A play that strikes the chord of compassion for those less fortunate can sometimes engage an audience simply on its good intentions alone. So when Saturday night's enthusiastic house delivered a standing ovation to the cast of Unconditional at Darkhorse Theater, the act seemed a tribute more to playwright/director Myra Anderson Stephens' thematic sensitivities than to the actual achievements of author and actors.
The curtain opens to reveal desolate living quarters under train tracks for Chicago's "L," where six down-and-outers scrounge a desperate existence. The lead character, Marla (Lauren Shakespeare), turns quick sexual tricks to help support her 14-year-old daughter, Baby (Kelsie Anderson), who never speaks and is fading into apparent unconsciousness, the result of manhandling by one of Marla's johns.
Surrounding this tawdry situation are several homeless people who are powerless to help, and later a social worker and the police, who are investigating some suspicious circumstances.
The scenario unfolds in two relatively economical acts, and the technical aspects are strong. Jonathan Stephens' production design reflects the mean streets, a sensation further enhanced by Tim Clo's sound effects and the graffiti art of Troy Duff and Mike Propes.
Yet there's a slapdash quality to the play's structure, which relies more on dialogue that tells rather than action that shows. Plus the climactic scene's police-procedural aspects are weakly acted and less than credible.
Shakespeare's performance is appropriately tense but uneven, and she assumes an accent that sounds closer to Brooklyn than the Windy City. The other eight cast members do little to effectively convey the drama, with the exception of John Silvestro, who delivers a convincing portrayal of an aging but kindly homeless man. Adele Akin's turn as an addlepated oldster who quotes Tennessee Williams is sincere, but it grows tiresome.
There's no faulting Unconditional for what it aspires to be — if only its artistic achievement had fully matched its heartfelt conscience.
First presented 10 years ago at Nashville Children's Theatre, artistic director Scot Copeland's script for The Beauty and the Beast is lovingly adapted from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's version of the famous fairy tale, first translated into English in 1757.
The Beaumont script was also the source for Jean Cocteau's fascinating 1946 black-and-white film, for which Copeland readily acknowledges his admiration. But if there are spiritual similarities between stage and the film, which might be termed "misty and magical," Copeland's take maintains its own distinctive pulse and story points. Furthermore, this new mounting benefits from what he terms his company's "better resources."
That means that Scott Boyd's scenic design — dominated by a single huge red rose — and Patricia Taber's costumes transmit a certain fantasy grandeur that reinforces the story's dreamy and ghostly sensibilities.
Copeland's cast features talented and experienced players. Marin Miller's portrayal of Belle is somewhat unconventional, more courageous stoicism than the typical demure romanticism. The unexpected edginess works well against Eric D. Pasto-Crosby's physically commanding and emotionally affecting Beast.
Peter Vann, Cori Anne Laemmel and Jamie Farmer are excellent in roles that directly support the story, but they do particularly striking work as the highly stylized, chalk-white spirits that haunt the Beast's mansion and do his bidding. Chip Arnold is also strong as Belle's caring father Marchand.
This fine take of a classic fable continues through March 18 at NCT's Hill Theatre.
Nashville Opera recently announced its 2012-13 season, featuring three classics of the repertoire and one surprisingly offbeat choice that should definitely intrigue local theatergoers.
First up on the schedule is Madame Butterfly (Oct. 11 and 13 at TPAC's Jackson Hall), Puccini's poignant tale of intense, fleeting passion and selfless devotion involving an American sailor and a Japanese geisha. Rossini's comic opera Cinderella is the winter production (Jan. 25, 27 and 29 at TPAC's Polk Theater), offering the classic fairy tale with some original twists and turns. For spring, Mozart's beloved The Magic Flute (April 11 and 13, Jackson Hall) delivers its life-affirming message via some of the great composer's most colorful melodies.
But the show that figures to gain more serious scrutiny is The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, presented at the company's Noah Liff Opera Center Nov. 9-11. David Lang's atypical chamber piece, based on an Ambrose Bierce short story, is set in the antebellum South and challenges the boundaries of reality, not to mention the expectations of operatic composition. The piece has been performed sparingly, with higher-profile mountings in San Francisco and Long Beach, Calif., and also at New Jersey's Montclair State University.
Single tickets for all performances go on sale in August.
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