special challenges for a sighted actor.  You’re onstage nearly two hours, and you cannot give any clue that you can actually see anything.  You must struggle, bumble, stumble, and bump into set pieces that you would normally avoid.  You must maintain a blank look on your face, not reacting to the people and the action around you.  I somehow think the preparation for this role might well include blindfolding the sighted actor to help her understand Susan’s world.  Before learning a single line, before rehearsing a single scene, Weaver must first master the illusion of blindness.  Few roles require as much physical adjustment as Susan.

So given the challenges and the stars who have played Susan, how did Weaver do?  

Eleven on a scale of  1-10.  Jessica Weaver is off the chart in Wait Until Dark.

Weaver could not have been more blind on the FAC stage if she performed with a blindfold.  She was every bit as vulnerable, as terrified, and as composed in the face of danger as her famous predecessors.  If you haven’t seen Weaver in Wait Until Dark, don’t wait.  Weaver puts on a clinic for all whose dream is to stand on a stage and own an audience.  If that’s your dream, Jessica Weaver is the inspiration you’re looking for.

L-R:  Adam Laupus, Jessica Weaver, Mallory Hybl.  Set by Brian Mallgrave.
Of course, Susan is hardly the only actor on the stage, and to be effective, she must be counter balanced by some heavyweight bad guys.  Adam Laupus (Mike) is the good guy/bad guy. He both befriends and betrays Susan.  Laupus is confident and credible in both roles, and as Susan’s friend, he is genuinely likable.  That likeablity makes his betrayal all the more despicable.  Michael Lee (Roat) doesn’t try to be nice, and he succeeds.  Micah Spiers (Carlino) spends much of his time pretending to be a detective; his constant need to wipe his prints off everything would give him away to all but a blind victim.  Taken together, this trio is as clever and as clumsy as real life bad guys.

There are some spectacular technical aspects to the FAC Wait Until Dark production.  Award winning set designer Brian Mallgrave (Henry Award, She Loves Me, Arvada Center, 2015) is known for his exquisitely detailed sets.  His design for Wait Until Dark is no exception.  It’s a gorgeous set, whether lit by a single light through the window blinds or fully lighted in all its glory.  Susan’s husband Sam (played effectively by Kyle Dean Steffen) is a photographer.  Mallgrave has his black and white photos dressing up the walls of the set.  As if that weren’t enough, however, he gives Sam a darkroom at stage left, complete with fresh prints hanging by clothespins and an antique photo enlarger.  Mallgrave’s obsession with details, however, never sacrifices functionality.  His sets are beautiful, functional, marvelous backdrops that enhance the story.
Antique photo enlarger.

As you might guess, a show called Wait Until Dark might have some special lighting challenges.  You would be right.  Lighting Designer Holly Anne Rawls runs the entire range of lighting for Wait Until Dark, from total darkness to a match flame to a refrigerator light and to full on bright with multiple onstage light fixtures.  Rawls makes the entire stage her lighting playground, and the work she does is, well, brilliant.  Pun intended.

There’s so much to like about Wait Until Dark that I could go on for hours.  Scott RC Levy’s direction is splendid, squeezing every ounce of tension and fear out of the audience.  Benaiah Anderson’s fight direction (some of which occurs in total darkness) is sharp and intense.  Jason Fangio’s authentic costumes define the actors before they deliver a single line.  Mallory Hybl’s shines as Gloria, a teen trouble maker who helps out in the end.  Alex Ruhlin’s sound design includes microphones for the actors, delivering crisp dialog from all.  (It’s noticeable and distracting when actors at the SaGaJi are not miked.)  

For the reader’s sake, though, I won’t go on for hours.  I’ll just recommend you see this gem for yourself.  When you leave the theater, though, you may want to look over your shoulder as you walk back to your car.  You never know what you might find there…just Wait Until Dark






NOTES:

This show has a few profanities, but nothing more than what the kids have already heard on the school bus.  There is, however, some violence that may be disturbing to younger kids.  There is ample free parking at the theater and on surrounding streets. 

This show closes on November 1, 2015.

PHOTO CREDITS:  Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and Jeff Kearney at TDC Photography.  Photo enlarger:  Ebay.

TICKETS HERE:  

Pre/Post Show Dining Suggestion

Cheyenne Mountain Resort.
We skipped the brunch menu at Taste (the Fine Arts Center restaurant) and met up with some friends at the Cheyenne Mountain Resort for brunch.  It's about a 10-15 minute drive from the theater via Nevada Avenue.  

It’s expensive ($40.00 per person), but delicious.  Brunch includes all you can drink Mimosa’s, or if you prefer, just have the champagne without the OJ.  The shrimp bowl is pretty special, but I prefer the prime rib carving station.

For special occasions or special friends, brunch at Cheyenne Mountain Resort is our favorite destination.  


CREATIVE TEAM:

Producing Artistic Director:  Scott RC Levy

Director:  Scott RC Levy

Scenic Design:  Brian Mallgrave

Lighting Design:  Holly Anne Rawls

Sound Design:  Alex Ruhlin

Fight Direction:  Benaiah Anderson

Costume Design:  Janson Fangio

Hair & Make-up Design:  Jonathan Eberhardt

Stage Manager: Kaetlyn Springer

CAST:

Susan:  Jessica Weaver

Mike:  Adam Laupus

Roat: Michael Lee

Carlino:  Micah Spiers

Gloria:  Mallory Hybl

Sam:  Kyle Dean Steffen





Monday, October 26, 2015

Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead



Playwright: Bert V. Royal


Venue:  Funky Little Theatre, 2109 Templeton Gap, Colorado Springs CO.

Running Time:  2 hours (includes 10 minute intermission) 

Date of Performance:  Saturday, October 24, 2015.

Imagine a world where the Peanuts comic strip characters are now teenagers in high school.  Then imagine their high school world as a hedonistic den of debauchery where alcohol, drugs, and casual sex are the daily enterprise.

“Good grief” seems an inadequate response; perhaps a few “OMGs” would be more to the point.

This is not your traditional Charlie Brown.  Nor is it Charles Schulz’ Charlie Brown.  Described as an “unauthorized parody,” Dog Sees God cannot use Schulz’ names for the characters.  As a result, you get CB (Luke Schoenemann) instead of Charlie Brown, Van (Justin Anderson) instead of Linus Van Pelt, and so on.  One may be reminded of the old saying that “the names have been changed to protect the innocent,” but playwright Bert Royal cares not for the innocence of Charlie Brown and his friends.  The only protection gained by changing the names is for Royal to shield himself from lawsuits.
Therein lies my main objection to Royal’s script. Charles Shulz created child characters with, well, character.  They were kids with adult traits.  Shulz respected his children for their innocent wisdom.  Royal’s script shows little respect for the teenagers he has endowed with little wisdom of any kind.

To be fair, Royal’s script is not entirely misguided; he takes on the subjects of bullying and teen suicide.  These are delicate and important issues, and Dog Sees God has hard lessons for teenagers on both subjects.  If one did not have to wade through the tidal wave of teen angst to get to those lessons, they would have been more effective.

Dog Sees God premiered at The New York International Film Festival in 2004, and premiered off Broadway in December, 2005.  Perhaps predictably, that production was not without some serious controversy


Funky Little Theater’s production is one of their best yet on a purely technical level.  The set design provides numerous set pieces that are moved quickly on and off stage by a small army of stage hands.  The lighting design is also well done, spotlighting characters in dramatic scenes.  Will Sobolik’s sound design weaves the recorded Chopin sound track with a a live piano version of Heart and Soul duet featuring Beethoven (Danté J. Finley) and Shoenemann as CB. 
Beethoven is a critical character in Dog Sees God, and Finley knows it.  He plays Beethoven as a moody, mopey, insecure and troubled teen.  In other words, he’s spot on.  He stands tall as the most normal person in a cast of teen caricatures.  Schoenemann plays CB, his tormenter turned protector, with a nearly emotionless game face.  He cannot explain his new BFF, not even to himself; we cannot tell if his change of heart is sincere or cynical.  

Michelle Pantle’s Marcy is excellent; she has mastered the essence of a high school girl.  Marcy’s best GF Tricia is the mischievous Emma Colligan, who clearly enjoys playing a bad girl.  Justin Anderson’s Van is a suitable slacker, adept at the nuances of getting and staying high.  America Copeland (Van’s sister) and Alex Niforatos (Matt) both have fully embraced teen selves for the production.

Greta Hutcheon stands out of the crowd because she has the dubious honor of playing Royal’s most whacked out character, CB’s sister.  Royal has written a part for her that few can fathom; she must portray a creature in a cocoon who would rather emerge as a platypus than a butterfly.  You read that right:  a platypus.  This may well be the nadir of Royal’s writing skill.  Hutcheon, undeterred, gives an enthusiastic, spirited performance in a needlessly ridiculous role.  

Director/producer Chris Medina has put together a good production of script I don’t care for, and for that, I give him some well earned credit.  Sending a message, even a flawed one, on topics like bullying and teen suicide is a noble venture.  Medina cares about the community, and it shows in the passion and the promise of his Funky Little Theater productions.  In the case of Dog Sees God, Medina has a flawed vehicle but a worthy destination.  

It’s only fair to point out that I am clearly not the target demographic for Dog Sees God.  I am far removed from my own personal teen angst.  There were many in the audience who were very engaged and clearly enjoyed the performance.  A number of them offered a standing ovation to the cast.  Obviously, there are those who will disagree with me about Royal's script.  I run the risk of being called a curmudgeon, but it’s just one guy’s opinion.  
Reasonable people will differ, and I’m fine with that.  I fully understand that theater must evolve and engage a younger demographic to survive, and Dog Sees God may fill theaters with that younger audience.  If so, that is an important measure of success.  

I may not be the biggest fan of Dog Sees God, but I am a big fan of Funky Little Theater.  Chris Medina and company are taking risks and doing work that reminds us that theater isn't just Broadway hits.  It's also the shows that push the envelope and make us see ourselves in a new way.   

Good grief, Funky.  Keep up the good work and keep challenging us.  


NOTES:

This show has adult content and adult language.  Not recommended for children.  There is ample free parking in front of the theater.  Note that evening performances begin at 7:00 PM, instead of the typical 7:30 PM performances elsewhere.

This show closes on November 7, 2015.

PHOTO CREDITSFunky Little Theater Company/Jennifer Westrom/Faith Photography

TICKETS HERE:  


CREATIVE TEAM:

Producers:  Chris Medina, Grant Langdon

Director:  Chris Medina

Scenic Design:  Company

Lighting Design:  Company

Costume Design:  Delaney Hallauer

Sound Design:  Will Sobolik

Stage Manager: Rebecca Haile

CAST:

Van:  Justin Anderson

Van’s Sister:  America Copeland

Charlie Brown’s Sister:  Gretta Hutcheon

Tricia:  Emma Colligan

Marcy:  Michelle Pantle

Matt:  Alex Niforatos

Beethoven:  Danté Finley

CB:  Luke Schoenemann 


Friday, October 23, 2015

Stick Guns

Playwright: Jim Jackson

VenueMillibo Art Theatre, 1626 S. Tejon Street, Colorado Springs CO.

Running Time:  1 hour, 25 minutes (no intermission) 

Date of Performance:  Friday, October 23, 2015.

Heads up.  This post will include very little detail about the arc of the story.  Details would ruin the experience, and I could not handle that level of guilt.


Any theater piece with a one person cast is risky.  Jim Jackson wrote Stick Guns, and he is the only actor on the stage for the entire performance.  The script is “semi-autobiographical,” so Jackson is very familiar with the central character.  He steps out on the stage in the first scene, stick gun in hand, and walks that one man show tightrope for nearly 90 minutes.  He doesn’t waiver, he doesn’t stumble, and he certainly never falls off that tightrope.  He carries Stick Guns with the skill of a talented actor and the confidence of a man with something important to say. 

I sat in my seat for a full 30 seconds after Jackson finished 85 minutes later, feeling like I had been punched in the gut.  Then I did what everyone else did.  I stood up.  I clapped.  I brushed away a tear.  I thought about the power of theater, and the impact Stick Guns had on every person in the room that night.
Jim Jackson as himself.

Jackson grew up in southern Colorado; Cañon City to be precise.  Cañon City is arguably different from most other places.  The local industry is prisons.  The prisons in Cañon City are also the biggest employer, staffing the facilities with locals as guards, maintenance people, and administrative staff.  The local citizens also provide the prisons with food services and many other assorted necessities.  Despite the symbiotic relationship, it's an unusual situation.  There is literally a wall between the citizens of Cañon City and its temporary residents.  If your early childhood included emergency drills for prison breaks, you might be from Cañon City.

It is in this unique environment that Jackson tells the story of his childhood, where a good “stick gun” was de rigeur, at least until you were old enough for a BB gun.  Guns are “magic;” pull the trigger and “everything changes.”  To a kid whose heroes (John Wayne in particular) all had guns, guns were the ultimate symbol of power and prestige.
Jim Jackson taking aim with his stick gun.


Frankly, Jackson’s childhood in the 1960’s is not markedly different from my own in the 1950’s, although there was no prison in my neighborhood.  We played cops and robbers with stick guns.  Like Jackson, I briefly had a paper route, delivering the Milwaukee Journal.  We got into our share of trouble, mostly for lobbing snowballs at passing city busses.  Jackson, though, unlike me, is a master story teller.  His stories are engaging, comical, charming, mischievous and unquestionably true.

The childhood memories in Stick Guns seem to run a little long, but there’s a reason for that.  Jackson slyly threads his secondary characters into the amusing events of his childhood, setting up a crisis that erupts in the last scene.  It is this careful, detailed set up that makes the crisis so powerful and the loss so unbearable.  It is a credit to Jackson’s writing and story telling that the conclusion is one that I never saw coming.

Jackson is directed here by his wife Birgitta De Pree, although I suspect both would admit that he needs little direction.  Stick Guns is Jackson’s life story and he has no problems “telling it like it is” on the Millibo stage.  Bob Hill’s set design is a two level swooping path adorned with about 100 real sticks.  Hill puts a stationary bike at Jackson’s disposal for delivering papers and other adventures.  Benjamin Pratt’s lighting design keeps the spotlight on Jackson for dramatic scenes, and daylight on the set for the proper ambiance.

Jackson, no doubt fatigued after pouring out his soul for 85 minutes on the Millibo stage, lingered in the lobby after his standing ovation.  He personally thanked the audience members individually as they left.  I overheard several compliments he got from the patrons, including this one:  “In twenty years of theater, this is the BEST I have ever seen.”  High praise indeed, and it was both heartfelt and justified.  I can only add my endorsement to that comment.

As we were driving home after the show (one of the measures of a good show is whether it stays with you afterwards; Stick Guns does), I was thinking about my own childhood friends, and where they are now.  I have lost touch with all of them over the years, as our paths diverged and our lives changed.  Stick Guns reminded me of some long forgotten memories.  I will be reaching out to reconnect with some of those friends.  

As Jackson put it:

"Sometimes when you are looking back after a long time you have to fill in the blanks to make sense of it all." 

I’m going to get some help from some old friends to fill in those blanks in my own childhood. Just to make sense of it all.



NOTES:

Despite the playful nature of most of the script, I do not recommend Stick Guns for young children.  The climax may be too disturbing for them.

Parking is free but scarce at Millibo Art Theatre.  When we arrived at 6:15 for dinner at the Bristol Brewing Company, the parking lot at the Millibo was already full.  There is additional parking in front of the former Ivywild School, and on surrounding streets.  You may have to walk a block or two, and the street lighting is not very bright.  Gentlemen may want to consider walking to the car after the show and driving back to the theater to pick up the date or spouse.

Stick Guns gives some prominent mentions to Skyline Road in Cañon City.  If you haven't driven Skyline Road before, do it soon.  It's a marvelous drive for Coloradans and visitors alike.

This show closes on October 25, 2015.


TICKETS HERE:  


PRE/POST SHOW DINING RECOMMENDATION:

Bristol Brewing Company
The Bristol Brewing Company, 1604 S. Cascade Avenue, is co-located on virtually the same property as the Millibo Art Theatre, and an obvious choice for theatergoers.  The short 3 minute walk between the two venues means you don’t even have to move your car from the parking spot you were lucky enough to snag.

We arrived at Bristol Brewing around 6:15 PM, which should be sufficiently early for a 7:30 curtain 3 minutes away.  We were seated almost immediately, but it was another 10 minutes or so before a waitress showed up to take our drink orders.  We ordered an appetizer and 2 beers.  They were delivered a few minutes later, and the waitress took our food order.

After another 5-10 minutes had passed (it was now 6:35 or so), our waitress returned to notify us that a large group had arrived just before we did, and that our food would be delayed by about 40 minutes.  I explained to her that 40 minutes was not enough time for us to eat and be in our seats by 7:30.  She apologized but said there was nothing she could do.  I asked to speak to the manager, who apologized, but could do nothing about the delay in the kitchen.  He offered to comp our appetizer and beers.  I declined the offer, as I realized that there was nothing he could do about the long delay in the kitchen.

I get it; a restaurant can’t plan who will arrive or when they will arrive, but the downside is that a large group that swamps the kitchen penalizes everyone else in the restaurant.  We had to cancel our food order and skip dinner. 

Bristol Brewing Company is a popular restaurant, but I can’t recommend it for theatergoers.  Even if you arrive early enough, you may not be able to eat and make it to the show on time.  My recommendation would be to try Bristol when you do NOT have another commitment that could be jeopardized by the bottleneck in the kitchen.

CREATIVE TEAM:

Director:  Birgitta De Pree

Scenic Design/Build:  Bob Hill & Birgitta De Pree

Lighting & Sound Design:  Benjamin Pratt


CAST:

Jim Jackson as Jim Jackson.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Lonesome Hollow

Playwright: Lee Blessing


Venue:  Springs Ensemble Theatre, 1903 East Cache La Poudre, Colorado Springs CO.

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

Date of Performance:  Thursday, October 15, 2015 (Opening Night).


Dystopia is the opposite of Utopia.  It’s Utopia gone bad, and Lee Blessing’s Lonesome Hollow is such a dystopian story.  Blessing imagines a world where sexual deviance, pornography, and pedophilia are eliminated. Criminals disappear into Lonesome Hollow forever, and rights we commonly take for granted disappear as well.

Blessing’s script is a compelling and disturbing example of taking righteous moral clarity to it’s logical conclusion.  In world seen in black and white, no shades of gray are tolerated. One is either evil or good; there is no other option.

Springs Ensemble Theatre (SET) plunges the audience into this sexual slammer, fully immersing every person in the room in the quicksand that is Lonesome Hollow.  Director Jonathan Margheim spins a taut tale that dares us to look away.  

Emory John Collinson (Nye) and Taylor Geiman (Tuck).

There is not a false note in any of the performances in Lonesome Hollow, but it is Emory John Collinson (Nye) who drives the story.  Collinson hits all his targets; he’s got the southern accent, the nervous twitches, and the defiant, desperate attitude Blessing created for him.  Nye is a complicated character, but one that Collinson handles with sincerity, sympathy, and even some humor.  

Taylor Geiman (Tuck) is also splendid; he’s the best inmate in Lonesome Hollow.  Geiman emanates a boyish innocence; Tuck seems an unlikely candidate for the dungeon.  The role is physically as well as emotionally demanding.  Geiman spends Act 2 dragging himself on his knees through a labyrinth of his own making.  

Rachel Baker (Mills) has the acting chops to be the bad cop and the good cop. Evil in the
Rachel Baker (Mills) & Steve Emily (Glover).
first act, Baker is sincere and compassionate in the second.  Her broad emotional range here is visible proof that she has mastered her character and her craft.

Steve Emily (as Glover, the prison counselor/chief enforcer) is the truly evil character in this sinister story.  Emily shows his devious side here, spouting platitudes while inflicting cruel punishment for the slightest infraction.  He’s the warden you never want to meet if you have to do some time.

Sarah Shaver is Pearl (Tuck’s sister).  Shaver has a fine maternal mode she uses for Lonesome Hollow as she tries to balance motherhood with sisterhood.  She must choose one or the other; Lonesome Hollow won’t let her save both her children and her brother.  It’s an excruciating conflict, and Shaver plays it out at full tilt for the audience.

The technical aspects of Lonesome Hollow work well; random muffled gunshots are heard outside the prison walls.  Crystal Carter and Gabriel Espinoza-Lira combined to create a simple set; a bench sitting in the middle of a brick and rock labyrinth (not to be confused with a maze) set into the stage floor.  

The labyrinth is also plot device; one can only decide whether to enter it or not.  That’s a metaphor for the dystopia Blessing has created for us; we must decide whether or not to enter it.  Once entered, it is a single path to the center, whatever that may be.  There is no path out of Lonesome Hollow, only a path into it.
Sarah Shaver (Pearl) & Taylor Geiman (Tuck).

A dystopian plot creates an alternate reality that might come true. Lonesome Hollow may seem to be an unlikely future at first glance. However, given a small but vocal fundamentalist movement towards theocracy, and the fact that some of our neighbors seem eager for a real Lonesome Hollow, Blessing’s story is both credible fiction and a wake up call.  This is gripping theater and a scary ride into a bleak future that few of us would choose.  

NOTES:

This show has adult content, adult language, and nudity.  Not recommended for children.

There is ample free parking in front of the the theater and on surrounding streets.

This show closes on November 1, 2015.




PHOTO CREDITSSprings Ensemble Theatre Company/Emory John Collinson & Jenny Maloney

TICKETS HERE:  


PRE/POST SHOW DINING RECOMMENDATION:

There's not a lot of restaurant choices near the Springs Ensemble Theatre, but there is one that we definitely like:  China Village at 203 North Union.  Fast, friendly, affordable, and always delicious, China Village is a full service sit down Chinese (Szechuan & Mandarin Cuisine) dining experience.  As you enter, look to your right to see the amazing carved tree trunk.  We had the "family dinner," (2 person minimum) which includes soup, appetizers, rice, and an entree for $13.95.  I had the Sesame Chicken, my all time favorite.  
China Village:  Sesame Chicken.

There is so much food in the family dinner that you're likely to get enough leftovers for another meal.  China Village is about a 3 minute drive to/from the Springs Ensemble Theatre.

CREATIVE TEAM:

Director:  Jonathan Margheim

Assistant Diretor:  Crystal Carter

Technical Director:  Gabe Espinoza-Lira

Co-Producers:  Steve Emily, Jenny Maloney, Matt Radcliffe

Scenic design:  June Scott Barfield

Lighting Design:  Brianna Pilon

Sound Design:  Pat Collins

Costume Design:  Emory John Collinson

CAST:

Tuck: Taylor Geiman 
      
Nye: Emory John Collinson

Mills: Rachel Baker

Glover: Steve Emily

Pearl: Sarah S. Shaver