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Theater Review: LAURA

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by Richard P. Buswold, Associate Critic for John Garcia’s THE COLUMN

Reviewed Performance 9/16/2017

Wow. That best sums up the performance I saw this past Sunday afternoon in the Sanders Theatre at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. Wow.

There are shows that are technical wonders and there are some that glorious affairs with actors singing and dancing often at the same time and then there are shows like this. An incredibly written script that relies heavily on the ability of the actors. A show like this, a murder mystery that will surprise you at the end, will only be effective if the actors are fully immersed in the play, the action/reaction and interplay between the characters. And let me tell you buddy, Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre has assembled an A++ ensemble for this production.

I really do not want to give away any spoilers so let me just sum up the plot this way. Set in an upper-class apartment in New York City in 1944, detective Mark McPherson has fallen in love with Laura Hunt. Problem is, Laura is dead, and he’s in charge of her murder investigation. From her portrait, her letters, her personal effects, and from his contacts with the three men who loved her, Mark has created an image of a woman tantalizingly real. As the story progresses, Mark discovers lies, infidelities, and hidden identities, all leading him into a labyrinthine search for Laura’s killer. Laura is a thrilling mystery in the film noir style played out in three acts. Now I pride myself on being able to figure out the murderer before the final scene. I do it so often that it drives my wife nuts. However, I did not figure this one out at all. Thinking back on the action leading up to the climax, I remembered things that should have pointed to the killer. Fear, utter surprise as things were revealed, statements made out of context were all used deftly by all the actors involved. Robert Banks as Waldo Lydecker, the pompous friend/benefactor of the deceased Laura was brilliant. I use that word a lot so let me expound on that. He was utterly stinking brilliant. The small details of his character, the ash flick at the back of a person he does not like, his sly delivery of sarcasm the completely believable reactions to situations on stage. Actually, one of the best performances I have seen in a while.

Laura Louise Smith as “a Girl” was completely spot-on with the nuances of her character that reveals the secrets that push the plot. Her side glances, facial expressions even the way she changed the gait of her walk on stage between situations was a clear indication of her thorough mastery of this character.

Brad Stephens convincingly portrayed the cop who knows he should become emotionally attached to his case and struggles when he realizes he is doing just that. His character was a little flat, but then, he is a detective who is not used to showing emotion so again, it was spot-on.

Sean Malloy as the love-struck teen enamored with Laura was maybe just a bit too old for the part but played as well as anybody could have. Andrew Manning as the fiancée, Shelby Carpenter, was powerful and precise as he was trying to hide certain things about Laura. Cynthia Daniels, Laura L. Jones, all the cast was just an impeccable assemblage of talent that could not have produced a better hour and a half of entertainment.

The unseen star of this production is Ryan Mathieu Smith. Ryan is the costume designer and every stitch of clothing on stage was perfectly parallel to the 1940s. I can remember seeing pictures of my mother in those dresses and coats. The men’s suits were tailored close to the forties style without being cliché ‘murder mystery’ stock. I could tell the time and research put into his efforts and the result was exceptional.

I truly, whole heartedly recommend seeing this show as it might be the best drama presented this year in the DFW Theatre scene.

LAURA plays through September 24th at the Sanders Theatre in the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, 1300 Gendy ST next to the Museum of Science and History in the Cultural District
Friday and Saturday—8:PM
Saturday and Sunday—2:PM

For more information or to purchase tickets go to:
www.thetart.org or call 682-231-0082

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Theater review: SHE LOVES ME

 – Ordinarily, going all the way to Budapest to see a good show would be too far to go.

But in the case of Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s current production of the musical She Loves Me, which is set in that East-European capital, the journey is more than worth it.

This 1963 musical by Joe Masteroff and Jerry Bock is based on one of the most frequently adopted pieces of literature in the 20th century. It began as the 1937 play Parfumerie by Miklós László, and served as the basis for three films: the romantic comedies The Shop Around the Corner(1940) and You’ve Got Mail (1998), and the musical, In the Good Old Summertime(1949).

But this more recent stage musical has proven to be one of the most enduring adaptations, having had a strong initial outing and a couple of revivals on Broadway, with still another slated for next year. Plus, it has been a frequent visitor to regional and community theaters since its debut.

Set in a shop dealing in perfumes and various female notions (of every type), She Loves Me tracks the halting romance between fellow employees Georg (Brad Stephens) and Amalia (Lauren Morgan). The pair fall for one another in the course of an anonymous correspondence, which was apparently one of the ways boys met girls in the story’s day. But, when they just happen to wind up working in the same perfumery, they develop a highly antagonistic relationship without knowing they are the people who so warmly call one another “dear friend” when putting pen to paper (something else people used to do).

Since the course of true love seldom runs smooth on the musical comedy stage, it takes them a few major misunderstandings and several delightful numbers to get their hearts in the right place. Their efforts in that direction receive little help from their fellow bath oil peddlers, all of whom have problems of their own.

So, given the durable track record of this story, it is no shock that the plot pulls you right along. But you may be surprised at the overall quality of all of the components of this production, which marks the debut of the highly-talented and widely-booked director Robin Armstrong with this company.

Just about everyone and everything in this show sparkles like fresh snowflakes. Stephens sings his role with gusto and a strong sense of character. Morgan, who is one of the founders of the company, lends a beautiful voice to her part that we too seldom hear in this company’s shows. Sarah Powell, as the shop girl Ilona, delivers her numbers in a manner that matches her striking and fiery red tresses.

The efforts of these leading characters are consistently equaled by the supporting players. Even the minor part of the head waiter at a restaurant where Georg and Amalia have an awkward rendezvous is delivered with great verve by Billy Betsill. Most of the other singers come through just as well. But Evan Faris, as the insecure clerk Sipos, needs to have more confidence in his voice and let it rip when his number is up.

Armstrong, who is admired for her work with madcap farces, does an excellent job in her maiden voyage with a musical. She brings a keen sense of comedy and motion to her staging that gloriously enlivens the material. And her vision of the piece is perfectly complemented by Karen Matheny’s inspired choreography. The bountiful fruits of their partnership is most apparent in the staging of A Romantic Atmosphere, one of the show’s best numbers in every regard, which also features the input of Kylie Frandsen for its tango moves.

The show’s set, by Morgan, her husband Jason Morgan and Keith Glenn, is almost a character unto itself. Its rolling parts are brilliant in their design and dazzling in their execution. The only knock is that the look is far too bare. The shop’s exterior, especially needs a sign, and the interior needs some wall decorations.

Also exceptional are the period costumes designed by Armstrong and Lauren Morgan (is there anything these women can’t do?) for this show set in 1937 before and through Christmas.

The primary shortcoming of the production is that it relies on a recorded score. But that fault is offset somewhat by the fact that we get to enjoy the show’s wonderful voices without amplification in the cozy confines of the Fort Worth Community Arts Center.

So, while there are just a few rough edges, there is a lot to love in this musical from a company far better-known for its works from the Bard and Jane Austen adaptations. Everything about this She Loves Me makes it easy to love it.

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They Think To Go Like Saints

Print vouchers for $2 off/ticket.

Print out a voucher for each ticket desired, present them at the theater and receive $2 off/ticket!

Rehearsals are well underway for my next project, The Crucible, a play by Arthur Miller and a classic of American drama. Opening September 12th and running through the 28th, the production re-teams me with director Allen Walker (The Curious Savage, Hay Fever) and launches Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre’s second season. I will perform the role of John Proctor.

Salem, Massachusetts, 1692. When a farmer’s wife is falsely accused of witchcraft by her former serving girl, the threads of this Puritanical society begin to unravel. Class envy and long-held grudges erupt as it suddenly becomes fashionable for neighbor to accuse neighbor of trafficking with the Devil.  Can John Proctor save his wife’s life, along with his own good name, before the fires of bigotry and deceit consume their world? This gripping drama, which Arthur Miller wrote as a condemnation of McCarthyism in the 1950s, is still a timely parable for our contemporary society.

Tickets may be purchased online at www.thetart.org or by calling the box office at 682-231-0082.

UPDATE: You may also purchase tickets at the theater and receive a discount.  Simply print out as many ticket vouchers as needed and present them at the door for $2 off each ticket.  Vouchers are only valid at the box office and cannot be used for tickets purchased online.

Reviews of The Crucible:

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Playwright to Attend Performance

Brad Stephens in HOPE & GRAVITY

Brad Stephens in Circle Theatre’s HOPE & GRAVITY

Hope and Gravity playwright Michael Hollinger will attend the Saturday, July 12th evening performance at Circle Theatre with a “talk back” immediately following the show.  The audience will have an opportunity to ask questions about his newest work, a non-conventional play consisting of a series of interconnected one-acts presented out of chronological order.  The Circle Theatre production is only its second professional staging.

Since opening on June 21st, Hope and Gravity has enjoy a warm reception from audiences and critics alike.  Punch Shaw of the Star-Telegram praises the play for its “rich and funny” dialogue, noting “there are no weak performances.”  Nancy Churnin of the Dallas Morning News enjoys “Harry Parker’s smart direction”, while David Novinski of TheaterJones finds it “instantly likeable”.  Elaine Plybon of The Column Awards exclaims, “It is always refreshing to see a new play, but I found this one definitely worth seeing again and again.”

Just as an elevator starts and stops on random floors, nine different stories are connected by a simple twist of fate. This nonlinear play travels backward and forward in time as each character experiences the highs and lows of relationships and chance encounters. Their universal quest for life, love and happiness results in both comedy and tragedy. As the play draws to its inevitable closing, two strangers must decide whether or not to risk taking a momentous leap of faith.

Circle Theatre’s mission is the advocacy of contemporary plays rarely seen in Dallas/Fort Worth. Hope and Gravity will run June 19th through July 19th. Visit Circle Theatre’s website for showtimes and tickets!

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Immaculate Conception of The Big Picture

The cast of HOPE & GRAVITY Skype with playwright Michael Hollinger prior to rehearsal.

I am currently in rehearsals for Hope and Gravity, a new play by Michael Hollinger which will have its second professional staging at Circle Theatre.  The production reteams me with director Dr. Harry Parker who directed me in Company two years ago.  After meeting Hollinger via Skype during our first read-through, the cast and I have dug into rehearsals which have been full of discovery and laughs.  I’m anxious to see where we go next and excited to get the play on its feet and in front of an audience.

Just as an elevator starts and stops on random floors, nine different stories are connected by a simple twist of fate.  This nonlinear play travels backward and forward in time as each character experiences the highs and lows of relationships and chance encounters.  Their universal quest for life, love and happiness results in both comedy and tragedy.  As the play draws to its inevitable closing, two strangers must decide whether or not to risk taking a momentous leap of faith.

Circle Theatre’s mission is the advocacy of contemporary plays rarely seen in Dallas/Fort Worth.  Hope and Gravity will run June 19th through July 19th.  Visit Circle Theatre’s website for showtimes and tickets!

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T.A.R.T. and The CURIOUS SAVAGE

Poster – The CURIOUS SAVAGEI’m pleased to announce I have accepted an offer to perform in Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre‘s upcoming production of The Curious Savage.  Written by John Patrick, the second production of TART’s inaugural season is slated to be directed by Allen Walker and scheduled to run May 9 – 25, 2014.  I will play the part of Hannibal.

When Ethel Savage’s husband passes away shortly after the end of World War II, leaving her the family fortune of ten million dollars, she decides to create a memorial fund in his honor – a fund to help people make their foolish dreams come true.  Her grown step-children, however, have other plans for the money and commit Mrs. Savage to a sanitarium until she gives up her crazy scheme – unaware that she has already sold control of the family industries, converted the money into negotiable bonds, and buried them.  Hilarity ensues as Mrs. Savage sends them on wild goose chases to see how far they’ll go to make fools of themselves.  Meanwhile, the gentle patients of “The Cloisters” teach Mrs. Savage that the virtues of generosity and kindness have not entirely been lost in a world that at times seems only motivated by greed and dishonesty.

Visit www.thetart.org for further information and to purchase tickets.

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Best Actor in a Play, Equity

Best Actor Column Award 2014The 15th Annual Column Awards Gala was held Monday night at the Granville Arts Center in Garland, Texas.  Brad Stephens received the trophy for Best Actor in a Play, Equity for his performance as Alan Raleigh in Circle Theatre’s 2013 production of God of Carnage.  This is Stephens’ third Column Award victory.

Hosted by Executive Director/Producer and Founder John Garcia with guest hostess and Broadway star Rachel York, the event brought together the entire DFW theater community to honor excellence and celebrate the theatrical arts.

The Column Awards honors excellence in theater throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth theater community, both in Equity and Non-Equity theater companies.  This marks their 13th year uniting and celebrating the accomplishments of all artists who bring to life the art of theater.

Nominations are made by the over 22,000 readers who subscribe to The Column.  Practically everyone and anyone who is involved in DFW theater is a subscriber as well as those who love to attend and support this beautiful art.  Thus, those nominated have been chosen not only by the very peers with whom they work but also the very audiences for whom they perform.

The Column Awards is also a major fundraiser gala for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, a charity they have supported since year one.  They have raised & donated close to $70,000.00 to BC/EFA to date. The Column Awards is the only awards organization in the entire United States that donates all money raised (after expenses) from ticket sales of the gala to BC/EFA.  The Column Awards has been very honored to have been acknowledged by the national media, BC/EFA, Actor’s Equity Association, and the Broadway community for their fundraising efforts.

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Many Cooks, Many Laughs

Cast of TOO MANY COOKS at Circle Theatre, running October 17 – November 16, 2013.With two weekends left in its run, Circle Theatre’s hilarious production of Too Many Cooks is enjoying sold-out performances, uproarious laughter, and standing ovations.  Strong word-of-mouth and stellar reviews are driving ticket sales.  Seats for the remaining eight performances are going fast.  The show takes its final bow Saturday, November 16, 2013.

“If you could bottle this kind of comedy, I’d take a case,” raves TheatreJones critic Jan Farrington.  Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia’s The Column Online, recommends the farce as “a great example of its theatrical genre and a splendid way to watch eight actors finely adept at their craft.”  Clark finds favor in every cast member .  Of Brad Stephens, she writes:

“Always pulling his uniform into place, Stephens made [Constable] Effing the forthright, upstanding, tee totaling officer he is supposed to be. In a farce such as Too Many Cooks, that kind of character only leads to hilarity and Stephens brought it in style.”

For information and to purchase tickets, go to www.circletheatre.com or call the box office at 1-817-877-3040. You may also go in person to the Circle Theatre box office at 230 W. 4th Street, between Houston and Throckmorton, in downtown Fort Worth.  Tickets range from $20 – $35 depending on the day of performance. Senior, student, military, KERA, Press Pass, S.T.A.G.E. and group discounts are available.

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TOO MANY COOKS Rehearsals Begin

TOO MANY COOKS at Circle TheatreI’m very excited to announce I have accepted a role in Circle Theatre’s upcoming production of Too Many Cooks.

Written by Douglas E. Hughes and Marsha Kash, the comedic play begins rehearsals tonight with DFW’s “Queen of Farce” Robin Armstrong directing the mayhem.  I will be playing the role of Hamilton X. Effing, a Dudley Do-Right type, Constable for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police

It’s 1932 in Niagara Falls, Canada, where the rum-running business is at its peak. In the aftermath of the Crash, Irving Bubbalowe and his daughter, Honey, have risked everything they have to open a new gourmet restaurant. When their star – the renowned singing chef François LaPlouffe – fails to appear, tonight’s grand opening is suddenly placed in jeopardy. However, when unemployed chef Frank Plunkett wanders in looking for work, Honey persuades him to masquerade as the missing LaPlouffe. The beleaguered Bubbalowe, meanwhile, also has to contend with Chicago gangster Alfonse Feghetti and his sidekick who have come looking for an illegal shipment of booze that, unbeknownst to Bubbalowe, has found its way into his basement. In addition, Bubbalowe has to keep at bay the hot-blooded Immigration officer Veronica Snook, on the trail of the vanished chef, as well as a suspicious teetotalling Mountie who is ready to arrest Bubbalowe for both murder and bootlegging. Madness ensues and Bubbalowe and the others create a hornet’s nest of fabricated stories and identities as they try valiantly to save the restaurant – and themselves – from both the gangsters and the law.

Circle Theatre’s mission is the advocacy of contemporary plays rarely seen in Dallas/Fort Worth.  Too Many Cooks will run October 17th through November 16th.  Visit Circle Theatre’s website for showtimes and tickets!

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Architecture and Theater Set Design

re-blogged from Stephen B. Chambers Architects, Inc.

Ghost Sonata takes place in a mystical dream world through which mortals wander before reaching the kingdom of death in afterlife (Scenic Painter: Linda Noland)

The GHOST SONATA takes place in a mystical dream world through which mortals wander before reaching the kingdom of death in afterlife.
(Scenic Painter: Linda Noland)

As a boy, I was thrilled with an invitation to ride with my friend, Jimmy Wolf, to the Texas State Fair on Elementary School Fair Day. His father had a workshop/studio on the fairgrounds in what later became the Women’s Museum. Jimmy and I could just ride through the gates of the fair with his dad, no tickets necessary. Little did I know that when the day was over, I would be more fascinated with the studio and shop of Peter Wolf, the renowned theater set designer, than the fair itself. The old painted sets from South Pacific, Oklahoma, and others were stored in his immense workspace. His craftsmen were busy preparing sets for productions that I could only imagine.

Revelations of the characters' past lives form the action of the play and themes relate mainly to secrets, illusions, disappointments and tragedies of life.

Revelations of the characters’ past lives form the action of the play and themes relate mainly to secrets, illusions, disappointments and tragedies of life.

Like other Dallasites, my first introduction to theater was through the Dallas Summer Musicals. Up close, these sets looked like cartoons. It was hard for me to understand how billboard-sized illustrations could appear to be so realistic during the musicals. What magic transformed the two-dimensional flats into a South Pacific island in WWII, another place and time? This experience may not have had an influence on my career in architecture. But, I certainly see the connection today between my architectural practice and the design of theater sets.

I was reminded of this youthful amazement when I saw the sets for The Ghost Sonata, an upcoming play by August Strindberg at the Undermain Theatre. Stephen B. Chambers Architects, Inc. is a sponsor of the Theatre and our Marketing Director, Stephanie Chambers, is on the Board of the Undermain. We read in the newsletter that Strindberg’s Chamber Play will have phenomenal set design. I was curious to walk through the set and see what it might be like. I grabbed my camera and headed downtown to the theatre’s home under Main St. in the Deep Ellum area of Dallas.

Paintings on the floor assist the audience in the suspension of reality, catapulting them into the dream-logic of the play.

Paintings on the floor assist the audience in the suspension of reality, catapulting them into the dream-logic of the play.

Artistic Director Katherine Owen graciously greeted and led me on an impromptu tour of the set. The architecture of the scenery for The Ghost Sonata drew me in immediately and opened the door into Strindberg’s world, a surrealistic setting far removed from downtown Dallas. This creative theater company makes their basement locale of structural columns and low ceilings suddenly disappear in innovative tales through the immensely talented assemblage of set, lighting, costume designers, directors, and actors and top-notch construction team.

The themes in Ghost Sonata relate mainly to secrets, illusions, disappointments and tragedies of lifePaintings on the floor assist the audience in the suspension of reality, catapulting them into the dream-logic of the playI know little of the art, science or history of stage set and lighting design, but deeply feel its relationship to architecture. In many ways, the theatrical scene designer is much like a conventional architect. The designer must make real what only exists in his/her imagination and provide the vision in a graphic form for use in building the sets. Both architects and set designers use a flat page of two-dimensional construction drawings to communicate what the three-dimensional structures will be. Set design has a similar ability to elicit specific emotions and create mood with the use of perspective, space, scale, light, color, detail and proportion. It helps to define the characters and propel the ideas of the playwright. There is a language in theater scenic art that signals sophisticated clues to the viewer. Through its subtext it telegraphs context, location, relationships, time, mood and space.

The GHOST SONATA Set DetailDifferent from architecture, scenic designers must knowingly create environments that have a brief lifespan, are moveable, do not require the same rigor in construction, and are generally viewed from only one direction. Theater sets do not need to have complete integrity in the structures that they are meant to depict. Stage design and lighting create the illusion of three-dimensionality and can manipulate time and place. Audiences will not walk around and through rooms to experience the massing, proportion, mood and emotions its spaces create. The set designers develop a world for the play, which becomes a real construction project, ultimately introducing their imagined world to the audience. The skill of the lighting designers, directors, actors, and costumers complete the transformation.

The GHOST SONATA SetThough written in 1907, Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata is highly unusual modern theater in many regards. The relatively swift three-scene structure is based on sonata form, rather than traditional theater construction. It creates an atmosphere by repeating various themes, rather than developing a story through conventional portrayals of character and a linear plot. The Undermain’s interpretation and production of this play will, no doubt, thrill serious Dallas theater followers. But, the sets and lighting for this production, for me, stand alone as compelling art.

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