11/8/2020     NEW STAGES                             Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s Virtual Entertainment
           

SCARES AND FABLES AND STORIES, OH MY!

Georgia Ensemble Theatre is fully engaging the video stopgaps to the pandemic shutdowns by instituting a “New Stages” program.  For this initiative, G.E.T. has collaborated with the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company to produce “Radio Plays” available for limited periods via On-Demand streams and has shared two of its family shows for open-ended availability.  I sat down with four productions this weekend and herewith present my thoughts on each, some of which I may have actually written before.

THE DUNWICH HORROR

Adapted by Thomas E. Fuller from the short story by H,P, Lovecraft

Original Music by Alton Leonard

Directed by Ellie Cook

Available until 11/13/2020

 

THE SHADOW OF YOG-SOTHOTH

 

When a traveler in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at he junction of the Aylesbury Pike just beyond Dean’s corners, he comes across a lonely and curious country.

 

Such is the eerie opening of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror,” a 1928 tale of unbridled madness and terror, here recounted as a radio play.  It focuses on Wilbur Whateley, a hideous boy bred from Lavinia Whateley, a deformed albino mother and a father who remains … unknown.  Lavinia’s own father is Wizard Whateley, a man (if that is the correct term)

feared and shunned by Dunwich, the nearby town.  Old Wizard takes young Wilbur under his tutelage, and, together, they make plans to call forth an ancient evil, sometimes called “Yog-Sothoth” (in fretful fearful whispers), an evil that plans to rid the world of human (and all other) life and rule over the foul and fetid remains of what used to be our world.

 

Needless to say, Lovecraftian tropes and icons – Cthulhu, Miskatonic University, the dread Necronomicon – make appearances, and the whole thing, like all of Lovecraft’s tales of ancient madness feeding on a hapless humanity, quickly got under my skin, and promised to keep me awake seeing shadows that aren’t there and movements that just might.

 

Filmed like a “Radio Play,” we see the actors at their microphones against archival images of early 20th century Massachusetts, and, we see he Foley artists (Alice Leigh, Retta Bodhaine, Robert Drake, and Preston Goodson) as they create the terrifyingly specific creaks and crunches and wet spluts that Lovecraft described in gory detail.  The original music by Alton Leonard and the Sound Design by director Ellie Cook also help raise the eeriness and suspense.

 

Kudos to the marvelous cast who, by voices alone, completely sold this tale of terror:  Hugh Adams, Natalie W. Baker, Billy Barefoot, Alden Burroughs, Christa Burton, Casey Cudmore, Matt Goodson, Preston Goodson, Asia Howard, Jeffrey Hunt, Paul Landri, Fiona Leonard, Adam Ross, T.J. Ruth, Parris Sarter, and Thomas Trinh.

THE PASSION OF FRANKENSTEIN

Adapted by Thomas E. Fuller from the novel by Mary Shelley

Directed by James Donadio

Available until 11/13/2020

 

A PATCHWORK OF HORROR

 

This one is truly something special.  Like “The Dunwich Horror,” it is a “Radio Play,” but for this video, we never see any actors.  It is told strictly with still images, often manipulated to simulate movement, letting the actors’ voices and the remarkable sound effects fill in the gaps in our imaginations.  If any of you have seen Chris Marker’s 1962 short film, La Jetée, (and if you’ve ever taken a film appreciation curse, I daresay you have), that is the style and effect on display here.

 

This version departs significantly from the details of the original novel.  Still it creates a suspenseful and emotionally complex plot that rivals any adaptation seen before.  Victor Frankenstein has created his creature and coldly rejected it, considering its

hideousness a “failure,” and hoping to dispatch it from his world.  But the creature is not so easily un-made.  He (It?) promises to depart into the wilderness if the   doctor makes him a mate.  Into this maelstrom of threat and fear comes Victor’s fiancée, Elizabeth, accompanied by her chaperone, Constanza.  What can possibly go wrong?

 

Before too long, Elizbeth is hearing a voice from behind her wall, a deeply resonant yet gentle voice, speaking words of poetry (Shelley of course, whose “Ozymandias” provides a frame for the script), and forcing her to confront the true nature of her beloved Victor.  In this version, there is no mistaking the true monster, and it all builds to a stormy night that brings death and destruction, but leaves us with a surprisingly happy (perhaps) ending,

 

It is the style of this that really drew me in, the still images evocative of the shadowy “Schloss Frankenstein,” almost a scar on the face of the Alpine beauty that surrounds it.  Music choices are all perfectly fit, and sound effects are truly beautifully designed and executed and quintessentially mood-defining.

 

And of course it is the voice work of the cast that is the real selling point here, especially Mariana Novaes’ Elizabeth and Marcus Hopkins-Turner’s Creature.  The work by everyone else is just as good, just as creative, just as compelling:  Jay Jones (Victor), Lilliangina Quinones (Constanza), Tamil Periasamy (Henry), Thomas Trinh (Eric and Meyer), and Casey Cudmore (Additional Voices). 

 

BTW, if you didn’t know, La Jetée provided the story for 12 Monkeys.

AESOP’S FABLES

Adapted by Alex Koceja

Directed by Laurel Crowe and Michael Vine

 

THE MORAL OF THE STORY

 

Welcome to Fableton.  It is  the day before the Animalympics, and something is amiss.  It seems that the popular “fastest rabbit alive” has been beaten in a race by a turtle.  This requires a detective, and Squeaks just may be the mouse for the job! 

 

Such is the set up for Aesop’s Fables, a new adaptation (for the young)  by Alex Koceja.  This piece was commissioned by G.E.T. last year and features a group of young actors playing a plethora of (mostly) non-human

characters, with quick-change costuming and hand-puppets letting them razzle-dazzle us, even letting them sometimes play two characters at once.

 

The focus of Mr. Koceja’s script is not to recreate “Aesop’s Greatest Hits,” but to tell a new tale, set in Aesop’s recognizable world, only obliquely referring to specific tales and quickly coming to a moral that’s relevant and easily digestible by preschoolers (and beyond). 

 

On the other hand, in my (probably less-than-popular) opinion, it may be a little less than memorable for anyone whose last birthday had double digits, or for anyone with a fondness for Aesop’s CONCISE moralizing.  (Here, the moral is a complex and unfocused appeal to friendship and cooperation and  compromise and tradition and … well, other stuff.  In other words, Mr. Koceja’s story pales in comparison to anything from the Aesop (and pseudo-Aesop) oeuvre.

 

Which is what I wrote last year upon seeing the live version.  Here, though, the transfer to video really lights an energy fire under the cast, perhaps aided by some clever editing and filming techniques that give the cast many opportunities for “in your face” asides and really complex character work.  I liked this version a lot more than the live version, a pleasure perhaps aided by it being filmed in what appears to be a scene shop under fluorescent work lights. 

 

Indeed, the characters are (and always were)  nicely drawn – a shy porcupine, a cranky snake, an ADHD-riddled bee, the mousy detective, the liony mayor, the rabbit, the turtle, a bevy of mountain goats who like climbing roofs, a herd of sheep who won’t shut up, the reporter …  Wait a minute!  There’s a reporter?  Of course there is.

 

Aesop’s Fables is cleverly co-directed by Laurel Crowe and Michael Vine, with a crayon-saturated set by Stephanie Polhemus that quickly morphs into many indoor and outdoor locales that here does not have to “hide” in front of a Main Stage set, and which can be kept in sharp focus by the clever camera work.  He cast is the same as the last year’s live version and includes Patricia de la Garza, Allen Dillon, Ryan Duda, Adam Hobbs, Kayla McCaffrey, and Maddie Steele, all still excellent.

 

To be honest, the kids at the live show really seemed to like the play, and parents will definitely appreciate the short running time of this version(less than an hour).  I really liked it for this go-round. Perhaps, it will even  inspire families to take another look at the original fables themselves.

 

And that’s the true moral of this video!

A WRINKLE IN TIME

Adapted by John Glore from the novel by Madeline L'Engle

Directed by Laurel Farley Crowe

 

HYPER-TESSER-ACTIVE VOICE

 

It was a dark and stormy night!

Such is the purposefully banal opening of Madeleine L’Engle’s totally un-banal 1962 book, A Wrinkle in Time, the young adult speculative fiction book that gave us the marvelously eccentric Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Who, not to mention the faster-than-light travel concept of the “Tesseract,” a “folding” of space and time that found its way into countless classics of science fiction ever after.

G.E.T. revisits their highly successful Family Stages production of this classic and gives it to posterity in a new taped production with a new cast and a COVID-friendly staging (yes, the cast wear coordinated face masks).
 

Meg is a young girl of extraordinary intellect and even more extraordinary imagination.  She is lying in bed as the dark and stormy night rages around her.  The daughter of scientists, she can’t sleep, so she joins her genius little brother Charles Wallace for a cup of late-night cocoa.  Faster than you can say “too much exposition,” Meg, Charles Wallace, and an older schoolmate (Calvin O’Keefe), are “tesseracted” away to find Meg’s missing father.  Their guides are a trio of eccentric characters who hide in the guise of the dotty Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Who.  Their adventures take them into the heart of “the darkness” as they visit the mechanistically grim planet of Camazotz.  (Should we mention the irony that the cast’s dark face masks seem to have absorbed the evil?)  They find Father, but lose Charles Wallace during their escape to a kinder, gentler planet, where the nurturing Aunt Beast obscurely leads them to the path of happily ever after.

This is, of course, an over-simplification of an insanely imaginative story, and there’s a lot of story to squeeze into this brisk ADD-friendly one act, with nary a breath-taking pause before we are confronted with a new wrinkle in plot, a new creature breaking the bizarro-tron scale, a new narration sequence to fill us in on what we’ve just missed.  And, unlike the more adult version, we’re never left in doubt as to who’s who, which’s what, and what just happened.

Constructed in the Nicholas-Nickleby style of tight-ensemble-giving-narration-while-flitting-from-character-to-character, the script relies on our listening (and imagining) abilities, but, this is a style I’ve always enjoyed, and here, the ensemble is small and talented and makes the story-telling look easy.

A few changes have been made in the production staff with Alicia Kot making the new costumes, though, like before they are works of complete joy and wonder, particularly the transition of Mrs. Whatsis from dowdy matron to butterfly-esque creature of grace.  Karl Dickey’s scene design works very well indeed without having to fight for stage space with a GET main stage production, and the projections and lights and filming are all top notch.

 

The cast occasionally show their inexperience with a flat line reading or two and a basic less-then-expected level of energy.  But, overall, they tell the story almost as well as the previous casts did, and in no way did they lessen by enjoyment of the story.  They young cast includes Brandt Maina, Morgan McCane, Jacob Jones, Dane Brandon, Hahna Kaleigh Bowyer, and Tommi Aleman.

So, in the final analysis, all the critters and creatures and phantasmagoria are merely props and hurdles in what is essentially the story of a girl in a quest to find her Daddy, and to reunite her family.  As fun as the Science Fiction trappings are, it’s the heart and soul of Meg Murry that provide the heart and soul of this play, and it’s the heart and soul of this ensemble and production team that makes it all work.  Director Laurel Crowe has an obvious knack for telling stories enjoyed by young and old alike, and this adds another “win” to her quickly-becoming-overwhelming list of successful TYA stagings.

Ms. L’Engle returned to the Murry and O’Keefe families many times throughout her career, never failing to create a tale that excited the imagination even as it warmed the heart.  This is, in fact, a perfect play to watch with a daughter or a Daddy.  And, in my humble opinion, can be enjoyed by anyone who was ever part of a family.  Or whoever looked at the sky and thought, “I wonder!”

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #GETNewStages  #ARTC)

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