Standing, Still Standing: Simply Sensational!

By Maren VonNiederhausern

Hello Seattle, I am a manta ray
Deep beneath the blue waves
I’ll crawl the sandy bottom of Puget Sound
And construct a summer home…”

The words of Owl City set a sleepy, yet urban tone. The stage, set up in a corner and very like a black-box theater, brings to life a newlywed’s apartment, complete with a Nintendo Game-Cube on the bookshelf. It’s clean and cozy, and just intimate enough to make it very easy to place yourself in the shoes of the characters and experience, rather than simply watch, the story.

So begins Standing, Still Standing, a play by Melissa Leilani Larson, local playwright, and directed by Adam Cannon with the Highland Community Theater.

Now, who here has complained about something you have little to no intention of finding a solution to?

It’s okay. Me too. And everyone else.

So has Ben– but he has a medical excuse. Plagued by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome since college, he has inadvertently learned to rely on sympathy and rather dislikes what has become a bad habit and a dependent/codependent relationship. He along with his wife are fighting their way through the “In sickness and in health” side of their marriage.

Our first interaction with Ben (played by Lucas Proctor) is watching him stagger across the apartment and collapse into bed. Later, his wife Grace (Caitlyn Lunceford) walks in, headed to work, and as he wakes the two exchange words that introduce his CFS, his unemployment, her wish to make their family grow, and their utterly romantic relationship (which, refreshingly, remains G-rated throughout the play).

In following scenes, Ben struggles with finding a source of motivation to find a job, often confiding in a fellow CFS victim online who we know as @Azure_Skies_80 (Miranda Maurin.) He admires her, a graduate student, but still can’t seem to push himself hard enough to follow her example. Grace works and works, and her best friend Jen (played tonight by Anne Perkins) begs and begs her to take some time for herself, even buying tickets to a Billy Joel concert for New Year’s Eve. Ben and Grace both struggle with finding their niche in a relationship that is starting to feel stagnant. Looking for work, living in cramped quarters, keeping secrets, and trying to manage symptoms are no help either. And, as Ben learns that no matter how far into the future you plan yourself, it’s eventually going to be time to put those plans into action. And let’s face, it, that’s a whole new ballpark.

Add a generous dose of convincing dream sequences concerning a nonexistent Buick and goat cheese, and whattaya got? Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo: A terrifically sweet, soul-searching, and bewitchingly surreal story.

This production is a brilliant combination of spectacular writing and exquisite casting. Ben and Grace were lovable, relatable, and even when Caitlyn/Grace was swallowing several words, the emotion was clear. My only real complaint about these two was that the overuse of both exasperated hand-to-head motions and sighs of frustration were such that I became a bit self-conscious about my own breathing patterns.

Now, lets talk a bit about the importance of a solid supporting cast. If I had to choose one thing that this company did darn near perfectly, it’s the miscellaneous characters played by a few very flexible talents. Highlights: Emily McClure as the woman with the cheese, Facebook, and Ben’s Mom; Debbie Maurin as a presumably high hippie named Peaches, Twitter, and a real estate saleswoman; Mike Maurin as Gmail, Billy Joel, and Ben’s friend Matt; and Dan Stratton as the new baby, a police officer, and military general.

Intrigued? You should be. You should also go see what the heck I’m talking about because I simply can’t describe in words the absolute genius behind the hilarity. Bravo to Mr. Cannon for bringing to life the more abstract ideas in this script.

Now, on a more serious note, one simply can’t ignore the running theme to Standing, Still Standing. All the above craziness is peppered with an all-too-common ailment: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Some might, and do, see those suffering like Ben as a schmoozing couch bum and leave it at that. The story, however, especially in the small space and curtain-free set, practically force-feeds the audience a certain amount of empathy for people with CFS. It’s really hard. You and your wife are house hunting and you’ve just got to go home and rest, even if she’s upset because there are still three promising properties in the lineup. You need a job and you know it, but committing to that kind of stress level is seriously overwhelming.

These problems aren’t restricted to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, either. That’s the best part of stories like this: Any single person in the room can relate to the issues, and no person is wrong in doing so. Ben is a character that contains a little bit of everyone. We can all identify with the feeling of inadequacy, or having internal conflicts, or what have you.

By far the production’s greatest weakness was with the technicians. Understandably, the space, which is not actually a theater, is not conducive to Broadway-caliber effects, yet on occasion I caught a glaring whiff of distinct unprofessionalism (namely the smell of fast food… by the sound board? Really?) The design was nearly flawless, especially considering the complete lack of a real booth and backstage/wing area, but the theory did not quite carry over into execution quite the way I think it was supposed to. The makeshift ‘backstage’ area behind a curtained doorframe was brightly lit from behind and never quite closed all the way. A few of the props were cheaply made. One or two of the dream-state costumes crossed the line between amusingly random to just strange. I was, however, consistently impressed with how well the space was used.

Honestly, though, if that’s the only thing I can legitimately shake my finger at, we have on our hands a truly wonderful show. The perfect balance between comedy and raw emotion, a dream-team of supporting roles, and a hero we can all relate to who rises to glory in such a way that he stays real and human? It almost seems too good to be true. And yet it exists in the form of Standing, Still Standing. The intensity of the dialogue provoked both thought and feeling for me. I undoubtedly left the theater with a heaping plate full of food for thought: And, ultimately, this is what makes the show worth seeing. I’m sure I’ll be thinking on these characters that I discovered in myself for a long time, and figuring out what I can do right now to change the circumstances in my own life that don’t seem right to me: because things get done by people who do them.

Hello Seattle, I am an old lighthouse
Throwing beams of bright lights
Red in the morning, blue in the evening sun
Taking heed from everyone

Standing, Still Standing runs through Saturday at the Highland Community Center at 7:30pm. Tickets $8

The Empress’s Earnest is Charmingly Fun

earnest 1By Cindy Whitehair

Everyone, it seems, loves a musical, but every now and then I love a good comedy.  Tonight, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at the Empress filled the bill.

Earnest takes a satirical look at Victorian society and the desire to impress all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons.  Directed by Heather Oberlander, Earnest follows the misadventures of Jack Worthing (Eric Shelley) and Algernon Moncrieff (Jeff Erickson) as they court Gwendolyn Fairfax (Heather Shelley) and Cecily Cardew (Rebecca Waite).  Throw in a status conscious mother, Lady Bracknell played by Joanne Galloway, an uptight governess with a past (Andria Cameron), a affable Reverend (Bryan McNabb) swept up in the pecularities of the rich, and a pair of put upon butlers (Clay Cammack and Jason Wixam) and you have a gentle night of light-hearted laughs.
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Earnest was a uniformly well-acted show.  There were a couple of times where a couple of actors were a little hard to hear but that was really the only issue we had.  We loved the interactions between Algie and Jack and Gwendolyn and Cecily (especially at the end of Act 2).  They were a joy to watch.

Being as the Empress is our “home” theater (disclosure – Perry and I are both volunteers at the Empress and Perry acts and is construction manager there, but neither of us were directly involved in this show) we were both quite impressed with director Heather Oberlander’s use of the Empress’ intimate stage.  Her set design (set construction by Connie Beatty, Skye Davis and Michelle Brown – scenic art by Devin Johnson) was simple and perfect for the space.  It was also great to see a show set in England that had a dialect coach to help the actors sound authentic.  Coral Chambers did a fantastic job preparing the actors for their roles.  Lighting designer Stefan Oberlander did a great job minimizing the Empress’ dark spots on stage so that everyone was properly lit.  Costumes (Connie Beatty and Heather Oberlander) were fantastic and I simply loved Lady Bracknell’s hats.
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The Importance of Being Earnest is a classic, but it is not dated.  It is a comedy that is just as timely today as it was when Wilde wrote in the late 1800’s.  If you are looking for a night of frivolity, you really should see The Importance of Being Earnest at the Empress.

The Importance of Being Earnest
The Empress Theatre, 9104 W 2700 S, Magna, UT
Tickets are $10.00
http://www.empresstheatre.com/
801-347-7373

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Hamlet in Salt Lake is Stupendous!

hamletBy Cindy and Perry Whitehair

I will admit – Shakespeare is not always the first thing I rush toward when looking for a date night out, especially on Valentine’s weekend. Bringing it into modern times makes it a little easier, but radically changing the title character (from male to female in this case) brings it back into the category of not first choice. I say all this to set up what New World Shakespeare Company overcame in their production of Hamlet playing at the Sorenson Unity Center in Salt Lake City.

Elise Hanson, who is the director and star of the tragedy, has a vision that seems to be to keep things simple and let the story speak for itself. I say seemed, because in lieu of Director’s Notes in the program, there was a lovely quote from Robin Williams – more on that later. I thought that the sparse stage worked for the story and the small space. Perry disagreed and was hoping for a little more from a scenery standpoint to help tell the story. The choices of music for pre-show (Lion King the Movie) and intermission (“Roundabout” by Yes) was fresh and it worked.

For the most part, this was a well-acted show. Hanson’s Hamlet showed a restrained revenge instead of the crazy that the script implies he is. Claudius (played by G. Morgan Walton) and Gertrude (played by Judith Hutchinson) did a good job showing the range of emotion that one expects from an uncle/step-father and mother as they watch the insane desire for revenge take over young Hamlet. The ambassador Polonius (Jon Turner), his son Laedes (Michael Calecino) and his daughter Ophelia (Natalia Noble) were all able to make the stage theirs when they appeared. The ensemble bobbled a couple of lines, but that can be forgiven because it is Shakespeare and it is opening weekend.

Costuming (Elise Hanson) was the aspect of the show that left Perry flat. He would have liked to have seen more differentiation between classes using costumes and props. Lighting (David Bruner) was the thing that bothered me. There were times when the stage was a little too dark – especially during Hamlet’s soliloquy. While their lead actor was bathed in an eerie red light on a black stage, all my eye was drawn to was the light from the hallway because the door was open for actors to enter and leave the space. That light was ultimately too distracting during the pivotal point of the first act.
The pacing of the show was also a little uneven. Because of the sparse stage, most scene transitions were instantaneous – giving the audience no time for applauding what they had just seen. Then, when they did have to move their few set pieces into place the transition seemed to be awkward.

All of that said, we both loved this show. The portrayal of Hamlet as a woman was a huge risk and we both thought it was a risk well taken. Natalia Noble’s Ophelia absolutely stole the second act and watching Ms. Hutchinson silently react in horror to the events as they unfold around her was fantastic. I was really feeling her pain watching her family being taken from her.

Back to the Robin Williams quote. New World Shakespeare Company donates a portion of the proceeds of each show to a charity that they feel relates to the theme of the show. For Hamlet, they chose the Utah Suicide Prevention Center. This was something that really hit home with me because I have had friends deal with the suicide of a loved one in recent years. Losing a loved one is hard and as when it comes from their own hand (as we see in this show) it often seems overwhelming. The show deals with Laedes’ reaction to Ophelia’s suicide as many of us would. The utter brokenness it causes in the survivors comes through poignantly.

It is not often that people enjoy the marriage of message and entertainment – they usually want one or the other. But in the case of Hamlet, message and entertainment come together in a thought provoking, gentle manner that left the audience feeling empathy for the characters. New World Shakespeare Company did a wonderful job portraying a normally dark subject and treating it with great compassion and tenderness. As Hamlet says, “the play’s the thing” and this play was a beautiful dive into deceit, revenge, madness and dysfunction that is really a must see – even if you are not the biggest Shakespearean fan in the world.

New World Shakespeare Company Presents Hamlet
Feb. 12-22, 2015
Sorenson Unity Center Black Box Theater
1383 South 900 West – Salt Lake City UT
Tickets are $10.00 for General Admission
Phone: 801-719-7998
newworldshakespearecompany.com

My First Time Is Storytelling At Its Best

My First Time Pic

Review written by Eve Speer

I went to see My First Time alone. I could see the brightly colored lamps and throw pillows from the street. Mod A Go Go is like a jewel that hovers over East South Temple. Parking was easy to find behind the building—but there was also plenty of parking on the street as I approached the designer second hand store. Michele Case Rideout, one of the producers, greeted me as I walked in the door.  We chatted about the beautiful space and she gave me a survey to fill out, asking me general questions about my first time.  What first time are we talking about? First time at the park? First time driving a car? My first time having SEX!  As a 37 year old, unmarried woman, I felt scandalous as I filled out my little form. I felt vulnerable and apologetic. It was all very confidential—and completely non-judgmental—but it was frightening answering such questions as, “If you were to see this person today, what would you say?” Even as a mature woman, comfortable with myself, I giggled at the forbidden nature of the entire topic.

 

During the show, four actors share a variety of stories from the thousands of people who privately posted on the website created by Peter Foldy and Craig Smart called www.myfirsttime.com .  As a result of surveying the audience members—we felt we were in the thick of the vulnerability, rather than just observing like voyeurs. Intermingled with funny and thoughtful stories—we’d read projected statistics from different countries, local statistics—and statistics from the audience that night. The average first time age in our audience was 19.4 and there were 4 virgins in attendance.

 

The stories were complicated and simple. As each actor would start a story, the audience would listen attentively, trying to figure out if this story was going to be funny, tender, shocking, sad, embarrassing, awkward, or horrifying. Each experience shared held a rainbow of possible reactions. Sex is this incredibly simple act when it comes down to it. Teenagers find ways to have it, despite parents’ best efforts to thwart their efforts. And yet, it’s so complicated. The power lost, the power gained. The love shared, the fear, the laughter, the tears—all of these feelings well up based on how and why we approach this single simple act.

 

The stories, assembled into a play by Ken Davenport, were presented by Rachel Shull, Austin Stephenson, Mia Tate, and David Evanoff. Each actor brought a different color to their stories. Rachel Shull was polite, sweet, and a bit reserved.  Her stories were like fairy tales—told through a beautiful rose colored glass. Sometimes, I was put off by the distance she seemed to place between me and her stories. Her vocal affectation put me off—but as the presentation continued—I realized she was representing the stories told by people who were themselves distancing me from their stories.  I felt suspicious at first—not entirely believing the tale—and then she’d throw a curve ball of warm gooey honesty.

 

Austin Stephenson designed the lights and played the young, dumb, sweet naïve guy. During one of the tales—he and David Evanoff told their stories in tandem.  Austin’s sweet story was about his friend’s rape. David Evanoff’s story was about raping a young girl.  David Evanoff’s smarmy story, told from the point of view of someone who believed they were just having a good time, and Austin Stephenson’s broken hearted story, paralleled how much men can both care and how much they can hurt.

 

Mia Tate was matter of fact in her telling. There was no affectation in her presentation. As she shared, I began to wonder if the story she was telling was in fact her own story. And then she’d share another first time that left me with the same feelings. Her performance was pure and riveting.

 

The entire production created a range of emotions and left me at peace with my own past.  When I went to the show, I wondered why directors Amy Allred and David Hanson would choose to share this play. I got my answer.   Your answer might be different.  It is storytelling at its best.  Obviously, these stories are told by adults for adults.  Granted, I think there are some teenagers who would benefit from some of the lessons found in the stories. Hindsight is a comfort and I am delighted to no longer be a confused teenager.

 

The show is produced by A-Muses and Silver Summit Theatre Company.  The performance takes place at Mod A Go Go, located at 242 E South Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah. For more information on the show, visit www.silversummittheatre.org.

 

Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 PM, one weekend only. The house is open at 7 PM, but come early and browse Mod A Go Go’s amazing showroom.  General seating is almost sold out, but limited reserve table seating is still available by calling 801-541-7376.