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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Twelfth Night, Doubt and Carousel

Doubt
Ellen Tobie and Jeffrey Coon
Photo by Walnut Street Theatre
John Patrick Shanley's Doubt is about a subject that's in the news this week in Philadelphia: allegations of child abuse by priests. It's a story you may think you've heard before, but what makes Shanley's play compelling is that not everything is the way it seems at first glance. As a nun and a priest square off over the accusations, guilt and innocence are examined from all sides, and the question of whether the charges are true becomes just part of the equation. The new production at the Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio on 3 focuses on the meaning of virtue, righteousness and compassion.

It's 1964 in the Bronx, and Sister Aloysius reigns over St. Nicholas Catholic School with an iron ruler. Judgmental and controlling, Sister Aloysius rejects new trends like art and dance classes, longs for the days when schools emphasized penmanship, and is angry about a Christmas pageant where "The girl playing Our Lady was wearing lipstick." Her polar opposite is Father Flynn, who gives dynamic homilies and coaches the boys' basketball team in a firm but friendly way. While Father Flynn is popular with his parishioners, Sister Aloysius is feared by them. He represents all that she mistrusts about the Church's new openness and accessibility. So, when Sister Aloysius learns that Father Flynn may have molested the school's only black student, she is determined to oust the priest and beat him at his own game: "It is my job to outshine the fox in cleverness." But Father Flynn fights back, avowing his innocence and asserting his place in the Church hierarchy. A young nun becomes the pawn in their game, while the boy's mother is determined not to become one.

Approving murmurs could be heard throughout the opening night audience when Sister Aloysius and the boy's mother expressed their conflicting opinions. That's understandable; Shanley's characters are easy to identify with, and so are their points of view. The evocative, economical dialogue conjures up an entire neighborhood with just four actors, aided significantly by Glen Sears' compact but stately set. Director John Peakes' production emphasizes the formality of hallowed places (the pulpit and the principal's office) but feels intimate too. (The scene where the priest lectures his team is performed near the edge of the Independence Studio's limited playing area, with Jeffrey Coon, as Father Flynn, making effective eye contact with the audience.)

Ellen Tobie makes Sister Aloysius' imperiousness seem reasonable, while Coon is genial one moment and tough the next, managing to be both slick and sympathetic. Karen Peakes is comical and touching as the nun whose trusting nature is stretched to the limit, while Kaci M. Fannin grows quickly from passive to confident as the young boy's mother.

Despite what Sister Aloysius says, there is very little certainty in the world of Doubt. The Walnut's production makes effective use of that ambiguity.

Doubt: A Parable runs through April 15, 2012, at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $30, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, or online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org.


Twelfth Night
Victoria Bonito and Jered McLenigan
Photo by John Bansemer
At the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, director Carmen Khan has assembled a solid cast and a good design team for a fine production of one of Shakespeare's most durable comedies, Twelfth Night. While it never quite scales the great heights that Twelfth Night is capable of—a few of the choices are bound to be confusing and off-putting, especially to newcomers—it's still a well-done production.

Lisi Stoessel's modest and graceful set design, with its hardwood floor and a railing in the back, suggests the deck of an ocean liner. And Vickie Esposito's elegant costumes are straight out of a 1930s drawing room comedy. Those costumes help to define the characters, especially the comic relief characters Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Sir Toby (Eric Van Wie) is a dissolute world traveler with a pith helmet on his head and a drink cart at his side, while Sir Andrew (Johnny Smith) is a playful imp who wears golfing togs that let the world know he's not interested in work of any kind. These two don't take life seriously, and in this 1930s-set version of Twelfth Night, these drunken louts fit the stereotypes of the layabout English bounders you'll find in a P.G. Wodehouse story. Fittingly, Rob Kahn plays the servant Malvolio with a stiffly pressed tuxedo and the stiff upper lip of Wodehouse's most famous creation, Jeeves. When Malvolio finds a letter in which his employer Olivia seems to declare her love for him, he's unsure how to express his emotions: "I ... am ... hap-py," he says with the cautious air of someone who's never acted happy in his life.

As Count Orsino, Jered McLenigan mopes around in pajamas, restless as he reclines on huge pillows. He's so tortured by his love for the unattainable Olivia that he is unable to rest. Meanwhile, the shipwrecked servant Viola longs for the count, but can't express herself; Victoria Rose Bonito's wide-eyed gazes make Viola's longing palpable.

The cast has a good feeling for the language and does justice to the text. And at their best, the characterizations are droll and engaging. But occasionally, as in the scene where Orsino and Viola listen to the haunting ballad "Come Away Death," Khan and her cast sacrifice tenderness for cheap humor. This emphasis on laughs at all costs undermines Lesley Berkowitz's performance as the fool Feste; she tries so hard to be wacky (dressed like Harpo Marx in one scene, Charlie Chaplin in another) that her antics become tiresome. (Still, Berkowitz does display a lovely alto on the songs, which have pretty melodies by Fabian Obispo.)

And there's one element of this production that's completely amiss. The central conceit of Twelfth Night is that Viola and her brother Sebastian look so much alike that they are repeatedly mistaken for each other; in fact, even after Sebastian gets married, his bride can't tell the two siblings apart. But in this production, the joke is sabotaged by the physical differences between Bonito (as Viola) and Ian Sullivan (as Sebastian). She's short and slight; he's tall and broad-shouldered. She has nearly waist-length hair which she conceals with a cap; he has short hair worn without a cap. How could anyone mix them up? It's easy to imagine newcomers to Twelfth Night being confused.

Fight director Mike Cosenza has created swordfights that allow room for both raucous comedy (in a duel between the amateurs Viola and Sir Andrew) and action (a vigorous Davon Williams as the wronged servant Antonio). This Twelfth Night doesn't always get that blend of comedy and drama right, but when it does—which is most of the time—it's quite satisfying.

Twelfth Night runs through May 20, 2012, at The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $25 $35, and may be purchased online at www.phillyshakespeare.org or by calling 215-496-8001.

Carousel
Michael Jansen and
Jessica O'Brien

Photo by by Villanova Theatre
Carousel contains some of Rodgers and Hammerstein's most beautiful songs ("If I Loved You," "You'll Never Walk Alone") as well as one of their most demanding stories. Its main character, Billy Bigelow, is a carnival barker who entices a small town girl into marriage but then has a hard time meeting his responsibilities and controlling his violent temper. The balance between the beauty of the score and the ugliness of Billy's nature can be a hard one to handle, but director Valerie Joyce's production at Villanova Theatre faces the challenge and, for the most part, makes this Carousel work.

Billy Bigelow is an antihero whose motivations are noble but whose actions are often abhorrent. When his actions bring his life to an early end, he seeks redemption even though he knows he's undeserving. Michael Jansen's brooding Billy dominates every one of his scenes, filling the small Villanova stage with swagger and menace. When he meets the demure and trusting Julie Jordan (a sparkling Jessica O'Brien), she's clearly overwhelmed by him; his pull over her is so forceful that within minutes she has left her job and set out to follow wherever he leads. Nearly seven decades after Carousel's debut, the "bench scene" in which Billy and Julie get acquainted is still remarkable in its dramatic weight and musical scope. With a charming New England accent and a determined gaze, O'Brien's Julie evolves from a simple mill girl to a wife who supports Billy even when it leads to her own suffering. Jansen and O'Brien both have vigorous, versatile voices, although Jansen does have a tendency to go sharp in the upper reaches of his vocal range.

The supporting cast is uniformly strong in the major roles; Jenny Kreyl's Nettie is exceptionally well sung, while Chris Monaco scores in a comic role as the meek fisherman Enoch Snow. But the large chorus isn't well-integrated into the production: The women's singing is too shrill, while the men's is too ragged. Shannon Murphy's choreography is good in the act two ballet (with Emily Poworoznek excellent in the ballet's leading role), but awkward in the ensemble numbers like "June is Bustin' Out All Over." Part of the problem with the dancing is due to Kate Coots' scenic design, which covers the stage with concentric wooden platforms; those platforms are hollow, so every step gets amplified. The clomping nearly drowns out the music at times. Peter Hilliard conducts the nine-piece orchestra, which conveys the majesty of Rodgers' music in a small space.

While Villanova's Carousel is imperfect in its musical and dance elements, director Joyce's production hits the right notes dramatically. Thanks in large part to its robust lead performances, this Carousel is both tragic and lushly romantic, which helps to make it rewarding despite its flaws.

Carousel runs through April 22, 2012, at Villanova Theatre, located in Vasey Hall on the Villanova University campus in Villanova, Pennsylvania. Tickets run from $23 to $25, with discounts available for seniors, students and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 610-519-7474 or online at www.theatre.villanova.edu.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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