© 2018 by Brian EG Cook

REVIEWS

Theatre UAF's 'Tartuffe' is as funny as it is relevant

by Scott McCrae, Fairbanks Daily News Miner, 4/3/2014

     Let’s begin this review of Theatre UAF’s production of “Tartuffe” by bringing the context of the play from the era it is set in (1760) and pull it right smack dab into the 21st century. 
     So, this guy Orgon is the head of household of a very well-to-do and lavishly dressed family (#shahsofsunset) in Paris. He ends up becoming quite enthralled (#bromance, #getaroom) with Tartuffe, a boarder (#couchsurfer) who other members of the household see as the con man he actually is. Orgon is so in awe of Tartuffe that he forces his daughter Marianne (Facebook relationship status: It’s complicated) to marry him. Unbeknownst to Orgon is the fact that Tartuffe is lusting for his wife, Elmire (#cougartown). Elmire manages to entrap Tartuffe so that his true nature is revealed to Orgon, and the play ends with a tidy “Aha! Gotcha!” moment that would have made Scooby-Doo happy. 
     Now, I am not doing Moliere any justice by attempting to describe his play through hashtags and reducing the plot to something straight off a Bravo reality TV show. My main point is don’t let the fact that this is a period piece detract you from going. It might have a 17th century setting but the story most definitely resonates today. 
     And in the hands of the performers and production crew at Theatre UAF, it is, without question, exceptionally done. 
     The kids on the hill put forth a thespian effort that easily goes toe to toe with Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre, who tend to rule the roost locally when it comes to producing period-piece plays. FST might want to keep a close eye on them. They’ve got it down, not shying away at all from tackling the more challenging aspects of the play, from the rhyming couplets of the dialogue to the physical movements and mannerisms that represented the era. 
     There’s not a weak link to be found among the group, from Nicole Cowan’s smarmy maid Dorine, to Marley Horner mastering the double take in his portrayal of Valere. Brian Tuohy has a Jack Black mannerism in his depiction of the title character, Tartuffe, while Daniels Calvin nearly steals the show at the very beginning as the sharp-tongued Madame Pernell. I also enjoyed Sambit Misra as the rather complicated Orgon, and Katrina Kuharich’s non-verbal and facial gestures brought Mariane to life in away that no piece of dialogue could. 
     Richard Wilbur’s translation of Moliere’s play has the spoken dialogue presented in rhyming couplets, in which the last words of a pair of lines rhyme perfectly. Once you catch on to the style, you find yourself wondering, after hearing one line, what the accompanying rhyme is going to be. Though the rhythm of the lines is not always perfect, in many instances throughout the play, the result is wonderfully witty. 
     Director/scenic designer Brian Cook and costume designer Bethany Marx create a visual masterpiece between the set and the costumes. It is without question the first thing you notice before the first word is ever spoken on stage, and pulls you in from the very beginning with eye candy that captivates you to the very end. Marx and her crew deserve extra kudos for the elaborate costumes and the special attention paid to every little detail, with one dress alone taking up to 100 hours of work. 
     As if all of that wasn’t enough, the show pulls off one of its biggest surprises of the night at the very end, right before curtain call. What that surprise is, well, you will just have to go and see for yourself, but I will leave you with one final word. (#twerking) 
     “Tartuffe” runs through this weekend with performances Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. and a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. For more information visit www.uaf.edu/theatre. 

 

"Nickel and Dimed" makes it on more than a daily wage

by Scott McCrae, Fairbanks Daily News Miner, 10/31/2013


     At the end of Theatre UAF’s production of “Nickel and Dimed” a character named Carlie, played by Melissa Buchta, tells the audience about a new job she has as an in-home caregiver for an elderly woman. It’s not a bad gig, she explains, compared to her last job as a maid at the Comfort Inn. “Always got cigarettes. I don’ need to steal ‘em, she offer ‘em,” she says. “I got my own room, with a TV. I got it made,” she admits, then, with a tired pause — “For now.”
     “For now” describes the plight of almost all of the characters in the stage adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich’s bestseller exploring the world of minimum wage jobs in America and the people who toil at them. These are people who do not necessarily live for tomorrow or look ahead to a bright future. It is about the present and getting by however possible, working long shifts at sometimes more than one job to pay rent that is past due and put food on the table for their family that night. “For now” is the world they live in, where the next day could have in store a layoff or electricity being shut off due to non-payment.
     Directed by Brian Cook, “Nickel and Dimed” is a thought provoking play that is quite effective at delivering its message and maintaining a balance of social commentary and entertainment value without coming across as in your face political theater. If anyone has ever worked at any point in any of the jobs depicted in the play you will discover recognizable characters, performed by a talented cast that bring to life a microcosm of today’s low wage work world.
    The play is largely told through the narration of Ehrenreich, effectively played by Rachel Blackwell. Ehrenreich, a writer, leaves behind her safety net of a well-paid job, a husband and a nice home to experience first hand the world of minimum wage jobs. The play chronicles her experience working in different parts of America as a coffee shop waitress, a housecleaner, a box store clerk (at the imaginary “Mall Mart”), and in a senior home. We meet her impoverished and compassionate co-workers and hostile and oppressive managers. We plunge straight into the world she experiences and become intertwined ourselves with people, who, like so many, are simply just trying to get by.
    Blackwell does a marvelous job in her portrayal of Ehrenreich, taking her character down the road from her well-to-do life into one where every day is a struggle. The problems she experiences are just as real as the people she meets.
    The seven supporting performers who make up the rest of the play juggle multiple roles with remarkable efficiency and clear separations from one character to another. It’s a shame the program didn’t provide a list of each character played by each performer. Billed as ensemble actors, what they brought to the stage carried a large bulk of the store, introducing us to very compelling and at times, very colorful, characters. The aforementioned Buchta stole the show with her excellent portrayal of a dogged and tired maid as well as a stereotypical but hilarious depiction of an average Mall Mart shopper. I also liked Ian Hendren as the immigrant bus boy George, Daniels Calvin’s Joan, a sympathetic co-worker of Ehrenreichs at the diner, Marley Horner as a by-the-numbers associate manager of Mall Mart, Nicole Cowans as the short-order cook Hector, and Karina Kuharich as Holly, a young housekeeper working through some tremendous odds.
    The play boasts a fantastic set, with scene design by Kade Mendelowitz. The transitions from one scene and business to another is absolutely flawless in its execution.
    General admission ticket price for the show is $14 for adults. Better put, that’s about two to three hours worth of wages for the average character in the play. They put a lot into earning that $14 — all we have to do is sit back and watch something that is well worth our money and time — down to the last dime.
    “Nickel and Dimed” runs through this weekend with performances at 7:30 p.m Friday and Saturday night and a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m.

 

 

Theatre UAF answers the inspector's call

by Nikki Withington, Fairbanks Daily News Miner, 11/14/2014

 

     If you’ve ever dreamed of being on the Salisbury Theatre main stage, UAF’s production of “An Inspector Calls” offers the chance. J.B. Priestly’s 1945 drama opened last week in an intimately staged production by UAF Theater professor Brian Cook. 
     Set in 1912 Brumley, England, the show is performed in the round, which means the audience surrounds the players at all times. The scaled-down performance space invites the audience to look closer as the story of the affluent Birling family and an emerging scandal unwinds. 
     Centered on an assumption that a girl has died by her own hand, Marley Horner conveys a strong performance as the calling Inspector Goole. What follows are intense verbal interrogations that lead each member of the Birling family down individual broken paths that all lead to an unhappy conclusion: we are all connected. 
     The blustery Mr. Birling, solidly played by Nolan Raapana, offers comic relief during otherwise intense scenes. Mr. Birling’s character was complemented in personality, by the dashing, but guarded character of Gerald Croft, played by Ian Hendren. 
     Two standout performances by onstage siblings Katrina Kuharich as Sheila Birling and Mallory Smith as Eric Birling set a pleasant tone that ultimately falls on the seemingly deaf ears of Rachel Blackwell, who plays the patronizing Mrs. Birling. 
     The nearly silent Edna, the Birling’s maid played by Nancy Nguyen, contrasts Blackwell’s static performance with simplicity and a clear presence. 
     As a whole the painstaking processes and hours of preparation paid off for the cast and crew. Inconsistencies forgiven and forgotten, the cast delivered an overall strong performance.

 


Children and adults will like this "Puss in Boots"

By Dorothy Velasco, The Register-Guard, 7/28/2011

 

     The University of Oregon’s Mad Duckling Children’s Theatre completes its summer season with a delightful Commedia dell’arte version of “Puss in Boots,” the famous fairy tale by Charles Perrault.

Now playing on the lawn at Amazon Park, this clever adaptation by Lane Riosley is perfectly suited to young children and witty enough to please adults.

     Brian Cook’s smart direction, a talented cast and wonderfully inventive costumes by Gina Love kept a grin on my face at the opening performance and elicited a happy response from the kids. A group of youngsters even threw themselves into holding onto the leash of an invisible tiger before handing it back to one of the actors.

     The story involves an ingenious, sword-fighting cat. The cat belongs to a miller who has three sons.

The father bequeaths a mill to his first son, an ox to the second and a mere cat to the third. However, the miller explains to his disappointed youngest son that this cat will provide everything he needs in life.

     It’s true. The dashing cat, so loyal and dependable, as well as being an expert trickster, manages to get his master into the good graces of the king, who grants him his daughter’s hand in marriage if he can dispose of a nasty ogre.

     The cat knows what to do and the ogre, in this case a large, angry bundle of dirty laundry with a very small head, can’t prevail over a brainy cat.

    Like Mad Duckling’s earlier show, “Pinocchio,” “Puss in Boots” is performed as if by a touring Commedia company of Italian actors. These actors represent stock characters, who then take on various roles in each production.

    All are quick on their feet and keep their wits about them: a guitar-playing Arlequin (Phillip Morton); Columbine, seen as the irresistible cat (Maddy Weatherhead); Pantalone, playing the miller and others (Brittany Dorris); Punchin, as various soldiers (Jesselyn Parks); Rosetta, as the princess (Katelyn Elias); and Scaramouche, the young master (Tim Vergano).

    They are proficient at interacting with a young audience. Weatherhead and Parks especially please the kids with their lively sword-fighting.

    Love’s amusing costume designs are perhaps the best that Mad Duckling ever has offered. The huge ogre, wrapped up in a long string of laundry, would look at home as a display in a museum of modern art.

    The cat’s tail is crocheted orange and yellow yarn with stuffing to make it fat and bouncy. Pantalone’s coat is made from neckties sewn together in panels. Watch for details such as odd eyewear and colorful spoons lined up in the baker’s apron.

    “The Commedia Puss in Boots” is entertaining for preschoolers and elementary school students. Remember to bring a blanket or towels for sitting on the lawn. There’s plenty of shade or sun, depending on your preference.


The Cat’s Meow

By Anna Grace, Eugene Weekly, 7/28/2011


    A poor miller’s son is left nothing but a rather high-maintenance cat with whom to make his way in the world… but what a cat! Once the miller’s son procures a pair of boots for the feline, the pair takes off on an adventure of fair princesses and awful ogres. The clever imagination, quick tongue and swashbuckling skills of the cat lead them in and out of scrapes, and ultimately to wealth and fame. My favorite fairy tale by far, Puss in Boots played out Commedia style is simply marvelous.  
     To recap Mad Duckling’s theme this summer, commedia dell'arte is an Italian Renaissance-era comedy style from which modern slapstick derived. It is very broad, physical and funny. For a quick, kid-centered tutorial, check out the Mad Duckling website at http://pages.uoregon.edu/madduckling/ 
The original story of a trickster cat in fabulous footwear dates from the same era, and makes an excellent platform for showcasing commedia dell'arte. With commedia, you are watching players put on a play, and thus forgotten lines, lost props and annoyed actors are all part of the experience. A summer of working together has created an easy, improvisational spirit among the Mad Duckling actors.  
    If it’s true that dying is easy and comedy is hard, then comedy for children has to be the most challenging of theatrical undertakings. Director Brian Cook has a crowd-pleasing cast to work with. My daughter was struck dumb by the wonder that is Maddy Weatherhead as Columbine/ the Cat. My son kept laughing at the antics of Tim Vergano as Scaramouche. Personally, I was cracking up at Brittany Dorris’ bumbling Pantalone. Jesselyn Parks, Philip Morton and Katelyn Elias all pitched in mightily to the silliness as well.  
     Gina Love’s inspired costumes kicked the whole production up a level. Scraps and patches are sewn into dazzling theatrical outfits. Of particular note is Columbine/ the Cat, resplendent in gold and orange plumed hat, boots and magnificent tail. But the costume worth showing up for is the ogre. According to this story, the ogre had been created out of a pile of dirty laundry — a “fearsome, large and angry pile of dirty laundry.” Any parents accompanying their children to the play will shrink in fear of this costume. 
    The best part of The Commedia Puss in Boots is how the actors ignite the imagination of their audience. When the cat creates an imaginary tiger to scare off a few guards, the tiger remains on stage. Audience members willingly hold onto its leash and have a hard time relinquishing the invisible tiger to a well-meaning baker. Combine that with big laughs, sword fighting and charming actors, and you have the best family fun of the summer.

 


Object or Artist?  "Playhouse Creatures" questions women’s role on stage

by Anna Grace, Eugene Weekly, 4/21/2011

    Norah Jones’ voice creeps seductively, plaintively over the audience, quieting us while ghosts of 17th-century actresses find themselves wandering back into their theater. Bathed in a dim light, the past and present huddle up together for an overdue discussion about a woman’s role on stage.  
The premise of Playhouse Creatures is genius. In 1660, following years of civil war and Puritan morality, Charles “The Fun King” II is restored to the British throne. He legalizes everything everybody’s wanted to do for the past ten years, including card playing, organ playing and, most importantly, plays! Not only are actors back on the boards but, in a shocking decree, only women are allowed to play women. Furthermore, the line between performer and prostitute is blurred as many women augment their meager pay by stepping out with the men they’ve captivated from the stage. Playhouse Creatures follows the careers of these ladies. 
    As has been common with a number of historic pieces lately, the lens of the present is sharply focused. Playwright April De Angelis uses the past as a platform to express what’s on her mind in the here and now; this production is stuffed full with relevance. Actresses are objectified as sex objects and obsessed with youth. There are not enough good roles for women. Female artists struggle to express themselves — let alone feed themselves — in a world created and run by men.  
This is important stuff, though the play does feel a bit like it’s dishing up a bowlful of Women’s History soup: witchcraft, abortion, beauty, sexual freedom, glass ceilings, double standards. All these issues are of the utmost importance, but if a playwright is going to tackle the lack of women’s reproductive freedom in the late 17th century, I need her to spend more than three minutes on the subject. 
    Brian Cook directs this mostly female cast and all-female-designed production. There’s a bit of a ruckus in the opening scenes, but as the accents settle and the audience becomes comfortable with the meandering plot, Playhouse Creatures advances into a stately play. Jesselyn Parks creates a congenial Nell Gwyn, the infamous actress who went from selling oranges to being a favorite mistress of Charles II. Evylyn Brown is sharp as the smart and self-interested Mrs. Marshall. The most moving performance is delivered by Virginia Rice as the seminal actress Mrs. Betterton. Rice masters not only the stylized manner of a 17th-century performer, but also the quiet dignity of an actress who slowly comes to accept commercial success at the expense of her growth as an artist and, in the end, is dismissed for committing the sin of growing older. 
    This is a tough script to present. The play is staged with a respect bordering on reverence for these women, while a heightened sense of theatricality reigns over the show and ties together the loose ends. Frani Geiger’s tawny-brown set is slowly pieced together by the company over the course of the play, and the audience is included in the journey, forced to walk straight through set pieces to find a seat or a program. The rich, bright costuming of Gina Love drives the eye to the performers. Janet Rose’s lighting seems loud and stingy, as though there was only so much brightness to go around in the lives of these women, and yet when things go awry they are unable to escape the spotlight. 
Playhouse Creatures was written for a women’s theater company in London. I wonder how much of the original meaning was lost in the transatlantic crossing. The script, the theme and the final product are all a touch open-ended. Then again, so were the lives of these incredible women. 
    The ideas contained in this show are fascinating. It opens up an important dialogue about how far the entertainment industry hasn’t come in the last 300 years. By simple virtue of staging it, University Theater takes a big step in the right direction.

 


‘Playhouse Creatures’ free flowing, compelling 

By Dorothy Velasco, The Register-Guard, 4/18/2011


     Don’t be deceived. Playhouse Creatures, now playing at the University of Oregon’s Hope Theatre, is not for children. The drama by April De Angelis takes us on a visit to a sort of purgatory where we meet some of the first women to perform as actresses on the British stage in the 1660s. 
The playhouse where they perform had been the scene of bear baiting in earlier years. The bears were tormented playhouse creatures and so are the women. Although it’s a breakthrough for them as a way to make a living and come into contact with important men, they gain little power during their lifetime and often end up on the streets. 
     It’s a harsh reality, but the author’s contemporary interpretation of an earlier era is amusing, affecting and thought-provoking, although sometimes confusing. Read the captions with the actors’ photos in the lobby before the play and you’ll be better able to fill in the blanks missing from the script. 
     The performers we meet include Mrs. Betterton (Virginia Rice), wife of the company manager, Nell Gwyn (Jessylyn Parks), who becomes mistress of King Charles II, Mrs. Farley (Katelyn Elias), a Puritan preacher turned actress, Mrs. Marshall (Evelyn Brown) and Mrs. Barry (Megan Matthews). 
As directed by Brian Cook in this richly evocative production, the characters, in compelling portrayals, reveal the depths of their emotions. They are alternately tough, ambitious, charming, desperate and vulnerable. 
     Aided by the company’s servant, Doll Common (Jennifer Balestracci), and influenced by the Earl of Rochester (Philip Mortony), they develop an acting style that is a strange mixture of mechanical techniques and verisimilitude. 
     Mrs. Betterton, adhering to an old-school acting style, teaches Nell to hold her head in the positions of the clock hands to represent various sentiments. Rochester, as a drunken precursor to Stanislavski, favors the memory of true emotions. Another character, Thomas Otway (Karl Metz), is a long-winded, aspiring playwright. He gains success when he takes a story given to him by Mrs. Marshall and turns it into his sensational hit, The Orphan. 
    Life deals the characters low blows and although the actresses know briefly glorious times, their endings are sad. Especially poignant is the forced retirement of Mrs. Betterton by her husband because she has grown too old to attract young gentlemen to the theater. 
    The set by Frani Geiger is an intriguing jumble of old trunks and dusty furniture, the costumes by Gina Love are gorgeous and the wigs delightfully exaggerated. The lighting by Janet Rose creates artful, luminous pools. 
    Some choices I don’t understand. The eclectic, anachronistic music often works to establish mood, but is frequently jarring. And why does Mrs. Barry enter in modern clothes? At first she doesn’t interact with the other characters so it seems she is a time traveler from the present. Later she becomes part of the play, dressed in costume. 
    Yes, I’m confused, but I certainly enjoyed this free-flowing play that affects us like an elusive dream of another life.

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