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A beautifully staged and wonderfully acted ­communications breakdown

Written in 1980 by Brian Friel and set in a fictional village in agricultural Ireland in the early 1800s, Translations deals with the imperialism of encroaching England, the tradition of language and the refusal to compromise that tradition for communication’s sake. The Masqueraders’ production is beautifully staged and wonderfully acted, which makes a questionable artistic choice all the more unfortunate.
    The setting is a hedge school, in this case a very realistic and near life-sized barn where a local schoolmaster teaches a handful of students the classics in Latin and Greek. Few of the students know the world outside their little village. The alcoholic Hugh, the schoolmaster, drills them like a master sergeant. His son Manus is an assistant of sorts with aspirations to run his own school. Owen, the successful other son, returns as a translator for two English army engineers. Their charge is to map the area and rename the places in a way more friendly to English — thus, bastardizing their traditional names.
    Both Irish and English characters speak their own languages, but the audience hears only English, except in place names.
    As Owen and the English orthographer Lieutenant Yolland work, Yolland falls in love with the Irish land, culture and hedge school student, Maire, who also is the apple of Manus’s eye. Tension rises when Yolland goes missing. When Manus leaves as well, heartbroken, he looks like the guilty party.
    On a search party, English soldiers go on a rampage. Captain Lancey (Jonson Henry) threatens first to shoot all livestock if Yolland is not found within 24 hours, then evict the villagers and destroy their homes if he is not found within 48 hours. Henry enters with humor, but, as does the play, becomes the harbinger of bad things to come.
    Jett Watson as Owen and Josh Goetz as Yolland strike a nice camaraderie as they take the stage. Comedy, marked by Yolland’s constant referral to Owen as Roland, eases into drama as the Englishman takes offense at his own work, figuratively evicting a people from their land by changing generation-old names. Watson is especially effective as he finds himself at the center of not only familial tensions, but political and martial ones as well.
    As Hugh, Leith Daghistani gives us a likeable yet military-like schoolmaster who seems to love his village but is prepared to take over the national school that will come to town and be open to all. Chris Hudson as Manus, Michael Donovan as Jimmy Jack, Bubba Scott as Doalty, Clara Navarro as Sarah, Portia Norkaitis as Maire, Megan Rausch as Bridget all bring the locals to life. They give us humor — this is in places a very funny show — as well as anger.
    A five-piece combo (calling themselves the Dropkick Middies after the well-known Irish rockers Dropkick Murphys) plays very good Irish music before the show and between acts. The set is a marvel, an almost life-sized multi-level barn that also houses Hugh and Manus. Huge, rustic and wooden, looking like it might have been trucked in from South County, this is one of the more beautifully realized sets I’ve seen in any area theater for quite some time.
    So why taint such realism by projecting images of various Irish locations along the back? It’s justified in the program by director Christy Stanlake as giving “a sense of presence to the characters’ homelands” and showing “the profound relationship between the specific lands and their original Irish names.”  Throughout the play, when an Irish locale is pronounced correctly, its image is projected onto the set. When the wrong or Anglicized name is used, the image disappears. It’s a clever idea in theory. In practice, it confuses the audience. Not having read the director’s notes, many thought the images were technical miscues. They are hardly recognizable because the back of the set is uneven wood, exactly like an old barn, not a smooth screen made for showing slides.
    Worse — and this is the inexcusable part — the very good work of this cast of actors must compete with the double distraction of these images popping on and off and also being projected onto the actors’ faces and bodies. When the images are wiped away, we feel relief that we can finally see, unmarked, both the beautiful set and these very talented actors.
    Sometimes less is more, and sometimes an idea that clearly doesn’t work needs to be discarded, regardless of how creative it sounded in theory. The actors, and their audience, deserve better.


Playing thru Nov. 22: FSa 8pm at Mahan Theatre, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis. No on-yard parking; walk thru Gate 3 with photo ID (16+). $12; rsvp: 410-293-TIXS.

 

Who needs superpowers when you have a robot?

Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter: Supah Ninjas) is not a nerd. Sure, he graduated high school at 13, but he bypasses higher education for a more lucrative career in robot battles, where his apparently innocuous bot dismantles the fiercest opponent with ease. When Hiro’s hustle runs afoul of both bot-fighting thugs and the police, his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney: Revolution) decides enough is enough.
    Tadashi forces his little brother to visit his college, which Hiro reviles as Nerd School. He is surprised, however, when he meets Tadashi’s fellow nerds. Students are working on amazing projects utilizing lasers, chemicals and robots. Hiro’s hero, robotics innovator Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell: Murder in the First) is the head of the school.
    Inspired, Hiro ditches the bot battles. But just as he wins a slot in the exclusive school, Tadashi dies in a freak accident.
    Overwhelmed with grief, Hiro resumes his old lifestyle. But his pain activates Tadashi’s passion project, a health bot named Baymax (Scott Adsit: St. Vincent) who cannot be deactivated until his patient is satisfied with his care. Hiro wants nothing to do with the bot, but Baymax is unyielding.
    As Hiro bonds with Baymax, he discovers that Tadashi’s death might not have been accidental. Hiro plans to catch the killers by reprogramming Baymax and recruiting Tadashi’s classmates. Using science, they become superheroes.
    A story about love, grief and revenge, Big Hero 6 is a superhero movie for worshipers of brain over brawn. Directors Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh) and Chris Williams (Bolt) give their movie substance as well as spectacle. They spend time cultivating the Hiro/Tadashi relationship, ensuring we feel Hiro’s loss, crushing grief, need for revenge and moral quandaries.
    The brothers’ relationship gives the story its emotional context. Star power comes from the inflatable health bot. Uncomplicated, slow-moving and rotund, Baymax is a robotic Pooh Bear. As voiced by Adsit, he is both childlike and wise, the perfect companion for a grieving boy. When Hiro attempts to change the bot’s basic programming, Baymax reveals that he might be more complex than he seems.
    Big Hero 6 is a kids’ film with big ideas. But it doesn’t always give time to developing them. The plot can feel rushed, and the main mystery is easily solved by anyone over the age of 10. Tadashi’s friends rarely rise above stereotypes (the tough girl, the neat freak, the idiot and the girly-girl), but top-notch voice work gives them personality.
    The story for this animated Disney film is adapted from a Marvel comic book.

Good Animation • PG • 108 mins.

Can you stretch your comfort zone into 18th century debauchery?

Give The Theatre at Anne Arundel Community College credit for refusing to play it safe, for going out on a theatrical limb in its choice of productions.
    Last spring’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, as complex and raucous as any musical you’ll see, was a case in point. The current Les Liaisons Dangereuses is another example of the theater’s propensity for asking itself, and its audiences, to stretch beyond their comfort zones.
    You may know Les Liaisons Dangereuses from the 1988 movie with John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close. That was just one of several adaptations of French author Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel of the same name. The novel described the dangerous manipulations of former lovers Le Vicomte de Valmont and La Marquise de Merteuil, two aristocrats who treat love, lust and the feelings of their prey as little more than their own little chess game, with human hearts and bodies as the pieces on their board.
    Valmont wants to seduce Madame de Tourvel, the virtuous wife whose husband is out of town. Merteuil, meanwhile, is angry because Cécile Volanges has been pulled out of the convent to marry a former lover. When Valmont falls in love with de Tourvel, Marteuil becomes jealous. She and Valmont turn their fantasy league into a battleground of the sexes, winner take all. Hearts are broken and lives destroyed.
    Revealing too much of the plot would reveal too much of what is designed to keep you as interested in these two players as you are disgusted by their hubris. The bottom line is that these are nasty people, inflicting their nastiness onto others as sport. Director Kristen Clippard, whose previous work you may have seen locally with the Annapolis Shakespeare Company, does an admirable job taking us back to the 1700s. The pace moves right along, from the characters’ dialogue to the tightly choreographed scene changes.
    The set is ingenious, majestic and beautiful. Instead of the usual painted flats, we have regal gilded frames flanking see-through material that not only allows us to observe the comings and goings of characters but also provides cleverly lit placement of two bedchambers and a climactic sword fight. Costumes are as beautiful as the set; clearly no expense was spared in securing era-appropriate finery.
    As Valmont and Merteuil, Erik Alexis and Aladrian Wetzel do a credible job keeping the pace of a dialogue-heavy piece. Their back-and-forth helps the audience understand the machinations they are planning. Each does a nice job enunciating, critical in a piece translated from French.
    But the spark needed to help the audience believe that these two are former lovers was missing, as was the maliciousness that should underlie their immoral string-pulling. Perhaps it was opening night jitters, and subsequent performances will see them relax into the calculating chemistry the two must share with the audience.
    The supporting cast is solid overall, though in several cases, as with the leads, a little more emotional connection would help link individual performances with the whole. Especially natural in their roles are Natalie Carlisle as de Tourvel, giving us the virtue and uncertainty of one of the few women who, at least at first, is able to fend off Valmont’s advances, and Kat McKerrow as Madame de Rosemonde, Valmont’s aunt.
    This is a show worth seeing, beautiful visually, with Clippard and the cast doing a fine job keeping things moving. All that’s needed is for some of the cast to sink their teeth into what drives these multi-dimensional characters, and to connect with each other. This, in turn, will strengthen their connection with the audience, so that we can feel the inherent danger of these dangerous liaisons.


2.5 hours with intermission. Playing thru Nov. 16: Th 7:30pm, FSa 8pm; Su 2pm at Robert E. Kauffman Theater at AACC Pascal Center, Arnold; $15 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-777-2457; boxoffice@aacc.edu.

You’ll see Shakespeare at its most involving and theater at its finest

In four years of existence, Annapolis Shakespeare Company has enriched the local theater scene not just by providing a venue that focuses on the classics, but also by doing so with productions that are engaging and accessible. The Company has achieved its goal of becoming a professional company. Now, Annapolis Shakespeare Company moves from the Bowie Playhouse to its own black box Studio 111 on Chinquapin Round Road in Annapolis. The space is smaller, but the standards remain high.
    Case in point: the current production of Macbeth, perhaps Shakespeare’s darkest and bloodiest work. Producing artistic director Sally Boyett and her team show us Shakespeare at its most involving and theater at its finest: imaginatively staged, crisply directed and solidly acted. Audience proximity to the action — the 50 or so seats surround the small stage floor on three sides — means you can literally feel the insanity of Macbeth (Brit Herring) and Lady Macbeth (Rebecca Swislow) as their ambition turns to murder and madness.
    Herring and Swislow are both excellent, giving their characters a fiery chemistry not just for each other but also for power. Herring’s mad exclamations to the audience and his delivery of several of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies (“tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” upon the death of his beloved), are in-your-face menacing. Swislow’s “out damned spot” to the blood on her hands as she sleepwalks evokes fear as well as a bit of pity for her.
    Michael Crowley’s Macduff, Kim Curtis’ Duncan and Brian Davis’ Banquo are standouts among the talented supporting cast of 10, each playing several roles. As the three witches who predict Macbeth’s rise and fall, Renata Plecha, Vanessa Bradchulis and Stephanie LaVardera are downright chilling. The three can be cartoonish in lesser hands, but this trio gives them a substance that convinces us they must be of the underworld.
    All of this is achieved with nary a set and few props. It’s acting that lights the passion of this production, acting that is supported by Nancy Krebs’ vocal coaching, the modern costumes of Maggie Cason, sound effects by Gregory Thomas Woolford Martin, believable fight choreography by Amy Pastoor and ethereal lighting by Steven Strawn and Preston Strawn. It all adds up to an experience that evokes the eeriest of eerie and the most evil of evil. That little black box theater sure felt like the early 1600s.

Playing thru Nov. 24: FSa 8pm; Su 3pm: Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Studio 111, Annapolis; $35 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-415-3513; www.annapolisshakespeare.org.

Michael Keaton wows in this darkly funny drama

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton: Need for Speed) was in style about the same time as acid-wash jeans. The superstar lead of the popular Birdman film series did not fare well as a real actor. His fall was fast from blockbuster action star to bad bit parts.
    Now nearly forgotten, soft in the middle and desperate to prove his relevance, Riggan has mortgaged his home and sunk his assets into bringing his favorite book to Broadway. He plans to adapt, direct and star in the production, reclaiming his legendary standing.
    The only problem? Birdman.
    As Riggan navigates a thousand little crises prepping for opening night, he hears the voice of Birdman. Forget the artsy-fartsy façade, Birdman advises. Go back to the big-budget action flicks that made you a star. With a vicious critic eager to eviscerate the play, a method actor (Edward Norton: The Grand Budapest Hotel) more interested in truth than finishing a performance and an acerbic daughter (Emma Stone: Magic in the Moonlight) fresh out of rehab, Riggan thinks better of Birdman’s suggestions.
    When he develops the ability to move things with his mind, his destiny seems to be his for the making. Is he really Birdman?
    A fascinating mishmash of fact and fiction, Birdman feels like the cinematic equivalent of improvisational jazz. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Biutiful) uses crafty camerawork to make the film look like one continuous shot. We feel like we’re inhabiting the same space as the characters rather than observing them. We drop in, follow them around and occasionally leave them behind in search of more interesting people. The practice gives the film a breathless quality, as if Iñárritu has us jogging behind the action.
    As the titular Birdman, Keaton is a revelation. He was Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), so his own story partially mirrors Riggan’s. Since the 1990s, Keaton has wasted his talents on thankless roles and bit parts. Birdman illustrates just what we’ve lost. In it Keaton gives two performances, one as Riggan, one as Birdman, who Keaton carves out as a distinct secondary antagonist, the devil tempting him back to easy cash and artistic drudgery.
    Keaton surges through the movie with a manic energy that is endearing as well as unsettling.
    Birdman is not a film for the popcorn crowd. It is not an unofficial Batman sequel. Iñárritu forces us to work out metaphors and contend with complex characters. If you’re up for an unconventional challenge, this movie will reward you with excellent acting, interesting scripting and breathless cinematography.
    Birdman proves that Keaton ranks with the best actors who ever protected Gotham City.

Great Drama • R • 119 mins.
 

You can do a lot of terrible things, but don’t kill a man’s dog

John Wick (Keanu Reeves: 47 Ronin) is hanging on by a thread. Numbed by the death of his wife, he goes through his daily routine on autopilot. Anticipating her husband’s reaction to her demise, Wick’s wife planned a companion for his recovery: a beagle puppy named Daisy.
    As Wick warms to the pup, a trio of Russian gangsters warms to his tricked-out Mustang. They break into his house, beat him senseless, kill poor Daisy and abscond with the car.
    They picked on the wrong man.
    Before Wick was a hapless widower, he was a hit man for the Russian mob. Criminals called him the Boogeyman. John gave up his kill-crazy ways for marriage. With wife and dog gone, Wick has nothing holding him back. So what if his target is Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen: Game of Thrones), son of Viggo (Michael Nyqvist: My So-Called Father), the head of the Russian mob.
    Brutal, fasted-paced and funny, John Wick is an action film with brains and brawn. The directorial debut of two former stuntmen, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, the film specializes in a fluid action style that’s exciting and beautiful. There are no garbled clashes of steel and bullets; each fight, car chase and shootout is carefully choreographed.
    Stahelski and Leitch also take great pains to make their movie light. Sure, plenty of blood flies through the air as John slices his way through New York and New Jersey, but the film has a wry sense of humor. Everyone knows the legend of John Wick, from cops to hotel clerks to mobsters, and everyone acknowledges that John’s vengeance will be brutal and most likely unstoppable. Most stay out of his way. Those that don’t grimly acknowledge they’re cannon fodder before engaging him.
    As the eponymous Wick, Reeves embodies an eerie quiet rage. At 50, he still has the physicality and fighting skills of a much younger actor, making him a credible threat when he takes on a room full of baddies. His balance of cool detachment and cold calculation makes Wick likeable yet frightening. When his cool exterior cracks, it reveals an all-encompassing wrath.
    It’s never a question that he will get his revenge. The question is how many necks he’ll have to snap along the way. John Wick is a campy action flick that uses style to make up for substance. It isn’t going to revolutionize cinematic storytelling, but you won’t mind as you watch Reeves barrel through the mob crews of New York.

Good Action • R • 101 mins.

Cast, staging and pace threaten to leave you breathless

There is nothing like the rat-a-tat of briskly delivered dialogue to transport an audience to a different time and place, and Colonial Players is currently doing the job atop the broad shoulders of Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men.
    If you think having seen the movie is enough, think again. First time director Jeff Sprague has hit the trifecta with this production: a believable cast, intelligent staging and a vocal pace that sometimes threatens to leave you breathless. It’s a completely different, and much more involving, experience made intimate by Colonial’s in-the-round space.
    First, the cast. From the lowest of the enlisted to the bigger-than-life commanding officer, Sprague has assembled a company so believable that they make you feel everything about what it’s like to be stationed at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, except perhaps the exhausting heat. Jamie Austin Jacobs is stellar as Lance Cpl. Harold Dawson, who along with his buddy Pfc. Louden Downey (Fred Fletcher-Jackson) is accused of murder after a “code red” — Marine lingo for a hazing of sorts — kills a fellow Marine who wasn’t measuring up. Every barked line evokes empathy for this dedicated warrior who was following orders, and the fraternal care he provides the less-aware Downey earns our sympathy. Dawson’s evolving admiration for Navy Lt. Daniel Kaffee, the smart-talking Harvard grad assigned to defend him, is well-crafted and a pleasure to witness.
    Kaffee’s fast-paced dialogue starts off with smart-assed one-liners the character uses to hide the fact that his propensity for plea-bargaining has kept him from seeing the inside of a courtroom. Paul Valleau (who will be replaced for the November 6, 7 and 8 shows by Jeff Mocho) admirably shows us a Kaffee whose passion for justice, and for his defendants, grows with each piece of evidence that they were ordered to perform the code red.
    Kaffee’s Navy legal team is rounded out by Erin Hill as Lt. Cdr. Joanne Galloway, who outranks Kaffee and initially resents his lack of interest, and Brandon Bentley as Lt. Sam Weinberg, the family man who believes the defendants picked on a weakling. Opposing them is Capt. Jack Ross, a savvy prosecutor played by Pat Reynolds. Throughout the production these four anchor the fast-paced drama with the occasional touch of comedy that is so mandatory to prevent the emotion on the stage from slipping into monotony.   
    Also outstanding are Ben Wolff as Jonathan Kendrick, the Bible-verse-spewing lieutenant who gives the order that leads to a fatal code red; and Bill Coffin as Matthew Markinson, the guilt-ridden captain whose unwillingness to stop the code red pushes him to a point of no return. Both Wolff and Coffin are so natural in these roles that you’d think they’d just stepped off the base and onto the stage.
     Of course, the bigger-than-life villain in the piece is Colonel Nathan Jessep, the commanding officer of Gitmo. After Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth” became the catchphrase of the early 1990s, you’d be forgiven for thinking the same character might appear on the stage. He does not. He does not have to because David Thompson has made Jessep his own, a character almost manic with power, whose complete belief in the rightness of any decision he makes is shrouded in the myopic vision that protecting his country comes at any cost. Thompson’s verbal attack of Kaffee after he admits to having ordered the code red is downright scary — yet eerily effective in forcing us to understand his motivation. He is wrong, yes, but he is convinced he is right, and Thompson’s passionate portrayal makes us think twice.
    Now, the staging. This is a complex play with a lot going on, and pacing is critical. Sprague meets the challenge by avoiding the usual director trap of cutting the lights, throwing on some music and changing the scene. Every setting is already on the stage, and the characters simply move from one to the other as the lights fall and rise, or as a quartet of Marines marches on and off doing various running cadences. This makes the rat-a-tat of the action match the rat-a-tat of the dialogue, and the audience as a result is captivated.
    Speaking of that dialogue: It is real and it gets graphic. It is so believably delivered by every character that it’s hard to discern the least experienced from the veterans. That believability has the audience looking at each as a real person, not a character. Kudos to Sprague, whose own military background undoubtedly contributed to the realism on display here, and kudos to each of the young actors who have so invested themselves in their characters, no matter how small.

Stage manager: Ernie Morton. Assistant director: Theresa Riffle. Set and floor designr: Terry Averill. Lighting designer: Shirley Panek. Sound designer: Theresa Riffle. Costume coordinator: Beth Terranova.
Playing thru Nov. 8: ThFSa 8pm; Su 2pm: Colonial Players, Annapolis; $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.

Violence and horror make a surprisingly beautiful war story

Working in a tank is a special kind of hell. For five men the cramped chamber of a motorized cannon is their home, their battlefield and, often, their coffin. With limited visibility, thin armor and light firepower, Sherman tanks were often easy targets, especially against the superior German Tigers.
    The crew of the Fury has so far beaten the odds. Led by Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Brad Pitt: The Counselor), the team has survived combat in Africa, France and Germany. As they roll toward Berlin, they lose their trusted gunner in gruesome fashion. The replacement is a typist named Norman (Logan Lerman: Noah), who’s never been in a tank and is terrified by the prospect of battle.
    As Fury rolls toward combat in the heart of Nazi territory, the seasoned four must make Norman a soldier if they are to survive.
    A brutal, beautiful film about the monsters war makes, Fury offers truths rarely shown in movies about the Greatest Generation. Director/writer David Ayer (Sabotage) looks at these men with respect and sadness, examining the complicated mix of violence and family they depended on to survive.
    As men who have seen it all and wish they hadn’t, Pitt, Shia LaBeouf (Nymphomaniac), Jon Bernthal (Mob City) and Michael Peña (Gracepoint) are realistic versions of stock characters. Pitt is the tough-as-nails leader whose sadistic streak covers the heavy toll of combat. The religious man, LaBeouf quotes scripture to comfort himself in the face of death. Bernthal is the wild man whose chosen analgesic against the horrors is outrageous behavior. Peña is the drunk scrounging ruined towns for his solace.
    Ayer makes Norm our stand-in. With him, we’re thrown amid the Fury crew, no training, no get-to-know-you talks. He must kill or risk his crewmates through inaction.
    Fury doesn’t shy away from the unsavory. Grady gleefully instructs Norman that women will sleep with him for as little as a candy bar. These are desperate women, terrified of the men with guns who could invade their homes, demand their meager possessions or worse. Faced with the choice of rape or rewarded submission, they take the candy bar.
    While Ayer revels in the ugliness of war, he and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (Charlie Countryman) find ways of making even the claustrophobic tank scenes beautiful. Gripping battles unfold in painterly shots that embody the immense scale of war as well as its personal tolls.
    Fury is easily the best combat film in a decade.

Great Drama • R • 134 mins.

Hearts beat in time with the building suspense

Twin Beach Players’ Halloween season production of the eternally terrifying Legend of Sleepy Hollow took seven months in the making — from spooky sound effects to thick fog and period costumes to uniformly spot-on acting.
    Eerie sound effects help transform a gymnasium into the town and forest of Sleepy Hollow, where I edged forward on my seat as suspense built to the hair-raising climax.
    Washington Irving gave us this story now embedded in American tradition, and he himself appears to tell it to us. As Irving, Kurt Kugel leads us through the play with his supernaturally quiet narration.
    The nervous, studious and awkward Ichabod Crain, played brilliantly by Justyn Christofel, comes as a new teacher to a town haunted by a Headless Horseman. My heart went out to Ichabod as he fell hopelessly in love with the town beauty, Katrina Van Tassell (Brianna Bennett) much to the dismay of her suitor, town brute Abraham “Brom” Van Brunt (Ethan Croll).
    Brom captures the role of the bad guy as he makes it his duty to teach the schoolmaster a lesson in humility and gathers the boys of Sleepy Hollow to scare Ichabod.
    Tales are told of the Headless Horseman’s rampage through the woods that Ichabod is willing to brave to attend a party at the home of the apple of his eye, who has herself invited him.
    When Ichabod cuts in on Brom to dance with Katrina, Brom plans revenge: confrontation with the Headless Horseman.
    Each character in the supporting cast of townspeople has distinct charms. There are gossips, troublemakers, clowns and bystanders who don’t know what to make of the new schoolmaster — nor he of them and their tales.
    Dawn Dennison’s costumes are perfect to period.
    The basic stage conveyed many settings, such as a handful of human trees with long, skin-hugging, black-gloved arms reaching to the sky and creeping thru Ichabod’s hair as if they were twigs in a haunted forest. Children played forest animals, with an opening dance number led by an adorable spirit (Koral Kent) who makes a huge impression, all without speaking a word. She wisps in and out in her pumpkin costume with the grace and poise of a ballerina. When she places a pumpkin into the hands of the Headless Horseman, she seems immune to terror.
    Don’t miss this spooktacular production of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Playing to full-house crowds opening weekend, it’s sure to sell out as Halloween approaches and the barrier between worlds grows thin.


The original production of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was adapted for Twin Beach Players’ by resident playwright, Mark Scharf, who also penned last year’s production of Frankenstein. Pioneer Drama Service will publish both scripts.
 
Playing thru Nov. 2: FSa 8pm; Su 3pm; plus 9pm Oct. 31 at North Beach Boys and Girls Club; $15 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-286-1890; www.twinbeachplayers.com.

Sometimes being right isn’t enough

Investigative journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner: The Immigrant) believed that if people weren’t upset, he wasn’t doing his job. He spent his career exposing injustices and telling what he believed to be fundamental truths.
    Webb’s subjects aren’t typically sympathetic. He reported on ways the government infringes on the rights of drug dealers, confiscating property and money even when charges are dismissed or dropped.
    When a drug trafficker’s girlfriend tells Webb that her boyfriend has been selling drugs brought into the country with the government’s help, he finds the story he believes will make his career.
    This movie is a story based on the real reporter’s quest for that story.
    Traveling from Nicaragua to Washington, D.C., and back to L.A., Webb pieces together a conspiracy that implicates the CIA in a massive drug trafficking ring to earn money to fund the Contra War.
    Warned that his story will earn him powerful enemies, Webb refuses to back down. But his principled stand may be a mistake.
    With the story out, the CIA began a campaign to discredit Webb, using other journalists, propaganda and intimidation. Webb’s career went into a tailspin. People followed his family and lurked outside his house. Still, he remained convinced if he kept pushing, he’d prove the truth and win back his life.
    Kill the Messenger is a good movie that fails to be great. Director Michael Cuesta (Homeland) is skilled at building tension, but he neglects story for cheap thrills. Unlike Webb, Cuesta isn’t interested in meticulously documenting what happened. He offers only the broad strokes accompanied by some thrilling scenes of governmental interference. Characters are undeveloped, making the movie seem shallow and sensationalistic.
    Cuesta floats a few conspiracy theories of his own, including implicating the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post in discrediting Webb. The plot line is interesting, but ultimately infuriating because it’s given so little screen time.
    As Webb, Renner saves the movie from mediocrity. He plays a tenacious crusader who can’t bear to back down. Renner’s natural humor and charm make Webb a relatable, interesting hero even when he’s making questionable choices. As Webb watches his life, career and family crumble around him, Renner shines as a man who realizes too late just how far down a dangerous path he’s gone. Still he holds fast.
    Imperfect though it is, Kill the Messenger will make you view power sources — from the government to newspapers — with skepticism, which was the goal of Gary Webb’s brave and brash reporting.

Good Drama • R • 112 mins.