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Hard Bargain Players - ARCHIVE
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August 11 - 26, 2006
Floyd Collins

Running time 2:35 - one intermission
An impressive performance of one of the finest new musicals of the last decade
NOTE - insect repellant is a must for this theater in the woods
Reviewed at a press preview prior to opening
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Something truly extraordinary is taking place in the secluded amphitheater on an isolated farm about two miles off Maryland's Indian Head Highway. The folk-tinged musical by Adam Guettel and Tina Landau, based on the true story of a spelunker trapped in a cave in Kentucky in 1925, is being mounted on a tiny stage in the middle of the woods by a company that has never done a musical before and they are succeeding admirably. Both the concept of the story and the scope of the musical score are challenging for even the most accomplished company with a strong reputation for adventurous musicals. Here, at a company taking up its first musical, not all the singing is first rate but much of it is altogether acceptable. Not all of the acting is superb but much of it is satisfactory. The amazing thing, however, is that the acceptable seems to be multiplied by the satisfactory to create a fascinating whole.

Storyline: The true story of a cave explorer who became trapped underground in 1925. The effort to rescue him became a major news story across the nation as people followed on radio, in newspapers and in newsreels the two-week struggle to go down the way he had gone, and then, later, to drill an escape shaft without causing a further cave in which could kill him. The musical also deals with the scene above ground where thousands of would-be-rescuers, sightseers, hucksters and just plain tourists descended on his family and neighbors.

At first glance, the show shouldn't feel so right in this venue. The show takes place in the dead of winter (a reporter details the "patches of snow clinging to the ground") and much of it in the confining space of a nearly lightless cave, yet it seems right at home in the heat of a Southern Maryland summer evening with heat lightning flashing in the sky visible through the trees over your head. Partially, this is a tribute to the staging concept of the original with contrasting under and above ground scenes. But it is also a tribute to director Brooke L. Howells who spreads her forces out above ground, constricts the space for the cave sequences, and uses a remarkable set designed by John Merritt. It seems just a ramshackle collection of old timber, but it is solid enough that there isn't so much as a wobble as the cast struggles through tight spaces and clambers over a wooden paths.

Perhaps the best singing comes from Jeff Paden as the title character. He begins by singing a duet with his own echo as he climbs through extremely constricted spaces and then is immobilized as he's caught underground. For the rest of the show he doesn't leave the stage and, with the exception of two dream sequences, never leaves the spot where he's been trapped. His predicament is a constant and he has the stage presence to pull it off. Michael Mortensen's contribution is a very close second. He's a reporter who happens to be slender enough to squirm through in search of a story, only to become committed to the rescue effort. His "I Landed On Him" is nearly operatic in structure, although it doesn't call for any semblance of an operatic sounding voice, and he delivers it with just the right feeling of shock, while his duet with Paden, "The Carnival" works well too.

The connection between the entrapped Floyd Collins and his sister became clear in the nice performance of Kristen Page-Kirby, and, while Michael Margelos didn't have the same strength of performance as Floyd's brother in the preview we saw, he may grow into the role. So, too, Mitch Foreman needs to find his way to feeling in command when he sings "The Ballad of Floyd Collins."

Music and lyrics by Adam Guettel. Book and additional lyrics by Tina Landau. Directed by Brooke L. Howells. Musical direction by James D. Watson. Design: John Merritt (set) April Weimer (lights) Brian Donohue (sound) Janet Zavistovich (photography). Cast:  Brian Donohue, Mitch Fosman, Lars Peter Highby, Craig Hower, John Kirby, Jeff Paden, Kristen Page-Kirby,  Derek Pickens, Mike Margelos, Brian Merritt,  Mike Mortensen, Gary Richardson, Marina Sanchez, Lanny Slusher, Rob White.

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June 6 – 14, 2003
How I Learned to Drive

Reviewed June 10
Running time 1 hour 40 minutes

The urge to create theater must be extremely strong. You can find performances everywhere. From modern performing arts centers to ancient amphitheaters, people respond to the need to put on a show, which is a very good thing since people also have the need to go out and see a show. The Potomac Region is blessed with plenty of the modern structures like the
Kennedy Center, smaller but no less imposing dedicated spaces like Round House and tiny spaces like Gunston Theatre II. We have out door mega-structures like Wolf Trap. But how many know that we have a theater in the woods so small, so intimate and so remote that a trip to the theater is like a get away from urban cares? The maybe-60-seat amphitheater at the Hard Bargain Farm is only a dozen miles from the Beltway but it is a world away from all it represents. Still, the plays the Hard Bargain Players put on are definitely of the modern world, raising issues of today. And, if this production is any indication, they do a highly competent job of it, too.

Storyline: Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize winning one act play deals in a very understanding way with the pain of sexual abuse within a family. It is constructed of scenes from the memory of the victim ranging from when, at age eleven, an uncle by marriage began to abuse her until, as an adult, she broke the cycle of abuse. What sets the play apart is that it presents each member of the family in very human terms, with the abuser himself being more than just a reprehensible villain, but a victim of prior abuse carrying on a cycle.

Through humor and a keen eye for illustrative detail, Vogel creates characters that competent actors can bring to very satisfying life, and the cast here is more than merely competent. The two leads, are particularly strong. Juliette Kelsey Chagnon avoids the trap of overdoing the age differences between scenes. It would be easy to make her scenes as an eleven year old begging her mother for permission to go on an outing, or as a young teen being ogled by a boy at a school dance too comic if she used little girl mannerisms and a little girl voice. But she, and director Brian Donohue, recognize that these scenes take place in her mind so she wouldn’t look young to herself -- she would just be herself. Played straight like this, they are highly effective and warmly humorous.

Bill Brock also avoids gimmicking up his performance as the abusing uncle. Just as that uncle attempted to use charm to seduce his niece, so Brock uses charm to seduce the audience well before the extent of his weakness is made plain. He also lets the audience see the anguish his character feels as he succumbs to impulses he knows are wrong but which he can’t control. His is a nicely nuanced performance. The three supporting roles involve creating multiple minor and not-so-minor characters. Mike Mortensen did a fine job going everywhere from breast-obsessed teenager to grandfather.

The play requires simple staging using just a few chairs and simple costuming for the cast of five (plus the voice of a sixth) but also a video projection system that is not simple by any means for a company performing in the woods. Making a virtue out of necessity, the theatre moved the starting time for this production to 8:30 so the enveloping darkness would enhance the video and then devised a program of 1950’s trailers for cheap drive-in movies (“Teenage Gang Debts” and “Cry Baby Killer”) along with commercials (“Your Family Deserves Protection - See Your Agent Tomorrow!”) announcements (“Bottle Warming Service at the Concession Stand”) and even a cartoon (“Self Made Mongrel”) to set the mood.

Written by Paula Vogel. Directed by Brian Donohue. Pre-Show Video by Ben Hillard. Design: Tony Zanelotti-Kruszka (costumes and properties) Julianna Bogdan (lights and stage management) Brian Donohue (sound) Randy Tusing (choreography) Doris Sharp (photography). Cast: Bill Brock, Juliette Kelsey Chagnon, Suzanne L. Fehl, Mike Mortensen, Sarah Vacin, Alex Zavistovich.