trodding the boards
theatre & the arts
Volume 21/Issue 21/2003



By Brian Sands

The Children’s Hour at Loyola’s Marquette Theatre

I approached The Children’s Hour knowing it was a classic, knowing its general theme but not having seen or read it before, not knowing how its tale would play out. I was afraid it might turn out to be a musty drawing room melodrama. Little did I expect it to be the most riveting theatrical experience I’ve had in some time.

Gwenevere Sisco, Kristi Jacobs (standing) and Kimberly Lucas in The Children’s Hour

Credit director Anne Kauffman for totally rethinking Lillian Hellman’s first major success. Not so much its theme—baseless accusations can ruin people, a topic as pertinent today as at the play’s 1934 premiere—but rather its style. And in so doing, she discovered, with the help of a brilliant cast, measureless depths of emotion and psychological acuity that Hellman imbued her play with.

Rather than approaching the script naturalistically and fitting it out with a wood-paneled-and-comfy-chaired girls’ boarding school set, Kauffman wisely embraced the somewhat hothouse dialog and, aided by her set designer Georgia Gresham, gave her production an expressionistic tone.

With glass panels and a few pieces of furniture defining the playing areas, Kauffman allowed her actresses to bring out all the passions of the at-times over-the-top characterizations which they did with the abandon of a Jackson Pollock painting. In lesser hands, this could have turned shrill yet because Kauffman guided her cast to make brave, honest choices this daringly stylized production soared.

Act One focuses on spoiled rich girl Mary Tilford, an uber-bitch used to getting her way. When Martha Dobie and Karen Wright, her school’s two headmistresses, prevent this, she starts spreading the rumor that they’re lesbians. For Mary’s damning use of "unnatural acts," we could today substitute "weapons of mass destruction"–say the lie long enough, loud enough and get other people to say it and, presto, it’s not a lie any more until proven otherwise.

As Mary, Kristi Jacobs was a commanding presence. Alternately plotting, threatening, malingering and fawning, she became a force of nature causing everyone in her way to do her bidding...or else. With raised eyebrows and lip-smacking glee, it wasn’t a subtle performance but it’s not a subtle role. With stinging precision, Jacobs reminded an audience of those schoolyard bullies who inspired love and hate.

Kauffman employed an impressive sound design (by Jacqueline Steager), insinuating lighting (Gresham again) and telling costumes (by Kellie Grengs; note the red sweater Mary wears for her first entrance setting her off from the other girls’ pastel tones) to evoke the gossip-mongering, the power plays and the emotional undertows that lead to Karen and Martha’s downfall.

After the punch of Act One, Act Two is even more amazing. By then, Martha (Gwenevere Sisco) and Karen (Kimberly Lucas) have lost their libel suit that they brought against Mary’s grandmother. (In Hellman’s only slip-up, she confuses "libel" with "slander.") Their school in which they had invested seven years and all their money, has closed. They are completely wupped.

Kauffman has her two extraordinary actresses sit on the stage facing each other and speak their lines into microphones. This striking device not only recalls Hellman’s historic turn in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, but allows Sisco and Lucas to distill the essence of the characters’ feelings with perfect clarity. Unafraid of the silences between the words, they paint a terrain of emotional bleakness worthy of Beckett.

Kauffman has said that she is "interested in Martha’s journey with regard to survival." Sobeit. In Act One, Sisco has outbursts of righteous indignation at Mary’s accusations–the lady protesting too much, perhaps. She also does a dance of psychic turmoil to a punked out version of "This little piggy went to market..." that beautifully limns her inner conflicts. And when she eventually comes out to Karen, Sisco’s radiance at finally having a burden lifted off her shoulders could light up a room.

Yet, despite Sisco’s splendid performance, I found Karen’s journey to be even more intriguing. Act One finds her to be, if a bit schoolmarm-ish, level-headed, truly in love with her fiancé Joseph, and convinced that she is right (note the play on her name) and that all will turn out well. By Act Two, her belief system has been pulled out from under her.

Reminiscent of a young Glenn Close only better, Lucas perches on the edge of the cosmic abyss and, after looking in, realizes, like Oedipus and Lear before her, she must go on in a world bereft of any hope of ever returning to the Edenic bliss of her yesterdays. Unlike the Greek and Shakespearean kings, however, and foreshadowing Vladimir and Estragon’s footsteps that would come some twenty years later, she chooses to go on in a life made tragic by forces over which she had little control. For such a young actress as Lucas to convey all this with such truth and conviction was remarkable.

Other stand-outs in the cast included Daiva Olson as Martha’s blowzy, hypocritical aunt and Ash Minnick as one of Mary’s other victims. As Mary’s rich grandmother Kerri Driscoll demonstrated where some of Mary’s temperament came from yet also evinced a commitment to justice and fair play. And Lydia Anne Burgess combined a faux Mammy accent with a backbone of steel to be one of the few moral bright spots in the play. Hampered by his "good guy" character and some of Hellman’s talkiest dialog, Marcus Stanley as Joseph had to play things the straightest and thus came off weakest; in this company, though, that’s not too bad and he still rendered an agreeable performance.

Unfortunately, The Children’s Hour’s all too brief run has already ended. If we’re lucky, somebody videotaped it. Or, better yet, some enterprising producer will give this unforgettable production further life.

Topdog/Underdog at the Bank One Theater/C.A.C.

Unlike Children’s Hour’s, I wonder if seventy years from now anyone will remember Topdog/Underdog. In the tradition of East of Eden and True West, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play takes the tale of Cain and Abel and gives it a ghetto spin. Frankly, my response was a resounding "So what?"

Topdog takes place in a seedy apartment. Younger brother Booth hopes that older brother Lincoln will teach him how to become a master of three card monte. Lincoln had been reigning king of that sidewalk hustle until he renounced his ways and sought to make a more honest living. Lincoln now impersonates Abraham Lincoln in a Times Square arcade where people pay to "shoot" him in a recreation of Lincoln’s assassination.

And that, amidst talk of money and women, won and lost, is pretty much about it. Yes, Parks’ conceit of an African-American naming his two sons "Lincoln" and "Booth" is arch. And, yes, having this black "Lincoln" portray Lincoln is clever even if she’s used the device in a previous play. Yet when Booth says "...a brother playing Lincoln–that’s a stretch for any imagination," you can’t help but feel Parks patting herself on the back.

Parks does provide some touching moments as when Booth spiffs up himself and the apartment for dinner with a girlfriend who never shows up. Yet, though I was sorry that the brothers were abandoned by their parents as teenagers and I appreciate that Lincoln is trying to better himself, this is just another instance of an author begging the audience for sympathy for two self-deluding losers who contribute little or nothing to society. I’d’ve been much more interested had this been a tale in which at least one of the characters was actually making a difference in the ‘hood.

The Dog and Pony Theatre Company’s production must take some of the blame for this disappointing production. In an act amounting to self-sabotage, director John Grimsley cast Don Guillory as Booth and Lance E. Nichols as Lincoln. Despite the script specifying that the brothers are three years apart, Nichols is clearly 15-25 years older than Guillory.

Now, Nichols is a fine actor and I would love to see him in the production of Driving Miss Daisy he’s currently doing with Michael Learned, but his advanced years throw the play’s entire dynamic off and robs Lincoln’s impending dismissal from the arcade of some of its pathos.

Nichols plays Lincoln with great determination and so his sluggishness may not be entirely inappropriate, but it takes a good deal of energy out of a story that needs as much as it can get. Guillory, who brought such grandstanding energy to Southern Rep’s production of In Walks Ed earlier this year, is decent enough here but comes off as callow where heartbreaking is called for.

Perhaps a different production of Topdog would make me feel otherwise about the play. So I look forward to seeing it again in another, hmmm, 30 or 40 years from now.

Pontalba at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts

The New Orleans Opera Association is to be commended for commissioning Pontalba as part of the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial. To help bring a new piece of art into the world is always cause for celebration. Whether Pontalba with its score and libretto by Thea Musgrave will resonate beyond the Pelican State, however, must remain an open question for now.

Yali-Marie Williams as the Baroness Pontalba is courted by her future husband, Robert Breault.

(Photo: Thomas Grosscup)

Pontalba tells the tale of the Baroness Michaela Almonester de Pontalba against the changing political landscape of early 19th century Louisiana. Though she married for love, poor Michaela’s in-laws were among the nastiest and greediest in history. Despite this, though, she triumphed in her quest to bring beauty to Jackson Square.

Pontalba thus may well be the first opera in which the audience roots for a real estate developer and, in fact, the opera’s climax is not a romantic clinch or a tragic death, but the unveiling of a civic project.

The world premiere of Pontalba had much to recommend it. The singing was beautiful and effective throughout. Yali-Marie Williams brought toughness and tenderness to the Baroness; she seems poised on the brink of a major career. Equally fine were Jane Gilbert as her mother, Robert Breault as her husband and Jake Gardner and Kathryn Day as the evil in-laws.

Jay Lesenger’s direction nicely detailed shifting allegiances and kept certain epistolary passages from becoming static. The production, though clearly constrained by its budget, was intelligent and served the material well. The final coup de theatre, in which Jackson Square complete with Andrew’s statue materialized on stage, brought gasps and applause from the audience.

Yali-Marie Williams (r) as  the Baroness Pontalba with Jane Gilbert as her mother Louise.

The orchestration was richly textured and conductor Robert Lyall did an exceptional job of propelling his players along; the orchestra rewarded him with a wonderful performance of this difficult music.

Musgrave’s libretto nicely melded the personal and the historical though the characters declaimed a bit much about hope and dreams, love and honor.

The triumphal dedication of Jackson Square in Pontalba.

(Photo: Thomas Grosscup)

Unfortunately, the opera’s only weak point was its most important element, the score. In its two or so hours, I could detect virtually no melody. Worse yet, it offered scant characterization until the very end; only in the civic pride of the Jackson Square scene does Musgrave’s music reflect

her libretto. Otherwise, any five minutes of the score is interchangeable with any other section of it manifesting too much of a sense of generic 20th century opera. Ignore the libretto and Pontalba could have been Vanessa or Ballad of Baby Doe or A View From the Bridge or any of a number of other works of the last fifty years.

This is too bad because I think a more memorable score might have given Pontalba the appeal that would have engendered future productions elsewhere. For the time being, however, New Orleans can be proud of this noble, if flawed, effort.

Daryl Hall & John Oates at House of Blues

For those of you who missed Hall & Oates’ recent one night stand at House of Blues, it wasn’t a mere trip down the road of 1970’s and ‘80s nostalgia. While the pop duo didn’t stint on their hits, they also offered older, more obscure tunes plus tracks from their latest CD.

I suspect that neither of their new songs, Man on a Mission and Getaway Car (would love to hear Melissa Etheridge rock that one), will shoot them to the top of the charts again, but they’re no worse than a lot of the other stuff that’s out there today.

Of the classics, my favorites happened to be their biggest hits, Maneater and I Can’t Go for That, but there was also You’re Out of Touch, You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, One on One, She’s Gone and Sarah Smile. In fact, a whole concert probably could’ve been done from the hits they didn’t include.

Darryl Hall’s voice has aged tremendously well. He easily goes from pop to blues to R & B and of course his patented blue-eyed soul, hitting high note after high note along the way. And his face is as expressive as his voice. He genuinely seemed to be enjoying himself, content with his status as an icon of another era who is still exploring his talent today.

John Oates, on the other hand, employed three expressions throughout the evening–neutral, goopily smiling and "Omigod I just smelled something really bad" though I may be mistaking that for intense passion. His musicianship is fine but his voice has gotten a bit ragged. Unlike Hall, the only thing Oates really seemed to enjoy was throwing guitar picks to the crowd. And what was that wedding ring on his left hand? Who knew?

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