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More Quickies: Hans Brinker, Wonderful Life, This is the Week That Is

hans brinker - interiorHANS BRINKER AND THE SILVER SKATES, Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, through January 31 — I read at the age of two and, like most children, was attracted to stories. Being a little boy, I was particularly drawn to stories featuring little boys, stories I’d act out in fantasy. My favorite of all was Mary Mapes Dodge’s “Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates,” a tale that took me to Holland’s Zuider Zee, and like another favorite, Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper,” featured a boy who remained confident, steadfast, and true even as he faced adversity and taunts from children who thought they were his social betters. My well-thumbed copy of “Hans Brinker” now sits on the top shelf of a crammed bookcase in the bedroom, as it happens, I occupied as a boy (and is now a Playbill repository). Alas, I did not climb up and fetch it down from its perch to prepare for Arden’s production of “Hans Brinker.” It would not have been necessary. Laura Eason’s script and Whit MacLaughlin’s creative and upbeat production were satisfaction enough, nostalgic and current. Geared for children, MacLaughlin’s production is direct and accessible while bringing home the humiliation Hans and his sister, Gretel, face and the warmth and assurance they find in each other. The Brinker story is a sad one leavened by the spirit Hans and Gretel maintain in spite of hardship. Their father was injured while participating in a heroic deed, one that involves the little Dutch boy that stands freezing to plug a flooding dike. He is debilitated to an extent he cannot work or even function normally in his household, where he’s cared for by his wife and children. His illness affects his memory so he cannot recall where he hid the family savings, 1,000 kroner, so the Brinkers live in poverty. Hans and Gretel are mocked by other children. No matter. They soldier on remembering the manners they learned and taking comfort from their own ingenuity and ability. Hans is a master wood carver, and he fashioned ice skates for him and Gretel out of wood. They are quite deft on these skates, so deft they are considered formidable contenders in an annual ice skating contest that yields its winner a pair of silver-bladed skates. Like Blanche du Bois, the Brinker children benefit from the kindness of others. One of the nicer children, Heidi van Gleck, gives Gretel the steel skates she outgrew. Hans wants to reject the gift out of pride, but Heidi assures him she is not being obsequiously charitable but generous and practical. Gretel was skate better on the metal skates she’s discarding, and if Gretel doesn’t take them, they’ll only go to waste. You see the way the story unfolds. Adversity is met with emotion, but matters settle when Hans, in particular, takes a realistic, ,long-term view of the situation. Hans is especially determined to convince a famous doctor to see and treat his father. Eason is remarkable in the way she weaves her tale and actually manages to make some passages more plausible and logical than Dodge did. Scenes involving the doctor and the missing 1,000 kroner somehow have more drama attached to them. MacLaughlin supplies a breezy production that brings outs the behavior of children in a natural way, so the sweetness that is integral to Dodge’s story is gratefully cut by the teasing and shunning of the Brinkers. The Arden always says it’s built on storytelling, and MacLaughlin’s “Hans Brinker” is a good example of the theater’s skill in bringing tales to life. Creativity is apparent immediately. David P. Gordon’s set has an endless blue sky for a backdrop and a stage area painted the same blue, clouds and all, but polished with a high sheen that gives the illusion of ice. Costumer Rosemarie E. McKelvey is just as inventive. She added inch-and-a-half pads of foam to the bottom of shoes, encased the pads, and painted them silver of gold so you get the sense of ice skates. The glossy floor allows for traction, so Hans, Gretel, Heidi, and the other children look as if their gliding along and can even take broad steps and slides on what Gordon easily makes you accept as ice. MacLaughlin does wonders in keeping the ice skating fun to watch, no matter how often you see it, and in making the races the children have, especially the competitive race for the silver skates, suspenseful and exciting. Meanwhile, he keeps the scenes in the Brinker home from seeming too dire or too treacly. Hardship is expressed, but so is hope and, most of all, so is love. You never see the Brinkers flag from taking care of their disabled father and husband, even when he becomes irascible or temperamental. Villainy, whether shown via the snobbery of some of the children, or the haughtiness of the doctor’s reluctant assistant, makes it mark without being too harsh or mean for children. Eason and MacLaughlin make the dismissive doctor’s aid, Vollenhoven, a bit comic in his snide treatment of Hans while the children seem like typical little beasts who lack the sensitivity or compassion to understand the Brinkers’ plight and who like the lord their alleged superiority over others. Most of the actors play dual roles, and the contrasts are amusing. Rachel Camp, for instance, goes from being the careworn Mrs. Brinker to the odiously obnoxious, Katrinka Vos, the meanest child in the village. Matteo Scammell moves entertainingly from playing the clumsy, accident prone, but kind Peter von Holp to the prickly Vollenhoven so completely, you’d think you were watching two different actors in the parts. Steven A. Wright personifies dignity, confidence, and humanity as the talented Dr. Boekman and then becomes a worthy henchman to the nasty Katrinka Vos. Ciji Prosser is lovely as the civilized, friendly, generous, and encouraging Heidi. She conveys both the right spirit of charity, genuine caring, and an honest desire to be the Brinkers’ friend. Ed Swidey is moving as Mr. Brinker who is too addled to realize the distress he is causing his family and who can go abruptly from being cross and demanding to being calm and fatherly. Brian Ratcliffe is a bright, resourceful Hans who gives in to some of his anger but always chooses the steadier, more noble course. You see Hans’s dedication to his family, especially his sister, and the dignity he musters when dealing with taunters. Lauren Hirte is a charmer as Gretel. You immediately feel affection for the character and want her to succeed and feel a part of the society whose disdain is all she’s known, as her father’s accident occurred while she was an infant. Ratcliffe and Hirte interact with that closeness that siblings have. They at time looks as if they reading the other’s thoughts and act like a team as much as individuals. In addition to providing a perfect background, Gordon’s set is strewn with windmills. Thom Weaver’s lights, especially when they focus intensely on the glossy floor, helps MacLaughlin establish the illusion of ice and cold, especially when a dark or purply background makes the white in the stage floor more apparent. Jay Ansill’s music enhances the occasion, and it’s interesting to see Ratcliffe or Camp sneak in to play the piano when Ansill needs to concentrate on a different instrument. Overall Grade: A-. Obtain tickets by calling 215-922-1212 or by visiting www.ardentheatre.org.

wonderful life -- interiorIT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A RADIO PLAY, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main Street, New Hope, Pa., through Sunday, December 27 — “It’s a Wonderful Life” was not the immediate Christmas staple “A Miracle on 34th Street” or “The Wizard of Oz” were. It caught up to its potential about 20 years ago, and thank goodness it did. Philip Van Doren Stern’s story radiates with a thriving, purposeful of life while not shying from trouble, depression, and other impinging situations that can keep life from being totally enjoyable. Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Frank Capra crafted Stern’s story into an enduring, and enduringly beloved screenplay that is a jumping-off point for Joe Landry’s “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play,” an adaptation that catches the spirit of the original and which is being presented with lively gusto at New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse. Combining a radio show and theatrical presentation on stage is not an easy matter. A director has to consider the time and emphasis needed to give the separate, but integrated, elements their proportionate due. Gordon Greenstein, working a few years back with Landry’s radio rendition of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” had the advantage of adding radio bits, such as commercials, into a musical that had more natural breaks and established singing, dancing, and broad character interpretation as part of the festivities. Hunter Foster, working a non-musical piece has different, tougher challenges such as how to suddenly insinuate unrelated, musical passages into a piece that doesn’t need them or lead into them naturally, even with the radio context. In general, he meets them. His “It’s a Wonderful Life” moves at a snappy pace and brings out all the cherished comedy, pathos, and sentimentality of the piece. You gladly follow along with all that happens to the Baileys and other denizens of Bedford Falls, N.Y. and wax nostalgic over individual sequences that have made “It’s a Wonderful Life” such a treasure. Foster concentrates more on the storytelling side of Landry’s adaptation than he does the idea that ‘Wonderful Life” is being performed as a radio show. On a large and overall scale, Foster’s production is a success because you leave the Playhouse having had a good time after seeing a satisfying show and feeling the warm, Christmasy glow it radiates. The best of “It’s a Wonderful Life” makes it way to the Bucks County stage, and an old favorite registers as entertainingly and affectionately as ever. The production is brisk and lighthearted while giving thoughtful moments time to convey their warmth or wisdom and, best of all, it elicits the glow you feel when all resolves itself positively for the Baileys, the angel Clarence, Violet Bick, and the folks of Bedford Falls. What Foster presents is good. That should be enough to say, and I debate even now whether to let matters rest with that verdict. The critic in me won’t let that happen. His compartment of my brain tells me to write on because throughout Foster’s production, I saw ways his show could be better. This matter of feeling satisfaction yet seeing elements that could be improved really does cause a conundrum for a critic. Going into the cavils may turn what is meant as a favorable review into one that is taken as negative. It isn’t that the cavils, despite the definition of that word, are unimportant or mentioned casually. No, they are justifiable criticisms that pinpoint how a good show can be better. It’s that they deal with refinements, emphases, and choices that might sound like complaints when they are observations that came when I was actually having fun and admiring the show. While admiring, I kept feeling that something was missing, two things really. When, in the midst of watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I figured out what they were, I wished, of all things, that Foster had more rehearsal time because a lot of what was absent might not me if proper time was allotted to get the basic show on its feet. Knowing that Foster took over for Greenstein (who is working on a show in London) late in the production period, I absolve him from any oversights, especially since his production was good. But I can’t hold these comments in, so here we go. The first cavil has to do with the integration of the radio and theatrical portions of Landry’s script. Foster may have time to concentrate on only one of them, and he made the right choice by putting the presentation of “It’s a Wonderful Life” ahead of all the radio business that surrounds it. Although the Bucks County programs lists the casts by the names of the radio performers they portray, instead of as the characters in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” only Garth Kravits, as an exuberant one-man sound effects unit, manages to establish a distinct personality as someone involved in the radio play. The rest of the cast chip in with effects — puttin g their hands in shoes and tapping away or sloshing water in a basin, or taking up an instrument as becoming part of the band — and they appear in the commercials between “Wonderful Life” segments, but even at the end of Foster’s production, the names Lana Sherwood or Jake Laurents would mean nothing to you. You wouldn’t be able to pick them out in a crowd while if someone said, George or Mary Bailey, or even George Bailey and Mary Hatch, you’d identify them right away. Kravits working away with water pitchers, ratchets, and whirligigs is the main sign a radio aspect is even included in this production. When it comes time for commercial breaks, the ads, though introduced with a line saying, “and now a word from our sponsor,” seem like interruptions instead of charming interludes. Landry carefully chose actual commercials from 1946, and some of them are genuinely funny in modern contest (“Pall Mall,” the cigarette most doctors recommend!”), but they have no impact because once Kevin Pariseau, as announcer Freddie Fillmore, informs us Act One of “It’s a Wonderful Life” will begin, we forget about radio. It is shunted to the sidelines, and even Kravits’s gleeful personality and showmanship with props can’t make it an equal partner with “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It’s the play that matters, and the play consumes all of our attention. Anything that takes away from it for long is doing a disservice. It’s fun to see how the effects are done and the visual elements, such as snowfall, a radio station will include for its studio audience, i.e. us, but none of it matters of to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and often detracts from it. I, for one, was impatient for the side show to end and the main event to resume. Even though the commercials are fun and were staged well. The other matter is intensity. Foster takes “It’s a Wonderful Life” at a brisk pace, so brisk that some expression and texture are lost. While I was zoning (zorening?) in on why Foster’s production was not having full impact, it dawned on me the actors are reading fluidly but not going deep into their lines. The story is coming through clearly. We understand all the characters and don’t feel as if we’re being cheated by the acting. Yet all stays at an efficient, superficial levels. The actors do not emote much. They rip and read, radio style. They tend to aim for character tics instead of the full meaning of what they are saying. A quick acting style seems to be the element Foster uses to inculcates radio in the facile blandness of his character’s line delivery. It is here he seems to take literally that this is radio show, not a theatrical performance. The truth is it’s both, and both must be served. Wayne Alan Wilcox, as George Bailey, turns on some emotion and mines deeper into his acting chops as George spirals into his personal crisis. In general, though, lines are said with a jauntiness more suited to broadcasting than to theater. Everyone establishes his or her character, but no one plays consistently in the manner they would if “It’s a Wonderful Life” was staged only for theater without the radio context. Lines were read clearly but in a manner that sounded more utilitarian than spoken in conversation. Dialogue took on a tonelessness that made it, if not perfunctory, into shorthand. It’s not, for instance, that you want Wilcox to go into paroxysms of disappointment when he thinks Mary might refuse his hand in favor of Sam Wainwright’s. But you want some reaction. The show is still mostly theater, and even it was pure radio, the studio audience would rate seeing George looking upset, or Mary being confused. You understand what is going on, but you supply the details and subtext. The production sails efficiently on the next sequence. The underplaying is not annoying, but the performances would be richer if there was more texture to them. Uncle Billy, for instance, doesn’t quite convey the level of his forgetfulness and creeping senility he needs to make a pivotal late scene as fraught with tension and as sympathetic as it might be. The moment lacks both the careful foreshadowing and the basis for feeling as sorry for Billy. We like George, do not feel his shame and discomfort and are merely miffed at him. Wilcox turns on some welcome theatrics in the closing scenes when George contemplates suicide, and Clarence shows him what life would be like if he was never born. His deeper, more sincere expression in these passages elevate Foster’s “Wonderful Life” to a new plane while showing what was lacking earlier. In this case, “better late than never” is the rule, and Wilcox helps being Foster’s staging to a moving, and rousing, finish. Garth Kravits, in addition to slamming doors and spinning ratchets, gamely takes on some of the smaller parts. Whitney Bashor makes an impression as Violet Bick and also as the Baileys’ ailing daughter, ZuZu. Kevin Pariseau conveys the venal, vindictive nature of the banker, Mr. Potter. Brandon J. Ellis scores best as an Italian restauranteur who shows gratitude to George for helping him stay in business. Maggie Lakis’s Mary is the epitome of the post-war, 40s woman, sweet and sensible at the same time. Overall Grade: B. Obtain tickets by calling 215-862-2121 or by visiting www.bcptheater.org.

TITW 2015 -- interiorTHIS IS THE WEEK THAT IS, 1812 Productions at Plays & Players, 1714 Delancey Street, Philadelphia, through Thursday, December 31 — Even more than its satire, which is sharp and plentiful in the 2015 rendition of 1812’s perennial, what impresses most in this production is the versatility and brightness of the cast, on the whole and individually. The art of the performer prevails even more than the art of the comic or gag writer. The troupe dances everything from a Mummers strut to Broadway zazz. They can play with polish or go for the low and obvious. Groaners are built into smart, thoughtful material that shows the news is being read, digested, and lampooned on a regular basis. You may not always agree with “This is the Week’s” point of view. It is certainly biased against Republican candidates, no matter who they are. But you see minds and talent at work and a perspective that might be fairer that it looks on the surface. Thank goodness for some perspective. It seems these days that so many people are Fox News- or MSNBC-driven parrots who repeat what the false pundits on those stations spout. (Melissa Harris-Perry? Let me get my hat and my knife.) You’ll see and hear some political correctness on the Plays & Players stage, but you’ll also see the p.c. spoofed grandly as Dave Jadico deftly plays the fall guy who keeps stepping into unforeseeable traps regarding others’ oversensitivity, lack of perspective, or high propensity of being offended. When Jadico refers to castmate Aimé Donna Kelly as Afro-American, she immediately corrects him, huffily stating she is, in fact, Afro-Cuban, as if he should know or as if there’s a difference considering Cuba is in America, and one of Kelly’s parents or grandparents is probably from the United States. Of course, Kelly is feigning outrage for “This is the Week’s” benefit, but the show’s cast has found fodder so perfect, it can convey both the absurdity of some thin-skinnedness the lack of respect some careless speech might contain. For instance, when one character pegs Jadico as Jewish, which he isn’t, because of his prominent nose (which, by the way, has never stopped him from being adorable, which is probably politically incorrect to note). 2015, being the year Presidential candidates jockey for position in primaries, certainly provides ammunition for the type of comedy “This is the Week” director Jennifer Childs seems to like best, that aimed at politics and its practitioners. “This is the Week” opens with a well-conceived and better executed spoof on campaign speeches. The bit purports to be a clever way to tell people to silence their gadgets and leave texting to more opportune occasions, but it deftly shows the styles candidates use to give the illusion they are saying something different when they are merely spouting the same crap with different rhetoric. You see the paradigms and buzzwords candidates employ so frequently and how empty, or transparent, their language is. The opening reminded me of a meeting I attended in which people were asked to give an opinion, which, in the state of the conversation should have been firm and definite, and began their pronouncement by saying “I can see both sides,” or “I see how this can go either way.” The younger the person, the more guilty they were of taking this approach. I was appalled. I wanted to begin my comments with, “Yeah, I can see both sides, and one of them is stupid.” I stayed diplomatic but remained amused at how others’ alleged diplomacy was expressed. I was irritated by form taking precedence over content and the need for people to sound are if they were being deliberative when they were just attempting to appear “nice.” The creeps! 1812 caught that egregious false, egregiously condescending note in political presentation, and it made the bit wise, and observant, as well as funny. One thing that was obvious about the current “This is the Week” is Jennifer Childs’s return to the editorial helm. Though leaning leftward, the material was generally more centrist and more aimed at overall humor than it was in the highly partisan, overstated “TITW” from last spring. Childs gets the tone and the movement of the show right. She and her colleagues supply their share of digs and satire, but it remains glint-eyed and categorically comic as opposed to clobbering and overly serious. This year’s cast seems aware there are many mortals who can be branded fools and gets its material from that. So much is outright funny in this production. Hilarious lines arrive on a regular basis, and these lines show both the sensibility of the writers and the knowledge of how to craft a joke. Sketch bits in the first half of “TITW” worked better and had more impact than the standard features, segments that repeat in every “TITW” that dominated the second. Over the past couple of theater seasons, few performers have demonstrated their abundant talent and versatility than Aimé Donna Kelly, but her annual “Yo, Bitches” section in “TITW” never works. Sure, you get the sense Kelly’s spoofing ignorant, uninformed TV talk hosts who put glitz and shopping above news and information, but the bit is too broad. One minute speaks for an hour, and after that minute, or possibly 40 seconds, you want the gambit to end. Sean Close, who does his best work to date in “TITW,” is a wonderful moderator of the news segments. Not all of Don Montrey’s quips worked or hit home. Some, of course, are primed to fail, so Close can look at the audience with a “I know it stank” or “Aren’t you particular?” stare. Dave Jadico has to find a way to refresh his “Person on the Street” gambit. It’s a clever idea, but it lacks punch and makes a patsy out of an audience member while having no satiric bite. Maybe Jadico should tape reaction to stories that will stay current on the actual street prior to each production. With all necessary waivers and disclaimers, of course. Or he should go the Jimmy Kimmel route and ask a preposterous question that exposes the idiocy and sheeplike character of the masses, such as “What do you think of Hillary Clinton wanting to abolish the Bill of Rights?” (a made-up question Kimmel once used to hilarious results). Of course, the bit that always works and is the anticipated highlight of all “TITWs” is Jennifer Childs as the sage of South Philly, Patsy. From the Philadelphia accent to the South Philly girl’s confusion of where Manayunk might be, from the funny attytude to the keen street wisdom, Patsy captures the essence of the Philadelphian, one who thinks he or she is as good as anyone and has as much right to talk or be someplace — not Manayunk — as anyone else, and one who has an opinion about everything. Childs has a great pattern, as Patsy announced someone asked her to comment on a matter and goes on to say, “That’s a very interesting question,” takes a moment to think, and continues with, “All’s I know is this,” before delivering a clever zinger framed perfectly in the logic and language of Patsy’s character. (One question this year. Why is Patsy pronouncing her name as “Potsy” instead of with the Philly flat “a” of “Paetsy?”) “TITW” was particularly hilarious when the cast donned wigs and fat suits to portray the 2016 Presidential contender field. Donald Trump, Chris Christie, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio all get their comeuppance. Who could resist taking jabs at Trump’s hairdo or Christie’s girth (made funnier by Jen Childs, who as Christie, looks wider than she is high)? Fiorina, represented by Jadico in a wig that accentuates his nose, took the greatest dig. She’ll have to return to “The View” to complain about it. It’s fun when the candidates dance it up. Speaking of dancing, the “TITW” crew is uniformly adept, but Justin Jain showed himself to be a wild card in the category. On a stage full of movers and shakers, his hoofing and hip action tags him as an Astaire in hiding. Alex Bechtel, whether supplying the music or doing a sketch, was excellent as usual. Lance Kniskern’ set and Lauren Perigord Kaisoglus’s costumes are terrific. This rendition of “This is the Week That Is” is one to savor. It shows sketch material is alive and vibrant and more that sharp minds can entertain even people who rarely agree with them. Overall Grade: B+. Obtain tickets by calling 215-592-9560 or visit www.1812productions,org.

 

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