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Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center  - ARCHIVE
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September 19 - 21, 2007
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:20 - no intermission
A mixture of live performance and film

Avant-garde theatre doesn't always mean theater without plot. Still, story is often secondary (or tertiary, for that matter). Such is the case here with a performance by the group Kassys from the Netherlands which blends on-stage actors with the same performers on film. The performance, and the human interaction between the performers, is what the show is about. It isn't a murder mystery, a love story or any other linear story about who did what, when, why and how. Instead, it is a slice of life ... or slices of lives, to be more precise. That the lives being examined aren't very interesting at the moment of examination may well be a comment on life in general and a nod toward reality. But, in rejecting the artificial enhancement of real life through the insertion of drama, comedy or mystery, they place a great burden on the performers to create interest through technique. In this, the cast of six is only marginally successful.

Storyline: The first half of the work is performed live as the cast of six gather for some sort of reception or gathering on the occasion of the death of a relative or acquaintance. In the pre-recorded second half, projected on a large screen, the actors are seen going on with their lives after "the end of the performance."

Kassys is an Amsterdam company founded in 1999 by Liesbeth Gritter who graduated from Groningen's college for visual arts, and Mette van der Sijs who graduated from Rotterdam's modern dance college. They create works that combine film and live theater with something of a concentration on the juncture between the genres. This month, Kassys has launched its second US tour with a six week schedule that takes them from Oregon to Massachusetts.

The cast of three men and three women work together with the easy familiarity of close acquaintances or relatives during the live segment of the show and carry that sense of ease and closeness into the pre-recorded segment. What is more, some of the personality traits that become apparent in live action carry over into the recorded material which gives the feeling that the quirks or idiosyncrasies of the actors and actresses were used in creating the "artificial" scene which opens the performance.

The recorded slices of the "real lives" of the performers each develops a storyline of sorts, supporting the concept that life off stage can be more complicated and at times more traumatic than the fictional world portrayed on stage. An actress has a breakdown, another sits with a hospitalized relative, an actor gets drunk, another gets mugged. Life goes on.

Created by Kassys. Directed by Liesbeth Gritter. Technical direction by Klaas Paradies. Cast: Lukas Dijkema, Liesbeth Gritter, Ton Heijligers, Saskia Meulendijks, Esther Snelder, Mischa van Dullemen.

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February 15 - March 3, 2007
The Distance from Here
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:50 - no intermission
A "blended" student & professional production
A disturbing drama of lives going from empty to even worse

Click here to buy the script

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and the University of Maryland Department of Theatre continue their collaborative program of presenting "blended productions" - using talents from both sides of the student/professional boundary to mount satisfying shows. This is the third such production, and, while the results are solid, the fans of Neil LaBute, whose play they are performing, may come away just a bit dissatisfied. LaBute's look at the aimless life of teenagers in suburbia is delivered without the humor that drew audiences into Fat Pig or This Is How It Goes before their stories turned tragic. Without it, this portrait of pain among the aimless is less captivating. It does build to a painful big moment which is one thing most LaBute fans expect, and those admirers will be pleased with the natural way his text is delivered. His dialogue captures the sound of suburban youth on the streets and director Mitchell Hébert gets all of the principals in the cast, professional and amateur, to deliver it faithfully.

Storyline: Two teenagers with nothing much on their minds and nothing much to do with their time stir things up by inflicting pain on each other, their friends and their families.

Good luck trying to figure out who is the professional and who is the student in this cast of nine. Sure, you'll recognize Tim Getman from his many performances on local stages, so you'll know he's one of the pros. You might even pick up out Jennifer Plants as one with an equity card although her casting as the mother of some of the others presents a bit of a problem due to her youthful stage presence. Where you'll have the hardest time picking pro from student is in the pair of leads, the two high school age boys whose lack of purpose sets up the central dilemma of the play. Just one has credits at the Kennedy Center, Round House, and Studio Theatre Secondstage. The other is a junior, a graduate of Duke Ellington School for the Arts in DC now appearing in his first production at the University. The pro, it turns out, is James Gardiner who appears as Plant's son - the one who is the leader of the pack. The student is Michael Saltzman, holding his own as the side-kick with problems.

The standard for design for these productions was set two years ago with the first production, Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class which had a set design by a graduate student that was a thing of beauty. (Why have we not seen more by Tanna M. Peters?) Here the set design of Marie-Noëlle Daigneault is a thoroughly satisfying solution to the multi-location challenges of the script, with a zoo location at one end and a living room at the other end of a long center space that is alternately school yard, street corner and even pet store. Cory Ryan Frank's lighting makes the most of it and Heather Lockard's costumes complete the feel.

A special word about fighting on stage. Fight director John Gurski does some of his best work here and it is a good thing he does, for the intimate setting with the audience on both sides of a narrow playing space exposes the struggles of the cast to close up examination from both sides. It is hard enough to make a fight on a raised stage on the other side of a proscenium seem real. Its another to make one that is almost in the audience's lap both convincing and frightening.

Written by Neil LaBute. Directed by Mitchell Hébert. Fight direction by John Gurski. Design: Marie-Noëlle Daigneault (set) Heather Lockard (costumes) Cory Ryan Frank (lights) Matthew Nielson (sound) Maribeth Chaprnka (stage manager). Cast: Aaron Bliden, Amanda Elkins, James Gardiner, Tim Getman, Alice Gibson, Joanna Higbee, Jennifer Plants,  Michael Saltzman, Christian Sullivan.

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February 9 - 25, 2006
Savage in Limbo

Reviewed February 16
Running time 1:40 - No intermission
Finding identity in a neighborhood bar
Ticket price $20

Click here to buy the script

This is the second time that Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and the University of Maryland Department of Theatre have collaborated in a program they call Woolly/UM. (Does anybody call it "Bill" for short?) Last year it was Sam Shepard's nine character, three act Curse of the Starving Class which received a "blended" production using students and professionals in a highly polished production under the direction of Daniel De Raey. This year it is John Patrick Shanley's five character, one act look at life in a New York neighborhood bar being directed by Mitchell Hébert. Again, the results are impressive. You really won't be able to tell the professional from the student contributions without a program.

Storyline: In the mid 1980s in a neighborhood bar in the Bronx the patrons all know each other. One is having difficulty with her boyfriend, another doesn't even have a boyfriend. A third keeps falling asleep at the bar. The boyfriend of the first one shakes up the group by deciding he should break up with his girlfriend and try others - perhaps a few "ugly girls" who have something to offer besides looks. They might even have read a book or two!

The play, an earlier work by the currently hot playwright whose Doubt won last years Pulitzer and Tony awards, has roots at Woolly for it was produced many years ago (1987, to be precise) by Woolly. Woolly company member Hébert leads the team of students and professionals to a solidly paced presentation that takes its time getting going, just as an evening in a neighborhood bar might start slowly but heat up when the customers have had a few drinks. Just as in a neighborhood bar where it is the bartender who controls the pace of the evening, it is Tim Getman who plays the bartender who sets the pace here. He contributes the steady presence the part and the play require.

If you didn't notice the Actors' Equity apostrophe in the program beside the listing for Getman and Maia DeSanti who plays the Bronx Bombshell whose boyfriend wants to split up, you would be hard pressed to identify them as the only professionals, for the other three perform at precisely the same level (which is a compliment to the students, not a knock on the professionals)!

All the design elements are credited to students but many of these have professional credits as well. The costumes, for example, are designed by Yvette M. Ryan who may be pursuing her masters of fine arts at Maryland but whose costumes for The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow impressed at Studio SecondStage last year. The set by Eric J. Van Wyk is particularly impressive with its comfortable, run down feel of a bar whose better days are behind it.

Written by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Mitchell Hébert. Design: Eric J. Van Wyk (set) Yvette M. Ryan (costumes) Rebecca Wolf (lights) Kathryn Pong (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Lisa D. Vivo (stage manager). Cast: Maia DeSanti, Tim Getman, Tiernan Madorno, Lindsey D. Snyder, Christopher Wilson. 

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January 31 - February 1, 2006
The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial

Reviewed January 31
Running time 2:30 - one intermission
A semi-stage production of a radio-play
performed before microphones

Click here to buy the cassette recording

Edward Asner, James Cromwell, Sharon Gless and a full cast are in the midst of a twenty-three city tour of this docu-drama of the "Monkey Trial" of 1925. They have worked with University of Maryland Department of Theatre students and staff on projects related to the production during their two-performance stay here. The play takes a different approach to its subject than did Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee for their famous play, the only-slightly fictional Inherit the Wind. Author Peter Goodchild has taken the trial transcripts and created a play which is delivered in the style of a radio-play with simple staging consisting of tables, chairs and music stands while the performers carry scripts and deliver their lines directly into stand-mounted microphones.

Storyline: Following the rough outline of the trial itself and using the actual words from the trial transcripts, this radio play deals with the issues of the 1925 trial of John Scopes. The charge was the violation of a new Tennessee state statute prohibiting the teaching of "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." It was a test case, with nationally prominent proponents on each side: former Democratic nominee for President of the United States, William Jennings Bryan versus famous trial attorney Clarence Darrow.

Director Gordon Hunt mounts this production as a look at the process of performing a radio play. Done by less skilled performers, this might distract from the text and the full story of the famous trial. These performers, however, know how to keep this additional layer of theatricality from being a distraction, and they focus the attention on the words drawn from the record. It presents a balanced selection of arguments on both sides of a still-controversial issue, and provides fascinating glimpses of the wit that energized the sparring of the antagonists. It also provides perhaps unintended confirmation of the wisdom of Lawrence and Lee in making their version a piece of fiction rather than excerpts of highlights of those three hot weeks in the Summer of 1925.

Just as the nation's focus during the actual trial in 1925 was on the characters of William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, so the audience's focus throughout the evening remains on Edward Asner and James Cromwell as they bring the exchanges between those two giants of their time to life. Asner is at his avuncular best, especially when his William Jennings Bryan avoids cheap jabs and becomes passionately serious over the threat he sees in the doctrine he firmly believes poses great danger. Cromwell is likewise a delight to watch as his Clarence Darrow takes great pleasure puncturing the presumption of such danger.

Sharon Gless, probably still best known from her television stint partnered with Tyne Daly to form the team Cagney & Lacey, handles the chore of narrator with professional polish, but there's not a lot for her to do with the role other than set the scene and keep the story flowing. Some fine supporting work is delivered by the likes of Rob Nagle as the Attorney General prosecuting the case, Michael Grew as a defense attorney who delivers a particularly effective speech and most particularly Jerry Hardin who makes the possibly stagnant role of the judge spark with emotion at just the right times.

Adapted from the trial transcripts by Peter Goodchild. Directed by Gordon Hunt. Design: Holly Poe Durbin (costumes) John E. D. Bass (lights) Lynn Filusch (stage manager). Cast: Edward Asner, James Cromwell, Matthew Patrick Davis, James Gleason, Sharon Gless, Michael Grew, Jerry Hardin, Jon Matthews, Rob Nagle, David Alan Novak, Robert Pescovitz.

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April 21 - May 7, 2005
Curse of the Starving Class

Reviewed April 23
Running time 2:35 - two intermissions
Mature themes and nudity
A joint professional/student production which meets professional standards

Click here to buy the script

Woolly Mammoth and the Department of Theatre of the University of Maryland are joining forces for what director Daniel De Raey refers to as a "blended" production. There's no sign that the professionals involved have lowered their standards to welcome the students, and, indeed, the students come up with some marvelously professional-level work themselves. Two of the four principal roles are played by UM students and they hold their own with the likes of Mitchel Hébert and Caren Anton. Most impressive, however, is the work on the design side where students produce fabulous work, most notably graduate student Tanna M. Peters who handled the set design. Potential attendees should be aware of on-stage urination and full nudity in scenes intended by the author to be confusing and even disturbing until explained later.

Storyline: As urban sprawl encroaches on rural California in the 1970s a dysfunctional family falls apart. The father comes home from a bender determined to sell the house to pay off his debts while the mother is off with a lawyer who is helping her sell the same house to get a fresh start. The son and daughter have different ways of coping with the disintegration of their lives.

Anyone familiar with Sam Shepard's emotional, physical and visceral portraits of families - think Buried Child, Fool for Love, True West - will recognize all the signs in this play which predates each of them. They will also find the blend of raw energy, poetic imagery and a collection of obvious and subtle symbols that Shepard's better known, later works offer. It has never been produced on Broadway but it has had three outings off-Broadway since its premiere in the 1970s, and even walked away with the Obie for Best New American Play. Any good production is worth a visit.

This is more than just any good production, although as a "blended" professional/collegiate production, it has a few uneven areas.  Still, the important pieces fall into place nicely. The family here is Mitchell Hébert giving an intelligent well modulated interpretation of the father, Caren Anton doing almost as much with her silences as she does with her lines as the mother, Sean Hoagland being entirely convincing as the son and Malinda Ellerman carrying her own in such good company. That Hoagland and Ellerman are both seniors in the Department of Theatre adds to the intrigue of this production.

There are also briefer but still satisfying appearances by Doug Brown and Ian LeValley. LeValley in particular lends a sense of style to the role of a sleaze which is matched by the fine costume design for him provided by student Kristina Lucka. As stylish as her work is on all the costumes for the show, it is the platform set surrounded by dry stalks that Peters designed that makes the most lasting impression.

Written by Sam Shepard. Directed by Daniel De Raey. Design: Tanna M. Peters (set) Kristina Lucka (costumes) Justin Thomas (lights) Veronica Lancaster (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Lisa D. Vivo (stage manager). Cast: Caren Anton, Adam Scott Bedzow, Doug Brown, Malinda Ellerman, Mitchell Hébert, Sean Hoagland, Ian LeValley, Bradford Wilkins, Christopher Wilson.

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February 3 - 5, 2005

Reviewed February 3
Running time 1:30 - no intermission

"A am an artist. I run off at the mouth." So says the character of Leonard Bernstein in the SITI Company's production of a solo performance piece with Tom Nelis under the direction of Anne Bogart. The pronouncement that he runs off at the mouth, however, comes as no revelation as the statement comes about seventy-five minutes into the ninety minute intermissionless piece. By that time, the members of the audience have all made up their minds about this version of Mr. Bernstein and the play in general. It is too late for self depreciatory humor and the effort fails to redeem a self-conscious, overly presumptuous production.

Storyline: Leonard Bernstein awakes on a stage in front of an audience he believes he is supposed to address although he doesn't seem to know why or on what subject. He proceeds to hold forth on the general topic of creativity, blending some autobiographical memories into the mix.

The entire evening falls on the shoulders of actor Tom Nelis. Mr. Nelis avoids impersonating Leonard Bernstein. Instead, the sage holding forth on the stage is a distinctly less interesting and less identifiable individual. An evening with Mr. Bernstein along the lines of Hal Holbrook's evening with Mark Twain or James Whitmore's evening with Will Rogers this definitely is not. Instead, a selection of the ideas of Bernstein on the topic of creativity (if Bernstein's they are) is interspersed with memories of his first major concert appearance with the New York Philharmonic when he had to go on for Bruno Walter in a broadcast concert, his tutelage under Serge Koussevitzky and his friendship with Aaron Copland.

Sound designer Darron L. West (he prefers the title "soundscape") uses some of the Bernstein repertoire augmented by frequently overly cute effects. The impact is at its best when the works of Gustav Mahler, whose symphonies had a renewal of acceptance under Bernstein's championship, were allowed to play uninterrupted by the narrative. All too frequently, however, Nelis' Bernstein chatters on even as the music swells. The pattern of his patter is well matched to the rise and fall of the musical score but the music and the comments compete rather than compliment each other.

Score debuted in Louisville at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2002, and is currently available for tour bookings. It was conceived by director Anne Bogart who directed the joint Arena Stage, SITI company production of Sophie Treadwell's Intimations for Saxophone currently playing at Arena Stage.

Conceived and directed by Anne Bogart. Adapted by Jocelyn Clarke. Created by SITI Company. Design: Neil Patel (set) James Schuette (costume) Christopher Akerlind (lights) Darron L West (sound) Elizabeth Kegley (stage manger). Cast: Tom Nelis.

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April 3 – 6, 2002

Reviewed April 3
Running time 1 hour 20 minutes

Imagine sitting in on the lectures that English novelist Virginia Woolf gave at Cambridge in 1928 on the subject of "Women in Fiction." You might suffer from a sort of time lag similar to jet lag today, and you might find a number of the references difficult to understand, but you’d get the gist of it. If you are either of a literary bent or intrigued by recent sociology, you might well be intrigued. This play, developed by the SITI theater company, exaggerates the time lag and the dislocation but hits some of the right notes. Come to it with a fascination for the literary and you will find much to enjoy. Come to it as theater, however, and you may start glancing at your watch fairly early in the short evening.

Storyline: This one-woman, one-act show takes Virginia Woolf’s lectures on "Women in Fiction" as the jumping off point for a wider and deeper lecture on the role of artistic creation, communication and the unique contributions that women can make in this area as well as the unique constraints they face. At first it is either "the women who write fiction" or "fiction about women" but it soon expands to artistic life and then life in general.

SITI is a company of ten actors, five designers, a playwright and staff. It exists to create new theater works and perform them around the nation and the world both as a training ground for young theater professionals and as an opportunity for cultural exchange in the broadest sense of the term. They have developed and performed three plays adapted from source material by Jocelyn Clarke of the National Theatre of Ireland (Abbey Theatre) on the subjects of director Robert Wilson, writer Lewis Carroll and now this piece which draws not just from Woolf’s lectures but from her writings over a lifetime.

Bringing a somewhat eccentric Woolf to a somewhat peculiar life is Ellen Lauren, Associate Artistic Director of SITI. She enters through the audience promptly at the announced curtain time (which seems appropriate for the compulsive Woolf) to take her place in Neil Patel’s white box of a set, and immediately goes into a series of motions somewhere between a mechanical automaton and an extremely uptight headmistress. As her arms cycle through a number of positions and her body assumes a rigid posture, it is her eyes darting about that fascinate. She warns that "lies will flow from my lips" but there are, indeed, some truths mixed in as well. She talks of the role of a writer and recognizes that the compulsion to write is a self serving calling. "The world does not ask that we write stories, novels or poems. It does not need them." But she makes clear that at least she needed to write what she did.

Patel’s box set is the "Room" of the title, built of stretched muslin and variously lit with whites, colors and patterns by Christopher Akerlind. A window becomes visible not in but behind the wall. The lectures, which formed the basis of her "A Room of One’s Own" published in 1929, conclude in this play with her discussion of a sense of place and of belonging, symbolized not just by the room but by the single object on the set – a chair into which Lauren/Woolf settles, bringing a highly stylized evening to an end.

Adapted by Jocelyn Clarke from the writings of Virginia Woolf. Directed by Anne Bogart. Design: Neil Patel (set) James Schuette (costume) Christopher Akerlind (lights) Darron L. West (sound). Cast: Ellen Lauren.

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November 9 -17, 2001
As Bees In Honey Drown

Reviewed November 14
Running Time 1 hour 55 minutes
Price $13

The Theater Department of the University of Maryland has dropped the old name of "University Theatre" in favor of its more formal title as it moves into the beautiful new Clarice Smith Center with its multiple performance halls including the 200 seat Robert and Arlene Kogod Theatre. Its latest production is the most successful play to date by Douglas Carter Beane, a young playwright with a flair for cute dialogue ("Art is Eternal" "Eternal isn’t as long as it used to be") and a quirky sense of humor. Part of that success is the choice of subject matter (the world of success and celebrity) and the trick of plotting which allows a voyeuristic look without either the embarrassment or the sense of guilt of admitting to finding it attractive. At bottom, this is a play with all the allure of the cover of a superstar supermarket tabloid without the stigma attached to purchasing or reading it.

Storyline: The latest victim of a beautiful young con-artist who preys on emerging artists on the verge of fame and fortune plots revenge by assembling other victims who have all thus far chalked their losses up to experience.

The Kogod’s black box theater is arranged to best use the fine set for this play which Daniel Ettinger designed for the production at the Everyman Theatre in Baltimore. Its multi-tiered shiny patterned floor, steel molding and a steel-wrapped pillar frame projection screens for Charles Marsh’s background videos. It sets an expectation for a quality performance which unfortunately goes unfulfilled by the efforts of the cast of six U of M students.

Their youth is not as much of a problem given the appropriate ages of the characters in the story as is the stage of the development of their craft. The play depends on a flippancy in comedic line delivery to disguise some of its weaknesses in plotting and character complexity. As a group these players are unable to provide much sparkle in the dialogue and many of the better individual lines are rushed or crowded in inappropriately forced repartee. The art of comic timing is a tricky one that relies as much on the pauses between phrases as in the inflections. It is an art these students have yet to master.

David Stewart Hudson and Jonathan Gorman do the best jobs with the material they are given but both have smaller roles to work with. In the leads, Tommy Landers and Kimberly Perfetto don’t spark as a comic pair either during the apparent courtship portion of the early going nor in the recriminations and vengeance to follow.

Written by Douglas Carter Beane. Directed by Scot Reese. Scenic design by Daniel Ettinger. Lighting design by Alexander Cooper. Costume design by Kathleen Geldard. Sound and video design by Charles Marsh. Fight choreography by Dan Curran. Cast: Tommy Landers, Kimberly Perfetto, Jonathan (Bo) Gorman, Paige Marie Hernandez, David Stewart Hudson, Jamie Klassel.