Saturday, February 28, 2015

Snobbery and Wit on Display in 'Earnest'

What’s in a name?  Apparently, a lot as evidenced by Oscar Wilde’s classic work The Importance of Being Earnest currently playing in the spanking new venue of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company (CSC) on Calvert and Redwood Streets.  The theatre, which is now housed in the building the Mercantile Bank had occupied, is a horseshoe shaped, three-tier structure that provides a modern-day setting to the presentation of old-time plays.
Travis Hudson as Jack (L.) and Joe Brack
as Algernon 
Photo: Teresa Castracane

The Importance of Being Earnest, which opened in London in 1895, is a farcical comedy that pokes fun at British high society in the late Victorian era and treats such serious institutions as marriage as trivial.  Though successful at the outset, this play led to Wilde’s decline as his homosexual double life was exposed to the Victorian public and he was eventually sentenced to imprisonment.
The plot involves two upper crust eligible bachelors, Algernon Moncrieff (Joe Brack) and John “Jack” Worthing (Travis Hudson), who both create dual identities (one each for the city and one each for the country) to avoid social obligations and to pursue their intended love interests.

As their plan begins to collide, the wealthy, strong-willed and overtly snobby Lady Bracknell (Lesley Malin) implants fear in the duo as the real story of Earnest Worthing is discovered, along with an explanation of his heritage.

…Earnest is one of the most revered works by Oscar Wilde.  An endless parade of witticisms and biting rejoinders throughout spawned as long a list of memorable quotes as you will find in literature.  A good example is Lady Bracknell’s comment to Jack while interviewing him as a suitor for Gwendolyn (Katherine Elizabeth Kelley): “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” There are many more.
Erin Bone Steele directed the talented CSC ensemble with deftness.  The actors moved about with vigor creating the visual action that accompanied the witty dialogue. 

However, there was no sound designer listed in the program, and that could explain why the volume from some of the actors’ voices was uneven as they bandied about the stage.  One could point to the less than perfect acoustics stemming from the theatre’s near in-the-round configuration and high ceiling; if the actors were mic’d, it would have been easier to hear each and every witticism. 
No such voice projection glitch existed for Joe Brack, an accomplished actor who played Algernon with gusto and flair.  His muscular, rich voice and comedic timing is a huge asset to the production.  In Mr. Brack’s sparring with Mr. Hudson’s Jack, he elicited guffaws from the audience with this: “Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.”   

"No such voice projection glitch existed for Joe Brack, an accomplished actor who played Algernon with gusto and flair."

The two male leads played off each other with strikingly good chemistry as did their respective love interests Ms. Kelly’s Gwendolyn character and Lizzi Albert as Cecily.  Playing the uppity Lady Blacknell, Leslie Malin turned in a delicious performance. 
Rounding out the cast are Lisa Hodsoll as Miss Prism, Cicely’s governess; Lyle Blake Smythers, playing dual roles as a servant and butler; and Gregory Burgess as a priest were admirable and added laughs to the production.   

Costume Designer Krisitna Lamdin did a fine job in fitting the performers in period attire especially Lady Blacknell’s exquisitely lush white gown in the second act.  Lighting Designer Katie McCreary brightened up the simple set.
The Importance of Being Earnest will keep you laughing throughout, and you are likely to enjoy a talented ensemble performing the witty brilliance of Oscar Wilde.

Running time: Two hours and 25 minutes with an intermission.
The Importance of Being Earnest plays Thursdays through Sundays through March 22, at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore 21202.  For tickets, call the box office at 410-244-8570 or online.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Truth or Consequences

The recent kerfuffle over Brian Williams’ false statements about a helicopter he was riding in being hit with enemy fire during the war in Iraq motivated me and others to reflect on journalism and our own roles in the press. The wounds from Williams’ fictional accounts or conflation of events were self-inflicted. Williams shot himself in the foot with those mistruths and called into question not only his own integrity and trustworthiness, but he also cast a shadow over so many other journalists—deserved or not.

Though more popular today than other news sources, the Internet as a purveyor of news has its perils, especially because bloggers, tweeters and Facebook posters, who are not necessarily journalists, can essentially write what they want.  Throw in YouTube users who can present a partial picture of real-time events whereby one could speculate as to what actually occurred immediately prior to and following the footage.  
For these Internet news sources, fact-checking has become a nuisance to many, not a necessity, as the inconvenience to take time out to verify a particular assertion would hamper the race to first break a story on the Net.  For bloggers, there are few penalties in place for false reporting, and there are seldom any higher-ups for them to report, so that the authors of these news pieces are essentially unaccountable.
Regardless of the medium, whoever is delivering the news is assumed to be trustworthy, at least minimally.  Over a half a century ago, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite was considered by many to be the most trusted man in America.  That is quite a label to tag someone with the weight of that responsibility adding to the pressure.  If he had faltered in the way Williams did, the country would have been in collective mourning and journalism would never be the same.
So how does a journalist gain the trust of his or her readers, listeners or viewers?  Simply put, do the job properly.  You write or tell the story as accurately as humanly possible; fact-check and verify; and never make yourself the story as Brian Williams did.
It’s not always easy.  In over three decades of reporting and commenting on LGBT news, there have been obstacles to these principles thrown my way, which I needed to navigate.  For one thing, if you have a source, make sure the source is reliable and credible.  This is where the road can be filled with potholes.
To the extent possible, a journalist should rely on first-hand knowledge of an incident; too often our sources are second-hand.  That means, we’re being told of an incident but not from an eyewitness.  The source heard about it or knew someone involved in an incident.  The rumor mill is not a source of news.  Rarely is there any truth attached to rumors, and if there is some relationship to the rumor, it’s usually partial at best.  Verification is essential when given such “leads.”
"There was a person who gave me a lead for a good potential story and then a couple of hours later backtracked in a very bizarre way."

Recently, we’ve heard rumors swirling about a certain bar that had been sold to a drugstore chain.  No one could substantiate it but people expect us to write about it.  The rumor was not only false but potentially damaging to the business.  That’s how you get sued.  Rumors of the demise of gay-owned businesses or LGBT organizations may be fun to gossip about in our communities, but unless they’re backed up by facts, it will never see the light of day in any responsible news medium.
Then we have the “report and retreat” source—a moniker I created for this piece.  That person will tell you of an incident—usually an assault—and quickly call it a hate crime.  OK, but when asked if it was reported to the police, the source says “no.” 
If you do not report any such incidents officially, it’s not a crime for the purpose of police statistics, much less a hate crime. Without a report, there is no way for the police to accurately allocate resources to the affected areas.  And if you refuse to report it, I won’t write about it because the police serve as a collaborating source. 
In addition, there are “report and retreat” sources who simply refuse to go on record for whatever reason.  There was a person who gave me a lead for a good potential story and then a couple of hours later backtracked in a very bizarre way.  No story was written on the matter, and that person will never be considered a reliable source in the future.
There are exceptions.  Someone who is not out would not want to report such an incident if it occurred in or near a gay establishment.  Therefore, the journalist, after recognizing this sensitivity, must meticulously interview the person and decide if the story holds up under scrutiny.  This would apply to any source who asks to be anonymous in exchange for information.
We also have the “report and contradiction” source.  An alleged attack outside a bar was running rampant on Facebook—a site that should be looked at with skepticism.  I checked with some folks who supposedly “witnessed” the attack and their stories were contradictory.  Their descriptions of the attacker and the sequence of events were completely dissimilar.  Nothing was written about it since there was no consensus of facts, and again, nothing was reported to the police.
These are just a few examples of the frustrating challenges I have faced in trying to ferret out the truth and then report it to the larger community. The key term here is “truth.”  That’s what responsible journalists seek and that’s what they should only report. 
If not, there are consequences as Brian Williams and other journalists can attest.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

A Crazy 'Addams Family' Delights at Toby's

Creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky—that surely defines that ooky Addams family.  You can add hilarious and goofy to the mix and you have the recipe for a delicious, zany production of The Addams Family currently playing at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia.

The Addams Family cast.  Photo: Jeri Tidwell
Not many musicals include potions to provoke one’s inner dark side, torture apparatus, and de-blooming of flowers but The Addams Family has all that and more.  Toby’s production also includes an incredibly well-cast ensemble under the precise direction of Mark Minnick who also handled the choreography.
This is not a knock-off of the loveable and popular TV series The Addams Family of mid-60’s yore with Baltimore native John Astin and Carolyn Jones as the leads.  Instead, the musical whose music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, was patterned after the ghoulish, comical characters in Charles Addams’ cartoons.  

The Addams Family opened on Broadway in March 2010 and ended its run on December 31, 2011 after over 700 performances.  The show failed to capture any of the eight Tony Award nominations in 2010, even with Nathan Lane in the lead, but did receive a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Set Design.  Despite less than stellar reviews and the lack of accolades, The Addams Family did well financially on Broadway and spawned numerous regional and touring productions both in the U.S. and internationally.
Toby’s presentation is more similar to the touring production than the Broadway original. The storyline centers on the morbid and crazy Addams family—Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester, Grandma, Wednesday, Pugsley and Lurch—whose preoccupation with death and darkness provides most of the humor in the show.  They are visited by the straight-laced Beineke family from Ohio—a swing state as bellowed by Gomez—whereby the son Lucas, the beau of Wednesday, brings his parents Mal and Alice to meet the Addamses in a what-can-possibly-go-wrong scenario. 

Fortunately, a lot does go wrong, which forms the essence of the story and the ensuing hilarity.  The hijinks, nuttiness and zingers, however, are largely packed into the first act, which sets up the show.  The second act lacks that same comedic punch and pace with the characters turning to sentimentality and reconciliation, but it is still enjoyable.  In the end, the Addams clan realizes it’s too crazy, and the Beinekes acknowledge they’re not crazy enough.
"The Addams Family at Toby’s is led by its exceptional cast. "
Musically, Lippa’s score does not contain the tuneful melodies that will leave you humming as you exit the theater.  Nonetheless, his lyrics are potently funny, and in the manner of Sondheim, the lyrics will get your attention.  #hocoarts

Those songs that stand out include, “When You’re an Addams,” “Trapped,” “Pulled,” “One Normal Night,” “Full Disclosure,” “Crazier Than You,” and “Live Before We Die.” Ross Scott Rawlings and his six-piece orchestra do a fine job as always backing up the vocalists.
It’s not just the songs and dialogue that will keep you chuckling.  The set, designed by David A. Hopkins, is detailed to the core with 19th century Gothic furniture and other accoutrements including gas lamps encased by spider webs and a Spanish Inquisition chair that is bound to get a response from a person sitting on it.  Even "Thing "and "Cousin Itt" make brief appearances through Mr. Hopkins’ creativity.

Credit Costume Coordinator Lawrence B. Munsey and Lighting Designer Coleen M. Foley for adding the appropriate spookiness to the production.
The Addams Family at Toby’s is led by its exceptional cast.  In such a campy production, the temptation is for the performers to go overboard, but under Mark Minnick’s guiding hand, the performers exhibit the right amount of restraint without sacrificing the comedy.

Lawrence B. Munsey turns in yet another masterful performance.  He sparkled in recent Toby’s productions playing Javert in Les Misérables and King Arthur in Spamalot, and as Gomez Addams, he continues that solid streak. 
Mr. Munsey’s commands the stage with his well-timed rejoinders, gestures and a rich baritone voice. He is particularly strong in singing “Trapped” and “Live Before We Die.”  Gomez is challenged to placate Morticia because he kept a certain secret from her (she abhors secrecy) and is one of the major plotlines. 

Morticia is played by another Toby’s veteran, the lovely Priscilla Cuellar.  Her stellar singing voice shined in Spamalot, and she brought that vocal prowess to Addams in “Secrets” and “Just Around the Corner.”  Morticia gave a lot of grief to Gomez and was convincing in doing so. Their onstage repartee is excellent.
Wednesday Addams, played by MaryKate Brouillet, did a fine job conveying her sadism towards  her younger brother Pugsley, and her desire to marry Lucas (played well with exuberance and earnestness by AJ Whittenberger). 

Gomez (Lawrence B. Munsey) kisses Morticia's (Priscilla Cuellar) hand
Photo: Jeri Tidwell
She performed nicely in a duet with Jace Franco as Pugsley for the performance reviewed in “Pulled.” (Gavin Willard also plays Pugsley in other performances.)  Ms. Brouillet possesses a powerful singing voice as does the young Mr. Franco.  The latter commands a good range and comedic instincts, which bodes well for his future in musical theatre.
Cross-gender cast as the centenarian Grandma is David James who is funny at every turn. You can laugh simply by looking at him/her.  

Rounding out the Addamses are Shawn Kettering as Uncle Fester who discovered he is in love with the moon and David Bosley-Reynolds as the near silent, methodically plodding Lurch.  Both played their respective characters to the hilt.
Darren McDonnell as Mal Beineke, Lucas’ father, excels as a control-freak whose marriage was about to collapse from deceit and other maladies.  He needed to be crazier, and where would be a better place to start other than the Addams’ mansion in the middle of Central Park?

His wife Alice, played energetically by Elizabeth Rayca, is seemingly victimized by Mel’s bland personality had turned to random rhymes for solace. The marital problems seem to work out at the end. 
The remainder of the company included ten living, dead and undecided Addams’ ancestors, and they did a splendid job of supporting the principals in song and dance.

The Addams Family at Toby’s is guaranteed to keep you laughing, and you will count your blessings that you’re not a relative of that kooky but loveable family.
Running time: Two hours and thirty minutes with an intermission.

The Addams Family runs through April 19 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Wood Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  To purchase tickets call 410-730-8311 or visit online.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Lively, Joyous 'Godspell' at Olney

Olney Theatre Center launched its 77th season with a joyful and uplifting production of the musical Godspell.  With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz who went on to write Pippin and Wicked, and a book by John-Michael Tebelak, the production opened off Broadway in 1971 and has become a staple of high school and community theatre as well as numerous professional mountings and tours since.
Photo by Stan Barouh
Based on the Gospel of Matthew, the show is a mixture of Scripture parables as told by Jesus loosely tied together with songs and dance. 
  Godspell at Olney is an updated version based on the 2011 Broadway revival. The original 1971 production had a hippie clown folk motif in keeping with that era. The Olney production has more of a hipster, rock and amped vibe more in keeping with the generation brought up on the musical Rent.
For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide.