2020 Theater in Review

By Larry Laneer
December 15, 2020

So, what’s to review? Theater has suffered as much as any industry during the pandemic, and that doesn’t seem to be changing much anytime soon. But a number of our much-appreciated theatrical artists made do and made drama and music as best they could. Some productions, therefore, were noteworthy, and we’ll hail those. Only categories with outstanding work are included. Thus, some categories may not appear this year. Categories (may) include work recognized as “Highly Commended.” This designation is analogous to a nomination in the category. While maybe not the best in the category, work cited as highly commended is worthy of special recognition. This year, some of the categories had to be improvised, too. Here are the outstanding achievements in 2020 theater:

Best Play: Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years (Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma). This play had no competition to speak of, and it would be interesting to see where it ranked in a normal theatrical year. But that shouldn’t take away from recognition for a well-staged, designed, and acted memoir about two remarkable Americans.

Best Touring Musical: Come From Away (OKC Broadway). This is a fairly rare category, but it would be churlish pass on this delightful musical set on and after September 11, 2001, in Gander, Newfoundland. The show is not strictly a musical comedy, but it had more genuine humor than most that work hard to be funny.

Highly Commended: Miss Saigon (OKC Broadway).

 Best Direction of a Play: Michael Baron and Ashley Wells (A Christmas Carol, Lyric Theatre). Baron and Wells had a lot of people—including the audience—to maneuver over a large, outdoor area. They made it work.

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play: Nikki Mar (Romeo and Juliet, Oklahoma Shakespeare). Mar was one of the main reasons the second act of this production were some of the year’s best moments of theater. Theatergoers look forward to seeing more of this outstanding young artist.

Highly Commended: Terry Burrell and Julia Lema (Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, Lyric Theatre).

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play: Renee Krapff (Romeo and Juliet, Oklahoma Shakespeare). As Nurse, Krapff nailed both the comedy and tragedy in the role and the play.

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play: Hal Kohlman (Romeo and Juliet, Oklahoma Shakespeare). As Friar Lawrence, Kohlman, along with Krapff (see above), was a major reason for some success in this wildly uneven production.

 Best Scenic Design of a Play: Debra Kim Sivigny (Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, Lyric Theatre). Sivigny imagined in teeming detail the sisters’ tidy, comfortable home in a New York City suburb.

Best Costume Design of a Play: Jeffrey Meek (Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, Lyric Theatre). Meek’s costumes fit so seamlessly (no pun intended) into the production they were hardly noticeable. That’s effective costume design.

Best Something Different: Pollard Theatre Company Plugged In (Pollard Theatre Company). The company’s artistic director, W. Jerome Stevenson, conducted video interviews of some of our leading theatrical artists. The interviews were in the style of James Lipton of television’s Inside the Actors Studio. It was a pleasure to get to know the personal stories of artists whose work we’ve seen for years.

Best Getting Something Going When We’re Starved for Live Performance: Moonlight Cabaret (Lyric Theatre). Lyric staged three musical revues at the Water Stage in Myriad Gardens. The different casts and musical directors, all Lyric regulars, put on in-person shows which were a welcome restoration of live performance.

Best Adaptation to the Circumstances: A Christmas Carol (Lyric Theatre). Lyric figured out a way to adapt its highly successful indoor production into an outdoor production, done at the Harn Homestead in Oklahoma City. It worked, and some moments were outstanding.

Best Sixty-one Minutes of Theater: The second act of Romeo and Juliet (Oklahoma Shakespeare). Featuring excellent performances (see above), the second act made theatergoers wonder what went wrong with the first act.

Best Special Theatrical Event: Theatre Crude Fringe Festival. The pandemic turned the fringe festival, which made a fine debut last year, into a film festival. Some were highly edited in cinematic style, while others more-or-less filmed their stage shows. It worked well when watching them “live,” but I had problems trying to view archived videos later. The most memorable was Naked Brunch, written and performed by Rodney Brazil, a harrowing autobiographical account, which inspired me to reread William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch.

One thing theatergoers have learned during the pandemic is this: while video efforts have been far better than nothing, they suffice only temporarily. For theater, you have to be in the room where it happens.


Review: A Christmas Carol

W. Jerome Stevenson in A Christmas Carol                           Photo by K. Talley Photography

By Larry Laneer
November 12, 2020

This marks the tenth year Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma has been staging A Christmas Carol. The production is revamped every five years, so this was to be last of the current version. Then, things went to hell in the pandemic with theater hit as hard as any industry.

Doing a show every year can become ritualistic, but one of the amazing facts about Lyric’s production has been how they’ve kept Christmas Carol fresh season after season for a decade. Thus, theatergoers will not be surprised the company came up with a brilliant concept and presents the familiar story in a completely new light.

Under the leadership of producing artistic director Michael Baron, who adapted Charles Dickens’s story for the stage, and top-notch collaborators, the company is presenting the show outdoors at the Harn Homestead, a territorial era farm smack dab in the middle of Oklahoma City, just a few blocks south of the state capitol. We’re used to seeing scenery move across the stage, but in this production, the scenery stays put, and the audience moves with the scene changes. It’s a pleasure to report this adaptation maintains the high standards Lyric has always had with this show.

The Harn Homestead has a two-story farmhouse, a wonderful stone barn, and other buildings. Lyric consulted a designer who’s an expert on outdoor theater. Scenes take place on front porches or rustic platforms built for this production, creating fine sightlines for the socially distanced audience, limited to 100 per performance. All this is seen under Fabian J. Garcia’s lighting design that about equals anything you would see Lyric do at the Plaza or Thelma Gaylord. Audience members are required to wear masks, so the fog on your eyeglasses adds to the atmosphere. Sound design has always been an important part of this show, and Josh Schmidt and Corey Ray have brought the electronic torrents to the farm. (One wonders what the neighbors think, though.)

Costumed “lamplighters” lead audience members in groups through the show. Directed by Baron and Lyric associate artistic director Ashley Wells and running one hour, 15 minutes without intermission, the show flows with the intricate smoothness of the first-class marching band. We still see the Ghost of Christmas Past aloft, while the Ghost of Christmas Present is in a loft. Jeffrey Meek’s costumes retain the subtle sumptuousness and edge of the indoor version. You wouldn’t want to meet the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in a dark alley. By keeping it simple, Lyric achieves a total effect that’s remarkably appealing. Something about several actors holding lanterns and spread across a lawn in a late scene has a quiet, dignified beauty.

The unmasked, socially distanced actors wear body microphones, and cleverly disguised speakers set throughout the playing area. The show plays for a much longer run than usual, so all roles are double cast, not just the children. At the reviewed performance, Jonathan Beck Reed, who originated the role of Scrooge in the first Lyric production, railed in top form as the world’s most infamous curmudgeon. W. Jerome Stevenson will alternate with Reed. This may inspire theatergoers to go twice to see both casts.

How Lyric leadership, staff, and artists came together to find the venue, adapt the show, and make it happen to a high degree of quality would be an outstanding theatrical achievement in any season. Now, it’s downright inspiring. Just when inspiration is one thing we need more of in these harrowing times.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, adapted by Michael Baron
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:00 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Fridays-Sundays, through December 23
Harn Homestead
1721 N. Lincoln Blvd.

The Twilight Zone Redux

By Larry Laneer
October 31, 2020

The Great Interregnum of 2020 has given me a chance to revisit television’s The Twilight Zone (1959-1964).  A while back, I acquired a boxset of all 156 episodes. The episodes are around 27 minutes, so three or four about equal an evening at the theater.  I just completed the first three seasons.

The show solidly reflects its era. The Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation informed the early seasons. People at the time pretty much assumed the world would end in an atomic holocaust; it was just matter of how soon and who would survive. And would surviving a nuclear conflagration be the most desirable outcome? Other differences from today stand out. It’s odd to see the show’s creator and host, Rod Serling, making his famous introductions to each episode, often with a cigarette in hand.

Although some storylines lean a little maudlin or far-fetched, most of the teleplays stand up to scrutiny today. The second season included one of the most famous episodes, titled “Eye of the Beholder.” It’s the one where a family’s “ugly” daughter undergoes a facial operation to improve her looks. At the end, the bandages are removed before her grotesque-looking family to reveal the failed surgery and comely visage of Donna Douglas, who later played Elly May in The Beverly Hillbillies. Several episodes are westerns, a nod to the popular television genre of the time. At the end of some, James Arness does a promo for Gunsmoke, which also aired Saturdays on CBS.

The second season also included a one-hander titled “The Invaders” in which the great Agnes Moorehead has not a single word of dialog. Just some grunts, gasps, moans, snorts, and other gesticulations. Her performance should be studied in drama schools. An intense, suspenseful score by Jerry Goldsmith also enhances the episode.

Most of the actors are not well-known today, but many were big stars of their era, future stars, or familiar character actors, some in the same episode. The list is almost hard to believe. Season one had Ed Wynn and Murray Hamilton (Mr. Robinson in The Graduate); Dan Duryea and Martin Landau; Ida Lupino and Martin Balsam; Gig Young and a young Ronnie Howard together.

Season two brought Art Carney playing Santa Claus with the character actor John Fiedler; Dick York; Burgess Meredith and Don Rickles; Buddy Ebsen; Billy Mumy; John Astin; and Dennis Weaver.

Season three glows more star-studded: Elizabeth Montgomery and Charles Bronson; Jack Klugman and Jonathan Winters (really!); Peter Falk playing a Fidel Castro-like figure; Lee Marvin and Strother Martin; Cloris Leachman; Buster Keaton in a time-travel episode harkening back to silent films; Dean Stockwell and Leonard Nimoy; Robert Redford as the Grim Reaper (I kid you not); Burt Mustin; Barry Morse as an irascible theater critic named Fitzgerald Fortune who lives in an garishly opulent apartment (file this one under fantasy); Edgar Buchanan and Dub Taylor; J. Pat O’Malley and Nancy Kulp (Mr. Drysdale’s secretary in The Beverly Hillbillies); Claude Akins; Theodore Bikel; Andy Devine and Howard McNear (Floyd the barber in The Andy Griffith Show); Cliff Robertson playing a ventriloquist who thinks he’s going insane and Frank Sutton (Sgt. Carter in Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.); Jesse White and Carol Burnett; and Donald Pleasence.

Ray Bradbury penned the teleplay for an episode titled “I Sing the Body Electric” (after Walt Whitman and about a cyborg nanny), which included a young Veronica Cartwright. Bernard Herrmann’s score for a 1962 episode closely resembles his music in the early scenes of Psycho.

The nuclear holocaust never happened (yet). The show with Pleasence playing an elderly teacher at a boys’ school gives a poignant lesson on how we can enrich the lives of others, even when we don’t know it. That theme still rings true today.


Review: Moonlight Cabaret

The socially distanced cast of Moonlight Cabaret.     (Photo Provided)
The socially distanced cast of Moonlight Cabaret                                                                            (Photo Provided)

By Larry Laneer
September 19, 2020

It’s a helluva lot better than nothing. It’s a million times better than Zoom. It is Lyric Theatre’s Moonlight Cabaret, now live and in person at the Myriad Gardens Water Stage. And not a moment too soon.

The song list of this musical revue looked odd at first, then I noticed the show sports the theme  “Super 70’s Cabaret.” (Lyric sent me the song list in advance; they do not provide printed programs at performances, but you may be able to get one with your cell phone.) Director Ashley Wells has brought together six of Lyric’s well-known artists plus two newcomers. The show’s lone instrumentalist, music director Eric Grigg, emcees from an electronic keyboard onstage behind plastic barriers.

This is one of the few shows in the country being staged with the approval of theatrical unions or professional associations. Lyric went to great lengths to prove the production would be done under pandemic precautions. Audience members wear masks but may take them off when seated in the theater. Only 100 theatergoers will be allowed in a house that seats probably four times that. Michael Baron, the company’s producing artistic director, acts as a kindly traffic cop before the show routing the audience to their well-spaced seats. Cast members are not masked but are placed apart onstage.

Thomas E. Cunningham, Mandy Jiran, Vince Leseney, Justin Larman, Olivia Yokers (a newcomer to the city; theatergoers look forward to seeing more of her), and Kat Metcalf make up the ensemble cast along with young Erica Burkett and Skylar Hemenway. All give fine performances. The between-song banter is pretty good at times and could use editing at others.

In fact, the spare musical forces work to the production’s advantage. The songs come across with a clarity that would be lost in a raucous arena show or even a stage musical. It’s a pleasure to hear them sung in this setting by the top-notch cast.

The 1970s was a huge decade for pop music, so any 80-minute show can strike only a glancing blow against the musical catalog. Wells has programed familiar songs by big names: Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, Carole King, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Carly Simon, Dolly Parton, Maureen McGovern, Elton John. She includes three show tunes, to wit, “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line and songs from the obscure musicals Starting Here, Starting Now and The Baker’s Wife.

This is an ensemble show, so cast members don’t outshine each other. But Leseney’s performance of Elton John’s “Border Song” rings true as a song of our times.

Lyric will do three completely different productions of Moonlight Cabaret. Each one runs for only four performances and will have different directors and casts. The next two come under the unrevealing titles “Silver Linings” and “Welcome to the (New) World.”

It is so good to see live performances again, and a show a fraction the quality this one of would be satisfying. But Lyric has gone to great lengths to stage a production, in context, as fine as anything they would do at the Plaza or Thelma Gaylord. The show never feels skimpy or lacking the energy you would expect from musical theater. We’re now into nice weather, and in a beautiful setting, Moonlight Cabaret provides a fine evening of post-canicular theater.

Moonlight Cabaret
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:00 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, September 19-20
Myriad Gardens Water Stage
301 W. Reno Ave.
Cast:  Thomas E. Cunningham, Mandy Jiran, Vince Leseney, Justin Larman, Olivia Yokers, Kat Metcalfe, Erica Burkett, Skylar Hemenway, directed by Ashley Wells, music direction by Eric Grigg

7:00 p.m., Thursday-Sunday, September 24-27
Cast:  Michael Andreaus, Stephen Hilton, Lexi Windsor, Helen Han, Cristela Carrizales, Ashley Mandanas, Devi Peot, directed by Matthew Sipress, music direction by Brian Hamilton

7:00 p.m., Thursday,-Sunday, October 1-4
Cast:  Jennifer Teel, Courtney Crouse, Antonio Rodriguez, Charlie Monnot, Renee Anderson, Campbell Walker Fields, Cheyanne Osoria, directed by Michael Baron, musical direction by Corie Melaugh

Pollard Theatre Company Plugged In

By Larry Laneer
July 22, 2020

As far as the theatrical world goes, not much good has come out of this pandemic, but we have some artists giving it their best shot. One delightful surprise has been Pollard Theatre Company Plugged In. PTC’s artistic director, W. Jerome Stevenson, has conducted video interviews with some of our leading theatrical artists and made them available on the company’s web site. The interviews are in the tradition of James Lipton on television’s Inside the Actors Studio. You hear the interviewees say their favorite curse word.

Stevenson said the idea for the program originated with the company’s board of directors. All interviewees have worked at some time with PTC.

Theatergoers have seen the work of these artists for years, if not decades. It’s nice to get to know them personally and hear their experiences. The director/choreographer/actor Matthew Sipress speaks movingly about being in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway and seeing Carol Channing at the top of the stairs in the title number. Choreographer Hui Cha Poos and Stevenson have a thoughtful discussion about the art and current issues of the day. (Her dances for PTC’s In the Heights in 2014 still linger in my mind.)

Kolby Kindle, a young actor from Edmond who was in In the Heights, has embarked on a successful career in touring musicals. He was in Australia with Come From Away when theater shut down. Brenda Williams and Elin Bhaird detail their long careers on the stage. In aggregate, how many shows have theatergoers seen these two wonderful actors in? It must be in the high two figures, if not three.

And anyone would benefit from spending time with the great Albert Bostick, who grew up in the 7th Ward of New Orleans. Bostick is a master teacher and performer who has worked in about every art form, both performing and graphic.

Stevenson conducted the interviews remotely, and they all run about an hour. He always asks about the artist’s “point of no return,” when they knew theater was to be their world. We hear about their education and training and how they broke into their first theatrical jobs. Every interview is laced with humor; some are disturbing.

Stevenson said he hopes to continue these interviews “even after we’ve found a way back to our preferred art.” It would be a treat to see our top theatrical artists interviewed live with a chance for questions from the audience.

More episodes of Pollard Theatre Company Plugged In will be available, including one soon with Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre artistic director Donald Jordan.

Theater in the Time of COVID-19

By Larry Laneer
March 18, 2020

Although COVID-19 is barely in our area, it has already dislodged theater here. The fine arts may not be the most important things in a health emergency, but they are important. The theater and other artists who make them for us are among those workers who may lose income during the hiatus.

“We have made the difficult decision to simply end our current 18th season,” Donald Jordan, founding artistic director of Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre, said. The company planned a brief revival of The Oklahoma City Project as part of the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing next month. In June, Oklahoma City Rep was presenting A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which was expected to be one of the major productions of the season.

Three shows scheduled to open this month or in April have been moved to other dates. Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma rescheduled the world première of Distant Thunder to September-October. They bumped the new musical planned for that slot, Head Over Heels, to 2021. Lyric’s summer season at the Thelma Gaylord is still on with rehearsals beginning June 9, Michael Baron, the company’s producing artistic director, said. Matilda is planned to open June 23.

Oklahoma Shakespeare plans to move As You Like It, which had been cast and was to begin rehearsals this week, to September. The company canceled its statewide tour to rural schools in about 20 communities. A fundraiser in April has been postponed. “This will be a financial blow,”  Kathryn McGill, artistic and producing director, said. OS still plans to stage their new program, “Pay What You Will,” on the Myriad Gardens Great Lawn on June 18-28.

Pollard Theatre Company already had the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown in rehearsals for an April opening. According to Pollard artistic director W. Jerome Stevenson, the company hopes to produce that show and the drolly titled Puffs, or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years At a Certain School of Magic and Magic, but no dates have been set.

Elizabeth Gray, general manager of OKC Broadway, has no update on the touring Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, scheduled for May12-17. The decision to postpone or cancel will be made by the producers in New York.

See the Show and Theater Guide (button at upper right) for the latest schedule updates.

With theaters, movie houses, and bars closed, theatergoers will have to be creative in finding things to do.  As for me, I still have 102 episodes of The Twilight Zone to go.


Review: Anastasia

Lila Coogan and company of Anastasia                         Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade

By Larry Laneer
March 4, 2020

When you hear the musical Anastasia was inspired by a 1997 animated film, which was based on 100-year-old rumors, you may think it doesn’t sound very promising. Although it won’t raise your consciousness or blow your mind, the show is a surprisingly satisfying two-and-a-half-hour diversion.

Now at the Thelma Gaylord in the OKC Broadway touring series, the show takes some explaining. Soon after the Bolsheviks shot to death the abdicated Tsar Nicholas II along with his wife and children in 1918 rumors began circulating that one family member survived and was among the people. This set off a flurry of imposters and pretenders to the Romanovs’ supposed vast wealth.

In this show, the conmen Dmitry and Vlad scheme to find a young woman who could pass as Anastasia Romanov and present her to the Dowager Empress, guardian of the Romanov fortune, who packed off to Paris before the Russian revolution. But what if they accidently stumble upon the real Anastasia, who is now destitute and fending for herself? It could be enough of a story to make a musical.

This production features an outstanding scenic design (by Alexander Dodge) and the most effective use of projections (by Aaron Rhyne) I’ve ever seen. Until now in theater, projected backdrops usually have been inferior to those built in three dimensions. Projections typically appeared flat, fuzzy, and unconvincing. But Rhyne’s high-definition images have an extraordinary depth and clarity. The only time the projections become obtrusive and distracting is when they go into motion. Then, they can overpower the action on stage and turn the show into a movie. But most of the time, the projections are highly effective. With Donald Holder’s lighting design and Linda Cho’s costumes, the show looks elegant and elaborate. Darko Tresnjak directed the production, and he covers a lot of ground, both geographically and chronologically, and in some scenes supernaturally, with smooth efficiency.

The show’s creators, Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) (Once on This Island, Ragtime) and playwright Terrence McNally (book), have musical and theatrical bona fides.  Flaherty’s jaunty score is mainly in the style of contemporary musical theater, melodic division. But some musical numbers set in 1927 Paris are appropriately jazzy. I was struck by how much of the score is in triple meter. Peggy Hickey’s choreography closely matches the music. A 12-piece pit band accompanies the production, including (small) brass, reed, and string sections, not bad for a touring show.

But this 2017 musical really looks back to the old-fashioned book musicals of yore. It’s the story of a young person striving to overcome abject circumstances and an apparatchik villain with a glib love story or two added to hook the audience. It’s a proven formula.

The appealing Lila Coogan plays the title role, also known as Anya. She has a solid singing voice. Her Anya shows appropriate feistiness, and her Anastasia possesses authentic insecurity. The handsome Jake Levy plays Dmitry, both conniving and conflicted. Edward Staudenmayer is the roguish Vlad. He has some scenes with the fine comedic actor Alison Ewing as Countess Lily, especially “The Countess and the Common Man.”

Overall, the show is a sum of its parts, no more, no less. Whether that’s enough to spend some time with it is up to you.

Anastasia by Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), Stephen Flaherty (music), and
Terrence McNally (book)

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 March 8
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
201 N. Walker Ave.


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

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.

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