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Caitlyn Joy

Review: The Pillowman

The Pillowman

It is closing weekend for The Pillowman at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre in Frederick and the orientation of the quirky mainstage has been transformed into a thrust space for the current season. Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy takes place in a fictional police state and Todd Mazzie’s set transports us to an interrogation room with disconcertingly stained walls and the emergency exit stage door smartly used with a card swipe and lighting change as the only way in and out. Some of the other details of the environment feel a little under developed but it’s a convincing enough back drop.

We begin with Katurian (Steve Custer) being brought in for questioning by detectives Tupolski (J.D. Sivert) and Ariel (Joe Jalette). The early blocking by director Peter Wray seems overly concerned with the sight-line challenges of the new stage layout and the movement feels a little forced and unjustified. That plays its’ part in what is actually a very short first act, dragging a little. The dynamics just don’t quite work in the early going – Sivert gets all the required laughs but only dips a toe into exploring the darker side of his character and the stylized performance of Jalette isn’t sadistic enough to act as a counterpoint in the relationship. Custer is very natural in his delivery as he learns about his situation, testing his boundaries with his captors, and his moments of guttural anger are truly compelling. The issue comes when the emotion switches to fear and panic – like a singer going into their head voice from their chest voice. Custer lives in this vocal range too often and while he commits fully, a terrified whisper punctuated by one or two of these moments would have felt more authentic.

The second act gets under way with Katurian in storytelling mode. The Writer and the Brother is central to the plot but while Custer excels in the telling of the story we are left with the feeling there were more creative ways to visualize the tale than the slightly awkward presence of Ron Ward and Caitlyn Joy as the Mother and Father. There are striking moments however and that sets the mood for the scene between Katurian and his brother Michal (Sean Byrne) that is the strongest of the show. The character development between director and actors is on full display here as the tragic details of events past and present intertwine. Byrne is terrific as the ‘slow’ brother and while at times the performance is almost too subtle, his mannerisms are on the right side of a line which we would not want him to overstep. There are moments where Byrne’s smart choice to be uncomfortable with making eye contact with his brother backfire as he appears to be looking directly at the audience and it is enough to take us out of the moment.

The Little Jesus story starts the final act and the girl (Karli Cole) carries a worryingly large cross around the stage and despite one laugh out loud moment with Cole lip syncing to Custer’s dialogue (and the smart transformation as part of the set into a coffin) we are again left to wonder what might have been achieved with more left to the imagination.

We return to the original interrogation room and the chemistry between Custer and Jalette has much more spark to it from this point forwards. There is still a sense that Sivert is playing Tupolski a little too cute and there are moments during the telling of his story about a deaf Chinese boy where the racist choice of his character feels border line gratuitous. The brilliance of McDonagh’s writing and the twist in the tail (SIC) are slightly mishandled as new evidence is brought into the room (as we try and avoid spoilers) and is portrayed in the dream like fashion of earlier not the reality we have created. That is quickly forgotten, however, as in a powerful final scene Katurian stands at the front of the stage, Michal stands in the doorway and Ariel is frozen, bent over the desk. It’s beautifully staged, beautifully lit, and a moving end to the production.

#tothepoint Rating 66/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $20

Value Rating: +$12

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $32. The Pillowman continues at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre until March 11th.

Review: Heathers The Musical

Heathers

The 1988 movie, Heathers, starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater achieved cult status with Gen Xers and the musical that had an Off-Broadway run in 2014 has perhaps surpassed that with Millennials who have embraced this story as their own. That is certainly the vibe tonight inside the Maryland Ensemble Theatre with a raucous sold out crowd. Despite the MET’s mainstage season finishing just two weeks ago this MET X production of Heathers The Musical is the second show to open on this stage in the period since. That hectic schedule perhaps contributed to the minimalist nature of Cecelia Lee’s set which featured painted walls with colorful squares outlined in grey and two platforms at the rear of the stage that looked like the backdrop for an 80s music video.

Veronica Sawyer (Georgiana Summers) opens the show with her spoken diary entry and we are introduced to the array of high school students in Beautiful. It’s a strong start to the show that not only showcases the hopes and fears of these high school kids but also the excellent costume work of Cody Gilliam. The attention to detail in defining each member of the ensemble along with the many costume changes throughout the show are a real highlight of the production. The arrival of the Heathers is incredibly stylized and works well in these opening moments but once we hit the dialogue we are confronted with the extremely affected accent and movement of Heather Chandler (Drew Canning) There is no sense at any stage that this is a real person and perhaps that was intentional, as it is a consistent actor/director choice throughout the show, but it becomes exhausting to listen to and increasingly difficult to watch.

Fight for Me features some hilarious slow motion fight choreography from Steve Custer as JD (Jordan Champe) tussles with football players Ram Sweeney (Mark Sullivan) and Kurt Kelly (Andrew Zabetakis) Sullivan actually comes close to stealing the show, which is some achievement while portraying such a vacuous character, as his smooth vocals, comic timing and facial expressions are spot on for the whole performance. We get an insight into JD’s backstory via the 711 anthem, Freeze Your Brain, and while Champe certainly looks the part of the bad boy in his trench coat and dog tags he plays JD a little too sweet at times; a hint more darkness in the first act would have felt more appropriate and would have helped sell his overall journey. Champe’s gaze all too often finds the floor rather this his scene partner and although this may have been a character choice it doesn’t translate well during his vocals.

It’s a credit to the Director, Caitlyn Joy, that we buy into the each new location despite the limited visual changes. The show has a great flow and Joy uses the central MET pillar smartly throughout – especially effectively as Veronica stumbles through JD’s bedroom window during the raunchy standout song of the first act, Dead Girl Walking. As the body count begins to rise it becomes increasingly obvious that the set would have benefited greatly from a third platform surrounding the pillar. There is so much action on the floor that simply does not work from a sight line perspective in this space. Raising those moments up by a foot would have had a major positive impact on the overall production. With none of the actors mic’d up in this intimate setting there were some sound balance issues. Music Director, Jonas Dawson, forms part of an unseen 3 piece band that unfortunately overpowers the vocals at times.

The second act really kicks things up a notch with the laugh out loud number, Dead Gay Son. Tad Janes is a comic force in all his cameos but never more so than as Ram’s Dad in his moment of acceptance and sexual awakening at his son’s funeral. The song also features the best of Lena Janes’ choreography. At times Janes’ work could have benefited if the platforms had been incorporated a little more to add levels to her routines. The execution could certainly have been tighter, especially in Big Fun and Hey Yo, Westerburg, but her choreography was relevant and entertaining for the duration of the show.

Summers is a strong singer but it is her ability to bring out the emotion of her character into her lyrics that is the strength of her performance. Her tragic pleading in the beautiful Seventeen is one of the most captivating scenes of the night and her overall acting performance is full of delightful quirks with more than a passing nod to Winona Ryder’s performance in the original movie. There are more vocal highlights to come as Heather McNamara (Kaitlin McCallion) delivers a haunting rendition of Lifeboat. It’s a song that could easily be forgettable but McCallion makes it a moment and part of an impressive overall character arc. Megan McGee gives some of the best and most truthful work of the night as Martha Dunstock. McGee infuses every line with thought and feeling and delivers perhaps the strongest vocal of the show in the heartbreaking Kindergarten Boyfriend. It’s a song of introverted self-reflection that turns to imagery of taking flight and the freedom that she hopes her suicide will bring her. The static staging of the song, standing center stage in the spotlight, feels a little out of sync with the moment. Ending the song in that spot, as she takes what she thinks will be her final step, would have been a more powerful choice.

Although this is an entertaining production of Heathers The Musical featuring some fine individual performances, the show is vocally good, not great, and lacks a truly stand out ensemble moment. The show features some sexually explicit themes, especially in act one, and won’t be to everyone’s taste, but Joy handles the material well and pushes the barriers with this talented young cast without ever over stepping.

#tothepoint Rating 64/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $15

Value Rating: +$13

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $28 so grab a ticket if there are any left! Heathers The Musical continues at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre until July 8th.

Review: Catch Peter at the MET

Starcatcher

The Maryland Ensemble Theatre is not afraid of a challenge and this hugely ambitious production of Rick Elice’s adaptation of Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s book about the origins of Peter Pan is definitely that. The MET’s quirky main stage features concave seating that can provide sight line issues and a central pillar that scenic designers must embrace as part of their design. That task falls upon Cecelia Lee and she utilizes the full depth of the space, creating different levels with platforms for her nautical set which is heavy on detail with netting, frayed rope, crates, driftwood and sails, making a visually interesting backdrop for the story to unfold. Peter and the Starcatcher is very much a play with music and the design incorporates three musicians in their own little crows’ nest stage left.

There is a lot of information for the audience to digest at the top of the show as we are introduced to the two ships, The Neverland and The Wasp, the two trunks that are central to the plot, and many of the characters. It’s delivered in a slightly confusing manner but what the production sometimes lacks in clarity it more than makes up for in creativity as the actors really become the story. Director, Julie Herber, clearly revels in this elaborate game of chess as she moves the pieces at her disposal around the stage. Ropes are used to frame smaller moments to represent cabins and scene changes are achieved with movement of the cast with the central column the pivot as characters melt into the background as others come to the fore. This inventiveness is illustrated best when Molly Aster, played with an impeccable British accent by Caitlyn Joy, is exploring the depths of The Neverland. The Ensemble form a wall and doors that swing open to reveal different parts of the bowels of the ship and the action within to great effect.

The Captain of The Neverland is Bill Slank, played with wonderful, snarling authority, by Matthew Crawford. Crawford’s dominant stage presence is the standout performance of the first act although the manner of his demise is so low key it almost passes us by. Looking after Molly is Mrs. Bumbrake, played in true British pantomime style by Thomas Scholtes. It’s a wonderfully ridiculous performance by Scholtes who looks like he loves every minute he spends on the stage. Molly meets the orphans, Prentiss (Daniel Valentin-Morales), Ted (Taylor Rieland) and the boy who will become Peter Pan (Matt Lee). It is a huge credit to Joy and Lee that we never question that these are adults representing Molly and the boy.

Meanwhile on The Wasp, Captain Scott (another outstanding dialect delivered by Jeremy Myers) has been bound as the Pirates take control of the vessel.  Robert Leembruggen couldn’t look more like Smee if he tried and he’s amusing throughout, with a no nonsense deadpan delivery that you would expect from the Yorkshire native, as the perfect foil for the over the top antics of Black Stache. Joe Jalette has the task of portraying the Pirate Captain and he bears more than a passing resemblance to Christian Borle who played the role on Broadway. Jalette takes a while to really hit his stride but his confidence grows throughout the show and by the time the second act is in full flow he’s stealing scene after scene as he struts around the stage.

As the story moves to Mollusk Island ropes descend at the rear of the stage to depict a jungle and the audience is very much required to bring their childlike imaginations along for the ride. For the most part we are happy to let those imaginations run wild with everything the story asks of us but with so many outrageous characters it is important for some real relationships to be developed to connect us emotionally at the same time. This is where the production falls a little short. The performances of Valentin-Morales and Rieland as Prentiss and Ted are further comic relief but opportunities for us to really care about these boys are passed up too often to play everything larger than life. Reiner Prochaska never feels like quite the right fit for the unflappable Leonard Aster leaving us un-invested with his relationship with his daughter, Molly. All this means that by the time Lee and Joy do give us wholehearted honesty in the final scene it feels a little out of place.

The overall vision and staging by Julie Herber for this production is a big achievement. The action flows relentlessly with the only slight complaint being the more intimate scenes occasionally being played too far forwards leaving those at either extreme of the house looking at backs. The costumes of Stephanie Hyder are excellent throughout with the individual mermaid costumes at the top of act two all hilariously unique. It’s a bold and imaginative production and while not all the choices work it’s the sort of risk taking theatre that should be on your schedule over the next few weeks.

#tothepoint Rating 69.5/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $24

Value Rating: +$15

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $39. Peter and the Starcatcher continues at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre until May 7th.

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