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So as you know, I stopped writing lengthy reviews on this site this year, keeping the blog as more of a film diary of sorts.  Lo and behold,...

Saturday, April 30, 2016

REP 2015-16 Season Round-Up

While I didn't do a round-up of the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Theater group last season, I figured it was time to do it again this year after their engaging 2015-16 season.  While it started out a little on the weak side, all their plays presented in 2016 proved to be worth the price of the season ticket for sure.  Although this is the case every season, this year the actors in the troupe were tasked with some great tonal shifts from play to play.  Seeing the cast take on To Kill a Mockingbird and then switching to the humor of the play like Things We Do for Love seemed especially impressive this season.  Sure, there were a few disappointments (The Patsy and Heartbreak Hotel just weren't plays I could wholeheartedly enjoy), but the REP continues to be a great place to view a varied selection of theater for an affordable price.

While I'll continue to wish that we'd get the university to place its money back in its Professional Theater Training Program for its students so we'd get some fresh faces mixed in with our core REP ensemble, kudos to the REP for bringing in outside cast members this year in some of their pieces including some former PTTP members.  Still, seeing the students grow as actors was one of the great treats of the original purpose of the REP-PTTP partnership so I'll always think it's a shame that aspect of this theater has gone away.  However, the REP still goes on strong, proving to be one of the best art experiences the state of Delaware has to offer.

All photos below by the REP.

Total Number of Nominations
(# of nominations include Honorable Mentions)
(click on titles for links to original reviews)
To Kill a Mockingbird - 6
Red - 5
Things We Do for Love - 3
Wait Until Dark - 3
Heartbreak House - 1
The Patsy - no nominations

Best Costume Design
Honorable Mention: Devon Painter - To Kill a Mockingbird
While I'm oftentimes incredibly impressed with the costume design at REP productions, this year's crop of plays didn't really yield any wow moments in this artistic department.  Rather, the costumes enhanced the characters, but never really clamored for my attention which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  The mid-20th century southern garb by Devon Painter in To Kill a Mockingbird perhaps deserves an honorable mention.

Best Scenic Design
Winner -- Hugh Landwehr - Heartbreak House
Honorable Mentions -- Stefanie Hansen - Red; Takeshi Kata - To Kill a Mockingbird
Although the picture above does a nice job of capturing the richness of Hugh Landwehr's set for Heartbreak House, seeing it in person was a treat.  This was seriously Broadway caliber stuff (particularly after seeing how "on the cheap" Broadway's smash hit The Book of Mormon looked just recently).  The REP always does a fantastic job with their sets and Stefanie Hansen's NYC paint studio for Red or Takeshi Kata's southern neighborhood in To Kill a Mockingbird would've been equally worthy winners.

Best Performances
5. Kathleen Pirkl Tague - Things We Do for Love
4. Deena Burke - Wait Until Dark
3. Stephen Pelinski - Red
2. Sara Griffin (guest artist) - To Kill a Mockingbird
1.  Stephen Pelinski - To Kill a Mockingbird
Honorable Mentions:
Elizabeth Heflin - Things We Do for Love; Mic Matarrese - Things We Do for Love; Michael Gotch - Red

Best Overall Body of Work
Winner -- Stephen Pelinski
I was looking back over my previous REP round-ups and I found it interesting that I've awarded this prize to different members of the troupe every year.  It seems that each member of the ensemble is being given the opportunity to have a season where they can really shine and Stephen Pelinski gets the recognition this year in huge part due to his one-two punch to finish the REP's season as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Rothko in Red.  Two incredibly different characters believably portrayed by Mr. Pelinski -- one gentle, kind, considerate, yet firm in his beliefs and the other not so gentle, not so kind, not so considerate, yet quite film in his beliefs.  In both plays, Pelinski gets some lengthy monologues and he had no trouble capturing my attention for those extended moments.  With a humorous turn in Heartbreak House plus roles in Wait Until Dark and The Patsy, Pelinski proves that he's pretty darn good at whatever character comes his way.

In terms of other actors giving shining performances this season, guest artist and former PTTP member Sara Griffin (who was quite impressive while in that now defunct program) proved riveting in a pivotal small role as the mesmerizingly petrifying rape accuser in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Deena Burke often finds herself behind the scenes as a dialect coach in many REP productions, but she got a chance to be front and center as the blind leading lady in the thriller Wait Until Dark and she captivated.  Kathleen Pirkl Tague is always a hoot in comedies and her take on the character of Barbara in Things We Do for Love is a bit of a roller coaster ride of believable emotions.

Best Direction
Winner -- Michael Gotch - Wait Until Dark
Honorable Mentions - Sanford Robbins - To Kill a Mockingbird; Ian Belknap - Red

Best Play
Winner -- Wait Until Dark
Honorable Mentions - Red; To Kill a Mockingbird
You don't often get to see thrillers performed onstage because the general consensus is that they simply don't work.  Director (and member of the REP ensemble) Michael Gotch proves those naysayers wrong, however, crafting an edge-of-your-seat ride with his Wait Until Dark.  While it may not have been the showiest or most "important" play of the season, it was the REP's most amusing.  Exquisite lighting and sound -- never have jangling keys or whirring refrigerators been more nerve-wracking -- coupled with Gotch's sensational grasp on how to utilize his set, props, and silence (yes, silence) showcased a masterful control of the tricky genre.  There's nothing wrong with a theater experience just being fun -- and Wait Until Dark had that in spades, hence its victory in both the Best Direction and Best Play categories.

Kudos must be doled at as well to Sanford Robbins' To Kill a Mockingbird and Ian Belknap's Red which helped to close the season with some great work.  While I wasn't quite as enamored with Mockingbird as some other reviewers, it was not a reflection on the production at all, but rather the story itself (it's a lot of nothing for a long time...much like the book itself).  Robbins took a fantastic set of actors and created an experience that felt as if we were right there in 1935 Maycomb, Alabama.  As far as Belknap's Red, it's a production that's grown on me in the days since I've seen it.  Upon its ending, I found it a bit too highbrow at times, but upon reflection, I've come to appreciate its evenhanded questioning of the art world and human nature.  With two great performances, Red ended my REP season on a high note.

Of course, I'll eagerly look forward to the 2016-17 season announcement over the summer.  I appreciated the attempts by the REP to lean a little more modern this year, but I'd certainly never want them to abandon the classics (and if their "every other year Shakespeare" trend continues, I guess we're due for something from the Bard next season).  While I'll always hope for the return of the PTTP, I appreciated the welcoming back of several former members of that group and hope that this trend continues in the future.

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