ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Due to financial constraints at the Journal, I was generally limited to reviewing only two plays a month in 2013. Still, this year offered a wonderfully varied menu of plays. Let me recapture some of the best productions and performances.
Mother Road Theatre Company started its season later this year, but I thoroughly enjoyed the two plays I saw. I was saddened that I was unable to review Tony Kushner’s mystically complex “The Illusions” as directed by Julia Thudium. The play was challenging and the acting was excellent throughout.
The second production, “Up (The Man in the Flying Chair)” by Bridget Carpenter did not have (dare I say) the gravity of Kushner’s work, but there was magical realism, a fascinating premise, excellent direction by Vic Browder, and fine ensemble acting. Longtime favorite Shangreaux Lagrave played a character seeking to recapture the freedom and serenity of his balloon-assisted lawn chair ascent years ago. Meanwhile, he disappoints his earthbound family, played by Amy Suman and Grey Blanco. “Up” presented images of life as a tightrope trip or an airborne journey subject to heights and crashes. I wish Mother Road continued success as they move to a new theater space.
FUSION Theatre Company continued to bring prize-winning plays from Broadway to Albuquerque. Bruce Norris’s “Clybourne Park,” last year’s Tony winner for best play, was a formidably funny drama about real estate and race.
However, I found the issue of race more intimately treated in “The Mountain Top,” written by Katori Hall and directed by Laurie Thomas. It is a compelling and intriguing play that imaginatively envisions the last night on earth of Civil Rights patriarch Martin Luther King, Jr. He is visited by a maid – a sassy young black woman named Camae – who is there to oversee King’s violent transition from this world to the next. Tai Verley endowed Camae with vitality and energy while Jacob Browne beautifully portrayed the familiar Dr. King without direct imitation. Neither hagiography nor exposé, “The Mountaintop” suggests that MLK would achieve more through martyrdom than marches.
One of my picks for best director last year, James Cady, returned to The Vortex Theatre with a spirited production of a comic classic from long ago, “The Front Page” (1928) by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. The play teems with the people and practices of the symbiotic worlds of press and politics. The large number of characters (21 actors) and the speed of the story work against depth of characterization, but director Cady chose and prepared his cast to enjoy the snappy dialogue and fully inhabit the era.
This was not a strong year for Shakespeare productions. Of the three plays in “Will Power 4,” the Fourth Annual Vortex Summer Shakespeare Festival, only David Richard Jones’s “As You Like It” was striking. His large cast handled the play’s complex language and multifaceted characters skillfully. For me, the standout was Ashley Weingardt, who took full command of the wonderful role of Rosalind with determination and charm. Weingardt was confident, compelling, ever credible and absolutely adorable.
In a lighter vein, the reprise of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)” by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield at Albuquerque Little Theatre kept audiences laughing. Once again Scott Bryan, Ryan Jason Cook, and Daniel T. Cornish did their best – or worst – to demystify and demolish the works of Shakespeare. The production was silly, sophomoric, and slapstick but also contagiously funny. Polonius said it best: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”
Much of my favorite drama was performed at Aux Dog Theatre and my nomination for Albuquerque’s best theatrical couple is Sheridan Kay Johnson and Brennan Foster. I saw them in three plays that demonstrated their range of talents. The French farce, “Boeing Boeing,” had its problems but my favorites came through. Foster was strong as Bernard, the bachelor who juggled three affairs with three international flight attendants aided by airline timetables and his helpful maid (delightfully played by Angela Littleton). Johnson, in a small role, added energetic sexiness to the stewardess stew.
Much more demanding was Sheridan Kay Johnson’s portrayal of the title character in Henrik Ibsen’s classic “Hedda Gabler.” Director Jessica Osbourne wisely chose to use the English version of Ibsen’s 19th-century Norwegian text by Irish playwright Brian Friel and to set the play in 1962 Massachusetts. Foster was wonderful as the upright, kind, caring, and clueless husband George, but it was Johnson who made the show a success. She delivered her lines with pauses and emphases that rendered them modern and accessible, in keeping with the setting. Johnson’s Hedda constantly adapted her delivery, gestures, and facial expressions to her situation, and she was fully involved when not speaking. I have seen this play many times, but this is the first Hedda Gabler who actually frightened me!
The first time I saw Brennan Foster and Sheridan Kay Johnson work together was Aux Dog’s “Venus in Fur” by David Ives – my choice as the best production of 2012. Director Kristine Holtvedt and her two-person cast captured the sexy excitement, the mysterious magic realism, and the intellectual challenge of this brilliantly funny and erotic play. The plot is like a set of nesting dolls – a novel within a play within a play.
Playwright Thomas auditioned an enigmatic actress, Vanda, for a character, also named Vanda, in his play. Foster and Johnson played Thomas and Vanda who also became the characters in the audition play, an exploration of sexual obsession. Are you following?
Foster’s character became more complex as the play unfolded. He portrayed a rather pedantic playwright and reluctant actor who grew into his dramatic role and his personal role as he came under the sensual spell of Vanda. Johnson’s transitions between Vanda the character and Vanda the actress were hilarious, and she played both roles with alluring verve and intensity. I hope you saw this production.
Let me end with some shout-outs. I appreciated Kamila Kasparian’s portrayal of damaged Aunt Bella in The Adobe Theater’s production of “Lost in Yonkers” by Neil Simon. Her hands always in motion and her face conveying effort and confusion, Kasparian presented a heartwarming survivor driven to find the love that was denied her.
Kudos to George Williams, who not only directed “Shakespeare (Abridged)” but also the world premiere of “Lost Letter,” which he wrote under the name of W.G. Allen. This sweet and simple play unabashedly harkened back to a simpler time when the perceived virtues and verities of small town America were as comforting as a “Saturday Evening Post” cover.
I admired Ron Weisberg’s theatrical embodiment of Eilert Loevberg in the “Hedda” described earlier. From his curly hair, beard, and penetrating eyes to his leather jacket and ankle boots he epitomized the 1960s intellectual genius never far from self-destruction. My final tribute is to Joanne Camp whose honesty and comic subtlety made her Masha my favorite character in FUSION Company’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” by Christopher Durang.
Thanks to all who are involved in Albuquerque theater. See you in 2014.