Brotherly Love Shepard style

If you think your family is dysfunctional, take a look at the brothers in “True West.” The 1980 work by playwright/actor Sam Shepard is on stage through Sunday in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Barbara K. Warner Studio Theatre. I guarantee it will have you looking at your own sibling squabbles in a different light. After a beginning in San Francisco, the play was first produced by Chicago’s fledgling Steppenwolf Theatre with John Malkovitch and Gary Sinese as the brothers. Most recently John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in the limited run Broadway revival and even switched roles at different performances. “True West” is very rarely produced by community groups, the obvious reasons being the language (not profane but skewed) of the script and the demands of the two major roles, the brothers Lee and Austin. Lee (the amazing Scott Jackson) has dropped in on Austin (an equally adept Aaron Nichols) after an absence of five years.  Austin, a screenwriter with a wife and family “in the north,” is working on a project he hopes to sell to a producer and house-sitting in Southern California for their mother, on vacation in Alaska. Lee, an alcoholic hustler more inclined to steal than work, has been living alone in the desert and is definitely an unexpected — and increasingly unwelcome — guest. As Lee picks away at his more and more uncomfortable younger brother, he insinuates himself into more and more of Austin’s life, to the point of usurping his place with the producer, Saul Kimmer (Jim Jones), by creating an unrealistic screenplay outline about the new — the “true” — West which Kimmer buys to the extent of dropping Austin’s project when he refuses to write the script for Lee. This is the proverbial straw that exposes the other sides of both brothers. Shepard  has been quoted as saying that he wanted the play “to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided.” He more than exceeded his expectations. By the final blackout, the brothers have completely exchanged personas … or have they? Have their true natures finally surfaced? And, after the last confrontation, where will they go from there? Watching Lee weave an insidious and frighteningly familiar web around his initially compliant brother is like watching a snake charm its prey. Downing beer after beer and circling the struggling writer, Jackson is an hypnotic presence. You want Austin to stand up and throw him out for good. When he does, it is only because the brothers have become the worst of each other.  The inevitable collision is, to say the least, explosive and chaotic. Returning briefly from her cruise, their Mother (Mary Ann Moran) can only survey the wreckage before heading to a hotel and admonish them not to fight in the house.     The juxtaposition of these two fine actors draws you in to this absurd nightmare of sibling rivalry and keeps you riveted.  Whether or not you want to dissect Shepard’s work symbolically, metaphorically or psychologically —  or just sit back and be hilariously horrified at the mayhem — is up to you. There is no doubt that it has been given an excellent production and one that should be seen. The direction is by Leigh Taylor with a “toast” to the hard working props crew. For show times and tickets, check the SBCT website listed here.

New Rhythm for Familiar Tune

The story of the Little Mermaid is among the most popular of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales. It also ranks high with Disney which has turned the story into an animated feature film and a Broadway musical.   Unlike the original, both Disney versions have a happy ending for the mermaid and her prince. Still another telling of the story began off Broadway in 1990 and, although it basically follows the same narrative with different characters, “Once on This Island” is based on “My Love, My Love,” a book by Rosa Guy and is set on a Caribbean island.

The Elkhart Civic Theatre production of “Once on This Island,” the show’s regional premiere, opened Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House. It is more of an operetta than a standard musical. There is very little spoken dialogue. The show is the creation of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, the duo responsible for “Ragtime,” “Seussical” and “Lucky Stiff,” three very different shows which  serve to underscore their obvious versatility. The ECT cast if 16 (including director/choreographer Tom Myers) is “on” almost constantly, portraying gods, peasants, aristocrats, island animals and even the elements as required. When the chorus sings, the results are definitely outstanding. The story centers around Ti Moune (played as a child by Jacqueline Kelley-Cogdell and as a young girl by Alex Pote), found in a tree after a violent storm by two old peasants (Eula Milon and John Jay Shoup) who save her, adopt her and, eventually, let her go to follow her heart. Of course, that leads her to Daniel (Justin Williams), a young man from the other (aka wealthy) side of the island. Her love, no surprise, is stronger than his, and class trumps romance resulting in the bittersweet denoument. Along the way, Ti Moune is aided (and sometimes deterred) by the island gods — Asaka, the earth mother (Stephanie Yoder); Agwe, god of water (William Diggins); Ezulie, goddess of love (Wanzetta Arnett); and Papa Ge, sly demon of death (Steve Salisbury) — always to irresistible rhythms and hauntingly lovely melodies. Pote does a beautiful job as the young dreamer who follows her heart through wind, rain and prejudice, eventually defying death to save her love. She has a clear, true  voice and meets the heavy vocal demands of the role with easy grace. It is about worth the price of admission to hear — and see —Salisbury and Diggins, both big men with big voices who are at ease on stage and obviously relish their roles. Their fellow “gods” work hard with solos that sometimes are out of their vocal range and sometimes hidden by the orchestra. Which is a concern in this production.  The seven-member instrumental ensemble plays very well.  The problem, as in any theater that has no orchestra pit, is that of balance. Soloists are too often overpowered, definitely detrimental when the Storytellers are speaking the narrative that moves the plotline. I have no solution to this, but it is a problem that plagues all community theaters as well as some with much more experience. Myers’ choreography is engaging and dares you to sit still and Shoup’s silhouetted set pieces, which move on and off as the mood requires, are just right for this fanciful tale.

“Once on This Island” plays Friday through Sunday. Check the web/p>

Struthers takes comedy seriously

Calling from a bus headed for … whatever is the next tour stop … actress Sally Struthers sounds incredibly bouncy and up beat. Not an easy task when the “Nunsense 25th Anniversary Tour,” in which she plays the Mother Superior Mary Regina, began with rehearsals in August, will be on the road until the end of January and lists more than 40 stops in 19 states, most of them one nighters. But the demands of a rigorous schedule definitely don’t faze the actress who has made her mark in all areas of the entertainment business and calls work “My favorite thing.” If touring vaudeville-style seems a change of pace for someone who has received two Emmy Awards, it’s nothing new and it’s definitely not easy. Sometimes “You are so tired you wake up in the morning and don’t know where you are,” she admitted. And, with no understudies, good health is important. ‘You keep your fingers crossed to stay healthy,” she said, only half joking.

Salley Struthers in NunsenseHer journey began in 1968 when Struthers left her home in Portland, Ore., and headed for Los Angeles and the Pasadena Playhouse College of Theater.  Before her first year was out, she was getting professional jobs on shows including “The Tim Conway Comedy Hour and “The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour”  and soon was working so steadily she dropped out of school. (Note: The school closed soon after and, although the Pasadena Playhouse remains, the school is no more.) Then fate, in the form of writer/producer Norman Lear, stepped in and changed her life forever. Even 30 years later, the petite blonde is best known as Gloria Stivic, wife of Michael and daughter of Edith and Archie Bunker, the terrific quartet that was “All in the Family.” Lear’s ground-breaking comedy aired from 1970 to ’78 and endowed Struthers with a persona she carries to this day. It does not, however, weigh her down. “I am so grateful for that show,” she declared. “It was an opening door. It gave me a name and face people in American knew. And it was a wonderful show to work on. We couldn’t believe we got paid to laugh all day long.” Although the spinoff series “Gloria” lasted only one season, it joined the actress with her TV person in a partnership that continues, no matter what role she is playing or in what medium. Her characters are many. On the stage, she has  become Truvy in “Steel Magnolias,” Golde in “Fiddler on the Roof,” one half of “The Female Odd Couple,”Miss Hannigan in “Annie” and Miss Lynch in “Grease.” She played the last three on Broadway and, as Miss Lynch, was on stage in South Bend’s Morris PAC several years ago during the show’s national tour. Her films include “Five Easy Pieces” and “The Getaway” and her TV roles, “Gilmore Girls” and “Still Standing.”

Any medium, it seems, is a good fit for the versatile Struthers. “The best part is not getting bored,” she said, although she would prefer work closer to her home in L.A. and her daughter, Samantha Struthers Rader, who, mom said proudly, “Is one semester away from getting her PhD in clincial psychology.” Currently, Struthers is leader of the surviving Little Sisters of Hoboken, who gather to present a benefit variety show to pay for the interment of their fellow nuns, victims of a poisonous vichysoise created by the convent cook Sister Julia Child of God. “Nunsense” is the first — and the best — of the many “Nunsenses” created by Dan Goggins. It has become a regular in the lineup of community groups around the country. In the hands of a first rate cast, it certainly bears seeing again. With theater offers waiting when this “Nunsense” tour ends, Struthers continues to follow an axiom from her friend actress Brenda Vaccaro, “You gotta keep moving; it creates a breeze.”

“Nunsense 25th Anniversary Tour” Starring Sally Struthers 3 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 2) Miller Auditorium Western Michigan University Call (269) 387-2300 or (800) 228-9858 or visit millerauditorium.com.

Dracula Can Be Deadly

With Halloween right around the corner, it’s no surprise that vampires are making their annual appearance. Especially THE vampire, the infamous Count Dracula. Steven Deitz’ theatrical version of Bram Stoker’s classic novel opened Friday evening in a production by South Bend Civic Theater in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium. Written in 1996, it is more akin to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film than to the 1931 classic that gave Bela Lugosi his cinematic  signature role. The Dietz play is reportedly more like the novel.  Having never read it, I cannot attest to this.       Enough to say that it definitely is a challenge to present and one on which the SBCT cast and crew obviously expended a great deal of time and energy. Unfortunately, the results are disappointing. The initial impact of the towering set — it stretches way above and beyond the usual restrictions of the proscenium — is encouraging. Designed by director Rick W. Ellis and technical director David Chudzynski (who also plays vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing), it contains at least six curtained openings which move the action from one location to another without having to actually change the set. Two major projection areas on the right and left walls are used to depict visually the second act journey from London to Transylvania. Their size blurs the scenes, however, and the accompanying voice-overs are equally indistinguishable. After the prologue by Renfield (Steve Gergacz), whose “entree” is a large “rat,” the opening scene between Lucy Westenra  (Sarah Obren) and her close friend Mina Murray (Kim Iwaszewski)  was, from our location right center, entirely unintelligible. Not a good thing when it sets up much of relationships as well as much of what is to come. Excepting Chudzynski, Nathanial Smith as Jonathan Harker, Gergacz and Anthony Panzica (the youthful Dracula, pictured) the majority of the dialogue was delivered in the same way. When I can’t hear and, in several scenes, can’t see what is going on, it tends to make me lose interest long before the 2 1/2 hour vampire hunt draws to its familiar conclusion. Eventually, everything takes on a comic aspect.When Van Helsing proclaims “There is no joy” and the first thing that pops into my mind is “in Mudville,” it’s obvious my focus shifted from blood-sucking, insect-eating, baby-crunching horror.Rumbling set pieces — an understandable necessity but, in scene changes, one which can be masked with music — and a seeming uncertainty as to whether to play the often unwieldy dialogue straight or kamp resulted in an unsettling  mixture and made me really miss Bela Lugosi. I wish a better reaction from local theater-goers whose demand for tickets has increased the scheduled eight show run to 10, with a midnight show Oct. 31 and an additional matinee Nov. 1.

Accent on Youth

This past weekend two local productions were aimed directly at youngsters. One was performed by a mix of older (college grads) and younger actors and the other, by a definitely young cast. Garbed in tee-shirts, overalls and (literally) dog-eared caps in primary colors, Red Dog (Brian Wells), Blue Dog (Diana Meidan Zhao), Green Dog (Anna Harris) and Yellow Dog (Regina Warren) joined two spotted “dalmatians”, M.C. Dog (Kyle Curtis) and Hattie (Breanna Kelly),  in a day and a night of non-stop (excepting intermission) doggie adventures. There was no doubt that this was aimed strictly at the pre-teen audience members, but that didn’t stop their accompanying adults in sharing the many laughs as the lop-eared canines played and slept (“Dogs sleep at night” except these didn’t) through a series of extremely physical anticshart  The best for me was watching the very young viewers watch the on-stage action. It was in the Warner Studio Theatre where the audience was only an arms-length away from the actors and many in the front row reached out to greet the “dogs” throughout the performance. They was no need to suspend disbelief. They absolutely believed! It was an object lesson of how to prepare the audience of tomorrow through a thoroughly entertaining performance today. And, at an hour and 15 minutes, was definitely within their attention span. “Go, Dog,Go!” coninues Wednesday through Sunday. At the Bristol Opera House, the newly-named E.C. Team (replacing the redundant Elkhart Civic Theatre Youth Theatre) offered “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” for one weekend only. The cast was made up of all young people, the oldest one or two in high school but, although there were no program listings, it was obvious that most were from area middle schools.  Directed by Karen Johnson, the two dozen cast members acquitted themselves and their director admirably. In the title role, Joel Lininger made every line distinguishable, even to the rear of the house, and never lost a bit of dialogue.  He was on stage in every scene and carried off this formidable assignment with ease, whether he was fighting (or getting “engaged”), he took it all in stride. Undoubtedly a leading man in the making. The surrounding cast also paid attention to the basics of stage craft: How to stand, how to deliver dialogue and how to create a character. This was most obvious in the featured players, notably Dakota Miller who played Aunt Polly, Andrew Scott as Tom’s smug, tattle-tale brother Sid, and Ted Field as Tom’s partner-in-crime Huckleberry Finn. The group of Tom’s peers, both male and female,  (with special notice to the “smallest,” McKenna Kaczanowski, who was a clear as a bell) handled their roles well. Not only did this group deliver the lines without stumbling, they also served as the stage crew to shift the set pieces from one of the many required locations to the other and did so swiftly and quite silently, allowing the many scenes of the two-act production to flow easily. To those of us who wonder about the casts and crews of the coming seasons, it was a real shot in the arm .. or the program. Only wish some brief bios could have identified the ages, schools and — even at their ages — possible “theatrical experience.” Maybe for the next E.C. Team production, which will be a musical, “Willie Wonka Jr.” to be presented Feb. 13-15 at the Opera. A cast of 50 is planned to include ages 8 to 18. Auditions at 10 a.m. Dec. 6 at the BOH. I do encourage all young people with any interest in being on or off-stage to give it a try!

There's Life in the Old Bard Yet

For those who think Shakespeare is only for the intellectually elite, I suggest a visit to the South Bend Civic Theatre for a crash — and I do mean CRASH — course in almost everything by the Bard of Avon. “

For those who think Shakespeare is only for the intellectually elite, I suggest a visit to the South Bend Civic Theatre for a crash — and I do mean CRASH — course in almost everything by the Bard of Avon. “

The Compleat Wrks of Wm Shkspr (Abr.)” opened Friday evening on the Wilson Mainstage and, after joining in the mayhem Saturday evening, I have to wonder if the cast of thousands . . . actually three men . . . will make it through the six more scheduled performances without actual bodily injury. Beginning rather sedately with an invitation to “intellectual salvation,” Cecil Eastman, Matthew Fox and Ted Manier (who co-directed with Executive Director Jim Coppens) proceeded to romp through “Romeo and Juliet,” “Titus Andronicus” (presented as a cooking school … think about it!), “Othello” (done as a rap due to the lack of an African American leading man), “Macbeth” (with resonantly rolling Rs reaching all the way to Brigadoon), “Julius Caesar,” “Anthony and Cleopatra,” and mention of the “obscure/lesser/bad” plays (“Troilus and Cressida,” “Two Noble Kinsmen”?) described with interpretive dance, a toy gorilla and an inflatable dinosaur. The 16 comedies were compiled and referenced in one because, as the trio observed, all use the same comedic devices. The histories took on the form of a royal sporting event (football, what else? it is South Bend!) with the crown passing from Richard II and III to all the Henrys while heads rolled and downs were destroyed. Intermission was signaled when Ted refused to do “Hamlet” as the second act and was chased up the aisle by an irate Matthew while Cecil “played” for time. Inevitably, the Prince of Denmark took center stage and expanded his domain into the audience as an Ophelia was selected for screaming purposes and a young man for something else, I never was quite sure what but he ran back and forth a lot. Not to feel left out, the crowd was split into several sections and assigned different lines which we were to shout out as directed. The result, no surprise, was complete bedlam. Also, no surprise, it was a huge hit with the audience. The grand finale, a triple mega-mix of the Danish tragedy, concluded with the fastest recap done . . . backwards. My primary impression was that the actors, who handled the actual Shakespeare with differing degrees of success, had to be exhausted!  In and out, up and down, they never obviously missed an entrance or an exit or a costume change, and there were at least 15 per minute of the last. Their energy level never fell below 1,000 percent. This makes it a shame that, once again, the primary drawback is the acoustical setup of the main stage auditorium. It plagues every production and, in this, renders much of the rapid-fire dialogue unintelligible. I can only hope that some sort of solution can be found. For performance dates and times and tickets, check the South Bend Civic website.

 

This Pond is Still Golden

Almost 30 years after its premiere on Broadway, Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond” continues to shine. The dramatic comedy opened Elkhart Civic Theatre’s 47th season Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House with a cast headed by Bob Franklin and Susan D. South. The simple story of one summer at a Maine lake house offers an abundance of laughs, a few well-earned tears and characters that hit close — sometimes too close — to home. The play opened originally in 1979, earning leading lady Frances Sternhagen a Tony Award. The 2005 revival starred James Earl Jones (also a Tony winner) and Leslie Uggams. it is undoubtedly best known for the 1981 screen version which earned Oscars for stars Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn. There is a reason for it’s continued popularity and the ECT production shows why. Norman and Ethel Thayer are spending their 48th summer in their cottage on Golden Pond, where Norman will mark his 80th birthday. On hand, briefly, are daughter Chelsea (Stephanie Salisbury), her latest boy friend Bill Ray (Carl Wiesinger) and his son, Bill Jr. (Michael Salisbury). Within the first three minutes, it is hilariously obvious  that life with Norman is no easy task. He gives new meaning to the term curmudgeon. Irascible and cantankerous, he has sharp words for all within earshot and, as Ethel declares, his favorite topic is dying. Long estranged from Chelsea, whose continuing — and frustrating — purpose is to please her father, he manages to upset everyone except Ethel who lets his caustic comments roll off her back as the water of Golden Pond rolls off her favorite water fowl, the loons. The bottom line: She loves him. Bill, a dentist from California, tries almost successfully to beard the lion in his den. An hilarious scene in which he attempts to put his cards on the table regarding sexual mores concludes with the frustrated suitor declaring “You have a good time messing with people’s heads.” Norman nods in agreement. Left with the Thayers while Chelsea and Bill head for Europe, 13-yeqr-old  Bill Jr. eventually bridges the age gap and connects with Norman via classic literature, lots of fishing and the sharing of his teen vocabulary. The role of Norman, which he played in the 1992 ECT production,  fits Franklin like a well-worn old jacket. His Norman is not a cruel or vicious man.  He is what he is and doesn’t feel required to change for anyone.   Beneath his fixation with mortality, is a genuine and increasing anxiety about what may lie not too far in the future. He is losing his grip but determined not to let anyone know. And probably no none does except  Ethel. South never “plays” old, even though she is several decades younger than her character. She finds instead the warmth, understanding and, so necessary with Norman, the unending patience of a wife who knows her husband better than he knows himself and always puts him first.  Wiesinger has only one scene but he makes it count. Stephanie Salisbury is the emotional Thayer but is almost too controlled in baring her feelings about Norman to her “Mommy.” Michael Salisbury is everyteen, striving to shock but  ready to meet adults halfway. Like most teens, he needs to project. As Charlie  Martin, the lake postman and long-time friend of the Thayers, David Robey delivers a laugh that eventually becomes rather infectuous. The Thayers summer in another ready-to-live-in set designed by John Jay Shoup, based on Leslie Torok’s design for the ’92production. Hope the screen door survives the run. On opening night, the pace was too slow in spots, but this happens frequently in a comedy where timing must be razor sharp and the addition of audience laughter factored in on the spot. “On Golden Pond” is directed by Randy Zonker. It plays at 8 p.m. today and next Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday and Sept. 21. For tickets: 848-4116.