Review: An Act of God

By Larry Laneer
August 28, 2018

Fans of the actress Brenda Williams (count me among them) have reason to shout hallelujah. At last, she appears in a role worthy of her talent, experience, and stature in the theatrical world. She is now playing God.

You can see this theological and theatrical phenomenon in the pleasant-enough play An Act of God by David Javerbaum, which opens Pollard Theatre Company’s 32nd season. Timothy Stewart directs the production. The play will make both believers and non-believers feel comforted and uncomfortable.

To say Williams plays God isn’t quite right. The play’s conceit is God has taken over the body of our beloved actress Brenda Williams and has come to the Pollard Theatre in Guthrie, Oklahoma, with a few things to say to audiences who gather there. (And Williams doesn’t even know this is happening!) At times in language that would make a preacher blush, God offers some explanations and clarifications and makes some revisions. Through this process, we get to know him better. It turns out God is a left-of-center progressive on issues of the day, including guns, abortion, and the LGBTQ community, among others. He has the same self-doubts and insecurities we all have. But as God says, and this is an important point of the play, “Belief and faith are no excuses for abandoning sound judgment.” Javerbaum was a writer on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which explains a lot about his version of God.

The play consists mainly of a monologue for the actor inhabited by God (the television actor Jim Parsons played the part in the 2015 Broadway production). God gets assistance from angels Gabriel (James A. Hughes) and Michael (Dakota Muckelrath).

Theatergoers will not be surprised at Williams’s command of the stage. She has done the one-woman tour-de-force The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe at the Pollard and elsewhere. Williams completely captures the playwright’s view of God as divine but flawed. Hughes and Muckelrath do fine jobs as angels who are sycophantic and insubordinate.

The production comes off both solid and out of kilter. Michael James costumes God in a tasteful two-toned white robe with a subtle gold lining. The angels appear in white suits with wings. Hughes, who plays Gabriel, also did the scenic design (this doubling happens often with PTC), but it doesn’t jibe with Javerbaum’s script. The multilevel set depicts billowing clouds against a blue sky. In other words, the heaven cliché. But the play is supposed to be taking place in Guthrie’s Pollard Theatre where God has come in the body of Brenda Williams. It’s not supposed to be Pollard Theatre Company doing a play set it heaven. It seems to me a bare stage would be more faithful (no pun intended) to the script.

God gets prickly with some of Michael’s questioning. Why does God let bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people? Why the Holocaust? Why not just get rid of child cancer? It won’t be revealed here, but the playwright comes up with God’s cogent answer that makes theological sense. It might even make you say amen.

An Act of God by David Javerbaum
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p..m. Fridays-Saturdays, through September 8
2:00 p.m. Sunday, September 2

8:00 p.m. Thursday, September 6
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie

Review: Sense and Sensibility

By Larry Laneer
August 14, 2018

Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park continues its summer season at their Paseo venue with a bewildering production of Sense and Sensibility that raises far more questions than it answers. The main question is “What are they trying to do?”

The playwright Kate Hamill based her script on Jane Austen’s novel about the triumphs, small as they may be, and tragedies of the Dashwood family in early-19th-century England. In the playscript, Hamill advises “I encourage you to be as creative as you wish; it’s meant to be a bit of a funhouse!” The director, Laura Standley, may have taken Hamill a tad too literally.

Standley has staged the play with both economy and a heavy hand. The first act comprises 20 mostly short scenes, and the second act has 25 scenes. The playing area is the middle of the rectangular Paseo space with the audience seated on risers at both ends (sight lines are not bad). Using two tables on rollers, several chairs, and many props, the cast creates indoor and outdoor settings throughout London and rural England. Standley keeps the action moving with efficiency.

Then, she gets heavy handed. Here are a few of many possible examples: For the first five minutes, the cast comes out and mingles with the audience. Point being? I don’t know. Next, they exit but soon return to the stage and start the play. Much of the movement is choreographed to the extreme. To begin each act, the cast assembles in two lines on opposite sides of the stage and walks across it in formation while contemporary electronic music plays and, then, back again. Other contrived movements occur both standing and seated throughout the play. What does this mean? It’s beyond me. A dinner scene includes mechanical gestures sort of like what diners may make but done by the cast in unison. In other scenes, characters’ feelings and  emotional experiences are acted out. A character is literally swept off her feet (by other cast members) in elation one time and in despair another. These movements must have taken lots of rehearsal time, and the cast executes them smoothly. Maybe these additions to the script indicate Standley thinks Austen’s story and Hamill’s adaptation are not strong enough on their own to hold the audience’s interest. You can decide for yourself whether these extraneous movements justify the production’s three-hour running time.

In several scenes that involve characters walking or taking carriage rides, Standley has the main actors mimic movement while other actors pass beside them holding tree branches aloft. It’s like the illusion in old films where stationary actors mimic riding a horse while a moving backdrop rolls by behind them. In one scene, two actors play dogs. One yelps, while the other raises his leg on an audience member. The production has sight gags galore. The many music cues range from the Italian baroque to 21st-century electronica. Elisa Bierschenk’s period costumes are in modern hues.

Standley has drawn fine performances from the top-notch cast, some of whom will be familiar to theatergoers, while others are new. Madeline Dannenberg as Elinor Dashwood gives a heartfelt performance. You can see the weight of the world on her shoulders as scandal bears down on the family. A close second is Ashley Frisbee as Marianne Dashwood (the “sensibility” to Elinor’s “sense”). She has complete command of the role as the character whipsaws between highs and lows of love. The delightful Bianca Bulgarelli plays the young Margaret Dashwood.

Hamill includes all the main characters from Austen’s novel and several secondary ones, so the cast doubles some roles. At one point, Becca Mitchell, playing two characters, has a slap fight with herself. She drew audience applause at the reviewed performance. Joseph Burleigh, Wil Rogers, David Fletcher-Hall, Tyler Woods, and Lindsey Rollins play main and secondary characters. The cast keeps up an admirable amount of energy during this long, demanding production.

Sense and Sensibility isn’t exactly a comedy, although this production has quite a bit of humor, or, rather, attempts at humor. In fact, the story gets harrowing in the second act. Austen fans can decide for themselves about Hamill’s adaptation and the OSP production. The rest of us should be prepared for a long sit.

Sense and Sensibility by Kate Hamill (based on the Jane Austen novel)
Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through August 25
2:00 p.m. Sunday, August 19
Shakespeare on Paseo
2920 Paseo

Theatrical Artistic Directors Look at 2018-2019 Season

By Larry Laneer
August 5, 2018

While we make the canicular transition from the passing theater season to the new one, LL Curtain Call asked our leading theatrical artistic directors this question: What shows in the 2018-2019 season are you most looking forward to produced by theater companies other than your own? The only restriction was to productions in the metropolitan area, defined as everything between Guthrie and Norman, inclusive. All theatrical productions from the collegiate level up through professional were eligible for naming.

Let’s get this out of the way. A touring production of the juggernaut Hamilton will play here in 2019 under the auspices of the OKC Broadway series. This much lauded musical (a shelf full of Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize, a special Kennedy Center Honor this year for the show’s creators, among several other awards) has two touring companies on the road. Its arrival four years after it conquered Broadway (where it’s still playing) is not bad. We’ve waited longer for lesser shows.

The Pollard Theatre Company’s W. Jerome Stevenson cited Hamilton, Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park’s Sense and Sensibility, which opens this week and is based on the Jane Austen novel, and Richard III.  Tyler Woods will play the title role in the latter. Stevenson also looks forward to Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma’s production of the musical Titanic. You know, about a sinking ship. He added The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre, which makes Stevenson a ringer in this survey, as he’s directing the show for City Rep. This critically acclaimed play concerns a 15-year-old boy, who is on the autism spectrum, and his investigation into the death of a neighbor’s dog.

Donald Jordan of Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre named Hamilton and When We’re Gone by Lyric Theatre. This show is the fifth production in Lyric’s exemplary program of staging new musicals. We will see the world première of the show, which is set in 1349 London during the plague. Lyric promises a “pop-punk” score, so we’ll see if the story and music are a good fit (hey, it works for Hamilton). He also picked three Pollard shows: It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, which replaces the company’s A Territorial Christmas Carol. Pollard made the change after their long-time Scrooge, the wonderful James Ong, died this year. An adaptation of the beloved film, the play is done as a radio show, including sound effects. Almost, Maine, which in recent years has been one of the most widely staged shows in the country. And Disaster!, a jukebox musical set on a star-crossed casino ship.

Lyric Theatre’s Michael Baron chose Pollard’s An Act of God, which will feature the great Brenda Williams in the title role of, yes, that God. Baron says he grew up in Florida as a huge Gloria Estefan fan, so it follows he would pick On Your Feet! (OKC Broadway), a bio-musical about Emilio and Gloria Estefan. He also selected OSP’s Richard III and City Rep’s Curious Incident.

So, that’s what the professionals are looking forward to in the new theater season. Check the productions in our Show and Theater Guide—which is a select, not a comprehensive, list—or other shows you may know about and  feel free to add your own picks in our comments section.