Widows and Orphans 

The classics, Music City-style: bloody Shakespeare and bouncy Dickens

The classics, Music City-style: bloody Shakespeare and bouncy Dickens

Nashville's two best-known community theaters are currently dipping into the classics—one a problematic work by Shakespeare, the other a large-scale musical adapted from Dickens—with better intentions than results. Even when the stagings fail to match the companies' ambitions, however, each features individual performances worthy of note.

An early Shakespeare script often regarded as a gory footnote, Titus Andronicus is almost universally acknowledged as one of his lesser plays. Its very authorship remains in doubt in some academic quarters, although it includes aspects of plot, theme and character that foreshadow the master's later tragedies—King Lear, Coriolanus, Othello. It's a violent piece, and while the mounting body count seems sensational in theory, in ACT 1's wobbly staging it plays out often as absurdity.

Melissa Bedinger Hade's direction isn't so much ill-conceived as unconceived. Within a convoluted plot driven by politics, love and inter-family vengeance, no fewer than 10 dramatis personae are skewered to death. While there might be a creative manner of staging such a bloodbath—as in, perhaps, not quite so literally—innovative lighting and music don't factor into Hade's envisioning. Even if the script is more Saw V than Henry V, the straight-ahead declaiming and disemboweling only grow tiresome.

The performances are all over the qualitative map, made somewhat more intriguing by incidents of cross-gender casting yet so diffuse as to strain credibility overall. In this tale of Romans vs. Goths, the latter may be the "bad guys," but they get the benefit of better acting—chiefly from Goth queen Tamora, played by Kay Ayers-Sowell, whose reading is as close to classical Bard as we get all evening. Her revenge-minded sons, played by Richard Sparkman and Starina Johnson, also display some consistency of character and style that endures until their severed heads arrive in a burlap bag.

In the title role, Dave Thoreson makes a noble attempt at nobility (when he's not self-righteously killing Tamora's eldest son, and, later, his own). Yet the burdens of carrying too much melodrama simply weigh down his performance. Thoreson isn't much helped by his Roman confreres, either. Bob Young's sing-songy rendition of Marcus Andronicus, Titus' family-conscious brother, just seems all wrong. The hissy-fit tendencies of the prince Saturninus are only exacerbated by John Devine's excessive emotive style. As another prince, Scott Russell is simply lost with the language. At least Pat Rulon, as Titus' eldest son Lucius, offers some decent speechmaking.

As Titus' daughter Lavinia, who sulks distractedly at first but later—raped, tongue cut out, hands chopped off—must use what remains of her body to convey enduring pathos, Lauren Atkins does a few interesting things in her mute moments. Alas, none of it lasts long. (Dad kills her, too, by the way.) Playing Aaron the Moor, a prickly troublemaker who predates in temperament not Othello but Othello's despicable right-hand man Iago, David Chattam makes an earnest stab at the role, but he seems undone in part by questionable blocking.

Gus Gillette's fight choreography, sometimes involving clunky, clanging swords, engenders the kind of excitement that comes only with the dire hope that no one will lose an eye. Denims and Doc Martens are the essential costume for the military-minded players, with everyone, royalty and otherwise, o'ertopped by ancient-chic tunics.

"Mercy is nobility's true badge," says Tamora to Titus before the bloodletting begins. Entering theatergoers might want to remember that.

Circle Players' Oliver!, meanwhile, is a representative local-level production of Lionel Bart's classic musical, though poor sound marred the recent Sunday performance. The big opener, "Food Glorious Food," still holds charm—how can you dislike an urchin chorus?—but it lacked punch in vocals and staging. Otherwise, under Clay Hillwig's direction, the cast of 40 delivers a story that engages, if only on a fairly superficial level.

In the title role, 10-year-old Wes Richardson hits all his marks and sings "Where Is Love?" plaintively. Victor Phelps as Artful Dodger acts with wit and smart-alecky pride, yet his singing was apparently marred by throat problems. Evan Williams competently portrays Fagin, though the role requires a more mature actor to bring it off with sophistication. Tim Bush is a strapping and menacing Bill Sykes, while the talented Rachael Barnard is the goodhearted but poignantly troubled Nancy: She excels in many key numbers, including the classic torcher "As Long As He Needs Me."

Distinguished in lesser roles are Megan Roddick, Debbie Tannacore, Macon Kimbrough and Jamie London, the latter two serving up a notable rendition of the seldom-remembered "I Shall Scream!"

Under Thom Garrison's musical direction, the songs are brought to life capably enough. The real musical hero, however, is pianist John Todd. Assisted only by drummer Andy Sheridan, Todd plays a score adapted for split-keyboard samples that effect the sounds of the orchestra. It's always a mystery why musicals in Music City can't gather up fuller ensembles to give us a big natural sound. No doubt budget and logistics have something to do with it. But that doesn't mean we can't keep wishing—like the Dodger in "Consider Yourself"—for a kind "somebody to foot the bill."

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