Review: Romeo and Juliet

Nikki Mar as Juliet                      Photo by April Porterfield

By Larry Laneer
February 24, 2020

Oklahoma Shakespeare has revamped how it will do shows, and the change looks highly promising. They plan to do most plays at their space on the Paseo and make improvements to that challenging venue. If this longtime, venerable company can make this change work, we should have a lot of quality theater ahead.

A case in point is Romeo and Juliet, in a wildly uneven production now at the company’s Paseo space. The director Kris Kuss has trimmed the script judiciously and cast some excellent actors in key roles.

The first act is a good cure for insomnia. The second act comes alive, stays taut, and picks up the pace. Kuss inserts the intermission right after Romeo kills Tybalt and the Prince banishes him from Verona. Kuss’s staging is especially strong from the point Juliet drinks the potion Friar Lawrence gives her and on until the end of the play. The ending is so effective it even overcomes some maudlin recorded music that threatens to drown out the Prince’s final words.

The first act features Romeo, but the second act belongs to Juliet, played here in an outstanding performance by the young Nikki Mar. The second act begins with Juliet’s soliloquy (“Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds, towards Phoebus’ lodging!”). This soliloquy had never stood out to me, but Mar delivers it with such understated strength, it brings up the quality of the production. Juliet is in ecstasy over her marriage to Romeo. But the speech is interrupted by Nurse bringing the news Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, has been killed by her husband. Mar handles the transformation from joyousness to gloom and conflict with the skill of a seasoned professional. Theatergoers should look forward to seeing her in more roles.

Juliet contrasts with the callow Romeo played by Bryan Lewis, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Joaquin Phoenix. At times, his performance hints slightly at some of Phoenix’s more out there work.

Like the entire production, the acting ticks up a notch or three in the second act, with two exceptions. Theatergoers will not be surprised to read those exceptions are the always solid Renee Krapff as Nurse and the great Hal Kohlman and his prodigious beard as Friar Lawrence, who are both first rate from the moment they step on stage. In this production, Krapff’s Nurse is about the only comic relief you get and, per usual, she nails both the comedy and tragedy. In any role, Kohlman commands the stage or provides firm support, depending on what the part and scene demand.

By the end, Michael Page and Mariah Warren do fine jobs as Lord and Lady Capulet. Kevin Cook as Benvolio, Marcus Popoff as Tybalt, and Paxton Kliewer as Paris are also sharp until their characters are killed or become irrelevant. It’s a mystery why Kuss changed Mercutio to Mercutia and cast Allie Alexander in the role. It’s more of a mystery why he has Alexander play the role in male drag, although she handles it with aplomb. The slow-motion knife fighting looks hokey.

Lloyd Cracknell’s costumes set the play in the 18th century. Ruffled shirtsleeves shoot from some of the men’s jackets. Rebekah Garrett’s lighting is subtlety effective.

Oklahoma Shakespeare has been in business since 1985. It’s hard for any theater company—or any kind of company—to last 35 years. But OS has done it by changing with the times, and it looks like they are continuing to do so. Good for them (and us).

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Oklahoma Shakespeare
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through March 1
2920 Paseo
1-800-838-3006

Review: Having Our Say

Julia Lema (l) and Terry Burrell in Having Our Say              Photo by K. Talley Photography

By Larry Laneer
February 20, 2020

The playwright and director Emily Mann adapted the 1993 memoir Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years by Sarah and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth into a theatrical version. This is not a new play; I don’t know why it has taken so long for it to be done around here. But thanks to Michael Baron, Lyric Theatre’s producing artistic director, and the company, we now have the pleasure of spending a couple of hours, including intermission, with two of the most interesting people you’ll meet anywhere, anytime.

The book adapts smoothly for the stage because it’s told in the sisters’ own voices. Two actors break the fourth wall and tell their stories directly to the audience. And what stories! Their father was born into slavery in 1858. But he was unusually fortunate to be taught to read by his owners. After emancipation, he went to college—something rare at the time—where he met the sisters’ mother, who was almost born into slavery. Thus, the sisters knew from childhood the importance of education and lifelong learning.

The Delanys reared 10 children in Raleigh, North Carolina, all of whom went on to achieve notable personal success in professions or business. The last two survivors and the subjects of this play were Sarah Louise (1889-1999), known as Sadie, and Annie Elizabeth (1891-1995), known as Bessie. Sadie earned a master’s degree in education at Columbia and had a career teaching in the New York City public schools. Bessie studied dentistry at Columbia and was known in her Harlem practice as “Dr. Bessie.” How the sisters went to New York City from North Carolina is told in the play.

At the time of the memoir and the stage adaptation, Sadie is 103 and Bessie is 101. Lyric has engaged two highly experienced and capable actors to play them. Terry Burrell (Bessie) and Julia Lema (Sadie), who are decades younger than the women they play, capture the sisters’ vivid personalities with remarkable authenticity, while staying in character as centenarians. The sisters are sassy, pert, no-nonsense, opinionated, well-informed on events of the day, and feisty as 16-year-olds. Burrell and Lema have sibling chemistry and show the distinct characteristics of each sister. Plus, during much of the play, they go through the stage business of preparing a meal while continuing the dialog.

Now at the Plaza and guided by the sure hand of director Monique Midgette, the production creates the welcoming feeling of a visit to the sisters’ tidy, comfortable home in a New York City suburb. The scenic design by Debra Kim Sivigny teems with details of the sisters’ lives. Jeffrey Meek’s costumes are so naturally appropriate you may not notice them, and I mean that as a high compliment.

The Delany sisters’ story is extraordinary almost beyond belief. They were witnesses to practically the entire 20th century, sustained by wry senses of humor and religious faith. They saw Halley’s comet twice. They remember America before Jim Crow laws. They rushed down to register when women got the right to vote in 1920. They met Eleanor Roosevelt. Sadie and her mother saw Paul Robeson play Othello in London and were invited backstage to meet the actor. They have choice comments about former Vice President Dan Quayle and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

In Sadie and Bessie, you have two people who some might say were born with no advantages. But as their stories reveal, they were born with the greatest advantages: parents who valued learning and caring for their fellow human beings. The Delany sisters never had great monetary wealth, but they made the most of what they had. Sadie and Bessie make some of today’s billionaires look like paupers.

Having Our Say by Emily Mann, adapted from the book by Sarah L. Delany and
A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth

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 March 8
Plaza Theatre
1725 NW 16th St.
405-524-9312

Review: Love Letters

Billie Thrash and Stephen Hilton in Love Letters                                                    Photo by Jared Blount

By Larry Laneer
February 17, 2020

A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, from 1988, passes the test of time as one of the great American plays of the 20th century. The script’s elegant simplicity and integrity make it a dramatic gem. But the flawed production now by Pollard Theatre Company exposes the play’s fragility when not handled according to the playwright’s intentions.

Directed by Gregory Hopkins, the production features the most spot-on casting we may see all season. Stephen Hilton (as Andrew Makepeace Ladd III) and Billie Thrash (as Melissa Gardner) play two upper-class East coast WASPs who correspond with each other over 50 years, beginning in 1937 when they were in second grade. The characters should not be that sympathetic. Melissa is a poor little rich girl, and Andy goes into politics as a “liberal Republican,” a species that is now extinct. But Gurney, who died in 2017 and specialized in these types of characters, makes them as human as you and me.

The play’s conceit is two actors sit at desks and read the letters, cards, notes, and miscellaneous missives from the script. Thus, Love Letters works like drama on radio: the play doesn’t take place as much on stage as it does in audience members’ imaginations. When done properly, the play comes off vivid and meaningful to audience members who fill in the details of the characters’ lives. Our imaginations can produce costumes, scenery, lighting, and staging even the best designers and directors can never match.

The concept is so beautifully complete it is easy for directors to mess it up. If the director takes a heavy hand to the script, he wrecks the effect. The Pollard production begins well enough with two simple escritoires with red leather chairs on stage under focused lighting. But at the back of the stage, projections are shown relating to the action. Granted, it’s only two different projections per act, but they are superfluous and intrusive.

Gurney includes ellipses throughout the script that indicate, I guess, brief pauses in the dialog. During these pauses, which last only seconds, the lights in this production go down and, then, almost immediately come back up for the next lines. This business with lights is annoying and distracting, and it happens constantly throughout the play’s two acts. One more flicker of the lights and Pollard will have to post a strobe warning in the lobby.

Hopkins has the actors’ performances amped up to high levels. They act out the letters more than read them. This is not how Gurney intended for the play to be done. Hopkins seems to lack confidence in what Gurney has written. (It could be worse. This is at least the sixth production of Love Letters I’ve seen, one was by Pollard in 1993. In a couple of them, directors had the actors stand up and walk around the stage with scripts in hand, which does not happen in this production. The playwright’s intended effect was completely destroyed, because the play took place mainly on stage, not in audience members’ imaginations.)

It’s a good idea to rethink plays and find other ways to do them, seeking new insights. It’s also wise to avoid trying to fix things that aren’t broken.

Love Letters should be revived regularly so every generation of theatergoers can see it. When done properly, it is brilliant theater. But when mishandled, it’s a huge disappointment.

Love Letters by A.R. Gurney
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, through February 29,
8:00 p.m. Thursday, February 27, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, February 16 and 23
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie
405-282-2800

Review: Come From Away

Cast of Come From Away                                                                                   Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Larry Laneer
February 5, 2020

Human creativity never ceases to amaze. You might not think the tragic events of September 11, 2001, would provide fodder for a musical, but two Canadians found stories from that time and created the best-natured show to come down the pike in a long time, the delightful Come From Away.

When all aircraft were ordered to land immediately on September 11, 2001, Gander, Newfoundland, became a refuge for 38 planes carrying some 7,000 passengers to a town of only 9,000. This small Canadian burg became an emergency aeronautical center because in the early days of commercial flight, Gander had one of the largest airports in the world. Before the era of jet travel, transatlantic flights stopped there to refuel on the way to the States. But on that fateful day, the resourceful Canadians suddenly had to feed, water, house, clothe, and take care of air passengers of numerous nationalities, languages, religions, creeds, and even species.

On the tenth anniversary of the event, the Canadian married writing team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein (book/music/lyrics) visited Gander and interviewed residents and returning passengers. The stories and inspiration they garnered led to Come From Away, so the characters in this musical documentary are real people.

The show opened to much acclaim on Broadway in 2017, where it’s still playing. Presented by OKC Broadway now at the Thelma Gaylord, this is the touring version of that production.

The director Christopher Ashley has taken a less-is-more approach to the show, and he nails it. First, the scenic design by Beowulf Boritt consists tall tree trunks flanking the stage and a stonework-like backdrop. Add several chairs of various kinds and a couple of tables and the cast has everything they need to recreate numerous locations, both aerial and terrestrial, all subtly enhanced by Howell Binkley’s lighting design. This isn’t a dancing musical, but Kelly Devine stages the musical numbers appropriately for the story and naturally for a cast who aren’t the usual buff, athletic dancers seen in musicals.

The show features an unusual ensemble cast as Gander denizens and “plane people.” Kevin Carolan as the mayor of Gander and Marika Aubrey as an American Airlines pilot more-or-less act as our guides through the show. All the actors give strong performances creating various characters.

The creators have composed a serviceable score, often driving and exuberant. A top-notch combo of eight musicians accompanies the show. They have an extended curtain call that had the audience clapping along and dancing at the reviewed performance.

Come From Away makes a couple of points relatable to us all. A strong sense of humor sustained the Canadians and their unexpected refugees through disturbing, often confusing circumstances. This show is not a musical comedy, but it has more genuine humor than many musicals that go low for the cheap or inane laugh.

Next, it reminds us about the ingenuity and resilience of our fellow human beings in the worst of circumstances. And this is often done without training, preparation, or even much notice. The people of Gander went to extraordinary lengths to improvise solutions to urgent, tragic events. This should come as no surprise. Something similar happened here on and after April 19, 1995.

In recent years, the world has seen many other tragedies besides September 11 and April 19. This musical shows how people find a way to do what needs to be done in the face of manmade or, even, natural disasters. It may even give you a little hope.

Come From Away by Irene Sankoff and David Hein (book/music/lyrics)
OKC Broadway
7:30 p.m. Wednesday-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 February 9
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
201 N. Walker Ave.
405-594-8300