Review: Theatre Crude Fringe Festival

By Larry Laneer
September 30, 2019

Finally, we have our very own fringe festival! The Theatre Crude Fringe Festival is underway at the Capitol View Event Center (new to me). The venue is designed for weddings and other social events, but the creators of the festival have turned it into a comfortable, serviceable black box theater that seats about 50.

I guess a convention of fringe festivals, or, at least, of this one, is the festival does not provide printed programs at the performance site. You can check the festival web site and get some information, but it’s sometimes hard to figure out details about the plays, such as what you are watching and who is performing it. Thus, the information below is the best I could find. Here are some selections from the first week.

Before Presence begins, three people, who turn out to be cast members, sit in chairs on stage fiddling with cell phones. (At the same time, I looked around and saw most people in the audience fiddling with cell phones. That’s creepy right there.) The play depicts what must be a rehab facility for technology addicts. “I’m nothing without my followers,” one Instagram addict says. They are guided through the 12-step-like program by the eerie, disembodied voice of the Founder of Presence (think a duller HAL). A late scene includes some deft use of live video.

An outfit called 19th Century Hound (get it?) is credited as the play’s creator. Performers are Ronn Burton, Alex Prather, Mary Buss, and Ashley J. Mandanas.

A satire on the absurdity of electronic-device-dominated life, the play hews alarmingly close to the truth. Some people substitute virtual reality for, well, reality. It’s tempting to make fun of or call them idiots. Just turn off the damn device! But that would be like telling other addicts simply to put down the bottle or throw away the cigarettes. It doesn’t work that way. The play may leave some viewers unsettled. It should.

For something completely different, We Stan Together is by millennials, for millennials, and of millennials, with pop culture references galore. The creators, Lauren Brickman and Caitlin Bitzegaio, riff good-naturedly on chance encounters with various celebrities (from A List to D List), television and movies of their era, boy bands (including one from Oklahoma City), and television theme songs, among other trivia.

Brickman and Bitzegaio created this work at New York City’s prestigious Upright Citizens Brigade, so they have a wealth of material for name-dropping. The “stan” of the title is not a misprint. They give the definition in the play, or you can look it up on the internet, something the creators of this play and the characters in Presence would do as second nature.

Now, for something really different, we see Cyrano A-Go-Go, written and performed by Brad McEntire. As a high school sophomore in Carrollton, Texas, McEntire was required to write a play report for a drama class. He stumbled across Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac and became smitten with the play. In fact, as McEntire details it over about 70 minutes, the play becomes a guiding light and inspiration for the rest of his life.

McEntire gives a history of the play, going into detail about the opening performance on December 28, 1897, and the two-hour ovation following the final curtain. He performs a few scenes and points out that Cyrano is a dream role for character actors, such as himself. The play has never gone out of style and is still performed today.

Perpetual Motion Dance revived its Water Won’t Wait, a set of dances interspersed with a video of dances. The company doesn’t provide a program, so I don’t know who the dancers are or what music they are dancing to. All the dances appear more or less aquatic related. In the opening scene, a long white cloth covering the dancers resembles the rising and falling of ocean waves. Sound contributes much to the depiction of water. A lot of the movement takes place on the floor, and the dancers and audience are on the same level, so if you’re not sitting on the front row, your view is restricted severely.

An entertainment titled The Gravel Road Show Presents Oklahoma, USA! is by far the most provocative and edgy work I’ve seen so far at the festival. It is the creation of Dr. Kato M. T. Buss (whose name sounds like a character in a fringe festival) and students at the University of Central Oklahoma. Some people, and not only people in Oklahoma, would consider this play highly offensive and inappropriate. Not me, mind you. Say, people who get their information from Fox. The multi-racial cast mashes up Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and current events in a cabaret-style show that includes parodies of songs from a famous Broadway musical. It’s about as subtle as a tornado. That’s all I’ll say here, because to be fair to the production, you have to see the songs and action in the context of Road Show.

Theatre Crude Fringe Festival continues through October 6. Expect more dispatches later.

Theatre Crude Fringe Festival
through October 6
Performance times and dates:  https://www.theatrecrude.org/
Capitol View Event Center
5201 N. Lincoln Blvd.
$15 or less

Review: Fiddler on the Roof

Cast of Fiddler on the Roof                                                                                               Photo by Joan Marcus

By Larry Laneer
September 26, 2019

Some scholars say Fiddler on the Roof is as close to perfection as anyone has come in musical theater. The timelessness of this 1964 musical comes through in the production now playing at the Thelma Gaylord, presented by OKC Broadway. I hope the show causes you to think.

Directed by Bartlett Sher and choreographed by Hofesh Shechter, this is the touring version of a production that played to some acclaim on Broadway three years ago. Sher is one of our leading theatrical directors. I don’t think any of his previous productions have played here.

With book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, Fiddler boasts one of the great scores with such standards as “Tradition,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “To Life,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” and my favorite, “Miracle of Miracles.”

Set early in the last century, the show focuses on Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman in the Russian shtetl Anatevka, a place where tradition is everything. But modernity begins creeping into the village—socially, politically, and even mechanically. By the end of the show, the czar will expel the Jews of Anatevka from the district where they’ve lived for generations.

Tevye is one of musical theater’s signature characters, and actors playing him take their place in a long line (the great Zero Mostel created the role in the original Broadway production). In this production, the Israeli actor Yehezkel Lazarov gives a pleasing, if not commanding, performance as Tevye. He won over the opening-night audience. As Tevye’s wife, Maite Uzal does give a commanding performance, but that’s written into the role.

Running nearly three hours, the show features solid singing and acting by the cast of more than 30. Playing the daughters, Ruthy Froch (as Hodel) and Noa Luz Barenblat (as Chava) stand out among equals. Nic Casaula as Perchik, the budding revolutionary, and Nick Siccone as Motel, the tailor, give appealing performances.

The designers also did the Broadway version. Catherine Zuber’s sharp costumes are understated and authentic-looking in rich earth tones. The set design by Michael Yeargan consists of a backdrop and flat wings depicting gray, painted bricks. In fact, much of the set looks painted. Other set pieces and props fly in or roll on stage to flesh out the show’s many scene changes.

A fine ten-piece pit band, including brass and reeds, accompanies the show. The klezmer-style clarinet playing of Andrew Clark is outstanding.

Sher cleverly frames the story in the present. At the beginning and end of the show, a man in modern dress reads a book, the Sholom Aleichem stories on which Fiddler is based. In the final scene, as they pack their meager belongings, several Anatevka denizens say they will go to America. As we know, America welcomed these huddled masses, if not unconditionally, at least, they weren’t turned away at the border. Today, people flee their countries under abject circumstances or even death threats to come to America. How are we treating them now? Think about that next time you go to the polls.

Fiddler on the Roof by Joseph Stein (book), Jerry Bock (music), and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics)
7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Friday, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Sunday, through September 29
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre, Civic Center Music Hall
201 N. Walker Ave.
405-594-8300

Review: Every Brilliant Thing

Jon Haque in Every Brilliant Thing                                                 Photo by mutzphotography.com

By Larry Laneer
September 8, 2019

Long-time theatergoers have for many theatrical seasons admired the work of actor Jon Haque. He has performed with about all our leading theater companies. But Haque has been associated mainly with comedic roles. Now, we see him display his full breadth of acting and improvisation skills in Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre’s production of the one-hander Every Brilliant Thing.

Now at CitySpace, this 2016 play by English playwright Duncan Macmillan “with Jonny Donahoe” (as it’s billed) tells the story of a family tragedy and its effect on the family’s son. A not uncommon human act that may involve the “Werther effect” looms over the storyline. Events inspire the son, who’s seven years old when the play begins, to compile a list of “every brilliant thing” for his mother. The lad adds to the list as he grows into adulthood until it reaches a large number.

It’s s not giving away too much to reveal number one on the list is ice cream. Number 654 is Marlon Brando. Go figure. On instructions from the playwright, the play is localized. The time is the present, and the setting is “a partially furnished attic in Oklahoma City,” and a spacious, uncluttered attic it is.

In less capable hands than those of Haque and director Linda K. Leonard, this play could turn mawkish in the extreme. And to say a play involves tragedy does not mean it lacks humor. Some of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies include some of his sharpest humor.

The play’s conceit is the actor, called “Narrator,” drafts audience members to perform small, albeit important, roles in the production. A few come on stage and improvise lines or speak dialog Haque feeds them. Before the play begins, Haque mingles with audience members in the lobby and hands out numbered cards with words and phrases on them. These are items on the list of “every brilliant thing.”

When Haque says a trigger number during the show, audience members are supposed to call out what’s on the card. The uncertainty of what people will do results in a bit of an edge to the production. The actor works without a net, and it gives the show a part-theater, part-improv feel. Plays are usually rehearsed down to the most minute details, but this show never loses an unsettled feeling. It works pretty well, with both intended and unintended consequences, all in less than 90 minutes without intermission.

Let’s hope City Rep artistic director Donald Jordan has in mind other dramatic roles for Jon Haque in the near future. Twenty or twenty-five years from now, theatergoers will get to see Haque play Willy Loman. Lucky them.

Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe
Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre
7:30 p.m. Fridays, 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1:30 p.m. Sundays, through September 22
CitySpace Theatre, Civic Center Music Hall
201 N. Walker Ave.
$30-$40
405-594-8300

Review: Frost/Nixon

D. Lance Marsh and Matthew Alvin Brown in Frost/Nixon
Photo by K. Talley Photography

By Larry Laneer
September 5, 2019

Lyric Theatre does theatergoers a big favor in presenting a rock-solid, engaging production of the docudrama Frost/Nixon now at the Plaza. This intimate theater is one of the two best spaces in town to see straight plays (the other is the art deco gem Freede Little in Civic Center Music Hall). One wonders why Lyric doesn’t do more non-musicals here.

The playwright Peter Morgan surely didn’t expect his speculative Frost/Nixon to have the currency it has today, when he published it in 2006. On the other hand, maybe he did. He says he interviewed most of the participants and is satisfied the play “is an accurate representation of what actually happened.” He may have sensed politicians and their enablers don’t change much over time.

The play concerns events around talk show host David Frost’s interview of former President Richard M. Nixon in 1977, three years after his historic resignation from office. Much of the drama involves Frost’s getting the interview—surely the most desired in modern journalism—and finding a way to finance a television production of it. (Morgan adapted the play for the 2008 film version, directed by Ron Howard.)

Lyric Theatre and director Michael Baron have given the play a fully realized staging. No skimping here. Baron has been talking up the use of onstage video screens for this production. It makes sense, as the play is about a television show. A raised video screen at the rear runs the full width of the stage, and projection designer Sam Kusnetz employs it in full. The screen can show one image or be divided into several. My eyes were drawn to it mostly in the scenes of the actual television interview. Unlike the original broadcast, however, which cut back and forth between Frost and Nixon, both are seen all the time in this production. We see Nixon taking a handkerchief to his famously perspiring upper lip during questions, something the former President’s advisers assured would not be shown on the broadcast, as stipulated in their contract with Frost.

The video screen is most effective when it plays the role of a television set or is a background. Baron has several scenes appear on video that would not have been seen on television (private meetings, Frost in bed taking a middle-of-the-night phone call from Nixon’s agent). It isn’t clear why Baron has scenes written to be performed onstage play on the video.

But all this technology wouldn’t be much without strong performances, and Baron has populated this production with a top-notch cast. Matthew Alvin Brown plays Frost, and D. Lance Marsh is Nixon. In a late scene, Nixon makes a drunken, late night phone call to Frost. Marsh’s Nixon rambles at length, baring his insecurities, self-doubt, and self-defense. Brown’s Frost has practically no lines in the scene, and both fine actors play the moment to the hilt. They give remarkable performances.

But the play covers much more than just Frost and Nixon. David H. Dobson, Jonathan Beck Reed, and Gregory DeCandia play Frost’s team of advisors. Andi Dema is Nixon’s unwavering, unquestioning, supportive chief of staff. Ronn Burton is terrific as Swifty Lazar, Nixon’s agent who drives a hard bargain with Frost.

Dawn Drake’s scenic design captures in detail 1970s decor and remains flexible for the many scene changes that jump time and place. A lot of schlepping props on and off takes place, but Baron and Drake keep the show running smoothly for one hour, 45 minutes, without intermission. Jeffrey Meek’s period costumes are spot on. Dig those plaid, polyester trousers.

You can draw your own conclusions about similarities between the Nixon and Trump administrations. Nixon’s paranoia and hatred of the news media parallel Trump’s. We know from investigations of the Nixon administration in the 1970s and from the Mueller report on Trump, both obstructed justice. Nixon resigned from office for it. We will see what fate Washington politicians, or more importantly, the American people, deliver to Trump.

Frost/Nixon by Peter Morgan
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8:00 p.m. Fridays, 2:00 p.m. and
8:00 p.m. Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through September 22
Plaza Theatre
1725 N.W. 16th St.
Tickets start at $25
405-524-9312