Monthly Archives: March 2016

Keller Keeps Tugging at Our Emotions

Theatre Reviews: The Miracle Worker and I’ll Eat You LastMiracle Worker

By Perry Tannenbaum

With most dramas, I find that successive productions I review tend to exert less of a powerful tug on my emotions each time I see the same drama again. Yet I’ve found quite the opposite to be true of The Miracle Worker, William Gibson’s 1960 Tony Award winner for Best Play, the chronicle of young Annie Sullivan’s diligent efforts – on her first paying job and her first plunge into the Deep South – to reach the deaf-and-blind Helen Keller and teach her the concept of language.

Last time I covered The Miracle Worker at CPCC in 2008, I found myself choking back sobs when I merely saw the furshlugginer water pump at the start of Act 2. So I was grateful, in a way, to see the pump already in place downstage when I ambled toward my seat for the current production at Theatre Charlotte. Gillian Albinski’s set design, a rather bland thing compared to some of the artistry I’ve seen at the Queens Road barn, seemed to be building up my immunity.

I was mistaken, for it isn’t until intermission that they set up the little guesthouse where Annie is allowed to have exclusive care of Helen for two weeks, during which time she must repair their relationship, tame the child’s wildness, and give her the keys to communication. Just seeing the contours of that secluded place brought on a surge of emotions that I fought to hold in check.

When you think of it, The Miracle Worker is rather unique in establishing powerful associations with each of its different locales at the Kellers’. There’s the upstairs bedroom where Annie must be rescued by ladder because she allows Helen to outsmart her and lock her in during their first encounter. Nor do we forget the dining room, scene of two epic battles between Helen and Annie – and the place where James finally stands up to his imperious father, Captain Keller.

Okay, so the production levels don’t rival the notorious 2003 Charlotte Rep production that was envisioned as a launching pad for Hilary Swank’s Broadway debut. (Never happened, the producers’ verdict on what we saw.) But the gulf between those Broadway-bound costumes and those by Luci Wilson isn’t ridiculously wide at all, and while Theatre Charlotte’s Helen wasn’t victorious in any nationwide search, I think you’ll find Emily Bowers quite extraordinary.

There is never a sense that director Paige Johnston Thomas is trying to replicate the iconic 1962 film, which brought fresh awards to Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, the original Broadway stars. Quite the contrary: Thomas makes it easier for Sarah Woldum in her Charlotte debut as Annie Sullivan by allowing her to drop the Irish accent that plagued Swank, and Alex Duckworth – notwithstanding his syrupy drawl – may be the least youthful James that I’ve seen.

Throughout the evening, beginning when Kate Keller discovers her daughter’s disabilities upstairs in the nursery, lighting designer Chris Timmons and music composer Grover Smith make telling contributions. Caylyn Temple as Kate and Philip Robertson as Captain Keller do a beautiful job of setting up the dignified family tone. While it’s customary for the Captain to show a lack of love for his daughter – he’s taken aback when Annie calls him on it – Robertson seems to want to love Helen more than any father I’ve seen. Besides the crippling excess of motherly indulgence, Temple partners well with Duckworth in the somewhat awkward relationship between Kate and her stepson.

Woldum is certainly a more youthful Annie than Swank was, more youthful than Joanna Gerdy was when Theatre Charlotte last presented Miracle Worker in 1997. That is the dimension I most love about this production. Sullivan’s age – she’s merely 20 – is arguably what makes her most unfit for the challenge she’s undertaking. Not only can we see Annie’s youth peeping through here, we can perceive how it becomes a double asset when the challenge is engaged.

It’s a matter of sheer physical vitality when Annie confronts Helen’s unruliness in the dinner table scenes and at the guesthouse, but it’s also a matter of empathy. I’m not a big fan of the flashback interludes, when Annie recalls her younger brother’s death, but I’m more reconciled to them in this production, and Timmons delineates them well with his lighting.

Charles Holmes gets credit for the fine fight choreography when the action heats up and the spoons begin to fly, but it’s Bowers’ lack of inhibition that makes it all work. There’s always enough luminosity in her blankest expressions for us to believe in her openness, and when she’s finally sitting quietly and eating at the guesthouse, I found a tinge of pride amid Helen’s exhausted submission.

Maybe the reason I find The Miracle Worker so compelling after all these years is the fact that it becomes less dated with the passage of time. The more I’ve learned about child development and the acquisition of language, the more spot-on Annie’s observations on these subjects have become. One time, the water pump gets to me; the next time, the guest cottage floors me. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m fighting back tears the next time I see Sullivan lifting the stupid egg. I can only envy those of you who may be just beginning your journeys with this rich drama. It has surprising, rewarding depths.

Anne Lambert as Sue Mengers 3 Feb 2016

An elaborate sofa and its many pillows becomes a luxuriant throne when the star of I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers appears to graciously grant us an audience at UpStage in NoDa. Born into a Jewish family in Hamburg, Mengers tells us how her family fled Nazi Germany in 1938 and wound up in Utica, New York – not the most likely beginnings for a woman who would become a Hollywood superagent, whose clientele included Faye Dunaway, Candice Bergen, Michael Caine, Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, and – preeminently – Barbra Streisand.

John Logan’s one-woman script memorialized Mengers on Broadway, in a production starring Bette Midler, less than two years after her death in 2011. Anne Lambert is the leading lady here in a performance that was shaped in a three-weekend run up in Cornelius before settling into NoDa last weekend and continuing through Sunday. It’s obvious that Mengers considers herself royalty, for she favors us with her rules on throwing a party and succeeding as an agent.

There’s a phone by her right arm that she hopes will ring so that she might heal a troublesome rift with La Barbra. Meanwhile, before we arrive at those circumstances, Mengers dishes on her struggles with Sissy Spacek, Ali McGraw, and Steve McQueen. Landing the Oscar-winning role of Popeye Doyle for Gene Hackman in The French Connection is clearly her ultimate triumph, and Lambert can tell it in spellbinding detail.

Problems only creep into this performance with the chronic buzzing of the electronics – the lights, I’m guessing – compounded by Lambert’s tendency to swallow the ends of punch lines she’s tossing off. Otherwise, she bridges the moments of tension and relaxation well, calling upon an audience member to fetch her a jewelry box stocked with joints and a refill from the bar. There are moments when she could stand to be meaner and more arrogant while she’s getting high, but that’s showbiz.

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UNC Charlotte Drops a Russian Clown into the Cogs of Heiner Müller’s “Hamletmachine”

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By Perry Tannenbaum

March 19, 2016, Charlotte, NC – More than with most scripts, it’s difficult to say what exactly Heiner Müller had in mind when he wrote Hamletmachine in 1977. Performances of Müller’s plays were banned in East Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall, so the 1979 world premiere was presented – in translation – in Paris, and when Müller himself finally directed the piece for the first time in his homeland, it was as the play-within-a-play in a far larger 1990 production of Hamlet, presumably in his own translation since that what was what he had completed before embarking on his own.

Looking at this script, which occupies just three pages in The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama (4th ed.), I’d have to say it’s presumptuous to call it a play at all, for it doesn’t offer a list of characters and doesn’t actually assign any dialogue to anyone until the second of its five parts. We can hardly greet that as a clarifying moment when Müller writes, “Ophelia (Chorus/Hamlet): I am Ophelia.” Nor is the custom of attribution religiously observed afterwards in a text that often resembles T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in its stream-of-consciousness style and allusiveness. We should not be surprised that the current production at UNC Charlotte’s Robinson Hall, presented by the College of Arts + Architecture at the Anne R. Belk Theater, not only boasts three directors but also three Ophelias and four Hamlets in a production that clocked in at just under 38 minutes.

A wide latitude of interpretation is built into the text, which explains the fact that one Japanese production lasted 12 hours. That surely isn’t the outer limit, for Müller decrees “Snow. Ice Age,” after the executions of Marx, Lenin, and Mao at the end of Part IV. Yet I must say that the UNC Charlotte production follows the text far more closely – and recognizably – than the previous production I saw in Charlotte, presented by Off-Tryon Theatre Company as part of a double bill with Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead in 2005. Leading the all-female directing team, UNCC assistant professor Robin Witt has eliminated (among other things) the appearances of King Claudius, the striptease by Ophelia, and the gravestones or lecterns that should be the university of the dead in Part III. A whole motif involving Hamlet’s armor and his axe is altered beyond recognition, and the executions of the Communist trinity, which should have been done by Hamlet with that axe, are now done bloodlessly by hanging.

I’m not sure whether there was a malfunction in Benjamin J. Stickels’ sound design, but I never discerned the voices of Lenin, Mao, and Marx, though three are listed for them in the program booklet. Similarly, the men and women dressed in white by costume designer Beth Killion are all designated as Chorus in the playbill, so I wasn’t aware until later, when I’d revisited the script, that the segment choreographed by Alex Baesen was a ballet of the dead women. It looked more like a dance of angels to me, though the woman with the little stove around her head should have told me that she was a suicide or a Holocaust victim.

There are also additions to the script by Witt and her team, including Marc Smith as a German Speaker and, most conspicuously, Kineh N’Gaojia as a Russian Clown who beautifully sings Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” for no particular reason. Before her concluding monologue as Ophelia Wheelchair, Raven Monroe inserts Todd Rundgren’s “Can We Still Be Friends.” Of course, when she begins her monologue declaring, “This is Electra speaking,” and ends by vaguely alluding to the Manson Family and Sqeaky Fromme, it’s hard to be sure who Monroe is as the lights go down on her in her wheelchair.

The sinew of Müller’s text is given when Hamlet Flag (née The Actor Playing Hamlet) has his long monologue in Part IV, “Pest in Buda / Battle for Greenland.” I’d say that the upshot of this ramble, ably delivered by Matt Miller, is that the revolutionaries who had ushered in the triumph of Communism in Eastern Europe had succeeded so well that they had rendered the possibility of current and future revolutions extinct. Looking frankly at himself, the Actor Playing Hamlet asserts that the Hamlet who once was, the brooding assassin who engineered a coup d’état, no longer exists and can no longer exist. The executions that follow are merely wishful thinking – by a populace of Hamlets who remained too indecisive too long.

Jamie Gonzalez was my favorite among the Ophelias. Her heart is not visibly a clock as the text demands. Instead, she is wheeled onstage as Ophelia Bed to deliver her lurid monologue, giving her a kinship with the Ophelia Wheelchair to come. No such connections are attempted among the Hamlets, since all four of them parade in front of us at the outset. Noah Tepper seems like he will be dominant as Hamlet Skull, conversing with a puppet Horatio (Brittany White), but he is succeeded by Tykiique Cuthkelvin as Hamlet Book and Jennifer Huddleston as Hamlet Axe before Miller’s Flag takes over. The gender bending in Witt’s casting becomes plausible enough when Miller’s Hamlet announces, “I want to be a woman.” He gets his wish when the Chorus surrounds him and dresses him up as Ophelia, but he’s back in tacky 1970s leisure wear by the time he launches into his big monologue.

While the thrust of Müller’s script is unmistakably an outcry against living under totalitarianism, its production at UNCC paradoxically affirms the benefits of dictatorship. It’s not a total coincidence that the most admired production of this piece, the 1986 revival directed by Robert Wilson (even Müller preferred it to his own), was presented at another university, NYU. Not only can university professors ignore commercial viability when deciding what they present on their stages, they can lavish resources upon each project that leave the prudential considerations of capitalism deeper in the dust.

That is the true wonder to behold when comparing the staging at Robinson Hall to the Off-Tryon version I saw in 2005. Tom Burch’s scenic design lifts this production to a frightful level of gritty German expressionism that is simply phenomenal, mirrored by the imaginative artistry of the props and costumes. Primitive stairways lead up to a platform where the mutilated German Speaker can babble, and the wall behind that platform is large enough to project the titles of each of the five parts we’re watching. When the script alludes to a television, Burch can deploy four of them, each one broadcasting nothing more than white noise.

The obvious reward of such excess is a Hamletmachine that is vivid and engaging – but no less mystifying than it is on the page. No doubt the post-performance discussion following the Saturday evening performance was helpful for amazed and baffled audience members who remained afterwards, and another discussion is scheduled with the cast and designers after the March 21 performance. Otherwise, there’s plenty to be gleaned from dramaturg Jeanmarie Higgins’ program note and the handy Tumblr website she and her dramaturgy students have established online.

© 2016 CVNC + Perry Tannenbaum

Warren-Green Pays off Bronco Bet After Rousing All-Russian Concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

Calin Lupanu plays Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto this week with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.

March 17, 2016, Charlotte, NC – For the first time in nearly two years, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra presented an all-Russian concert. These two programs were elegantly linked by the appearance of CSO concertmaster Calin Lupanu playing one of Sergei Prokofiev’s two violin concertos on each occasion. Or that was the intent, because after conducting Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3, music director Christopher Warren-Green was obliged to pay off a wager he had made in early February, prior to his previous appearance in the orchestra’s classics series. That was the weekend of the Super Bowl, when the Carolina Panthers squared off against the Denver Broncos. Well, since both orchestras are led by Christophers and abbreviate themselves as the CSO, it was natural that the friendly municipal pre-game wagering would not be limited to our mayors. Amid an online exchange of jovial slurs and vaunts, Warren-Green declared that, if the Panthers lost, he would conduct the Broncos’ theme song, Copland’s “Rodeo,” wearing Bronco quarterback Peyton Manning’s iconic No. 18 jersey. Keeping his word, Warren-Green capped an evening that began by intoning the Satanic revels of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” with the sunshine and mirth of the quintessential American composer’s ballet music.

Warren-Green’s prime objective with Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s macabre classic was very much like it was in 2009, when he conducted the piece as part of his audition for the music directorship. Then and now it was quite obvious that Warren-Green felt that the concluding calm of the piece, beginning with the churchly tolling of the tubular bells, was normally undervalued. Fortunately, the orchestra took a more dynamic path this time around than they did seven years ago, when they drained the tone poem’s familiar opening of all its wonder and terror. Now instead of smoothing it over, Warren-Green was exaggerating the contrast, speeding up the tempo of the rampaging strings and calling forth more volume and sforzando snap from the brass and percussion. The effect veered way too far from Bela Lugosi toward video game, but the onset of the bells was far more miraculous this time around. Accompanied by Andrea Mumm’s harp, the violins suddenly sounded mournful and exhausted after the wild Witches’ Sabbath, eventually modulating toward calm and restoration after poignant solos by clarinetist Drucilla DeVan and principal flutist Amy Orsinger.

You could hardly ask for a sweeter opening than Lupanu’s for the Prokofiev Violin Concert No. 2 – even from the justly lauded Maxim Vengerov recording with Rostropovich and the London Symphony. But I wanted more muscle as the tempo speeded up. We occasionally lost the soloist’s line behind the French horns, but the sinew of Lupanu’s playing emerged in the Allegro moderato when the lower string sections moved into the background, very persuasive in the higher passages. Although it couldn’t be confused with Philip Glass’s work, there is intensive repetitiveness at various points of the soloist’s part in Prokofiev’s outer movements, which may explain why Lupanu felt compelled to bring the score with him onto the Belk Theater stage.

Subscribers who are persnickety about such things, expecting their guest artists to memorize their pieces, were probably more pacified by Lupanu’s soulful performance of the Andante assai inner movement. After the stealthy intro from the woodwinds, gently weighted toward the clarinets, Lupanu’s lyricism excelled again in the upper regions. Over a leisurely 3/4 accompaniment, the music swelled to anthemic strength with Lupanu gliding and somersaulting above. Muted trumpets then pulsated, quickening the pace as the soloist broke into a gallop. When the accompaniment resumed its previous repose, Lupanu wove some high filigree and pizzicato work into the fadeout. The jauntiness of the 3/4 tempo was most pronounced in the closing Allegro ben marcato, punctuated by a snare drum, a set of maracas, and the brass pumping a merry oompah behind Lupanu’s lusty fiddling. There was a final burst of intensive churning where Lupanu snuck a glance or two at the score, but he ended admirably with a virtuosic flourish at a blistering tempo.

The CSO program booklet is utterly confused about the orchestra’s only previous performance of the Rachmaninoff A-minor symphony, for the 2009 date ascribed to guest conductor Leslie Dunner was actually the date of Warren-Green’s aforementioned audition with its woeful “Bald Mountain.” No, it was during the twilight of the Clinton Administration, January 1999, when I greeted the only previous performance of Rachmaninoff No. 3 as “turgid, clichéd movie music, grandly entertaining and flamboyantly superficial.” But the allusion to Warren-Green’s is curiously apt because once again, the CSO maestro has improved upon a previous CSO flop.

Where Dunner stumbled in his attempts to “civilize and homogenize” Rachmaninoff’s abrupt shifts of mood and tempo, Warren-Green succeeded brilliantly, rehabbing the music as effectively as my Mariss Jansons recording with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Again the middle Adagio-Allegro movement stood out as when Dunner performed it, with principal French hornist Frank Portone ably caressing the forlorn intro once more. This time, with Lupanu sitting out the second half of the concert, it was Joseph Meyer in the concertmaster’s chair following up so beautifully on the violin. Not only did Warren-Green navigate the rollercoaster shifts of the outer movements more convincingly, he also held the inner logic of the middle movement together more securely. When we circled back to the solos by Portone and Meyer, there was a satisfying sense of an epic circle being completed, crowned by more tasty solo work by Terry Maskin on the English horn and Eugene Kavadlo on the clarinet.

© 2016 CVNC

Spymaster With a Shopping Cart

By Perry Tannenbaum

I’ve seen over 200 productions by Children’s Theatre of Charlotte since I began covering the local scene in 1987, but only a handful have been as emotionally powerful as Danny, King of the Basement, now at the Wells Fargo Playhouse through Sunday. Grim realities pursue Danny Carter and his mom, Louise, who are fleeing from her latest bad decision when we first see them, an abusive boyfriend. That makes eight moves in the last two years, according to Danny, who keeps a more diligent count than Mom.

Danny’s disintegrating confidence in his mom and the wandering, often homeless nature of his life combine to push him into a world of fantasy – where he’s perpetually undercover as a juvenile spy, always an outsider looking in, always preparing for the next hasty getaway. So much always seems to be hanging by a thin thread in Canadian playwright David S. Craig’s penetrating script. To get their crummy new basement apartment, Louise has lied to the new landlady, pretending to be single and childless.

It’s only by speaking with Penny, the landlady’s daughter, that Danny discovers the deception. We can understand Danny’s wariness about his mom’s landing a job and not foolishly spending the little money that they have, since we’re a bit skeptical ourselves. While Danny remains uncertain about whether his mom will be able to make next month’s rent, his situation becomes more anguished because he’s actually making friends with Penny and another new neighbor, Angelo.

These other kids also have their woes. Angelo can’t seem to please his dad, whose presence is signaled by a lion’s roar that occasionally emanates from behind the entryway to his apartment. Dad might respect Angelo more once he scores his first hockey goal, but where is the confidence needed to score that goal going to come from?

Penny seems to be confident and affluent enough, but her parents are divorced and her dad is delinquent with support payments, spooking the cashflow. When Mom and Dad bicker over money, they do it through Penny, who carries two cell phones to field their calls. At one point, when she has both combatants on the line, Penny wraps the two phones together and drops them in a trashcan so they can duke it out.

Craig finds an even funnier way to defuse the seriousness of Angelo’s problems, as Danny and Penny perform a mock brain surgery that removes the bad thoughts ruining his self-confidence. Danny carries a shopping cart filled with carefully curated junk that becomes an eccentric toy chest that beautifully serves the kids’ pretend games.

The camaraderie cemented by this rollicking surgery unravels when Danny goes to school with his new chums. Instead of dutifully reading when his teacher calls on him, Danny cuts up and improvises his own story, earning himself a swift trip to the principal’s office. The smokescreen may bamboozle the new teacher, but Angelo and Penny see through it instantly – the collateral damage of Danny’s unsettled ramblings is a lingering illiteracy. It will be cataclysmic when Danny’s new chums call him out on it.

Beneath all of his spymaster tale-spinner façade, Danny is deeply ashamed – of his mom and of himself. He prides himself in being able to make friends, even best friends, in the space of a day. Yet Danny has moved around so much that he has never truly realized that the friends he makes can be a support system. That’s the deeply moving aha moment we witness here.

The only parent or teacher we actually see onstage here is Danny’s mom, but she is so flawed, so prone to unwise decisions and failure, that we’re apt to see her as under Danny’s care rather than the other way around. It’s a world of children we’re seeing, with adult intrusions but hardly any adult perspective or authority. With adults portraying all of these roles, there’s a fascinating crossroads of empathy that makes this a special experience, even for the ImaginOn fantasy palace.

Under Mark Sutton’s finely nuanced direction, the cast immerses itself into these kids and their interactions without regressing into them. Even the lighter, sillier moments aren’t tainted with excess mimicry. I was especially impressed with Scott Miller’s rendering of Danny, his guarded slouch persisting even when he resolves to do something remarkably brave. Danny’s vulnerability remains near the surface no matter how merry the moment, so his sudden disintegration comes as no surprise.

As Penny, Veda Covington must change from her kid-on-the-street self to her daughter personality each time one of her cellphones rings. There’s a little of the spoiled brat to the kid, but as the ambassador between her bickering parents, she isn’t always the submissive child. Sometimes she’s the real grownup. With Angelo, the differences are perhaps more subtle for Rahsheem Shabazz. There are different shades of inferiority that he feels toward the affluent Penny and his abusive dad, but it’s wariness rather than superiority that dominates his attitude toward Danny.

Leslie Ann Giles has so often been the grownup in the room during her 10 seasons with the Children’s Theatre touring company, particularly in their various Commedia lampoons. So it’s interesting to see her going against that grain as Louise, the wayward adult who needs to beg for a second and third chance – from her son! Giles obviously revels in the opportunity to be so complicated, wanting to be the good mother and provider but frequently sliding backwards in those uphill battles.

As hard as some parents struggle to maintain the illusion that they’ve got everything under control, I wonder how uncomfortable taking their children to see the Carters might be. Danny could be the perfect medicine for such parents. I know that I felt myself rooting ardently for both Danny and Louise.

New Costumes and Scenery Heighten the Wonder of Charlotte Ballet’s “Little Mermaid”

By Perry Tannenbaum

March 11, 2016, Charlotte, NC – Everything seems to be going so well at Charlotte Ballet as Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux stands on the verge of his final year as artistic director. During his tenure, Bonnefoux has seen his dance troupe establish residence in the trendiest theater in town on South Tryon Street while the company strengthened its educational program at its new administrative HQ on North Tryon Street. Two days before opening night of a nine-performance run of The Little Mermaid, choreographed by Mark Diamond, news broke that the McColl family – the BofA billionaires – had given the company $1 million to revamp Bonnefoux’s version of The Nutcracker, leaving little doubt about what the company’s most spectacular production will be for years to come. That announcement may have upstaged the new sets and costumes adorning the Diamond remount in the eyes of newspaper readers, but for the horde of little girls who helped fill Knight Theater to near capacity on opening night, the light in their eyes came from the new undersea wonders lavished upon The Little Mermaid.

There was definitely a fresh dazzle in the new costumes by Aimee J. Coleman, and their iridescence wasn’t confined to the rig Alessandra Ball James wore as the Mermaid before shedding her tailfins for legs. Three Little Mermaid Friends and a matching pair of Seahorses also gleamed, and there was a Day-Glo phosphorescence to the costumes of the Eels, the Undertow group, and the Fish. This new Little Mermaid signals that the extensive use of youthful dancers at Charlotte Ballet will no longer be confined to the annual Nutcracker extravaganza. No less than 20 kids are listed as Fish in the program, and they actually began the show with an extensive dance of their own, fluttering in formation and seemingly gliding across the stage in a manner that simulated black-light puppetry. Diamond had them admirably schooled to resemble a school of fish at multiple points in their dance.

Costumes that aren’t aglow are frequently marvels. Parents will no doubt need to dip into their program booklets to inform their princesses that Ryo Suzuki is an Anemone, but there’s no mistaking Raven Barkley for anything but a Sea Turtle. The sheer plenitude of sea creatures that have nothing to do with the story is a constant delight, not in the least Rylie Beck, making her way up the orchestra aisle at a snail’s pace and lurking onstage as the Hermit Crab – though she could easily be mistaken for a Mary Poppins’ old rucksack. As enchanting as all these costumes were, the new wow factor came from Michael Baumgarten’s lighting projections, functional when the Mermaid’s destined Prince gets thrown overboard during a storm but truly spectacular as we glide through undersea corals and canyons.

The low tech, held over from previous Mermaid productions of 2008 and 2011, mixes charmingly with the high tech as we watch the scene where the Prince is tossed by the tempest and the Mermaid rescues him. Three linen ribbons that stretched across the stage were the sea, and I’m sure that the sailboat James Kopecky fell out of wasn’t even half-built. Throughout the opening act, while the Mermaid remains a finned sea creature, Diamond solves the Mermaid’s mobility problem by having her transported in the sort of sledge the crippled Porgy might use, drawn by the same invisible hands that ripple the linen ocean from the wings. When Ball James rises from floor level, she remains horizontal thanks to the ministrations of her Friends and the rolling Undertow crew.

Although Addul Manzano makes a dashing appearance as the Sea King, Diamond hasn’t integrated him into the drama. Aside from the Mermaid, who occasionally appears on the verge of being heaved onto a dinner platter, it’s Jamie Dee Clifton who makes the biggest splash as the Sea Witch. Beyond pointing upwards, the Mermaid doesn’t articulate what she’s yearning for in the climactic encounter with the Witch, but the real exposition gap that Diamond leaves parents to fill in for their kids is the particulars of the bargain that the Mermaid agrees to when the Witch grants her the ability to walk on land. Clifton’s movements – and her saturnine costume – make it clear enough that goodwill and charity aren’t motivating the Witch as she grants the Mermaid’s wishes, and there’s a wondrous fairytale foreboding when Clifton hands Ball James the magic potion that effects her metamorphosis.

Thanks to the last of Baumgarten’s projections, the Mermaid awakens on a beauteous seashore with her newfound legs. Diamond doesn’t skip over the most absurd aspect of the Mermaid’s transformation, so we get an endearing, comical incongruity that no parent will be able to explain. After the Mermaid marvels at her feet and toes, she stands up tentatively on her legs like a newborn foal – and within seconds is dancing like the Princess Grace Fellowship winner that Ball James truly is. Even without the same undersea magic afterwards, Diamond constructs a second act that intertwines the Mermaid/Prince romance with a couple of strands of comedy and a couple of explosions of pure dance.

Along with two Charlotte Ballet II troupe members, namely Suzanna Duba and the hunched-over Ben Youngstone, Beck sheds her shell to become one of three Gossips. Singly, they snoop and scurry about in various corners and alleys of the set as the Mermaid glows, blushes, and plain shows off in response to all the attentions that the Prince lavishes upon her. Collectively, they engage in effusive sessions of head-bobbing, mouth-flapping gossip. But it’s a military trio, no more pertinent to the action than the Turtle before them, who provide the greatest comic delight. David Morse is pomposity itself as the General, head tilted back and sporting an imposing belly bulge. Yet he begins bickering lustily as soon as Josh Hall appears as the Admiral, topped with the appropriate seafaring hat. It becomes so heated – and of course, silly – that Amand Pulaj as the Secretary General is hard-pressed to keep them for pawing each other to death.

When he isn’t bickering, the General reviews a small brigade of Officers whose uniforms are colorfully unalike. But in her costumes for Suzuki, Juwan Alston, Iago Bresciani, Ben Ingel, Thel Moore, and Gregory Taylor; Coleman makes sure that each of the designs registers as unmistakably Russian, matching the spirited music by Glière that they dance to. Nearly all these soldier dances are solos where each of the men vies with the others in acrobatic éclat. But the Russian flavor only crystallizes what has gone before. There is some Debussy wedged into the score Diamond has chosen, but with the generous selections from Borodin’s chamber and orchestral works, the overall musical texture is decidedly Russian. When we adjourn from the Prince’s garden to the ballroom in his palace (the most impressive of Howard Jones’s new set designs), we could be at any Russian ballet, for Diamond’s dance stylings are as retro as the music.

During this formal cotillion, Sarah Hayes Harkins comes into full flower as the Prince’s Fiancée, a vision of cold elegant perfection as she dances with Kopecky, hardly deigning to notice her rival skulking in the corner in her damp rags. The tension between the supple, skittish, and vulnerable Ball James and the serene and imperious Harkins seems so ideal that I wondered how they could be switching roles for four of the nine performances. But they are merely the tip of a general shuffle of principals including Kopecky, Manzano, Hall, Morse, Clifton, and Chelsea Dumas. Diamond could easily shuffle a few more members from the main troupe and the satellite Ballet II dancers without marring the overall effect. The company that Bonnefoux has built is that strong.

© 2016 CVNC

Jews, Blacks, and JFK Converge at Concertized Kushner

Theatre Review: Caroline, or Change

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L-R: Brittany Currie, Tracie Frank, and Veda Covington

By Perry Tannenbaum

The relationship between African Americans and Jews has been a fascinating convergence of parallel histories and unavoidable class conflict. We’ve had a couple of dramas here before that dramatized the relationship, beginning with Alfred Uhry’s famed Driving Miss Daisy, which reached the Charlotte stage in 1991, just two years after the Oscar-winning movie. The 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner took us back to Atlanta after World War 2, when the curmudgeonly Daisy was in denial about her physical deterioration, her racist attitudes, and the prevalence of anti-Semitism in her city.

Just over three years ago, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte brought us Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Boy, transporting us to the first days of Reconstruction after the Civil War, when two emancipated slaves returned to their former owner’s home for Passover. Between Uhry’s drama and Lopez’s auspicious 2011 debut, Tony Kushner collaborated with composer Jeanine Tesori on a musical – a chamber opera, really – that looks at yet another Jewish household where an African American was employed.

Until last February 26, when Theatre Charlotte brought Caroline, or Change to its lobby for one night only, the widely-hailed 2003 piece had never been performed in the Queen City. It’s unquestionably the most ambitious Grand Night for Singing event held at the 501 Queens Road barn. The format has been in a cabaret spirit, songs selected from a rarely performed musical taking up half of the program, more rarities by the same composers after intermission. With Caroline, music director Zachary Tarlton staged a concert-style production of the full show – and so many people bought tickets that Theatre Charlotte executive director Ron Law nearly had to move the performance out of the lobby and into the auditorium.

Caroline Thibodeaux works in the bowels of a home owned by Stuart Gellman and his second wife, Rose, but the core of Kushner’s story – an autobiographical one according to the playwright’s intro to the printed edition – is the relationship between Caroline and Noah, Stuart’s 8-year-old son from a previous marriage. Although Caroline takes place in 1963, closer in time to Daisy than Whipping Boy, its resemblances to Lopez’s script are strong enough that it could have served as the younger playwright’s model. During the Passover holiday celebrated by Caleb DeLeon in Whipping Boy, President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. In the November-December timeline of Caroline, John F. Kennedy is assassinated before the Gellmans’ Chanukah celebration.

If Kushner had a model, the likeliest candidate would be another autobiographical play, Athol Fugard’s Master Harold, in which the title character also behaves unforgivably toward a black person working for his dad. In her dignity, in the way Caroline absorbs Noah’s abuse in apartheid Lake Charles, Louisiana, she very much resembles Sam’s forbearance toward Hally in apartheid Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1950. The big difference is that Kushner looks at Caroline as critically as he looked at Noah.

She’s a divorced, conspicuously joyless mother of three, staunchly resistant to change. The entire cast was outstanding, but we were especially fortunate to have Tracie Frank in the title role. We had a brief sampling of Frank’s gospel fire last spring in Theatre Charlotte’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar, but even her Whitney Houston bravura singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” hardly cushioned the surprise of this sustained excellence, her silent reactions nearly as taut as her vocals.

Stuart and Rose realize they’re not paying Caroline enough to comfortably take care of her three children, but they do what they can. In order to teach her stepson a lesson – and to slip the Thibodeauxs some extra cash – Rose decrees that Caroline can have whatever loose change Noah carelessly leaves in his pockets when she puts his clothes in the washing machine. Noah is more softhearted than Rose, so he starts leaving loose change in his pockets on purpose – until Chanukah rolls around.

Grandpa Stocknick, Rose’s dad, gives Noah a $20 bill in Chanukah gelt. Some days later, Noah is back in school and realizes that he has left the 20 in a pair of pants earmarked for the laundry. His piddling charity is in serious jeopardy of becoming lavish generosity, and he rushes home to retrieve his gift. Too late. It’s nearly Christmas, her three kids expect something under the tree, so do you think Caroline is going to put that $20 bill back in the bleach cup for Noah?

Noah is even less likable than Caroline in the fight that ensues, so it’s to Rixey Terry’s credit that he made the transition from adulating schoolboy to beneficent master to sore and abrasive loser so convincingly over the course of the night – and no fewer than 15 songs. Terry didn’t try to emulate an eight-year-old, so he didn’t sound at all like Harrison Chad on the cast album, a prudent choice for this reading-stage style presentation, adroitly stage directed by Corey Mitchell. He and the other younger members – the three Thibodeaux siblings and The Radio – had their music down pat, thanks to some good hard work and, I suspect, that cast album.

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Yes, the dramatis personae included some inanimate objects that brought Caroline’s basement domain quirkily to life, often with a gospel flavor. Dani Burke was Caroline’s Washing Machine while Maya Sistruck, Dominique Atwater, and Kayla Ferguson were The Radio, even more amazing when they harmonized than when they soloed. Among these kitchen accouterments, Tyler Smith was the king of appliances as The Dryer in an electrifying performance, Tesori’s score starting him off with a mix of street shout, yelped with Porgy and Bess gusto, and R&B that he crushed into the depths of his velvety bass baritone – with The Radio providing backup.

More of Kushner’s fanciful universe turned up outside of Caroline’s basement. Much to our delight, Smith returned to the row of lecterns at centerstage as The Bus taking Caroline and her friend Dotty home from work, but Brittany Currie often lurked on the side as The Moon, emblematic of change. The change that Noah leaves in his pants isn’t the only change Caroline struggles with. Although $30 a week isn’t enough to get by, it’s Dotty who is resolved to do something about it, going to night school in an effort to better herself.

So it’s both Dotty’s energy and initiative at the end of a long workday that irritates Caroline. Watching Veda Covington as Dotty, bragging that her daytime employer is actually proud of what she’s doing, I found myself a little irritated with both women, Dotty for needling her friend and Caroline for her unremitting sullenness. Currie as The Moon was a somewhat soothing presence crooning about change, but there was also a wisp of sultry sensuality in her vocals, very effective in this cabaret setting.

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L-R: Yabi Gedewan, Ibrahim Web, and TyNia Brandon as Caroline’s children

Mitchell had the races sitting at opposite sides of the stage when they weren’t at the lecterns, accentuating how little they actually interact during this musical. It’s mostly Noah and stepmama Rose who show an active interest in Caroline. Although she badly flubbed the Yiddish word for navel, Allison Snow Rhinehardt was an otherwise credible balaboosteh: a little unsure of her footing with both the new stepson and the help, somewhat sensitive to their feelings, yet definitely reveling in her mission to run the household and to command.

Upstairs-downstairs decorum was broken momentarily at the Chanukah party in one of Kushner’s most insightful scenes. Asked to help with the extra party housework, Caroline’s eldest daughter Emmie gets into an argument with Rose’s father about the efficacy of Dr. King’s non-violent civil rights movement. Caroline is outraged by her daughter’s presumption, Emmie is angered by her mother’s inbred meekness, and Mr. Stopnick thinks this is the first real conversation he has had since coming South to visit his daughter. Excellent work here from Frank, TyNia Brandon, and Vito Abate.

I would have been quite content just to witness some local theatre company putting Caroline on its feet after all these years. The fortunate few who attended the February 26 performance saw something far finer. With a minimum of rehearsal, the 17 singers and Tarlton performed nearly flawlessly, all the more astonishing when you consider that the musical director was never in the line of sight of any of the performers even once as they performed this challenging two-hour Tesori score.

Here’s hoping that we don’t have to wait another 13 years before Caroline, or Change is produced here again – and that, when Kushner’s lone musical returns, it will be fully staged in a larger hall for a larger audience in a longer run. As it deserves.

Photos by Perry Tannenbaum

“The Realish Housewives of Charlotte” Serves Up Skits, Improv, and Spoofery

By Perry Tannenbaum

Bravo, Charlotte! After missing the boat on Bravo’s cable TV franchise of Real Housewives reality TV shows – now spinning out Real Housewives of Orange County, Atlanta, New York City, Jersey, Beverly Hill and others – the Queen City has hopped aboard a theatrical Real-ish franchise on a whirlwind tour. Detroit, San Diego, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Des Moines have already sampled the satiric backlash. When the six-member cast of The Realish Housewives of Charlotte barreled into Booth Playhouse, it was sufficiently armed with the lowdown on the metro area to dish out plenty of gasps and belly laughs.

The whole scene surprised me. With hardly a scrap of publicity, nearly every seat in the orchestra and balcony was sold out, filled mostly with avid women who had this set-up figured out before I could begin to get the hang of it. When Jackson Evans comes out as our host, Randy Bowen, it looks like Realish is a talkshow. The couches flanking him and the logotype behind him practically scream it out.

But the studio where we’re ostensibly filming the upcoming season actually serves as a substitute for those scenes on the Real series where we see the regulars profiled – or commenting cattily on action we’ve just seen. So the opening scene introduces us to the ladies – only one of whom seems to be a housewife. Ravonka claims to be married to “the baron,” but there hasn’t been a sighting of this queen bee’s globetrotting husband in years. So when Lori McClain ladles on her Russian accent, she’s apparently not evoking a Trump wife.

A rich wife, yes, for Ravonka dangles the possibility of an exotic getaway to all the others, including the tall and slim newcomer, Brooke. She’s apparently a business barracuda, quick to resent Ravonka’s superior attitude and become her adversary – even to the extent of rejecting the idea of the free vacation at Ravonka’s expense. More than one of the scenes to come will stop dead in its tracks so that Lindsey Pearlman as Brooke and McClain can have a lethal stare-down. The pushy entrepreneur makes a living out of alterations to women’s jeans that make her the butt of Ravonka’s slights.

Opposites in their way, Gwen and Desiree aren’t part of the drama. Desiree is a neck model and a fro-yo addict, and Emjoy Gavino gives her all the squeaky kookiness you’d expect from such a airhead. It’s neat that the other gals take Desiree’s addiction so seriously that they stage an intervention. Gwen, a City Councilwoman who served time for her misdeeds as a Mayor Cannon advisor, takes herself more seriously than all the others combined. All of the women seem to host at least one of the scenes, with nothing more than a lighting change to take us there in flashback.

Desiree’s event is a neck photo shoot, of course – and Gwen’s, inevitably, is a fundraiser for a worthy cause, and Katie Caussin gives her such a starchy rectitude that, for a while, you might actually believe it’s real. Played by Katy Carolina Collins with a Myers Park girl-next-door wholesomeness, C.L. is the only housewife in the bunch. She found her husband out in the audience on opening night, an unsuspecting Andy who played along enthusiastically as soon as C.L. drew in range.

While the script by Kate James and Tim Sniffen is more often about filling in the blanks with deftly researched local dirt – notorious local scandal here, nearby backwater worthy of ridicule there – space is left open for improv when the audience is engaged. All of the cast members are Chicagoans, and a couple of them have toured with The Second City, a wellspring of American sketch and improv comedy for over 50 years. When Randy revealed that Ravonka’s secret daughter, Prosecco, was sitting out in the audience, McClain’s shtick was very much in her Second City vein, clever and quick, when Prosecco spat out what she had been caught stealing at school.

Elaborately phony air-kisses are dispensed by the dozen, triggering the overall kiss-and-tell formula of Realish Housewives , but it wouldn’t be the same – or last entire seasons, if you think about it – if there weren’t epic reconciliations after the epic feuds. Or punctuating those feuds, which come back in coming episodes and seasons like fleas. Here the climactic confrontation between Ravonka and Brooke ends in mutual understanding and the customary post-mortems. It’s all so deliciously catty, trivial, insincere, and emotional that the audience couldn’t get enough of it.

I even peeped in on Bravo the following night. Yeah, this trash can be habit-forming.

“Book of Mormon” Returns With Missionary Zeal

Book of Mormon

By Perry Tannenbaum

When the creators of South Park and Avenue Q detonated The Book of Mormon on Broadway in the spring of 2011, some people down here in Charlotte still had the 1996 Angels in America debacle in their rearview mirrors. Blumenthal Performing Arts would never have the nerve to bring such an audacious musical to Belk Theater, the Charlotte Observer taunted, because the city couldn’t handle such irreverence and foul language.

My conversations with Blumenthal brass had already indicated the opposite: they were eager to bring the show here. And they did. On the day after Christmas in 2013, Charlotte was one of the first stops for the touring version of the show. It not only came here, it stayed here for two weeks. Audiences were not at all horrified by the potty-mouthed blasphemies of the book and lyrics by Robert Lopez, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. They reveled in them, and Blumenthal staffers were soon crowing that Charlotte had been one of the most successful stops on the Mormon tour.

Enthusiasm for all this shrewdly crafted sacrilege has only waned slightly two seasons later. Once again, Belk Theater was sold out on press night, and it seemed like Cody Jamison Strand as Elder Cunningham and Ryan Bondy as Elder Price were offering a broader, more energized version of the Mormon missionaries’ A-team. Price is the model Mormon among the new initiates at the Salt Lake City HQ, convinced that he will draw the plumiest assignment, a mission to Orlando, Florida.

Instead, Price not only draws the least appealing destination, a Ugandan village tyrannized by a barbaric warlord, he also draws the worst possible companion, Cunningham. A pathological screw-up, Cunningham hasn’t memorized the prescribed doorbell spiel that opens the show. Actually, he hasn’t bothered to read the holy Book of Mormon, either. Worst of all, Cunningham has a tendency to panic a little under pressure, so instead of clamming up when he doesn’t know the drill, he’ll go off-script and invent stuff.

It’s at these suspenseful moments that Cunningham’s imagination will wander off into the realms of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings. So if you thought a gospel where Jesus resurfaces after the crucifixion in Rochester, New York, was bizarre enough, it only gets better in Cunningham’s version. Aiming at an African congregation, Cunningham adjusts his message to address the scourges of AIDS and rape, ignoring only the repeated cris de cœur from a gentleman with maggots in his scrotum.

In contrast with Mark Evans, whose stiffness in 2013 as Elder Price reminded me of Mitt Romney, Bondy’s wholesomeness seemed more like an animated Ken Doll or the robotic Marco Rubio. An almost-inhuman dimension comes into play when he sings the delightfully conceited “You And Me (But Mostly Me).” On the other hand, Strand has magnified the slovenly boorishness of Cunningham compared to the slob next door that Christopher John O’Neill brought us in 2013.

Cunningham’s pronouncements now seem occasionally to originate from the cavern of Strand’s large intestine, yet he’s vulnerable enough to be convincingly shy in the climactic “Baptize Me” duet with his adorable convert, Candace Quarrels as Nabulungi. What really marred Strand’s performance was his microphone, which often muddied his words, provoking a couple of overheard complaints at intermission from people half my age.

Sound problems also imposed a curious time delay when we reached the comedy climax where the African villagers present their skit of the Cunningham-infused holy book to the utter horror of the Mission President. What the group was saying was often garbled by the sound system, but by the second time they mimed them, we could divine the digestive problems plaguing the disciples of Brigham Young on their westward trek.

Scott Pask’s scenic design makes the contrast between Salt Lake City and Uganda as radical as the gulf between Emerald City and the hottest region of Hell, replacing Cunningham’s visions of Lion King natural splendor with extreme urban squalor when we adjourn to Africa. The dead alligator that is dragged across the stage looks like it was dredged from a sewer before the sun dried it out.

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David Aron Damane is ultra-fearsome as General Butt-Fucking Naked. Only a missionary as insanely self-confident as Elder Price could fail to see the consequences of waving the holy book in this warlord’s face. But it’s the geniality of Sterling Jarvas as Mafala, Nabulungi’s dad, that draws the biggest laughs as he welcomes our heroes to his village with the anthemic “Hasa Diga Eebowai.”

Other missionaries are floundering in Uganda, but the most outstanding Mormons play dual roles in the narrative. We see Edward Watts as Joseph Smith – in Mosaic hair worthy of Charlton Heston – before he returns in more buttoned-down stints as Elder Price’s proud dad and the even prouder Mission President. After a dazzling entrance as Moroni, Jesus’ angelic emissary to Smith, Daxton Bloomquist heads up the Uganda mission – and a wild tap-dancing ensemble – as Elder McKinley.

As the big “Turn It Off” production number cranks into high gear, it appears that Elder McKinley just might be a closeted homosexual who turns off his natural impulses “like a light switch.” With characteristic South Park subtlety, costume designer Ann Roth has the boys suddenly break out in sparkly pink vests at the height of their synchronized dance. This is just the assistance Bloomquist needs to keep the secret of McKinley’s sexual orientation secure – from children three-and-under.

Photos by Joan Marcus

Ebony and Odyssey at the Civil War

Theatre Review: Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3)

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By  Perry Tannenbaum

Sometimes it’s the winner who adds prestige to the prize. Despite its princely $100,000 payout from Columbia University, you probably never heard of the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History. The importance of the prize is likely to grow now that Lin-Manuel Miranda has snagged the fourth annual award for his megahit musical, Hamilton.

Last Monday’s announcement came just a wee bit too late for Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte to bask in the newborn Kennedy afterglow in their pre-publicity for Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3), which opened last Wednesday. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks won the 100 grand for Father last year, before the Kennedy Prize was important enough to be noticed by The New York Times.

As the first African American woman to take the Pulitzer Prize (for Topdog/Underdog), Parks isn’t exactly vaulting from obscurity with her latest win. Nor is she exactly rising from poverty with the cash, though the 2002 Pulitzer chipped in $10,000, also from Columbia. After Parks won the $300,000 Gish Prize last October, the LA Times reported that Parks had banked over $1,000,000 in arts awards during her career, including the genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

So what did Parks bring our way during the waning days of Black History Month? Notwithstanding the trilogy connotations of the title, amply fulfilled by the three-hour running time (including two 10-minute intermissions), Father Comes Home is actually the first installment in a longer nine-part project. Until subsequent installments are unveiled, Wars remains a misnomer, for the only war anyone goes off to — or returns from — is the Civil War.

Although our protagonist, Hero, appears in all three parts, it wasn’t until he returned in Part 3 that I began to feel we were watching something greater than the sum of three one-act plays. It also became clearer that Parks has her own take on deconstructing history.

On the one hand, she formalizes it much in the same way Aeschylus did when he added to the Homeric legends of the Trojan War in the Oresteia 2500 years ago, inaugurating the art of theatre on the Greek stage. Three slaves who work alongside Hero in the opening act of Father Comes Home, as he weighs the pros and cons of squiring his master in the Confederate Army, will disappear by the time he returns a year-and-a-half later. They’re replaced by three Runaways, hiding by day at the slave cabin until they can further their escape under the cover of darkness.

The Runaways talk to the only holdovers at the Confederate Colonel’s plantation, Hero’s wife Penny and Homer, but they also begin talking to us more and more, like members of a Greek chorus. It’s when Hero’s long-lost dog returns from the war that we begin to see the modernistic aspect of Parks’ treatment. When we learn that Hero has changed his name to Ulysses, we realize that Penny is his Penelope — and that the Greek hero is serving as a thin mythic template over Parks’s story, much as he did in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

But Parks also tosses a light sprinkling of absurdist anachronisms into the spectacle. A couple of these appear before intermission as one slave nurses a drink in a Starbuck’s cup and Hero takes off a set of headphones as he makes his decision. Relatively subtle touches that one theatergoer sitting with us in the front row could decry as a mistake.

These time-warp incongruities multiply when we return to Texas. One Runaway sports a doo-rag and twirls a yoyo, another wears a Blank Panther beret and reads Ebony, and the third wears a vinyl vest and totes a peacenik handbag. I’m guessing this is Parks reminding us that when we journey back to yesteryear, we bring today’s eyes to watch what happened.

No fewer than four slaves kick off the evening, speculating on whether Hero will go to war, evidently unaware of the title of the show. Two other slaves, Homer and the Oldest Man, are noncommittal in the general wagering, but both are generous with their input. We might equate Hero’s vacillation with the preening of undecided voters, loving the attention of the media who inflate their importance. But perhaps the thing to perceive here is the fact that any big choice given to a lifelong slave is a breath of freedom.

Homer’s reluctance to counsel Hero is linked to an ancient grudge. When Homer made his run for freedom years ago, it was Hero who ratted him out and delivered the master’s harsh punishment. Such episodes of Uncle-Tom loyalty are a big part of the reason that the Colonel is offering Hero the opportunity to accompany him onto the battlefield — and promising Hero his freedom if he survives.

But what are the chances that Hero will survive or that the Captain will keep his promise? Fear piles upon fear when Hero realizes that he will undoubtedly face the lash if he disappoints his master and refuses to go. Another layer is heaped on when the slaves realize that only a serious injury will serve as a sufficient excuse for Hero’s dereliction, for Hero must now suffer the same indignity he inflicted on Homer.

Father 5[11]It’s at this point in Part 1, when hero has made up his mind in Penny’s favor, where Sidney Horton’s otherwise flawless direction falters. The knife hovers so long and threateningly over Hero that the tension breaks before the episode is really over. My surprise over this lapse only increased during Part 2, in the heat of battle, when the Colonel parleys with a wounded Union soldier that he has captured and locked in a wooden cage. Action here made me wince, leaving no doubt of the Captain’s cruelty.

In a meticulously crafted performance, Jonavan Adams brilliantly fuses the three parts together as Hero. As robust and broad-shouldered as he is, Adams is supremely wishy-washy, so his Ulysses-like cunning and soulfulness can change to arrogance or cravenness in the blink of an eye. Looking up to him with love and yearning in her eyes — and maybe a sliver of seduction — April Jones is aptly coupled with Hero in Part 1. But the worm turns dramatically in Part 3, where it’s Penny’s turn to make a suspenseful choice, and the grit that Jones plants within her comes to the fore.

After making so much of so many mellow and insouciant roles before, it’s refreshing to see how deeply Jeremy DeCarlos sinks his teeth into the waspish resentfulness of Homer, who turns out to be the truest Penelope in the drama after limping around so long. If you’ve had your fill of American courtesy and courtliness between Civil War combatants on stage and screen, you’ll love the fierce in-your-face animosity between Craig Spradley as the Colonel and Stephen Seay as his captive, Smith.

Among the other slaves, Bobby Tyson distinguishes himself when he transforms into Hero’s long-lost dog Odyssey in Part 3, silencing Homer himself as he chronicles Ulysses’ battlefield adventures. The pooch’s life story had only 38 lines in the Homeric epic, but here Parks gives him two lengthy monologues, and Tyson makes a comical meal out of each one. The wooly jacket designed for him by costumer Carrie Cranford clinches his eclat.

Photos Courtesy of George Hendricks Photography