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CCM’s “Eurydice” is a Matter of Life and Death

Review by Doug Iden of Eurydice: CCM Acting

The drama Eurydice opens the CCM Studio Acting Series in the Cohen Family Studio Theater.  Based upon the Greek myth of Orpheus, Eurydice relates the updated parable about grief, the power of language to communicate and the struggle between life and death.

The play opens with two lovers (Eurydice, played by Madison Pullman, and Orpheus, played by Duncan Weinland) cavorting on the beach. They are in the prime of their lives and very happy.  Orpheus proposes to Eurydice who accepts.  Eurydice is enthralled with books, which has an ironic twist as the story progresses, while Orpheus is a musician and composer. This is also the first of many allusions to water which run throughout the play.

In the Underworld, we meet Eurydice’s father (James Egbert), who has managed to retain his ability to read and write, and remember the past despite being “dipped” in the river which is intended to obliterate all connections with the past. In Greek myth, the river is the boundary between the real world (life) and the Underworld (death).  Father writes letters to his daughter which she does not receive, but one is intercepted by The Interesting Man (Jabari Carter).  The Interesting Man entices Eurydice to his apartment with the promise that he will show her a letter from her father.  However, in his attempt to seduce her, Eurydice falls on the stairs and dies.

Thus, she is reunited with her father in the Underworld but, because she has been dipped in the river, she has no memories of the past or the ability to read and write. Her father patiently restores his daughter’s knowledge and a strong bond is created between them.

As Eurydice arrives in the Underworld, she is greeted by three Stones (played by Ella Eggold, Madeline Page-Schmit and Jack Steiner). The Stones, who often speak in unison, are a Greek Chorus which alternately provides commentary on the action,  and acts as the conscience and police force of the Underworld.  The Stones are appalled because Eurydice and her father have flagrantly violated the rules by reading and remembering.

We also meet the Lord of the Underworld (also played by Jabari Carter) who, as a child and later as a giant, tries to seduce Eurydice and warns her that she needs to conform. In the meantime, Orpheus is disconsolate with grief and writes music for her.  He attempts to communicate with her in the Underworld and, eventually, goes to the Underworld itself.

Eurydice is now in a situation where she must choose between her father and her husband and between life and death.

Led by Director Susan Felder, the acting is very good, led by Pullman’s Eurydice who must transform from a bright, almost naïve young living woman through grief, through confusion and ultimately through tragedy. Duncan Weiland as Orpheus also goes through a similar transformation.  Egbert’s Father is believable in an avuncular manner and represents reason and learning.  Carter’s multiple roles as the Interesting Man and two manifestations as the Lord of the Underworld (child and super-adult) are very effective as unctuous and duplicitous characters.  The Stones are both dramatic and hilarious as they react to the other characters.

The construction of the play is very interesting with a major emphasis on staging and lighting to help propel the story. The set is very sparse with a dark and stark aura.  Most of the “set design” by Abby Palen relies on props such as a blanket, an umbrella, buckets and a water pump and the construction of a room in the Underworld (which is prohibited) by Father who uses four poles and string to create the illusion.  The stage has a balcony which is used effectively to differentiate between life in the real world and the Underground which is shown solely on the main stage.  Thus, we see a literal division during the interplay between the living but grieving Orpheus and Eurydice in the Underworld.  There are also some interesting illusions such as the rainstorm in the elevator leading the Underworld.  The only real set piece is a cutout in the front of the stage representing the river.  (Several people coming into the theater almost had an unexpected bath (including me).)

The lighting (Elanor Quinn Eberhardt) is very effective in moving the action between various locations and represents multiple musical instruments in Orpheus’s love song to Eurydice composed by Duncan Weinland. The music, which is also prohibited by the Underworld, is sad  but makes the Stones cry when Orpheus appears.  There are also snippets of old songs which represent the tabooed memories of Father and his daughter.  Sound effects by Josh Windes also add to the atmospheric sense with rainfall and storms.  There are constant reminders of water which can either be cleansing or purge of the characters of their humanity.

This is a play that grows on you. I’ve been thinking about it since I saw it and many of the apparently disparate parts are beginning to gel.  When I left the theater, I thought that this was merely an interesting play but now I think it is both interesting and well-devised.

So, as we approach the Halloween season, you can take a trip to the Underworld by viewing Eurydice at the Cohen Family Theater at CCM.

Incline’s “Next To Normal” is Complex, Emotional

Review by Doug Iden of Next to Normal: Incline Theatre

Next to Normal is the hopeful but ironic title of the opening musical for the District Series at the Warsaw Federal incline Theater.  It is the powerful story of a family torn apart by a wife and mother suffering from mental illness.  It is also the layered story of multi-generational misunderstanding, lack of communication, striving for personal identity, difficulties with relationships and the complexities of dealing with long term illness.

The show opens with the apparently innocuous song “Just Another Day” with four family members getting ready for their respective daily activities. Already, however, we get clues that undercurrents exist and the family may not be as connected as the song would imply.  Dad (Dan Goodman, played Brian Anderson) states several times that he “doesn’t have a clue” what his wife Diana (Lesley Hitch) is talking about. Diana blithely starts making multiple sandwiches on the floor with the explanation that she is preparing lunches for the future.  Their daughter Natalie (Leslie Kelly) is being a teenage brat and their son {Gabe, played by Tanner Gleeson) seems disengaged.

The family conflict comes to a head early when Diana prepares a birthday party to her family and new friend of Natalie’s named Henry (Elliot Handkins) which reveals Diana’s long-term mental illness and its shocking reason.  Diana’s illness causes an estrangement between her and Natalie with a resulting eruption of resentment and later the inability of Natalie to maintain a stable relationship with Henry.

Dan takes Diana to several psychiatrists (both played by Derek Harper) who tries medication first and then a shock therapy to attempt to cure Diana’s bipolar condition.  The remainder of the show deals with both the family’s and Diana’s attempts to fight the illness and cope with the results.

The show is virtually an opera with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey.  The score is a combination of ballads, rock and a hint of country music. All of the actors have excellent voices but are particularly adept at “acting” the songs with a combination of anguish, anger, disillusionment, pain, hope, longing and confusion.  Leslie Hitch as Diana sings her way through a breadth of emotions and is critical to the drama since the story evolves entirely around her.  Her song highlights include “You Don’t Know”, “I Miss the Mountains” and “So Anyway”.

Anderson (Dan) sings a loving and caring but confused role as he plaintively tries to bring Diana to reality.  Gabe counters with a raucous, defiant song “I’m Alive” is reprised several times and his unhealthy relationship with his mother widens the gap between Diana and the rest of the family. Kelly, as Natalie, swings from anger to concern for her mother and a wariness about establishing a relationship with Henry in the songs “Perfect for You”, “Hey #1 and #2) and a reconciliation duet with her mother “Maybe (Next to Normal)”. The music and singing are universally good led by music director Dr. Brian Hoffman.  The band plays well and allows the singers to project.

Brett Bowling’s sparse set design of an almost surrealistic house is very effective with the actors positioned on the various catwalks in the structure.  But the real highlight is Denny Reed’s lighting design with color changes that match the varying emotional moods of the characters.  Hues alternate between vivid greens, shocking reds, stark whites and various fadeouts.  The best example is the scene during which Diana receives the shock therapy with flashing lights and moving psychedelic images projected on the set.  The lighting becomes a character.

Director Matthew Wilson has created a taut, well-choreographed show.  There is little dancing per se but there is almost continual movement and good positioning of the actors.

I had not seen this show before but have some personal experience with the illnesses so I got into the drama a bit more emotionally than I normally would.  Still, this is an excellent production with good acting and even better singing and I encourage you to see it.  There is some adult language and the subject matter can be daunting.

Next to Normal continues at the Incline Theater through October 21.  Their next production is The Graduaterunning from January 24 through February 10.

Incline’s “Next to Normal” Poignantly Depicts the Impact of Mental Illness

Review by Laurel Humes of Next to Normal: Incline Theatre

Warsaw Federal Incline Theater has staged a powerful production of Next to Normal, the prize-winning rock musical about a family afflicted by mental illness.

It is the mother, Diana, who is struggling with bipolar disorder. But her husband, Dan, and teenage children, Natalie and Gabe, are all victims, as she swings from manic to depressive.

We follow Diana through medical treatments and psychotherapy. We follow her family through caregiver fatigue, anger and resentment in their quest to have a life that is not perfect, just “next to normal.”

Not your lighthearted musical. But see it for the insightful book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, the compelling plot twists, and the striking performances by all six cast members. And because Next to Normal won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The show is an almost completely sung-through musical, with nearly 40 songs. Because the lyrics are essential to the story, it was upsetting opening night when the off-stage band sometimes overpowered the singers. Certainly this can be corrected in future performances.

Lesley Hitch needs all her considerable acting skills to show us a Diana whose emotions, because of the disease and effects of treatment, stretch from loving to unfeeling, disappointing her family time and time again. One of Hitch’s most powerful and poignant songs, “I Miss the Mountains,” comes when she throws away the pills meant to steady her moods but have left her numb. “I miss the mountains, I miss my life.”

Brian Anderson portrays husband Dan as a gentle and kind caregiver to his wife through the 16 years of her disease that may have resulted from a tragic event they shared. Anderson gives us a man who is mostly burying his own feelings, which makes the moments they do emerge more moving. “Who’s crazy?” he sings. “The one who’s half-gone? Or maybe the one who holds on.”

Leslie Kelly is dynamic as high school daughter, Natalie. The typical teenage contradictions of needing and rejecting her parents is so sad because her parents can’t be there for her – all the focus is on her mother’s condition.

So we watch Natalie seek a way to numb her pain, maybe music performance, maybe drugs. The most promising is a new boyfriend (Elliott Handkins, in a fine performance), if she can keep herself from pushing away this person who clearly loves her.

The final member of the family is son Gabe, who is at the center of the plot but whose story can’t be revealed without spoiling a plot twist. In the hands of Tanner Gleeson, Gabe is forceful and touching, and maybe a bit unintentionally evil. Among Gleeson’s best moments are the songs “I’m Alive” and “There’s a World.”

Derek Harper rounds out the cast in multiple roles as Diana’s doctors. Harper (a pharmacist in real life!) is mostly given dry, unemotional lines, but watch for his breakout moments as “rock star” doctor.

Scenic designer Brett Bowling and lighting designer Denny Reed have created a setting that beautifully enhances the arcs of the story. The family home set is primarily a series of staircases, useful for escaping one another. One side of the house outline leans in; will the house itself collapse with the family? The lighting follows the characters’ moods, exuberant to bleak.

Next to Normal is briskly directed by Matthew Wilson, who has led his cast to flesh out every nuance of meaning and certainly to give everything to their performances.

I hope this show gets the audience it deserves.

Next to Normal runs Wednesdays-Sundays through Oct. 21 at Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, 801 Matson Place, in the Incline District of East Price Hill. For tickets, call 513-241-6550 or go to www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com.

 

 

Falcon’s “Yankee Tavern” Gives You Performances You Can Believe In

Review By Laurel Humes of Yankee Tavern: Falcon Theatre

Conspiracy theories. Laughable or true? Trivial or deadly?

Yankee Tavern, now at Falcon Theatre, takes on many of those theories. You will find yourself both laughing and wondering during the course of this well-staged production of Steven Dietz’ play.

It’s 2006 in New York City, just five years after the 9/11 attack. We’re in a small neighborhood bar, a setting chosen because, as Dietz says, “taverns are home to the tallest of tall tales.”

The tallest-tale teller is Ray (Ted J. Weil), such a long-time customer that he has his own key. Ray’s life work, it appears, is to spin through all the conspiracy theories that have haunted horrible events, from JFK’s assassination to the Twin Towers attack.

And the moon landing! Ray says what we watched on TV was fake (“A buddy of mine did the lighting for it.”). The actual landing was on a moon we can’t see.

Ray also claims the Yankee Tavern itself was impacted by 9/11. The jukebox died when the planes struck, right in the middle of (how appropriate) “American Pie.” It hasn’t worked since.

Bar owner Adam (Kyle Parker Daniels) and his fiancée Janet (Becca Howell) argue with Ray, but mostly lovingly tolerate him. Adam’s late father owned originally owned the bar, and Ray was his best friend.

Besides, Adam and Janet have other things in their lives: the wedding, her job, his college studies. And the bar is slated to be demolished by the city. They can move on.

But then a stranger (Terry Gosdin) walks into the bar. Mostly silent, listening, but with his own apparent mystery. He orders two beers and places one at the barstool next to him. For an invisible buddy?

Yankee Tavern’s second act gets more serious. A conspiracy theory comes home, unfolding in real time and personally affecting all the characters.

The acting is superb in Falcon’s Yankee Tavern, starting with Weil’s portrayal of Ray. The Weil many Falcon patrons know is “disguised” by a big scruffy beard.  He proclaims Ray’s beliefs loudly and energetically to all who will listen, including radio talk shows. He’s a crackpot, but Weil also makes him likeable.

Daniels is so natural in his role of Adam that you believe him absolutely. Which makes the secrets he is keeping all the more believable.

Howell’s finest scenes come in Act 2, the dramatic meat of the play. Especially moving is a near-monologue about her connection to a 9/11 victim.

The playwright never lets us know exactly who Gosdin’s character is. CIA? FBI? More undercover than that? Gosdin plays it straight, understated, with absolute chilling certainty about the dangerous story he’s telling.

Yankee Tavern reminds us that conspiracy theories are compelling because there is just enough fact and seeming truth to make you believe the story could be true.

Special kudos to set designer Tracy M. Schoster, who also directed, and prop designer Kaitrin McCoy. The set for this aging tavern set is amazingly believable, from the beer signs to ancient juke box, cash register and even cigarette machine.

Yankee Tavern continues Thursday-Saturday through Oct. 13 at Falcon Theatre, 636 Monmouth St., Newport. Tickets are available at 513-479-6783 or at http://falcontheater.net.

 

 

 

NKU Theatre Makes a Big Splash with “Big Fish”

Review by Spenser Smith of Big Fish: NKU Theatre

Northern Kentucky University opens its current season with the John August/Andrew Lippa musical based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and the 2003 film directed by Tim Burton. The show selection seems an interesting choice, since the focal point of the story is a father/son relationship that could stretch believability considering that no cast member is over the age of twenty three. You’ll realize soon enough that if you, like me, thought you could leave your imagination at home it’ll be much to your chagrin.

The story shifts throughout between the past and the present. In the present, an elderly Edward Bloom (Collin Newton) faces his mortality while his son Will (Matthew Nassida) prepares to become a father himself. Will’s wife Josephine (Sara Cox) is pregnant before they get married and Edward has to promise not to tell anyone before they get to announce the news. In the storybook past, we see Edward age on stage, encountering a Witch, a Giant, a Mermaid, and the love of his life, Sandra (Adria Whitfill). The stories intersect as Will begins to discover the secrets of reality that were lost in his father’s imaginative stories. That confusion between what was real and what was fantasy is the cause of Will’s continued frustration when trying to come to terms with his father’s mortality.

Newton and Nassida have great chemistry that is tested throughout the show. Their vocal anger battle in “River Between Us” makes their characters’ impending lives without one another that much more heartbreaking. It delivers, despite the fact that, like the Titanic, we know what’s gonna happen. Some vocal lines are clearly out of Newton’s range, but he navigates those difficulties without further harm. Whitfill, as family matriarch Sandra Bloom, couldn’t have a more perfect motherly persona. And that voice. Good God. Her performance of “I Don’t Need a Roof” is the most perfectly polished and simple moment of the whole show.

Director Jamey Strawn has assembled a strong ensemble cast. He navigates the emotional difference between big, flashy ensemble numbers and small, intimate moments with precise detail. The six-person orchestra, conducted by Damon Stevens, navigates big ensemble numbers and intimate solos with ease. For this production they are on stage, behind the set, but the blend between music and vocals is well-balanced. I’m not sure why they were placed within view, but it wasn’t distracting. Steven’s meticulous vocal direction is on supreme display in “Little Lamb from Alabama.”

I wish the story focused more on the relationship between Will and Josephine and their fact-finding mission to uncover the truth of Edward’s past. The first act is ninety minutes and I think we could spend less time in Edwards stories and not sacrifice any plot details. It does feel like some moments are completely unnecessary. A little research shows that the song list from the Broadway production and the licensed production being produced at NKU are somewhat different. This tells me that the original production team wasn’t quite certain of the structure either.

My critique of the show itself has no bearing on the performance of the cast on stage at NKU. I knew nothing about the show before seeing the Sunday matinee and when I got home, I immediately bought the cast album. The show has its flaws, but when you strip away Edwards imaginative stories and look at his relationship with his family and their personal journey you get a glimpse of the real beauty. This show requires a full emotional arc from its actors and the students at NKU do not disappoint. In fact, tissues are recommended. If you find yourself without one, hopefully you’ve worn a long-sleeved shirt.

Big Fish continues at the Corbett Theatre on the campus of Northern Kentucky University through October 7.

For tickets, call 859-572-5464 or visit theatre.NKU.edu.

Question Everything–Except the Great Performances in Falcon’s “Yankee Tavern”

Review by Jack Crumley of Yankee Tavern: Falcon Theatre

I’ll start with a confession: I’ve always been kind of suspicious about the New England Patriots winning the first Super Bowl right after 9/11. It just seemed a little too convenient. Trite. That’s mild in the grand scheme of the conspiracy theories that are laid out in Yankee Tavern, now playing at the Falcon Theatre.

Yankee Tavern is a 2007 play by Steven Dietz. It’s set in a New York bar run by Adam, who’s taken over for his late father. His fiancee, Janet, helps out as he goes to school, and then there’s Ray. Ray was a friend of Adam’s father, and Ray is a CHARACTER. He’s a character in the play, but his character is a CHARACTER. Ray’s got a lot of opinions about the way things really are. He knows humanity has been to the moon, but it’s a secret and invisible moon. He’s suspicious of his own sneezes. And when 9/11 comes up, he has a lot of ideas about what really happened. He’s so full of conspiracy theories that Adam is secretly writing his thesis about them, positing that they’re just as destructive as the terror attack itself. This is all overheard by Palmer, a guy who just happens to be in the bar when this conversation starts. Yankee Tavern is a play about the conspiracy theories involving 9/11, but the larger message is about how people deal with things out of their control; how having a wild, conspiratorial understanding of what appears to be a random event is more appealing than accepting the chaos of life.

Not unlike my recent viewing of A Few Good Men at the Covedale, this is an extremely dialogue-heavy play. Each character has at least one monologue, and Ray, played by Ted J Weil, is pretty much nothing but monologues. Weil, also a Falcon Theatre founder and its Producing Artistic Director, delivers line after line in a genuine, believable, often affable way (but also crazy). He’s outstanding in this production. It’s so much fun, especially in the first act, to watch him kibitz and argue with the other characters. As effortlessly as he regales the bar with his theories, he also has genuine, tender moments that are equally believable.

Adam is played by Kyle Parker Daniels in his Falcon Theatre debut. As the show progresses, his character has to swing from being a rational working student to being caught up in (or possibly helping drive) a sinister plot full of international intrigue. Adam is a character whose secrets are exposed over the course of the show, and Daniels’ performance evolves to make the character more complex with each revelation.

Becca Howell plays Janet. Much like Adam, Janet’s character goes through an evolution in the play that really pushes her emotionally. Howell plays Janet with a confidence that is tested and eroded and is ultimately crumbled. Her character, more than any other, is forced to deal with surprising loss, and she shows the audience how understandable it is for someone to insist on the least likely version of a story as the truth. One of my favorite things about her performance was her voice. She goes from conversational to critical to terrified to determined all in her tone.

Rounding out the cast is Terry Gosdin as Palmer, a mysterious man who shows up in the bar, and becomes the source of Janet’s pain (or at least the person who informs her of it). Palmer doesn’t say much in Act I, but I found myself occasionally glancing at him and he did a great job of keeping himself busy while sitting at the bar. His character also has a significant arc: from being a random barfly to seething menace. From the minute he appears on stage, there’s a sense that there’s more to him than meets the eye.

The Falcon Theatre is a small space, but it’s perfectly suited for this fairly intimate show. The stage was very well dressed as a small, hole-in-the-wall bar. Whenever the front door opened, the sound of traffic outside could be heard, and the couple key uses of a spotlight were well-done. The air conditioning in the theatre is loud, but for this show, it was easy to write off as city noise.

Audiences will have plenty of ideas to reflect on once the show ends. In addition to whatever feelings about 9/11 they may already have, Yankee Tavern also presents a story that makes you question the very nature of stories. What ultimately happens to these characters can be questioned through the prism of knowing who is telling the story. The director, Tracy M Schoster, has framed this production with the message “be careful what you wish for, or in this case, be careful what you believe.”

Yankee Tavern is playing at the Falcon Theatre, 636 Monmouth St in Newport, Kentucky, on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays now through October 13. Tickets are available by calling 513-479-6783 or FalconTheatre.net

 

Get Hooked by NKU’s “Big Fish”

Review by Doug Iden of Big Fish: NKU Theatre

Northern Kentucky University opened its theatrical season with the poignant musical fantasy Big Fish.  Based upon the novel by Daniel Wallace and the movie directed by Tim Burton, Big Fish reveals the search that a son makes to learn the true essence of his father who has regaled his son with fantastic stories of his past.  The show opens with the son, Will Bloom, played by Matthew Nassida, talking to his father Edward (Collin Newton) about his upcoming marriage and imploring his father not to tell his outlandish stories.  His father ignores his sons pleas and also reveals that Will’s wife-to-be Josephine (Sara Cox) is pregnant.  This scene establishes the conflict between the two which is part intergenerational and part personality conflict between the flamboyant Edward and the reserved and pragmatic Will.  There is a particularly poignant scene where Will (as a young boy portrayed by Charlie Lindeman) wants his father to play baseball with him but Edward eschews the opportunity.  Young Will throws the baseball after the retreating father.  Thus, Will grows up thinking his father doesn’t like him.  

The show is a mix of reality and fantasy and a major theme is trying to sort out the differences.  Will’s stories include encounters with witches and giants, working in the circus and trying to catch a big fish.  The story also follows two timelines: one in the present and one in Edward’s, past illustrated by the recounting of his stories.  As an audience member, you need to pay close attention to the action and the dialogue or you could get lost.

Very quickly, you are drawn into the charisma of the show with a combination of set design (Ronald Shaw) props, costumes (Elizabeth Joos) and an excellent ensemble which variously plays witches, circus performers, mermaids and townspeople. Because of the ongoing theme of water, the front of the stage, normally given to the orchestra, reflects a river with a continually shimmering lighting effect and is the home of the mermaid.  Therefore, the orchestra, led by Music Director Damon Stevens, is housed in the back of the stage.  The primary set is a rustic, half-finished, surrealistic structure. Because of the spare set, the show relies heavily on the use of various props including beds, fishing poles, fish and lots of flowers.

This is a musical and there is a lot of music in it written by Andrew Lippa.  The score is pleasant but not memorable, and is rife with character and plotdriven lyrics.  The voices of the two men (Newton and Nassida) are excellent and one highlight is their verbal battle with the song “The River Between Us” which shows their divide but also continues the water theme.  In the first act, Will sings about his father as a “Stranger” and reprises the song in the second act.  Newton performs well as Edward, jockeying between and older man and the younger version of himself.  He is very believable as the roguish purveyor of myth.  Nassida does a credible job as the uptight Will who then loosens up as he gradually discovers the reality of his father’s life.  

Both women (Cox and Adria Whitfill as Edward’s wife Sandra) are good as actresses and singers.  Some of the highlights include the duets with Sandra and Edward, “Magic in the Man” and “Time Stops”, along with a life-affirming song “I Don’t Need a Roof”, which Sandra sings to her ailing husband.  Another highlight shows Edward wooing Sandra by presenting her with her favorite flowers “Daffodils”.  The ensemble enters at the end of the song carrying umbrellas with daffodils in a very effective closing to act one.  

Other major contributors are Lindeman (an elementary school student) as Young Will and finally as Will’s son, Sam Johnson as Karl the Giant walking on stilts throughout and a very demonstrative Ben Cohen as the Circus Ringmaster Amos Calloway.  

The dancing (choreographed by Tracey Bonner) runs the gamut from very athletic (in the circus scenes) to an effective slow-motion dance.

This is the first time I have seen this musical and was enchanted with this delightful production.  Director Jamey Strawn has seamlessly juxtaposed the “real world” of today with the phantasmagorical world of Edward’s past.

Will Will and Edward reconcile?  Is there any truth in Edward’s wild stories?   Does Edward really love his son?  Will there be a happy ending?  If you want answers to those and other scintillating questions, you need to see the show.  So, grab your rod and reel, leave your cynical pragmatism behind and enjoy the Big Fish playing at NKU’s Corbett Theatre through October 7.  Their next production is Marisol in the Stauss Theatre from October 23 through October 28.

Covedale’s “A Few Good Men” Challenges Audiences

Review by Sheldon Polonsky of A Few Good Men: Covedale Theatre

Performing a theatrical version of an iconic movie is always fraught with pitfalls—even if it was a play first, as was A Few Good Men, which was a drama by Adam Sorkin before the memorable film starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. And, to be honest, early in Covedale’s production, I was worried that they weren’t going to be able to pull it off. The cast initially seemed a little tentative and the setup seemed somewhat plodding and unabsorbing. But it was worth hanging on, because by the middle of the first half the show started to gel and by the second half became as gripping and relentless as the original movie. Perhaps, even, this was a technique by Sorkin and the director, Ed Cohen, to lull the audience and build suspense.

For those not familiar with the plot, Lance Corporal Harold Dawson (Trent Marcum) and PFC Louden Downey (Tanner McDole), marines stationed at Guantanamo Bay, are arrested for the murder of PFC William Santiago (Andy Donnelly), in a “Code Red” (a military hazing) which unintentionally led to his death. The Code Red was ordered by their superiors, bible-thumping Lt. Jonathon Kendrick (Eric Minion) and tough-as-nails Lt. Col. Nathan Jessep (A.J. Ford), who subsequently cover it up and are willing to sacrifice the two marines to maintain the honor of the marines (or to save their own hides, depending on how you look at it). The case is assigned to Daniel Kaffee (Rory Sheridan), a junior-grade lieutenant who is chosen mainly for his lack of courtroom experience and his consistent tendency to plea bargain. But when an internal affairs officer, Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway (Erin Carr), is assigned to the case as well, she challenges Kaffee to search for the truth and uncover the conspiracy.

I appreciated that the cast does not try to mimic or emulate the movie cast but makes the characters their own. Sheridan, in particular, refreshingly plays Kaffee not with the boyish charm or callowness of Tom Cruise, but rather like a young Tom Hanks or Tim Allen, a somewhat overwhelmed everyman who despite his Harvard education grapples with his self-confidence and the legacy of his more daring father. Carr’s Galloway is abrasive, voluble and compulsive, but still approachable, and doesn’t overplay the role of the female outsider in a man’s chauvinistic culture that would be otherwise glaring in today’s #metoo, #timesup culture.
Ford’s Jessup is every bit as compelling and genuine as Nicholson’s without copying his mannerisms.

One consistently engaging aspect of all the performances was the use of body language, for which I give a lot of credit to director Ed Cohen (who as a practicing attorney knows his way around a courtroom in real life as well as on stage). In a play where many of the characters are constrained in their speech because of the military code, their frustrations and insecurities have to be signaled by non-verbal cues. Jessep’s breakdown in the courtroom is brilliantly conveyed in this way, and the actors playing the two defendents, Marcum and McDole, are equally skillful in conveying their doubts and insecurities behind their otherwise by-the-book verbal marine responses. Another supporting role I would single out for praise is Nathan Tubbs as Lt. JG Sam Weinberg, Kaffey’s assistant, whose role may not be large or flashy but is crucial as a more cynical foil to Galloway’s sympathetic response to the defendants.

The set, by Brett Bowling, and costumes, by Caren Brady, are of necessity utilitarian and static, so a heavy burden falls on the lighting designer, Denny Reed, to heighten the drama and set the mood, which is managed quite effectively. The plot exposition, given a lot of similar male characters in uniform, military jargon,  and several flashbacks, can be difficult at times, but Cohen as director deftly juggles all those balls and only the most inattentive theatre-goer would have any difficulty connecting with all the characters as the play progresses. Done well, A Few Good Men challenges the audience’s preconceptions, and this production rises to that challenge. Jessup is not an unmitigated monster, and may be a product of his military culture and the tremendous burden of responsibility placed on him as much as those he commands; nor are Dawson and Downey, despite following orders, entirely free of moral culpability. Curiously, in the days before this production I was listening to a lecture on Plato’s Republic, and was struck how enduring these philosophical conundrums are. The questions of truth, justice, and duty to state and one’s conscience are just as relevant now as they were 2400 years ago.

A Few Good Men is playing at the Covedale Theatre through October 7th; tickets can be ordered online at their website, http://www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com/ccpa/.