Friday, February 29, 2008

REV: ITM and the Wimberley Festival

I followed the Ingram Tom Moore Warrior theatre department down to Wimberley to see them in their second festival of the year. I missed last week’s festival in San Antonio for being on the road to Dallas, but they got great judge’s reviews there. By going to Wimberley of course i got to see shows by another favorite school – Wimberley – plus shows by two folks i’ve shared the stage with (Roslyn Houghton, director at Bandera High School; in Much Ado About Nothing and The Diviners, and some others) and had a directing swap with (Emily Houghton, director at Medina High School; who directed me in The Boys Next Door, and who i directed in The Octette Bridge Club). So it’s like old home week there.

The first show i saw was Bandera’s King Lear. It was a starkly set production of the violent Shakespeare classic, and Roslyn spared nothing in costuming and makeup and set pieces. The candelabra and fire pieces beautifully held the sparsely lit stage, and their movement beautifully created new settings for the scenes. I was particularly impressed with four of her actors, Bryce Jeter as King Lear (my personal choice for Best Actor; and who got an All-Star cast award), Reilly Downes as Cordelia (also All-Star cast), Kevin Cissell as the Earl of Gloucester, and Sierra Haile as the Fool. Lear was forceful in his mood swings and changes of heart, and Gloucester had a similar wide arc in his portrayals. Nicely done. Bandera was the state championship runner-up last year and will be stiff district competition for us this year again.

Next was Ingram’s Twelfth Night, directed by Holly Riedel and Marie Cearley. Word is that all the casts had personnel issues. I only know specifics about Wimberley’s other than ours. Which is not to make excuses for either, as the fill-ins were exceptional. Nevertheless, for Ingram at least, it added an element of anxiety. In particular Logan Stehling, stepping into a completely fresh role for him, did a masterful job despite having to haul a script around on stage. Kaleb Hargrove stepped up his portrayal of Feste a notch in his last chance to do the role, and it’s a shame he won’t be back to complete the role. Shana Baldwin was simply magnificent as Fabian, and was my favorite for Best Actress (which went to Jordan Wilson of Hays, and since i didn’t see their show i can’t speak to what i missed). Seems like everyone who we talked to after the show commented on her performance. She was named to the All-Star cast. Also named All-Star was Kaleb Dworsky who i thought was at his finest and most animated as Malvolio. Once he is fully costumed so that the audience can identify with some of his dialogue, he’ll be hard to top. I thought he might have a legitimate shot at a Best Actor sometime but i’m not sure he has the stage time to do that – ITM’s leads, even the male roles, are played by females. The other school’s leads i saw were onstage most if not all the time. Lindsey Morris as Viola, disguised as Cesario, was named Honorable Mention All-Star cast and was also as lively as i’ve seen her. And Kylie Nidever was elegant and in high control of her parts, especially when plotting against Malvolio. The rest of ITM’s cast was also superb. In fact, i think ITM had the finest overall cast top to bottom of any of the school’s save for Wimberley. With some tightening they’re going to be hard to top.

Emily’s rendition of Charley’s Aunt for Medina was just dang hilarious, and she deserves much praise for doing this cast and character heavy show at such a tiny school. Jake Dabney as the cross-dressing Lord Babs won the Best Actor award. He was perfect for the role and wholly believable as the faux aunt. Kaleb Charanza (All-Star cast) was perfect as Jack Chesney too. I thought the piece lagged occasionally when there was not punchline setup going on, but that’s one of those things that always naturally improves over time, and with three weeks to go before district contest i think this show is going to be tight.

The last show of the night and one i was looking very forward to was Wimberley’s The History of Tom Jones. Along with Man of La Mancha this is my favorite of all the shows i’ve seen Wimberley do. Five years ago they had what i think they must consider one of their best all time casts, and that show finished as second runnerup at the state title meet. So i think i entered Lone Star Theatre with really high expectations for this show – especially considering my fondness for their staging, but also because a number of the kids on stage are among my favorite Wimberley actors. In any case, i was much entertained by, and impressed by the group. I did feel like i was waiting for a lot more movement than what i saw – it seemed that this version had more posing and isolation of the dialogue characters than what i remember, but that might just be faulty memory on my part. Hard to tell. Nevertheless, as i said, it was another grand Wimberley production. Two of their actors were lost to this show because of a bad car accident. Both are recovering but aren’t quite ready to return – Connor Pickens and Bonnie Sturdivant, both among my favorites, and both missed. But their replacements were wonderful.

In looking at the show and pointing out some of the better performances i wanted to take issue, strong issue, with some of the judge’s critiques. I spend much time studying judges, partly so i know who i can trust – for whatever difference it makes, i’m not directing high school, and neither can anyone choose their judges – it still makes sense to me though to find a balance between teaching the literature and the craft (and making the art) and trying to game the one-act UIL system in order to advance. That is, i think it’s a bit goofy to accede to judges’ wills if it means going astray of literary intent.

Now, having said that, anyone should recognize that by opining here i’m imposing my own judgment of how things should be. So . . .

The main place i wanted to take strong exception was in their (two judges) dislike of the characterization of Tom Jones. Andy Patoski, my opinion, is one of the finest actors WHS has put on a stage. I think he has a gift for reading the text and developing a character that fits the mode and the mood. And i was not disappointed in his portrayal of Tom Jones. He gave it some nuance i’ve not seen in any other production – and it was a wonderfully astute nuance that i’ll get to in a minute (since it was counter to the judges’ intuition). The issue i think has to do with the “standard” portrayal of Tom Jones as a person, a portrayal i imagine the judges have seen repeatedly, and therefore have cemented in their head as being “correct”. And in their commentary post-show they drilled home the idea to poor Andy that he wasn’t manly enough in the role, being a wencher and a trouble-maker and the central target of the play. I think they were bothered by the fact that Andy looks so young. I think it was all a misread – both of the character and of Andy’s portrayal. In fact, i believe that Tom Jones is a hero in the classic sense –beating odds to bring about a favorable result. That he is mistaken as a rogue character from his birth to his near hanging makes him something of an anti-hero to those involved in the chase but he should not be so to the audience. The audience knows the truth and should be sympathetic and rooting for him from the very beginning in hopes that he overcomes the truly villainous and the well-intentioned but misguided characters of the play. That he “gets around” is more the result of his youthful discovering of himself for one, and two his replacement attempts in lieu of the lost Sophia, than any great Casanovating (the specific direction which the judges gave him; and which, i think, focuses on some fanciful idea about the Tom Jones character, and not, as would be wiser, how it fits within the character of the play itself). It is this nuance, and Andy’s own youthfulness, that made the character he developed a) so believable as hero and protagonist, and b) the sympathetic character that the audience ultimately, if not immediately, roots for, and c) the raison d’etre for the play. If he were to be the Falstaffian character the judges seemed to want then the sentimental character is completely lost. By making Tom Jones a real human being, i felt like this version was not just the swirling comedic entertainment that Wimberley always puts on, nor the usual laugh a minute comedy you usually see done with this piece, but a full-fledged dramatic piece. I’ll be seeing the piece again in a few weeks at district and am charged up to see whether any changes are made, and if so, whether it improves the lot or not. So need i say i found Andy Patoski’s performance impeccable, and Wimberley’s reading of the piece spot on.

I also found much of the other commentary by the judges to be perfunctory and trivial, feeling much like they needed to say something to earn their consultant’s checks. There were of course a handful of things that might help the piece, although i found myself not liking their penchant for broad gestures and comedy. At some point, subtlety still must used in order to add some swings in the dynamics of a play.

On another note i thought the portrayal of Blifil as out and out gay was a fine touch. All too often the character is foppish but ambiguous and the moment of pairing with Sophia, meant to arouse the baser instincts of Tom Jones, becomes one of self-discovery and panic on Blifil’s part. Again it’s a device that makes it momentarily funny, but has less affect on the outcome of the plot than Chris Bakka’s portrayal here. In this case, Blifil knows full well who he is, but is taken in by greed and in addition to being funny also creates the tension that was designed for this moment in the original novel. So Wimberley gets credit again for having a wider, but wiser, look at the progress of the story.

Not that even the average theatre-goer would be able to parse the reasons for their interest in the progress of the plot; it still makes for a better watch to be able to root for the good guy and have an interior dislike for who is ultimately the bad guy. So Bakka earns the kudos here. He, by the way, was named Honorable Mention All-Star cast, and Patoski was named All-Star cast.

Calen Cabler showed me a whole new level of performance with her turn as Lady Bellaston, being both bombastic and funny in her self-delusion. It is her bellicosity which makes you finally turn wholly in support of Tom Jones, and she pulls off the insidious jilted lover perfectly. The judge’s note that she needed to be more “mature” was confounding – she was the most mature presence on stage.

Harry Tork is an actor who has labored quite a bit in the background. His lead in their fall production of Dark Side of the Moon was very nice, but did not approach his wonderful Lord Western in this show. He had a vocal command that i hadn’t seen in him before, and his simple stage presence was fantastic. His being named All-Star cast was most deserved. Cameron Allen is another i’ve seen for some time, and he too was a whole other person onstage this time, and most deserving of his being named Honorable Mention All-Star cast if not more.

I think the two step-ins were Sarah Lindsey as Sophia and Zeb Duke as the Highwayman/Judge. Sarah was excellent, even if the show is male-heavy in characters. Her moments on stage were wonderful.

Zeb Duke was hilarious in their show last year A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. That was the first time i’d seen him on stage for Wimberley. In this show he took over for the injured Connor Pickens (i think) and commanded the stage while there. His flailing, impotent robber was as funny as could be, especially in light of his slight silhouette. He has a voice with an interesting timbre to it and his line reads are exceptional. I’m looking forward to what he has to offer for the future, and can’t wait to see him in a lead.

Okay, i guess i’ve gushed enough. I’ll have a lot more to say about the Ingram crew as the weeks go on and they begin to come into their own. I think they have a wonderful chance to advance, but the competition is fierce, with not only Bandera and Wimberley, but a brand new school, Canyon Lake. It’s going to be fun to watch. ITM is at the Kerrville Tivy Festival tonight, and has a public performance at Warrior Theatre on Sunday at 4 p.m. and i hope to give an update after that show, which will have three or four new moves to cover for personnel issues.

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