For some time now, Theatre Lawrence has taken an annual break in March from Broadway musicals and light comedies, and offered a weighty drama often covering difficult issues. Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” is the company’s latest production in this tradition, and it’s a deeply moving, powerful play that doesn't pull any punches.
Brooke Wyeth (Kirsten Tretbar) returns home for the first time in six years on Christmas Eve 2004. Her parents, Lyman (Randy Parker) and Polly (Erica Fox), are delighted to see her, but it is clear almost from the get-go that there is a lot of family tension. Brooke is liberal; her parents are staunch Republicans (Lyman was an ambassador in the Reagan administration). With the second Gulf war in full rage, politics flow through the surtext of all their conversations.
Moreover, we learn quickly that Brooke was hospitalized for a mental breakdown and struggles with depression. Her Aunt Silda (Terry Schwartz) is staying at the house after having relapsed following five years of sobriety. And her brother Trip (Nicholas Johnson) produces a celebrity courtroom show no one in the family watches or approves of.
As if the natural tension this family dynamic produces isn’t enough, Brooke has just completed her new book. She reveals it is not actually a novel, as she originally told them, but is instead a memoir detailing the tragic and scandalous suicide in the 1970s of her older brother after he was implicated in the bombing an Army recruiting station. This rips the scab off everyone’s deepest wounds, and years of pent-up frustration and hostility come rushing to the surface.
It’s impossible to succinctly describe the depth of the characters and the events of “Other Desert Cities.” It is one of the richest plays Theatre Lawrence has offered in recent years, and all five actors hit the mark in their portrayals of this complex, dysfunctional family.
Tretbar is fascinating to watch as the damaged Brooke. From the moment she starts speaking, you can feel the tension and fear Brooke feels toward her parents. She so desperately wants their approval — not just in general but for the subject matter of her book. It’s a foolish hope. Not only is the topic something her parents want to keep buried, her rendering of it is extremely critical. Tretbar understands this dichotomy and communicates it flawlessly, delivering an outstanding performance in a difficult role.
Likewise, Parker’s Lyman is extremely complicated. A former actor and ambassador, Lyman is jovial and always easy to get along with, even when he has strongly held opinions on political matters. But he is stoic when it comes to emotions, preferring not to cause any kind of ugliness. Deep under the surface, though, there is a river of rage and regret at what happened 30 years ago, and, when it finally comes out, Parker draws the audience to the edge of its seat. It’s a powerful performance that sears when the secret is fully disclosed.
In one respect, Schwartz has the easiest role in the play. She is funny and on-the-mark as the recovering drunk and family black sheep. She hits all the right notes as the aging, California hippie. But she spends a lot of time onstage watching the action, and it’s here she really shines. Schwartz’s ability to act (and react) when she has no lines is extraordinary. She is riveting during the big reveal of the family secret, despite having few lines in the sequence. She renders an authenticity to the scene that would have been lacking had it been just Brooke and her parents.
Johnson does a fine job in the role of the youngest kid, who doesn't want to be put in the middle of the battle between his big sister and their parents. It would be easy for him to play his scenes with anger, but instead he infuses them with a gentle compassion for both sides that balances the passion from the other characters. And Fox delivers a strong performance as the domineering mother determined to prevent anyone in the family from failing, no matter the cost.
The set is gorgeous. Phillip Schroeder has done outstanding work in his short stint as Theatre Lawrence’s new technical director, and this might be his best set to date. One feels one is in a desert palace with Southwestern décor. It’s as though the living room of a typical California mansion were transplanted to the stage.
If “Other Desert Cities” has a flaw, it’s in its direction. Director Carole Ries thoughtfully stages the action to accommodate the people sitting on the far sides of Theatre Lawrence. But she brings much of the action down front and has the actors sit on a bench or stand behind a drink cart facing upstage. Thus, only the people in the corners get a clear view of the action. The tactic is most egregious when Parker’s grief is finally unmasked. Shouting his anger and his regret at his daughter, he gives his back to three quarters of the house. It’s a shame, because most of the audience is robbed of his gut-wrenching performance. There are many moments like this, and it was made worse by the fact that the show wasn't sold out, so many of these scenes were played to empty seats.
Still, “Other Desert Cities” — like many of the dramas Theatre Lawrence traditionally offers at this time of year — is a triumph. It is powerful, moving, and beautifully performed. It’s the rare community theater that is willing to offer this type of material, and TL should be commended not just for bringing challenging fare to Lawrence, but for rendering it so well.
Making alterations to a classic is a dicey business and one many artists relish. Ric Averill’s “A Kansas Nutcracker”, which adapts the beloved Tchaikovsky ballet to early Kansas history, is hit and miss but when it succeeds, it’s fine family holiday fare.
The show is set at Christmas 1861. The Civil War is raging and we find ourselves at a party at the home of the Stahlbaums, where practically every famous Kansan of the time period is in attendance – Governor Charles Robinson (Jason Van Nice), Senator James Lane (David Sturm), Hugh Cameron (Ric Averill) and Rev. Cordley (Hanan Misko) to name a few. As the curtain rises, the fictional Clara (Natalie Adams-Menendez) – the subject of the famous ballet – is writing to her father Dr. Stahlbaum (Larry Mitchell), who is in Washington setting up hospitals. Her godfather Drosselmeier (Jerry Mitchell) is a co-host of the party, and it is he who will give her the titular nutcracker as a Christmas gift. He also presents his handsome nephew Kurt (Blair Bracciano) as the newest recruit for the Union army. Clara is immediately attracted to him.
The action of the play centers around an intemperate debate between Lane and practically every other party guest on the rights of contraband slaves Lane captured at the Battle of Osceola. The family of slaves, headed by John Speer (Larry Nigh), is present at the party as guests of the Stahlbaums, much to Lane’s chagrin. He wants to keep them as property, even though Kansas is a free state. Drosselmeier, Mrs. Stahlbaum (Trish Neuteboom), and the Robinsons conspire to spirit them away north to Nebraska.
Meanwhile, Drosselmeier – one part abolitionist, one part toymaker and one part magician – entertains the guests, many of whom are children, with his wind-up toys that dance to the early selections in the Tchaikovsky ballet. The whole thing comes to a head when, just as in the original story, Clara’s nutcracker is broken by her younger brother. That sets up her dream wherein Kurt becomes the Nutcracker Prince and leads the toy soldiers in battle over mice and their fearsome King (Averill).
The story is a little contrived. It’s difficult to believe all these people would be at the same party on Christmas Eve, and it feels a little like a forced lesson in early Lawrence history. But it’s easy enough to suspend one’s disbelief and accept the conceit. Some of the performances are quite entertaining.
In particular, Jerry Mitchell is quite good as the melodramatic Drosselmeier. He plays the character over the top with exactly the right amount of panache, and his sleight of hand – from flowers up his sleeve to conjuring fireballs – adds a lot of charm.
Neuteboom gives a polished performance as Mrs. Stahlbaum that is often welcome when she defuses the play’s many arguments. Adams-Menendez is charming as Clara, breezing easily between love for her godfather, attraction to Kurt and annoyance at her siblings. Many of the younger children are appropriately cute in their small roles, particularly the groups that recite speeches for the three major socio-political movements of the time – abolition, suffrage and temperance.
A grant from the Douglas County Heritage Fund enabled the Lawrence Arts Center to significantly upgrade the period costumes for the show, and the results are outstanding. Steffani Day’s costuming during the pre-ballet story is spectacular.
But “A Kansas Nutcracker” really succeeds when it transforms from a play to a ballet. Bracciano and Adams-Menendez are as charming a young couple dancing as they are speaking, and they’re a delight to watch before the mice arrive to break up the party.
After the Mouse King’s defeat, Clara takes a dreamlike tour of Kansas, where the classic numbers are adapted to a Kansas setting – crickets, ravens, healing herbs, Kansas wildflowers and barnyard animals replace the traditional fare – and the Speers attempt to escape via the Underground Railroad. Young children as crickets and chickens and pigs and cows are quite cute. The flowers dance divinely to the “Waltz of the Sugar Plum Fairies”.
But the highlight of the ballet is the Arts Center’s new dance program director Hanan Misko. He holds a BFA from Julliard, and it shows. Misko dances the parts of the Snow King and an older Kurt, and he’s absolutely exquisite, moving with a grace that demands attention. Paired with Snow Queen Clarate Heckler and Older Clara Adriana Gramly, he offers both women a strong partner to enhance their dances while delivering a commanding presence of his own.
A subtle aspect of “A Kansas Nutcracker” that’s easy to overlook is the music itself. Tchaikovsky composed his ballet for a large, Romantic orchestra. Jeff Dearinger transposes it down for the 12-piece Free State Liberation Orchestra, and the results are outstanding. With no horns at his disposal, he still manages to capture the essential flavor of the music, transforming it from a giant, Romantic piece to a charming bit of chamber music. It’s really a fine feat, and it’s a testament to Dearinger’s skill to adapt so iconic a composition so flawlessly.
“A Kansas Nutcracker” is one of those uniquely Lawrence holiday treats. It’s not always perfect, but it has quite a bit of charm and is very good at times. It serves as a testament to the richness both of Lawrence’s history and of its current artistic talent.
You can’t do a show about an ogre small. At least Theatre Lawrence doesn’t seem to think so, as it pulls out all the stops for its lavish, extravagant production of “Shrek: The Musical”, which opened Friday night. Big, boisterous and over the top, “Shrek” pleases on many levels.
David Lindsey-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori ably adapt the beloved children’s film to stage with catchy songs and witty dialogue, much of which is lifted straight from the movie. All your favorite lines are there, including ogres being likened to onions and Lord Farquaad’s (John Robison) “Muffin Man” exchange with Gingy the Gingerbread Man (Skye Reid).
“Shrek” gets off to a slow start, with a long, background explanation of the titular ogre’s (Knute Pittenger) childhood, followed by the exile of the various fairy tale characters, which isn’t nearly as funny as it is in the film. This is as much due to Lindsey-Abaire’s script as it is to director Doug Weaver’s staging – there just isn’t a whole lot for the characters to do in these early scenes, although a gag with Pinocchio’s (Denis Tyner) nose growing when he lies is well executed. Once Shrek gets going on his quest to rid his swamp of these refugees and meets the overly extroverted Donkey (Jake Leet), the show picks up nicely and becomes quite entertaining.
Ironically for an outrageous musical comedy, the best songs are the ballads. “I Know It’s Today”, sung by Young Fiona (a terrific Josephine Pellow), Teen Fiona (Abby Sharp), and Fiona (Maggie Gremminger), it tells the story of the imprisoned princess growing up, fantasizing about how she will one day be rescued, and the eternal disappointment of it not happening. It’s a poignant piece rendered well by all three singers.
Likewise, Shrek’s “Who I’d Be” and “When Words Fail” are deeply revealing numbers that humanize the monstrous character. The former is a soaring piece wherein he dreams of being a hero instead of a hideous beast. The latter is a plaintive love song to Fiona, wherein he drops all his shields only to be tragically disappointed.
Pittenger seems to take his cue from these songs. His Shrek isn’t particularly ogre-ish. He complains a lot, but he’s not especially brutish. Rather, he’s a brooding, sad soul, who yearns for more than he has. When his feelings come to the surface, Pittenger unleashes them with beauty and grace – perhaps not what one expects of the character, but it is captivating. In particular, his lilting tenor voice is exquisite on “When Words Fail”.
The show is stolen in equal measure by Leet and Robison. Leet continues to develop into a fine young, comic actor, and he is at the top of his game as Donkey. He hurls himself around the stage with total abandon, has precise comic timing, and sings his bluesy numbers with a perfect jazz growl. “Make a Move”, a terrific soul piece, wherein Donkey recognizes Shrek and Fiona are falling in love, is his best song, and it’s a highlight of the second act.
Likewise, Robison is delightfully over the top in his rendering of the narcissistic, height-impaired Farquaad. To accomplish the joke that Farquaad is overly short, Robison plays the part on his knees, with puppet legs attached to a harness. The visual effect is hilarious, and Robison revels in the ridiculousness of it all. No sight gag is, if you’ll excuse the pun, too low for him, and he is a joy to watch every moment he is onstage.
Leet’s and Robison’s performances notwithstanding, the real star of “Shrek: The Musical” is its production crew. Phillip Schroeder’s set is glorious. Giant pieces such as a tree large enough to contain a home and a castle façade bring the faraway land of the setting to life. Computer projections on the back wall scrim take us to Shrek’s swamp, a fiery tower, and the idyllic city of Duloc. During one scene, the moon gradually rises at night. And the technical highlight of the show is the appearance of a 25-foot, singing and dancing dragon animated by four puppeteers.
Weaver makes good use of the set pieces and the stage, ably demonstrating what an imaginative director can do with Theatre Lawrence’s gargantuan, new space. Fiona’s tower moves on and off. Shrek’s home moves on the revolve to change perspective. And when the dragon makes her big entrance, it is pure theater magic. This is easily the biggest production in TL’s history, and Weaver doesn’t waste any of the opportunities the facility provides.
In addition to the set, the costumes by Swamptastics (a brief Google search didn’t reveal who this is) are spectacular. Pittenger looks exactly like his animated counterpart. Leet is covered from head to toe in fur, and his hands are hooves. Farquaad and his minions are clothed in exceptional royal finery. Pinocchio has a nose that actually grows. The entire cast is clothed as little wooden robots for the welcome-to-Duloc scene meant to invoke images of Disneyland. “Shrek” is gorgeous to look at.
There were a few technical difficulties. Tyner’s microphone kept feeding back, likely due to the prosthetic nose he was wearing, and the back wall projector misfired a few times. Overall, though, the production aspects of the show were stunning.
“Shrek” runs a little long. There’s no fluff in the script, but it isn’t a short story, and that can strain little ones’ attentions. Also, parents should be warned that, like the movie on which it is based, “Shrek: The Musical” over-relies on bathroom humor, particularly during Shrek and Fiona’s sophomoric duet, “I Think I Got You Beat.”
But if you don’t mind that sort of thing, “Shrek: The Musical” is a holiday treat worth seeing. A fantastic production, it really raises the bar for future shows at Theatre Lawrence while sneaking in a pretty good message about believing in oneself, some catchy songs and a lot of laughs.
Lynn Deboeck doesn’t like the term, “period piece.” At least not with regard to Naomi Wallace’s “And I and Silence,” which opens Friday in KU’s Inge Theatre under Deboeck’s direction.
“It’s set in the 1950’s time period for a reason,” the third-year doctoral candidate says. But “the 50’s time period throws (the show’s themes) into greater relief.”
And those themes are deep. The play tells the story of two women in prison. Jamie is black. She’s wrongfully convicted of accessory to robbery and incarcerated for nine years. In jail, she meets Dee, who’s white and sentenced to nine years for murdering her father because he was abusing her mother and her. Despite their different backgrounds, they become friends.
“When they’re in prison, they plan what they’re going to do when they get out,” Deboeck says. “In the second act, when they are out and older, they discover they’re still in prison. But, this time, it’s societal expectations imprisoning them.”
Deboeck’s been looking for this opportunity for awhile. A fan of Wallace’s work, she purchased a copy of “And I and Silence” from Amazon.com several years ago.
“I read it cover to cover four times in a row when I got it,” she confesses.
She originally proposed it to Ottawa University, and they were interested. But it turned out the amateur rights weren’t available at the time. When she got a chance to do it for it for her doctorate, she was overjoyed.
“I think it’s a fabulous play for young actors,” Deboeck says. “I think these women are relatable.”
Of course, whether she calls it a period piece or not, the play is set in the 50’s, and the historical events of that period might require some education for actors in their late teens or early 20’s.
“When we sat down to do table-work,” I had this whole plan to educate them on the civil rights movement,” Deboeck says. “Instead, it came from the cast.”
She found her cast members all were aware of the events, but they had totally different views of them.
“My white actors went to school, and they learned about these events, and then they went home, and that was the end of their education on it. But the black actors learned about it in school, and then they went home, and their parents taught them even more about it. The white actors had this academic understanding of the civil rights movement, but, for the black actors, it was experiential. “That led to everyone really learning about each other and coming to understand each other’s perspective a lot more.”
In the play’s second act, Jamie fights against who she is more than Dee.
“She just wants to be normal,” Deboeck says. “She doesn’t want to be judged.” Ultimately, that’s what’s at the heart of the play. It explores the concept of prison – both the physical ones and the societal ones we have imposed on us. It examines their nature and what they do to their victims.
“I hope (the audience) comes away with their own sense of responsibility for acknowledging the prisons of this world,” Deboeck says.
“And I and Silence” opens Friday, October 25 at the Inge Theatre in KU’s Murphy Hall. It runs Oct. 26, 27, 29 and 30. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. except Sunday when it is 2:30 p.m. An audience talkback follows the performance on the Oct. 26. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 785-864-3982 or online at kutheatre.com.
School is almost out for the summer, which means the Lawrence Arts Center is gearing up for its annual Summer Youth Theater camps. Auditions for all four sessions will be held Sunday, May 5, beginning at 2 p.m.
As usual, SYT caters to two separate age groups – third- through eighth-graders and eighth- through 12th-graders. Children in the younger group can audition for “The Pirates of Penzance” by Gilbert & Sullivan and directed by Jennifer Glenn, and “The Complete History of Kansas in 60 Minutes” by local playwright, Will Averill, and directed by Elizabeth Sullivan.
The older age group will audition for “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare and directed by Doug Weaver, and “Hairspray” by Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meehan and directed by Diana Dresser.
Rehearsals for “The Pirates of Penzance” and “Macbeth” begin Tuesday, May 28. Performances for “Pirates” are June 13, 14, and 15. “Macbeth” stages June 20, 21, 22, and 23. Both “The Complete History of Kansas in 60 Minutes” and “Hairspray” start rehearsing Monday, July 1. “Kansas” runs July 18, 19, and 20, while “Hairspray” is up July 25, 26, 27, and 28.
Students should come with a prepared monologue to read. Those interested in “Pirates” and “Hairspray” should also prepare a short song. Participants may choose to audition for two shows or just one. Students entering or graduating from eighth grade may choose whether to audition for the younger or older age group, including performing in one show with each.
Parents are encouraged to call the Arts Center at 785-843-2787 to schedule an audition time. Those auditioning for the younger age group will be doing so in groups starting at the top of each hour. Callbacks will be Monday and Tuesday evenings.
Cost to participate is $200 per student for one show, $350 for two shows. Scholarships assistance is available. Contact the Arts Center for an application.