Posts tagged with Ku Theatre

“Intimate Apparel” a perfect production

Occasionally, a play comes along that is so beautiful, so perfectly produced, and so exquisitely performed it is difficult to describe. Such is the case with Kansas University Theatre’s production of Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel.”

The show, which opened April 3 and runs through the 11th, is easily one of the best that’s been onstage in Lawrence this season. That it was handled so deftly by actors who were mostly freshmen and sophomores and directed by a doctoral candidate rather than a seasoned professor makes it that much more extraordinary.

Nottage’s play is set in New York in 1905 and tells the story of Esther Mills (Ashley Kennedy), an African-American seamstress. At 35 and single, Esther has made a successful business sewing corsets. Her best customers are wealthy, white socialite Mrs. Van Buren (Margaret Marie Hanzlick) and African-American prostitute Mayme (Isabella Hampton). She’s been sewing for 18 years and has been putting away money she intends to invest in a beauty parlor for black women, specializing in what she calls, “the kind of service we deserve but no one will give us.”

But she yearns for love. Her boarding lady Mrs. Dickson (Alysha Marie Griffin) constantly attempts to set her up with men, but Esther is holding out for the right man. She doesn’t want to just settle, despite being plain and a spinster.

She has a special relationship with Mr. Mark (Christoph Nevins), who owns the fabric shop where she gets her materials. He’s the only person who really seems to share her passion for fabric and color. But he’s an Orthodox Jew betrothed to a woman who has not yet come to America from his native Romania.

And so, when she starts receiving correspondence from George Armstrong (Zechariah Williams), a Panamanian canal worker, she allows him to court her by mail. She can’t read or write, so she enlists Mrs. Van Buren’s aid in writing to him. Eventually, he proposes marriage and she accepts.

But once he comes to America and they are wed, they discover that neither of them is the person they believed. The dream of marriage for Esther and of American opportunity for George turns sour.

Each of the actors gives a pitch-perfect performance. Hanzlick’s Mrs. Van Buren is both enthusiastic in her desire to aid Esther and forlorn at her inability to have children and her loveless marriage. She is white and rich, but she is every bit as trapped by society as Esther, and Hanzlick conveys her misery and regret clearly without overdoing it.

Likewise, Hampton gives a strong but subtle performance as the burned-out prostitute Mayme. Hampton keeps the character vibrant but worn down by years of disappointment and unsatisfying work. We feel both her despair and her hope, and neither is overstated.

Williams gives Nottage’s words real lift. In the first act, his only lines are the letters he has written to Esther, and he recites them so poetically he makes it easy for us to understand how she could fall in love with this man she has never met — how she could accept a marriage proposal from him before even seeing him.

But it’s Kennedy’s portrayal of Esther that really makes “Intimate Apparel” soar. She understands the complexities of the character’s feelings, hopes and dreams exactly. As good as her delivery of lines is, it is her acting when not speaking that makes her performance so outstanding. In the first act, Williams is lit as George when he reads his letters, and Kennedy and anyone onstage turns to face him. Each time he speaks, Kennedy’s face lights up, transformed from the worry of her life as a spinster seamstress to that of a woman falling in love. Despite the focus of the scene being elsewhere, her reaction compels us to watch her. The intimacy of the Inge Theatre allows the audience to see the depth of her emotion.

She creates real chemistry with Nevins. In one scene, she wants to touch him even though she knows it’s forbidden. Her cautious approach and her hesitation before finally finding the courage to do it are achingly beautiful, and Nevins’s reaction of fear and joy at what it means is equally perfect.

The set is gorgeous. Rebecca Damren creates a single set that is divided into five distinct places. Only Esther moves from location to location. The other characters remain in their appointed spots until the second act when George first joins Esther at her apartment and then Mayme in hers. The spatial violation he commits helps portend the play’s tragic conclusion.

Part of the brilliance of Scott C. Knowles’s direction is it’s hard to tell where his instructions leave off and where the actors’ instincts begin. He’s crafted a perfect telling of Nottage’s story by casting the right people and putting them in a position to succeed.

“Intimate Apparel” is that rare, extraordinary play where everything is right. The story, the words, the acting, the lighting, the set, and the direction are all beautiful. It demands to be seen.

"Intimate Apparel" continues April 5, 7, 9, 10, and 11 in the William Inge Memorial Theatre at Kansas University. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. except April 7, when it is at 2:30 p.m. Tickets range from $10-$15. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.kutheatre.com/12-13_season/IntimateApparel.shtml.

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‘Intimate Apparel’ examines lost period of African-American history

There’s no shortage of literature on the African-American experience in the 20th century. From Toni Morrison to Ralph Ellison to Austin Pickett, there is a lot of great material chronicling being black in America in modernity.

But most of it is set during and after the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.

“There’s a period of lost history between the Emancipation and the Harlem Renaissance,” says KU doctoral candidate Scott C. Knowles.

Knowles is directing University Theatre’s new production of Lynn Nottage’s play “Intimate Apparel.” Set in 1905, it tells the story of Esther, a black seamstress in New York, who has found a successful business niche making women’s undergarments.

“She makes lingerie for high-society ladies and for prostitutes,” Knowles says.

Esther dreams of one day opening a beauty shop. She’s been saving her earnings from her lingerie business for years with the goal of doing what she really wants, not just what makes her successful.

Nottage, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her play “Ruin,” wanted to reclaim this period of African-American history.

“It’s a play about racial relations, class relations, and gender relations,” Knowles says about the complex story.

Esther begins correspondence with a man working on the Panama Canal. He eventually comes to New York, and they are married. But it’s a marriage of societal expectations.

Esther is more interested in Mr. Marks, from whom she buys her materials. They share interest in fabrics and colors. But she’s black, and he’s an Orthodox Jew.

“There is no way for them to be together,” Knowles says.

The story is further complicated by Esther’s principal customers.

“Maymie, the prostitute, sleeps with her husband,” Knowles says. “And Mrs. Van Buren, the society lady, becomes attracted to Esther, who’s really uncomfortable with it. What’s great about that is it’s not disturbing because the attention is from a woman; it’s disturbing because the attention is unwelcome. It’s the same as if it had come from a man.”

Knowles became interested in “Intimate Apparel” because of its exploration of complex issues.

“My research is in minority issues in theater,” he says. “This play deals with many of those concerns.”

But it was really the artistic merits of the play that drew his attention.

“It’s an absolutely beautiful story,” he says. “It’s really a story about falling in love with the wrong person.”

“Intimate Apparel” runs April 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10 and 11 at the Inge Theatre at the University of Kansas. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. for all shows except Sunday, April 7, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $10-$15 and are available by calling 785-864-3982 or online at kutheatre.com.

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“If the Whole Body Dies” engrossing and educational

It is a daunting task trying to tell the life story of one of history’s more important but largely forgotten figures in an hour’s time. That’s what guest artist, Robert Skloot, and a cast of 10 KU students pull off in “If the Whole Body Dies: Raphael Lemkin and the Treaty against Genocide.”

Skloot, who wrote the one-act play, stars as the titular Lemkin, a Polish-born Jew, who escaped the Holocaust by immigrating to the U.S. in 1941, coined the word, “genocide,” and went on to help the U.N. craft its convention outlawing genocide and lobbying member nations to sign on. Skloot’s dramatic biography gives us a tortured Lemkin — a man laboring in obscurity yet quietly succeeding on the world stage.

The play is surreal. It takes place largely in Lemkin’s mind, alternating between mental conversations with Anne Frank and his mother — murdered in a Nazi concentration camp along with 48 other members of his family — and real-life correspondences with Senator William Proxmire from Wisconsin — and others. The narrative moves back and forth through time, never telling us exactly when in Lemkin’s life it is happening but managing to maintain a clear story of the struggle to have the treaty ratified.

Skloot gives a tour-de-force performance as Lemkin. From the moment the play opens, it's obvious this is a man with a singular obsession. He speaks of the influence of “Quo Vadis” on his early thinking and his inability to understand why the Romans would try to wipe out the early Christians. Naturally, he is equally confused when the Nazis attempt to do the same to his own people. He is proud of himself for inventing the word that describes this (Lemkin held Ph.D.s in law and linguistics), and he is mystified that it is so hard to get civilized nations to agree to a law prohibiting something so fundamentally inhuman as genocide.

As the play progresses, Lemkin receives call after call from creditors demanding he pay them what is owed. He confesses he travels so much and is so obsessed with his work he forgets to pay his bills. His meager professor’s salary at Yale is hardly enough to cover all his expenses.

By the end of the show, one wonders if he hasn’t gone insane with frustration. Skloot’s Lemkin rages against the unfairness of it all. He is continually rejected by publishers, who don’t think they can sell a book on the history of genocide or the autobiography of a man who crusades against it. He has been nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize, but he never wins. The alleged worldwide leader in human rights — the U.S. — refuses to adopt his treaty.

Skloot is in command of his performance at every moment. He portrays the Lear-like Lemkin with grace and anger, with wisdom and frustration. One expects a playwright to know his characters best, but Skloot plays an historical personage. He has obviously done his homework well — not just in crafting a tight and elegant script, but also in his characterization of the obscure Lemkin.

Several strong performances from the supporting cast enhance the production. Festus Wade Shaughnessy IV is sharp as the slick Proxmire. He is friendly and interested in advancing Lemkin’s cause, but he is quick to end each call as soon as Lemkin presses for a meeting.

Janice Craft is both endearing and heartrending as Lemkin’s mother. She alternately scolds him for his obsessions and inspires him to work harder to bring justice to her memory.

The play is curiously directed by John Gronbeck-Tedesco. He conceives it as a radio drama, setting it on a soundstage. The show is presented as a staged reading, with a narrator (Margaret Hanzlick) reading the stage directions. At curtain, she welcomes the audience to a “live rehearsal” of the drama, which she says will be presented on NPR on December 31, but there is no mention of this in the program, so one assumes that is just part of the play’s presentation. To maintain the conceit that this is a rehearsal for a radio play, there is a foley artist (James Teller), and there are several stoppages to “correct” someone’s performance.

None of this adds anything to the presentation of the show, and images of Lemkin and of Nazi concentration camps projected onto a screen on the back wall belie the radio-drama fiction. It does give the actors a reason to work script in hand, an important consideration given that Skloot arrived in town only two days before opening night, which likely limited rehearsals.

Staging aside, “If the Whole Body Dies” is an engrossing drama that sheds light on one of history’s more forgotten figures. Only seven people attended Lemkin’s funeral in 1959, and little was known about him until recently. Skloot’s play is not only well written and acted but it also does a great service to history.

“If the Whole Body Dies” runs Dec. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 at the Inge Theatre on the Kansas University campus.

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KU Theatre’s ‘Into the Woods’ enchanting

"Cinderella," "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Little Red Riding Hood," and "Rapunzel" come to life in a whole new way on the Crafton-Preyer stage at Kansas University in "Into the Woods." The 1987 musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine ties together several famous fairy tales in enchanting fashion.

Principal to the plot are a Baker (Joseph Carr) and a Witch (Julia Geiser). The Witch is the one whose garden Rapunzel's (Lacey Eaton) father stole from. She took his daughter and placed a curse on his family so the Baker (Rapunzel's brother) and his wife (Shannon Buhler) can't have a child. However, she agrees to lift it if they can gather Red Riding Hood's (Jaclyn Nischbach) cloak, Jack's (Alexander Goering) cow, and Cinderella's (Sofia Belhauari) slipper.

All of these characters and several others move through a magical woods, encountering each other and ultimately fulfilling the Witch's demands.

The first act follows the tales largely as we know them. In the second act, Lapine focuses on the consequences of getting what we want. What happens when you'll do anything to have a baby? When you steal from a giant? When you marry a prince?

The production, exquisitely directed by John Staniunas, is outstanding. Every performance is exceptional. A strong cast of singers brings Sondheim's demanding music delightfully to life.

Each actor shows complete command of their songs, varying from sensitive to powerful exactly when called for.

Furthermore, Lapine's script is a mature work, calling for sophisticated portrayals and an understanding of life's tragedies and triumphs young people sometimes lack the experience to fully comprehend. That's not the case here. Carr and Buhler clearly grasp the complexities of wanting a child so badly and not being able to have one. Both give sensitive performances as people who give into desperation. They are willing to swindle Jack to get the cow they need and to steal some of Rapunzel's hair. The Baker attempts to pilfer Red's cloak but discovers he can't live with himself if he does. It's all honestly and convincingly portrayed.

Likewise, Belhauari's Cinderella is conflicted. She wants so badly to escape the tragedy of her life with her father and step-family, but she just isn't sure she wants this prince. When he betrays her in the second act, she isn't angry with him so much as relieved. She wants a life of her own that she chooses, not, as she puts it, the nightmare of her father's house or the dream of the prince's.

The prince himself, played with panache by Ed Schubel, discovers getting Cinderella isn't enough. He wants constantly to be winning something and can't seem to be satisfied with what he has. Schubel finds a way to make his prince sympathetic to the audience rather than reprehensible.

For young actors to be able to give such sophisticated performances is a testament to their talent and to Staniunas' directorial skill.

The set is gorgeous. Large towers covered in giant, velvet draperies stand in for the trees in the woods, and Staniunas makes good use of the stage’s revolve, frequently turning the trees to convey movement, a change of scenery, and to conceal actors as they enter and exit.

“Into the Woods” is long. The first act runs 90 minutes, and the whole thing is three hours. It suffers from the typical Sondheim maladies of too-wordy lyrics that are sometimes difficult to understand and a-melodic songs that just aren’t catchy.

But the acting, the singing, the direction, and the set design are so strong one doesn’t mind. “Into the Woods” is enchanting, intoxicating, well worth seeing.

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Slapstick too much of a good thing in ‘The 39 Steps’

Sometimes you can carry a joke too far. The first time, it gets a big laugh. So you turn it into a running gag. That makes it funny for awhile. But you have to know when to quit, because, if you don’t, it stops being funny and becomes tiresome.

That is, sadly, what happens with Kansas University Theatre’s production of Patrick Barlow’s “The 39 Steps.” It’s very, very funny for awhile. But the jokes just run on too long.

The show is a farcical adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller, that thrusts bored bachelor, Richard Hannay (Seth Andrew Macchi), into a web of intrigue when beautiful spy, Annabella Schmidt (Lindsey Roesti), starts a gunfight at the theater, begs Hannay to shelter her in his apartment, and then is murdered. Hannay is forced on the run from the police and the mysterious espionage organization, The 39 Steps, in a desperate attempt to clear his name.

The stage adaptation is played wholly for laughs. Roesti’s death scene in the apartment is outrageously funny, and she plunges across Macchi’s lap as he sits in an easy chair, forcing him to wriggle out from under her in ludicrous fashion.

The genius of the play is that Macchi is the only actor who plays the same role throughout. Roesti plays two other women with whom Hannay becomes involved during his adventure, and every other character in the show is played by two actors designated simply as Clown 1 (Tim Wilkinson) and Clown 2 (Alex Roschitz). Wilkinson and Roschitz dive into the silliness of switching from character to character (often multiple times within the same scene) with gusto. Both are clearly having the times of their lives as they shift from spies to lingerie salesmen to Scottish innkeepers and even to sheep.

Every one of the four actors is exceptionally gifted at physical comedy. In addition to wriggling out from under Roesti, Macchi manages to flip into at least six different positions while trying to sleep in the easy chair, climbs through a picture frame meant to be a window, and somehow balances his body lying on top of a very narrow crate. Wilkinson and Roschitz often accomplish character changes by switching hats and changing posture, and one particular scene required each of them to play three characters each speaking to the others. They spun and switched hats and wigs so the audience could keep straight who they were from line to line. At one point, they switched off between sheep and spies, dropping to their hands and knees and removing their hats when they were animals and reversing the process when they had a line.

As brilliant as the performances of the actors were, though, the production wasn’t able to sustain the humor throughout. In the first act, the jokes are fresh, and the pace is frenetic. But in the second act, the pacing slows way down, and the gags become tiresome. In particular, any time someone said, “The 39 Steps,” there was a music cue and the actor posed. It was funny at first, but, when it was repeated ad nauseum towards the end of the play, it became tedious.

All of which was a shame, because the four actors featured in “The 39 Steps” are clearly very talented performers, who did outstanding work attempting to bring the show to life. One wishes the slapstick had been dialed back just a bit so that the jokes stayed funny all the way to the end.

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Hitchcockian comedy ‘The 39 Steps’ marries espionage, hijinks

KU’s Crafton-Preyer Theatre is the scene of pre-World War II espionage, beginning Friday night when the curtain goes up on “The 39 Steps.”

Richard Hannay is a bored, 37-year-old Canadian bachelor living in London in 1935. Looking for a distraction one night, he attends a performance of Mr. Memory – a man with a photographic memory. But the show becomes more diverting than he planned when shots are fired and the beautiful Annabella Schmidt begs him to take her back to his apartment and hide her. She’s a spy, you see, and a mysterious organization known only as The 39 Steps is after her for weaponry secrets that could compromise Britain’s security.

Naturally, our playboy hero agrees to help her, and, just as naturally, she is murdered shortly thereafter. Now, Hannay must go on the run from The 39 Steps to unravel the mystery and clear his own name.

The play is based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film, and, if you don’t think it sounds like a comedy, you could be forgiven. But that’s exactly what it is. Hitchcock’s classic movie is re-imagined as a farce, and it comes off brilliantly.



In this image released by Boneau/Bryan-Brown,actors, from left, Arnie Burton, Francesa Faridany, Sean Mahon and Jeffrey Kuhnare shown in a scene from "The 39 Steps," playing at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre in New York.

In this image released by Boneau/Bryan-Brown,actors, from left, Arnie Burton, Francesa Faridany, Sean Mahon and Jeffrey Kuhnare shown in a scene from "The 39 Steps," playing at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre in New York.

The show uses only four actors. One man plays Hannay. A woman plays Schmidt as well as femme fatales Pamela and Margaret. Two more actors play Clown 1 and Clown 2, and they have the hardest parts of all. For they play every other character (and there are nearly 150) Hannay encounters, as well as a host of inanimate objects.

Conceived by Patrick Barlow, “The 39 Steps” premiered in London in 2006, where it won an Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. It came to Broadway in 2008, where it won two Tony Awards and a Drama Desk Award.

The show is under the direction of guest artist Alex Espy and features a number of homages to other Hitchcock films, including the famous crop-duster scene from “North by Northwest,” birds perching on a house sign, and Pamela suffering from vertigo.

“The 39 Steps” runs October 12, 13, 14, 18, 19, 20, and 21. Curtain is 2:30 p.m. for Sunday performances and 7:30 p.m. for all others. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 785-864-3982 or online at www.kutheatre.com.

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