Saturday, November 8, 2014

Hamlet - The Betsy Stage

I have to admit something: I’ve been one to write off non-traditional adaptations of classic work, especially Shakespeare, because they often seem to signal the production doesn’t have faith in the material, or faith in the audience…or, horror of horrors, feels the need to make a statement.

So, it came as a great surprise to leave The Betsy Stage’s production of Hamlet delighted. Why? Because it wasn’t Shakespeare, at least not entirely.

First, the play set in a Gypsy camp, not Denmark. Picture walking into a carnival in Neverland full of hipsters, tribal music and florid décor, and you’ve got the idea.

A Gypsy woman’s father is murdered by his ambitious brother, intent on taking over as ringleader of their traveling carnival. From here, the plot is loosely tied to Shakespeare, but is decorated with new poetic commentary on Gypsy life, the meaning of family and the beauty of tradition.  

What works really well here is the focus on community. This adaptation isn’t about Hamlet’s existential crisis. It is about the crisis of a community. Hamlet’s monologues are divided between the previously secondary characters. In a poignant moment, Ophelio (a male Ophelia) utters the infamous “To be, or not to be” speech, tragic in that his impending suicide is reasoned rather than brought on by madness. By removing Hamlet as the sole philosopher, we are allowed to empathize with the ensemble; Hamlet’s poisoned perspective is no longer, mercifully, the only perspective.

The beauty of this play though is that you have to step outside analysis to appreciate it. As any good carnival, it’s about the spectacle. Pet bears, tomfoolery and magic tricks are just the fantastical beginning.

Music is the glue of the show. Rustic pipes and drums, traditional guitar and fanciful organ cast a spell that makes this exotic world viable. Suddenly the heightened stakes make sense when the world of the play is music and dance, based in something primal. This sometimes reads as melodrama. But measured domestication has nothing to do with the world of the Gypsy.

To compliment the soundtrack, the blocking is acrobatic, fluid. The literal gymnastics are for the most part well timed and well executed. Interestingly, the movement doesn’t rob understanding of the text, but enhances it. Rosa and Guilda in particular (Kaitlyn Althoff and Michal Andrea Meyer), Hamlet's favorite fools, provide commentary almost exclusively through dance, creating mood with their bodies. 

It would be remiss not to mention the set. I want to live on this set, and suspect Tinker Bell already does. Two elaborate wagons bookend the communal living space: the first, a grand structure clad with twinkle lights, luxurious cushions and decorative skulls; the second, a tiny garden on wheels, draped casually with lace and a kaleidoscopic array of wild flowers. The structures convey the warmth and care of the inhabitants of the carnival, another lovely departure from source text’s overall gloom.

To sum up the differences between the original and this adaptation, I have to say The Betsy Stage somehow makes Hamlet welcoming, rather than dense and cerebral, a charming remaster of an old standard.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Sleepy Hollow Energized by Soundtrack

If you plan on attending Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow at The Aurora Fox this month, you will likely notice the beautiful autumnal scene design, the smell—yes smell—of roasting apples and pumpkin, and wonderfully talented cast. You may not notice the carefully crafted soundtrack. According to sound designer El Armstrong, this is exactly how he wants it.

Growing up in “the biz,” Armstrong found a niche in sound design, a section of the industry admittedly few people want to get into—but an area he found more essential than any other.

“It really does make a huge difference,” says Armstrong. “You can have, I guess, more of an impact on the audience through sound than through almost any other single sect.”

“Sound can play a huge role in the experience. You know, if you watch almost any major release motion picture, if you take the sound, all of the extra sound, and all of the music away, it’s kind of dull.”

In conceptualizing the show, Armstrong and director Charles Packard set out to make the score more filmic.

“We had to take it to a more cinematic thriller type feel to give it the excitement, and so the score and the sound design are really much more of a cinematic approach than I might normally do for a piece of theatre.”

“This particular version of the script was originally designed to be done in a spectacular set up in a big open field with people on horseback and a cast of hundreds…you really are supposed to see the horse.”

With no space for a flesh and blood brooding horse of death, Armstrong had to find a different way to introduce the menacing creature and its rider.

“One of my favorite comments after the preview, they were asking some of the kids who’d seen it what they thought: ‘Was it too scary for them,’ and, ‘what was the scariest thing?’ And all of the kids said, ‘The scariest thing was the horse,’ which you never see. That means I did my job right.”

And about that horse…Armstrong didn’t just find a canned sound effect. He blended the hoof beats of over a hundred different recordings. The effect is extremely authentic. You wonder if the horse is trotting about backstage waiting to charge any time the lights come down. But what sounds effortless, took many hours of research and edits relates Armstrong.

“Trying to do the horse became a huge, huge time issue, and was much more difficult than any of us expected it to be. It turns out there aren’t really great recordings of horses hooves that don’t have birds and all kinds of other noises in the background…I actually ended up having to take hoof beats from various different recordings and map them together...Any time you hear the horse riding up it’s actually a series that have been added together…I think the first horse arrival or the first horse pass-by right after the opening battle probably has a hundred and forty different sounds in it to create that one effect.”

The actual score for the show is quite subtle and intelligent. In Armstrong’s words it “adds something, and it puts attention in the air that you don’t get without it.”

For live theatre, the score is atypically useful. It gives the audience a way into the sometimes archaic dialogue without overpowering the actors.

“There are certain themes and stylized ways of doing things in a score that kind of set you up,” says Armstrong. “They are kind of cliché points, but they work.”

“Underscore in theatre can be something that can very quickly get hokie. This story is big enough it can take a certain amount of bombasticness that a lot of theatre can’t,” says Armstrong.

 “The flavor” of Danny Elfman’s Sleepy Hollow score was an influencing factor for Armstrong. “It sat well with what we were trying to do…We specifically chose some of that more modern sound…We can give the audience a better thrill ride with a more modern sort of film approach.”

Technicality aside, Armstrong seems to have really enjoyed working the creepy angle. His bottom line: “Go enjoy and have a good time getting a little scared, and a little spooked.”

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Consider the Oyster- The Fox's Latest Pearl

It is inexcusable to have left this review until the end of Consider the Oyster’s run at The Aurora Fox, and even more inexcusable that this won’t do any good to publicize the show. But I wanted to make sure The Fox gets a fair shake on the good work they continue to do.

Not only do they bring new and interesting plays to the Denver Metro area, but they are committed to presenting the work of visionary artists in a true, responsible way. As Consider the Oyster’s playwright David MacGregor relates, “It really says something for any organization when they are going to say, especially in theatre, ‘We want to put out material that’s fresh, that’s new, that’s pertinent, that’s relevant.” The Fox’s production of Consider the Oyster is indeed fresh.

As I watched this play come together—from auditions in October, to the staged reading in January, I had no clear idea what this unique story would turn into in the hands of the carefully selected cast. The plot—a late-twenties engaged man mysteriously changes into a woman due to medical oversight—obviously lends itself to comedy. But secretly I worried the gender-bending comedy might lead to some kind of overstated moral/political sermon.

To say the text itself is didactic would be a disservice to MacGregor, who emphasizes social relevance was not his objective. “I don’t go into writing anything thinking to myself, ‘Well, this is going to be relevant. Either it’s a good story, or its not,’” says MacGregor. But in the hands of the wrong cast, it is not a stretch to imagine the subject matter being misinterpreted.

Under the direction of Bev Newcomb-Madden, I am happy to say Oyster hits the right note. Producing heaving belly laughs, the first act does a good deal to set up the joke, even if it is less substantive. The second act more than makes up for it. As you witness Gene Walsh’s complete transformation, the play’s central themes emerge. What defines a person? If you were stripped from your body, does your self-hood remain intact? What is it you love about a person? MacGregor’s answer is resoundingly optimistic, proving good friends, and love, are not easily discarded.

The acting serves the piece well too. Ben Dicke’s Gene is adorable and sympathetic. His symptoms of metamorphosis feed the comedy. Eliot (Jude Moran), Gene’s macho roommate, is definitely the standout of the piece; he balances male bravado and loyalty masterfully. One glance at Moran during any scene inevitably yields a chuckle. The production’s ladies are scarcely less talented. Ali Frances is sweetly awkward, a contrast from the strong willed mother and daughter, Kay and Marisa Carter, played by Rhonda Brown and Rachel Turner respectively. These two go head to head in a battle of money verses love, and are well matched for the challenge.

The unspoken character of the piece is Gene and Eliot’s apartment. The beautiful set construction is realistic and mature, even if Gene and Eliot are not. It grounds the situation in reality, which keeps the whole thing from seeming too much like a sitcom. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Consider the Oyster Part 1: Consider the Casting

Anyone who has put their career in the hands of a casting director can appreciate the uncertainty of the casting process. As rational human beings, we actors know directors and producers must do what is best for the play. As much as we believe our acting will win the part, skill is not always the deciding factor.

The Aurora Fox’s upcoming production of Consider the Oyster is proof positive that casting is experimental. The regional premier of this eye-opening play by David MacGregor poses some difficult questions concerning gender. As Fox producer Charles Packard puts it, “[the play] explores, ‘Who are you?’ ‘What is really your essence?’ Is it your body and your gender, or is it your brain and your soul?”

Without giving away the excellent twist, Oyster requires its lead be played by both a man and a woman. And this isn't a body swap comedy; both actors are genuinely playing the same part. “So the casting of it is really remarkable,” says Packard, “You have to see the same bone structure inside these two actors and they have to have the same character interpretation, so you believe it…And it’s not a transgender thing.”

As I joined the production crew for casting in late October, I’m not sure anyone knew what to expect. I had never been on the production side of casting, but I got the distinct impression this was not a typical call-back. Picking out twin bodies from a pack of mismatched actors did not seem easy.

Packard lays out the game plan: “You’re going to see the audition where we’re trying to figure that out…stare at their faces closely. And we may absolutely not hire the best actor. We might hire the people that are the same height.”

As an actor these words make you cringe, but Packard emphasizes, “All the people that we have here tonight…we know all these people have the skills and are capable of playing the role.”

Primed for this grand conundrum, I meet assistant director Gregory Price, in charge of casting and slated to orchestrate the staged reading in January before handing over the reins to director Bev Newcomb-Madden for the full production in February. “We’re flying by the seat of our pants here,” says Price, “because the director’s not here. But I’m her assistant director, and I've worked with her ten million times, so I know her sensibilities pretty well.”

These sensibilities seem to be the guiding factor in casting the supporting roles. This part of the evening is pretty cut and dry. Either the actor reads and interacts in a way that satisfies the text, or they don’t. Obvious choices emerge pretty naturally.

But tonight is really about casting Gene. Whether they realize it or not, every actor is being auditioned for the lead. “This is the chorus line part of the audition,” Price jokes.

As the hopefuls line up, Packard sets forth the challenge: “Most of you guys have read the script, so you kind of understand the weird challenge that we have in trying to figure out the casting…We’re doing some things a little bit different…What we’re looking for is to see you both playing the same character, right? And particularly the female role is completely inhabited by a man…Figure that out.”

As pairs of male and female actors take the stage to perform alternating lines of Gene’s monologue, something uncanny begins to transpire. Actors who seem fatally mismatched begin to transform. Physical differences seem to melt away, amalgamate. I’m not sure if all the priming put casting goggles on us all, or if the writing is generally just good, but connections began to appear in unexpected places.

After one particularly moving pair, Packard notes, “That was spot on. That must have felt good. You guys were listening to each other and all of it was there.”

But in the end, synchronicity took a back seat to physical determinants. Packard explains, “You know, we started discovering toward the end there that different people match in different parts of their face,” actors of different heights or body shapes.

I wondered if an actor’s facial similarities were enough to make a decision if there were differences in height. “I would probably go for facial bone structure,” Packard replies, “and shoulders are probably more important than identical height…What we found there, we found that identical eyes and nose are more valuable than identical lips and chin...Similarities and differences are revealed more in profile than they are straight on.”

Early in the evening, Packard expressed his uncertainty with casting Oyster: “If we’re successful, we’ll tell you,” adding a hesitant, “And if we fail…” But by the end of the evening there was a palpable (if unspoken) sense that this grand experiment had paid off in a big way. Certainty has a way of lightening the mood, and conversations moved quickly away from casting and onto wardrobe and chemistry with the supporting cast.

Consider the Oyster runs February 15 through March 10 at The Aurora Fox. To reserve tickets, visit or call the Box Office at 303-739-1970. The Aurora Fox Theatre is located at 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, five blocks west of Havana. Parking for the venue is free and located behind the theatre. Doors open half an hour prior to curtain and concessions are available for purchase upon arrival. For any additional information, contact the Box Office. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Preview: Picasso at the Lapin Agile at The Aurora Fox

Picasso and Einstein walk into a bar. It’s the setup for a good joke, or as The Aurora Fox sees it,  Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile, which runs September 14 through October 14, 2012.

When an average Paris bar plays host to two of the twentieth century’s most influential figures a fantastical bromance ensues. Like two atoms forced to inhabit too small a space, the artist and the physicist are not at first happy sharing the spotlight. Its 1904: one year before Einstein publishes his Special Theory of Relativity and three years before Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon.” Both men are poised to make the most important discoveries of their careers.

Pablo Picasso (Benjamin Cowhick) striving to understand his own ideas and become more relevant than the ever popular Matisse, confidently woos the Lapin Agile’s ladies, but has a little trouble defining his artistic aims. Twenty-five year old Albert Einstein (Jack Wefso) already understands the significance of his theory and unwittingly undertakes the fortification of Picasso’s brilliance.

In the mean time, bar owner Freddy and his exceptionally ordinary regulars are caught up in a whirlwind of new ideas they cannot help but treat with sarcasm. Einstein’s near insanity and Picasso’s overbearing sensuality wash over these average Joes as the first wave of a new era they cannot yet understand. Several unexpected visitors add to a growing chaos which can only end in a toast to undiscovered country.

More than a punch line, the center of the play is the age old debate between head and heart. There are some very profound comments on the nature of vision and the burden, or blessing, of genius. Funny and captivating at once, the unmasking of the creative/intellectual process is a gem. Martin has an excellent sense of timing and scope, so these moments do not become too large for the comedy or too benign for their obvious eloquence.

Producer/Director John Ashton has decked out the set with art to “give the bar a cozy feel like a modern day coffee shop,” says stage manager Kelcey Pfluger. “There are a lot of posters that almost look like artists and bands put them up to advertise their work and gigs.” The cheeky, knowing late twentieth-century spin of these giants is what gives this play its sparkle.

Not surprisingly, this fast moving, easy flowing comedy reads like a Saturday Night Live skit. The play more than winks at the audience. The audience is part of the gag; a coconspirator in unmasking and helping to define Picasso’s legacy. It’s kooky, heartwarming and intellectual. Dusting off the old physics and art text books is not necessary, but healthy understanding of the almost archetypical Picasso and Einstein will only enhance the viewing experience.

Whether you fancy the sultry Picasso or the brilliant Mr. Einstein, this play is a celebration of new ideas, chance encounters and change, the perfect opener to a season devoted to celebrating times “when good things happen to good people.”

To reserve tickets for Picasso at the Lapin Agile visit or call the Box Office at 303-739-1970. The Aurora Fox Theatre is located at 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, five blocks west of Havana. Parking for the venue is free and located behind the theatre. Doors open half an hour prior to curtain and concessions are available for purchase upon arrival. For any additional information, contact the Box Office. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Great American Trailer Park Musical - Ignite Theatre

Ignite Theatre’s The Great American Trailer Park Musical is a hootenanny on wheels! Parking at The Aurora Fox Studio Theatre April 20-May 6, this musical comedy by David Nehls is absurd, but brilliant.

From the minute you walk into the theatre you are greeted in typical trailer park style with a friendly, if not sardonic, smile and an invitation to join the party. Before the show begins, patrons are encouraged to buy a beer onstage or a red Solo cup full of Hunch Punch. The studio has the feel of a backyard barbeque where everyone—and the cousin they married—is welcome to join the pre-show raucous.

Trailer park manager Betty and her chorus, Pickles and Lin, spin the tragic tale of a couple torn apart by infidelity which might have come straight out of ancient Greece, with one exception: this is Florida. This kind of salacious tale is run-of-the-mill in Armadillo Acres. When Jeannie’s agoraphobia begins to cause trouble in the bedroom, Norbert turns to stripper on the run Pippi for a little company. In red-neck style, Norbert and Pippi are caught together behind a trailer sending Jeannie into comedic despair and Pippi’s ex-boyfriend Duke into a jealous rage.

Trailer Park gives you exactly what you expect. It is low class in the best way. Southern sarcasm is essential and utilized perfectly. Every white-trash joke in the book makes it in. Where this musical is surprising is in the ferocity of its musical numbers and the audacity of the actors.

My expectation was that I would be listening to a lot of country music, and some of it is. But this is more stylized Broadway pop than pure country—thank goodness. This allows the story to go places and take on a flavor that can’t be achieved strictly by country music. The musical is cheesy and biting without the lamentable whine of too many country ballads. 

There’s a bit of disco, which, beyond the incredible vocals of this small cast, is hilarious paired with gender inappropriate costumes and the most ridiculous wigs I have ever seen. A number glorifying road kill and an eerily accurate spoof of Jerry Springer make this show the most musically enjoyable thing to come out of a trailer park—ever.

Indeed a lot of the material in this show is just crass; for instance, a middle-aged man’s tandem strip tease with his wife and mistress. But you just can’t stop watching, especially when you have talent like Stephanie Hancock (Betty) playing ring leader. Every time Hancock opens her mouth you know you will either laugh or be left slack-jawed at the utter power of her voice.

Alix Brickley (Pickles) is positively adorable. She does a fantastic job doing stupid without being annoying. And Maggie Tisdale (Lin) is the perfect brash country woman; you love her for every twisted thing that comes out of her mouth. These characters have spunk and Brickley and Tisdale give fantastic performances.

Margie Lamb (Jeannie) is tragically pathetic and I love how delicate she is in movement and character interpretation. She brings a bit of realism to the ridiculous part she has been given. Kia Chapman deserves enormous respect for stripping in front of an audience and doing so convincingly.

Ignite has done a fantastic job utilizing the Aurora Fox Studio Theatre. With two fairly large usable trailer frames and a stripper pole platform taking up a large amount of the space, I was amazed they did not run out of blocking options. Jeannie and Norbert’s trailer front slides open to reveal a functional living space, the details of which, down to the duck figurines and tacky plastic plants, are fun to uncover over the course of the show. The telephone pole to the very back of the theatre complete with shoes dangling from the wire is a charming touch.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical is a pleasant surprise and a fantastic weekend diversion. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Amateur Night at the Big Heart - The Aurora Fox

What’s a typical Saturday night at a Country/Western bar like? At The Big Heart Bar and Grill it’s full of ball-busting cowgirls and men in way over their heads. Add in lassos, the world’s worst ventriloquist, and a disco ball shaped like cowboy boots, and you get a heartwarming tale of change flavored by reflection and a good dose of country flair.

Terry Dodd’s Amateur Night at the Big Heart, playing at The Aurora Fox April 20-May 13, opens on a Pueblo, Colorado bar on the brink of change. When rival bar The Cock and Crow opens across town, Big Heart owner Marge (Rhonda Brown) and her regulars begin to see the writing on the wall; the Big Heart’s days are numbered, causing all to reflect on their pasts and speculate about the future.

But don’t be fooled. There is a good dose western humor sprinkled about to balance the play’s often bitter themes. Charlene (Mari Geasair) is a faithful disciple of gossip rags, a know-it-all intent on keeping unruly men in their places. The trouble she gets everyone into is of Shakespearean proportions. Geasair does a good job giving Charlene’s foolishness a little feist.

Stacker (Jack Wefso) is good for more than a few laughs as he slips steadily into an intoxicated stupor brought on by mystery blonde Marie (Diana Dresser). The humor of their meeting gives way to the most moving few minutes of the play. Both actors give excellent performances and leave the audience begging to see them together again.

Marge and Harry (Scott Bellot), the couple that should have been but never was, have the kind of chemistry which is doomed to lead to heartbreak. We see a softer side of Marge which is refreshing given her hard-ass persona at the start. Bellot and Brown do a great job handling the simplicity of their love story.

This ensemble piece relies more on theme than plot to drive its point. It is like a book of poetry whose individual compositions have little to do with one another, but are unified by the filter of the title to present an overall impression. What Dodd does so beautifully is freeze these impressions, these moments in time, and give them breadth which life rarely allows. Thoughts are given voice resulting in the sparkling monologues which determine the play’s effectiveness.

At times it seems a little slow—the show gets caught up in elaboration—but then a monologue begins, the lights dim, and the audience is transported inward to a crisis, a memory, a reality being reevaluated before your eyes.

Lighting Designer Shannon McKinney must be given fair dues for her hand in the magic. Her design does a great deal to set tone and her transitions are effortless. The audience does not feel manipulated by effects, which is refreshing.

The set is a character itself, not necessarily pretty or inviting at first glance, but warm and familiar to those who call it home. It has to accommodate a large cast and The Fox does a good job giving the bar an intimate feeling without making it cluttered or crowded.

Big Heart has no happy ending—humorous, but not happy. Its ends are never tied which is essential to understanding it as a snapshot in time, but I wanted more. I wanted to know that someone has peace of mind the next morning. Perhaps this is why the play ends as it does, with Jo (Karen Erickson) and Ernie (Jack Casperson) dancing in the moonlight.

These two sum up the whole of the story: even in their declining years they do not have everything figured out, still amateurs at the game of life. The woman remains headstrong; the man a little silly. But in the midst of their smalls worries they are able to enjoy a dance in the moonlight, to grab the mundane and create magic.

This is what Dodd does best. He takes the butt end of a joke, the Country/Western bar, and highlights its charm bringing to life the people that call it home in a non-caricatured way.