Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
Last Saturday, I attended my first Pentecostal church service. I observed, of course, a lot of enthusiastic hymn singing, hand clapping and body swaying, frequent waving of hands in the air and numerous 'Amens!' and 'Praise the Lords!'
The sermon was delivered with great passion by a woman (Pat), whose every word seemed to come from the heart. Outside of the church which she has attended for 52 years Pat is a performer - a storyteller - and when she is storytelling, it also seems to her audience that she believes what she is saying.
Being of a somewhat different religious persuasion I did not believe much of Pat's sermon. And I know, as does she, that she is not speaking the truth when she is telling a story. (Of course, in Jamaica, that phrase also means lying.)
Here's the point: whether Pat is saying that Jesus died for our sins or that once upon a time Anancy went to see the king, she seems sincere. And because she seems sincere, her audiences willingly suspend their disbelief and allow their emotions (even if not their intellect) to become engaged.
Now, theatre audiences pay good money to have their emotions engaged. That's how they derive maximum pleasure from productions. And while Pat is not a professional thespian, her ability to come across as sincere is clearly one that actors should possess.
On the day before I heard Pat preach I had gone to the Little Little Theatre to see Basil Dawkins' latest play, Dangerous Ambitions. Later that Saturday, at the Little Theatre, I saw Barbara Gloudon's latest pantomime, Skoolaz.
I found neither of the productions to be as emotionally satisfying as the church service, which, ironically, was a funeral. Why? The congregation and speakers in the church carried me along on the stream of their convictions but, generally speaking, the actors in the productions didn't seem to believe in their characters.
The problem begins with the playwrights' intentions. Dawkins' play is essentially a satire on Jamaican politics. He has a political message to deliver. Gloudon has no message; her only purpose is to make you laugh.
Neither intention is a good foundation for an emotionally satisfying theatrical experience. The best theatre helps one's understanding of life. To paraphrase Shakespeare, drama should hold a mirror up to nature.
Dawkins' characters' main aim is to portray some of the problems at the heart of Jamaican politics. Their concerns are external, not personal; they exist to convey the author's messages.
Director Douglas Prout writes in the printed programme: "Dangerous Ambitions, while hypothetical, is not too far-fetched in suggesting possibilities if corruption, cronyism, mindless greed, limp, uninspired leadership, moral decadence, social malaise and national apathy are allowed to run amok and breed unchecked."
With so many issues dealing with, it's not surprising that the characters (all except one) have no time left for personal needs and desires. What non-political issues they do speak about seem superficial or unbelievable.
The one character who does have a personal need is Vinton McFayden (played by Rory Baugh), but he is such a weak, stupid and despicable person, you can't empathise with him. He is the one whom the others support, or pretend to support, as a candidate in upcoming elections.
Other roles are played by Maylynne Lowe (as Miss Alexia, a businesswoman who provides financial backing for Vinton), George Howard (as Elder, the mastermind behind the political campaign), Christopher McFarlane (as Coach, Elder's henchman) and Volier Johnson (as Sarge, a corrupt cop).
All the actors, who have many years of stage experience, are technically competent. They are not believable because they are so superficially treated by the playwright and seem to be as flat as cardboard.
The characters in Skoolaz also lack depth, but while having such characters is a fatal weakness in a dramatic work like Dangerous Ambitions, it is acceptable in musicals like Little Theatre Movement's (LTM) pantomimes. In fact, the characters in Skoolaz, all easily identifiable, are all lots of fun.
The main ones - all of whom are double cast - are Headmaster (played by Cadine Hall when I saw the show), Deputy (Kevin Halstead), Ms Garden Green (Sharon Edwards), Miss Konolly (Doreen King), Platinum (Maxann Stewart-Legg), Miss Ina (Faith Bucknor), Jameeka (Debrina Smith) and Scrappa Rappa (Orlando Lawrence).
The real problem with Skoolaz is that it lacks a story. (Another is that it needs tightening up; the director, Bobby Clarke, should both speed up the pace and trim the production by half an hour.)
Instead of a story which develops, it has a frame which supports the situation, characters, visual elements and music. The situation that the characters (mainly staff and students of two contiguous schools and the vendors who sell at the school gates) find themselves in is simple.
Its components are mostly very small problems, like chewing gum on the ground of the boys' school and too-short skirts on some girls in the girls' school, which are easily solved. The headmaster agrees to the formation of a chewing gum committee and a press conference to announce its findings. One female teacher with a tape measure determines the proper length of the skirts and quickly adjusts them.
With problems like those, you can tell that the pantomime is aimed at children.
The one continuous storyline is about a scrap metal thief (Scrappa Rappa) who plans to steal a monument installed on the grounds of the boys' school. We see him get the idea, make plans and try to implement the plan.
A girl about 10 years old sitting behind me thoroughly enjoyed the spectacular, but quite ridiculous, climax to that storyline. It involved flashing lights and colourful masks and costumes.
Good sets, costumes
This brings me to the visuals of the two productions. Both have sets designed by Michael Lorde, an award-winning designer. His designs are up to his usual high standard in Skoolaz, and are equally attractive in Dangerous Ambitions.
However, in the latter production, when the inner-city zinc and board fence is on, it covers only half the stage and the actors in the other half are still clearly visible and have to freeze. But perhaps the director (Douglas Prout) could send them off.
The costumes (by Anya Gloudon in Skoolaz and Quindel Ferguson in Dangerous Ambitions) are excellent and contribute to the fine look of the productions. In the former production, Grub Cooper's compositions to Gloudon's witty lyrics are enjoyable, though, for me, no particular song stands out this year.
Despite their weaknesses, there is much to enjoy in both productions.