Friday, October 11, 2013

Luke's Reviews: Book of Days

Greetings readers!  I know it's been some time since I've been able to write a review (the past few months have been quite hectic), but the other night I had the pleasure of seeing my first production by the University of Alabama theater department and I just had to write about it.  With the exception of Kennesaw State's Cabaret, and one play that I had the pleasure of seeing while touring colleges, I had never seen a college level production.  Therefore, I really didn't know what to expect from this production, but I knew that UA has a fairly strong drama program so I was expecting something pretty spellbinding - I wasn't disappointed.  I have tons of great things to say about this show so we better get started.  Without further ado, I present to you my review of The University of Alabama's production of:
The Show
As with most non-musicals I attend, I really had no clue what Book of Days was about prior to seeing this production.  Of course, since it was a murder mystery, that lack of knowledge actually made the show all the more enjoyable. Book of Days takes place in Dublin, a small town in Missouri, where the community is full of nice, upstanding citizens.  In the opening scene, we are given plenty of facts about this town, including the fact that it contains a cheese plant (at which the majority of the characters in the show work), a church (which my friends and I guessed to be Pentecostal or Baptist), and a community theater.  Life in this town is already exciting with a big Hollywood director coming in to direct a production of Joan of Arc at the community theater and rumors of infidelity concerning the "all-American-basketball-star-turned-lawyer" son of the wealthiest, most powerful man in town.  But life gets even more exciting when a tornado strikes the town.  When the dust clears, it appears that one of the members of this close-knit town was shot in a hunting accident during the tornado...or was it an accident?  As the play unfolds we see that just about every member of the community is more than meets the eye and that the search for truth concerning this one death could tear the entire town apart.  Even though the show was occasionally shocking (with plenty of rough language and 3 men who managed to strip down to their underwear on stage) it was masterfully told.  It adopted one of my favorite styles of plays which is when the ensemble serves as both characters and narrators in their own story.  And my favorite scenes were when they all completed each others thoughts (much like the opening to Peter and the Starcatcher) and spoke as one voice.  This is definitely an ensemble based show and it was great how just about every character got a monologue and a breakdown.  It's dialogue was sharp and witty and it's plot points, while slightly predictable, still kept the audience on their toes.

The Production Team
  • SET DESIGN -- I don't know if it's fair to say that I particularly enjoyed the set itself (because it was very minimalistic) but I loved the way the actors worked with it (but I'll get to that later).  The set made good use of levels (which I LOVE) and was very versatile.  The one real set piece was a screen far upstage on which various images were projected throughout the show.  Personally, I hardly ever looked at the screen, so I don't have much of an opinion on it. I don't think it was absolutely necessary, but it certainly didn't take away and I suppose if an audience member got lost (which was easy to do in this show) the projections could help them get their bearings.  Aside from that the set was pretty much a cellar door (which was hardly ever used), a few benches (which were used all the time) and a box or two.  As I said, it was a very minimal set, but that's good.  It's good that the set designer didn't try to make it something bigger than it was (which I think would've detracted from the actors).
  • COSTUME DESIGN -- Nothing much of note here.  I think for the most part, the costumes were exactly what they should've been.  I felt like the Sheriff's costume could've been a bit more clear (my friend didn't know he was a sheriff for the whole 1st act) and some of the costume changes were a bit awkward because they had to be done onstage, but for the most part, the costumes were good.  I also want to make note that at least two characters had wigs which really added to their characters and looked very natural.
  • STAGING -- By far the most striking thing about this production is the way it was staged.  If you're familiar with the projects I've gotten to help put together (e.g. Hush Little Celia and You Only Get One) you know that I love the idea of the actors never leaving the stage.  Granted, there was some absences in Book of Days, but for the vast majority of the show (especially in the second act) there were always people on the stage whether or not they were in the scene.  What were they doing?  I think a colleague of mine said it best when she said their purpose was to "add energy to the scene."  They usually surrounded the featured actors (generally sitting, but occasionally standing) and behaved as one body.  When someone was being tempted, they all leaned in to build anticipation, when someone was screaming about how nobody would listen to her, they all turned their backs.  Whatever was happening, they were involved and they were contributing, and that made the show SO much more powerful and engaging for the audience.
  • EVERYTHING ELSE -- The lighting in this show had some cool moments (such as flooding the stage in red light on the line "A night of seduction" and flashing the lights to simulate a tornado) but mostly just didn't do anything to stand out.  As far as sound design, there were a few sound effects that were utilized in this show (the ones that come to mind are a gun shot and tornado) that were certainly well designed but, as with lighting, you really wouldn't notice them unless they were done poorly.  The director also made some really cool decisions when it came to scene changes.  The actors themselves changed the set entirely and did so in such a "choreographed chaos" that was entertaining to watch in its own respect.
The Cast
As an actor, my favorite part of a production to analyze is always the cast.  To any new readers: you should know that I will spend a disproportionate amount of time on this section (I apologize, feel free to skim).  Also, I just want so say that what made this show work was not the individual actors, but the way they worked together as an ensemble.  As amazing as each of these performers were on their own, it's nothing compared to what they became when they were a unit.
  • Miranda R. (Ruth Hoch) - As hard as it is to call any one person in this show a "lead," Ruth is at least the "central character."  At first, I wasn't super impressed with Miranda because I thought she was over playing her character.  She seemed too theatrical (even using what I thought to be a "stage voice")  and that took me out of the story.  However, in hindsight, I think of how theatrical the character really was and I begin to wonder if that was an acting choice instead of an accident.  Despite my first impressions, she really began to shine as she got into the deeper, meatier portions of the show.  She had such a passion (which was also a defining characteristic of her character) and it was clear that she was throwing all she had into the role (someone told me that by the 3rd show she was beginning to lose her voice).  Her role was certainly one of the most dynamic ones and I really enjoyed seeing her character progress.  Certainly a stellar performance.
  • William R. (Len Hoch) - William gave what I think was perhaps the most natural performance of the evening.  His character was very laid back and all of his choices seemed very believable.  He did a good job relating to all of scene-partners (even changing the way he carried himself depending on who was around) and delivered his lines with solid sincerity.  Personally, I didn't think much of his character (he was a bit too perfect for me) so I didn't enjoy many of his scenes all that much, but William definitely played the roll exactly how he was supposed to be played, so bravo Will!
  • Adam V. (Boyd Middleton) - Before I start, this has to be said.  If anybody knows the actor Justin Long (who I know from playing Brandon in Galaxy Quest, but according to IMDb is more known for his work in Live Free or Die Hard and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story), Adam looks EXACTLY like him.  Ok, now that that's out of the way, I do want to say that I really enjoyed Adam's performance in Book of Days.  There were times when I thought his character was a bit forced (particularly towards the beginning), but by the end of the show, he had become one of my favorite characters.  His character was a very likable guy (which, according to people who had seen other productions of the show, isn't the standard portrayal) and that was, in my opinion, a really good acting choice.  It's also nice that he's one of the few characters who ends the show in a pretty good place; it's nice to have that spark of light in a generally dark show.  Whether this was the acting or the writing I can't say, but Adam's character was, in my opinion, the easiest to connect to and for that I commend him.
  • Naomi P. (Ginger Reed) - Naomi definitely gets the award for Best Supporting Actress in this show.  For the most part her character was a nice comedic break from all the darkness, but she also had one of the most emotional moments in the show (which she absolutely NAILED).  But whether she was playing comedy or tragedy, she always had a wonderful stage presence that drew all eyes towards her.  As an ensemble member, she was always engaged and always supported her scene partners without upstaging them.  She was just a likable character from the moment she stepped on stage and, throughout the show, she could always be counted on to serve as a voice of reason, often in a very sarcastic, witty sort of way.  Brava Naomi!
  • Andrea L. (Martha Hoch) - Andrea's character is one that I don't really know what to do with.  When thinking of her performance I'm reminded of a line from Ocean's Eleven: " He's got to like you then forget you the moment you've left his side."  It's not that I didn't like Andrea's performance, I really did!  Almost every time she was speaking I was laughing, but for some reason, I didn't leave the show with a strong impression of her for good or bad.  I suppose it's possible this was because her role really didn't contribute much to the plot line, but for whatever reason, her performance was solid but not particularly memorable.
  • Anthony H. (Walt Bates) - I have mixed feelings about Anthony's performance.  On the one hand, I really enjoyed everything he did.  He certainly embodied his character with everything from his voice to the way he walked.  His booming Baritone shifted nicely from calm and soothing to fuming with rage.  However, the "character" he played, was fairly one dimensional.  In my opinion, his portrayal of Walt was little more than a classic archetype (some kind of cross between Charlemagne from Pippin and the Allstate guy).  Now, like I said, his acting wasn't bad, and during the show I loved every minute of it.  But as I think back and try to dissect the depth of each of these characters, I realize that his really didn't have much (whether the actor or author is to blame I know not).
  • Taylor S. (Sharon Bates) - Taylor had the misfortune of being casted in the most boring female role of the show (in my opinion).  However, she performed what she had been given masterfully.  She was very strong when it came to giving her character quirks that matched her age/upbringing.  So many of her actions seemed to be very calculated and intentional (of course, only in hindsight, during the performance it seemed natural enough).  Despite the fact that she never really got to break down or show any great emotional range, she always used subtlety to effectively get her point across.  To me, she is one of the finest examples I've seen of adding depth to a fairly flat character.  Taylor, I applaud you.
  • Micheal V. (James Bates) - The character of James is someone who I'm sure I would absolutely detest if ever I met him in real life, and I suppose that means that Micheal gave a pretty strong performance to rouse up in me such disgust. If you've read many of my "Top 10" roles then you know that I love villains and I can really identify and sympathize with the vilest characters (case in point, I've literally played Satan on multiple occasions), however, I feel like Micheal created the opposite effect in me.  His character wasn't a classic "mustache-twirling-villain," yet I spent the majority of the show wishing he'd go tie himself to some railroad tracks.  Once again, this is actually a huge complement to Micheal.  He found a way to make his character very defined, elicited a strong reaction in me, and avoided falling into predictable archetypes.  So, while I despise the character, kudos to Micheal for making him come to life.
  • Alexandra K. (Louann Bates) - I hate to say it, but Alexandra was perhaps the one actress I didn't particularly care for.  It's hard to pick out exactly what it is about her I don't like, but something about her portrayal of Louann just didn't really register with me.  Perhaps it was the fact that the relationship between her and her husband was not particularly "loving," perhaps it was the fact that her character too seemed little more than a cliche, but for whatever reason, her entire character seemed somewhat false to me.  Even in one of my favorite scenes of the show, in which she becomes briefly possessed and starts to speak in tongues, everybody else gave me chills, and she almost made me laugh (although, to be fair, it's hard to randomly start convulsing on the floor without being somewhat comedic).  Like I said, I don't know if I can say definitively what she should've done differently (which makes this the least constructive criticism ever, sorry Alexandra) but whatever she did do, just didn't work for me.
  • Tyler S. (Earl Hill) - Tyler, like many of the actors in the cast, grew on me as the production went on.  I feel like towards the end of act one, and especially in the second act, he really began to hit his stride and come at the audience with his full force.  His role was a fun one, alternating between explosive rage and quiet threatening, and he definitely made full use of it.  Many of my favorite scenes of his were when he didn't say a word, but rather just stood at whoever was talking to him (generally Ruth) in such a threatening manner that I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd suddenly lashed out in some violent outburst (but not the yelling kind, the quietly stabbing someone kind).  It was that intensity that he brought to the role that made it come alive.  And then, his transition from that intensity to his immense vulnerability in the final scene of the play was simply brilliant.  This character that had done nothing but scare us the entire show made us genuinely feel for him and, in that moment, he showed his character's depth.  So all in all, well done Tyler!
  • Samuel H. (Reverend Bobby Groves) - Now, I might be slightly biased towards Sam because he is the one member of the cast that I've had the pleasure of meeting before (I wouldn't say we're super close, but I have seen him in his underwear and in his there's that).  However, even with this admitted bias, I believe that his performance was my favorite of the night.  I love the fact that, like Adam (who played Boyd), Samuel did not follow the standard conventions when it came to this role, but instead decided to give the character a more sinister, devious flair.  However, being simply sinister isn't enough to make him stand out (for, as I said, pretty much every character has some horrible secret).  What made Sam's performance so riveting was the fact that his character wasn't really written that way, therefore he had portray to us his villainous intent without any real "evil" lines.  While this may have deterred most actors, Sam took on the challenge.  When I look back and think of the show, the two images that come quickest to my mind are both of him, saying nothing, but striking a particularly terrifying pose (one is him with an intense anger in his face with hands outstretched as if he was Lord Sidious preparing to fry himself a Jedi; The other is him stepping over the body of a collapsed member of his congregation with his arms out wide and the biggest, creepiest grin on his face).  Through his use of facial expressions and full body movement, Sam was able to show not merely evil, but a hidden evil that only truly shone through in the show's more metaphorical, symbolic moments.  This is not to say that he wasn't also wonderful while speaking lines, whenever his mouth was running, he became the incarnation of sheer sincerity that only occasionally allowed glimpses of his sinister intent peek through.  Throughout the entire show, his character was layered, complex, well played, and full of fun surprises.  So, standing ovation for you Samuel!
  • Matt G. (Sheriff Conroy Atkins) - Although it is an ensemble show, I think it's fair to say that Sheriff Atkins is the smallest role of Book of Days.  He hardly had any lines in the first act and, while his character did pick up somewhat in Act II, it still wasn't given the focus that many of the other characters were.  That being said, I feel like Matt did an excellent job with his role.  His Sheriff character was a very timid, even cowardly fellow, which was not overacted at all (an easy trap to fall into) but instead played with the false courage that always best portrays fear.  He also did a good job of not letting that fear be the one thing that defined his character.  Although it was always there, his character had funny moments, and even some touching ones as well.  This depth of character (which seems to be a theme to this particular blog post) made the character nice and relatable to me.  It should also be noted that Matt was the one Freshman in the cast (with the exception of Mr. Kilian A. who was the understudy for James Bates and, I'm told, gave an excellent performance as well).  Whether or not his age contributed to the Sheriff's "spirit of timidity" I don't know, but in any case, Matt made an excellent UA debut and should be very proud of his performance.
As is the case in many of my reviews, I'm afraid I might've gotten caught up in nitpicking the details.  I want to make it clear that I really did LOVE seeing this production.  For the most part, any flaws or critiques that I gave in this blog only came to me in retrospect, during the show I was completely drawn in and relished every moment of action.  I certainly now see the incredible standard that the UA theater department has set and I can't wait to watch every single show they produce over the course of these next few years (and hopefully participate in a few myself).

Thank you all for reading!  If you have any comments or questions (or suggestions as to what I should write about next) feel free to let me know in the comment section below.  Also, if you haven't yet, be sure to vote in the poll in the top right corner to let me know what kind of posts you want to see more of.  I should be back in just a few days with another review, but until then, Thanks to the UA theater department for putting on a fantastic production, and to you for reading.  Have a good Broadway filled day!