Say “Shakespeare” and you conjure worry in the minds of many — in audience members, who fear they may not get it; in actors, who think it may be too hard; in directors who worry it may be too dated.
You won’t get any of those reactions from Peter Zazzali, who’s directing a new production of “Much Ado About Nothing” that opens tonight on the Crafton-Preyer stage at Kansas University.
“I’ve always adored ‘Much Ado About Nothing,'” he says. “I’ve done it twice as an actor, and the wit is sublime.”
One of the Bard’s sophisticated comedies, “Much Ado” follows two sets of lovers — Beatrice and Benedick, and Hero and Claudio — whose stories interconnect. The former are an unlikely pair who come together to help the latter.
“The two plots weave together nicely,” Zazzali says. “It’s much stronger than many of (Shakespeare’s) comedies.”
Of course, there is always that fear that audiences won’t be keen on watching people speak airy, Elizabethan prose wearing tights and capes. To help, Zazzali has brought this production forward in time to the 21st century.
“No one speaks that way now,” Zazzali says of the language. “No one spoke that way then. To do a traditional Elizabethan version of the play might have been dull and not nearly as engaging for a modern audience.”
That doesn’t mean he thinks Shakespeare has nothing to say in 2014.
“The themes of the play run rife across history,” he says. “Putting it in a modern context causes it to speak to us.”
Zazzali’s version has more than contemporary costuming to bring the play up to date. Shakespeare’s original text features a band of soldiers returning from war and being celebrated as heroes. Zazzali has changed that to a soccer team.
“I thought, given our sports-crazy, KU culture, that would give them something they could root for,” he says.
But Zazzali isn’t interested in rewriting Shakespeare. On the contrary, he has great reverence for the Bard and his work.
“I was interested in the spirit of the words of the play without dumbing it down,” he says. “We made a few cuts to shorten the run time and a few changes to modernize the setting, but the language is very much intact. You can’t do Shakespeare well without paying service to the words.”
Bringing 16th century comedy to a modern audience has other challenges too. One of them was the stage.
“The Crafton-Preyer Theatre is an enormous space,” Zazzali says. “It’s a classic proscenium and a huge audience, which doesn’t lend itself well to Shakespeare. A thrust stage is more suitable for Shakespeare. That’s how it was originally performed.”
But Zazzali was undeterred. Just as he modified the script for contemporary times, he adapted the stage to make the show more intimate.
“I arranged that the set is built from the proscenium ramp down into the audience,” he says. “We’re bringing the actors, the words right to the audience.”
And so the Bard of Avon returns to the KU campus, updated and fresh, timeless and classic. Zazzali sums up the whole thing — the play and the experience — succinctly: “It’s been a delight.”
“Much Ado About Nothing” opens tonight and runs March 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9 on the Crafton-Preyer stage in Murphy Hall on the Kansas University. Curtain is 7:30 p.m, except Sundays, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 785-864-3982 or online at www.kutheatre.com.
Everything old is new again seems to be the theme of this year’s Black Box Directing Project at KU’s University Theatre. Student directors brought fresh visions to Anton Chekhov’s “The Boor” and the biggest classic of them all, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
“The Boor,” under the direction of senior theater major Brian Buntin, tells the story of a grief-stricken widow, Helena (Abby Hadel), and her long-suffering servant, Luka (Sophia Hail). Helena’s husband died seven months ago, and, despite his having been a philanderer and cruel to her in life, she is determined to remain completely devoted to him in death, much to Luka’s chagrin.
Her plan is interrupted when Grigori Smirnov (Josuha A. Greene) arrives, demanding she pay one of her husband’s debts. He needs the money today because of his own financial problems, but she can’t get it for two days. The two begin quarreling, and hilarity ensues as Chekhov makes his point about the absurdity of love and male-female relations.
Hadel is hilarious as the overdramatic Helena. She is a master of facial comedy, contorting her expression into one sidesplitting reaction to Greene and Hail after another. In fact, if Buntin’s direction has a flaw, it is that he often puts the Hadel and Greene on opposite sides of the stage, so that one has to choose whether to watch him deliver his lines or watch her react to them. It’s a very small blemish on the production, but some of the comedy is missed by not being able to see everything Hadel does when she doesn’t have lines.
Hail is equally funny as the put-upon Luka. Both Helena and Grigori order him about without any consideration to practicality or his feelings, and Hail perfectly captures the attitude of an older man, who begrudgingly accepts an unfortunate lot in life. She also has a strong command of physical comedy, eliciting uproarious laughter from the audience during a sequence when Luka appears to be having a heart attack and neither Helena nor Grigori notice, so consumed are they in their argument.
Despite his desire to present Chekhov’s comedy classically, Buntin allows himself to explore fresh territory by casting a woman in the role of Luka. Hail wears a wig, mustache and tuxedo, but she’s clearly female. Thus, even in Buntin’s straight presentation of “The Boor,” we get something new.
After a brief intermission, an ensemble cast of six actors (Jake Dutton, Kendra J. Hacker, Alena Ivanov, Justin Petty, Zechariah Williams and Brianna Woods) takes on three short revisions of “Hamlet,” each directed by a Ph.D. student in KU’s theater department.
First up is Tom Stoppard’s “The 15-Minute Hamlet” directed by Danny Devlin. As the troupe tells us, “Hamlet” is the longest play in the English language, taking, on average, five and a half hours to perform. The role of Hamlet is also the longest part, with more lines than any other role in an English-language play.
Stoppard boils it all down to a 15-minute synopsis, which is played for comedy with panache and gusto by the sextet, many of them playing multiple roles. Stoppard’s play takes all its lines from the original, essentially condensing it down to a Cliff’s Notes version. Devlin adds an introduction wherein the cast interacts with the audience, explains what they’re going to do, and even gives an audience member a stopwatch to time their performance. It works to good comic effect, made all the funnier by what is cut out and glossed over.
The second play is “The Dick and Jane Hamlet” by Larry Siegel. Directed by Jeanne Tiehen, this version spoofs children’s programming. Its title references early reading primers from the '60s and '70s, but, in addition to lampooning those banal teaching tools, it also takes shots at the more modern, sugary, toddler programming on daytime television. The cast assumes the roles of actors on a “story time” type of TV show with lots of over-the-top enthusiasm.
Today’s episode of the show features “Hamlet,” and the action goes from silly (they don’t really seem to be telling “Hamlet”) to ridiculous when everyone starts dying. It’s another fine bit of comedy made more fun by the same actors from the Stoppard play getting different roles in this one.
But it is the dark, surreal “Hamletmachine” directed by Scott Knowles that really puts the whole evening into perspective. Heiner Müller’s postmodern attack on contemporary culture and traditional gender roles as expressed by Hamlet and Ophelia plays like the odder moments of a David Lynch film.
The actors throw books, destroy the set, tear off their Shakespearean costuming, and generally commit mayhem while Hamlet rages that he no longer wants to act as he’s supposed to or even be a man. Meanwhile, Ophelia rejects the classic female role of mother and nurturer. In its strange way, it both embraces the essential conflicts of these characters while completely exploding them.
And perhaps that’s the point of this year’s project. Buntin embraces classic theater with a straight portrayal of “The Boor” but bends the gender roles a shade by casting a woman in a man’s part. Devlin lampoons the greatest play in the language by comically reducing it to a frenetic 15-minute short. Tiehen uses “Hamlet” to mock what we’re teaching our children and vice versa. And then Knowles blows the whole thing up with an experimental piece that borders on violent.
It’s thought-provoking theater, and, even if it doesn’t always make sense, it has young actors and directors pushing limits and finding something new, something fresh, in something very familiar.
Say “The Addams Family” and the first thing to pop into your mind is likely the macabre TV show from the 60s. Failing that, it’s probably the two movies from the 90s starring Raul Julia, Anjelica Huston and Christina Ricci based on the show.
Regardless, the music you likely associate with it is the iconic theme song. Whether you know the words or not, you know when to snap your fingers.
But there is more music than that. A lot more. In 2010, a Broadway musical based on “The Addams Family” premiered and starred Nathan Lane as family patriarch, Gomez, and Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia. It won a Drama Desk Award for outstanding set design and several Broadway.com fan awards, including favorite new musical.
The show ran for two years before closing, and a new tour hits the Lied Center stage Wednesday night.
The TV show was based on a series of single-panel gag comics by Charles Addams. The musical features an original story by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (the team behind “Jersey Boys”) based on the comic, rather than on the series or the movies.
Sinister Wednesday Addams is grown up and has fallen in love with a normal boy named Lucas. She confesses that love is changing her from her ghoulish ways, and she has invited Lucas and his family for dinner, charging her macabre relations with being normal for just one night. Naturally, that’s an impossible task for Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester and Pugsley to pull off, and, Lucas’ parents have family secrets of their own that further complicate the shenanigans when everyone gets together.
Curtain for the show is 7:30 p.m. Tickets for the show are available by calling the Lied Center box office 785-864-2787 or online at lied.ku.edu.
Under ordinary circumstances, a friend being forcibly checked into a mental hospital wouldn’t be funny. Ordinary circumstances do not exist in a Richard Greenberg comedy, and “The Maderati” presented by Kansas University Theatre is no exception. Misunderstanding, false accusations and hilarity ensue when a group of self-absorbed yuppies gets word that an ill fate has befallen a friend.
The action begins the Sunday following a disastrous party, when Rena Debutts (Maggie Boyles) gets word her friend and artist, Charlotte Ebbinger (Abby Hadel), has been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. Convinced she cannot allow Charlotte to be imprisoned — despite her being crazy — she sets off to get her out, while pressing her husband Chuck (Ben Schatzel) into the unwanted job of informing their friends.
Things blow up almost immediately when Dewy Overlander (Sara Kennedy) hears Charlotte’s name and is convinced she’s dead, because she had a premonition. Thus, Dewy and husband Ritt (Collin Stephens) are telling everyone Charlotte has died, while Chuck is trying to get the real news out and making a total mess of it.
Complications start springing up almost as fast as the laughs as assumptions and misunderstandings are made that lead to everyone talking at once, without realizing they are saying completely different things about the same person. Greenberg’s witty dialogue contributes to the frenetic pace as the characters race from one manufactured crisis to another.
Several of the performances are worth noting. Preston O’ffill is delightful as the megalomaniacal, painfully closeted Martin Royale. He does a perfect British accent and is so uptight it looks like it hurts.
Likewise, Thomas Tong generates laugh after laugh as the narcoleptic Keene Esterhazy. He falls asleep at the drop of a hat, and Tong seems unconcerned with his own safety, frequently dropping to the floor in hilarious fashion with practically no warning.
Charlotte doesn’t appear until the second act, but, when she does, Hadel plays her with the utter desperation of someone who can’t understand why she isn’t as special as she wants to be. Hadel is a master of physical comedy, somehow cramming sesame noodles into her mouth with blinding speed before freaking out and hiding under a blanket.
But it is Kennedy’s performance as Dewy Overlander that really shines. Like her character, she seizes the show by the throat from the moment she enters and refuses to let go. Her Dewy is over the top and recklessly self-absorbed. Kennedy spits out the dialog with machine-gun rapidity, and she alternates between condescending looks at her husband, empty-headed confusion at the ravings of the others, and sidesplitting lust toward bad boy Danton Young (Aden Lindholm). It’s a tour de force performance that is a highlight of the show.
Jenifer Harmon’s set is a brilliant paean to the 1980s. The back wall painting is sunshine and New York City and is evocative of the pop art of the period. The tiny Inge stage accommodates the script’s multiple locations via a series of freestanding doors, all of which are painted in vivid pastels — another signature of '80s pop culture.
The costumes are equally sharp. Delores Ringer does a fine job recreating several iconic '80s looks. Aside from New York City, it’s not exactly clear where the play is set. One gets the impression from the dialogue it is Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but many of the characters look like they’d be more at home in Greenwich Village. Then again, the less-slick characters are the artists in the group, so it works.
The play ends with a gotcha moment that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s obvious from the final lines that Greenberg did it on purpose — one last joke. It doesn’t really matter. “The Maderati” is zany fun. The pleasure comes in watching ridiculous characters cause trouble for themselves, laughing at their idiosyncrasies and hoping we don’t share them.
Ask Jeanne Tiehen why she returned to graduate school, and she doesn’t talk about herself.
“I love teaching because it really reminds me why I love theater,” says the second-year doctoral student. “Seeing undergraduate actors grow has always been rewarding for me.”
Tiehen gets another chance with “The Maderati,” which opens tonight in the Inge Theatre on the KU campus. The 1987 Richard Greenberg comedy follows the misadventures of a group of Manhattan artists whose world turns upside down when a friend checks into a mental hospital. Through a series of misunderstandings, they come to believe she’s dead.
“It’s Greenberg’s response to a lot of his friends in the arts,” Tiehen says. “(The 1983 film) ‘The Big Chill’ is definitely a component of it. The natural self-absorption of these characters is enhanced by their being artists. They engage in a lot more self-reflection.”
Tiehen saw a lot of potential in the play for the undergraduate actors she enjoys helping to develop their skills.
“I saw the blurb when I was looking for a show to direct,” she says, “and when I read there were nine roles, I thought that was a fantastic opportunity for young actors.”
“The Maderati” is a screwball comedy, and that is exactly the sort of challenge Tiehen was looking for.
“Each character has a lot of opportunity for undergraduate actors to hone their craft, and the humor is so offbeat and absurd, they really have to work at it.
“The biggest challenge for all of us was to keep that commitment of character but still remember that this is not real. It’s a comedy, and these people aren’t like real people.”
So how does one guide young actors to find that delicate balance between over-the-top comedy and depth of character?
“I just told them to trust the work we’ve done,” Tiehen says. “They don’t have to push it. And this cast has been terrific. They have a lot of comedic instincts, and they offered a lot of their own suggestions, many of which were right on.”
Tiehen has worked very hard to keep everybody on the same page, which can be challenging, given the zaniness of the characters and story.
“I go into each rehearsal and say, ‘OK, this is our goal for tonight,’ and then give them an objective. It’s worked really well.”
The cast seems to agree. Topeka Senior Sara Kennedy enthuses it’s the most fun she’s had working on a show.
“The highlight of my day is everyone coming together and discovering more about this ridiculous production,” she says.
Tiehen hopes to keep creating those kinds of opportunities.
“I want to do something in academic theater,” she says. “Ideally, I’d love to end up at a university.”
At least for the moment, she seems to be in the perfect place.
“The Maderati” opens Dec. 6 and plays Dec. 7, 8, 10, 11 and 12. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m., except Sunday, Dec. 8, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available online at www.kutheatre.com or by calling the box office at 785-864-3982.
Mark Reaney is marrying the future and the past to make a point about the present. The KU professor of theater is designing the set and lighting for University Theatre’s new production of “Adding Machine: A Musical,” which opens Friday.
The show opened off Broadway in 2008, but it’s an adaptation of the 1923 Elmer Rice expressionist play “The Adding Machine.” University Theatre staged the play in 1995, and Reaney was heavily involved in the design of that production.
“That was our very first experiment into computer graphics,” Reaney says. “We’ve come a long way since then.”
The 1995 production explored virtual reality concepts in what was pretty new technology at the time. But both then and now, one of the themes is making a statement about technology.
“There’s heavy symbolism and irony that we’re making art with modern adding machines,” Reaney says, referring to computers. “We’re trying to make the point that it’s not the machines that are the problem.”
“Adding Machine: A Musical” tells the story of Mr. Zero, an unimaginative accountant, who is replaced after 25 years of thankless service to his company by a machine that can do his job faster and better. Infuriated, he murders his boss, is convicted and executed and goes to Heaven, wherein he continues to choose a dull, meaningless existence.
“You’re not supposed to like Zero,” Reaney says. “He makes bad choices every time.”
For a musical about technology and humanity’s relationship to it, Reaney created a virtual reality environment evocative of the places in the show.
“In the early part of the show everything is flat,” Reaney says. “It’s mostly colorless. Then, when he goes to Heaven, there’s lots of color.”
That’s accomplished by projecting images onto the stage and even onto the actors. “We project numbers onto them at certain points,” he says. “The lion’s share of the front lights are also computer-generated.”
And that’s not all. The images interact with the characters, requiring a lot of programming and timing.
“The show features VR backdrops with real-time changes,” Reaney explains. But he emphasizes it isn’t all pre-programmed and then allowed to run, with the actors being forced to keep up. Because it’s virtual reality technology, it’s meant to be reactive to what’s happening around it.
“What keeps this work exciting is the fact the VR technology is not prerecorded; the computers are working live just like the actors,” Reaney says. “We live in a digital world and modern audiences must be spoken to with what they are most familiar with — innovative technology.”
And that’s the point. Technology is defined not by itself but what we use it for. It can be made to dehumanize, but it can also improve our lives and help us make art. Mr. Zero loses his job and subsequently his life as a result of technology and his reaction to it. But his story is told in an environment that could only be created by advanced machines.
“It’s all experimental,” Reaney says. “It’s real experimental theater with a capital X.”
“Adding Machine: A Musical” opens Friday and runs Nov. 16, 17, 22, 23 and 24 at Stage Too! in the Crafton-Preyer Theater at Murphy Hall on the KU campus. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. except the Sunday dates, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets for the performance on the 17th are only available to University Theatre’s Friends of the Theatre (FROTH) organization. “Adding Machine: A Musical” includes themes of racism and offensive language. It is not appropriate for younger audiences.
Priscilla Howe knows something about what makes for a good story. After all, she’s been telling them for years.
“Telling a story is really a three-legged stool,” she says. “It’s equal parts the story, the storyteller, and the audience. They all contribute to the perfect experience.”
Howe is a professional storyteller. Part thespian, part public speaker, she stands before audiences and tells a story, drawing on the oral tradition of human culture, where fables and myths were passed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth.
“I tell lots of different kinds of stories,” she says. “Some are my own; some are classics; some are folk tales.”
She does it without notes. She doesn’t read from a script. She just performs it freely. Which is not to say there isn’t a lot of preparation that goes into the telling.
“I work a lot on the back story,” Howe says. “I’ll write letters between the characters. I’ll imagine real estate ads for the locations. I imagine the story in my head – I don’t memorize lines. If I have it right in my head, it is clear to the audience.”
Howe, who left her job as a children’s librarian in Connecticut to move to Lawrence in 1993, travels to schools, festivals, libraries, and museums to perform. She’s telling the classic story, “Tristan and Iseult”, at SeedCo Studios (826 Pennsylvania in Lawrence) Thursday at 7:30 p.m. It’s an old tale with many interpretations, most famously a version by Shakespeare.
“It’s a lovely story of treachery and betrayal,” she enthuses.
Tristan is an archetypal hero. He vanquishes a giant and slays a dragon all in the name of winning the beautiful Iseult. However, he’s not earning her hand in marriage for himself. He does it for his uncle Mark. Iseult is angry with him for acting as another man’s proxy, but she and Tristan become entranced with each other when they are accidentally given a love potion that was intended for Mark and Iseult. Bad things ensue.
“It’s a great story and tragic,” Howe says.
Howe has been working on it for 15 years and is excited to bring it to Lawrence audiences.
“It’s easily my longest story,” she says. “It runs about 95 minutes. Forty-five minutes is a pretty standard length for me.”
Howe doesn’t act out her tales. There are no props, no dramatic poses. So can listening to someone stand and tell a story for an hour and a half hold the attention of a modern audience, especially young people?
“I’ve told ‘Tristan and Iseult’ at the Johnson County Juvenile Detention Center,” Howe says. “Juvenile inmates sit with rapt attention for 95 minutes. The story is powerful enough that they are deep inside it.”
Howe notes the version of the story she will tell at SeedCo Thursday night is suitable for children ages nine and up.
“It’s an old story and a classic,” she says. “There is something in it for everyone.”
The doors for “Tristan and Iseult” open at 7 p.m, and the program begins with live music by Michael Paull and Sarah Michelle Lockwood at 7:30 p.m. followed by the story at 8 p.m. Admission is free with a suggested donation of $10.
Sometimes being true and faithful to source material is a mistake. Dennis Christilles’s new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s immortal classic “Dracula” is unfortunately a case in point. A slow-moving script with very little action mars an otherwise excellent production, robbing it of its grandeur and horror.
“Dracula” has been adapted for stage and screen many times, often with large changes to the plot and characters. Christilles sought to restore the story to Stoker’s original intent, moving the titular character out of the limelight and into the background as an often unseen and horrific force. The novel follows an epistolary format, being told through journal entries, letters, news reports, and other devices. Christilles restores this tactic, having his characters come forward and begin many of their scenes with, “Personal Journal,” and a date. In this way, we can keep track of the passage of time, but it otherwise lends itself to actors simply making speeches rather than performing drama.
Tim Wilkinson is good as young Jonathan Harker, the English solicitor who travels to Transylvania to facilitate Count Dracula’s (Joe Lilek) purchase of and move to the Carfax estate in Southern England. Wilkinson does a fine job of conveying the fear, worry and building suspicion Harker feels as he first travels through the Carpathian Mountains and then is effectively imprisoned in Castle Dracula.
But much of what Harker sees and fears is told to the audience through exposition. Rather than having us see Harker exploring the castle and slowing going mad, Christilles has Wilkinson explain it through a recitation of his journal entries.
This tactic is employed over and over throughout the show. Mina Harker (Krista Jarboe) tells us of her fears for her intended, Jonathan, of finding him insane with fever in Eastern Europe and nursing him back to health. Lucy Westenra (Laura Brooke Williams) tells us through her letters of her getting three marriage proposals and of which one she accepted. The reactions of the two losers – Dr. John Seward (Michael Miller) and Quincey Morris (Kevin Siess) – are also recited as journal entries. And we learn of Dracula’s movements and the efforts to catch him through the journals of these men and from Van Helsing’s (John Staniunas).
The result is a play where a lot happens but we see very little of it. There is almost no action. There is little tension. There is no horror. Indeed, just before one of the story’s most dramatic moments – when Van Helsing, Arthur Holmwood (Christoph Nevins), Dr. Seward, and Quincey are about to enter Lucy’s tomb and pound a stake through her heart – the curtain falls on Act I. When it comes up for Act II, the deed is done and the heroes are plotting their next move. Christilles’s script constantly removes the audience from the action. We are told what happened instead of getting to see it, and that leads to a long, dull experience. It may be the way Stoker wrote the novel, but it just doesn’t work in a visual medium like theater.
That’s too bad, because the production itself is sumptuous. Christilles also directed the show and designed the set, and his efforts at both are brilliant. “Dracula” has a large number of characters, and Christilles gets excellent performances out of all his actors. Wilkinson has a fine turn as the naïve Harker who becomes brave and fierce over the course of the story. Siess is charming and nearly steals the show as the American soldier-of-fortune who’s come to England to escape trouble with the law back home. Miller hits all the right notes as the doubting scientist who must come to grips with the horror of the vampire. Joshua A. Greene gives a strong performance as the insane patient Renfield, who helps feed Dracula information when he comes to England. And Staniunas is suitably eccentric as vampire expert Van Helsing, although he frequently struggled to remember his lines.
But any production of “Dracula” has to be judged by the performances of the titular character and the object of his obsession, Mina. Lilek is perfect as the legendary vampire. The temptation is always to go over the top with the famous role, but Lilek plays Dracula with the right amount of control. He is sinister and smooth. He is dangerous in the scenes when he attacks. He has the famous Transylvanian accent, but Lilek resists the urge to make a caricature of Dracula by doing too much. It is always just the right amount.
Likewise, Jarboe understands that Mina is not an hysteric. She is a strong character who at first works tirelessly to protect the people she loves – Lucy and Jonathan – and then battles the darkness within her after Dracula turns her. When she begs Jonathan to kill her if she succumbs to Dracula’s spell, Jarboe doesn’t inject any melodrama into the scene. She plays it with passion, infusing it with desperation, fear and determination but doesn’t go over the top. It’s a skillful performance that renders one of the most intense and rewarding scenes in the play. Christilles clearly understands how to draw excellence from young actors.
Technically, “Dracula” is brilliant. Christilles’s set is beautiful, comprised of a multi-leveled stage crafted to invoke the gothic feel of the Victorian era and the ancient architecture of both Transylvania and old English estates. The set has multiple trapdoors and hidden portals, some of which are clearly made to look like coffins, and Christilles makes good use of bringing characters on through them, often at surprising times. Dracula frequently rises up or disappears through one of these accompanied by smoke.
Sound effects for wolves, horses and other things we can hear but not see are used extremely effectively. Snow falls during the climactic scene back at Castle Dracula. Overall, the production is gorgeous – a delight to take in.
Which makes the script all the more disappointing. Strong performances by the actors on a rich set are dragged down by an actionless narrative that leaves the audience unengaged and wishing they could see some of the exciting things they are only told about.
"Dracula" runs on the Crafton-Preyer stage in Murphy Hall at the University of Kansas October 18, 19, and 20. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 785-864-3982 or online at kutheatre.com.
“He that better knows how to tame a shrew, now let him speak,” wrote William Shakespeare in his classic comedy “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Cole Porter thought he might have some ideas on that subject, and KU’s University Theatre brought them to life Friday night, opening its new season with Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate.”
A show within a show, “Kiss Me, Kate” adds layers to the original plot. A troupe of actors is attempting to stage a musical version of Shakespeare’s comedy. Fred Graham (Stephen Dagrosa) wrote, directed and stars in the production. He’s a man who thinks more highly of himself than his talent dictates.
He’s cast his ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi (Julia Geisler), opposite him as the shrewish Kate, because she’s gone on to film and he needs her star power to sell tickets. When she discovers he’s secretly sleeping with young ingénue Lois Lane (Rachel Tolbert), who plays Bianca in the production, life imitates art as Lilli becomes every bit as mean as her character, torturing Fred in hilarious fashion onstage during the performance.
The plot is further complicated by Lois’s boyfriend Bill Calhoun (Luke Reddig), who also is in the show as Lucentio, losing $10,000 gambling but signing Fred’s name on the IOU. That brings two gangsters (Thomas Tong and Lily Lancaster) to the show intent on getting their money from the box office. When Lilli threatens to walk out on the show before the end of the first act, the gangsters are pressed into service as additional cast members to force her onstage and to perform.
There are other zany complications, and working through it all are Porter’s catchy, clever songs. The cast embraces the comic silliness of it all and is clearly having fun with it.
Geisler is fantastic as wounded Lilli. Her sarcastic delivery of insults to Fred, her secret hope they can one day get back together, her broken heart when she finds out he lied to her and her using her U.S. Army general boyfriend (Brian Duerksen) to make him jealous are all perfectly executed. Geisler knows when to be subtle and when to go over the top, and she is fun to watch. She also has a gorgeous soprano voice that is always exactly right for the song — playful in “Wunderbar,” both remorseful and hopeful in “So in Love” and hilariously angry in “I Hate Men.”
Dagrosa gets a slow start, but he soon catches up. He’s a little flat in his first two scenes, but, once he becomes Petruchio, he throws himself into the part with gusto. His scenes with Lilli once she discovers his treachery are the funniest in the show.
Some of his songs sound as though they are a little too low for him. He’s got a gorgeous tenor voice that really shines when he gets into his upper register, but he struggles on the low notes.
Likewise, Tolbert seemed to wrestle with her early scenes. “Why Can’t You Behave” is written for an alto, and it sounds as though her mezzo was a little high for it. But, in the second act, she stops the show with the playful and naughty “Always True to You in My Fashion,” enabling her to really show off her voice.
The rest of the cast offers exactly the right level of support. Duerksen is humorous as the brutish General Howell. Reddig hits the right notes as the put-upon boyfriend. Lancaster gives a picture-perfect comic portrayal as the Gangster Moll, and Michael Colman turns in an inspiring rendition of “Too Darn Hot.” The various storylines don’t all resolve satisfactorily, but the music, dancing and acting make “Kiss Me, Kate” fine, lighthearted summer fare.
Director John Staniunas elected to put the audience onstage, so they could be a part of the show as well. Between scenes (and sometimes during them) the revolve rotates, moving the audience to a different part of the stage. In the wrong hands, this gimmick could become tedious, but it’s not overdone and, consequently, works perfectly. Sets don’t have to be changed, and the actors are all in position and ready to go when the audience “arrives,” thereby expediting scene changes. The tactic ends up adding to the fun.
In the end, “Kiss Me, Kate” doesn’t really improve on Shakespeare, and it has some pretty large plot holes. But it’s so much fun and moves breezily from its spectacular opening number to its deliberately ironic conclusion one doesn’t mind. It is fine entertainment on a summer night that is “Too Darn Hot.”
Kiss Me Kate” runs July 18-21 at Stage Too! in Murphy Hall on the KU campus. The Sunday, July 21, performance is sold out. Tickets cost $10-$15 and are available by calling the box office at 785-864-3982 or online at kutheatre.com.
Many young performers dream of making it on Broadway. But how do you get there, especially from Kansas? The punchline of the old joke — "practice" — is a piece of it, but training is important too.
That’s where Baker University’s “Broadway at Baker” program comes in. It’s a partnership between Baker’s theater department and Music Theatre for Young People.
“We’ve been collaborating with Baker since 1991,” says Cary Danielson-Pandzik, director of the program.
Music Theatre for Young People began in Wichita in 1984. A Kansas City branch opened in 1990. Both are very active in their respective cities in addition to the Baker camp.
“It’s a preparatory training program for young people interested in careers in professional theater,” Danielson-Pandzik says.
All of the company’s camps are a week long. Students ages 12 to 18 begin on a Sunday, learn an entire Broadway show over the course of the week, and put on a performance the following Sunday.
“The most interesting thing about it is we don’t (pre-)audition for them,” Danielson-Pandzik notes. “We don’t know what we’re going to get. The kids enroll, and, on the first day of camp, they audition, and we assign parts that night. They start rehearsing the next morning.”
And just because they’ve only got a week to put it together doesn’t mean MYTP is going to cut any corners with the material.
“We teach the music as it is scored,” Danielson-Pandzik says. “We use whatever orchestrations it calls for. Everything is performed as it is written.”
Of course, putting on a show in a week’s time is no easy feat. Students stay in Baker’s dormitories and eat in its cafeteria, so they can be onsite 100 percent of the time and receive near-constant instruction.
That instruction comes from professionals.
“We have a huge staff,” Danielson-Pandzik says. “We bring in professional choreographers and music directors from New York. Many of our staff are graduates of the program, who’ve been working professionally.”
Danielson-Pandzik’s latest group has been laboring furiously this week on “My Favorite Year” — the 1992 musical based on the 1981 film of the same name.
“Their music fits very well in the voice ranges we have to work with,” Danielson-Pandzik says of composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who also created “Seussical: The Musical” and “Ragtime.”
Like the movie, the show is set in the 1950s on a fictitious version of Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows” — “The King Kaiser Comedy Cavalcade.” Washed-up movie star Alan Swann is guest-starring, and junior writer Benjy Stone (based on a young Mel Brooks) is given the unenviable job of baby sitting his childhood hero and keeping him out of trouble.
“There are lots of big chorus numbers and lots of singing and dancing,” Danielson-Pandzik says of the show.
But how well do modern kids understand an early 90’s show, based on an early 80’s film that tells the story of 50s-era television?
“The first night we sat them down and showed them clips from the old comedy shows,” Danielson-Pandzik says. “Sid Caesar, Milton Berle — we wanted to give them an idea of what TV comedy was like and how it’s changed.”
The campers get to demonstrate just how much they learned in a 2:30 p.m. performance Sunday at Baker’s Rice Auditorium. Tickets are only $8 for adults and $5 for seniors and children under 12. Call the box office at 785-594-8478 to reserve or purchase at the door.
“It’s really good family entertainment,” Danielson-Pandzik says.