Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s The Tempest is a Storm of Fun

By Joel Applegate

I have been wanting to write about this theatre company for some time now. With their production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the Grassroots Shakespeare Company has given me that chance. They are the Utah branch of a sister company in England. Grassroots Shakespeare was co-founded by Mark Oram in London, who also co-founded the original company here in Utah. They’ve shared script edits before, and the London company also has a current production of The Tempest up and running.

The Tempest was, according to most scholars, Shakespeare’s last play, and has been a consistent favorite of audiences throughout the centuries. Many have said the Bard himself mirrors the denouement of his own life in the person of Prospero, the magician who is the play’s lead character.

Why is Grassroots Shakespeare Company unique?

  • It’s not academic.
  • It’s far from stodgy.

Throw your preconceptions of what Shakespeare “should” be out the window. You’ve never seen such a wonderful mash-up of traditional conventions, modern wit, transparent theatricality, gender blindness and audience inclusion all aimed at breathing new life into the familiar. The actors know that they are in the presence of an audience, and for this marvelously talented group, it’s no sin to exploit us.

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Covey’s Joyful Noise is a Joyous Event on How “The Messiah” Was Born

By Joel Applegate and Sarah Pendleton

The Hallelujah Chorus was born of a cacophony.

Or so the story goes. Tim Slover’s Joyful Noise, now in its last weekend at the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo, is the historically accurate telling of how George Frederic Handel’s masterwork “Messiah” came into being. All the play’s characters are drawn from real life. This play chronicles their fights with the church, the monarchy of King George II and each other.

In the hands of the very able cast and crew at the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo, Joyful Noise makes for a wonderful, informative piece of theater and music. Premiered in Dublin in 1742, “Messiah” had its legendary London premier about a year later. All the essential elements are present in Covey Center’s “black box”, the Brinton Theater, a great small three-quarter seating space enclosure that makes all the artists’ work come directly to life. All of the actors are skilled, and it was really enjoyable to hear their pure voices without the distortion of microphones. I was immediately taken by how professional the company opened up the first few scenes. The pace of the show remained good in most instances. Though there’s a lot of history to tell, I do feel the piece is a little over-long, especially the first act, which lasts an hour and a half, followed by an intermission, and then a second act lasting a little over an hour.

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Nothing Says Merry Christmas Like Music, Laughter…and Spaghetti

By Joel Applegate

As their name implies, it’s Salty Dinner Theater’s job to add a little extra flavoring to all their offerings. They don’t stint on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, now playing at various venues in Utah and Salt Lake Counties through December 21st (see below for schedule).

Though not an oxymoron, I eschew humility when I say that “Dinner Theater” is a violation of both. My bad, but I don’t think I can be fair about this. I’ve never seen a more bowdlerized version of this beloved tale.

But that doesn’t matter! What’s important is that you will be entertained by some very skilled actors and a beautiful singing voice or two, as I certainly was. Salty Dinner Theater’s purpose is to have fun, not to mimic the many other “Christmas Carols” reproducing like so many rabbits this time of year. Or to please academics like old stick-in-the-mud, yours truly.

From the beginning it’s evident that improv skills are very important. All the actors did a good job. I do not envy them having to do it while the audience eats. This is difficult work to pull off, and it is to their very great credit that these actors made it look easy. My hat is off to them. Continue reading

FRRUtah Extra: Thoughts On Utah Community Theater After Seeing The Addams Family

Yesterday I saw The Addams Family at the Capitol Theatre with my brother. I didn’t go to review it, but rather to enjoy it. And enjoy it I did! It was a well-crafted production with a very talented cast, immaculate sets, and nearly seamless technical execution. I laughed the whole way through and hummed the songs on my way home.

It was interesting to watch this professional production after having seen several community productions over the past few months, and being in one this summer. I couldn’t help drawing comparisons throughout, and I was happy to see that the community theater I’ve enjoyed does not suffer from the comparison. The areas where Addams Family clearly excelled beyond community theater levels are in the technical production and set design, but even this professional production had at least one glitch in the sound system (Pugsley’s mic was not on for his first lines), and I’ve seen some pretty impressive sets used in local community theater (Spanish Fork’s My Fair Lady comes to mind). So yes, in these areas professional theater is a notch above community theater, but the community theater I’ve seen is not horribly far behind–it seems limited resources foster creative solutions.

The one area where, in my opinion, our local community theaters are on par with this professional production is in the talent department. I was really impressed with the cast yesterday. Douglas Sills’ comedic timing as Gomez was perfect, Sara Gettelfinger’s body language as Morticia conveyed as much story as her dialogue, and Cortney Wolfson’s acting talent shined in her ability to convey Wednesday’s inner conflict between her family values and the love she has for her new boyfriend. But quite honestly, I have been no less impressed to hear Shannon Eden singing Eliza Doolittle’s songs, to see Steve Dunford transform from Jekyll to Hyde in Payson Theater’s Nightmare on Broadway, to laugh out loud at Miranda Duke’s and Emily McKinney’s portrayals of Calliope and Melpomene in Xanadu.

In short, The Addams Family at Capitol Theatre was wonderful. If you get a chance to see the play, particularly if you catch this same company performing it somewhere else (sadly yesterday was their last day in Utah), I highly recommend it. But at the same time, don’t forget that we have some pretty amazing productions happening here in Utah all the time, being put on by the very talented people in our community theaters.

Martyrs’ Crossing A Story of Joan of Arc Inspires

A Utah Theater Review by Joel Applegate

For serious theater buffs who bemoan the pastiches of Holiday Reviews (holy and secular), as well as yet another iteration of “A Christmas Carol”, the Echo Theatre offers a sacred story for thinkers among you. This is not about the birth of a child, but about the birth pangs of lasting faith. Playwright Melissa Leilani Larson’s painting of the life of Joan of Arc is called Martyrs’ Crossing, and as the title suggests, the plot turns on more than just one exalted life.

First produced at BYU, with subsequent performances in Washington and a reading in New York before arriving at Echo Theatre, Martyr’s Crossing starts out as St Catherine’s story. Using a wonderful plot device, the playwright spools out a spiritual chain stretching back through history. St Joan’s martyrdom intersects with Catherine’s, whose own martyrdom was salved by St Margaret’s. The latter two saints were martyred in the early fourth century, and became the voices Joan historically claimed she heard. Spiritually inspired, Joan secured the liberation of France from the regency of King Henry VI, who at the time was just a boy.

The action begins in a sort of celestial library, neither mortally bound nor of the heavenly realm. Four male narrators – or “historians” introduce the action, then become a part of it as the actors morph into kings, soldiers and clergymen telling “a story you might think you know”. I love the Echo’s space for its intimacy of actor and audience. And these aware actors included all three sides of the seating area, bringing the audience into the story.

Just as compelling as Joan’s story, the dialectic between Catherine and Margaret focuses on guidance, faith and miracles. Their exchanges are surely as interesting as Joan’s story and one of the most telling aspects of the play. There are truly great moments between the actors Anna Hargadon as Catherine and Ronnie Anderson Stringfellow as Margaret. They engage in a fascinating argument over the correct path forward toward achieving Joan’s quest. So much of what’s important about this play is highlighted: the crux of faith, wrestling with decision, guidance becoming dictation. They debate whether, as Margaret says, they should help “smooth her road with miracles”.

                               

Hargadon and Stringfellow are remarkable by turns. As Margaret, Stringfellow touched me contending that Joan must make her own choices. Not even saints can make them for her. I saw in Margaret’s face that she suffered watching Joan’s travails. How thoughtful this play is! In the character of Margaret, Stringfellow poses the wrenching conundrum that duty and compassion do not necessarily require the same action. Catherine’s anguish was clear as she cried for an intercession she knew she could not make. Hargardon’s speech while cradling a doomed Joan took us deeply into her own suffering. As Catherine, Hargadon shows us that in an imperfect woman, there is a firm believer. The writing of this character gives me a sense that Joan already had sainthood within her. In revealing Catherine’s trepidation, Hargadon implies that for all of us.

As Joan, the well-cast Mari Toronto’s contribution is clearly amazing. On meeting nuns for the first time, the young Joan is quaintly reasonable, romanticly innocent, saying “Black seems so solemn for a bride of Christ”. Later, both the writing and the performance shine when Joan declares, “I am not perfect, not above sin”. What a great moment the playwright preserved for us, for here, amidst her suffering, we see that she craves her girlhood again. She is a soul in crises, thrown to the floor, her bare feet become an achingly humble symbol of vulnerability. Toronto approaches the role simply and straight-forwardly, as effectively as Joan herself approached the task God had laid out for her. In a maidenly and strong performance, I believed this actor was a girl in the beginning and at the end, a bona fide – and terrifically human – hero.

As supporting characters the men do well, most playing multiple roles, with the exception of Doug Johnsen as St Michael. Johnsen has just the right degree of authority, but remains beatific. I did think, however, that when Michael restores Joan’s sight near the beginning of the first act, the moment needed to be suspended for just a beat more to make it work for the audience. That said, it’s hard to be both detached and compassionate, but Johnsen’s job directing the other saints in their task requires it, and I was impressed with the result.

The character of Charles the Dauphin, the would-be King of France is played Stephen Geis. Though Joan is his champion, he still shows a prevaricating will. Geis makes clear that this monarch is at first superficial, then shockingly ungrateful. He’s “just a man” he says, plagued by headaches. When Geis says, “there are days when I can do naught but look over my shoulder”, Charles’ court is revealed by Joan’s innocence to be craven and unworthy of her.

Adam Argyle is good as Bishop Cauchon, a man caught in politics who chooses to save his own skin. Just as he sacrifices Joan to the hierarchy, he discovers his faith too late. Warwick, the English lord to whom Joan is “sold”, as played by John Valdez, had everyone in the audience hating him. He did a nice job in a thankless, but necessary role. Though not featured, William Nielson McAllister rounded out the men’s ensemble providing necessary duties as soldier and tormentor, contributing a few moments of excellent sword play that had me holding my breath.

  

Joan’s costume was very good. In the main, all had great workable wardrobes designed by Lara Beene, which were very believable for the 15th century. Unfortunately, the Bishop’s hat needed a little help. It didn’t look well-constructed and kept falling off. The actor was forced to carry it a couple of times. It behaved more like a troublesome prop than part of a costume. I’d suggest a replacement or use another vestment to indicate the Bishop’s status.

Casey Price’s light design was beautiful, illuminating important moments in Joan’s journey and doing an especially nice job at the end of Act One, and during the execution.

I must give the director, Brighton Nicole Sloan, credit for a number of great choices. Though a preview performance, such as the one I saw, may have some glitches, there were very few, and they never interfered. There was a delay in turning down the house lights at the opening, that almost created a sense of a false start. But once begun, the action used the whole space, and never lagged. The denouement seemed a touch long, and could use some tightening up, whether by the director, the writer, or both. The men in the cast convincingly changed characters with just a couple of costume pieces. The French Dauphin’s imposter scene was handled with great humor. The original music by Echo co-founder, Julianna Blake, was pleasantly ethereal and appropriately used. Great tension was created when Joan, wounded by an arrow, proceeds to remove it herself. And I thought it a brilliant metaphor when a heavy rope was used by the guards like a cat’s cradle to entwine the tortured Joan. It added a macabre carnival edge to Joan’s suffering at the hands of the English. For most of the audience, I’m sure it’s not a spoiler to mention Joan’s death by fire. It was handled so well. Cradled in Catherine’s lap, the lights flickered in flame and shadow across Joan’s face. Coupled with Toronto’s well-measured, heartrending cries, Joan’s suffering vibrated through the theatre. The effect was palpable.

For people of faith, this production is a vehicle of renewal, just as effective as the Christmas Story. I think it is appropriate and inspiring and a nice break from the usual saccharine fare typically offered at this time of year. Several in the audience were visibly moved when the lights came up after curtain call. Ultimately, Martyr’s Crossing is a well written, carefully thought out story about the mysterious, sometimes ambiguous nature of faith, about glory, their power to inspire, and how, where – or whether – we, too, have a part in it.

 

Martyrs’ Crossing A Story of Joan of Arc
Echo Theatre, 145 N. University Ave., Provo, Utah
Boxoffice: (801) 691-0724
Performances Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm from Nov 29 through Dec 16.
$9 online at http://www.theechotheatre.com/martyrs-crossing.html, or $12 at the door.