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The Grim Reaper is shamed, graves are being filled back in, and everyone gets one question before they’re sent to heaven or hell. Such are some of the realities presented in EMU’s “Cat Scratch Theatre,” the purported 10-play (actually 11-play) series of shorts designed to entertain, excite, trick and tease. The two-and-a-half hour festival has its moments of poignancy and hilarity. But much of the time, the production can be awkward and dull, even painful. At one point, a character vents his frustration at a life full of confusion and non-sequiturs: “Life was just a parade of ‘what the hell?’”
So too, at times, with "Cat Scratch Theatre."
Showing again this Friday and Saturday at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H., “Cat Scratch Theatre” is put on by EMU Theatre, a collective devoted to getting the community involved in the dramaturgical arts. For community involvement — an important job — the collective does a fine job. But in regard to putting on plays that tickle or torment the audience, there is work to be done.
“Grim Reaper” is the flagship of the festival — written by Dean Bevan and directed by David Butterfield, the play presents an elderly couple (John Mosher and Carol Holstead) who receive the Grim Reaper (Brent McCall) as a guest. Fortunately for them, they’re too blind and hard of hearing to know what he’s about, and so proceed to fancy him as a mere mortal. Eventually guessing that he’s a shepherd, they set his shepherd’s crook (scythe) aside and take him in as a guest. Exasperated with one humiliating misunderstanding after another, Death exclaims, “I’m used to having people fear me — you don’t even respect me!”
“What’d he say?” asks the old woman.
“Says we don’t respect him ‘cause he’s queer,’” misinterprets the old man.
“Aww, sir, we’ll respect you no matter what you do with them sheep!”
Other worthwhile sections include EMU’s skits, “You Are Not Watching TV” among them, and the 10th play, “Flying Ninja.” EMU’s skits about its mission of community involvement include commentary on esoteric theatre and the difference between passively watching TV and actively watching or doing theatre. “Flying Ninja” is a sobering one-woman show directed by Larry Mitchell. Starring Elizabeth Sullivan as “Fro,” the play’s mood goes against the tide of the festival, lending a brain to the otherwise comedy-oriented grouping.
Most of the other productions, however, don’t add up to much more than a few witty lines and the occasional surprise ending. “Hiccup,” “Bee Actor” and “Dinner Party” aren’t quite funny, yet also don’t get the mind working on an interesting idea. Despite good performances by Ashley Pool and Bonnie Cherry, the plays lack vital energy or nuance needed from the script. “All the Answers” and “Mickey Rourke Should Play Bukowski Again, Now that He Really is Old and Ugly” seem well-written with some good acting, but don’t pull off (perhaps because the plays are so short) much of a vested interest from the audience.
Most painful is the seventh play, “The Exquisite Corpse in the Apocalypse.” Between a confusing script and unhelpful directing, the play loses the audience after about 20 lines, never to get them back. Other annoyances of the festival include forgotten lines and an egregious click-clacking of high heels on the floor above the performance hall. Nothing kills the mood quite as much as the sound of 4-inch heels tromping across the ceiling.
“Why do it yourself when a man can do it for you?”
So says Mary, the matriarch in The KU Theatre’s production of "Sister Cities."
Written by Colette Freedman and directed by Nicole Hodges Persley, the play takes place in the living room of Mary – the mother of four daughters, each named for the locale in which they were born. Mary’s suicide brings them all home, and most of the play follows their time together. Taking place in the space of one afternoon, the story is at once a funeral, a family reunion and an information session on ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), which is why Mary committed suicide.
A play about the modern family, "Sister Cities" explores the relationships of sisters amid the troubles of disease, divorce and social expectations. Despite good, sometimes even exceptional execution by the cast and crew, the production suffers heavily from its unoriginal script.
The play is character-centric. The five-woman cast represents a sampling of different female types typical in today’s pop culture. Among them are a successful but divorced lawyer, a rebellious student and a family-oriented schoolteacher. Each character always talks from the perspective of her stereotype: The lawyer is full of court jargon, the student rails on society and the schoolteacher offers the perspective of a 5th grade classroom. If the play were a comedy, these roles might assist in the humor. But in a production attempting to portray a realistic version of a family, the structured and straightforward characterization subtracts from the play’s depth.
The diversity of these characters makes for witty banter, however, and the actresses do a good job of working with what they’ve got. Jeanne Averill plays Mary, the mother of the four daughters, spry and defiant despite being almost completely paralyzed because of ALS. Sprawling in her chair and barking witticisms, she adds energy to the production. Lizzie Hartman, Claire Vowels, Danielle Therese Cooper and Julie Miller effectively play the four sisters. They have talent; it would be interesting to see this quartet mingle in another production.
No tall demands are made of the costuming, lighting or set, but each area delivers more than expected. There is little action in the play, and a good set prevents this from being a detractor. The set creates a dynamic space, if populated only by the couch, the liquor cabinet and the bathroom. The women stomp around, going from cabinet to bathroom to couch.
Sometimes the mood is akin to a sleepover: “We should play Scrabble and order pizza!” They play board games in their pajamas while the body of their mother sits in a bathtub in the next room. At other times, the daughters bicker about their own lives and the lives of each other, and accuse each other of various shortcomings. Gyrating between these moods makes it difficult to concentrate on either.
It is also hard to decipher to what extent the play attempts to call attention to ALS. The mother’s affliction, as well as the possibility of the daughters also having the disease, influences the play. But the main focus is on the daughters’ character development. In the midst of all this, ALS seems to be more of a side note, despite receiving much attention in the program’s Director’s Note.
In the end, the production feels scattered, conflicted and safe. We go to the theater to be challenged, to be entertained or even to be tormented, if it’s poetic. The cast and crew at University Theatre are talented. A brainier, riskier play might let them shine.
From the creators of "Chicago" and "Cabaret," the musical “Curtains” is a high-energy production, pulling the audience through a zoo of characters and plot twists. Along with a few moments of ingenuity in directing, Lawrence Community Theatre’s cast lends the musical enough energy to zip along quickly.
The musical-within-a-musical plot centers on a murder. The entire cast is held in their own theater until Det. Frank Cioffi, (Dennis Tyner), a lawman with a taste for dramaturgy, can solve the crime. As the musical goes on, Cioffi finds himself solving more murders as well as working with the troop to reinvent their failing musical production.
"Curtains" is a musical about musicals and the odd characters that populate that world, both on the stage and off. The people are all a little nuts and they've got no qualms singing it to the world. This panoply of characters is what really counts in "Curtains," and it seems that director Jeff Montague understands that.
Tyner enthusiastically plays an emotive detective, at one moment prancing around the stage, foolishly in love with one of his suspects, and in the next stoically withholding evidence from the audience. Det. Cioffi is a lucky fool, a born-theater director who has a heart too soft for his day job.
Many of the actors do well, but the real entertainment of the musical comes from their chemistry with one another. The production is brightest when everyone is onstage and the fictional troop is rehearsing under the condescending British-accented director played by Peter Hansen.
A trio played by Amanda Thomas, Widge Yager and Kendra Verhage sing surprisingly well in their "In the Same Boat" number, and the actresses do fine besides. In the moments that they sing together, the trio impresses. The female cast often overshadows the male cast. The charisma of Hash-Hires, Thomas and Yager is hard to overcome; Tyner's detective and Belling's director are the only male characters that stick in the mind after the production is over.
The humor of the musical is in witticisms and comebacks, some of which are clever and some of which are not. The production as a whole is funny if the viewer can get past some of the lame jokes:
"She's got a pulse?"
"That's the first time she's carried a beat!"
The script of the musical allows for some character development, but the love scenes and accompanying songs are not as enthralling as the fast-paced showstoppers. More energy has been devoted to the showier portions of the musical, and it shows. One especially clever arrangement is Yager's leading of the "Thataway" song. Carried around by 20-something men in a French cabaret-style production, Georgia's age difference takes center stage. Perhaps commentary on the too-often casting of a young actress into a lead role, the scene breaks the mold. And it generates some laughs.
The set is mostly austere and the lighting of the production is straightforward. Costuming is elaborate at times, complete with 19th-century American Cavalry getup and plains-inspired dresses and cowboy attire. The intimate theater setting certainly helps the production, putting the viewer physically closer to the cast. The audience surrounds three sides of the set, and the actors and director do a good job of showing the production through multiple angles.
Though the production could be fleshed out in other areas, the directing and acting are enough to make it worthwhile. The chemistry of the leads and the supporting female cast lend this musical the energy it needs to entertain, and it is easy to be entertained by "Curtains."
For this year’s holiday musical, Lawrence Community Theatre presents Rogers’ and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.”
This well-read fairy tale tells the turbulent story of Cinderella, an orphan left to live with her cruel stepmother and two nasty stepsisters. Treated as a lowly servant, Cinderella dreams of going to the royal ball and falling in love with the gallant prince.
Many people are probably familiar with this musical version, which was originally written for a CBS television special in 1957. Since then it has been re-done twice, the most recent of which was Disney’s production, aired in 1997.
The theatrical adaptation blends an effervescent musical score and colorful costumes to create a light-hearted story that children will really enjoy.
Kayla Motley stars as the demure Cinderella. The model ingénue, she glides seamlessly across the stage, and gives lovely performances of “In My Own Little Corner” and “The Sweetest Sounds.”
Melia Stockham and Amber Dickinson are wonderful as the inept and self-centered stepsisters, Grace and Joy. The pair livens up the stage with their klutzy antics and hilarious repartee, often while doing the bidding of Cinderella’s ruthless and crazy stepmother, played by Becky O’Keefe.
Cinderella’s fairy godmother (Rachel Strandt), guides the story with sparkle and grace. Yet she also brings a touch of reality to the story, teaching Cinderella that she must act to make her wishes come true with the song “It’s Possible.”
Cinderella’s one-and-only love, Prince Christopher, is played by Michael Timothy Dieker. His dreamy and naïve character are ideal for this type of story, and he helps create several touching moments between he and Motley.
A dedicated group of LCT veterans makes up the strong supporting cast. Charles Whitman always brings a stoic, dry humor to his roles, this time as Lionel, the Prince’s Steward. Lori Messinger and Dean Bevan are charming as the Queen and King, with a strong performance of “Boys and Girls Like You and Me,” which only accentuates their lovely stage presence.
One of the cutest parts of the production is Cinderella’s little mice allies, played by Alex Brown, Andrew Leibold, Kate O’Keefe and Helen Weis. It’s great to see these talented youngsters adding their own colorful flair to the show, along with Sam Hay and Alice Myers, as the dove and the cat.
Children will enjoy the animated tone of the show, the colorful costumes and the vibrant sets. This fun story moves at a comfortable pace, keeping younger audience members engaged in the performance from start to finish. The theater even makes special magic wands available so that audience members can help stir the magic for Cinderella and her prince.
Director Charles Goolsby creates a show that children young and old can easily enjoy, sparking a magical beginning to the holiday season.
Maybe it was easy. After all, the work of Tennessee Williams is compelling, and “The Glass Menagerie” is a beautiful play. But regardless of how easy or difficult it is to bring Williams’s classic to life, the creative team at Kansas University Theatre pulled it off brilliantly.
The story concerns the Wingfield family — mother Amanda (Gail Trottier), daughter Laura (Jaquelyn Koester) and son Tom (Matt Crooks). Tom serves as a narrator and character in the story and is a semi-autobiographical version of Williams. Set in 1937 St. Louis, the play follows the family’s struggle to stay afloat in the waning days of the Depression. Tom works at a warehouse but dreams of adventure. Laura is crippled and “painfully shy.” No man has ever shown interest in her, and Amanda fears she will become a spinster. Amanda had many men when she was young, but chose poorly — her husband left her and the children, although his picture still dominates the family sitting room.
Amanda begs Tom to find Laura a suitor, and he does — a man he knows at work, who just happens to be the only guy Laura ever wanted, a memory from high school come to life. But when this Gentleman Caller (Ben Sullivan) does come to dinner, the results are both wondrous and disastrous.
Trottier, a costume shop cutter/draper with University Theatre makes her onstage debut at KU with a tour de force performance as the overbearing, over-worrying Amanda. Trottier dives into the role with abandon, bringing perfectly to life the meddling mother who means well but only makes her children’s lives harder. Crooks is good as the frustrated, would-be writer. He brings the quiet desperation of Tom out subtly, not overdoing it. We feel the character’s pain without drowning in it.
Likewise, Sullivan is perfect as the glad-handing Gentleman Caller. He projects the façade of having it all worked out, when, really, he’s just as lonely as Tom and Laura.
Koester’s performance is outstanding. She’s mastered the trick of acting without having lines. She is compelling to watch when the other characters are talking about her. It’s obvious she hears them, reacts to what they say without responding verbally. She uses body language to give us the shy, frightened cripple who doesn’t dare to dream the popular boy from school could be interested in her. And when she does accept the Gentleman Caller’s advances only to have her hopes dashed, Koester says everything with her face and body that Williams doesn’t give her lines to say.
Jack Wright’s direction finds the humor in the script. There are a number of laugh-out-loud moments Wright skillfully draws out to break the tension of the misery of these three people who dream of something better for themselves. His tutelage of the actors pays off in the strong performances of each. His eye for detail creates nice uses of light and music to enhance the special moments the script provides.
It may have been easy to create such magic given the beauty of Williams’s words. But great theatre is a combination of a strong script and stronger performances. Wright and the cast of “The Glass Menagerie” give us both.
This review of the Tap Dogs show Wednesday night at the Lied Center comes from Dean Bevan, a retired English professor at Baker University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Tap Dogs held the stage at a near-capacity Lied Center for 90 minutes Wednesday evening, rocking the audience into frequent applause.
Dressed in boots, jeans, shorts, T-shirts, flannel shirts and ball caps, the group tapped in every way known to humankind. Led by creator/choreographer Dein Perry’s brother Sheldon, and directed by Nigel Triffitt, the Tap Dogs danced upside down, on ladders, in a water-filled trough, on a 45-degree angled ramp, even at times en pointe. You name it, they did it.
The evening opened with a darkened stage and the sound of taps. As the lights came up, the audience was treated to a lead dancer/dance director Sheldon Perry solo on a miked wooden platform. The man is unbelievably fluid, a difficult effect to achieve in the energetic staccato style of the group. Then the sheet was raised just enough to reveal five pairs of dancing feet, with accompanying sight gags (think of a stream of water descending between one pair of feet). All six then danced together across the stage, followed by a solo from each.
Throughout the evening, numbers varied from intricate six-man ensembles to lightning-fast solos to challenge-and-response duets. As in all tap, precise synchronization among the dancers was requisite, and that was achieved with seeming ease. Choreography was clever, with tap moonwalks, dueling taps, tap conversations, crashing accents, mimed mocking of one another’s performance, and pretend fights. The introductory 15 minutes was danced without accompaniment, giving the audience a vivid impression of the level of skill shown by the ensemble. Thereafter, music and percussion from Stephen Ferradino and composer Andrew Wilkie accompanied their steps throughout the evening. Dance platforms varied from wood to metal, from level to raked and jaggedly split, to ramps raised up to 45 degrees. This troupe danced on them all.
All tap dancing is vigorous, but not all is as athletic as the Tap Dogs’ show. The audience was particularly wowed by the group’s barrel rolls, with the performers tapping while spinning like Olympic figure skaters. One number featured basketballs, with each dancer providing his own percussion accompaniment by dribbling while dancing. This was followed up by passing the balls — overhead lobs the width of the Lied stage, bounce passes — while tapping.
Continual changes in the routine mostly kept the performance from seeming repetitive: dancing while seated; dancing upside-down, suspended in a harness; dancing a soft-shoe routine while the audience maintained a finger-snapping beat; dancing while showered in contrapuntal sparks from metal grinders on a darkened stage; dancing with microphones duct-taped to ankles; dancing with heavy reverb in the sound system; dancing in a water trough while wearing Wellingtons (and sloshing plenty of water on the first three rows). Prolonged applause followed the finale, performed on a six-level platform, and the performers took their bows after a slow-paced shuffle-step number on the watery stage. Sheldon Perry did a rapid coda. Still the audience, in a standing ovation, wanted more, and the Tap Dogs obliged with an encore, still energetic after an hour and a half.
The Marching Jayhawks are headed indoors.
The Kansas University Marching Band has scheduled a first-ever indoor concert, bringing the sounds of the football field to the Lied Center. The concert is at 7:30 p.m. Sunday.
“There’s always been a desire from fans and alumni to see the Marching Jayhawks outside a football performance,” says David Clemmer, director of athletic bands.
The program will include traditional KU fight songs, as well as music from the 2009 football season. The music includes cartoon theme songs, the music of Blood, Sweat and Tears and a Latin jazz tribute. Clemmer says the concert will allow band fans to hear the intricacies of the music that might get lost during the game hubbub at Memorial Stadium.
“With this particular group, I really do try to emphasize that we want to impress with volume, but we do so with some musical integrity,” Clemmer says. “When we go inside, we do the same thing, but on a much higher level. We want to make them more aware. They don’t have to blast — the fight songs are almost as complex as some of the greatest marches ever written.”
The concert will be recorded for an upcoming CD, the first from the Marching Jayhawks since 1999. Tickets are $12.50 for the public and $10 for students, seniors and children.
Five Lawrence residents involved in the arts have been named recipients of the 2009 Phoenix Awards.
The awards are given by the Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission, recognizing outstanding artistic achievements in the Lawrence community. Since 1996, more than 100 outstanding artists have received Phoenix Awards.
The recipients will be honored during a reception at 2 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H. This year’s recipients and categories are:
• Linda Baranski, arts administrator. Baranski is past president of the Lawrence Art Guild and director of the guild’s new 1109 Gallery.
• Richard Klocke, design arts. Klocke is the exhibit designer at the Spencer Museum of Art.
• Stan Lombardo, literary arts. Lombardo is a Kansas University professor of classics who is known for his translations of Greek works such as Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.”
• Doug Weaver, performing arts. Weaver is a theater teacher at Bishop Seabury Academy who also has led productions at KU, Lawrence Community Theatre and other venues.
• Margaret Weisbrod-Morris, arts advocate. She is program manager for arts in education with the Kansas Arts Commission.
Profiles of each of this year’s winners will appear in the Journal-World Oct. 25.
This review of "Macbeth," which opened Thursday night at KU's University Theatre, comes from Sarah Young, a Lawrence-based freelance writer:
Something definitively wicked came to the stage of the Crafton-Preyer Theatre on Thursday night as University Theatre opened its production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”
As the doomed Scot, Alex Salamat revels in Macbeth’s mercurial, ambitious, conflicted and malevolent personality. By turns pathetic and arrogant, Salamat’s Macbeth forces the audience to re-evaluate each time he appears on stage, writhing in the horror of his own making until he embraces the evil, loses all sense of humanity and becomes a butchering automaton.
His counterpart in evil, Amy Virginia Buchanan as Lady Macbeth, is a picture of mental instability from the moment she reads the fateful letter from her husband that tells her of the three witches’ prophecy. Spurred by her excessive ambition for her husband and an obsession with power, Lady Macbeth goads her husband into foulest murder but is undone by the remnants of her own conscience driving her insane. Buchanan’s Lady Macbeth fits into the style of this production that emphasizes the emotional, political and mental extremes of this play.
Directed by guest artist Tazewell Thompson, this “Macbeth” is a roiling, romping, testosterone-laced spectacle of man’s inhumanity to man — and woman. Fight scenes — of which there are a great many — effectively directed by Jeremy Riggs are no sophisticated, delicate swordplay; they are grunting, sweating kill fests with sometimes disturbing verisimilitude. Particularly affecting is the murder of Macduff’s wife and children that brought horrified gasps from the audience on Thursday night.
Delbert Unruh’s set, with its towering, empty box of slatted panels and a slanting thrust over the pit was additionally lit from below and behind in Elizabeth Banks’ lighting design. Almost always the characters are shadowed, sometimes outlined by the eerie shafts of light projecting through the panels, emphasizing the otherworldly, the chaos and darkness settling over them as the result of Macbeth’s heinous act. This production also features an original musical score composed by Fabian Obispo that contributes to the pulse-pounding, supernatural atmosphere.
The entire cast embraces the intensity of this play. Brittany Barney, Tali Beth Freidman and Lizzie Hartman fall headlong into their roles as the Three Witches, selling the now-ubiquitous incantations with such force that one feels shivers rather than amusement.
As the anguished Macduff, Erik LaPointe allows the madness of the world to transform him into Macbeth’s conqueror not because he is “not of woman borne,” but because he is tormented by his desire for vengeance. Only a man with a heart as twisted by pain as Macbeth’s heart is by ambition could vanquish the bloody Scot.
To Jake L. Smith, as Malcolm, falls the difficult role of restoring order at the end of the play. Like all of the performers, Smith settles into the language of the play, relishing it, letting it carry him through the difficult scene, allowing Shakespeare’s words to “perform in measure, time and place” what is required for light to return to the Scotland of the play as well as to the stage of the theatre.
“Macbeth” continues with shows today, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
This review of "Club Morocco," which opened Friday at Lawrence Community Theatre, comes from Lawrence writer Liza Pehrson:
Lawrence Community Theatre opens its new season with the swingin’ hot “Club Morocco,” which uses the hits of great big-band leaders such as Glen Miller, Cab Calloway, Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey, to narrate a 1940s-era, film-noir spoof. The story revolves around Frank McCann, a private investigator with a sordid history, who comes back to settle a score with club owner, Torch Tangier.
In a fun and entertaining change of pace, this show focuses to a great extent on audience participation. Throughout the show, the cast encourages people in the seats to come down and dance to songs like “Jump, Jive and Wail,” “In The Mood” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”
Dennis Tyner plays the gritty McCann with a style reminiscent of the great detectives of the silver screen. His cool presence and easy manner help the audience believe they are spectators in a night club, sipping dry martinis and watching the drama of the regulars unfold before their eyes.
The club’s ingénue is the sweet and sultry Nugget Rialto, brought to life by Amber Dickinson. She displays great character and charm, and her performance is highlighted by a stunning version of “Stormy Weather.” Dickinson is joined in performance by LCT veteran Amy Reinert, who plays the bold and sassy club headliner, Velvet St. Regis. Reinert’s strong stage presence is accented by her passion, turning in several great solo and ensemble performances.
A shining focal point of the show is Henry Mosely, who livens up the stage as the jive-talking band leader Chick Valentine. In his debut performance with LCT, Mosely captures the crowd with a rocking rendition of “Minnie the Moocher,” keeping them swaying and jiving until the very end.
Fellow newcomer Butch Wilkerson plays the band’s tenor (and jive-to-English translator) Bobby LaRue. Wilkerson and Mosely bring a fabulous energy to the stage, setting a great backdrop for the rest of the action. The Swing Street All Stars all but steal the show, performing with the cast swing-era hits like “String of Pearls,” “Under My Skin” and “One For the Road.” Headed up by musical director Mary Baker, their talent captures the attention of the crowd and builds a strong backbone for this engaging and comical show.
Choreographer Ivory Mazur creates several tremendous dance numbers using a solid cast of young dancers. Jared Martin, Muncel Jones, Joshua M. Cuffe, Mary Williams and Gabrielle Sangervasi swing and flip their way across the stage with aptitude and flair. The group tap number during “I Got Rhythm” is a particular favorite. Director Mary Doveton brings a great mix of new talent and gifted veterans to the stage, resulting in a fun and entertaining show (even if you don’t have the courage to get out and cut a rug). The exciting atmosphere, good music and sparkling costumes make for an enjoyable and memorable evening.
“Club Morocco” runs through Oct. 4. Visit www.theatrelawrence.com for more information.