A Midsummer Nightmare

A new — or re-newed — group is making its maiden voyage into the world of community theater this weekend with the Osceola Community Theatre production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Does the word “Titanic” ring a bell?

Unlike the “unsinkable” liner, there are so many danger signals here that one can only hope there are enough lifeboats to go around.

First: Don’t ever attempt Shakespeare without actors — and a director — who have some understanding of the play — what it is and where it  is going — and at least a minimum command of the language. Just rattling off a string of words without any idea of what is behind them or what they mean, in the context of the period, results in what my grandmother used to call gobbledegook.

Midsummers Night Dream

Second: Make sure at least the primary players have the ability to make themselves heard — and understood — beyond the end of the playing area. The audience usually deserves the chance to know what’s going on, although here it doesn’t seem to matter. Not helping was a motor, which sounded like one for a heating system or a large refrigerator, which cut in and out frequently and completely drowned out most of the voices.

 

Third: Take aim at a style for the production and make sure it works — consistently. Allowing the two ingénues to scream at each other while their respective swains are battling it out literally and loudly right being them is a shot at farce that results in the need for earplugs. In com

There are several cast members who definitely have potential — the men playing Bottom (Scot Shepley) and Demetrius (Steven Cole) and the females portraying Puck (Abby Jeffirs), Titania (Kristen Baker) and Helena (Kelsey Suwarsky — who needs to turn both volume and delivery speed down several notches) . They seem to be the victims of skewed direction — or lack thereof. — and deserve the opportunity to try again.

The costumes were adequate (loved the fairies wings!) except for Oberon who looked more like a pilgrim wandering in the desert than a magical king of the fairies.

The lighting, obviously due to the extreme limitations of the performance space which is a very small altar space, was dependent on one large follow spot which illuminated the players in one central area.

Believe it or not, this has been very difficult to write. I am always in favor or new theaters and new talent and would much prefer to see them start well, specifically with something they can handle. I give them credit for the effort, but just because it’s Shakespeare, doesn’t mean anyone can do it.

Hepefully, the next offering from the OCT will be something easier to stage in their limited facility and one which actors and audience will have less difficulty delivering.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” plays at 7:30 p.m. today and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the Harry Housour Performing Arts Center, 3134 Apple Road, Osceola. check www.osceolatheatre.com

New Harmony 2009 Revisited

Returning to a place where you have had a very good experience is not always the best thing to do. . .except when that place is New Harmony and the experience is the New Harmony Project.

The Project has been held for 23 years in this unbelievably green southwest Indiana location. It’s purpose has always been the same: To help playwrights develop new works that “offer hope and show respect for the positive values of life.” To this end, writers, actors, directors and dramaturgs head for this very southern Indiana town the last two weeks May bringing their creative energy and their talent . I visited the New Harmony Project for the first time last year, because daughter Deirdre Lovejoy was one of the actors. When she was asked to return, there was no doubt I would want to be there as well. Of course, I only went for the final week and all I did was listen, but to a confirmed theater buff, there was no greater place to be. In the first place, New Harmony itself is a popular vacation destination. You won’t find a nightclub or a thrill ride anywhere, but turning back the clock in a town that was founded by the Harmony Society, a religious sect, in 1814. The Harmonists came from Pennsylvania and returned there in 1825 after selling the town to a Scottish social reformer and education pioneer who collected notable thinkers and scientists to the banks of the Wabash River. What you will find is a serene environment where bicycles and golf carts are the primary modes of transportation, where night really falls darkly and you can feel stress easing away. It’s a popular spot for weddings and conferences the year round. It’s the perfect place to concentrate on your objective

Returning to a place where you have had a very good experience is not always the best thing to do. . .except when that place is New Harmony and the experience is the New Harmony Project.

The Project has been held for 23 years in this unbelievably green southwest Indiana location. It’s purpose has always been the same: To help playwrights develop new works that “offer hope and show respect for the positive values of life.” To this end, writers, actors, directors and dramaturgs head for this very southern Indiana town the last two weeks May bringing their creative energy and their talent . I visited the New Harmony Project for the first time last year, because daughter Deirdre Lovejoy was one of the actors. When she was asked to return, there was no doubt I would want to be there as well. Of course, I only went for the final week and all I did was listen, but to a confirmed theater buff, there was no greater place to be. In the first place, New Harmony itself is a popular vacation destination. You won’t find a nightclub or a thrill ride anywhere, but turning back the clock in a town that was founded by the Harmony Society, a religious sect, in 1814. The Harmonists came from Pennsylvania and returned there in 1825 after selling the town to a Scottish social reformer and education pioneer who collected notable thinkers and scientists to the banks of the Wabash River. What you will find is a serene environment where bicycles and golf carts are the primary modes of transportation, where night really falls darkly and you can feel stress easing away. It’s a popular spot for weddings and conferences the year round. It’s the perfect place to concentrate on your objective

With the Project, the objective has been to read, re-read and re-re-read scripts, both for stage and screen, with the aim of polishing them as much as possible within the two week period. This is accomplished by bringing to the table (literally) professional actors, a director and a dramaturg for each script. The selection process begins with a call for new scripts, more than 100 are submitted annually. A 10 page synopsis for each is read by a committee which then narrows the field and requests full scripts. These, usually 20, are read and discussed.new harmony table read

For 2009, four were chosen for “full development” and two others, for one-time reads. I sat in on the former process for two scripts At the tables, all those involved shared ideas, suggestions and comments on the works in progress. Rewrites were done daily, with changes printed off on different color paper so that, in one case, the final script look rather like a rainbow. Words, sentences, paragraphs and even entire scenes were reshaped overnight. Watching this process was indeed humbling and a bit awe-inspiring.. There were morning and afternoon rehearsals for all four, the location of each announced by Project Director Joel Grynheim during the lunch and dinner in the New Harmony Inn dining room. The evenings were open for first reads, parties, writers discussions, and (my favorite) the annual Harmon-anny, during which talents other than writing — mainly musical — were shared. In the middle of the final week, high school students with an interest in drama were invited to spend the day, sit in on rehearsals and participate in discussions. I sat in on a musical theater workshop given by two award-winning musicians, Debra Barsha and Lance Thorne, who wowed the students during their two sessions to such an extent that none of the young people wanted to leave.

 Debra Barsha and Lance Thorne At each, the students were asked to write down their thoughts on whatever they wanted. No surprise, the majority chose feelings, relationships and the future. Taking their papers at random, Barsha and Thorne created songs from each one, some uptempo, some ballads and all utterly amazing. One, which they titled “The ABCs of Love,” was taken a step further and included (with credit to the young “lyricist,” who was present) in the final program, “A Taste of 2009,” presented Saturday evening during a benefit dinner for sponsors, donors and the all-volunteer board members of the New Harmony Project. From the last Thursday night through Saturday, readings of the four full development scripts were open to the public, which also was invited to share opinions. Thanks to the electronic age, one of the selected writers who was unable to attend, was video conferenced via laptop cameras with her director and cast, sharing thoughts and emailing suggested rewrites. The positive energy throughout sent even this on-looker home with the assurance that good theater, positive theater was — and would continue to be — eternally green, rather like New Harmony.

Time To Strike Up The Jazz Band

JAZZ ECHOES 2009 Now that the last notes of the 2009 Elkhart Jazz Festival have faded away, here are some of the images I’ll remember. Guitars Times Three My favorite set of the entire weekend was at 3:30 Saturday afternoon in the New Life Community Church when Howard Alden, Joe Cohn and Bucky Pizzarelli created musical magic on their guitars, with a two-number assist from Fumihiko Kono of Yoshimi and Carolina Shout. Maybe it was just the “golden oldies” they played including “Moonglow,” “Tangerine,”“’Til I Had You” and “Three Little Words,” which are, to quote someone, “the music of my life,” but there is something about the sound of those guitars that erases the years. At my age, that’s a welcome thing!

Guitarists (from left) Howard Alden, Bucky Pizzarelli and Joe Cohn acknowledge applause at the end of their set Saturday afternoon in the New Life Community Church.

Also noted that Pizzarelli and Alden are instrumental (pun intended) on the soundtrack of the Sean Penn film, “Sweet and Lowdown.” Alden taught Penn the fingering necessary for the actor to believably portray a guitarist and he even learned to play a couple of tunes. The actual sound, however, was supplied by Alden. Check out the movie which airs periodically on one of the Encore channels. Arriving early for his 1 p.m. Sunday set at the Knights of Columbus stage, Alden shared instruments with a couple of player in BED’s. Standing behind Cohn, he doubled up on Cohn’s guitar strings to produce an duet on one instrument, followed immediately by an assist for BED brass man Dan Barrett. Barrett played his trombone and moved it accordingly while Alden held the slide. Standing In for a Friend Cohn and pianist Rosanno Sportiello were sitting in with Barrett, bassist Joe Forbes and guitarist Eddie Erickson as replacements for BED vocalist Rebecca Kilgore who became ill Friday evening and was taken to Elkhart General Hospital with a kidney infection. Happily, she was released on Sunday in time to head for home. There’s Something About the Beat Those who got up early enough on Saturday morning were treated to a mini-tutorial on the art of playing the drums by jazz master Butch Miles, whose world-wide motto could be “Have cymbals, will travel.” I still cannot fathom how both hands and both feet can move to different beats at the same time. Miles makes it look easy.

Christian Hoskins, 6, of Grand Rapids keeps the beat during Butch Miles’ drum workshop Saturday morning in the Knights of Columbus Hall.

Naming and explaining each of the individual drums and cymbals in a set, he illustrated the theme and variations used in the search for keeping drumming simple but not boring. Among the large group of youngsters and parents watching and listening to learn, no one was more fascinated — or more consistently shadow drumming on a padded stool — than six-year-old Christian Hoskins of Grand Rapids who came for the day specifically to hear Miles. His obviously natural musical ability reminded me of another young boy who could not resist trying out drum set at the Bristol Opera House. That was before he moved on to trumpet and, finally, to piano. Today, Nick Roth is making a name for himself in the world of classical music, but it all began with a couple of sticks … drum sticks, that is. Dancing Duo Not Deterred The annual mini-shows by the “dancing duo” from Chicago were not eliminated by the free stage move from pavement to grass. Indeed, they tripped their light fantastic and changed matching outfits with each session without missing a step, actually finding their own little corners at each and every one of the venues. VETERAN BASSIST GETS WELL-DESERVED HONOR There is absolutely no doubt. The two most important things in John Bany’s world are music (especially jazz) and his family — not necessarily in that order. On Saturday evening, the 63-year-old bassist received accolades and a plaque from the Elkhart Jazz Festival as the 2009 musician honoree. I have to say it was about time!  Bany has played in 21 of the 22 Elkhart festivals and his enthusiasm for the event — and the talent that has made him a natural invitee — were obvious in the special musical set that followed in the New Life Community Church venue (standing in for the Elco which is in the process of being renovated).

With son Martin on drums, Lifetime Achievement Award recipient bassist John Bany demonstrates the skill that has brought him to the Elkhart Jazz Festival 21 of its 22 years.

The Lifetime Achievement Award was presented by EJF talent coordinator Van Young, a longtime Bany friend and fan, and its appreciative inscription  underscored the standing ovation the musician received from the audience that filled the hall. It was even more special to Bany as his entire family —wife Nancy, daughter Lisa Bany-Winters an author of children’s theater books and improv teacher at Chicago’s Second City, and his two grandchildren who have dubbed him Grandpa Jazz — was in the crowd.  Son Martin, a drummer,  played the set with his dad, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and pianist Rosanno Sportiello. The list of  musicians with whom Bany has performed during his 60-year career (he started playing at age 3), is long and prestigious, but association is only a small part of Bany’s story. His bassist history goes back many generations  (he thinks “maybe seven”)  but only caught up with  him when he was 16. He looks back fondly on the summer in which he was introduced to “girls, booze, cars, smoking and the bass.” After two years in a Catholic seminary, he entered Roger Bacon High School in Cincinnati where “I hit two notes on a bass and that was it.”  His geneologic connection, however, has to be partly responsible for his natural ability. Without benefit of formal lessons, in three months of playing “I sounded like my dad,” Bany said. Being unable then to read music, it didn’t hurt that his older brother sat behind him in the school band. “He pointed to where I started (in the music) and that was all I needed,” Bany said with his ever-present chuckle. It never occurred to him that he would be anything except a professional musician. He began working in November (after the summer of his musical epiphany) and, for all practical purposes, has been working ever since.  Age was not a problem. “I mastered looking self-assured,” he recalled. “Nobody could tell what I was doing. I just blended in with the rest of the band and kept on playing. I always came close.” Not to discourage young musicians from studying the basics, Bany is quick to note that he “learned to read the notes” later and eventually studied with many outstanding players including Harold Robert, principal bassist with the Cincinnati Symphony. “I was playing eight hours a day,” he said. “I loved playing not practicing.  I never got to be a good sight reader but that’s not most important in a jazz band. I could read everything in the bass register and anyway it’s mostly all quarter notes. Eighth notes freak me out!” He memorized the music when playing with a symphony and there, too, “I could memorizes faster with my ears than with my eyes.” He was serious about classical music and declared “Jazz and classical music are like Siamese twins that are fused at the Bach.” But it was always improv that held the most challenge — and satisfaction. “You just throw the ball up in the air and you don’t know where it will land,” he said with the joy of a players who always makes the right catch. No accident that, over the years, Bany has always been put in charge of jam sessions. He recalls most fondly the early EJF impromptu sessions in the pool area of the now-gone City Center hotel which housed five EJF stages. The “pool party” was always Saturday night after the last regularly scheduled set. “Eddie Higgins, Butch (Miles) and I would set up on stage and others would line up to step up and solo. The crowd filled the area and hung over the balcony raili
ng to hear us,” Bany said, with no little touch of nostalgia. “It was great.” (Note: This year he organized a jam session at the KofC Hall from midnight ’til 2 a.m. Sunday.) Although he admits “I sometimes worry about the future of jazz,” Bany refuses to consider his art form “an endangered species.” “It can be rediscovered by the young,” he declared. “And the cycle starts all over again.” The number of young people at the festival was very heartening to the veteran player. Like the rest of the ’09 musicians, Bany has high praise for the EJF. “It’s been my favorite festival since the beginning,” says the man who should know. “It’s the way they treat us (the musicians) and the food and the fans. It’s an ideal mixture of the old and the new. It’s like an old home week.” As far as the Elkhart Jazz Festival is concerned, the feeling is definitely mutual. To read a list of Bany’s extensive (and on-growing) musical accomplishments, check his website. Enough to say that you can catch him and some of his fellows every Sunday night at Andy’s Jazz Club, on East Hubbard Street in Chicago. CENTRAL PARK EJF DEBUT  HAS ITS UP AND DOWNS The sun was hot, the breeze was slight and the sound of music wafted faintly through the air. It was Friday afternoon and the official opening of the 22nd Elkhart Jazz Festival.

Crowds gather for the first free stage in “Central Park” to open the 22nd annual Elkhart Jazz Festival Friday.

At first, things didn’t seem quite right. Especially to those who had been coming for years and whose favorite place was somewhere on level Main Street. Now located on what the city is calling “Central Park” (not to be confused with the real one in mid-town Manhattan), the validity of using the sloping grassy area as the free stage location will be determined after this EJF. There is no doubt that it poses definite problems for the elderly and physically handicapped who have difficulty maneuvering its ups and downs. “Two years ago, I had a husband in a wheelchair,” said Betty Kegerreis, longtime drummer with the Elkhart Municipal Band. “I wouldn’t have been able to get him to the grass. And not everyone can make the stairs.” Longtime attendee Sally Roth was among those who noted that on the Civic Plaza, the location of  food vendors and the choice of many as a place to sit and eat, you couldn’t hear the music. The giant speakers obviously were not aimed in a direction to make this happen. They were, however, in much closer proximity to park listeners which made some wish for ear plugs. The sound trucks, parked in past years along the east side of Main Street, were positioned in front of the free stage tent, blocking views and taking up a large flat section of grass that could have been used by listeners. Ditto for a smaller truck that blocked the west side of the stage and the sound boards that also obstructed views. Hopefully, these problems will be addressed and taken care of if the free tent is to remain on the grass.

Swinging at the EJF are (from left) Jim and Esther Buchanan of Elkhart and Bernard and Kathy Blanda of Mishawaka. nd Bernard and Kathy Blanda of Ma

Rocky and Johanna Giglio took advantage of their plaza parking spot by sitting in their car to hear the Airmen of Note, the second group scheduled Friday for the free stage.  Two couples, Jim and Esther Buchanan of Elkhart and Bernard and Kathy Blanda of Mishawaka, were on the porch swing beyond the stage, enjoying a lessening of the heat. However, “It used to be nicer on Main Street,” Jim said and the others nodded. As the 9 p.m. start time for Tim Cunningham, perennial plaza stage favorite, approached, the grassy hill was filled  with those who had brought their own folding chairs (the 400-seat tent was always full) and/or blankets and the adjoining beer tent grew more and more lively. By the end of his set, the grass crowd was melting away and the beer tent was heading for last call. The real test of the new venue will be daytime, when relief from the sun is a constantly moving goal.

This Game Is in Very Good Hands

Several months ago I attended the opening production in the 2008-09 season of an excellent regional theater. Friday night, I attended the  opening of the current Elkhart Civic Theatre production. Both were presenting the same play: “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure,” by Steven Dietz, based on two stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s not often that I can say the “amateur” production was as good — or better — than the professional show. This is one time. Granted, the regional production had all the bells and whistles, set-wise: Elevators, scrims, fog, a movable suspended bridge, walls that glided on and off, platforms that rose from the stage floor … it was so amazing that what I came away remembering was the set. Not that the acting was not good, but it was definitely overwhelmed by the constantly moving design.

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The King of Bohemia (Carl Wiesinger, left) brings a case to Sherlock Holmes (Rick Ellis, right) and Dr. Watson (Jim Bain) in
When ECT announced this show, my immediate reaction was “They’ll never be able to pull it off.” OK. I was wrong. Without the use of electronics, designer John Jay Shoup covered all the bases (aka required scene locations) with amazing ease AND without any loss of identification or distracting from the action. Electronics were replaced by good old-fashioned manpower in the form of the hard-working stage crew, costumed appropriately as servants in the period (1893) whose presence on stage during scene changes seemed very natural. It would be worth the price of admission just to check out the set. Most fortunately, the performances more than live up to the demands of the dialogue-heavy script. As the title character, Rick Ellis returns to the ECT stage with a vengeance — and the ability to turn the quixotic Holmes into a believable man, one whose powers of observation find answers in the most minute details. His methodical analysis is “elementary,” and Ellis plays the shifting moods well, portraying the master detective as, finally, an all too vulnerable man who cannot resist the thrill of the chase. “The game’s afoot, Watson!” he declares, adding prophetically “And it is a dangerous one.” “You see but you do not observe,” he scolds Dr. Watson, played by James Bain in an ECT debut that makes one hope for many return performances. Watson serves as best friend, sidekick and narrator, moving the action from Holmes’s London home on Baker Street to a lodge in Europe to the Swiss alps and back to London. He is the lynchpin for the mercurial Holmes and is solid without being bumbling or boring. The relationship between the two is obvious. To quote “Jerry Maguire,” they complete each other. It is a connection established immediately between the two, marred only by Holmes’ longtime battle with the evil Prof. Moriarty (Bob Franklin), a criminal mastermind who draws the detective out of retirement for one last confrontation. Franklin addresses the role with appropriately malevolent glee. Carl Weisinger is The King of Bohemia, a monarch whose nearing nuptials are threatened by a  photograph of the King with a former mistress, opera diva Irene Adler (Julie Castello), who just happens to be the love of Holmes’ life. In agreeing to retrieve the photo, Holmes’ puts himself squarely in Moriarty’s path, one that can only end in disaster. Aiding Moriarty are his “right hand man” Sid Prince (Tony Venable) and siblings James and Madge Larrabee (Dave Hoien and Karen Hoover), all of whom supply welcome comic touches. The shifting story lines (the play is based on two stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Final Problem) make focus necessary on both side of the footlights.  Director Dave Dufour has kept his actors’ eyes on the prize, resulting in a winning experience for cast, crew and audience. “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure” plays at 8 p.m. today and next Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 p.m. and at the box office.