Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Olney’s 'The 39 Steps' is a Fun-filled Escape
If you were told that a play about violent murders, espionage, romance, hairbreadth escapes, and stealing national security secrets would be a laugh-a-minute, you would definitely raise your eyebrows in wonderment. But in the Olney Theatre Center’s presentation of The 39 Steps on the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab stage, that is exactly what happens.
Here the spoof of the classic 1935 Alfred Hitchcock adventure thriller with the same title is theatre at its best. Director Clay Hopper, who is also Olney’s associate artistic director, took the adaptation of the film by Patrick Barlow and had as much fun with it as the audience did. To augment the farce, several references to other famous Hitchcock movies made cameo appearances throughout the plot, notably Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and Rear Window.
Following successful runs in London and Madrid, The 39 Steps did well on Broadway with 771 performances under its belt until it closed in January 2010. In that time the play garnered two Tony Awards in 2008—one for lighting design and the other for sound design—and was nominated for four others. It also received the Drama Desk Award in 2008 for Unique Theatrical Experience. The play ran off-Broadway for another year until January 2011.
What distinguishes this production from other plays—comedies or dramas—is the fact that only four actors play some 150 roles. At Olney they do it flawlessly and with precision. Jeffries Thaiss (Witness for the Prosecution, Dinner with Friends at Olney) plays the central character Richard Hannay. He is onstage virtually the entire length of the play, and is simply superb.
Evan Casey, Jason Lott and Susan Lynskey are remarkable in their ability to take on multiple roles with varying English or Scottish dialects. They burnish their talents not only in assuming a wide range of characters that demands lightning fast costume changes, but they also work their tails off doubling as stagehands to execute the myriad scene changes by moving props and scenery around in all different ways.
Sometimes the actors play several characters all in the same scene, rapidly exchanging coats and hats with one another at an eye-popping, vaudevillian pace. They accomplished these frenetic feats without missing a beat. Major credit goes to director Hopper for guiding this mayhem to deliver a cohesive outcome. Even with the chaotic staging, the plot was easy enough to follow, whether one saw the Hitchcock movie or not.
This farce mirrors the plot of the film. Richard Hannay, a solid but ordinary Londoner, went to the theater one evening to witness the extraordinary, superhuman abilities of “Mr. Memory” who can absorb even the most arcane facts and spew them out robotically to the audience. A gunshot is fired in the theater, and Hannay then encounters a woman, Annabella Schmidt, who claims that she is a spy. She is being pursued by assassins who found out she uncovered a scheme to steal British military secrets. This caper is led by a man with the top joint missing from one of his fingers, who heads an espionage organization called the “39 Steps.”
Annabella convinces Hannay to take her back to his flat to spend the night. The next morning he finds her with a bread knife in her back, dead. Hannay, realizing he will be blamed for the murder, participates in a string of action-packed escapes from police and foreign agents that includes the famous train escape and an airplane chase while at the same time, pursuing the head of the “39 Steps.”
Hannay gets involved with another woman named Pamela who had turned him in to police, not once but twice, until she realizes at the end he had been telling the truth from the start. Without delving further into the plot, what ensues on stage are masterful performances by the actors and superb technical work under the direction of Eric Knauss and his crew.
Though the set is spartan, it is made to resemble a big production primarily as a result of the plethora of different characters appearing throughout and the clever use of lighting, sound, costuming and props. The actors make use of the entire stage, and there are scenes where the actors venture off the stage and engage the audience. Credit veteran Production Stage Manager Renee E. Yancee, along with Hopper, for pulling the pieces together so effectively.
Lighting Designer Nicholas Houfek employs perfect lighting sequences to denote “dramatic” moments. Projections Designer JJ Kaczynski presents outstanding background silhouettes.
Sound Designer Alex Neumann adds fabulous sound effects manifested by the sounds of water, broken glass, gun shots and other accessories to the plot. He also pipes in lively background music to augment each scene.
Costume designer Pei Lee must have had fun putting together the 1930’s London and Scotland wardrobe for all those characters. She did an outstanding job in creating apparel that can easily be stripped off and replaced rapidly for the numerous costume changes.
And then there are the props, with credit going to Scenic Designer Cristina Todesco for creativity and economy. Not many props onstage to be sure, but oh, so creative! Two battered trunks are used not only as storage for other props but also double as the roof of the train, car seats, airplane, hotel desk, tables and beds—just to name a few applications. These trunks are as integral to the presentation as any of the other play’s elements.
As mentioned previously, Jeffries Thaiss is tremendous as Hannay. His abundant background on the Olney stage and other regional theatre productions as well as daytime television (As the World Turns, One Life to Live) serve him well with a polished performance.
Jason Lott and Evan Casey also have considerable experience performing at Olney and other regional theatre venues. Officially, their character names were Clown One and Clown Two, respectively, but they played dozens of roles in The 39 Steps. They were extraordinary as well as over-the-top (in a good way) with their dialects, voice inflections, movements, comical timing, and quick costume and scene changes.
Susan Lynskey has “only” three parts to play but they are critical to the story. She played them convincingly and competently. Lynskey, too, has substantial experience in theatre (Helen Hayes nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in The Laramie Project) and television including The Wire. Her only flaw was that in a few dialogues, she did not project her voice to the extent the other actors did. Nonetheless, she was perfectly suited for this production.
While the story is entertaining in its own right, the manner in which this farce is presented IS the story. With its stellar acting and imaginative, polished theatrical elements, The 39 Steps at Olney is amusing and a triumph through and through.
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with one intermission.
Olney Theatre’s production of The 39 Steps plays through May 27, 2012 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. For tickets call 301-924-3400 or order online.
Tuesday, April 17, 2012
'Dolly' Matches Up Well at the Spotlighters
Eileen del Valle (The Great American Trailer Park Musical, Sweeney Todd) as Irene Molloy is a powerful vocalist. Her rendition of “Ribbons Down My Back” was exceptional, with her voice rising over the volume of the background music.
Justin Johnson (Tea & Sympathy) as Ambrose and Holly Gibbs as Minnie exude enough energy to light up a small town. They each have commanding stage presence and timing.
My apologies for the pun, but “hats off” to Gibbs for seamlessly ad-libbing when a snafu on the set occurred. A large hat in the millenary shop accidentally fell from the pillar it was mounted on. In character, Gibbs didn’t miss a beat. “I’m so sorry Miss Molloy,” she repeated as she attempted to fix the prop.
Small stage notwithstanding, this fun-filled, well-performed, beautifully costumed, tuneful production of Hello, Dolly! is a good match for the Spotlighters and is highly recommended. Dolly would agree.
Sunday, April 15, 2012
It Gets Better for Gay Athletes Too
When Brendan Burke, 21, a former hockey goalie and student manager of the Miami (Ohio) University ice hockey team and son of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke came out as gay in November 2009, there was also a flood of international support by news outlets and fans. Brendan advocated tolerance and spoke out against homophobia in professional sports.
|Patrick and Brian Burke|
Steve Charing: We know that Brendan Burke's coming out and later his tragic death inspired You Can Play. Were there any plans afoot prior to these events that may have led to a similar project?
Brian Kitts: We share a platform with a number of projects goals of erasing intolerance and promoting equality, including programs founded by other athletes. You Can Play is different in that the partnership is between gay and straight allies, and that the focus is solely on changing the culture of sport. We don’t ask our supporters or video messengers to take a stand on marriage or workplace equality, for instance. We’re specifically trying to change the culture of locker rooms and arenas.
SC: The roster of supporters from NHL players seems to be growing steadily. How are the team members contacted?
BK: Brian and Patrick Burke have done the heavy lifting of contacting general managers and individual players to participate. We’ve been honored to have a number of players volunteer after having heard about You Can Play. There’s something truly inspirational about some of the guys who just showed up unannounced Ottawa to shoot a video segment. And, players who take time out to make videos while they’re on the road – Brooks Orpik and Cal Clutterbuck on visits to Denver, for example, have gone the extra mile. And, standouts like Tommy Wingels and Andy Miele made part of the effort possible by being the first to volunteer and the first to write checks.
SC: To what extent has there been resistance? That is, was any overt homophobia encountered in attempting to enlist supporters? Are those players who are participating experiencing any "harassment" or are they generally receiving support?
BK: We’ve heard nothing but positive response from fans and other players and executives for those who have participated. Frankly, if there has been resistance, it’s been limited and silent. You learn as much from those who ignore your requests than those who say yes or tell you no from the start. We can count those men on one hand.
SC: Obviously, I'm not asking to name names, but do you believe there is at least one active NHL player who is gay?
BK: Of course, there have been and are gay and lesbian players at all levels of hockey. The percentages point to a number of gay teammates in the NHL and any sport – let’s be clear that You Can Play started with hockey, but the issues and opportunities for acceptance apply to any sport at any level.
SC: A campaign such as this one would surely help ease the burden of a gay player to come out. What do you see as the likelihood such a revelation would take place in the next couple of years?
BK: Gay players will be visible soon. Film, music, the military and corporate life are now places where men and women can be openly gay. Sports, incredibly, remains [a place] where discrimination is tolerated and assumed. We’ve found that many, many players aren’t homophobic, but have never been asked to say otherwise.
SC: In your view, is hockey better suited for this development than other sports and if so, why?
BK: Hockey, like many sports, is a big family. All sports stress the same things: teamwork, hard work, talent and skill – all things that You Can Play wants recognized ahead of sexual orientation or other factors. There’s an irony in hockey being the sometimes rough sport it is being asked to take the lead with You Can Play and we’re all grateful. Patrick, Glenn and I all have some background in hockey and it made perfect sense to us to start there. But, you’re going to see the same terrific response in lacrosse, soccer, rowing, baseball, football and any sport where effort and winning are valued.
SC: We have seen a few pro athletes come out as gay after their active careers ended. If a gay hockey player comes out while actively playing, what impact do you believe this would have on other professional sports?
BK: The first several players to come out, in any sport, will have tremendous impact and serve as role models for gay and straight athletes alike. The history of sport is highlighted by “firsts” among races, religions and other factors that we think make us different. They set standards for success that gay and lesbian athletes will follow. At some point, a player’s sexual orientation will be a footnote in the history of an athlete’s or team’s success.
And in their own words, some of the NHL participants' comments.
Sunday, April 08, 2012
Iron Crow Delivers 'Dream' Production
The Baltimore-based Iron Crow Theatre Company that brought us such works as Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Swimming in the Shallows, and Love and Human Remains proved convincingly that you don’t need an elaborate set to mount a top-notch play. In fact, in The Soldier Dreams, the only piece of scenery offered is a single bed on the Theatre Project’s stage. But while the set may be sparse, the stage is filled by the talents of the superb cast and an engaging story.
Iron Crow’s Artistic Director Steven J. Satta-Fleming deftly directed Canadian Daniel MacIvor’s play and captured the audience’s attention with a riveting one-hour production that alternated between the sadness of a dying young gay man and the sometimes humorous interactions of his family members as they come to terms with their loss and their conflicts within their own world.
The dying man in a coma is the beloved David (Alec Weinberg) who, by dint of his charismatic lively personality as well as his penchant for dancing, all family members believe as individuals that they were most important and closest to him. Through some deceit on David’s part, he allows them to feel that way. The “soldier” reference in the play’s title pertains to David’s ongoing war against homophobia and his struggles with his family.
An uptight sister Tish (Marsha Becker) and her nerdy husband Sam (Steve Sawicki) along with the younger free-spirit sister Judy (Karen Crighton) invade the home of David’s devoted lover Richard (Joseph Ritsch) to not only dote over David but also to reflect upon the relationships they have with one another and with David himself. Throughout the play, David lies on the bed unseen by the audience, comatose. But while dreaming of his secret life, David still manages to utter individual words depicting events that were important to him but a mystery to the family members hovering over him.
These words come to life as the “dream” David (Paul Wissman) appears in out-of body form to portray the evolution of an encounter he had with an attractive German medical student (Rich Buchanan) while he was in Ottawa the night before Trish and Sam’s wedding. The significance of this tryst is not clear, but it demonstrates the dreams David is having while in the coma are more focused on this episode—a one-night stand—than his more complex relationships with family members or his current partner. His interaction with the student displays a good connection though the dialogue is largely presented by the actors’ looking straight ahead to the audience and not each other.
As each family member looks inward to assess his or her own special bond with David, they perform separate monologues, often funny, that are delivered directly to the audience. And although different in the way they each open their hearts, they all have a common thread. This enlightens the audience as to the depth of each character, and they all do it well.
The actors are as believable as they are proficient. There were no over-the-top interpretations of the play, and Satta-Fleming should be credited for maintaining the evenness necessary to capture MacIvor’s blend of melancholy and sunshine.
Iron Crow veterans Joseph Ritsch, Paul Wissman and Marsha Becker were standouts. They were ably supported by Rich Buchanan, Steve Sawicki, Karin Crighton and Sarah Lynn Taylor as the Nurse who was attending to David. And yes, Alec Weinberg, playing the role of the reality David, was quite effective in being the family members’ centerpiece in the play.
A special nod goes to Ritsch because the audience could easily identify with what he was going through. His impatience and utter frustration followed by reconciliation with David’s family members were on target; he played the role perfectly.
The lighting, designed by Conor Mulligan and Daniel Ettinger, smoothly set up the scene changes with the needed darkening of the stage when the actors stepped forward away from the bed.
The cause of David’s illness was not explicitly disclosed. Yet the audience is led to assume that he was dying from AIDS. “I reject the categorization of The Soldier Dreams as an ‘AIDS play,” said Director Satta-Fleming. “It is no more a play about AIDS than The Wizard of Oz is the story of a cyclone. AIDS is merely the dramatic device that confronts these characters with loss.”
The Soldier Dreams is a flawless, well-acted and expertly directed production. It’s highly recommended. The play runs through April 21. Tickets can be purchased here.
Next up for Iron Crow is Adam Bock’s Typographer’s Dream from May 31 to June 16 at Johns Hopkins University’s Swirnow Theater.
Photos by Katie Ellen Simmons-Barth
Monday, April 02, 2012
Sunday, April 01, 2012
New Take on 'Little Red Riding Hood' at Olney
It’s always a roll of the dice when you bring children under age 10 to the theater. You never know if the action on the stage will keep them interested or will they be fidgety. A dandy little production of Red Riding Hood: A New Fable, being served up by Olney Theatre Center Institute, the education division of the Olney Theatre Center, kept those kids well entertained.
In bringing children’s programming back to the Olney campus, Education Associate Michael E. Kelly wrote a neat one-hour adaptation of the popular Grimm Brothers tale that featured versatile performances by three young actors. The entire show, which is geared to children from ages 3 and up, was produced by the intern class of Olney Theatre Center, and it appears these up-and-comers have a bright future in theatre.
Frequent interaction with the audience kept the children focused on the story that centered on a bookish six year-old named Millie. Even before her first day in the first grade, Millie had read more books than most adults. And this unique interest for such a young person made it harder for her to fit in with her peers and for making new friends. She resorts to reading books as an escape.
As a school assignment, Millie must write a presentation on the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, and through imagination, she becomes a part of the story. She ventures from her familiar terrain of nonfiction to a world of fantasy. “Millie/Red weaves in and out of fantasy and reality, linked by the pages of the stories we grew up with,” says Casting Associate Ashleigh Millett, who directed the show.
The cast came from a pool of local talent. Baltimore native and Messiah College graduate, Dorea Schmidt, plays Millie, while recent University of Maryland graduate Chelsie Lloyd of Laurel plays Millie’s friend Amy, Millie’s Mother, and Red’s Grandmother. Virginia Tech grad Jared Mason Murray of Fairfax, VA plays Millie’s friend Dewey, Millie’s teacher Mr. Randolph, and the Wolf.
The actors showcased their developing talents by demonstrating their versatility. All were very effective in their roles and they, as well as the Production Staff, used this opportunity to progress in the development of their craft.
The Olney Theatre Center should be commended for presenting a fun production such as Red Riding Hood for children, which should keep them interested in theatre. It bodes well for the future of this genre and the arts in general if kids can enjoy their experiences watching actors perform on stage as well as appreciating the technical enhancements of lighting, music, sound effects and costuming. They will learn to value the work of directors as they become more experienced members of the audience.Red Riding Hood: A New Fable runs through April 7. Next up at Olney is The 39 Steps, a farce on the Hitchcock movie that will run April 18 – May 20. For information, visit olneytheatre.org or call 301-924-3400.