Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Theater review: The Forgotten Carols at Artisan Center Theater
This timeless tale depicts the true spirit of Christmas.
HURST During a time when a variety of holiday shows with familiar red and green hues, well-known Christmas carols, and flashy decorations abound, Artisan Center Theater's production of The Forgotten Carols is a peaceful detour from the busyness of the season that gives us an opportunity to explore the true meaning behind the holiday and what it can mean in our own lives.
The Forgotten Carols was written and first produced twenty years ago but the story is timeless. This production is set in modern-day Fort Worth and involves a young nurse, Constance, who has been tasked with giving care to a psychologically disturbed man, John, while his family is away on vacation. Throughout the show, John reveals unfamiliar songs with very familiar messages surrounding the birth and death of Jesus from the perspective of little-known players in the Christmas story. Because of the stories, songs, and perhaps simply from getting to know John, Constance – who has lived a life without emotion – finally finds her way and truly begins her life anew.
Walking into the theater, I was struck by the beautiful mural painted along them south wall by Shelby Mac. The mural was dubbed "heavenly mural" in the playbill, and heavenly it certainly was. The entire set, designed by Dee Ann Blair, was tastefully done. The floor was painted to represent a hardwood and painted floor. The southwest corner had a revolving stage, one side of which did double duty as an alleyway frequented by the homeless and as a jailhouse. The other side was a wall of the living room of the home in which John lives, with a screen used to project a window of the home, and at other times, pictures that complemented the carols that are sung. When the screen showed the window of the home it was a nice touch – the snow falling outside occasionally added to the authentic feel of a warm and inviting place.
I found the pictures that were projected on the screen during the carols to be a little distracting and unnecessary, but the attention to that detail may be appreciated by patrons seeking such visual effects. The northwest corner of the stage represented the foyer of the home, including a Christmas tree and a stairway to the second floor. In the center of this theater in-the-round was the living room of the home. Overall, the set was decorated in a somewhat minimalist manner, but everything fit and nothing distracted from the performance.
Lighting, designed by Jonathan Studstill, was sometimes distracting as actors were often literally in the dark. At intermission, I was told that the lighting program had been deleted and the reconstruction of it had not quite been finished. With this last-minute issue, I wished that the actors, especially the narrator and the innkeeper, had found some light, as both made sure to follow blocking and stand in the dark for large parts of their narration or song rather than making an adjustment so the audience could see them. What I did see of the lighting design was good and I'm sure in later shows this will not be an issue.
Sound design, also by Jonathan Studstill, was appropriate. The pre-show house music encouraged a feeling of being welcomed into the home. At times it was a little loud, but during the performance, the balance between the actors' voices and the music was as it needed to be.
Costumes, designed by Rebecca Roberts, were simple and mostly in keeping with the present time period. John wore slacks and vests or sweaters. The ensemble wore appropriate clothing for their representations of cab driver, the homeless, and individuals who had a part in the life of Jesus. The only distracting feature of the costuming was the attire of Constance, who was portraying a competent nurse. As revealed by the storyline, Constance most likely would be wearing a nurse's uniform much like that of the time period when her own mother had died, approximately 20-30 years earlier. However, the uniform worn by this Constance was more in keeping with a nurse over 40 years ago.
I haven't seen my mother, who was a registered nurse, wear her nurse's cap since the 1970s when more men began entering the profession and the familiar cap, used to denote the nurse's title, was replaced by gender-neutral pins which were also less likely to be habitats for bacteria. Since the playbill listed this show as being present day, the conservative Constance would most likely have opted for a simple white pantsuit instead of the popular bright prints on the scrubs of today's nurses. However, the costumer chose to outfit Constance in a tailored and stiff dress with white hose and a nurse's cap, which seemed an unlikely choice. Had this play been set in the 1970s as it was originally written, the choice for the nurse's uniform would have worked.
As the show began, we were given a lengthy background history by narrator, Cheryl King. King's narration style was dry, uninteresting and continued that way through most of the show. This style of voice over is often used to cover poor acting or a weak storyline. This production had neither poor acting on the part of the principal characters nor a weak storyline so I'm not sure why the frequent intrusion of a narrator was used by the playwright.
The part of John, the psychologically disturbed gentleman, was expertly played by Billy Myers. His portrayal left me cycling between impressions of a likable, unfortunately disturbed man and that of a man who was who he said he was. Myers' ability to convincingly instill compassion and trust in the audience for this complex character showed the depth to which he had prepared. John came across as a character with many nuances, skillfully dealt one by one, by Myers.
Constance was played by Jana Offutt. Her portrayal of a nurse without emotion, yet with compassion, was well done. Often, the narration seemed to take words out of her mouth and I found myself wishing this actress had the opportunity to show more of her skill in storytelling. However, Offutt's facial expressions spoke volumes and her solo near the end of the show revealed that she also had the strongest vocals of the evening.
The rest of the ensemble had multiple parts as they told the stories of people "forgotten" in the telling of Jesus' story – such as the innkeeper, Joseph, a cab driver and a woman named Sarah who took care of the baby Jesus for a few moments as Mary rested. The most striking use of the ensemble was in the song "I Cannot Find My Way" during the second act. The song itself was well-written and the ensemble, dressed in costumes depicting various walks of life, walked around the stage as they struggled with their lives and tried to find peace. One notable ensemble member, dressed as a student with a backpack, did an excellent job of portraying the pain and anguish she felt.
As a musical, this show had some remarkable songs. I was surprised to hear a voiceover on the musical track during chorus numbers (there are no live musical instruments in the theater). This was disappointing although it did supplement the voices of the small chorus.
One of the purposes of plays and musicals is to elicit emotion from the audience. The song "Mary Let Me Hold Her Baby," sung by Meredith Jeppson in the role of Sarah, did just that. It was a beautiful song, empowering women who are not mothers to understand their potential role in mothering children, and Jeppson's emotion was just sweet enough to pull us in and understand.
"Homeless – Like the Christ Child Was" also had a wonderful quality to it. James Lash, as the Homeless Lead, had a strong voice and was captivating. Unfortunately, the chorus joining him seemed somewhat disjointed and this piece, which I believe could have been a standout, left me feeling a little let down.
Another favorite of the show was "Joseph (I Was Not His Father, He Was Mine)" in the beginning of Act Two. Billy Myers sung this song with emotion. This, coupled with the strong message of the piece, continued the emotional appeal that had been created by Jeppson in Act One.
I mentioned earlier that Jana Offutt had the strongest vocals of the evening. This was revealed in the only solo she had near the end of Act Two, "I Cry the Day That I Take the Tree Down." The song, as were many others in the show, was nicely written with meaning and a beautiful melody. Offutt's crystal voice made it seem like this piece could have been the end of the show – it would have been a delightful finale in itself.
The Forgotten Carols at Artisan Center Theater is well worth taking time out of a busy schedule to see. Its strong message and its music will not let you down.
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