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Todd Mazzie

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: Pygmalion

Pygmalion

The Town Hall in Kensington is a non-traditional venue for theatre and as such presents an array of challenges for the creative team behind the British Players production of George Bernard Shaw’s, Pygmalion. As we negotiate our way into our temporary seats we get an immediate chance to see Maggie Modig’s set. The stage is split with Professor Higgins’ study and drawing room stage right and Mrs. Higgins’ drawing room stage left. A central curtain at the back of the stage is flanked by painted backdrops of the London skyline. On the apron of the raised stage stand three columns and two benches indicating a third venue.

We hear the sound of rain and a street light is lit stage right. The third venue is established as Covent Garden with Mrs. Eynsford-Hill (Ruth Vernet) and her children, Clara (Erin Schwartz) and Freddy (Todd Mazzie) attempting to find a taxi. The interior venues are not lost as much from the light as we would hope and the rain sound effect vanishes as quickly as it arrived despite the dialogue making it clear it is still raining. As for the dialogue itself, all the actors are mic’d up, which may be dictated by the acoustics of the venue but it takes some getting used to.

After a chance meeting in the opening scene between Higgins (Dan Owen), Colonel Pickering (John Allnutt) and Eliza Doolittle (Jenn Robinson), scene two takes us inside the home of Professor Higgins. Owen gives a strong performance with anger and playfulness always bubbling under the surface of his portrayal of the Professor. He captures the lack of empathy of the character and there is a truth in his work sometimes missing from some of the other members of the cast. Allnutt brings the right amount of affable bluster to the role of Pickering but his delivery is too presentational, something that will be a recurring theme throughout the show.

Eliza Doolittle will always be Audrey Hepburn in the 1964 musical film adaptation, My Fair Lady, and you can hear some of those Hepburn exclamations in Jenn Robinson’s delivery. Although those moments are intended to be larger than life, her focus on her accent and the cadence of her speech make her seem somewhat disconnected and a lot of the emotions feel like crocodile tears. Roger Stone brings the right level of energy to the role of Alfred Doolittle and the exchanges between Stone and Owen are verbally very pleasing. However, visually, the scenes between them, along with Allnutt, just don’t work. Far too often, Director, Pauline Griller-Mitchell, has the 3 men in a straight line facing the audience and the amount of unjustified movement within the blocking is quite staggering.

The costumes, by Harlene Leahy, are a strength throughout the show.  The styles and color palette effectively representing the different classes of this period of British life; although dressing Mrs. Pearce (Sam David), the Scottish housekeeper, in tartan feels a little too obvious. Unfortunately every time David enters the stage there is an annoying hum seemingly linked to her microphone which, along with a moment of horrendous feedback for Owen that comes later, is hard to forgive.

As the lights fade we hear the lessons between Higgins and Eliza that adeptly signify the passing of time before the lights come up on Mrs. Higgins’ (Margaret Lane) drawing room. We meet the Eynsford-Hill family for the second time and Vernet, Schwartz and Mazzie make the most of their limited stage time – with the exchanges between Schwartz and Robinson in both the opening and closing scenes of the first act particularly enjoyable.

The second act has a set surprise up its’ sleeve as the central curtain is drawn to reveal a staircase from which Eliza enters. It gives the set a wonderful depth which sadly it then fails to utilize for any purpose for the remainder of the show.  Robinson is a lot more comfortable as Eliza now she has transitioned into the better spoken version of herself and as the act progresses she starts to find the connection that was lacking earlier.  Unfortunately it’s too late for us to be truly affected by her fate and her decision to leave Higgins is not close to the emotional peak that it should be.

The reappearance of Alfred Doolittle, with his new found wealth, should make for an entertaining final scene and there are some funny moments with Stone lamenting his change in circumstance and Owen sulking like a toddler in time out. However, what follows is more bizarre blocking and characters almost rotating every few minutes to take turns sitting at Mrs. Higgins’ desk in a kind of slow and tedious game of musical chairs.

The Town Hall is a challenging space. The set and costumes are of a high quality and the performance of Owen as Higgins is a highlight…but the sound issues and the inability to isolate the different locations in the lighting design really hurt the overall quality of the production. However, it is the lack of authenticity in the interactions between the characters, largely due to movement rather than delivery, which unfortunately makes it impossible to recommend this show.

#tothepoint Rating: 48/100

You can view a full breakdown of the points here.

Ticket Price: $22

Value Review: N/A

Please review our scoring section. Our unique value for money guide only applies to shows that score 50 out of 100 or higher. The The British Players production of Pygmalion continues Friday through Sunday at Kensington Town Hall until April 9th.

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