'White Christmas' holiday classic

Since it left the pen of Irving Berlin in 1940, “White Christmas” has become the best-selling song of all time and is the only one to have produced a movie and a Broadway musical, both named for that tune. The power of the Berlin holiday tune is evidenced by the current Elkhart Civic Theatre production of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” which opened Friday evening and was sold out even before it began. The audience is invited to sing along at the beginning and the finale and I would bet there were few if any who could not respond to that request.

It’s a show to put you in the holiday spirit and definitely is one the entire family can enjoy. The 1954 technicolor movie starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen and the decidedly thin plot was obviously taken, with some modification, from the 1942 Crosby/Astaire classic, “Holiday Inn.” The theatrical version puts the ownership of the Vermont inn in the hands of a retired Army general (Charles Arnold). When former soldiers now successful entertainers Bob Wallace (Vincent Kelly) and Phil Davis (Tom Myers) arrive at the inn in pursuit of a sister song and dance team Betty (Stephanie Yoder) and Judy (Alexandra Pote) Haynes, they discover their former commander is facing bankruptcy. No surprise, they use their show biz contacts to put on a big show which, after romantic entanglements are sorted out, brings solvency to the general and true love to Bob and Betty and Phil and Judy — and all to the strains of some of Berlin’s loveliest music. Among this productions highlights are “Snow,” sung by the entire company on a train to Vermont; “Sisters,” both female and male versions; “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” a good idea at any season;  “I Love a Piano,” a show-stopper that gets the second act off to a flying start; and, of course, the title tune. In addition there are lesser known melodies that are well worth hearing: “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun,” a lament by the sisters and the general’s housekeeper Martha (Julie Herrli Castello), and “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” sung by Castello and, later, by the general’s granddaughter Susan (Jacqueline Kelley Cogdell). Special applause for Tom Doughty who does a very funny Percy Kilbride. The costume design by Dawn Blessing fills the stage with holiday cheer, especially in the red and white finale and the black and white “Piano” number. The quartet of choreographers and the dancers who execute their steps make each of the numbers — ensemble or individual — absolute fun to watch. Director Michael Cripe keeps the pace crisp. The soloists are up to the vocal challenges, delivering music and lyrics clearly and smoothly. The orchestra was much too loud opening night, covering singers and at time less than supportive of the dancers.

“WHITE CHRISTMAS” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Nov. 19-20 and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Opera House on S.R. 120 in Bristol. For information on possible cancellations, call 848-4116 or check at the box office before curtain time.

'The Pillowman' puts 'black' in 'comedy'

“The Pillowman” by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, currently on stage at Goshen’s New World Arts, is described as a “black comedy.” It is more “black” than “comedy” but there are laughs, even if one feels guilty about them. Trying to decide McDonagh’s “theme” can take all of the play’s two hours and 45 minutes (including intermission) — and even then it’s individual rather than general perception and most accurately described by one of the characters as “a puzzle without a solution.”

On first glance — actually on every glance — it doesn’t look like a comedy. The stage is black, with three metal folding chairs, a filing cabinet, a desk and a single light hanging overhead. Into the room come two detectives and one prisoner. This is a totalitarian state and the prisoner Katurian (Matthew Bell) has no idea of what crime he is charged. His interrogators Topolski (Brian Kozlowski) and Ariel (Jenna Grubaugh) play “good cop, bad cop,” and their questioning centers on Katurian’s stories dealing with violence against young children which have been copied in recent child murders in their town. Katurian insists on his innocence but changes his story when he believes that his retarded brother Michal (Michael Kennel) is bring tortured in the next room and has confessed and implicated Katurian. The brothers are brought together and recall their horribly unequal childhood out of which grew the writer’s grisly narratives (including one from which the play takes its title) and his obsession with keeping children safe from the pains of older life. The focus shifts between the emotions and relationships of the brothers and the detectives as the stories of Katurian are read and the facts of their childhood are assembled, disected and reassembled. One thing is clear, nothing is more important to the writer than the preservation of his stories, whatever the cost. The cast of this “Pillowman” handle their characters as well as can be expected in such a dark and multi-layered tale. Kozlowski earns most of the laughs, creating a benign facade which covers a ruthless interior. Bell’s writer is articulate but frequently too detached. Grubaugh has the assignment of creating a character written for a man. Despite her resemblance to Hilary Swank, it doesn’t always ring true. Kennel is properly bumbling but it is difficult to believe he is Bell’s brother. Bell is obviously British and Kennell, obviously not. The accent, or lack thereof, was difficult to ignore. Not so the incidental “music” before and after the show and at intermission. Could not decide if it was wounded whale song or grinding girders. Meant to set the tone of the play it was more loud than ominous. That said, it was an evening well-spent and I congratulate NWA and director Laura Gouin for continuing to present shows that are off the beaten path for civic groups. Certainly “The Pillowman” will not be popping up in the seasons of any other nearby community group. This is an opportunity to see a play by a writer unanimously heralded as one of the best of the modern playwrights. I urge you to take advantage of it — just leave the children at home!

“THE PILLOWMAN” will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Oct. 29-30 in the theater at 211 S. Main St. in Goshen. Entrance and parking off Third Street. Tickets at the door.

Color Purple – a Multi-Hued Musical

Miller Auditorium at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo opened its 2010-2011 season Tuesday evening with the first of its Broadway in Western Michigan series, the musical “The Color Purple.” For those not there, this was — to quote another musical — a “one night only” performance. It was an excellent non-Equity production of the big musical (11 Tony nominations) that ran for more than two years on Broadway. I note this difference, because there is always a question about non-Equity shows, the answer to which frequently falls on the side of “if it’s not Equity (union), it can’t be too good.”

I must say I have seen touring productions that definitely fell in that category. But lately, the more youthful casts have made up in talent and enthusiasm for the lack of rich production values,  a good thing, since almost 100 percent of the tours are non-Equity. The reason, of course, is the cost. Having seen “Purple” in New York, I can say that the the only real difference in this scaled-down tour is in the much more minimal sets. The 12 principal players are just as ably supported by  13 hard-working ensemble members who change costumes and personas frequently as the scenes require — from devout church goers to juke joint revelers to African tribal natives. The show, based on Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, was preceded by 20 years by Stephen Spielberg’s 1985 film version, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey. The role of Celie, for which LaChanze earned a Tony Award as best actress, is, to quote my grandmother “a real gut-buster!”

color purple miller auditoriumAs Celie, young Dayna Jarae Dantzler is required not only to age 40 years from first curtain to last, but must believably deliver the personal changes as the abused 14-year-old (two children by her father who gave them away at birth) moves from terrified slavey to strong and emotionally emancipated woman. She is in almost every scene and is vocally awesome, belting defiance to the rafters, softly comforting her newborn baby or wondering at the awakening of a new kind of love. It is a tour de force role and Dantzler handles it with impressive depth and ease. The featured cast members are equally impressive. Most especially the always-audience-favorite character of Sofia, played with show-stopping hutzpah by Pam Trotter;  Mister, Celie’s arrogantly abusive husband, in which Edward C. Smith transitions beautifully from the man you have to hate to one who deserves forgiveness; Taprena Augustine as the object of Mister’s affection, Shug Avery, a singer with a raging libido and a lot of problems; Lee Edward Colston II is Harpo, Celie’s stepson and Sofia’s husband; and a trio of hilariously snarky Church Ladies who Nesha Ward, Virlinda Stanton and Deaun Parker bring to gossipy perfection.

color purple miller auditoriumThere are many others and, unfortunately, the second act is way too long  and too slow or, perhaps, it is just that most of the drama is in Act I (excepting Celie’s Thanksgiving emancipation proclamation), and by the final picnic, the quick fix of all the problems, with everyone paired off for a Pollyanna-ish ending, still seems forced. Next up in the Broadway series at Miller is “Legally Blonde” which will stop over Oct. 14-15, “Spring Awakening,” another one-night-only must-see, Nov. 4; Blue Man Group, Feb, 15-16.;  and”Monty Python’s Spamalot,” May 10-11. No question, however, the real biggie for this Miller season is “Wicked,” which will fly into Kalamazoo Dec. 1-12. Tickets available now at  (269) 387-2300. Check out the complete season lineup at www.Miller Auditorium.com. It includes Bob Dylan,  the Russian National Ballet Theatre, Last Comic Standing, Jazz Masters with Kurt Elling, David Sedaris, Michael Flatley’s “Lord of the Dance” and Vicki Lawrence & Mama: A Two Woman Show. NOTE: All of these are one-night-only.

Farndale…Macbeth- Unorganized Chaos

It’s always interesting to see something for the first time and the past few seasons at South Bend Civic Theatre have provided that opportunity more than once. For the most part, the “debut’ productions have been enjoyable and, at best, are on the list of “we’d like to see that one again.” The current production, however, falls into neither category.

The title, “Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of … Macbeth,” kind of says it all. The farce by David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin Jr. is one in a series which replaces “Macbeth” with a varied number of other titles including “A Christmas Carol,” “The Mikado” and “Murder at Checkmate Manor.” Possibly it would be easier to follow if the underlying play was a bit more familiar. As it is, if you have no working knowledge of the Shakespearean tragedy, you have already have one strike against you. The second is delivered by the frantically fevered antics of the cast, which is undeniably hard-working and obviously committed to giving its all for laughs. Farce, however,  must be as crisply detailed as any serious drama in order to obtain the desired results. Pratfalls, pies in the face and actors in drag are all very well but, bottom line, farce is organized chaos. When the former is absent, only the latter remains.

Regina Renee Warren in Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society's Production of ... MacbethIn addition, the cast fights another losing battle: the acoustics — or lack thereof — in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium. How well the audience hears/understands what is being said depends entirely on which way the actor is facing. Any turn away and dialogue becomes completely unintelligible. Intermittent English accents don’t help. From  primary players  (Regina Renee Warren as guild chairwoman Mrs. Reece/Lady Macduff, Sara Bartlett as Thelma Shaw/Macbeth, Jim Bain as stage manager/Lady Macbeth, Roy Bronkema as Farndale producer Plummer, and Doug Streich as increasingly tipsy festival adjudicator George Peach)  to geriatric stage hands (Lee Town, Michelle Bain) to all other multiple-role actors (Jonnie and Seyhan Kilic, Becki Faunce, Carlie Barr, Andrea Smiddy Talkington,  and Randy Colt) all fight valiantly. Unfortunately they don’t see Birnam wood coming.

“FARNDALE AVENUE. . . MACBETH” plays at 8 p.m. today through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the theater at 403 N. Main St. Reservations: 234-1112.

Witty Wilde Survives Test of Time

When a play survives more than 150 years and is known less for being a “classic” than for being a sharply witty and still relevant comedy, it’s obviously one that should be seen. Such a play is “The Importance of Being Earnest,” a brilliant, satirical look at the follies and foibles of the English upper class at the turn of the century — the 19th century, that is — by Oscar Wilde, one of only two playwrights of that era whose works still are played and replayed today. The other is George Bernard Shaw.

The Importance of Beign Earnest at Wagon Wheel Theatre“Earnest,” which premiered in London in February 1895, is the one non-musical (I would say straight play but there is little straight about this production) on the Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre 2010 season. Actually, Wilde’s final theatrical work has been called “a verbal opera,” so lyrically does his crisply-paced dialogue ebb and flow and most often hit the mark square on. Wilde’s mark was the society in which he lived and he was frequently less than subtle in his barbs.”That is the whole truth, pure and simple,” says John (Jack) Worthing (Nick Laughlin).  “The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” replies his friend Algernon Moncrieff (Ari Frenkel). “Modern life would be very tedious if it were either and modern literature would be a complete impossibility.” The two gentlemen compare romantic personas. Jack reveals that he is called Earnest in town and Jack when at his Manor House in the country, while Algernon relies on a conveniently  ill friend Bunbury, whenever he wishes to escape tiresome social obligations. Bunbury, of course, is a complete fabrication but he serves a purpose. Jack is enamoured of Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax (Caitlin Mesiano), who is watched closely by her mother Lady Bracknell (Dannielle Robertson), an arbiter of all things socially acceptable. “Never speak disrespectfully of society,” she declares. “”Only people who can’t get into it do that.” Algernon, meanwhile, is determined to meet Jack’s ward, Cecily Cardew (Kayla Roy), who lives in the country. As each woos his lady, they discover that the two girls share one fixation: a determination to fall in love with someone named Earnest. Both men schedule baptisms in a rush to become Earnest, enlisting the aid of the Rev. Canon Chasuble (Dave Adamick). He harbors a secret admiration for Cecily’s governess, Miss Prism (Sophie Grimm), a woman with a connection to Lady Bracknell and a certain missing handbag. Hovering on the periphery  of  the social swirl are Lane, Algernon’s manservant (Matt Gottlieb), and Merriman, Jack’s manservant, (Zachary McConnell).

The Importance of Beign Earnest at Wagon Wheel TheatreEveryone is paired correctly by the final blackout, although Jack mourns the fact that “It is a terrible thing for a men to discover that all of his life he has been telling nothing but the truth.” Directors Ben Dicke and Andy Robinson added  a great deal of physical comedy  a la The Three Stooges which obviously entertained the opening night audience but turned the gentlemen into foolish fops. Ensemble songs at the opening  set the scene (“London Town”) and added a nice ending touch (Noel Coward’s  “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”). At times the girls were difficult to understand, although their English accents were the most believable, but Lady Bracknell lacked the commanding presence that should immediately identify her as a force to be reckoned with. The use of instrumental music from Gilbert and Sullivan”s “The Pirates of Penzance” made the scene changes a delightful and viable part of the production.

“THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST” plays through Aug. 14 in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For show times and reservations, call 267-8041.

"The Miracle Worker" Remains Luminous

The end of this month, June 27, is the 130th anniversary of the birth of Helen Keller. It seems only fitting, therefore, that this occasion should be marked by a fine revival of the 1959 play that follows Helen’s transition from darkness into a world  in which she shed a miraculous light. William Gibson’s drama, “The Miracle Worker,” depicts that transition and its production by South Bend Civic Theatre proves that this story, in this theatrical format, loses nothing with the passage of time. (Warning: Handkerchiefs or at least tissues are advisable for the final scene.)

The Miracle Worker at South Bend Civic TheatreHelen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Ala. At 18 months she was stricken by an undiagnosed illness that left her deaf, blind and resultantly mute. She grew up wild and undisciplined, treated by her family almost as a pet. As a last resort, her father hired Annie Sullivan, a student in a Boston, Mass., institute  for the blind, as a teacher/companion for the basically feral child. The struggle between Annie and Helen  (and Annie and Helen’s family) make up the plotline of “The Miracle Worker” which follows them from their meeting when Helen was six to her first breakthrough in understanding. Working with Helen, Annie must contend with Helen’s father, the autocratic Capt. Keller, who is increasingly upset by the turmoil she creates and sets time limits for results, and her too-loving mother Kate, who gives in to her daughter’s every demand. Annie’s efforts to teach the child that the words she is spelling in her hand have meanings are, to say the least, frustrating. The lessons in proper behavior become battlegrounds. The roles of Helen and Annie were made famous on stage and in the 1962 film by Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke and are incredible challenges to the actresses who take on those assignments. In the SBCT production, Heather Marks as Annie sees her task as disciplining her charge without breaking her spirit but opts to forgo the character’s Irish brogue, which softens Annie’s  steely exterior. An amazing second grader, Madeline Varga, is making her stage debut as Helen. She is never out of character, stumbling blindly from house to yard to a dinner table she treats as a feeding trough. This results in one of the plays most famous scenes (and a physical challenge for both actresses). It is a memorable and incredibly moving performance and conveys the child’s frustration, anger and pain at her dark existence as well as the eager mind seeking release.

The Miracle Worker at South Bend Civic TheatreKate Keller is played beautifully by Debbie Rarick. She creates a multi-layered character who struggles with her husband for Helen’s survival and with herself for the strength to keep away when Annie demands complete control in order to facilitate Helen’s learning. She is the perfect Southern lady, with an iron fist in her velvet glove. Completing Helen’s family are Greg Melton as Capt. Keller, Billy Miller as her adult half-brother James, and Mary Jo Tompos, recreating Aunt Ev, a role she played in a previous SBCT “Miracle Worker.” In the “no small actors” category are the six youngsters who play Annie’s blind Boston students plus Percy Dillon as Percy and Miranda Manier as Martha (and understudy for Helen) and a lovely dog (who gets no program credit). The multi-level set by Michaela Duffy fills all requirements and sets the mood perfectly as does the sound design by John Jung-Zimmerman which does much to transition scenes and underscore emotions. Director Mark Abram-Copenhaver and his associate, Jewel Abram-Copenhaver, have done well in recreating a time — and people — that continue to be memorable in the history of America and, indeed, the world.

‘THE MIRACLE WORKER” plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the theater at 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For reservations, call 243-1112 from noon to 6 p.m. weekdays or visit www.sbct.0rg.

"Out of Sterno" Delightfully Off-Beat

If ignorance is bliss, Dotty Burke is in a state of euphoria. Dotty is the heroine of “Out of Sterno,”  a play by Deborah Zoe Laufer making its area  premiere at South Bend Civic Theatre. The comedy takes a creative look at one young woman’s journey from happy (?) housewife to enlightened adult. The Sterno in question is not canned heat but the name of the small  Midwestern town in which Dotty and her husband, Hamel, have lived for their entire married life of seven years.

South Bend Civic Theatre production of Out of SternoActually, Hamel lives in the town. Dotty lives in their apartment which, as he reminds her every evening between coming home  for a change of clothes and a smiley-face hamburger and rushing out to a “meal meeting”, she is never to leave. Dotty spends the days creating papier mache household appliances and watching the couple’s first meeting recreated on video and happily does as she is told. The crack in her “perfect” reality comes in the form of a  taxi driver who stirs some suspicions and insists on taking her to Hamel’s “meeting.” As reality seeps in, Dotty looks for answers in magazines, from  public transportation “bus buddies” and from Zena, a hardened multi-divorcee divorcee and former Miss TriBoro Area. She is the owner of Zena’s Beauty Emporium and Hamel’s secret lover. She also becomes Dotty’s employer. En route to her eventual emancipation, Dotty  — and her life — undergo a variety of changes, not the least of which are discovering her own talent (as an “appliance manicurist” she paints toasters, etc., on fingernails), realizing she is pregnant and finally learning to stand up for herself. Dotty’s journey “Out of Sterno” is an hour and a half (plus intermission) of solid fun underscored by a solid sprinkling of universal truths and a lot of recognizable (although exaggerated) situations. The credit goes to designer David Chudzinski for his wonderfully skewed settings; to lighting designer Kyle Techentin for his equally imaginative effects; to director Tami Ramaker for the requisite fast pace; and most of all to the excellent quintet of actors who make up the cast of 11 characters.

South Bend Civic Theatre production of Out of SternoKirstin Apker portrays three men while Kyle Curtis delivers the personas of four women and one man. Each of these is definitely its own creation and is a credit to the actors who cross genders to deliver some genuine gems. Phil Kwiecinski’s Hamel is a smarmy blend of overweening male ego and ignorance from his slickly greased hair to his magenta shirt and leather pants. His dismissive treatment of the wife who adores him is, here, a laughing matter but one that is unfortunately too true to life. Nicole Brinkmann Reeves plays Zena, a self-professed “soul mate of Princess Di,” who gives a bad name to all East Coast women. She is obsessed with getting Hamel for a husband, a target which ultimately is bad for her and good for Dotty. She defends her narcissistic shell with sarcasm  that hides a raft of insecurities. So easily does Lisa Blodgett become the dangerously naive Dotty, it’s difficult to believe that “Out of Sterno” is her first comedy.  She delivers a large majority of the dialogue (she talks to herself, to the audience and to the other characters) and displays a wonderful honesty that, when delivered with her wide-eyed naivete,  makes even her most outrageous statements acceptable. She is charming and funny and absolutely adorable. Also ultimately triumphant!

“OUT OF STERNO” plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Warner Studio Theatre, 403 N. Main St., South Bend. Tickets: 234-1112 between noon and 6 p.m. weekdays or call www.sbct.org.

Christie Thriller Stands the Test of Time

Take an isolated island, bring together  10 unrelated individuals who suddenly discover each has a deadly secret, add an unknown host whose object is definitely not a fun-filled weekend and you have Dame Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” the current offering of the South Bend Civic Theatre. The play, which began as a novel in 1939 with a definitely politically incorrect title, soon became “10 Little Indians” and, with the 1945 film version, premiered as “And Then There Were None.” By any name this tale, touted as the world’s best-selling mystery novel, maintains a fascination for both readers and viewers. The theatrical version  opened in 1943. After 60-plus years, its popularity is as strong as ever.

And Then There Were None at Elkhart Civic TheatreThe reasons for this are evident in the SBCT production, directed by Leigh Taylor. Set in the living room of an island estate, the assembled guests  find themselves without transportation back to the mainland and, of course, a major storm brewing. A gramophone recording lists the guests by name as well as defining his/her crime, each of which resulted in a death which has remained unpunished. Retribution is promised. Taking it at first for a prank, it soon becomes obvious to all that the threats are serious. Above the mantel hangs a children’s poem below which stand the figures of 10 soldiers. As each of the guests is dispatched according to the rhyme, one of the soldiers is broken. It finally becomes apparent that the aim of the weekend is death for them all. Designer David Chudzynski’s period (1938) set utilized the entire stage, allowing the actors a comfortably large playing area of which they make very good use. There were few problems with muffled dialogue, as in past productions, and the use of  accents was fairly consistent throughout. Costumes also were close to if not right in the proper time and the lighting provided the proper atmosphere as the murderous weekend moved one by one,  to claiming all of the “soldiers.”. Each of the players brought sustained and believeable individuality to his/her character and built the growing suspense and increasing histrionics in the “stiff upper lip” tradition of all Christie mysteries. The island guests are played by Andrea Smiddy Talkington, Matthew Bell, Sean Shank, James Bain, Marc Adams, Mary Ann Moran, Craig MacNab and Nathaniel Smith, with Roy Brokema and Lisa “Lee” Towne as butler and cook. Jenny M. Dolph serves as stage manager and also crews the elusive boat. Having seen the play and the film several times and, of course, knowing just who did it, it was a pleasure to allow the more than capable cast  to draw us into the heightening tension and even provide a bit of a jolt when the real villain was disclosed.   “And Then There Were None” is one Agatha Christie that stands up well to the test of time.

“AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Warner Mainstage Auditorium, 403 N. Main Street, South Bend. For reservations: 234-1112 from noon to 6 p.m. weekdays or visit www.sbct.org.

"Leading Ladies" Not What They Seem to Be

Since the earliest days of theatrical productions, farce has consistently been a favorite comedic form. For the last several decades, the most successful American purveyor of this form has been Ken Ludwig who counts among most popular works”Lend Me A Tenor” and “Moon Over Buffalo.” Six years ago, yet another Ludwig creation received its premier performance in the famed Alley Theater in Houston, Texas. Since then, “Leading Ladies” has found its way onto regional and community stages literally around the world. On Friday evening, it settled for a six-performance run on the stage of the Bristol Opera House in a fast-paced production by Elkhart Civic Theatre. Heading the cast, in performances that earn many laughs and for which the required high energy could be the basis for a new exercise routine, are veteran actor Rick Ellis and Scott Fowler.

Leading Ladies at Elkhart Civic TheatreThe plot, as in most farces, is paper thin, ditto the characters, but under the assured direction of John Hutchings, the pacing is so rapid that these minor technicalities are barely a subject for concern. But back to the plot. . . . Leo Clark (Ellis) and Jack Gable (Fowler) — Clark and Gable, get it? — are two mediocre Shakesperean actors touring the American provinces with their “Scenes from Shakespeare.”  A disastrous performance at the Shrewsbury Moose Lodge finds them broke and stranded in the wilds of Pennsylvania with nothing but a battered suitcase filled with large-size female Elizabethan  costumes. Spotting a personal ad in the local paper by which an elderly  millionairess is seeking two long lost nephews upon whom to bequeath her fortune, Clark siezes this as the chance to reboot their bank accounts by posing as the nephews. One small glitch. Upon arrival in York, PA, they discover nephews Steve and Max are really nieces Stephanie and Maxine. Never ones to let a gender switch derail their plans, the costumes come out and the farce is on. Keeping the obvious-to-all-except-the-other-characters deception rolling along are the Karen Johnston as Florence, the frequently terminal senior citizen; Daniel Johnson as her doctor who, like the Rev. Duncan Wooley (Carl Wiesinger), has his eye more on money than mortality; Butch (Ricky Fields), the doctor’s weak-willed son; Audrey (Stephanie Musser), Florence’s part-time aide and roller skating waitress; and Meg (Bridgette Greene), Florence’s real niece, Duncan’s fiance and a fan of live theater, especially Shakespeare.

Leading Ladies at Elkhart Civic TheatreMix them together, put Meg with Leo/Maxine and Audrey with Jack/Stephanie while an increasingly suspicious Duncan determines to discover their secret. There is the usual amount of sexual innuendo (in farce, everything is implied broadly then left to the audience’s imagination) and some really frantic costume changing. When he/she discovers Meg’s dream of being in a play, Maxine decides to stage “12th Night” and, as in other Ludwig farces (Verdi in ‘Tenor,’ Rostand and Coward  in ‘Buffalo’), uses the classics to add a touch of legitimacy to his far-fetched antics. Working on John Shoup’s elegant set, the cast, most especially Ellis, Fowler and Greene, are up to and above the demands of their roles.  Special applause to the unnamed “dressers” without whose help, the almost instantaneous costume changes would undoubtedly have been disastrous.

‘LEADING LADIES’ plays at 8 p.m. today and next Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House on 210 E. Vistula in Bristol. For tickets, call 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays or visit www.elkhartcivictheatre.org. Some available at the box office 45 minutes prior to curtain.

Drama Sheds Light in Darkness

In 1986, Irish writer Brian Keenan was on his way to work at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon when he was kidnapped by Jihad members and held in chains and almost total darkness for almost five years. His experience was the basis for “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me,” a play by Frank McGuiness, which premiered in London in 1991, moved to New York in 1992 and, as currently produced by Goshen’s New World Arts, is a testimony to the determined resilience of the human spirit in the face of tremendous odds which, unhappily, are still a reality today.

Someone Who'll Watch Over MeThe stark setting is a prison somewhere in Beirut where hostages Adam, an American (Mike Honderich), and Edward, an Irish journalist (Joel Easton), share the empty near-darkness of a small cell. Chained to the wall, with copies of the Bible and the Koran as their own reading materials, they nevertheless manager to entertain, support and irritate each other, always in the hope that release could be imminent. Into their mix is thrown Michael, an English teacher at the university (Craig Lemons), who contributes yet another dimension to their fantasy lives. The trio struggles to fight the  overwhelming monotony  of their confinement by calling remembered horse races, debating the merits of movies and directors, exercising, disputing the affects of various alcoholic beverages, telling bad jokes, playing imaginary sports and sharing private moments. They laugh, sing and even dance, all to the accompanying clatter of their ever-present chains, managing each in his own way to watch over the others. The NWA production, directed by Geoffrey Owens, conveys the claustrophobic atmosphere of the dark cell, no small feat as it is played in the theater’s “black box,” which actually is the quite open lobby area. Each actor develops his character both as an individual and as a part of the group necessary for survival. They are different yet the same, and their focus sustains them. Realizing that their situation has been repeated frequently in the more than two decades since Keenan was kidnapped makes it even more frustratingly powerful to watch, especially since the players are in extremely close proximity to the audience. It is to their credit that the fourth wall remains in tact, even though peering through it is a frequently painful experience. “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” is a “bare bones” production requiring minimal lighting and costuming,. The latter is my only complaint.  For men who have been chained in a dark cell for many months, their “costumes” are way too clean, especially in the case of Easton whose white tee shirt seems soil resistant.

Note: Seating in this area is, of necessity, on metal folding chairs. Taking a cushion along is strongly suggested.

“Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the theater