Entries from blogs tagged with “theater”

Review: ‘Seller Door’ strong but goes too far

The tricky thing with art — the hard part, if you will — is knowing when to quit. When have you made your point well, and when have you gone too far?

Larry Mitchell’s “Seller Door,” which opened at the Lawrence Arts Center on Friday night, doesn’t quite hit that sweet spot between not enough and too much. Thoughtful and clever, it nevertheless goes too far in its attempt to comment on how we allow ourselves to be duped and the consequences we pay for it.

The play is divided into two very different acts. In the first, we meet a Barker (Jay Maus), who is tasked with getting people to go through a red door onstage. Much of his dialogue is directed at the audience, breaking the fourth wall and bringing them into his confidence as he relates to us the challenges of his job. The rest is aimed at potential “customers” he attempts to persuade to go through the door, and he receives regular calls on a red, rotary-dial phone from an unseen boss, who is constantly checking on his progress (and never seems satisfied).

The people he meets are all archetypes of folks we meet in everyday life. There is Harold (Jason Keezer), a directionless leisure lover, who seeks some sort of purpose for his life. There are Jack (Jerry Mitchell) and Jill (Monica Greenwood), consummate consumers, who believe everyone else is getting something they’re not. Fiery Allison (Jacqueline Gruneau) protests the door, marching against its existence but hypocritically is drawn to it. Billy (Janette Salisbury) wants to be included but is held back by meaningless restrictions. And Jean (Bryce Ostrom) is a criminal, who we learn used to be a Barker. They all have their own reasons for going through the door, and the Barker alters his sales pitch to each individual to offer the right enticement.

The second act focuses on those who went through, what they find on the other side of the door, and what becomes of them. It’s here that the show’s subtitle, “A Play of Consequence,” becomes meaningful.

The first act is absolutely brilliant. Well-written by Mitchell and perfectly played by Maus, Act I captures the soul of a career salesman. Barker constantly repeats the mantras of his company. “We are not salesman; we are saviors. We’re here to help the people,” he says over and over again when he needs to buck himself up. “A.B.O.: Always be opening.” Barker is a man who has bought into the mission statements of his company, and he wraps himself in them like a security blanket, even if he is not entirely certain what he is selling.

During down periods between customers, he fires off one tongue-twister after another to keep his patter warmed up and ready to go. He obsessively sweeps the stage, keeping his selling area clean and presentable, so there is never a barrier to making that sale.

And haunting him throughout the act is the specter of his quota. He must get five people through the door today. The calls from his boss scare him. As the day winds on and he is coming up short, desperation sets in. He becomes more agitated, less confidant, more worried.

Maus is terrific in the role, expertly capturing the essence of every commission-based salesperson feeling the pressure to make quota. The mantras and verbal exercises are weapons in his war against despair. He gives himself pep talk after pep talk, so he’ll have the energy and the faux confidence necessary to close that next sale.

It’s unfortunate that “Seller Door” isn’t a one-act play. Mitchell raises all the questions he needs to with this frenetic story of a salesman just trying to get people to buy.

In the second act, Mitchell makes the mistake of showing us what’s beyond the door. We find out just what each of these rubes has bought. Naturally, it’s nothing good, and Mitchell has constructed a nice homage to Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit.” To his further credit, he leaves the biggest questions unanswered: who is the mysterious boss and why does he want people to go through the door in the first place?

But one wishes Mitchell had realized the strength of his play is on the outside of the door, not within. He’s trying to make a point about the consequences of falling for a sales pitch without careful investigation of the product, but he doesn’t need to show us why the product was a lemon. It’s obvious from the narrative of the first act.

Maus’ Barker is afraid of his boss. It’s not just the potential of being fired for not making quota. There is something sinister about the unseen and unheard voice on the other end of the line. We get that going through the door is akin to Eve eating the apple in the Garden of Eden.

Barker will say anything to sell his product. He tailors his patter to his customers, telling them whatever he thinks they need to hear to buy. As soon as he’s got them through the threshold, he slams the door in their faces, making sure they can’t reconsider at the last second. He’s clearly unethical. He knows there is tragedy on the other side of that door.

And that’s all we need to know. The horror of what’s happening, the lesson of being more discerning before buying in, is greater when we don’t know what becomes of the people who go through.

The production is well staged. Mitchell also directs it, and he does a fine job with a simple set, making good use of the tiny Black Box Theater in the Arts Center. The lighting is especially clever in the second act, a fine achievement given there are only four lights hung in the corners of the stage.

Maus’ co-stars render solid performances. In particular, Jerry Mitchell is funny as the not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is Jack, Ostrom is chilling as the too-cool criminal, and Gruneau is strong as the righteous Allison.

“Seller Door” is a thought-provoking piece of original theater produced well. But it falls victim to that often-troublesome obstacle to making great art — knowing when the point has been made.

“Seller Door” continues May 9 and 10 in the Black Box Theater at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 843-2787 or online at lawrenceartscenter.org.

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Review: ‘Over Here!’ a top-notch production but misses boat on nostalgia

A trip back to World War II through the music of the era sounds like a delightful vehicle for a musical revue. But without any of the actual songs that were popular during the time period, Kansas University Theatre’s production of “Over Here!” feels strange as a nostalgia piece.

Written in 1974, the show, with music by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman (the team behind “Mary Poppins” and other Disney musicals) and a book by Will Holt, was designed as a vehicle for the two surviving Andrews Sisters. Thus, Paulette (Kristen Larsen) and Pauline (Jessica Brink) DePaul are a pair of USO singers looking for their big break, when they are assigned to entertain recruits being shipped via train from the West Coast to New York, where they will embark for Europe.

The duo is convinced they are never going to hit it big unless they can find a third singer to give them that tight, three-part harmony the Andrews Sisters were famous for. Thus, they spend part of the journey recruiting every woman on the train until they at last find soprano Mitzi (Lilly Karrer). Of course, no one realizes she is a Nazi spy, despite her thick, German accent.

Meanwhile, June (Abby Sharp) has stowed away aboard the train to keep her high school sweetheart, Bill (Cale Morrow), company as he travels toward the war. Bill wants to consummate their relationship, since he doesn’t know if he’ll ever see her again, but being a good girl, June refuses, sparking tension between them.

The rest of the cast plays soldiers and civilians in ensemble fashion, with each having his or her own special number that invokes the mood of the time period. The whole thing is woven together by a narrator (Kevin Thomas Smith), who alternates as a drill sergeant, train conductor and civilian relating his memories of the home front.

Production-wise, “Over Here!” is top-notch. Director/choreographer John Staniunas has his students acting, singing and dancing as if they stepped straight out of 1942. At times, it’s like watching an Irving Berlin film unfolding live in front of you. The dance numbers are all terrific, particularly “Charlie’s Place,” which has everyone moving at a frenetic swing pace and features some acrobatic work by its leads, Jaclyn Amber Nischbach and Justin Kelly.

Likewise, Frankie Jay Baker stops the show with an impressive, and at times searing, rendition of “Don’t Shoot the Hooey to Me, Louie,” a song that explodes the quiet racism and troop segregation of the 1940s. Baker is mesmerizing, gliding around the stage in bowler cap and white gloves and using a push broom for a partner.

Larsen and Brink are great as the DePaul Sisters. They could easily be Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen in “White Christmas,” and when they add in Karrer upon Mitzi’s discovery, you’d swear you were listening to the Andrews Sisters.

A 20-piece band recreates the sound of Glen Miller, Benny Goodman and other Big Band maestros. Indeed, the Sherman Brothers do a fine job of mimicking the popular music of the early ’40s. Every song could have been recorded by Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Clooney, or, of course, the Andrews Sisters.

And that’s what makes the show so strange. It’s very deliberately a nostalgia piece. “That’s the way I remember the war,” the narrator says on several occasions. The plot is really flimsy and is constructed largely to evoke memories of things like rationing, “loose lips sink ships,” the nation pulling together and other aspects of World War II America. That usually works just fine as a vehicle to perform the songs of the time period.

But these songs are all original to the piece. They were written in 1974 to give the Andrews Sisters new material. They sound like they could be “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” or “In the Mood.” But they’re not. The show opens with the narrator saying, “Here’s one of the big hits from the time, ‘Since You’re not Around.’” Jake Thede renders it gorgeously with a golden tenor voice, but it’s not a song from the time.

“Over Here!” keeps asking us to remember things we don’t. As a result, it feels like a kind of amnesia. You keep thinking you should know a song you don’t.

In 1974, with the Andrews Sisters onstage deliberately evoking their glory days, it probably worked very well. Thirty years later, one wonders why, if the producers wanted a 1940s nostalgia show, they didn’t just use the actual music from the time period. Consequently, “Over Here!” feels more dated than charming.

Still, it’s no fault of the performers. The actors and musicians embrace the music and schtick wholeheartedly, rendering it honestly and entertainingly. If the goal, though, was to educate young performers on one of American music’s most dynamic periods, it’s a shame University Theatre didn’t choose a piece that featured the actual songs of the day.

“Over Here!” continues May 2, 3, and 4. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m., except Sunday, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 864-3982 or online at kutheatre.com.

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KU concludes theatre season with trip back to the 1940s

Kansas University Theatre concludes its season with a trip down memory lane, when it opens “Over Here!” Friday night. The 1974 musical with a score by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman and book by Will Holt goes back to the early days of World War II to explore life on the home front during the most important conflict of the 20th century.

“The propaganda movies of the time were designed to support the boys overseas,” says KU Theatre Professor John Staniunas, who directs the production. “This show responds by asking what was happening here.”

The musical is set largely on a train, shipping new recruits from the West Coast east, where they will be deployed to Europe. Soldiers, civilians and the USO intermix to create a picture of the American mindset in the early days of the war.

“I wanted the students to understand what happened in the 1940s and how it really shaped America,” Staniunas says.

The story follows two singing sisters, who are searching for a third person to fill out a trio and launch them on the way to stardom. “Over Here!” was created as a Broadway vehicle for the two surviving Andrews Sisters, Patty and Maxene, and it was immensely successful at the time, earning five Tony nominations, winning one and also netting a pair of Drama Desk Awards.

“Audiences loved seeing those two Andrews Sisters onstage again,” Staniunas says.

It closed in early 1975 under controversial circumstances, when a conflict arose between the Andrews Sisters and the producers. But it launched the careers of Treat Williams, Marilu Henner and John Travolta among others.

“It’s one of those shows that sticks with you,” says Staniunas, who was in a production of it in college shortly after it closed. “The ensemble really pulls together.”

Now, as then, “Over Here!” is a celebration of the music of the 1940s. The Sherman Brothers wrote all original music for the show, but it is in the style of those wartime pieces, particularly the tight harmonies of the Andrews Sisters.

“It’s representing a certain time in our history,” he says. “It’s a love song to a forgotten era.”

“Over Here!” opens Friday, April 25 and runs April 26, 27, and May 2, 3 and 4 on the Crafton-Preyer stage of Murphy Hall on the KU campus. Curtain is 7:30 p.m. except April 27 and May 4, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 864-3982 or online at kutheatre.com.

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Review: Strong performances, direction make ‘Gatsby’ a must-see

An American classic comes to life on the Theatre Lawrence stage in Simon Levy’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.” Strong performances, sure-handed direction, and clever sets make for an engaging evening at the theater.

Based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, the play tells the story of Jay Gatsby (Garrett Lawson), a millionaire World War I veteran who throws elaborate parties in 1920s New York. The source of Gatsby’s fortune is shrouded in mystery and rumor, but that only fuels the enjoyment of his events by the Jazz Age partiers he hosts.

The story is told (and in the case of the stage version, narrated) by Nick Carraway (Jake Smith), a Midwesterner who's come to New York to seek his fortune. Like Gatsby, he is a veteran of the war, and that’s instilled a certain restlessness in him. He rents a house next door to Gatsby in the fictional borough of West Egg, and spends time visiting his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Laura Brooke Williams) and her bigoted husband, Tom (Dan Heinz). One senses early on it is a loveless marriage — a fact that frequent house guest Jordan Baker (Sissy Anne Quaranta) confirms quickly.

Jordan is friends with Gatsby too, and the two of them conspire to use Nick to get Gatsby and Daisy together. Gatsby has been obsessed with Daisy since before the war, and they had promised to marry, but Daisy was mistakenly informed of Gatsby’s death.

While the story looks at first to be a romance, it rapidly transforms into a cautionary tale about greed, deception and hypocrisy. Whether you’re familiar with “The Great Gatsby” or not, you can feel the tragic ending barreling toward you with the speed of Gatsby’s flashy, yellow coupe.

This production is easily one of the finest Theatre Lawrence has staged in a long time, and it’s the best show yet to grace its new facilities at 4600 Bauer Farm Drive. The high quality begins with the cast. Four of the five main characters are played by actors with degrees in theater, and their training and talent really shines.

Smith is perfect as the naïve Nick, who gets caught up in the excess of Jazz Age New York and who is manipulated by the others. He is clearly uncomfortable as he watches the action swirl around him. He wants to be a part of it, but it is foreign to his Midwestern values. He cares deeply for Daisy and enjoys Gatsby’s company. He tries very hard to do what they need him to.

This conflict is played deftly by Smith. He never goes over the top with it, and he never gets swept off the stage by the large personalities of the other characters. It’s a strong performance by a talented actor.

Likewise, Lawson captures Gatsby’s smoldering obsession and flim-flam confidence adroitly. Whenever he is not with Daisy, he is the picture of easy success. He smiles, calls everyone "old sport” and floats around the stage as though everything were perfect. But he can barely think when he is with Daisy or talking about her. Lawson manages these two personalities with ease, flipping between the two expertly. It’s a complicated portrayal he never loses control of.

Quaranta is devilish as the scheming Jordan. She manipulates Nick nearly every step of the way, and Quaranta is smooth in her performance, making Jordan likeable enough that we are as drawn in as Nick. When Jordan’s own dark secret comes out, Quaranta makes it unclear whether she was simply cold and calculating or whether she had genuine feelings for Nick. It’s another deft performance in a host of them.

Williams is terrific as the heartsick and conflicted Daisy — trying to act happy while she knows her husband is betraying her; and endeavoring to support Gatsby’s play for her, even when she knows she can’t give herself to him as fully as he desires. Christie Dobson (another performer with a theater degree) is passionate and complex as Tom’s lover, Myrtle, playing skillfully the desperation of a woman who wants more out of life than she’s gotten. And Heinz is both thuggish as the soulless Tom, wounded when he learns Daisy has turned the tables on his philandering.

Jack Wright’s direction is superb. Not only does he pull stellar performances from his cast, he has an innate understanding of how to work Theatre Lawrence’s space. Rather than asking for huge sets to suggest the opulence of Gatsby’s world, he instead puts suggestive pieces onstage: an armoire filled with fine men’s shirts of every color, a giant staircase, a few pieces of furniture and a drink cart. All of these evoke the character of the places they represent without impairing sight lines on the theater’s giant thrust stage.

Clever use of projections by Phillip Schroeder also suggest place without being overly distracting — a country road, looking out on the harbor, golden statues in an elaborate garden. When Gatsby’s car comes rushing down the road in the second act, we see it from head on — just the headlights zooming toward us. It’s a nice piece of technical wizardry, and Wright and Schroeder deserve praise for its staging.

Another excellent technical aspect of the production is the score. Chuck Berg wrote original music for the show, which is mixed in with recordings of actual pieces from the period. Berg’s soulful saxophone underscores many of the key scenes, and it adds a flavor and character that really brings the story to life, lending it a depth many plays don’t have.

“The Great Gatsby” is an extremely ambitious production, and Theatre Lawrence pulls it off with aplomb as a result of bringing in talented, highly trained actors and a director with great vision for a rich, complex staging of an American classic. It is one of the highlights of the season and not to be missed.

“The Great Gatsby” continues at Theatre Lawrence with performances April 17, 18, 19, 25, 26 and 27. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. except Sunday, April 27, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 843-7469 or online at theatrelawrence.com.

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Review: Bold and experimental, ‘The Other Shore’ doesn’t satisfy

Sometimes, you can reach too far. Such is the case with Kansas University Theatre’s production of “The Other Shore” by Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian. Surreal, abstract and high-minded, both the play and the production are bold but don’t quite make for a satisfying evening of theater. The show begins with a troupe of 11 actors coming onstage and deciding to play a game. They get ropes and then engage in several intellectual exercises about the nature of relationships symbolized by the connections the actors experience through holding opposite ends of the ropes. It all has a sort of Philosophy 101 feel to it.

Then, becoming childlike, they decide to cross a river to the other shore. They all takes turns imagining different aspects of this river, building their set as they go, placing rocks around the stage. Eventually, the river rages, and they struggle to make it to their destination.

Once they have made it, though, the play transforms into a surreal exploration of the nature of reality. It becomes a series of vignettes that explore individual aspects of how we perceive the world. Each actor takes on various roles making their work onstage as fluid as the action. If you’re looking for a story, you won’t find it in “The Other Shore.” It is quintessential experimental theater — using drama to push concepts. We see loss of innocence and learning to lie. We experience the tyranny of the majority and willful ignorance. Unrequited love, social intolerance of lust, and the suppression of individuality all make their appearances.

The ensemble cast does a fine job slipping from one role to the next. Director Alison Christy pulls fearless performances from all of them. Indeed, University Theatre should be commended for staging this play this late in the season. Most of the actors have held more standard roles in other productions this season, and seeing these recognizable faces take on something as experimental and ambitious as “The Other Shore” is a treat for regular attendees.

The technical aspects of the play are excellent as well. Transitions are flawlessly executed by the lighting crew, expertly directing the audience where to look by bringing lights up and down. Christy makes good use of levels and movement too by having her actors climb large structures, and staging the vignettes in varying locations. She makes full use of the tiny Inge Theatre, making it seem like a much bigger space than it is.

But as well executed as the show is, it still plays like a dramatized version of an Eastern Philosophy class. There is less story than there is situation. As a teaching tool in a classroom, each vignette would enhance a learning environment. Several of them are very powerful.

The first experience on the other shore involves one actor teaching language to the others. As they learn, they discover they can say both nice things and mean things. Eventually, the students kill the teacher — a powerful lesson on how harmful language can be when misused.

In another segment, one actor is told he has drawn a trump card, when he has not. He fights for the truth of what he knows and is tortured by the others until he recants. Gao’s reaction to the Orwellian nature of China’s Cultural Revolution is sharp and clear.

But as interesting and compelling as each of the situations is, strung together they add up to less than the sum of their parts. The play lasts an hour and 15 minutes, but it seems longer. At the end, one of the actors asks the others if they understood what they had just staged. He gets few affirmatives.

As an intellectual exercise, “The Other Shore” is interesting, and it is well staged and performed. But it doesn’t make for a satisfying theatrical experience.

“The Other Shore” continues April 15, 16 and 17. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. in the Inge Theatre on the KU campus. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 864-3982 or online at www.kutheatre.com.

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Review: KU Theatre delights with ‘Much Ado’

Go to see Shakespeare anymore, and you can almost certainly count on it being set at some other time than during the 16th century, when it was written. Kansas University’s latest production of “Much Ado About Nothing” follows this trend, bringing the witty comedy all the way to the present day.

To accomplish that, director Peter Zazzali makes one minor change to the script. Rather than have Don Pedro (Joseph Carr) and his comrades be conquering heroes from an ill-defined war, they are instead a soccer team returning to Sicily after having won a national championship.

The show begins with a pre-recorded movie wherein the climactic moments of the soccer match play out, complete with a TV announcer relating the action. The play’s comedy is enhanced by this device when players speak in Shakespearean verse after getting fouled and preparing to take a penalty shot.

Once the action moves to Messina, though, it feels very much like standard Shakespeare fare, despite the modern dress. Benedick (Zach Sudbury), a confirmed bachelor, cannot believe his best friend, Claudio (Aden Lindholm), has fallen in love with Hero (Jordyn Cox) and plans to marry her.

Meanwhile, Hero’s cousin, Beatrice (Sara Kennedy), delights in insulting Benedick, and the whole town enjoys watching the two spar verbally. Don Pedro, Claudio and Beatrice’s father, Leonato (Walter Coppage), conspire to have some sport with the two by tricking each into thinking each is harboring a secret love for the other. Naturally, when Benedick is convinced Beatrice loves him, he falls for her and vice versa.

The whole thing is complicated when Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother, John (Alexander Terry), becomes jealous and decides to torpedo Claudio’s wedding by making him think Hero has been unfaithful. The ruse works, sending a light and witty comedy into decidedly dark territory, when Claudio impugns her at the wedding and leaves her at the altar. Leonato is set to disown her until Friar Francis (Michael Miller) persuades him to show mercy and concocts a scheme of his own to prove Hero’s innocence.

The performances are strong across the cast. Sudbury is clearly having a ball playing the happy-go-lucky Benedick. He floats around the stage, firing off zinger and zinger. His reactions when he overhears the rumors of Beatrice’s love for him are hysterical.

Likewise, Kennedy revels in the sharp-tongued Beatrice, lobbing her witty insults at Benedick like they were bombs. Kennedy’s smooth delivery and mischievous smile light up the stage, allowing us to share in the wicked pleasure she takes from each verbal dart landing on target. By way of contrast, Carr is easygoing as Don Pedro. He is clearly the leader of this band of athletes, and Carr exudes the calm confidence of a man who knows everyone looks up to him.

“Much Ado About Nothing” calls for more range than the average Shakespeare comedy. When it makes a hard turn into tragedy, the cast demonstrates its depth by shifting from jokesters to angry and grieving characters. Kennedy is consumed with outrage and demands Benedick challenge Claudio for his cruelty at the wedding. Sudbury is believably conflicted, trying to decide how to manage his loyalties — to his friend or his love.

Most impressively, Coppage transforms from a jovial, considerate host to an angry, embarrassed father. The fury he conveys toward Hero when he thinks she has dishonored him is palpable and disturbing. Moments later, he appears ready to tear his heart out in grief that this tragedy should befall not just his house but his daughter. Coppage is an Equity actor brought in for the production, and he’s at the top of his game as the deeply complex Leonato.

The tragic elements of the play, while gripping and moving, belie the modern treatment. It’s difficult to believe in the 21st century that a father would disown his daughter over the unsubstantiated claim (and adamant denial from her) that she had been unfaithful. Likewise, while 16th century Europeans might have believed a woman could die from shame, it doesn’t seem like something a modern man would buy. A period treatment might have made those contrivances more reasonable.

But never mind those tiny flaws. “Much Ado About Nothing” is a delightful, rich and thoughtful comedy that is well-acted and pleases on many levels. This is Shakespeare at his comic finest rendered lovingly by a talented, well-directed cast.

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Review: ‘Other Desert Cities’ moving, powerful

For some time now, Theatre Lawrence has taken an annual break in March from Broadway musicals and light comedies, and offered a weighty drama often covering difficult issues. Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” is the company’s latest production in this tradition, and it’s a deeply moving, powerful play that doesn't pull any punches.

Brooke Wyeth (Kirsten Tretbar) returns home for the first time in six years on Christmas Eve 2004. Her parents, Lyman (Randy Parker) and Polly (Erica Fox), are delighted to see her, but it is clear almost from the get-go that there is a lot of family tension. Brooke is liberal; her parents are staunch Republicans (Lyman was an ambassador in the Reagan administration). With the second Gulf war in full rage, politics flow through the surtext of all their conversations.

Moreover, we learn quickly that Brooke was hospitalized for a mental breakdown and struggles with depression. Her Aunt Silda (Terry Schwartz) is staying at the house after having relapsed following five years of sobriety. And her brother Trip (Nicholas Johnson) produces a celebrity courtroom show no one in the family watches or approves of.

As if the natural tension this family dynamic produces isn’t enough, Brooke has just completed her new book. She reveals it is not actually a novel, as she originally told them, but is instead a memoir detailing the tragic and scandalous suicide in the 1970s of her older brother after he was implicated in the bombing an Army recruiting station. This rips the scab off everyone’s deepest wounds, and years of pent-up frustration and hostility come rushing to the surface.

It’s impossible to succinctly describe the depth of the characters and the events of “Other Desert Cities.” It is one of the richest plays Theatre Lawrence has offered in recent years, and all five actors hit the mark in their portrayals of this complex, dysfunctional family.

Tretbar is fascinating to watch as the damaged Brooke. From the moment she starts speaking, you can feel the tension and fear Brooke feels toward her parents. She so desperately wants their approval — not just in general but for the subject matter of her book. It’s a foolish hope. Not only is the topic something her parents want to keep buried, her rendering of it is extremely critical. Tretbar understands this dichotomy and communicates it flawlessly, delivering an outstanding performance in a difficult role.

Likewise, Parker’s Lyman is extremely complicated. A former actor and ambassador, Lyman is jovial and always easy to get along with, even when he has strongly held opinions on political matters. But he is stoic when it comes to emotions, preferring not to cause any kind of ugliness. Deep under the surface, though, there is a river of rage and regret at what happened 30 years ago, and, when it finally comes out, Parker draws the audience to the edge of its seat. It’s a powerful performance that sears when the secret is fully disclosed.

In one respect, Schwartz has the easiest role in the play. She is funny and on-the-mark as the recovering drunk and family black sheep. She hits all the right notes as the aging, California hippie. But she spends a lot of time onstage watching the action, and it’s here she really shines. Schwartz’s ability to act (and react) when she has no lines is extraordinary. She is riveting during the big reveal of the family secret, despite having few lines in the sequence. She renders an authenticity to the scene that would have been lacking had it been just Brooke and her parents.

Johnson does a fine job in the role of the youngest kid, who doesn't want to be put in the middle of the battle between his big sister and their parents. It would be easy for him to play his scenes with anger, but instead he infuses them with a gentle compassion for both sides that balances the passion from the other characters. And Fox delivers a strong performance as the domineering mother determined to prevent anyone in the family from failing, no matter the cost.

The set is gorgeous. Phillip Schroeder has done outstanding work in his short stint as Theatre Lawrence’s new technical director, and this might be his best set to date. One feels one is in a desert palace with Southwestern décor. It’s as though the living room of a typical California mansion were transplanted to the stage.

If “Other Desert Cities” has a flaw, it’s in its direction. Director Carole Ries thoughtfully stages the action to accommodate the people sitting on the far sides of Theatre Lawrence. But she brings much of the action down front and has the actors sit on a bench or stand behind a drink cart facing upstage. Thus, only the people in the corners get a clear view of the action. The tactic is most egregious when Parker’s grief is finally unmasked. Shouting his anger and his regret at his daughter, he gives his back to three quarters of the house. It’s a shame, because most of the audience is robbed of his gut-wrenching performance. There are many moments like this, and it was made worse by the fact that the show wasn't sold out, so many of these scenes were played to empty seats.

Still, “Other Desert Cities” — like many of the dramas Theatre Lawrence traditionally offers at this time of year — is a triumph. It is powerful, moving, and beautifully performed. It’s the rare community theater that is willing to offer this type of material, and TL should be commended not just for bringing challenging fare to Lawrence, but for rendering it so well.

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KU offers ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ that is both fresh and timeless

Say “Shakespeare” and you conjure worry in the minds of many — in audience members, who fear they may not get it; in actors, who think it may be too hard; in directors who worry it may be too dated.

You won’t get any of those reactions from Peter Zazzali, who’s directing a new production of “Much Ado About Nothing” that opens tonight on the Crafton-Preyer stage at Kansas University.

“I’ve always adored ‘Much Ado About Nothing,'” he says. “I’ve done it twice as an actor, and the wit is sublime.”

One of the Bard’s sophisticated comedies, “Much Ado” follows two sets of lovers — Beatrice and Benedick, and Hero and Claudio — whose stories interconnect. The former are an unlikely pair who come together to help the latter.

“The two plots weave together nicely,” Zazzali says. “It’s much stronger than many of (Shakespeare’s) comedies.”

Of course, there is always that fear that audiences won’t be keen on watching people speak airy, Elizabethan prose wearing tights and capes. To help, Zazzali has brought this production forward in time to the 21st century.

“No one speaks that way now,” Zazzali says of the language. “No one spoke that way then. To do a traditional Elizabethan version of the play might have been dull and not nearly as engaging for a modern audience.”

That doesn’t mean he thinks Shakespeare has nothing to say in 2014.

“The themes of the play run rife across history,” he says. “Putting it in a modern context causes it to speak to us.”

Zazzali’s version has more than contemporary costuming to bring the play up to date. Shakespeare’s original text features a band of soldiers returning from war and being celebrated as heroes. Zazzali has changed that to a soccer team.

“I thought, given our sports-crazy, KU culture, that would give them something they could root for,” he says.

But Zazzali isn’t interested in rewriting Shakespeare. On the contrary, he has great reverence for the Bard and his work.

“I was interested in the spirit of the words of the play without dumbing it down,” he says. “We made a few cuts to shorten the run time and a few changes to modernize the setting, but the language is very much intact. You can’t do Shakespeare well without paying service to the words.”

Bringing 16th century comedy to a modern audience has other challenges too. One of them was the stage.

“The Crafton-Preyer Theatre is an enormous space,” Zazzali says. “It’s a classic proscenium and a huge audience, which doesn’t lend itself well to Shakespeare. A thrust stage is more suitable for Shakespeare. That’s how it was originally performed.”

But Zazzali was undeterred. Just as he modified the script for contemporary times, he adapted the stage to make the show more intimate.

“I arranged that the set is built from the proscenium ramp down into the audience,” he says. “We’re bringing the actors, the words right to the audience.”

And so the Bard of Avon returns to the KU campus, updated and fresh, timeless and classic. Zazzali sums up the whole thing — the play and the experience — succinctly: “It’s been a delight.”

“Much Ado About Nothing” opens tonight and runs March 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9 on the Crafton-Preyer stage in Murphy Hall on the Kansas University. Curtain is 7:30 p.m, except Sundays, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 785-864-3982 or online at www.kutheatre.com.

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Review: Young directors deliver thought-provoking Black Box Project at KU

Everything old is new again seems to be the theme of this year’s Black Box Directing Project at KU’s University Theatre. Student directors brought fresh visions to Anton Chekhov’s “The Boor” and the biggest classic of them all, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

“The Boor,” under the direction of senior theater major Brian Buntin, tells the story of a grief-stricken widow, Helena (Abby Hadel), and her long-suffering servant, Luka (Sophia Hail). Helena’s husband died seven months ago, and, despite his having been a philanderer and cruel to her in life, she is determined to remain completely devoted to him in death, much to Luka’s chagrin.

Her plan is interrupted when Grigori Smirnov (Josuha A. Greene) arrives, demanding she pay one of her husband’s debts. He needs the money today because of his own financial problems, but she can’t get it for two days. The two begin quarreling, and hilarity ensues as Chekhov makes his point about the absurdity of love and male-female relations.

Hadel is hilarious as the overdramatic Helena. She is a master of facial comedy, contorting her expression into one sidesplitting reaction to Greene and Hail after another. In fact, if Buntin’s direction has a flaw, it is that he often puts the Hadel and Greene on opposite sides of the stage, so that one has to choose whether to watch him deliver his lines or watch her react to them. It’s a very small blemish on the production, but some of the comedy is missed by not being able to see everything Hadel does when she doesn’t have lines.

Hail is equally funny as the put-upon Luka. Both Helena and Grigori order him about without any consideration to practicality or his feelings, and Hail perfectly captures the attitude of an older man, who begrudgingly accepts an unfortunate lot in life. She also has a strong command of physical comedy, eliciting uproarious laughter from the audience during a sequence when Luka appears to be having a heart attack and neither Helena nor Grigori notice, so consumed are they in their argument.

Despite his desire to present Chekhov’s comedy classically, Buntin allows himself to explore fresh territory by casting a woman in the role of Luka. Hail wears a wig, mustache and tuxedo, but she’s clearly female. Thus, even in Buntin’s straight presentation of “The Boor,” we get something new.

After a brief intermission, an ensemble cast of six actors (Jake Dutton, Kendra J. Hacker, Alena Ivanov, Justin Petty, Zechariah Williams and Brianna Woods) takes on three short revisions of “Hamlet,” each directed by a Ph.D. student in KU’s theater department.

First up is Tom Stoppard’s “The 15-Minute Hamlet” directed by Danny Devlin. As the troupe tells us, “Hamlet” is the longest play in the English language, taking, on average, five and a half hours to perform. The role of Hamlet is also the longest part, with more lines than any other role in an English-language play.

Stoppard boils it all down to a 15-minute synopsis, which is played for comedy with panache and gusto by the sextet, many of them playing multiple roles. Stoppard’s play takes all its lines from the original, essentially condensing it down to a Cliff’s Notes version. Devlin adds an introduction wherein the cast interacts with the audience, explains what they’re going to do, and even gives an audience member a stopwatch to time their performance. It works to good comic effect, made all the funnier by what is cut out and glossed over.

The second play is “The Dick and Jane Hamlet” by Larry Siegel. Directed by Jeanne Tiehen, this version spoofs children’s programming. Its title references early reading primers from the '60s and '70s, but, in addition to lampooning those banal teaching tools, it also takes shots at the more modern, sugary, toddler programming on daytime television. The cast assumes the roles of actors on a “story time” type of TV show with lots of over-the-top enthusiasm.

Today’s episode of the show features “Hamlet,” and the action goes from silly (they don’t really seem to be telling “Hamlet”) to ridiculous when everyone starts dying. It’s another fine bit of comedy made more fun by the same actors from the Stoppard play getting different roles in this one.

But it is the dark, surreal “Hamletmachine” directed by Scott Knowles that really puts the whole evening into perspective. Heiner Müller’s postmodern attack on contemporary culture and traditional gender roles as expressed by Hamlet and Ophelia plays like the odder moments of a David Lynch film.

The actors throw books, destroy the set, tear off their Shakespearean costuming, and generally commit mayhem while Hamlet rages that he no longer wants to act as he’s supposed to or even be a man. Meanwhile, Ophelia rejects the classic female role of mother and nurturer. In its strange way, it both embraces the essential conflicts of these characters while completely exploding them.

And perhaps that’s the point of this year’s project. Buntin embraces classic theater with a straight portrayal of “The Boor” but bends the gender roles a shade by casting a woman in a man’s part. Devlin lampoons the greatest play in the language by comically reducing it to a frenetic 15-minute short. Tiehen uses “Hamlet” to mock what we’re teaching our children and vice versa. And then Knowles blows the whole thing up with an experimental piece that borders on violent.

It’s thought-provoking theater, and, even if it doesn’t always make sense, it has young actors and directors pushing limits and finding something new, something fresh, in something very familiar.

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‘The Addams Family’ creeps its way onto Lied Center stage

Say “The Addams Family” and the first thing to pop into your mind is likely the macabre TV show from the 60s. Failing that, it’s probably the two movies from the 90s starring Raul Julia, Anjelica Huston and Christina Ricci based on the show.

Regardless, the music you likely associate with it is the iconic theme song. Whether you know the words or not, you know when to snap your fingers.

But there is more music than that. A lot more. In 2010, a Broadway musical based on “The Addams Family” premiered and starred Nathan Lane as family patriarch, Gomez, and Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia. It won a Drama Desk Award for outstanding set design and several Broadway.com fan awards, including favorite new musical.

The show ran for two years before closing, and a new tour hits the Lied Center stage Wednesday night.

The TV show was based on a series of single-panel gag comics by Charles Addams. The musical features an original story by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (the team behind “Jersey Boys”) based on the comic, rather than on the series or the movies.

Sinister Wednesday Addams is grown up and has fallen in love with a normal boy named Lucas. She confesses that love is changing her from her ghoulish ways, and she has invited Lucas and his family for dinner, charging her macabre relations with being normal for just one night. Naturally, that’s an impossible task for Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester and Pugsley to pull off, and, Lucas’ parents have family secrets of their own that further complicate the shenanigans when everyone gets together.

Curtain for the show is 7:30 p.m. Tickets for the show are available by calling the Lied Center box office 785-864-2787 or online at lied.ku.edu.

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Review: Overdone ‘Wrong Window’ still creates laughs

If you didn’t know, Theatre Lawrence’s new production of “Wrong Window” was a Hitchcock spoof when you walked into the show, don’t worry; they’ll make sure you do. The playwrights, actors and director all try way too hard to make the play Hitchcockian rather than relying on the natural laughs that fill the script.

“Wrong Window” adopts a similar premise to Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Rear Window.” Nosy apartment tenants Jeff (Brian Williams) and Marnie (Erica Fox) like spying on their neighbors through their windows. Good friends Robbie (Dustin Chase) and Midge (Alice Dale) like to join in, and everyone is gathering to go out to dinner to celebrate Jeff and Marnie getting back together after a year-long separation.

Before they leave, though, Jeff confesses to Robbie that he had an affair with sexy yoga instructor Lila Larswald (Sarah Bodle) while he and Marnie were separated. Lila lives in the apartment directly across from them, and she and husband Thor (Mark Kramer) are always arguing. A particularly fierce fight right before the dinner date and some barely glimpsed physical action make the voyeurs believe they have witnessed Thor murdering his wife, a scenario they become convinced is true when she turns up missing the next day.

Marnie is a murder-mystery writer and convinces Midge they need to investigate. Meanwhile, Jeff receives naked pictures of Lila in an attempt to blackmail him. The four main characters then become involved in hilarious shenanigans to try to find out what really happened, while making sure the others don’t know what they are up to.

It’s a fine comic premise, and, if it were left to play out naturally, it would be really fun. Unfortunately, starting with the script, the Hitchcock theme is hammered over and over again. Playwrights Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore apparently feel that starting with the basic premise of “Wrong Window” and turning it into a spoof wasn’t enough. Jeff is afraid of birds in an obvious reference to “The Birds” and, when some ridiculous-looking pigeons appear on the window sill, he freaks out. Thus, he will only leave the apartment after dark (when there are no birds).

But that forced motif isn’t enough either. Van Zandt and Milmore heap references to other Hitchcock films all through the dialogue with characters dropping the names of other movies such as “Notorious,” “North by Northwest” and “Dial M for Murder.” Most of these are clumsily forced into the script, and the actors emphasize the references to make sure the audience gets the “joke.”

Director Piet Knetsch takes his cue from this approach, further overemphasizing the source material. Every time the closet door is opened to reveal something dramatic, we get the famous killing music from “Psycho” and red strobe lights. Between the first and second scenes, Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic silhouette is projected onto the back wall and lit in a blood-red wash while we hear the music to “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Indeed all the music that plays throughout the play is taken from one Hitchcock suspense film after another... including the 20th Century Fox fanfare. It’s overdone and quickly becomes tedious.

Which is too bad, because “Wrong Window” has a lot of genuinely funny moments. The cast in general and the quartet of main characters in particular are outstanding at the physical comedy the script calls for. Jack Riegle’s clever set design lets us see into both apartments and uses the revolve to switch from one to the other. Oftentimes, what is happening behind the characters in the foreground is not only hilarious, the fact that we can see it makes it even funnier.

Travis Privat steals the show as the building’s handyman, Loomis. From the voice he uses, to the delivery of his lines, to the way he moves, everything he does is sidesplitting. There is a particular scene with him that recalls the old Dan Aykroyd plumber sketch from “Saturday Night Live” that is an absolute scream and is one of the highlights of the production.

Likewise, newcomer Sarah Bodle is extremely funny in the difficult role of the murdered Lila Larswald. She spends a lot of time onstage posing as a corpse, which is no easy task. Her expression never changes no matter what is done with her. A bit between her and Williams wherein he is trying to cover up the fact that she is dead in his apartment is another of the comic highlights of the performances.

Overall, “Wrong Window” stirs laughs when it isn’t trying too hard to remind you of its source material. It’s unfortunate so much of the production assumes the audience won’t get the joke.

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Review: “A Kansas Nutcracker” highlights Lawrence history, talent

Making alterations to a classic is a dicey business and one many artists relish. Ric Averill’s “A Kansas Nutcracker”, which adapts the beloved Tchaikovsky ballet to early Kansas history, is hit and miss but when it succeeds, it’s fine family holiday fare.

The show is set at Christmas 1861. The Civil War is raging and we find ourselves at a party at the home of the Stahlbaums, where practically every famous Kansan of the time period is in attendance – Governor Charles Robinson (Jason Van Nice), Senator James Lane (David Sturm), Hugh Cameron (Ric Averill) and Rev. Cordley (Hanan Misko) to name a few. As the curtain rises, the fictional Clara (Natalie Adams-Menendez) – the subject of the famous ballet – is writing to her father Dr. Stahlbaum (Larry Mitchell), who is in Washington setting up hospitals. Her godfather Drosselmeier (Jerry Mitchell) is a co-host of the party, and it is he who will give her the titular nutcracker as a Christmas gift. He also presents his handsome nephew Kurt (Blair Bracciano) as the newest recruit for the Union army. Clara is immediately attracted to him.

The action of the play centers around an intemperate debate between Lane and practically every other party guest on the rights of contraband slaves Lane captured at the Battle of Osceola. The family of slaves, headed by John Speer (Larry Nigh), is present at the party as guests of the Stahlbaums, much to Lane’s chagrin. He wants to keep them as property, even though Kansas is a free state. Drosselmeier, Mrs. Stahlbaum (Trish Neuteboom), and the Robinsons conspire to spirit them away north to Nebraska.

Meanwhile, Drosselmeier – one part abolitionist, one part toymaker and one part magician – entertains the guests, many of whom are children, with his wind-up toys that dance to the early selections in the Tchaikovsky ballet. The whole thing comes to a head when, just as in the original story, Clara’s nutcracker is broken by her younger brother. That sets up her dream wherein Kurt becomes the Nutcracker Prince and leads the toy soldiers in battle over mice and their fearsome King (Averill).

The story is a little contrived. It’s difficult to believe all these people would be at the same party on Christmas Eve, and it feels a little like a forced lesson in early Lawrence history. But it’s easy enough to suspend one’s disbelief and accept the conceit. Some of the performances are quite entertaining.

In particular, Jerry Mitchell is quite good as the melodramatic Drosselmeier. He plays the character over the top with exactly the right amount of panache, and his sleight of hand – from flowers up his sleeve to conjuring fireballs – adds a lot of charm.

Neuteboom gives a polished performance as Mrs. Stahlbaum that is often welcome when she defuses the play’s many arguments. Adams-Menendez is charming as Clara, breezing easily between love for her godfather, attraction to Kurt and annoyance at her siblings. Many of the younger children are appropriately cute in their small roles, particularly the groups that recite speeches for the three major socio-political movements of the time – abolition, suffrage and temperance.

A grant from the Douglas County Heritage Fund enabled the Lawrence Arts Center to significantly upgrade the period costumes for the show, and the results are outstanding. Steffani Day’s costuming during the pre-ballet story is spectacular.

But “A Kansas Nutcracker” really succeeds when it transforms from a play to a ballet. Bracciano and Adams-Menendez are as charming a young couple dancing as they are speaking, and they’re a delight to watch before the mice arrive to break up the party.

After the Mouse King’s defeat, Clara takes a dreamlike tour of Kansas, where the classic numbers are adapted to a Kansas setting – crickets, ravens, healing herbs, Kansas wildflowers and barnyard animals replace the traditional fare – and the Speers attempt to escape via the Underground Railroad. Young children as crickets and chickens and pigs and cows are quite cute. The flowers dance divinely to the “Waltz of the Sugar Plum Fairies”.

But the highlight of the ballet is the Arts Center’s new dance program director Hanan Misko. He holds a BFA from Julliard, and it shows. Misko dances the parts of the Snow King and an older Kurt, and he’s absolutely exquisite, moving with a grace that demands attention. Paired with Snow Queen Clarate Heckler and Older Clara Adriana Gramly, he offers both women a strong partner to enhance their dances while delivering a commanding presence of his own.

A subtle aspect of “A Kansas Nutcracker” that’s easy to overlook is the music itself. Tchaikovsky composed his ballet for a large, Romantic orchestra. Jeff Dearinger transposes it down for the 12-piece Free State Liberation Orchestra, and the results are outstanding. With no horns at his disposal, he still manages to capture the essential flavor of the music, transforming it from a giant, Romantic piece to a charming bit of chamber music. It’s really a fine feat, and it’s a testament to Dearinger’s skill to adapt so iconic a composition so flawlessly.

“A Kansas Nutcracker” is one of those uniquely Lawrence holiday treats. It’s not always perfect, but it has quite a bit of charm and is very good at times. It serves as a testament to the richness both of Lawrence’s history and of its current artistic talent.

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Theater review: ‘The Maderati’ is zany fun

Under ordinary circumstances, a friend being forcibly checked into a mental hospital wouldn’t be funny. Ordinary circumstances do not exist in a Richard Greenberg comedy, and “The Maderati” presented by Kansas University Theatre is no exception. Misunderstanding, false accusations and hilarity ensue when a group of self-absorbed yuppies gets word that an ill fate has befallen a friend.

The action begins the Sunday following a disastrous party, when Rena Debutts (Maggie Boyles) gets word her friend and artist, Charlotte Ebbinger (Abby Hadel), has been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. Convinced she cannot allow Charlotte to be imprisoned — despite her being crazy — she sets off to get her out, while pressing her husband Chuck (Ben Schatzel) into the unwanted job of informing their friends.

Things blow up almost immediately when Dewy Overlander (Sara Kennedy) hears Charlotte’s name and is convinced she’s dead, because she had a premonition. Thus, Dewy and husband Ritt (Collin Stephens) are telling everyone Charlotte has died, while Chuck is trying to get the real news out and making a total mess of it.

Complications start springing up almost as fast as the laughs as assumptions and misunderstandings are made that lead to everyone talking at once, without realizing they are saying completely different things about the same person. Greenberg’s witty dialogue contributes to the frenetic pace as the characters race from one manufactured crisis to another.

Several of the performances are worth noting. Preston O’ffill is delightful as the megalomaniacal, painfully closeted Martin Royale. He does a perfect British accent and is so uptight it looks like it hurts.

Likewise, Thomas Tong generates laugh after laugh as the narcoleptic Keene Esterhazy. He falls asleep at the drop of a hat, and Tong seems unconcerned with his own safety, frequently dropping to the floor in hilarious fashion with practically no warning.

Charlotte doesn’t appear until the second act, but, when she does, Hadel plays her with the utter desperation of someone who can’t understand why she isn’t as special as she wants to be. Hadel is a master of physical comedy, somehow cramming sesame noodles into her mouth with blinding speed before freaking out and hiding under a blanket.

But it is Kennedy’s performance as Dewy Overlander that really shines. Like her character, she seizes the show by the throat from the moment she enters and refuses to let go. Her Dewy is over the top and recklessly self-absorbed. Kennedy spits out the dialog with machine-gun rapidity, and she alternates between condescending looks at her husband, empty-headed confusion at the ravings of the others, and sidesplitting lust toward bad boy Danton Young (Aden Lindholm). It’s a tour de force performance that is a highlight of the show.

Jenifer Harmon’s set is a brilliant paean to the 1980s. The back wall painting is sunshine and New York City and is evocative of the pop art of the period. The tiny Inge stage accommodates the script’s multiple locations via a series of freestanding doors, all of which are painted in vivid pastels — another signature of '80s pop culture.

The costumes are equally sharp. Delores Ringer does a fine job recreating several iconic '80s looks. Aside from New York City, it’s not exactly clear where the play is set. One gets the impression from the dialogue it is Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but many of the characters look like they’d be more at home in Greenwich Village. Then again, the less-slick characters are the artists in the group, so it works.

The play ends with a gotcha moment that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s obvious from the final lines that Greenberg did it on purpose — one last joke. It doesn’t really matter. “The Maderati” is zany fun. The pleasure comes in watching ridiculous characters cause trouble for themselves, laughing at their idiosyncrasies and hoping we don’t share them.

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Review: “Shrek” gorgeous, funny and sweet

You can’t do a show about an ogre small. At least Theatre Lawrence doesn’t seem to think so, as it pulls out all the stops for its lavish, extravagant production of “Shrek: The Musical”, which opened Friday night. Big, boisterous and over the top, “Shrek” pleases on many levels.

David Lindsey-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori ably adapt the beloved children’s film to stage with catchy songs and witty dialogue, much of which is lifted straight from the movie. All your favorite lines are there, including ogres being likened to onions and Lord Farquaad’s (John Robison) “Muffin Man” exchange with Gingy the Gingerbread Man (Skye Reid).

“Shrek” gets off to a slow start, with a long, background explanation of the titular ogre’s (Knute Pittenger) childhood, followed by the exile of the various fairy tale characters, which isn’t nearly as funny as it is in the film. This is as much due to Lindsey-Abaire’s script as it is to director Doug Weaver’s staging – there just isn’t a whole lot for the characters to do in these early scenes, although a gag with Pinocchio’s (Denis Tyner) nose growing when he lies is well executed. Once Shrek gets going on his quest to rid his swamp of these refugees and meets the overly extroverted Donkey (Jake Leet), the show picks up nicely and becomes quite entertaining.

Ironically for an outrageous musical comedy, the best songs are the ballads. “I Know It’s Today”, sung by Young Fiona (a terrific Josephine Pellow), Teen Fiona (Abby Sharp), and Fiona (Maggie Gremminger), it tells the story of the imprisoned princess growing up, fantasizing about how she will one day be rescued, and the eternal disappointment of it not happening. It’s a poignant piece rendered well by all three singers.

Likewise, Shrek’s “Who I’d Be” and “When Words Fail” are deeply revealing numbers that humanize the monstrous character. The former is a soaring piece wherein he dreams of being a hero instead of a hideous beast. The latter is a plaintive love song to Fiona, wherein he drops all his shields only to be tragically disappointed.

Pittenger seems to take his cue from these songs. His Shrek isn’t particularly ogre-ish. He complains a lot, but he’s not especially brutish. Rather, he’s a brooding, sad soul, who yearns for more than he has. When his feelings come to the surface, Pittenger unleashes them with beauty and grace – perhaps not what one expects of the character, but it is captivating. In particular, his lilting tenor voice is exquisite on “When Words Fail”.

The show is stolen in equal measure by Leet and Robison. Leet continues to develop into a fine young, comic actor, and he is at the top of his game as Donkey. He hurls himself around the stage with total abandon, has precise comic timing, and sings his bluesy numbers with a perfect jazz growl. “Make a Move”, a terrific soul piece, wherein Donkey recognizes Shrek and Fiona are falling in love, is his best song, and it’s a highlight of the second act.

Likewise, Robison is delightfully over the top in his rendering of the narcissistic, height-impaired Farquaad. To accomplish the joke that Farquaad is overly short, Robison plays the part on his knees, with puppet legs attached to a harness. The visual effect is hilarious, and Robison revels in the ridiculousness of it all. No sight gag is, if you’ll excuse the pun, too low for him, and he is a joy to watch every moment he is onstage.

Leet’s and Robison’s performances notwithstanding, the real star of “Shrek: The Musical” is its production crew. Phillip Schroeder’s set is glorious. Giant pieces such as a tree large enough to contain a home and a castle façade bring the faraway land of the setting to life. Computer projections on the back wall scrim take us to Shrek’s swamp, a fiery tower, and the idyllic city of Duloc. During one scene, the moon gradually rises at night. And the technical highlight of the show is the appearance of a 25-foot, singing and dancing dragon animated by four puppeteers.

Weaver makes good use of the set pieces and the stage, ably demonstrating what an imaginative director can do with Theatre Lawrence’s gargantuan, new space. Fiona’s tower moves on and off. Shrek’s home moves on the revolve to change perspective. And when the dragon makes her big entrance, it is pure theater magic. This is easily the biggest production in TL’s history, and Weaver doesn’t waste any of the opportunities the facility provides.

In addition to the set, the costumes by Swamptastics (a brief Google search didn’t reveal who this is) are spectacular. Pittenger looks exactly like his animated counterpart. Leet is covered from head to toe in fur, and his hands are hooves. Farquaad and his minions are clothed in exceptional royal finery. Pinocchio has a nose that actually grows. The entire cast is clothed as little wooden robots for the welcome-to-Duloc scene meant to invoke images of Disneyland. “Shrek” is gorgeous to look at.

There were a few technical difficulties. Tyner’s microphone kept feeding back, likely due to the prosthetic nose he was wearing, and the back wall projector misfired a few times. Overall, though, the production aspects of the show were stunning.

“Shrek” runs a little long. There’s no fluff in the script, but it isn’t a short story, and that can strain little ones’ attentions. Also, parents should be warned that, like the movie on which it is based, “Shrek: The Musical” over-relies on bathroom humor, particularly during Shrek and Fiona’s sophomoric duet, “I Think I Got You Beat.”

But if you don’t mind that sort of thing, “Shrek: The Musical” is a holiday treat worth seeing. A fantastic production, it really raises the bar for future shows at Theatre Lawrence while sneaking in a pretty good message about believing in oneself, some catchy songs and a lot of laughs.

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‘The Maderati’ provides director perfect opportunity

Ask Jeanne Tiehen why she returned to graduate school, and she doesn’t talk about herself.

“I love teaching because it really reminds me why I love theater,” says the second-year doctoral student. “Seeing undergraduate actors grow has always been rewarding for me.”

Tiehen gets another chance with “The Maderati,” which opens tonight in the Inge Theatre on the KU campus. The 1987 Richard Greenberg comedy follows the misadventures of a group of Manhattan artists whose world turns upside down when a friend checks into a mental hospital. Through a series of misunderstandings, they come to believe she’s dead.

“It’s Greenberg’s response to a lot of his friends in the arts,” Tiehen says. “(The 1983 film) ‘The Big Chill’ is definitely a component of it. The natural self-absorption of these characters is enhanced by their being artists. They engage in a lot more self-reflection.”

Tiehen saw a lot of potential in the play for the undergraduate actors she enjoys helping to develop their skills.

“I saw the blurb when I was looking for a show to direct,” she says, “and when I read there were nine roles, I thought that was a fantastic opportunity for young actors.”

“The Maderati” is a screwball comedy, and that is exactly the sort of challenge Tiehen was looking for.

“Each character has a lot of opportunity for undergraduate actors to hone their craft, and the humor is so offbeat and absurd, they really have to work at it.

“The biggest challenge for all of us was to keep that commitment of character but still remember that this is not real. It’s a comedy, and these people aren’t like real people.”

So how does one guide young actors to find that delicate balance between over-the-top comedy and depth of character?

“I just told them to trust the work we’ve done,” Tiehen says. “They don’t have to push it. And this cast has been terrific. They have a lot of comedic instincts, and they offered a lot of their own suggestions, many of which were right on.”

Tiehen has worked very hard to keep everybody on the same page, which can be challenging, given the zaniness of the characters and story.

“I go into each rehearsal and say, ‘OK, this is our goal for tonight,’ and then give them an objective. It’s worked really well.”

The cast seems to agree. Topeka Senior Sara Kennedy enthuses it’s the most fun she’s had working on a show.

“The highlight of my day is everyone coming together and discovering more about this ridiculous production,” she says.

Tiehen hopes to keep creating those kinds of opportunities.

“I want to do something in academic theater,” she says. “Ideally, I’d love to end up at a university.”

At least for the moment, she seems to be in the perfect place.

“The Maderati” opens Dec. 6 and plays Dec. 7, 8, 10, 11 and 12. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m., except Sunday, Dec. 8, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available online at www.kutheatre.com or by calling the box office at 785-864-3982.

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Review: “Adding Machine” compelling, poignant

Occasionally, a piece of experimental theater comes along that hits all the right notes. The story, the performances and the execution combine seamlessly to create a poignant and thought-provoking piece of art.

University Theatre’s new staging of “Adding Machine: A Musical” is such a production. An intriguing script, modern score, strong performances, and an interactive set make for an insightful piece of theatrical commentary on the meaning of life.

Based on a 1923 Elmer Rice play, the musical tells the story of Mr. Zero (Michael Wysong), an unimaginative milquetoast, who has spent a 25-year career doing nothing but adding figures in the basement of a large retail store. He has deluded himself into believing The Boss (Blake Beardall) has been watching him approvingly and will reward his years of service with a promotion. Instead, Zero is laid off in favor of the new invention – an adding machine – which can do the job cheaper, faster and more accurately.

Henpecked at home by his shrewish wife (Elaina Smith) and wishing he had the nerve to divorce her in favor of his assistant Daisy Devore (Hailey Lapin), he cannot stand that his entire life has come to nothing. He murders The Boss in rage and frustration, and, because he has never done anything, he confesses to the crime and refuses to accept a diagnosis of temporary insanity. He is convicted and executed, whereupon he goes to Heaven and discovers what life is really about... and misses the point completely.

Wysong is compelling to watch as Zero. In the early parts of the show, he has few lines. He stands quietly, seething, stewing, harboring his resentment as Mrs. Zero upbraids him for one failing after another. At a dinner party in his honor, he doesn't participate. He just listens contemptuously as the guests and his wife prattle on. But when he describes his fantasy of getting his coveted promotion, he is passionate and enthusiastic, playing it with the deep conviction that only the deluded can give to dreams that will never happen. In court, he rages that he did it, he is responsible. He demands to be remembered, because for the first time in his life he had the nerve to do something, even if it is as heinous as murder. It’s a brilliant performance. Wysong brings Zero to life and makes him disturbingly real.

His supporting cast is equally good. Smith is fun to watch as the disappointed Mrs. Zero. She is convinced everyone has a better life than she does, and she verbally assaults Zero mercilessly. Smith has command of the subtler aspects of her character, though. She offers a complex portrayal, showing real sympathy and regret for Zero before his execution.

Likewise, Lapin gives a layered performance as the long-suffering Daisy Devore. She has grown so frustrated with Zero for not acting on his feelings for her. She loves him and hates him at the same time. When he is executed, she is distraught.

Cale Morrow is wonderfully over the top as the crazed fundamentalist Shrdlu. Also set for execution, he is convinced he is going to Hell, he will be horrifically tortured and it will be very just. He explains the same will happen to Zero. Morrow is gleeful as he describes what will happen to them. The insane grin and the fevered excitement of his voice convey both the horror of his madness and the grim humor of the mental torture he inadvertently inflicts on Zero just before the end.

Jason Leowith and Joshua Schmidt’s script is perfectly paced. It alternates between humor and tragedy, between hopelessness and fantasy. Schmidt’s score is very modern. It borders on atonal at times, and perfectly captures that sense of a giant, mechanized society the characters cannot understand. The music is difficult, and the cast and the orchestra render it perfectly. In particular, “Harmony, Not Discord” uses minimalism, with the cast reciting numbers over and over to create an intricate piece of music. Featuring little accompaniment, the piece turns the singers into instruments to make a musical statement about the unchanging, lusterless lives of the store’s employees.

There’s another component to this production that really makes it stand out, and that is the set design. Rather than build pieces for the actors to move through and on, scenic designer Mark Reaney offers a single platform with ramps and a few stools. But he projects computer-generated scenes onto the back wall and, on occasion, onto the floor. The opening scene is especially clever. The Zeros are in bed, so Wysong and Smith stand against a back drop, and a bed is projected behind them as if we are looking down from the ceiling. When they get up to start their day, the projection rotates so our perspective is now from the floor.

In the Afterlife, the visuals are particularly surreal. Combining art from multiple time periods, pastoral scenes, and rotating two-dimensional windows that contain the chorus as it sings, it is an avant-garde and strangely beautiful place.

Clocks are omnipresent in the scenery. There are few times we don't see one, and the pendulums and the hands are always moving in perfect time to the tempo of the music. It’s a nice touch that brings the whole musical together neatly.

All of the imagery is obviously computer-generated. Rather than appearing realistic, the characters look as though they are in a videogame, which adds further ironic horror to the meaninglessness of their lives. Director Mechele Leon has crafted a show that is a visual, auditory and spiritual feast.

“Adding Machine: A Musical” is a grand piece of experimental theater that succeeds on every level. Well written, expertly directed and beautifully performed, it hits all the right notes as a profound statement on the meaning of life, machines and modernity.

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University Theatre’s ‘Adding Machine’ marries past and present

Mark Reaney is marrying the future and the past to make a point about the present. The KU professor of theater is designing the set and lighting for University Theatre’s new production of “Adding Machine: A Musical,” which opens Friday.

The show opened off Broadway in 2008, but it’s an adaptation of the 1923 Elmer Rice expressionist play “The Adding Machine.” University Theatre staged the play in 1995, and Reaney was heavily involved in the design of that production.

“That was our very first experiment into computer graphics,” Reaney says. “We’ve come a long way since then.”

The 1995 production explored virtual reality concepts in what was pretty new technology at the time. But both then and now, one of the themes is making a statement about technology.

“There’s heavy symbolism and irony that we’re making art with modern adding machines,” Reaney says, referring to computers. “We’re trying to make the point that it’s not the machines that are the problem.”

“Adding Machine: A Musical” tells the story of Mr. Zero, an unimaginative accountant, who is replaced after 25 years of thankless service to his company by a machine that can do his job faster and better. Infuriated, he murders his boss, is convicted and executed and goes to Heaven, wherein he continues to choose a dull, meaningless existence.

“You’re not supposed to like Zero,” Reaney says. “He makes bad choices every time.”

For a musical about technology and humanity’s relationship to it, Reaney created a virtual reality environment evocative of the places in the show.

“In the early part of the show everything is flat,” Reaney says. “It’s mostly colorless. Then, when he goes to Heaven, there’s lots of color.”

That’s accomplished by projecting images onto the stage and even onto the actors. “We project numbers onto them at certain points,” he says. “The lion’s share of the front lights are also computer-generated.”

And that’s not all. The images interact with the characters, requiring a lot of programming and timing.

“The show features VR backdrops with real-time changes,” Reaney explains. But he emphasizes it isn’t all pre-programmed and then allowed to run, with the actors being forced to keep up. Because it’s virtual reality technology, it’s meant to be reactive to what’s happening around it.

“What keeps this work exciting is the fact the VR technology is not prerecorded; the computers are working live just like the actors,” Reaney says. “We live in a digital world and modern audiences must be spoken to with what they are most familiar with — innovative technology.”

And that’s the point. Technology is defined not by itself but what we use it for. It can be made to dehumanize, but it can also improve our lives and help us make art. Mr. Zero loses his job and subsequently his life as a result of technology and his reaction to it. But his story is told in an environment that could only be created by advanced machines.

“It’s all experimental,” Reaney says. “It’s real experimental theater with a capital X.”

“Adding Machine: A Musical” opens Friday and runs Nov. 16, 17, 22, 23 and 24 at Stage Too! in the Crafton-Preyer Theater at Murphy Hall on the KU campus. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. except the Sunday dates, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets for the performance on the 17th are only available to University Theatre’s Friends of the Theatre (FROTH) organization. “Adding Machine: A Musical” includes themes of racism and offensive language. It is not appropriate for younger audiences.

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Lawrence Arts Center renders near-perfect “Sweeney Todd”

“Sweeney Todd” is one of those shows that is very easy to make a mess of. The music is difficult – a typical Stephen Sondheim score with amelodic songs featuring tongue-twister, machine-gun-style lyrics. The characters are over the top and larger than life. And the story – about a bloody-minded barber who slaughters his customers and then has his landlady bake them into meat pies – is grisly. It’s very, very easy for “Sweeney Todd” to be an epic disaster.

Not only does the Lawrence Arts Center’s new production avoid all the potential pitfalls of Sondheim’s most challenging musical, it excels, offering first-rate, ghoulish entertainment just in time for Halloween.

The story concerns Sweeney Todd (Mark Rector), a wrongfully deported barber, who has snuck back into London with a new identity. He was exiled when the sinister and lascivious Judge Turpin (Patrick Kelly) coveted Todd’s beautiful wife and then raped her once Todd was out of the way. Ashamed and aggrieved, she committed suicide and Todd’s then-one-year-old daughter Johanna was adopted by Turpin.

It’s now 17 years later and Johanna (Julia Geisler) is a beautiful young woman. Her singing draws the attention and affection of a young sailor, Anthony (Joe Winans), the same man who helped Sweeney Todd return to London. But Turpin is not only a strict, unforgiving guardian, he harbors lust for Johanna of his own, and he conspires with policeman Beadle (Alex Goering) to thwart the young lovers.

Meanwhile, Sweeney sets up shop above Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies, hoping to draw the judge to his shop, so he can take his revenge. In the interim, he slits the throat of any customer he thinks won’t be missed, and Mrs. Lovett (Jill Anderson) bakes the remains into her pies, which become wildly popular.

If it sounds gruesome it is, but, despite promising theater in the bloody, Grand-Guignol style, director Ric Averill resists the urge to go over the top with gore. Instead, he recognizes that “Sweeney Todd” is a morality play and allows it to play out at its own pace. The tension between the various parties builds slowly. The audience knows this is a show about a barber slitting throats, but we don’t get the first murder until the first act is nearly over. In the second act, when the body count starts rising, Todd kills casually, without any passion as he sings about the memory of his daughter. Despite each victim being bloodied by Todd’s razor, Averill doesn’t spray the stage. It’s all very low-key.

And that’s good, because it allows the horror of the story to come to the forefront. Averill recognizes drenching the stage in gore would obscure where the true depravity lies – in the actions of its characters. Todd is perhaps justified in his desire to take revenge on Turpin and his accomplice Beadle, but he allows himself to become a butcher, killing anyone who comes through his shop and reveling in his deeds. Turpin is the worst kind of moralist. He easily condemns those less fortunate than he for their sins, but commits worse degeneracy himself. Mrs. Lovett is willing to be Todd’s accomplice, because she is in love with him and he is boosting her business.

There are few likable characters in “Sweeney Todd,” and those that are meet with bad ends or suffer terribly. And the sinister thing about the show is we become engrossed in it – wondering when Todd will commit another murder, will he and Mrs. Lovett get caught (and hoping they don’t), and whether Turpin will actually marry Johanna. It’s a fiendish story that plays on the worst aspects of human nature, making us simultaneously desire justice and hope for the villains to get away with what they do.

Averill’s direction isn’t the only thing that makes “Sweeney Todd” succeed on so many levels. The performances by the actors are top-notch across the board. Anderson gives a deliciously insane performance as Mrs. Lovett. She nails both the London accent and the desperation of a poor woman willing to do anything for love and money. She is comically perfect in “The Worst Pies in London”, naively adoring in “By the Sea” and terrified in “Not While I’m Around.” Kelly is frightening as Judge Turpin. Describing him as creepy doesn’t do justice to the profound depravity he displays. In particular, there is a scene of self-flagellation that would earn the show an R-rating all by itself were this a movie.

Winans and Geisler are beautiful in the only two truly sympathetic roles in the show. Both have angelic voices that stop the show with their beauty. Geisler’s lilting soprano melts hearts in “Green Finch and Linnet Bird”, and Winans sings so beautifully in “Johanna” one wishes the song would never end.

Any production of “Sweeney Todd”, though, has to be judged by the man in the titular role. Ironically, Rector has the weakest voice in the cast. He sings fine, but he can’t match the sound of his co-stars. It doesn’t matter, though. His performance is so intense, so horrific, he demands to be watched whenever he is onstage. The intensity of his obsession burns in his eyes. It’s clear that, no matter what is happening around him, Todd is only concerned with avenging himself on Judge Turpin.

Rector’s makeup enhances the effect. His face is washed out with white, and there are steaks of red, sinking his cheeks and skull. He looks dead, a zombie who died years before when he was exiled but is still animated by his need for revenge.

Mary Nichols gives us a beautiful, two-level set complete with a trap door-chute for Todd to deposit his victims down. Steffani Day’s costumes are gorgeous. London of the 19th Century comes alive in horrific glory under the technical direction of Heather Branham Green.

“Sweeney Todd” is a taut, bloody thriller that has a lot to say about human nature and the way we treat each other. Director Ric Averill, musical director Patricia Ahearn, and a sterling cast render a strong, entertaining performance of an extremely difficult work.

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Review: “And I and Silence” beautiful and tragic

Prisons come in many guises. And while you are inside, there is no escape.

KU University Theatre’s production of Naomi Wallace’s “And I and Silence” explores several such confinements through the lives of its two characters, Jamie and Dee. Told cunningly by alternating between the past and the present, the play opens with Jamie (Timaira Smith) and Dee (Laurie C. Winkel) having just been released from prison after completing nine-year sentences. The two women seek jobs as servants, and they are preparing for interviews and getting set up in the small apartment they share. From the outset, we can tell something is wrong. Despite their hope and optimism, there is a specter of failure stalking them.

Dee is quite obviously not very bright. She bubbles over with enthusiasm, but one gets the sense she doesn’t have the smarts to be successful. Jamie tries to teach her, to encourage her, but Jamie is black, and it’s 1959. Whatever talent she has is going to have to cut through the racial prejudice of the time period.

As the story moves forward, we shift back and forth in time. We see the two when they are girls in prison – where Young Dee (Jaclyn Amber Nischbach) is desperate for a friend and trying as hard as she can to make one with Young Jamie (Diadra Smith), despite the latter’s disinterest. We see them as they make their plans for life after jail, and we see them as their plans come wretchedly to nothing. The women endure abuse – in prison and in the workforce. Both struggle to hold jobs. Both are forced to make degrading choices that carve away, a little at a time, their dignity.

Indeed, their whole is plan is to become servants – a type of imprisonment itself – after getting out of jail. Moreover, Dee is pretty clearly a lesbian in love with Jamie, who resists her advances, but possibly only because she doesn’t want to be isolated from society any more than she already is as an African-American ex-con. They can’t hold jobs, because the men they work for sexually abuse them, forcing them to quit. Thus, despite no longer being confined, society still imprisons them. The color of Jamie’s skin, Dee’s low intelligence, the work they choose, and their sexuality all keep them locked away from society and themselves.

The tragic reality of the older women is juxtaposed by the hope and ebullience of their younger selves. Young Jamie and Young Dee know they are in Hell, but they don’t know a worse one is waiting for them outside. They believe the future holds promise.

All of this is delivered strongly by the four actors. Smith and Smith infuse their Jamies with a worldliness necessary to survive and a motherly affection for Dee. Nischbach and Winkel make Dee endearing. She is so hopelessly clueless, so utterly talentless, but so sincere in her love and admiration for Jamie, one can’t help but like her and root for her. One wants to see them succeed despite Dee’s stupidity and despite Jamie’s rough treatment of her. These are likeable characters, and all four actors give deeply touching performances.

The set, designed by Cynthia Evans, acts as a fifth character in the play. Stage left is the ratty apartment the older women share. Stage right is the cell block where their younger selves meet. In the middle is a single, utilitarian bed and a barred window, both of which are part of the two locations and times. The set itself helps communicate there is no escape for these two unfortunates. They are in prison, and they will never get out.

Despite the bleak circumstances, Wallace weaves a beautiful love story, and director Lynn Deboeck brings it out expertly. We can see Dee’s affection for Jamie early on, but Deboeck is careful to allow its true nature to develop slowly. We’re well into the play before Dee’s real feelings are known, and even further along before there is any hint of whether Jamie returns them. It’s a nice touch that keeps us guessing as to the play’s ultimate conclusion.

“And I and Silence” is a well crafted, well acted and well directed play that says a lot about how we treat others and ourselves. Tragic and beautiful, it is a moving experience that identifies and examines the damage prisons – both real and societal – do to the mind and the soul.

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Tonight at the Lied: “Mark Twain Tonight”

Sometimes a good idea can last a long time. “Mark Twain Tonight” – Hal Holbrook’s one-man play in which he assumes the persona of the famous author – qualifies.

Holbrook, who has also played Abraham Lincoln in three different films and who was the mysterious Deep Throat in the 1976 film adaptation of “All the President’s Men”, has been playing Mark Twain for 59 years. He continues the tradition at the Lied Center tonight.

“Mark Twain Tonight” was first performed at Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania in 1954. His first New York appearance was in 1959, with a Broadway engagement in 1966, which earned him a Tony Award.

Holbrook appears as Twain and gives dramatic recitations from the Missouri author’s most famous works. The emphasis is on Twain’s comedic writings, but Holbrook alters the material from performance to performance, working from a preset selection of Twain’s works, which are listed in the program. An accompanying blurb states, “While Mr. Twain’s selections will come from the list below, we have been unable to pin him down as to which of them he will do. He claims this would cripple his inspiration. However, he has generously conceded to a printed program for those who are in distress and wish to fan themselves.”

Despite the warning in Twain’s legendary curmudgeonly humor, Holbrook always does a recitation from “Huckleberry Finn.”

Tickets remain for tonight’s 7:30 p.m. performance. Call the box office at 785-864-2787 or go online at lied.ku.edu.

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