Looking at life through "Art"

NAPPANEE — The mainstage season of Amish Acres’ Round Barn Theatere is several weeks away, but what may be the best production of its year is currently in the Locke Meeting House, tucked away at the rear of the gift shop adjacent to the theater. On the small, back-to-basics stage, the award-winning play “Art” is in the more than capable hands of a trio of actors — Sam Brown, Joe Ford and Jeremy Littlejohn. All three will be familiar to regular Round Barn audience members, although Jeremy is more often in the director’s chair and Joe, on stage in Chicago. Together they do an excellent job of recreating the protagonists in Yasmine Reza’s 1998 play, which is often described as a comedy but definitely has enough sharply dark moments to question that label. Whatever you want to call it, “Art” is a 90-minute examination of both the limits of friendship and the definition of art.

Art at Amish AcresSerge (Brown), a dermatologist with a penchant for art, has purchased a new painting which he eagerly displays for his friend of 15 years Marc (Ford), an aeronautical engineer. Marc’s reaction to the work — a white painted canvas with some barely discernible white lines across it — and more especially to the purchase price — $200,000 — is to laugh uncontrollably, call it a joke and label it “crap.” Serge, not surprisingly, is less than pleased and defends his acquisition. The arguments move from the painting to more personal moments and, in the way of all verbal battles, cutting words are said in increasing anger. Their friend Yvan (Littlejohn) is focused on his upcoming wedding and his hated new job as a stationery salesman. Basically an insecure person, he tries his best to placate both his friends and, naturally, winds up the target for their anger. “Why,” he asks, “Do we see each other if we hate each other?” It seems that fractured friendships are unavoidable, but a saving gesture mends them, at least temporarily. The personalities of the friends are sharply detailed in the performances as their characters are, by turn, sympathetic and abrasive. It is impossible to hear the fast-paced dialogue without something hitting home. And there are plenty of laughs, possibly of recognition. Here the point of contention is art. In reality it could be anything.

Art” plays at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For reservations, call 773-3722.

Will the Real Bride Please Stand

BRISTOL — It comes as no surprise to those who know me that farce is about my least favorite form of theater. That said, the hard-working cast of playwright Robin Hawdon’s venture into the wild world of who-did-what-to-whom-and-with-whom-and-why — “Perfect Wedding” — is a fun way to spend two hours if you have a tolerance for the same-old/same-old. After the first half hour, that’s what every farce becomes: Different twists on the same story delivered at increasingly breakneck speed — and with a multitude of additional flourishes — by each of the major characters. In “Perfect Wedding,” those twists are less mean-spirited and bathroom humor-sourced than in many, although it is more Ray Cooney than Ken Ludwig. The small cast deserves large cheers for its delivery of this dizzying dialogue without much hesitation while managing to keep everyone in their properly convoluted character-of-the-moment. It is a rather daunting task and they accomplish it with applaudable flair, also managing to wait for the many laughs, a feat without which the laughs soon fade in the fear of losing dialogue. The only pitfall is overdoing the line deliveries or attitudes that evoke the most reaction. What can be funny at first, soon becomes repetitive and annoying, turning character into caricature.

Bill (Peter Sessions) is about to be married. On the morning of his wedding day, he wakes up in the bridal suite very hungover and with a naked woman in his bed. He has no idea who she is or how she got there or what went on between them. All he knows is that the clock is ticking and he has only a few hours to get it together. Enter Tom (Ricky Fields), his best man, a take-charge kind of guy who sets about to help his friend emerge from his impending pre-nuptial catastrophe. Of course, his efforts, which include many mistaken identities (a mainstay of all farces everywhere as is the extremely long arm of coincidence), lots of close calls, slamming doors and several people who could not possibly be as oblivious as they seem. But hey, it’s a farce so suspension of disbelief is a major requirement. The initially naked woman is Judy (Stephanie Zonker), who heads for the bathroom at Tom’s arrival. Next on the scene is Rachel (April Sellers), a bride who is nothing if not in charge. She is followed by the hotel chambermaid Julie (Jen Shenk) who comes to clean up and stays to make a real mess of everything. Finally, the bride’s mother (Lorri Krull) enters with the gown and hopes for a “Perfect wedding.” It isn’t easy, but by the final blackout, each one is paired with his/her appropriate other and lots of “big moments” lie ahead. Director Randy Zonker keeps his sextet of players in good form, going from slow walk (the groggy awakening) to a trot (the best man) to a canter (the bride-to-be) to a gallop (the chambermaid) to a full out run (the mother of the bride). With all finally assembled and accounted for, mayhem ensues, much to the delight of the opening night audience. “Perfect Wedding” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House. Tickets: 848-4116.

Getting Ready to Make Disney Magic

Students in the Goshen High School auditorium are focused intently on the energetic woman standing at center stage. Director Marcia Yost is giving notes  to the cast and crew of the upcoming GHS production of “Beauty and The Beast” before one of the final dress rehearsals.

beauty and the beast - goshen high school The show, based on the original Walt Disney animated feature, went to Broadway in 1994 and was an instant hit. Since then it has, in spite of its many production “challenges,” become a favorite of community theaters and schools across the country. One never, it seems, gets tired of the tale of Belle and her Beast and the romantic transformation that led to happily ever after. For Yost, however, producing this musical after it has made the rounds of other groups  and schools in this area is not true to form. She was the first to lead led her team through the premiere production of the high school version of “Les Miserables” and tried for “Beauty” when it was initially released for amateur production. But timing is everything and those rights went to John Glenn High School. Yost instead produced a high-flying “Peter Pan.” “After that we did ‘Godspell,’ an ensemble show,” the dynamic director recalled. “And then one thing led to another and a couple of area theaters and schools had done it (‘Beauty and The Beast’) and we decided to wait.” Obviously the time is right and, as usual, Yost & Co. are pulling out all the stops.

beauty and the beast - goshen high schoolIn one part of the auditorium,  Jacob Greaser is being turned into the Beast and Katie Neeb Miller goes over her lines as Belle. Justin Lehman and Elisabeth Kleinsmith check their elaborate costumes as Cogsworth the butler/clock and Mrs. Potts, housekeeper/teapot, respectively, while Luke Jacobs displays Gaston’s muscles and Tell Williams prepares for the many stage falls required of LeFou.

beauty and the beast - goshen high schoolScenic designer Rich Snyder did not make it easy on himself or his construction crew. He designed and built a rotating central block (shades of ‘Les Mis’) that turns from the village marketplace to the palace of the Beast and back again easily and, more important, silently. Expanding the playing area, one side of the stage becomes Belle’s palace room and the other, the Beast’s tower where the enchanted rose is drooping. Drops and set pieces define the additional locations — the village inn, the forest and Belle’s home.

beauty and the beast - goshen high schoolAdd to this the costuming —not only for the many villagers but for the enchanted inhabitants of the palace who gradually become “objects” as the spell increases — plus props, wigs, makeup, black lights, fog machines,  a trickling fountain, live mikes for each of the primary performers and, in the grand finale, an airborne transformation courtesy of ZFX Flying Effects, and you have a production of grand proportions. And that doesn’t include the 85 young people in the singing/dancing/acting cast and Sue Ellington’s orchestra. “We encourage them to give all they’ve got,” Yost said of her students. “They don’t realize how much they have down deep. We don’t want them to disappoint themselves.” Talking to the assembled company, her final instructions were “Work a plan … you’ll have a plan and that’s how good theater happens.””Beauty and The Beast” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and March 19-21 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday and March 22 in the GHS auditorium. Tickets are $9 for adults and $7 for children and students through high school with senior citizen prices for Sunday matinees. FCor reservations, 533-7674 or 533-8651, ext. 2518.

beauty and the beast - goshen high school

Old Favorite Cabaret Hits High/Low Notes

First, I have to say that”Cabaret,” the Kander and Ebb musical set in pre-war Germany, is one of my all-time favorite musicals. Possibly that’s because the story and I, in one form or another (pun intended), go back almost 60 years, the latest incarnation being the current South Bend Civic Theatre production which opened Friday evening in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium. I missed the actual point of origin. It was “Goodbye to Berlin,” one of the two short novels making up Christopher Isherwood’s 1946  “Berlin Stories.”  I caught up in 1951 when my  summer season in Woodstock, N.Y. included John Van Druten’s play “I Am A Camera,” based on that novel. That non-musical story of expatriate Sally Bowles, her life and loves, became a b&w movie in 1955, with Broadway star Julie Harris repeating her role. Neither stage nor film version were noticeably successful but, as every musical lover knows, sometimes all it takes is a couple of good tunes. “I Am a Camera” was followed to the stage a few years later by “Cabaret,” the musical version by one of my favorite songwriting teams (see above). The 1966 multi-Tony Award winner was memorable not only for a cast that included Joel Grey, Jack Gilford and the musical icon Lotte Lenya but also for the fact that my matinee ticket — in the 7th row of the orchestra — cost $7.

cabaret-sbcivicI was definitely hooked and remained so through the 1972 Liza Minelli film (in spite of the excision of my favorite characters), the 1987 revival (with Wagon Wheel’s Greg Edelman and Joel Grey) and the most recent Broadway version in 1998, which cast Alan Cumming as the Emcee. It put a decidedly darker and more sexually diverse face on the entire proceedings, something which is only hinted at in the film but which does go back to the play. That ’98 version is making its debut in South Bend. In spite of its “updating,” am not sure it is has any advantage over the original. Neither can be called “family friendly,” dealing however carefully with abortion, prejudice and, in the ’98 version, homosexuality. This is definitely adult fare. The scenic introduction to the SBCT production is impressive: Towering flats in wine and gold, a color scheme carried out in the cabaret tables and bar, are painted with drooping art deco  lillies and, in different configurations,  serve as a backdrop. When moved aside, they reveal a catwalk above center stage flanked by two spiral staircases. Draped on these initially are the Kit Kat Klub Girls and Boys who periodically descend to join the Emcee in entertaining the guests. The girls especially interpret their numbers sharply and with enthusiasm. Throughout, the Emcee (Stephen Bailey) comments sardonically on the action and events swirling outside the club as the dark shadows of Nazi Germany begin to dim the lights of Berlin in the late 1920s. As American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Jordan Mullins) puts it “…it was the end of the world.” The stories of Cliff and Sally Bowles (Stephanie Yoder), a hedonistic, self-destructive Brit who stars in the Kit Kat floorshow, and of Cliff’s pragmatic landlady Fraulein Schneider (Susan South) and her beau Herr Schultz (Steve Chung), a Jewish fruit vendor, are intertwined. Bringing reality sharply into focus are Fraulein Kost (Kristin Apker),  a hardworking lady of the evening, and Ernst Ludwig (Nathaniel Smith), at first Cliff’s friend then only a Nazi. Yoder has a strong voice and does very well vocally with the demands of the role. Mullins, who unfortunately can’t sing,  is an anachronism; a West Side  Jet in a flapper world. Smith and Apker deliver believable characterizations and Bailey works hard to create the androgynous persona required for the Emcee but never quite overcomes a baby face. The chilling “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is done with the right  hint of foreboding by  talented young Carson Collins. The very strong points in this “Cabaret” are South and Chung who not only sing well solo and in duets, but create characters that go beyond the script. Their connection is warm, honest and beautifully  delineated. In their hands and voices, a pineapple becomes a beautiful bouquet. Their parting is inevitable and hauntingly sad. There still are problems with the orchestra which, on opening night, frequently had trouble finding the right notes. “Cabaret”continues through March 15. See SBCT link above.  Running time is 3 hours.