Everyone's a Critic, Season 2: The Reviews Are In

This is it. 

The KCACTF2 OCI critics, on very, very little sleep, focused the last of their remaining energies on a previous review, crossed their fingers and hit "send." I'm reading through these all day and announcing a winner at IUP tonight, on this blog tomorrow. Over 2,000 visitors read the students' work online this week and I hope some of you will offer your choice for a winner and alternate. The winner gets to attend the national Kennedy Center event this spring, and if their work wins against the top critics in every other region, they get an all-expenses-paid trip to the Eugene O'Neill Critics Institute this summer. 

These reviews represent the range of shows the students saw here in a whirlwind three days--seven productions in all. But they also represent a massive amount of hard work. Check our Twitter list to peek in on some of our wee-hour conversations; check below to see the fruits of all that late-night labor.

Shot!
Shawn Arnold

How can a just society operate when violence is the only means of communication? Temple University strives to examine this question in their new drama set in turbulent North Philadelphia (known as "Beirut"). Shot! explores how violence can be prevented and a caring community reestablished.

Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon's play is a grab-bag of material examining the violent culture of northern Philly. Including poems, rap, videos, and interviews, it creates a night of experimental, innovative theatre that pushes its edgy voice through vignettes. Gangsters vs. warriors, young mothers, the police, education, alcohol and drugs, and the homeless share a Zen-like balance topically. The play's core, however, contains a wealth of interviews that paint a rich image of the real people of Beirut.

The citizens of North Philadelphia are genuinely brought to life through the ensemble. To create this sense of specificity, director Douglas Wager emphasized the importance of the interviews. Not merely become other human beings, the cast conducts their dialog as if answering interview questions. The importance of every little "um" or "ah" is clear. By focusing on the actual community of Beirut, Wager has successfully transported them on stage.

Williams-Witherspoon literally employs her own narrative voice in the piece to mixed results. In some occasions her poetry vividly encapsulates the moment. Her valorous verse on the difference between a gangster and a warrior provides a stirring example on how to fight for one's cause when, "many are dying, few people are trying." Other times, sadly, her meter becomes overwhelming. While riffing about young women with babies, Williams-Witherspoon slides into a series of clichés: "non- existent sugar daddies" and "children with children."

Jessica Wallace's visually stunning lighting design inspires awe with its bold color choices and stark images. Ron Ron, an up and coming rapper, is at the end of his rope. Pointing a gun at himself, he says, "click." Abruptly the lights cut to black, and as he lay dying, a screen of crimson floods the backdrop.

A desolate wasteland, Kyle Melton's set design reflects North Philly's poverty. The choice to use three simplistic, worn stoops and doorways, however, also fosters a sense of community within the play in scenes such as when the elderly generation is reminiscing of the old days.

Shot! -- with its multiple performance levels - takes a look at the raw life of North Philadelphia. In the words of Williams-Witherspoon, many youths are, "killing each other over garbage." The play presents many ways this violence can be combated. Perhaps by raising the price of bullets. Perhaps more measures to inform the community. Perhaps if more Americans stand up to the racial intolerance that is blatantly still present. There still is a shot at hope, "We need more love, we need more understanding."  

Home
Amy Asendorf

Forget a click of the heels and a wave of the wand; there's a new homecoming vehicle on the rise, and this one requires no ruby-studded mantras. Arcadia University's production of Samm-Art Williams' Home rekindles the human faith in a promised land, proving that the long-awaited fields of green are not a destination, but a discovery.

Home first premiered in 1979 as a production of the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), whose  mission of developing plays by African-American writers achieved instantaneous acclaim. Home proceeded to earn a Tony nomination for Best Play in 1981. As the 70's were wrought with African-American political defiance sparked by stagnant Civil Rights efforts, the piece was eschewed by the Black radical movement, yet otherwise enjoyed widespread fame. Praise for this play has not since dwindled, and in the past couple years America has witnessed its resurfacing popularity.

The stubborn soul-aching by Jamal Douglas' farmer Cephus Miles erected the possibility for a man to be devoid of religion, yet rich in faith. The devil himself must have been summoned as Douglas flirted with the memory of his Sunday dice games in the graveyard with an expression of youthful disobedience and limberly slunk to ignite the sparks of affection in his love, Pattie Mae (Briana Pope-McBride). But even amidst these games, Douglas humbly deflated his pocket of self-worth as he crouched to raise odes for the crickets and birds above those for himself.

Two female muses, Pope-McBride and Taysha Canales as Woman Two, glorified the soulful direction of Mark Wade with explosive guardian-angel-on-the-shoulder flashbacks to the human blessings along Cephus' quest for home. Somehow, despite Cephus' stabs at God's vacation to Miami (leaving him helpless and forlorn) and the slurred syllables with which the women's damning judgments were delivered as he drank and gambled, Cephus continued to keep the faith kite aloft through God's gracious gift of perseverance. Together as ensemble, the trio balanced the duality of belting lyrical poetry and hip-jiving to jazzy reader's theater.  

Unfortunately, the lighting by Robin Stamey detracted from the storyline toward the beginning of the piece with completely unwarranted transitions between artistic visions: imagine a friend detailing a lengthy dream while shifting seats every thirty seconds, and a similar effect is attained.

Arcadia's set, designed by Chris J. Kleckner, centered on a ramshackle rancher resembling a deck of cards in need of a good shuffling. Angled wedge platforms and wooden crates were so versatile that they at once fostered a downtown bar and a Sunday school classroom. Most pivotal to the play's theme, however, was the looming telephone pole and wire that boldly convened to form a cross. Evidently, God had not slipped away to Miami after all.

With the recent inauguration of President Obama, the promises of the Civil Rights movement for which the NEC sought have been fulfilled at last. In effect, Home has again surged in popularity, testifying to the power of faith among all people to reclaim a home that was always theirs from the start.

Shot!

Nicholas Barilar

On the steps before a green door of a ghetto home sit photos, stuffed animals, and lit candles as part of a public display of love and mourning. Around the steps, people are gathered:  some hold each other, some stare in bewilderment.  At the top of the steps stands a young man - arms folded and eyes closed. A mother weeps and as she cries a cascade of crimson envelops the proceedings.  With a sudden pivot of the head, the mourners spit a single word that rips through the heart with the cold burn of an icicle:  Shot!

Temple University's production consists of Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon's poetry combined with verbatim interviews of the characters presented.  The first act introduces a brief history of Philadelphia's violent street history and segues into stories concerning the demons of their homes - poverty, drugs, "babies with babies," etc.  Finally, it calls for change.

Williams-Witherspoon also leads the ensemble in the show.  Her play presents a gift to the world and an effective motivator; however, her poetic presence on stage conveys the classic strutting with pride saloon-cowboy rather than a voice of hope for the people.

While some of this poetic dialogue might be effective, such as discussing how men leave their girls with little more than a tattoo upon their breasts, much of it is unnecessary, such as the long speech about the difference between a warrior and a gangster - something that is not brought up for the rest of the play. If cuts could be made, the slightly dragging two-act could be consolidated into a single sitting of a clearer and quicker moving play. 

The acting of the ensemble might be more genuine than Williams-Witherspoon, but it is the fact that they are students that make them so effective - within their age group the play most pushes for a radical change. During a section entitled "Anatomy of a Bullet" the students portray doctors and describe the horrific surgical procedure to treating a bullet wound with the similar effect of an Iraqi Muslim describing the waterboarding process - instilling a moment of awkward discomfort that twists the stomach.

Director Douglas C. Wager employs excellent use of his lights, designed by Jessica Wallace, bringing sharp color changes about quickly. A foreboding red lingers, a gunshot rings out with a blinding white light and fades to a now bloody red. 

The simple set, by Kyle Melton, consists of a stage-length long platform upon which stand three different doors with stoops leading to the floor of the stage - illustrating the broken displacement and near ruination of home in this war-torn neighborhood - in addition to telephone cords that run above with a pair of shoes flung over the cord. 

At its heart, Shot! calls for change to a city plagued by violence, drugs, homelessness, and other evils. One of the doctors says, "Once it becomes alright you become a part of the problem." Shot! demands that "alright" not come for those that are lucky enough to witness the play.

A Year with Frog and Toad

Robby Bassler

Wake up!  Come on, hibernation is over!  No it doesn't matter what your age is, because Willie Reale's adaptation of Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad series titled A Year With Frog and Toad presented by Indiana University of Pennsylvania transports both young and old on an adventure as large as your wildest imaginations.

A waterfall of shrill trumpets, finger-snapping bass riffs, and bells that turn into swirling leaves (Musical direction by Tom Octave) propel director Rob Greta's paint by imagination environment.  Frog and Toad (Sean Barrett and Joe York) pop out of two oversized matchbox beds, with a puddle-splashing ode about meeting in each other's dreams during hibernation.  Despite awkward pauses before, during, and after various critters' swan songs, playful singing voices lure even the most lethargic slugs to frolic about in a pool of catchy musical slime.

Frog and Toad outshine expectations from the most dedicated toad-toting toddler or teen.  Set and costume designer Dan Iwaniec flies the enormous children's book cover that starts and ends the show into the sky to clear a path for Frog and Toad.  Wise, dry-humored Frog chuckles to himself as his best pal Toad runs with the staggering gate of Chris Farley across the stage and up into the audience, trying as hard as he can to fly his big red kite.

As Toad as Frog's unique friendship takes flight, Frog accepts Toad's quirks as Frog squeezes the murky lake water out of the spongy sandwiches that Toad used as a floatation device.  Iwaniec dresses this loveable, laughable Toad in a Dr. Seuss-like polka-dotted bathing suit equipped with 1920's swimmer cap.  Doo-wop birds change scenery in costumes with lace wings and a feather hat to guide the silly pair of amphibians in discoveries comparable to entering a new room of Willy Wonka's Charlie Factory.

No matter how great, a journey is not complete without its obstacles.  Woodland creatures squint hard at their poorly lit path guided by spotlights meandering around stage like lightning bugs.  Brown blobs topped with a light bulb (supposedly moles) scurry around stage, content with digging small holes to temporarily trap adventurers.  The letter-toting mail-snail crawls onstage with enjoyable dialogue, but often delays Frog and Toad with her lackadaisical comedic timing.

Toad and Frog's platonic book-ending in which they summarize the action of the entire show patronizes adults and children but stands out as an exception for the play as a whole.  Throughout the rest of the adventure, jokes about birds getting the flu and cookbooks titled Betty Croaker raises expectations for all children's theatre.  So for all those parents that would rather be hibernating, use your children as an excuse to lick this toad and ride out the multi-colored shockwave of fun.

Shot!

Michael Cook

Guns, teen pregnancy, and drugs.  Is that the latest news report on what is destroying our nation?  Shot! is a 'docu-drama' performed by Temple University which addresses this matter in regards to the North Philadelphia neighborhood known as Beirut.  This play had an unconventional genesis which helped shape it into a unique production: Eugene Martin, Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, and Douglas C. Wager are all credited with conceiving the show. 

Shot was created through interviews and videos shot of several residents of Beirut by residents. This neighborhood is located very close to Temple University's campus which allowed for a lot of interaction between the production and residents. 

The play explored how a neighborhood descended into the place it now is, and leaves audiences with a sense of community and a wish to get closer to their neighbors and look after each other. To say that this is the work of a playwright is to spit in the faces of the many people who were interviewed, and the actors who then recreated those interviews in a brilliant naturalistic manner. While it was somewhat 'controversial' that 'multimedia' was used in this performance, it was used in a manner like some theatre practioners as early as the early 20th century did. 'Controversial' in the manner that every technological innovation to theatre is met with initial resistance and several theatre practioners are adamantly against it.  The 'multimedia' aspects of t he show were very well done and always seemed to re-enforce what was going on in the play. 

The actors played many different characters, and aside from the professor who helped write the play  (Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon) it is difficult to put names and faces together, which helped solidify the fact that these events could happen anywhere and aren't specific to North Philadelphia.  Characters were recreations of actual people which created an element of reality of the show. 

The play was also complemented by a minimalist set by Kyle Melton. The set used very little to establish the front porches of three houses in a neighborhood, but it worked out quite nicely. There were three doors and three sets of stairs leading up to a slightly higher platform. 

All of these elements helped contribute to the idea that this just isn't about North Philadelphia, I personally am from rural Northwest Ohio so a lot of the play was lost to me. However, some of the play was so universal that I didn't have to be from Philadelphia to grasp what was going on with the play to fully understand it and feel for the characters. 

This was the first production of this play at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (it has made script changes since it's debut) and it is safe to say that this is not the last time this show will be seen by anyone.

Shot!

Mark Costello

Please, Douglas C. Wager: it's time to upgrade to a better toolbox.

The director of 2007's In Conflict has returned to the banality of mass media talking points to harness yet another American tragedy: the poverty and crime of North Philadelphia. Temple University's Shot! is In Conflict moved from Afghanistan and Iraq to Broad and Diamond. Soldiers' blank verse has become citizens' Def Jam slam poetry. Men and women crippled by careless government still die stagnant deaths.

The crimson projections and lackluster tableaux of In Conflict are two more albatrosses that have clung to Wager's neck as he developed the mise en scene for Shot! Again, we see the entire cast repeatedly lined up, left to right, facing the audience in confrontation. Blood and figurative (or real) explosions abound in both works and sadly, both are as intriguing as a conversation overheard on the C-bus.

This piece's failure comes from Wager's reliance upon a parasitic art form. Docudrama culls together snippets of interviews, histories, and newspaper articles to create a script from which drama is supposed to magically arise. In many instances, such as In Conflict or Robbins' Dead Man Walking, these works are about as engaging as a staged scrapbook.

Much of the first and the entirety of the second act drag accordingly. Protean actors wander back and forth, up and down, speaking the words of real North Philadelphians. Wager's staging has men and women face downstage while singing the horrors of malt liquor, treating a serious problem for the African-American community like a hokey after-school special with an easy moral. The candor of the actors' voices takes on a lightness that betrays their would-be pain.

Thankfully, the production manages to rise under the power of Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon's writing and performance. Decked in loose corn-rows and an understated black pant-suit, Williams-Witherspoon commands awed silence with the practiced stride of a feared schoolmarm. When she screams: "No one can lift themselves up by their bootstraps!" the room erupts, and in that moment she could sell hot coal in hell. Her poetic testament can knock down the giants who keep her town starved in their shadows while raising her neighbors to the status of supermen.

The production is at its strongest when Wager departs widely from the work he's done before. Kyle Melton's inspired three stoop set transforms slowly into a roadside altar in memoriam of a boy slain by circumstance; the boy's mother collapses on it, wailing, sorrow hanging thick in the air like Philadelphia humidity. Would that this passion were the norm, but sadly, the play is far more concerned with telling us about the hell these characters live through. Rarely does it let us see.

Shot! loses its deeply felt message in Wager's inability to make art of reality. As it is, his unwillingness to trade in his old bag of tricks makes for a stale piece, sometimes melodramatic, rarely awe-inspiring, without much to brag about outside of Williams-Witherspoon's magic.

Please, Mr. Wager: revamp your toolbox.

A Year with Frog and Toad

Connor Davis

"Crisp, but not overly brittle, just a scintilla of spice, and cunningly soft in the middle." Claims the delightful Frog as he relishes a fresh cookie from his pal Toad. Coincidentally, Frog is also describing Indiana University Pennsylvania's production of A Year with Frog and Toad. Based on the classic children books by Arnold Lobel, this cheery musical chronicle the events of two best friends through one year.  Warmly acted and agreeably sung, this production was as tasty and enjoyable as the first bite of a chocolate-chip cookie right out of the oven.

Under the delicate and careful direction of Rob Gretta, the small ensemble remains true to the script and does not favor an adult or children's audience. With Robert Reale's score, which ranges from brisk jazzy melodies to breezy country tunes, and Willie Reale's witty libretto this production neither plays down to a child nor flashes a wink to an adult.

At the center of this production were a charming and playful Sean Barret as Frog and the sincere and sometimes doleful Joe York as Toad. Both embodied their characters fully, keeping the audience engaged through inside jokes, and amusing sight gags. Take a look at Toad's outrageous swimsuit, and Mr. Barret's amusing leaps onto his companion's shoulders. The ensemble works hard, and seamlessly with the audience to tell a warm story of friendship and devotion.

Brandon Beale & Anthony Lombardi's lighting design does a fine job in using bright yellows, and cool blues to depict the various seasons. However, their use of follow spots is questionable. The spotlights washed out the actors' faces, and took away from the rich colors thety created for the atmosphere. Shockingly, there were moments when actors could not find their light, and could not be seen by the audience. It was the one area of this production that appeared burnt and overcooked.

Charming costumes by Dan Iwaniec provided depth to characters, with bright colors and vibrant patterns that leap off of the stage like a children'spop-up book. Carefully and expertly detailed, such as Frog's sharp striped suit, with green leggings, and Toad's polka dotted suit, complete with converse sneakers. The costumes provided another layer for actors to dig deeper into their amphibian characters.

Zipping along at a quick 90 minutes, this delightful musical comedy reminds audience members that simple is better. Many contemporary musicals today try and boast flashy technical elements to wow the audience over, yet contain hollow librettos and scores that are consistently unmemorable. It is refreshing to spend time with an airy piece of theater that plays homage to the good old days of musical theater when artistic integrity trumps financial success. A Year with Frog and Toad is deliciously consumed from first bite to last and profoundly memorable long after it has been fully digested.

Home

Valerie Gibbs

Worn wood, chipped paint, and a sunken porch might not sound much like home, but hasn't it been said that "home is where the heart is?" Well, heart is definitely found in Arcadia University's Home, by Samm-Art Williams. This classic, performed on Broadway back in 1980, has been brought back to life by director Mark Wade who inspires three actors to make the lives and stories of over 25 characters beat as one. As the program states, Home, a story originally created for an audience dealing with the effects of the Civil Rights movement and in the midst of the Vietnam War, is "a stirring portrait of what it means to embrace the future while honoring the legacies of the past." 

Young African American Cephus Miles struggles to find himself during the racial crossroads in American history. He was born to be a farmer, but soon hears the echoing call of the city to hop on the subway and experience the high life. Actor Jamal Douglas portrays Cephus with conviction and authentic passion and holds nothing back. Douglas has an amazing understanding and awareness of his body and uses it to emphasize his every word. When Cephus falls to alcoholism in the city and comes to the realization that he has lost everything he has ever known, he collapses to the ground and emits one scream containing all the elements of anger, pain, frustration, regret, and more. 

Supporting cast members Briana Pope-McBride and Taysha Canales also let the emotions of the text stir them to dancing, shouting, whispering, running around in a fury, or standing still staring off into space. Both speak with their entire body, not just their mouths. Emotion is not solely heard in their voices; it is freely personified for all to see.  The show's heartbeat never slows, and music, dancing, singing, and poetic language fill the stage with an immense fever that cannot be ignored. 

The set is comprised of a small deteriorating farmhouse center stage and two angled platforms on either side, often transformed into various locations such as a bar or Sunday school classroom. The openness provides a blank canvas for hues of emotion to shine through. Lighting designer Robin Stamey captures the essence of every moment presented on stage. The moment Cephus' friend is killed in Vietnam, the screen burns a crimson red and a single white light beams on the cross-like telephone pole in Cephus's yard. This visual pierces the heart and humbles the soul.

Today's audience is much different than the one Williams wrote for, but Home still relates to people today. Every individual goes through a time of self-discovery.  Many experience a love like Cephus and Pattie Mae, the struggle between desire and duty, and often wonder if God has "taken a vacation to Miami" in order to get away for awhile.  But in the end, this show proves that as long as we remain true to ourselves, we will find ourselves at home - no matter where that might be.

Increased Difficulty of Concentration

Peter Starr Northrop

1. At the center of a quiet den Dr. Huml stands rigid in terror. He is completely surrounded by a mad swirl of people and unavoidable questions while lights pop and flash all around him. For the first time in his life, Huml has lost control. Yes, Muhlenberg College's production The Increased Difficulty of Concentration by Vaclav Havel has pinpointed the craziness that comes from simply knowing people so exactly that it actually gets frightening. This is a show that--in typical absurdist fashion--pokes fun at man's need for understanding and his quest to make everything into a science, rather than letting natural things be natural.

6. In crafting this play, Havel essentially took the concept of time and smashed it.   Scene changes are abrupt and rarely in chronological order. Audience members all around me gave bewildered groans as they tried to follow the maddeningly frenzied pace Havel's time shifts created. But, if you manage to keep up with this review, then you'll do fine with Havel's script. 

3. The set consisted of a semicircle of four enormous column-like doors looming over a quiet living room. From the start, the doors give  the impression that they will become a threat to the serenity of this place. The walls are all painted olive green, a shade that completely matches Julie Henegan's costumes.

2. A product of the late 1960s during the Soviet Union's iron reign over the Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel was completely against the exasperating communist bureaucracy that gripped his country. His plays usually make great fun the attempt to make a science out of everything. Havel's victim in this show? Sociology!

5. And in his costume, Joe Feilding plays a marvelous Huml. He is earthy and smooth like pipe smoke. He can put any situation to ease--especially when both his wife and the woman with whom he is having an affair interrogate him in separate scenes.  They both ask desperate him questions to see if he is ready to leave the other. But, Fielding deflects their inquiries with incredible ease.

4. In this case, Huml's costumes are an olive green suit and a plaid creamsicle set of pajamas. These complement the set's color and give the firm notion that this is Huml's space.

7.  Vanessa Lancellotti's direction takes this crazy time scheme and brings order to it. From matching set and costume designs to casting Huml's two love interests so they look alike, Lancellotti weaves together all these chaotic elements so anyone can be guided through the pandemonium.

8. The show focuses around Huml's encounter with a set of fellow social scientists and their quest to make a scientific formula for the interactions of man. After the madhouse climax where everything goes wrong for the scientists, Huml completely loses control of his life for just an instant. Afterwards, Huml finally understands where he's gone wrong and the point of the show becomes clear. "The fundamental key to man does not lie in his brain, but in his heart."

Love@1stPlight

Nathan Taylor

Click.  The buckle opened as I pushed inward on the release.  The straps swung slowly, back and forth, almost pleading with me not to go through with it.  Ignoring their appeal, I put my hands to my head and took a deep breath before yanking off my thinking cap.  It was the only way to even remotely enjoy W&J Student Theatre Company's original play Love @ 1st Plight.

Imagine an episode of Family Guy for a basic understanding of the jests writer Drew Aloe uses; lines like "holy cow on a hamburger" sacrifice pacing for humor, resulting in a Möbius strip of predictable clichés.  Tiresome jokes assist in unraveling the script; in ninety minutes, main character Spools (David Doom) manages to repeat his name more times than Bob Dole has in an entire lifetime.  No help is received from director T.S. Frank, who endorses a hamfisted style of acting.

Mate the voices of Harvey Fierstein and Scooby Doo with the comedic talent of Carlos Mencia, and out pops Doom's portrayal of Spools.  The character is tricky; with lines like "Bullshit! From his ass!" and "Let's hug it out bitch," it's little wonder Doom trips over this complicated role.  Yelling every line, he presumably researched his part at an elementary school recess.

Roommate Rich (Johnny Galli) is more of an unabridged collection of Shakespeare's works than an actual character.  Galli delivers his lines with all the wooden acting ability of Keanu Reeves.  There's no chemistry between him and Doom, but it's hardly a surprise watching him ineptly serve his lines to the audience instead of his partner.

Not all performances are as threadbare - understudy Sophia Tsiris's Daisy demonstrates potential despite the figurative manhandling she receives attempting to flirt with Doom.  And ironically enough, the foreseeable plot allows Dent Holden's cameo Phil to produce the most massive laugh.  Expecting Daisy underneath a mask, the prancing, southern accented Denton bursts free in a welcome divergence from the stagnant plot.  Busily hitting himself with a program for most of the play, the guy in front of me stopped long enough to shout out "It's Phil!" when Holden saved the play for yet a second time.

Enough praise, the crowd demands more blood!  Dan Shaw's set design is a sloppy mess of ideas, unpolished and uninspired.  Such clutter is absent from the dorm room that includes nothing more than two beds and a desk.  Stylistically, the only item missing is a John Belushi poster.  The door to said room was set in the middle of a large, white, sparkly fairytale castle.  Why is still a mystery; I'll wish upon a star and get back to you.

With all the wit available at a college party, Love @ 1st Plight would have been much more satisfying with a beer in hand.

Home

Jensen Toperzer

Rhythm and motion - this is what defines Arcadia University's production of Samm-Art Williams' Home, a show that in almost every aspect, a production that stands out as a true gem amidst the shows presented at this year's Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

The script itself would feel clichéd if not for the cadence of Samm-Art's dialogue, evocative of the works of Langston Hughes or Ntozake Shange. Taysha Marie Canales' character, listed only as 'Woman Two', shows this in the lines of a speech about going to the city - 'Take it to the city', she says, and in her words we can hear the rumble of trains and the flow of people, the skyscrapers towering overhead.

Even more than in their voices, the actors' mastery of their own bodies is nearly perfect. James Douglas' lithe movements are each well thought out, not a single one wasted as he conjures vignettes, stories, and locations from Cephus' life. For example, when he tells the story of the "Black Indian" he leans on his porch to speak to the (not physically present) man, then stands up bolt straight with his arms close to his body to mimic and parody the deluded fake-Indian before shifting back to his own confidant yet relaxed posture. Everything seems planned, from the confidant and sly way he moves as a young man to the subtle tremors in his hands as a shoe shiner in the twisted canyons of New York City. These careful considerations of movement, beat, and voice combine to take a script which can be boiled down to a story about finding oneself and coming home to spectacular heights.

Robin Stamey's lighting is almost as much of a character as the actors. Though some cues are slightly mis-timed and on occasion the actors are left in shadow, it is clear that this is a problem of the space and short amount of time to put on the show, not the show itself. The warm, almost buttery tones used to recall Crossroads, North Carolina, emphasizing the warm memories and feelings that Cephus has of the area. Violet light is used when Cephus first travels to New York, showing how foreign and exotic it appears to the country-born Cephus, before it changes to a chill ice blue, paralleling the alienation and neglect Cephus later experiences in the city. Violent red light calls to mind the war in Vietnam, while sickly green shows the malady of spirit that Cephus feels during his wrongful imprisonment for draft dodging.

There are some questions about the possible relevance of the play to modern audiences - originally produced in the late 70's, the play speaks on issues concerning Vietnam and black rights.Yet the themes addressed seem just as relevant to the modern day: Cephus' treatment as a man who 'spits on the flag' after he refuses to fight in the war for religious reasons is especially relevant considering the pervasive conservative attitude towards objectors to the war in Iraq during the last decade.

Rhythm and motion - this is what defines Arcadia University's production of Samm-Art Williams' Home, a show that in almost every aspect, a production that stands out as a true gem amidst the shows presented at this year's Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

The script itself would feel clichéd if not for the cadence of Samm-Art's dialogue, evocative of the works of Langston Hughes or Ntozake Shange. Taysha Marie Canales' character, listed only as 'Woman Two', shows this in the lines of a speech about going to the city - 'Take it to the city', she says, and in her words we can hear the rumble of trains and the flow of people, the skyscrapers towering overhead.

Even more than in their voices, the actors' mastery of their own bodies is nearly perfect. James Douglas' lithe movements are each well thought out, not a single one wasted as he conjures vignettes, stories, and locations from Cephus' life. For example, when he tells the story of the "Black Indian" he leans on his porch to speak to the (not physically present) man, then stands up bolt straight with his arms close to his body to mimic and parody the deluded fake-Indian before shifting back to his own confidant yet relaxed posture. Everything seems planned, from the confidant and sly way he moves as a young man to the subtle tremors in his hands as a shoe shiner in the twisted canyons of New York City. These careful considerations of movement, beat, and voice combine to take a script which can be boiled down to a story about finding oneself and coming home to spectacular heights.

Robin Stamey's lighting is almost as much of a character as the actors. Though some cues are slightly mis-timed and on occasion the actors are left in shadow, it is clear that this is a problem of the space and short amount of time to put on the show, not the show itself. The warm, almost buttery tones used to recall Crossroads, North Carolina, emphasizing the warm memories and feelings that Cephus has of the area. Violet light is used when Cephus first travels to New York, showing how foreign and exotic it appears to the country-born Cephus, before it changes to a chill ice blue, paralleling the alienation and neglect Cephus later experiences in the city. Violent red light calls to mind the war in Vietnam, while sickly green shows the malady of spirit that Cephus feels during his wrongful imprisonment for draft dodging.

There are some questions about the possible relevance of the play to modern audiences - originally produced in the late 70's, the play speaks on issues concerning Vietnam and black rights. Yet the themes addressed seem just as relevant to the modern day: Cephus' treatment as a man who 'spits on the flag' after he refuses to fight in the war for religious reasons is especially relevant considering the pervasive conservative attitude towards objectors to the war in Iraq during the last decade.

A Comb and a Prayer Book

Kelly Wetherald

Awareness of the Holocaust is an event that individuals cannot avoid for we are educationally bombarded with images and horrific details in American history classes nationwide.  Modern society knows this.  But what about "genocide in Darfur, Rwanda, or Yugoslavia"?  What about those people and their suffering?  Stockton College's A Comb and A Prayer Book simply did a disservice to all remaining survivors; Holocaust or otherwise.  Elizabeth Blum Goldstein's story should be cherished and remembered for centuries to come, but this production should be removed from the theatrical circuit. 

A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story's central theme struggled.  Was the vision to tell one person's history or to heighten awareness of genocide and humanistic cruelty?  The play had an unclear objective and static storyline which in turn made the performance boring and unbearably annoying.  The production was just another attempt to do justice to a riveting memoir that turned out to be an epic failure on stage.

I cannot blame the painful performance solely on the actors at Stockton College, but I can however place direct blame on director Pamela R. Hendrick.  In her own words, "scripts that attempt a realistic representation of the Holocaust are problematic because such an extreme event is impossible to recreate realistically in live performance".  I wish that she actually took some of her own advice.  Anne Frank for example could convey an authentic sense of history in her memoirs and on stage.  A Comb and a Prayer Book however could not.

Hendrick also chose to incorporate chamber theatre techniques while directing This technique includes using as much original text as possible while telling the story through a couple main characters.  Unfortunately, Lauren Suprenant playing Shana Fogerty delivered unmotivated monologues with a monotone voice.  It is hard to believe that such vivid textual images such as "barren bed chambers", "saturated piss stains", and "starvation to the point of eating worms" could still come across so bland.   The lack of ensemble interaction and clear disconnect to the story only added to the antsy atmosphere felt in the theater.

One positive aspect of this production A Comb and a Prayer Book was the technical lighting and set design.  Varied lighting angles and color helped create a somber, death stricken mood that the actors themselves couldn't naturally create.  The lighting provided depth, a sense of time and helped to make the minimalistic set spring to life.  Metal scaffolding, ominous hanging lights and block platforms blended into the background yet also chilled the tone of the piece.  The basic set design allowed for imagination to drive visual images. 

The high hopes that I had for this production after their nomination to KCACTF were shattered within twenty minutes.  I found myself longing for the end or at least for the nonexistent intermission to take a break from the monotonous one dimensional narration. 

 

January 16, 2010 1:08 PM | | Comments (1)

1 Comments

Beautiful work, my fellow OCI friends. Whichever of us gets the golden ticket has surely earned it. It's been inspiring working with each of you this week!

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