Fells Point Corner Theatre Rises with She Stoops to Conquer

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Approx. Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission

In today’s climate, the empowerment of women is of the utmost importance (along with the empowerment of many other under-represented communities), but we mustn’t forget that folks have been talking and writing about this sort of thing for centuries. In Fells Point Corner Theatre’s latest offering, She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith, Directed by Lance Bankerd and Barbara Madison Hauck, we are reminded of the struggles and ingenuity of woman through the ages.

Briefly, in She Stoops to Conquer, Mr. Hardcastle wishes for his daughter, Kate, to marry Sir Charles Marlow, a shy but attractive young man. Marlow and his friend Hastings travel from London, but are tricked by Tony Lumpkin, Hardcastle’s step-son, that Hardcastle’s home is an inn. Hastings is involved with Constance, who is being pushed by her aunt, Mrs. Hardcastle to marry Tony, whom she is not keen on. While thinking Hardcastle’s home is an inn, Marlow and Hastings behave badly, but when Marlow meets Kate, he is shy and awkward. Kate disguises herself as a barmaid to see how Marlow really acts and he’s the complete opposite. When he learns her true identity, he is embarrassed. Eventually, after some slapstick and farce, the confusion is cleared up with a happy ending. Make sense?

I didn’t know much about this piece aside from recognizing the title, but have come to the conclusion it’s not my cup of tea, so to speak. The attempts to update this piece seem only to do with costuming which didn’t make much sense, at best. I wasn’t sure where Costume Designer Rache Austin was trying to go. It was a mix between 80s punk, 70s glam, and a dash of the Roaring 20s that was all over the place. The bold colors are nice to look at, and, in general, it’s a creative, bold, and consistent design, but since the dialogue stays pretty much in tack, this particular design doesn’t seem beneficial to the piece as a whole. It’s not a bad design (and I can tell Austin knows the craft well) just a bit ill-fitting for this production.

Set Design by David Shoemaker is spot on and he is to be commended for his use of the space. Being a farce, multiple entrances and exits are required and Shoemaker has managed to give us as many as we needed, no more, no less, and his base design helps move the piece along nicely adding and subtracting appropriate set pieces, when needed. Kudos to Shoemaker for a well thought out design.

Ari Juno and Corey Hennessey. Photo: Shaelyn Jae Photography

Taking the helm of this production are veteran Director Lance Bankerd and novice Director Barbara Madison Hauck. Now, Directing a period piece can be a challenge and updating a piece can be even more of a challenge and must be handled delicately. Overall, this production is a good production and everyone involved is giving 100% effort, but, with that said, it doesn’t seem to live up to its full potential. The staging is suitable and the pacing is on point, but the characters aren’t always fleshed out and believable, on the whole, save a few. Technically, Bankerd and Hauck do give a phenomenal showing with tight staging, but the character work is lacking. It seems these actors are simply reciting the dialogue without knowing exactly what it means. This could be an actor problem, but in the end, the Director(s) should be watching closely and guiding these actors. Regardless of these criticisms, the production value is terrific and Bankerd and Hauck should be proud of their efforts and they should be commended for tackling such a challenging piece and Hauck is to be applauded for her Directorial debut. I’m looking forward to seeing more from both of these fine Directors.

Moving on to the performance aspect, as stated, the entire ensemble gives a valiant and concerted effort and all are to be commended for their commitment to their roles. Gareth Kelly, Ari Juno, Christian O’Neill, and Thomas Peter work well in their supporting roles and help move the action along nicely with impeccable comedic timing and understanding of the quick entrances and exits of farce. They all work well with and off of each other and it’s easy to see they are enjoying every minute. All are to be commended for their work on this production.

Corey Hennnessey takes on the role of the impish, childish Tony Lumpkin who starts all the trouble with his mischief and though Hennessey has a tight grasp on his character, he plays him a little too nonchalantly with grand gestures and flamboyancy that, at times, can be a bit much for the intimate space. That being said, he does have a great presence on the stage and is absolutely dedicated to this role giving a strong, confident showing.

Elizabeth Norman tackles the role of the strong-willed, intelligent Kate Hardcastle and though she seems to understand the character, in her delivery of the dialogue, I must admit I’m not convinced she has a tight grasp of the text. Much of her performance seems to be simply reciting the text rather than a full understanding of what she’s saying and the connection and authenticity is lost. However, she does have a solid presence and is confident on stage making for a delightful performance.

Taking on the role of Constance, a ward of the Hardcastle’s who doesn’t seem to have say in what happens in her life, is Hannah Folger and she portrays this character beautifully. Her delivery is natural, and her comprehension of this character is clear. Folger knows her way around the stage and is comfortable in this role making for a robust and charming performance.

Elizabeth Norman and Ian Charles. Photo: Shaelyn Jae Photography

A couple of highlights in this production are Richard Peck and Lindsey Schott as Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle and these two actors shine in these roles. Peck plays Mr. Hardcastle as the straight man in this piece and he plays him seriously enough that it enhances the comedy and his chemistry with his cast mates is impeccable. He knows this character and plays him splendidly with subtle but spot on reactions and mannerisms. In the same vein, Schott is hilarious as Mrs. Hardcastle, a woman who is trying to stay on top of things and in control. She takes the role and makes it her own and balances Mrs. Hardcastle’s deviousness and tenderness nicely. Schott knows this character well and gives a durable and entertaining performance, overall.

The standouts in this production are, hands down, Albert Lolu Collins as George Hastings and Ian Charles as Young Marlow. From the moment these two step onto the stage, it’s clear they are believable and committed to their roles. Collins is a bit hard to understand at times in his British accent, but he plays this character in a way that makes him likable from the start, and his understanding of his character, his presence and assurance makes for a strong performance.

Ian Charles is exquisite in his portrayal of Young Marlow and he is to be applauded for his efforts. His comprehension of the role, comedy, and farce are spot on and he seems to embody this character. He does quite well with the staging and every movement has purpose and that, in tandem with a natural, easy delivery of the dialogue make for an outstanding performance.

Final thought… She Stoops to Conquer is a piece of theatre that should be experienced by all theater makers and lovers at one time or another. I’m glad I’ve finally been able to experience it myself and the story is well put together. For being over 200 years old, it still makes a point and holds its own. This particular production has its flaws, but, overall, is a tight production with a dedicated cast and production team. The language (or use of language) may be unfamiliar at first, but still easy to follow if you pay attention. This is an important show that seemed to be ahead of its time concerning women empowerment, but it’s still relevant and makes sense for today’s audience. Through comedy and farce, this piece shows that, after 200 years, some things never change. If you want a fun, delightful evening of theatre, you’ll want to check out She Stoops to Conquer at Fells Point Corner Theatre.

This is what I thought of this production of She Stoops to Conquer at Fells Point Corner Theatre.… what do you think?

She Stoops to Conquer will play through December 15 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S Ann Street, Baltimore, MD 21231. For tickets, call 410-276-7837 or purchase them online.

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Review: Murder Ballad at StillPointe Theatre @ The Ottobar

 

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By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 1 hours and 10 minutes with no intermission

Art can happen anywhere at any time and StillPointe Theatre has proven that with their latest offering, Murder Ballad with Book & Lyrics by Julia Jordan and Music & Lyrics by Juliana Nash. Directed by Corey Hennessy and Co-Directed by Amanda J. Rife with Music Direction by Nick Jewett, Murder Ballad is a voyeuristic peek into a juicy, dark love triangle in an edgy setting of which one would be hard pressed to look away!

Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

First, the setting of this production is like none I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing and it was a joyous experience. The action takes place in the upstairs bar of The Ottobar and it couldn’t be a better setting. The performance has a very casual, fringe feeling too it and could be considered performance art, but whatever you consider it, the setting sets an appropriate mood. Researching the piece, I discovered that it was, in fact, written for just this type of setting but The Ottobar, a Baltimore institution for live, local music, was familiar and comfortable, putting me instantly at ease for this completely immersive production. The booming bass from the live bands playing downstairs added to the realism of just sitting in a crowded bar watching the drama unfold between three poor souls in the city and I was set in the mood of curious excitement.

The Ottobar. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

The Ottobar. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

The setting being what it is, there’s not much in the way of set, lights, and sound but, it absolutely worked for this production. There was some special lighting and a few props but the Production/Design team of Ryan Haase, Corey Hennessey, Zoe Kanter, and Danielle Robinette didn’t seem to have much to do but their choice of the upstairs bar at The Ottobar is brilliant. The bar itself compliments the performance and, though this piece might work on a traditional stage, I wouldn’t have wanted to experience it any other way. Since the upstairs bar at The Ottobar isn’t huge, the actors were able to use just about every inch of the space without much trouble. The band was set off in one of the corners and they aren’t hidden, but exposed in all their glory and were apart of the setting and a welcome addition.

To mention sound, the balance between the actors and the band could use a little more work as the actors microphones were set very low. When the Murder Ballad band started it was challenging to hear what the actors were singing but when the local bands downstairs started, it was almost impossible, but the blocking of the piece helped a little, putting the actors closer to the audience members throughout.

Murder Ballad is a sung-through piece and it’s worth mentioning the score by Juliana Nash is exhilarating with a modern rock feel that had me tapping my foot throughout the performance. Reminiscent of the music of the guitar heavy 90s, I thoroughly enjoyed this well-befitting score.

The Murder Ballad Band. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

The Murder Ballad Band. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Speaking of the music, I have to mention the terrific band for Murder Ballad consisting of Nick Jewett on Guitar, who also put on the hat of Music Director, Cody Raum on Bass, Trevor Shipley on Keys, and Joe Pipkin on Drums. These guys were on point and on key through the entire performance and the use of electric drums was wise as it kept everything very well balanced. Kudos to these talented players!

Co-directors Corey Hennessey and Amanda J. Rife do a fantastic job of transferring this piece to this unique setting, not disrupting the original set up of the bar. They keep their actors moving around, keeping the action interesting and purposeful. There is a slow-motion fight scene during a pivotal point in the piece but since the space is so intimate, it seems a bit trite and doesn’t work as well as it would on a more traditional stage. Regardless, Hennessey and Rife use their space cleverly and give us an entertaining and meaningful show.

Moira Horowitz as Michael. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Moira Horowitz as Michael. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Cleverly, the actors performances begin well before actual show time. They actually begin the moment the first patron walks through the door and it’s fun to watch these four characters interact as I settled into my seat and waited for the actual show to start. The gender-blind casting worked wonderfully with this piece and did not hinder the story at all, but complimented the story. The actors didn’t put a masculine o
r feminine spin on their characters but simply played them as human beings.

Corey Hennessey as Narrator. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Corey Hennessey as Narrator. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Aside from co-directing, Corey Hennessey tackles the role of the Narrator (a part originally played by a female) with a strong presence and just enough creepiness to make one shudder when he is near. This character is very similar to the omnipotent Master of Ceremonies (MC) character in Cabaret – a more traditional musical – as he is ever-present and lurks in the shadows, just watching. Hennessey starts out strong with a strong voice and sets the mood for the entire piece with an edginess that is very appropriate for this character. However, as the show progresses, his performance falls a little flat as the only feeling I get from him is “I’m-irritated-and-I-don’t-care-about-these-idiots”. The only emotion he seems to emote is that of disdain. Rolling eyes and grimaces can only take this character so far, but if he isn’t interested and irritated with these characters, why should I worry about them? Vocally, his performance is good, but he does have some issues with the notes in the higher register. Overall, with few issues, he gives a strong and confident performance.

Moira Horowitz takes on the role of Michael, the stand-up, feet-on-the-ground provider who falls for the wild city girl. Horowitz does a fine job portraying this character and seems to understand the inner pain of this character. Thankfully, Horowitz does not try to play this character as a man, but simply as a person struggling to understand his partner and the relationship in which he is involved. Vocally, she is delicate when needed and strong when needed and holds her own very well.

Amber Wood as Tom and Sarah Heiderman as Sara. Credit: Rob Clatterbuck

Amber Wood as Tom and Sarah Heiderman as Sara. Credit: Rob Clatterbuck

Taking on the role of Tom, the downtown bad boy, is Amber Wood who gives the part a realistic feel as she navigates through the desperation and wanting of this character who let “the one” slip through his fingers only to find her again, years later. Wood has the appropriate look and is quite comfortable in this role and has a good command of the “stage.” She, too, does not try to play this part as a man, but simply as non-gender specific person in the middle of a love triangle and she plays it with ease. She easily finds her way through the score with rock-style vocals and gives a very enjoyable performance.

Moira Horowitz as Michael and Sarah Heiderman as Sara. Credit: Rob Clatterbuck

Moira Horowitz as Michael and Sarah Heiderman as Sara. Credit: Rob Clatterbuck

The highlight in this production is Sarah Heiderman as Sara, the bad-downtown-girl turned good-uptown-mother. Her performance is nearly flawless and confident as she has a very strong command of the the stage. She has a big voice and is comfortable with the score giving a idyllic performance. Her character’s transition is seamless and her inner conflict is expressed beautifully in her gestures and facial expressions. She really understands her character and, what’s more, her characters change and portrays it beautifully. She is a joy to watch and I look forward to seeing her future work.

Final thought… Murder Ballad is a strong, modern piece about love in the big city as well as finding and losing “the one.” It’s a meaningful piece with a well thought-out, relatable story and a fantastic rock score. The setting and immersion is worth the price of admission and the experience is riveting! If you don’t mind that the fourth wall is broken and if you’re into fringe-type theatre, this is the show for you! Go check it out! It’s an experience not to be missed!

This is what I thought of this production of Murder Ballad.… what do you think?

Murder Ballad will play through September 17 at StillPointe Theatre @ The Ottobar (upstairs), 2549 N Howard Street, Baltimore, MD 21218. Tickets are available for purchase at the door or purchase them online.