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Articles by Jim Reiter

Feel the tension of holding fate in your hands

Twelve Angry Men was first produced in the mid-1950s as a play for television, then reworked for the stage and, of course, the famed movie with an all-star cast led by Henry Fonda. Having sat through the trial of an inner-city young man accused of murder, the all-male jury must come up with a unanimous decision of guilty or not guilty. On first vote, it’s 11-1 in favor of guilty. The lone holdout — a meticulous middle-aged man sticking to his convictions among 11 of his peers who want to convict and go home — has enough questions about the seemingly obvious case that reasonable doubt, racism and the fragility of justice permeate the play — sometimes slowly and sometimes with an explosion of passion.
    2nd Star Productions is known for staging big musicals at the 150-seat Bowie Playhouse, with the occasional straight play tossed in. For Twelve Angry Men, 2nd Star has teamed up to present the drama in the Odenton space used by a new arts group, West Arundel Creative Arts, to provide visual and performing arts classes to local children.
    The large, open first floor of an office building is upon entry a little off-putting, what with the fluorescent lights and low ceilings that are the antithesis of most real theater spaces. The stage space is simply a long table for 12 in the middle of the floor, with one wall separating backstage from stage and providing for entrances and exits. With the actors on the same floor as the audience — who surround them on three sides — and with the entire room lit, audience members often see as much of each other as of the cast.
    But director Jane Wingard and a very capable cast soon turn our attention from each other to center stage, where sincere and very carefully crafted characters make us feel the tension of holding the fate of a life in one’s hands.
    2nd Star sets the play in the present day. The addition of several African-American cast members to the deliberating dozen creates some interesting counterpoint to the script, which, while written in a far different era, now, especially in the context of recent events, reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
    The protagonist in this case is juror No. 8, played by Gene Valendo, a 2nd Star veteran who brings a polite yet passionate determination that despite the overwhelming odds, the road to reasonable doubt must be followed through to its conclusion. Valendo does a fine job here, balancing his character’s solid belief that a youngster shouldn’t be put to death unless the case against him is irreproachable, with the points made by others who insist guilt has been proved.
    Juror No. 1, the foreman, is deftly played by Brad Eaton, whose interest in wrapping up a guilty verdict quickly is soon surpassed by his responsibility to keep things under control. The de facto foreman, in fact, ends up being juror No. 4, played by Ben Harris with an initially cool detachment and insistence that everyone be heard. His detachment simmers until, later in the play, it erupts into an angry nearly physical confrontation with juror No. 10, a racist whose rant about how they are not good for anything and are guilty by skin color takes the breath away from the entire room — including audience. As embodied by Tom Hartzell, this juror’s racism of the 1950s reminds us that, 60 years later, we still have a long way to go.
    As juror No. 3, Ken Kienas is effective as the angry man whose frustration votes changed to not guilty spills over into near violence. That effectiveness could be even more real with a bit more modulation in his voice, which at first is always set to 10 on the volume knob. Jerry Khatcheressian, another local community theater veteran, gives us the sincerity of one who has come to this country from far worse conditions than he meets in the U.S.A. as juror No. 11. The rest of the jurors — Richard Blank, Larry Griffin, Daley Gunter, Nick Thompson, Anders Tighe and Andre Foster — all prove that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
    A few misplaced ad-libs and a touch of slowness in cue pickup during the first act gave way in the second act to the all-in dive into these characters.
    This is a true ensemble effort that takes playgoers out of the fluorescence and drop ceilings of an Odenton business space into a dirty, cramped big-city jury room whose air is heavy with the weight of determining justice.


    Judge: Kim Ethridge. Assistant director: Steve Andrews. Lighting and sound technician: Matt Andrews. Stage manager (and guard): Joanne Wilson. Two hours with intermission.

    ThFSa 8pm; Su 3pm: West Arundel Creative Arts, Odenton. $22 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-757-5700; www.2ndstarproductions.com.

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.

 

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.

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.

Theater al fresco at Reynolds Tavern, where the humor is bawdy, the medicine primitive and the fun timeless

     Annapolis Shakespeare Company keeps the comedy in the courtyard coming. After a successful run with Molière’s The Schemings of Scapin, now on tap outdoors at Reynolds Tavern is a lively and very funny Imaginary Invalid. Molière’s final play was written by the tuberculosis-wracked playwright/actor to star himself and reflect his disdain for the medical mores. He indeed played the lead to great acclaim before succumbing to his malady soon after the curtain went down on a show for King Louis XIV.
    Adapted by Tim Mooney and directed by Kristen Clippard, Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Imaginary Invalid is three riveting acts of fast-paced fun, with a stellar cast reveling in every rhyming couplet. But don’t let the three acts worry you about a long night ahead; the 7:30pm start gets you out just a bit after 9pm.
    The imaginary invalid is Argan (Kim Curtis), a well-to-do hypochondriac who wants to marry his daughter Angelique (Ashlyn Thompson) off to a soon-to-be-doctor (Zachary Roberts), son of Diafoirus (John Stange), already a doctor, so one will always be around. Meanwhile, his second wife Beline (Amber Gibson) wants both her stepdaughters, Angelique and Louison (Roberts again), put into a nunnery so she can claim Argan’s riches when he dies. But Angelique is in love with the handsome, romantic and oh so dim Cleante (Keegan Cassady). Argan’s maidservant Toinette (Briana Manente) has no qualms about setting Argan straight on why a forced marriage is a bad idea, as does his brother Beralde (Stange again), who also is getting a little fed up with the whole ­hypochondria thing.
    Got all that? Thanks to a cast of actors who know how to deliver lines with their bodies as well as their voices, the action is easy to follow. Which brings up a personal nitpick: How many times have you gone to the theater and missed lines because the actors weren’t speaking up? Nine times out of 10 it’s not the volume that’s the problem, it’s the diction. Other local theaters would do well to emulate Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s focus on enunciation because nary a line was lost, even in this outside setting. Speak the speech, I pray thee.
    The other thing that often gets between the actor and the audience’s ability to follow what’s happening is the blocking — the placement and movement of the actors — a challenge especially in a round setting such as the Reynolds courtyard. Again, director Clippard’s focus on the details pays off. Despite the small space, the action does not feel limited or cramped, and no back is turned to any of us for more than a few seconds.
    In the less-is-more category, this is all done with a single chair and one chair-side table with a few apothecary bottles. That’s because the top-notch acting and efficient use of space eliminate the need for anything more than the very clever costumes. So, reserve a Tuesday evening and watch some very talented actors pull you away from Annapolis 2014 and into 1600s’ France, where the humor is bawdy, the medicine primitive and the fun timeless.


Costume coordinator: Maggie Cason. Stage manager: Sara K. Smith. Assistant stage management intern: Shannon McGovern.

Playing thru October 7 Tu at 7:30pm at Reynolds Tavern. 7 Church Circle, Annapolis. $20 w/advance discounts:
410-415-3513; www.annapolisshakespeare.org.

Always look on the bright si-ide of life …
 

     There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who get Monty Python, and those who don’t. The dividing chasm is willingness to accept silliness. Python’s humor is physical (Google Silly Walk), yet it has an underlying winking, silly intelligence that the don’t-gets … well, don’t get.
    Fortunately for Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, the opening night audience for Monty Python’s Spamalot was filled mostly with gets. Based largely on the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail — but borrowing from plenty of other Python hits — the Mike Nichols-directed Spamalot premiered on Broadway in 2005 and won three Tonys, including Best Musical. Some of the humor that is directly aimed at a Broadway audience full of Python fanatics fell a little flat in Annapolis (case in point: the Mel Brooks-ish “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway … if you don’t have any Jews”). Some noticeable opening night tentativeness between orchestra and chorus will tighten up over the five-week run. But this is already a delightful production creatively directed by Jeffrey Lesniak and highlighted by stellar individual performances.
    Even if you haven’t seen the movie (and by all means, do, it’s timeless!), you’re in for a silly good time.
    As some Broadway musicals use a thin plot to string together strong songs, Spamalot uses its thin plot — Arthur and his knights searching for the Holy Grail — to string together classic Python comedy bits and a few songs. The songs are meant as much to skewer Broadway musicals as to push along said plot. Python founder and writer Eric Idle wrote the lyrics and book. A parody of Arthurian times, Spamalot revolves around King Arthur (a droll Ruben Vellekoop) and his knights of the “very round” table. The knights are the stars of this show.
    Each plays several roles with comic timing and delivery — not to mention the various speaking and singing voices — all spot on. Standing out in the voice department is David Merrill, whose Sir (Dennis) Galahad gets things moving with a hilarious diatribe about the woes of the working class. He then joins the Lady of the Lake (Alice Goldberg) for a satirical yet lyrical jab at formulaic Broadway called “The Song That Goes Like This.” Merrill’s tenor is a treat. Later he shines as the famed Black Knight, insisting “it’s just a flesh wound” after losing his limbs to his challenger. He reappears as Prince Herbert’s overbearing father, getting into a hilarious back and forth with two guards who can’t quite grasp the concept of “stay here.”
    The other knights — Sir Robin (Fred Fletcher-Jackson), Sir Lancelot (Joshua Mooney) and Sir Bedevere (DJ Wojciehowski) — each contribute several comedic turns. Notable is Mooney as the French Taunter (“I fart in your general direction!”), the Knight of Ni and, of course, Lancelot, whose sexuality is confirmed for him by the singers of “His Name Is Lancelot’ (“he likes to dance a lot; he wears tight pants a lot”). Other standouts: a very funny Steven Baird as Patsy, the king’s dedicated coconut-clopping sound effects toadie; and Austin Heemstra, who narrates things as the historian and gets his own laughs as Not Dead Fred, the Minstrel and Prince Herbert.
    In addition to the very effective duet with Merrill on “The Song That Goes Like This,” Goldberg’s Lady of the Lake takes another shot at Broadway tunes when she returns to the stage in “The Diva’s Lament” (“whatever happened to my part? It was exciting at the start …”).
    Perhaps the most famous Python song of them all, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” opens Act II (and returns very effectively after the curtain call) exclaiming “When you’re chewing on life’s gristle, don’t grumble, give a whistle.” Originally sung in Life of Brian by a chorus of the crucified, it works, very well, here.
    Also working very well is the multi-level castle set by Dan Lavanga and the wide variety of colorful costumes by Linda Swann. Only God and Eric Idle (one and the same in this show) know what was going on behind the scenes during those quick changes.
    Don’t think that because Spamalot runs through August 31 you can just gallop on over and secure a seat. Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre has a hit in this one, so the Holy Grail around Annapolis this month may be securing two tickets, not one chalice.


Music director: Steve Przybyiski. Choreographer: Rikki Howie Lacewell. Stage manager: John Nunemaker. Lighting designer: Matt Tillett. Sound designer: Dan Caughran. About 2 hours and 15 minutes including intermission.

Playing thru Aug. 31: Th-Su 8:30pm at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre. $20; rsvp: 410-268-9212;
www.summergarden.com.

The formula for the chemistry of commitment

     I Do! I Do! has been done over and over in community theaters, repertory theaters, dinner theaters and church basements since it closed on Broadway in 1968. One reason is that its two-person cast and simple single set of a four-poster bed make it far easier and less expensive to mount than the typical big-cast-and-chorus musical, thus very attractive to those looking to bring in an audience at relatively little cost.
    That’s not the only reason. The material was lightweight even for the 1960s, and the score produced only one recognizable hit. Yet both bring so much humor and empathy that anyone who is, has been or will be married can identify with Agnes and Michael Snow. It is their union the show follows for some 50 years from the honeymoon night all the way through to the sale of the house they lived in, loved in, argued in, raised kids in and sang to each other in for all those decades. It was written to begin in 1895 and end in 1945.
    Infinity’s production, tightly directed by Tina Marie Casamento and starring Daniella Dalli and Craig Laurie, takes a more modern setting, starting in the late 1950s and ending in the current day. The story is timeless enough that the change is barely noticeable.
    On Broadway, I Do! I Do! was a hit because the personalities and chemistry of stars Mary Martin and Robert Preston raised the level of the material. Infinity’s production is likely to be very popular for the same reason. Both Dalli and Laurie have personality plus, and their vocal chemistry elevates a score that was never one of Broadway’s more popular. Together, they turn the show’s hit, “My Cup Runneth Over,” a pop smash for big-baritone-voiced Ed Ames, into a more real-life paean to growing old together.
    The chemistry between Dalli and Laurie doesn’t stop with their vocals. As wide-eyed young love dims with the passing of the years — and the giggling embarrassment of the honeymoon night gives way to the inevitable vocal sparring of two people wondering years later whether they are where and with whom they want to be — both of these New York actors display an empathy for their characters and each other that remains strong throughout the rises and falls of a long marriage. That arc — from love to frustration to anger to cheating to loneliness and back — is one we’ve all seen on stage and film time and time again. Still, these actors know how to deliver a vocal quip and a physical take in ways that make it all seem fresh. Through it all, they never lose sight of the depth of feeling that must anchor each of these moments, just as it anchors the ups and downs of any long-term relationship.
    Dalli takes Agnes through the decades with a charming and knowing subtlety, gradually aging in body and blooming in attitude but never varying from the personality that makes her the anchor of this production. Her beautiful, rich soprano is the perfect vehicle to carry the emotional ups and downs of Agnes’ songs.
    Laurie is more of a character actor than a leading man à la Robert Preston, so we get a Michael who is a bit broader than one might expect. Laurie pulls it off because of that chemistry with Dalli, because he connects with the audience in a way many actors can’t and because, through it all, he never loses touch with that aforementioned depth.
    Music director David Libby keeps it simple, with pianist Paul Campbell playing a single keyboard in accompaniment because, frankly, that’s all two people singing a nice, relatively simple score really need. A single live keyboard played well is almost always more emotionally satisfying and effective than a recorded and digitized orchestra.
    That simple set with the four-poster bed? Turns out it’s not so simple. Being a professional theater company, Infinity knows how to get the most out of a set, and does so with this one. What appears to be just a big headboard, for example, turns into everything from the altar of a church to a quilt of lights mimicking Agnes’ and Michael’s raised voices in the same ritual married couples everywhere have engaged in since time began: talking past each other from opposite sides of the house.
    It is this, and so much more of ourselves, our parents and our married friends, that we recognize in I Do! I Do! The play is a salute to the institution of marriage, and Infinity carries on the tradition delightfully.


Scenic designer Paul Tate DePoo III; Sound designer Wes Shippee; Stage manager Geoffrey Weiss; Costume designer Tristan Raines; Lighting designer Jimmy Lawlor.

About 2 hours and 15 minutes including intermission. Runs through August 3: Thursdays at 2pm and 7pm; Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 2pm; added performances on Wednesday, July 23 at 7pm and Friday, August 1 at 8pm. Advance tickets $35, $40 at the door (seniors $34/$29): call 877-501-8499 or visit www.infinitytheatrecompany.com

That was pretty cool!

Rock musical and Andrew Jackson make a logical theatrical fit when you think about it: arrows cutting people down in mid-sentence; the scandal of marrying a married woman; a “people’s president” who strengthens the power of his office — yet sparks the creation of the Democratic party while crafting his image to get what he wants. There’s a lot of stage-worthy material to be mined from the life of our seventh president, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson reaches deep. What emerges is a loud, profane, politically incorrect, funny and raucous show that offers daunting challenges to any company daring to stage it.
    The Theatre at Anne Arundel Community College surmounts most of those challenges, offering a lively and enjoyable production overall. One big plus: A talented and tight rock combo nestled upstage. They adeptly accompany screaming rock and quiet ballads. I’d love to credit them but, curiously, their names do not appear in the program. 
    As Andrew Jackson, Vincent Capuano plays at both ends of the hit-and-miss spectrum. He has a commanding stage presence, a good voice and knows his subject, both as history and as written by the playwrights. But he misses a few of the screamin’ rock ‘n’ roll high notes early on, though his voice warmed up as the show progressed.
    In Act II of this second night of the run, he carried a script. There are a lot of legitimate reasons that can happen — usually an actor has taken on a role late in production after another actor leaves. No explanation was offered, so there will be no judgment here. But those paying $20 a ticket may have done some judging. To his credit, Capuano didn’t seem to miss a beat. Here’s hoping the break between weekends eliminates the on-stage book because Capuano’s talent deserves to be unleashed in this role.
    Jennie Woods excels as Rachel Jackson, Andrew’s wife. Her comic timing is sharp, and she is equally adept at drama. Her pleasant voice is perfectly matched to her songs, which is another way of saying she is so talented she makes them her own. Rachel grounds her rock star husband. Woods likewise gives substance to this production, adding heart to the zaniness.
    The rest of the cast commits to each role, often playing several. They have a blast doing it, yet director Dr. Lars Tatom’s guidance has set clear parameters so that they resist the temptation to go too far in a very over-the-top show. That makes it a lot easier for the audience to go along for the ride.
    What isn’t easy on the audience is, too often, the sound. By definition, a rock musical is going to be loud, and there are times when the college sound system and acoustics, clearly not built for such volume, erupt into painful distortion. When the entire chorus gets going, with all those body mikes fighting for radio frequency, the din often drowns the words. 
    When’s the last time you went to a rock concert and heard all the words? Still had fun, didn’t you?
    That’s how to approach Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. It’s a fun show, performed by a talented cast. Like any rock concert it has its hits and misses. But you walk out, ears ringing, saying that was pretty cool.

Director and producer: Lars Tatom. Music director: Aaron Smith. Choreographer: Tommy Parlon. Stage manager: Brittany Adams.

Playing April 17-19, ThFSa 8pm at Kauffman Theatre, Anne Arundel Community College, Arnold. $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410 777-2457; boxoffice@aacc.edu.

See it, and Shakespeare lives

Shakespeare’s plays are still being performed 400 years after they were created because they were brilliantly written but also because their themes are timeless.
    Not every theater company that takes on Shakespeare can live up to the Bard’s talent and intent, moving beyond the page to vitalize his characters, prose and situations. But when Shakespeare is done well, his stories jump off the page and into our consciousness, demanding our attention and forcing us not just to understand but also to feel what his characters are feeling, and why.
    So it is with Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet. Beautifully realized, stylistically and brilliantly transposed into the current day, this Hamlet is a tour de force, a masterwork for the company. Director and set and sound designer Sally Boyett, the company’s producing artistic director, has earned a reputation for her economical yet transformative use of the Bowie Playhouse stage. This production furthers that reputation. From the huge gilded frames that hang from a dark sky to the sacrifice of a few house seats in favor of a platform that thrusts the actors almost halfway into the audience, this is an impressively aesthetic production.
    Boyett’s haunting and ethereal sound and Paul Collins’ often eerie lighting accompany our journey through Hamlet’s madness and his thirst for revenge. Maggie Cason’s costumes, mostly muted grays but with a touch of blood-red seemingly everywhere, remind us that madness, revenge and betrayal are not only to be found in Shakespeare’s time.
    Of course, none of this matters if the acting and direction do not achieve the same standards, and here both are surpassing. Every one of our community theater actors and directors would benefit from attending at least one of Annapolis Shakespeare’s productions, especially this one, because the dedication and commitment to character, to dialect, to pacing and to clarity are unsurpassed.
    Manu Kumasi’s Hamlet is stellar, the fire and humor coming not just from the staccato delivery of his lines but blasting from his every pore. His physicality seems to envelop the theater, especially when he ascends to the end of that aforementioned platform and with sheer passion imposes his world onto ours, his fiery eyes just feet away from ours, boring directly into us and gripping us with his madness.
    Likewise, Audrey Bertaux brings us an Ophelia whose own tragic fall into madness could have been over the top in less capable hands. Instead, we are drawn into the character’s decline and feel pity for the way Hamlet projects his anger toward his mother onto her.
    Nafeesa Monroe as Gertrude and Paul Edward Hope as Claudius lead the rest of the company, several of whom very effectively play multiple roles. From Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Horatio to Polonius and all the rest you read about in school, this is Shakespeare at his best, flying off the pages and brought to life in a production whose superlative whole is far greater than the sum of its very excellent parts.

Producer: Kristen Clippard. Stage manager: Monica Jones. Dialect coach: Nancy Krebs.
Playing thru April 13. Th 7pm, F 8pm, Sa 2pm & 8pm, Su 3pm at the Bowie Playhouse, White Marsh Park Park. $24/$20: 410-415-3513; www.annapolisshakespeare.org.