Archive | August, 2013

One Hundred Years of Equity

30 Aug

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Many of our favorite names and faces from local stages gathered at the Alley Theatre recently to celebrate the 100th birthday of Actors Equity – the “actors union” formed to make making a living this way a bit less difficult than it tends to be.  The Houston/Galveston chapter of AEA, along with Equity membership candidates and local theater producers, got together for a party hosted by a local liaison committee in the long lobby outside the Alley’s Hubbard Stage.

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“Belonging to Actors’ Equity immediately identifies a person as a professional actor or stage manager in the United States,” said local committee chairman Joel Sandel, pictured above with fellow actor Sean Patrick Judge and artistic director Rebecca Greene Udden of Main Street Theater. “It guarantees reasonable working hours and safe working conditions, as well as a fair wage and health insurance for those who work regularly. AEA is a community of artists who take tremendous pride, not only in what we do but, also, in the rich history of all the great theater professionals who have come before us over the last one hundred years.”

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The food was catered by Jim Benton Catering of Houston and the birthday cake was supplied by Carrie Made the Cake. Steven Jones played the piano for the festivities and Dalton DeHart was on hand to photograph it all. Nick Wyman, President of AEA, and Mary McColl, AEA’s Executive Director, came in from New York to be a part of this landmark celebration: both agreed it was one of the best they’ve attended (all 27 liaison cities around the country are hosting a Centennial Party for AEA). Pictured above are Houston-based actors Susan Koozin and Joe Kirkendall.

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Houston’s Mayor Annise Parker (shown above planting a kiss on Charles Swan) was the special guest and all of the guests were delighted to have the chance to meet and have photographs taken with her. Mayor Parker addressed the crowd briefly, and voiced her support of labor unions in the United States, to the delight of everyone. She also presented a special proclamation to the local membership naming August 18, 2013, Actors’ Equity Association Day in Houston. Oh what a day, to paraphrase Broadway’s favorite Jersey Boys.

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Previewing Book of Mormon

23 Aug

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By HOLLY BERETTO

Once upon a time, circa 1996, I lived in Astoria, New York, and shared my one-bedroom/study garden apartment with a nice Mormon lady from Arizona. L’s first order of business upon arriving in the Big Apple for a job at the same start up where I worked (at a start-up that has since shut down) was to tap into the local Mormon community.

It wasn’t unusual to come home to find L and a couple of Elders, what the Mormons call the young men on their missions, sitting in the living room or around the dining room table, discussing scripture, discussing New York, discussing how much the boys missed home. For a Catholic girl from Rhode Island whose only exposure to Mormonism were public service announcements that concluded with “A message from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,” this was a startling introduction to both the religion and evangelism. Slightly stunned that I didn’t own a bible, the Elders gave me one – along with a Book of Mormon. The bible passages had extensive footnotes that corresponded to passages in the Book of Mormon and vice versa. It was a tad bizarre.

But what I learned was this: 1) these were young men in a strange place, alone, often lonely and we provided them hospitality, great Italian food and cheer; 2) they sincerely believed in their mission to spread the world of Christ as they believed it; and 3) I was never, ever meant to be a Mormon. They were always slightly disappointed, when I’d ask questions about why was this special undergarment necessary or what was so wrong with caffeine, not because I was considering becoming a Mormon, but because I found it fascinating. Not eating meat on Fridays during Lent is one thing; giving up caffeine, not so much.

I’m equally fascinated by Book of Mormon, brainchild of  Trey Parker and Matt Stone, (in)famous creators of South Park, the smash Comedy Central cartoon with its foul-mouthed foursome of Cartman, Stan, Kenny and Kyle. Anyone who watches the sitcom – or hasn’t been hiding under a rock in a cave at the bottom of the ocean for the last 14 years it’s been on the air – knows the Parker/Stone duet leave no sleeping tiger unpoked.

Their hit musical, penned along with Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez,  rolls into town September 3 – 15 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. The story of two Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda to preach the news of Jesus Christ, Brigham Young and the Latter Day Saints, the show garnered a slew of awards and praises when it opened on Broadway two years ago, cleaning up with nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Stephen Colbert was quoted calling his own Christmas special a few years back “strangely sincere and sincerely strange.” The more I delve into Book of Mormon, the more that quote comes to mind. It’s an irreverent piece, laced with sometimes not-so-gentle stereotypes on everything from Mormons to belief to corrupt governments. But, it’s a refreshingly old-fashioned musical in a world of jukebox shows and megawatt laser magic. Charting the coming of age of two missionaries, Elder Kevin Price and Elder Arnold Cunningham, it looks at how we view faith and how the views we hold dear are not necessarily true – no matter how close we hold them in our hearts.

Paying homage to classics like The Sound of Music and The King and I, with a nod to the absurdity of The Producers and Monty Python, Book of Mormon brings a new host of hummable tunes and discussion points. There’s a clever narrative running through “I Believe,” Elder Price’s ballad of self-reassurance, and I’ve listened to “Hello,” the show’s opening number and send-up of door-to-door evangelism, and “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” Price and Cunningham’s duet as they set off to set the world on fire, so often that I’m grateful I own them digitally on iTunes and not on a CD, for surely it would be worn through.

Now, Book of Mormon is hardly the first time religion and commentary have collided on stage. Tevye talked to God – nay, complained to God – and tweaked his own Judaism in the much-beloved Fiddler on the Roof. Nunsense lovingly roasted Catholic fundraisers, even as it offered a stunning lament about the differences in the Church pre-and post-Vatican II. That’s just two. There are myriad more.

But here comes a show praised for both its spirit and its satire. Vogue called it “the filthiest, most offensive and – surprise – sweetest thing you’ll ever see.” The Washington Post said its spirit “is anything but mean.” The Church of Latter Day Saints even took out ads in the Playbills in some cities along the tour, encouraging audiences to learn more about the Mormon faith.

Can satire and religion live comfortably side by side, at least for an evening? We’ll find out. But every time I see the television commercial with those well-scrubbed Elders in their black ties and white shirts, wielding the Book of Mormon, I think fondly of a little garden apartment in Astoria, where some true believers gave me a bible – one that still sits on my living room bookshelf – and taught me that learning about a faith so far removed from your own is never a bad thing.

Main Street’s Part of the Art

21 Aug

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By HOLLY BERETTO 

“We no longer live in a world where we can just do great theater and expect that people will come.” Shannon Emerick, Main Street Theater’s director of marketing and development, leaned forward earnestly, warming to her topic. “We live in a world with entirely different expectations of how people want to experience what we do.”

This was an echo of a sentiment I’d heard nearly six years ago, working as publicity manager for Houston Grand Opera. Only there, it was then-General Director Anthony Freud saying it, as HGO unveiled its HGOCo initiative, a collaboration between the opera company and the community that was dedicated to outreach, education and helping tell the stories that made Houston what it was.

Main Street’s new Part of the Art endeavor is no less ambitious. It’s designed to bring more people –both regular theatergoers and novices alike – into the process of what it takes to create a live performance. Each Main Street production this season will have Part of the Art components, whether inviting audiences in for the very first read-through of a play or coming to a dress rehearsal, even joining cast and designers for discussion before opening night.

“There has to be a way into what we do for people,” said Emerick. “And because art is about our human connection to one another, why wouldn’t look for avenues to help people find and experience us?”

To that end, Main Street’s first Part of the Art program was a read-through and design presentation of its season opener, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing (Sept. 5 – 29). It provided an opportunity for audiences to listen to Main Street’s artistic director (and director of The Real Thing) Rebecca Greene Udden, costumer design Macy Lyne and set designer Jac Jones discuss their vision for costumes and the sets, as well as hear the cast read through the whole play.

“The response we got when we first offered this was so big, we realized we needed to cap the attendance at it,” says Udden. “Nobody’s done this before that we know of.”

Not that Main Street has ever let that stop them. The theater company born from a group of renegades at Rice University looking to stage more modern productions has evolved into a company known for presenting regional premieres from contemporary playwrights, as well as revisiting storied classics. Its current capital campaign seeks to improve its Times Boulevard space, while steadfastly maintaining its community roots. And that community so far seems to have embraced this new level of engagement from the company.

“It turned out to be wonderful!” said Emerick of the first Part of the Art read-through.  “Our guests were ‘with us’ all the way through, laughing, engaged…  At the break, people were remarking how they’d been attending theater for years but had never been to a read-through of the script.  Actors and audiences alike seemed energized.”

If you’re thinking that being part of the art sounds fun, there are multiple opportunities available for The Real Thing, including:
August 25: Mimosas (and costume parade): See what the costume designer has in mind for the actors and watch the actors show off that vision. $20 per person. To purchase tickets, call 713-524-6706 or visit http://boxoffice.printtixusa.com/mainstreettheater/eventcalendar

September 5: Pre-show discussion with the designers of The Real Thing at 6:45 p.m., prior to the opening night performance (The discussion is free; those with tickets for opening night may attend the pre-show discussion as well as the champagne reception following the performance.)

September 15: Lunch with Director Rebecca Green Udden at 1:00 p.m. at Solteno. $50 per person

September 22: Dinner with the actors ($50 per person), in partnership with El Meson restaurant

To RSVP or purchase tickets for lunch or dinner, email Shannon Emerick at Shannon@MainStreetTheater.com

For upcoming Part of the Art events during other Main Street Theater 2013-2014 main stage performances, visit www.MainStreetTheater.com

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A.D. Players’ ‘Anne of Avonlea’

7 Aug

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By HOLLY BERETTO

The trouble with A.D. Players’ charming mounting of Anne of Avonlea isn’t so much in the execution as in the source. The play is based on the book of the same name, a sequel to L.M. Montgomery’s phenomenally popular Anne of Green Gables, first published in 1908…and never out of print since, inspiring along the last century a couple of movie and stage adaptions and widely critically acclaimed miniseries. Two publishers rejected Montgomery’s manuscript and she stuck it in a drawer sometime in 1906, only to find it a year later weeding through her files. She re-read it, decided it wasn’t half bad after all, and shipped it off to L.C. Page and Co.,  who immediately bought it – and asked for a sequel.

“To-day [sic] I finished my second book…but I know it’s not really so good as Green Gables,” the author wrote in her diary of said sequel in August of 1908. And there, in a nutshell, is the issue.

It never works comparing a book to a movie or play – you’ll make yourself crazy. But in this instance the play tires so very hard to be exactly like the book that it wanders, vignette-like, without a coherent beginning, middle and end, and playwright Joseph Robinette, whose writing chops include a collaboration with E.B. White on adaptation of Charlotte’s Web and the book to the recent Tony Award-nominated A Christmas Story: The Musical, tries to string it all together with the tired convention of having Anne narrate the action as she writes the story of her life for a college entrance essay. It’s messy and meandering, calling to Anne to step outside the action and speak Montgomery’s narrative prose, which doesn’t sound half so lovely spoken as written, and makes for action-stopping interruptions in the pacing that grate.

But, what a lovely thing director Sarah Cooksey created trying to make it all work. It’s truly the perfect show for A.D. Players, a company known – and respected – for its family fare with keen edge for the spiritual. L.M. Montgomery was a minister’s wife, and all of her works –not just the Anne series – are imbued with both an underlying and unpretentious sense of faith and spiritually, as well as a delight in the natural world.  In Anne of Avonlea, our beloved red-headed heroine is 16, and about to spend two years teaching school before heading off to Redmond College, “navigating the tricky path between girlhood and womanhood,” as Cooksey offers in her Director’s Note.  This is a play ripe for A.D. Players’ touch.

And it has its beautiful moments.  Rising HSPVA senior Joy Spence heads the cast as Anne, and she has sparks of perfect brilliance, especially in her interaction with her favorite pupil, Paul (played with day-dreamingly imaginative charm by Dylan Klinge) and her scenes with cranky neighbor Mr. Harrison (a rally delightful Chip Simmons). But her performance is uneven, and she never quite seems natural inside Anne’s delightful whimsy and sense of wonder. She does, however, deserve some serious props for the sheer force and effort it takes to harness all of Anne’s dialogue – and fans of Anne will remember that Anne is, as they say, a talker.

Patty Tuel Bailey as Anne’s adoptive mother Marilla is a foil for the “red-headed snippet’s” exuberance and castles-in-the-air, bringing a dry wit and occasionally soft touch to her character’s brittle exterior. Stephanie Bradow pulls double duty as helicopter mom Mrs. Donnell and busybody neighbor Rachel Lynde; she’s roaringly hilarious in the former if a trifle cliché in the latter. Oceans of ink have been spilled over Montgomery’s over-populating her works with women – and what strong, multi-layered women they are – (anyone looking for essays or scholarship on such should pick up Elizabeth Rollins Epperly’s The Fragrance of Sweet Grass or a host of writing by Irene Gammel) leaving the guys to come off as minor at best. Anne’s not-quite-love-interest Gilbert Blythe, played by Jason Hatcher, suffers this fate. Hatcher’s fine, but he hasn’t much to work with.

And that’s what we keep coming back to here. The story is episodic and often lyrical, evoking a simpler time and place. But there isn’t a lot of there there. Cooksey maneuvers her ensemble cast – including two separate casts of various children – through each scene, but it never feels like a continued storyline – although, if it does, it’s the storyline you already know from Anne of Green Gables. Eric Domuret’s sound design feels more like rural Appalachia than late-Victorian Canada, and Donna Southern Schmidt’s costumes have some nice touches, but they seem more generic than specific. As a nitpicky wannabe-Anne scholar, I take issue with the setting as being the early 1900s, although that is likely not A.D. Players’ fault (In the early 1900s, Anne is in her 20s, because in the brilliant Rilla of Ingleside, the very last book in the Anne series, World War I is raging and Anne sends her sons off to fight in it, meaning there is no way she can be 16 in 1900 and have sons old enough to go to war in 1914).

For all the trouble of the play’s material and writing, however, it’s a tremendously well-done effort.  The company clearly conveys its delight in doing the piece, and Cooksey’s marshaling of a huge cast, many playing multiple roles, is quite good. There’s a terrific rendering of a scene where all the children are writing Anne letters as an assignment – each of them offering a mini-monologue as they write, their essays tumbling over each other, that’s an excellent rendering of that scene in the book. The romanticism that’s so clearly the foundation of Anne’s story is largely intact and the cast as a whole is engaging.

In all, not a bad way to spend an afternoon or evening. While it may not have, as Anne would say, “scope for the imagination,” it really does prove that A.D. Players is a whole company of “kindred spirits.”

Review of New/Old Tamarie

6 Aug

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By MELANIE FEUK 

When I was a student at UHD, I passed by the Catastrophic Theatre daily. It’s a brave little building whose creative energy is so potent that it cannot be contained but rather spills over, colorfully transforming what might have been just a back road shortcut to the UHD parking lot into an artistic expression. Its face is a canvas, and often a car bedecked with statues of Jesus and monkey figurines can be seen parked outside: a telling representation of attitudes and themes one can expect of the productions within.

I’ve now had the pleasure of viewing two Tamarie Cooper musicals at Catastrophic. The first was her wildly hilarious Tamarie Cooper’s Doomsday Review, which had me laughing so hard my six-pack came back. When I received my post-card advertising a new Tamarie Cooper show, I looked forward to it with the giddiness of a child awaiting her birthday.  Not surprisingly, Tamarie Cooper’s Old as Hell is a bold, relevant, and absolutely captivating tour of the experience of aging, and the differences in perspectives between generations.

The musical begins with a customary opening number, aptly titled “It’s The Opening Number!”, during which the ensemble shatters the fourth wall by immediately acknowledging the cast’s awareness of the show and the audience’s presence. The number continues with an enthusiasm that can best be described as manic. The cast, singing and dancing in hyper unison shamelessly blurt hilarious obscenities, setting the precedent for the rest of the show.

Suddenly, the “Theatre Police” interrupt mid-song to force Tamarie’s resignation from playing the main character in her own show. Theatre law dictates that lead roles are reserved for younger actors. After the Theatre Police successfully overthrow Tamarie, she becomes determined to recapture her youth by inculcating herself into the younger generation’s social sphere. In her plight she encounters a whole host of hilarious characters from culture-resenting hipsters, to meh-saying internet trolls, and even her younger self.

While Tamarie (the character) avidly objects to the notion that she is old, Tamarie Cooper (the creator/director/choreographer/lead actor) displays the full extent of her commitment to comedy by interspersing the action of the play with jokes about her declining mobility, her waning performance stamina, and her “sweet, sweet ass”.  The ability to confidently present herself as the butt of her own jokes not only makes for a good laugh, it also gives her more creative license in making fun of society since she proves that nothing is off limits, not even herself.

Tamarie Cooper’s direction yields an impeccable performance. She stages her actors effectually, making sure to incorporate good use of levels and motion so there is never any confusion about where the focus is intended to be. Her actors are always articulate and expressive. Their ability to uphold a completely cooperative energy maintains the audience’s confidence in her absurdist paradigm, which is quite a feat considering that the musical numbers are often interrupted and the fourth wall is almost non-existent.

The set, designed by Ryan McGettigan, is simple but effective. Reminiscent of a fifties-style television show, the background consists of a wall checkered with circular holes through which the live band is always visible. Upstage left, a large circular frame draped with a curtain serves as an entrance for actors as well as a projector screen upon which videos, designed by Tim Thomson, are projected to complement plot points. The show’s tastefully minimalistic use of scenery and props is a testament to the power of its entertainers.

Because Tamarie’s shows require actors to play multiple characters, roles are divvied up based on the timing of character entrances, the frequency and overlap of certain characters, and the actor’s ability to portray distinctly different personalities. The ensemble is brilliant, comprised of experienced actors whose ages range from teen to…well, old as hell. Their mutual passion yields a breathtakingly coordinated performance with a seemingly endless supply of energy: proof that there are no small parts, only small actors.

Of course, Tamarie Cooper’s Tamarie Cooper deservedly shines as the star of this performance. However, there are many memorable characters that merit acknowledgment. Actress Jessica Janes delivers an outstanding performance.  Her Hipster Queen character is “totes” superb, only out-shone by her startlingly spot-on portrayal of young Tamarie. Kyle Sturdivant, though inexplicably absent in the program, delivers a hilarious embodiment of Myspace. Sara Jo Dunstan’s “meh” face still has me giggling. Kudos to supporting cast members Karina Pal Montano-Bowers as the unforgettable Sexy Towel Girl, and Shannon Adams as the adorably aloof Hipster.

Tamarie Cooper’s Old As Hell does not disappoint. Anyone who has ever felt like a victim of their age will relate to its message and learn an invaluable lesson about coming to terms with your position in life no matter how old you are.

Runs through August 24th.  Tickets should be reserved online or by phone, and cost what you are willing to pay starting at a $10 minimum. For more information visit www.catastrophictheatre.com.  Photo by George Hixson.