Monthly Archives: July 2016

Smokey and the Epic Hero

Theatre Review: O Brother

O Brother

By Perry Tannenbaum

In Greek legend, Odysseus was a man of many ways who sacked the sacred citadels of Troy, traveled widely, struggled valiantly, and suffered greatly. But even if this Homeric catalogue of achievements pales in comparison to the praise lavished upon presidential candidates at our quadrennial conventions, there’s something about the guy that continues to spark admiration – despite the fact that he was once captured and imprisoned.

Latterday tributes from Lord Tennyson and James Joyce to Ulysses (O’s Roman name) gradually humanized the Ithacan warlord and brought him down to life-size. Ethan and Joel Coen decided that wasn’t quite enough indignity to heap upon the mythic hero. The Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou not only presented Ulysses Everett McGill as an escaped jailbird, they made him a Mississippi hayseed. If any role George Clooney plays can be considered a hayseed.

On a ridiculously limited budget, Citizens of the Universe bring Odysseus down the social ladder a few more rungs with O Brother, for the costumes and backdrops by Mandy Kendall aren’t Hollywood. On the other hand, the newly unveiled performance space at NoDa Brewing Company – on North Tryon Street – can’t be accused of being Mississippi.

Trailblazing yet another new venue, COTU embraces an outdoor ambiance that is more picnic theatre than dinner theatre. Beer flows from the interior of the spacious new NoDa tavern, and grub is rustled up from a food truck you can’t miss on your way in from the parking lot. There’s a bluegrass trio at the side of the modest playing area: the Hashbrown Belly Boys, who start up before the odyssey begins. Very relaxed and homespun.

Energy amps up as soon as director Courtney Varnum, perky and pigtailed, steps forward to introduce the show. O Brother is only loosely based on Homer’s epic – and loose only faintly describes its trashy, Southern-fried, slapstick style. These are not realms usually explored by James Cartee and his COTU, but Varnum has been able to round up more than a couple of the usual suspects from past COTU navigations.

Tom Ollis is the one Citizen you would expect to fit in well in this new rusticated universe, playing “Pappy” O’Daniel, the gregariously corrupt Miss’sippi guvnah seeking re-election while hosting a Grand Ole Opry-style radio show on the side. Sort of a cross between Tennessee Williams’ Big Daddy, Huey Long, and Yosemite Sam the way Ollis plays him – mythologically, he’s Menelaus in the scheme of things.

Most surprising is Shane Brayton as our hero Ulysses, after playing opposite Ollis as an arrogant Richard the Lion-Hearted in The Lion in Winter. Down in the Delta, Brayton taps into hillbilly pluck, energy, optimism, and rascality in a way that I’d likely find irresistible if part of the audience weren’t partying and oblivious. Of course, persisting in the face of such loud inattention adds to the pluck factor, but I found the entire cast up to that challenge.

We need to listen all the more attentively because some of the actors’ names are flip-flopped with the names of the folk they play in the playbill. The most obvious of these is “Sheriff Cooley as Stephen West-Rogers.” While he isn’t quite as megalomaniacal as he was in Fight Club or as violently vehement as he was in Trainspotting, West-Rogers is more than sufficiently implacable and clueless as the Sheriff.

Make no mistake, all of these principals are surrounded by sidekicks or underlings that make them look like sages. “Pappy” has Michael Haynes as Junior O’Daniel and Jeremy Bryant as Pap’s political opponent, Homer Stokes, who turns out to have clout in the KKK. Sheriff Cooley has Justin Mulcahy as his standard-issue deputy, and Ulysses is saddled with Michael Anderson as Delmar O’Donnell and Josh Elicker as Pete Hogwallop – Varnum and Charlie Napier extend the deep-down hayseediness of the Hogwallop family.

Not counting the vocal trio of Ulysses’ daughters that doubles as the Sirens, three of the actors zip through multiple roles. Napier stands out as the aforementioned Wash Hogwallop, as a Blind Seer modeled on Teiresias, and as a marauding gangster with a chip on his shoulder, George Nelson, because he’s not the more infamous Babyface. All the great menaces of The Odyssey don’t appear in this hashbrown mashup, but we do get Scotland Gallo as “Big Dan” Teague, certainly Polyphemus with his eyepatch, and Kendall as Penny, Ulysses’ wife.

All of Penelope’s famed suitors coalesce into one Vernon T. Waldrip (Napier again) and, with this Ulysses, Kendall’s infidelity doesn’t play as sluttiness so much as cold pragmatism. A ne’er-do-well jailbird – as opposed to an MIA hero – should cause a sensible wife to make new plans, even in the backwoods. Calypso’s shtick in the journey gets merged into the three singing Sirens – Becca Whitesmith, MoMo Hughes, and Laura M Lee.

As you’ve no doubt divined, Odysseus’ sea voyage and his epic struggle to return home after the Trojan War have been downsized to a comical chase triggered by Ulysses’ jailbreak. Toss in the bluegrass music and it shouldn’t be surprising if O Brother sometimes reminds you of Smokey and the Bandit – without the same Hollywood charisma from the lead rascal. Igniting the chase, Ulysses cons Delmar and Pete into joining him in the escape by enlisting them in a quest for a treasure that he has hidden at the bottom of a valley soon to be flooded to create a dam. Echoes of Deliverance, another bluegrass bromance.

Only here, the music is more deeply woven into the storyline. For along the way, the three escaped white men hook up with Tommy Johnson, a black musician who claims to have gotten his phenomenal skills in a deal with the devil, a la Robert Johnson. On one of their stops before they break up, the quartet cuts a record as the Soggy Bottom Boys. It’s at these key musical moments – and subsequently at his KKK lynching – that we encounter yet one more familiar COTU personality, James Lee Walker II, best remembered for his one-man presentation of Karl Marx.

Walker is a bit humbler this time around. Everybody is. Sifting through the distractions, I’d say that Koly McBride’s O Brother tribute/arrangement of the Coen Brothers’ film is among the very best adaptations COTU has ever done. If the ratio of audience to partyers can be boosted significantly this weekend, the experience will be even better.

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James Cartee: The Exit Interview

By Perry Tannenbaum

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With the closing of Citizens of the Universe, there’s a lot more to unpack besides the daring of its founder, James Cartee, the history of his company, and the multiple finales he has planned between now and December. COTU’s end isn’t the same as the flameouts of Charlotte Repertory Theatre and Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST), but it’s symptomatic of the Charlotte theatre scene.

So here’s the full, edited Cartee interview – with more of the drive, the difficulties, and the vision that made COTU go, more lessons and highlights, and the lowdown on why Cartee is leaving.

Perry T: How, when, and where did Citizens of the Universe begin?

James Cartee: COTU got its start back in 2001 in Greenville, SC. I had washed up there after a few years of gallivanting about the planet and discovered some of my fellow university droogs had come ashore there as well. I hadn’t actually been on stage or doing “true theatre work” at the time. I had taken a 3-year break from theatre after a disastrous performance of Complete Works of William Shakespeare (a show where I also worked props) at Centre Stage South Carolina.

Some of my fellow compatriots thought it’d be a gas to lace a snack they gave me with acid before a show. All I care to say about that is: I didn’t care for the joke and I didn’t want to have anything to do with theatre for 3 years. But after three years – you get that itch.

The only problem was that in Greenville at the time there were no parts for a 20-year-old. I teamed up with a college friend of mine, Andrew Bryant, who was also feeling the need for theatre and having the same issues I was – too old for the kid stuff, too young for everything else.

We had run into each other randomly and it always ended the same way – with us bitching about there being a need for diversity in our local theatre. One night – over a bit too much rum – we agreed (more like dared each other) that we would put on a show. I’d been working in sports entertainment and due to an accident at the time, I decided that going back on stage was not in the cards.

Not being really available for the stage – I wanted to direct. I mean, come on! I did that one weird show in a college showcase, why not go for it again! I knew all we really needed was a space. I started looking.

A popular spot had been forced to move to a new location, so I went and pestered them. They had a stage, lights, and some sound so that part of my job would be done. Eventually, I conned this spot – owned and run by Kathy Laughlin, John and Stephen Jeter – into letting us use their new music hall, The Handlebar, for a weekend of one-acts. (http://www.handlebar-online.com)

Was there really a group of founding Citizens, or was it pretty much your one-man universe (with assorted stars and satellites) from the start? Where did the name come from?

Andrew and I buckled down and directed some David Ives one-acts. We decided we would each direct our shows under competing company names for some reason that I have now forgotten. His was Lightbringer Industries, and mine – ‘cause I had actually forgot about this until the day we had to print programs – was from a line in a play I was directing.

In that show, “Sure Thing,” a guy tries to pick up a girl, and each time he fails, there is a bell and the scene restarts. At one point, he stands and declares himself – A CITIZEN OF THE UNIVERSE. A girl I fancied at the time liked it and I needed a name on the fly so we went with that.

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We opened September 13th… 2001. That show was what I would call a success – for what it was. We as a group decided to do another weekend. After that, Andrew and I decided to do another show – Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead – where I would direct and he would star.

Somehow I conned the Handlebar into letting us use their space again. Since I was directing, we did it under the moniker of COTU. We pulled about 250 people per show for three days, mainly due to our connections with the local high schools who were smack dab in the middle of Hamlet studies.

Andrew and I started this, but after R&G, Dan A. R. Kelly, Traysie Amick (both fellow alumni chums) and another theatre local by the name of Jason Bryant (no relation to Andrew) concluded there was a market for our fledging idea. We formed up and became – the Citizens of the Universe. Mainly ‘cause we already had two shows with that name attached to it.

I’ve used the moniker wherever I plop down and do some shows, including with friends down in Orlando. They still run a theatre to this day, not COTU but affiliated.

Did you even start out with an implicit or explicit mission – if so, what?

At first, what we wanted was to provide a place for thespians between the ages of 20 and 40 to have a chance to explore theatre in Greenville, SC. It was to be an outlet for our original work and a test lab to help us learn/relearn/unlearn/hone what we had kinda been taught in college or a chance to have a go at something we didn’t know at all.

Now here, there was no plan. No mission – just go out and do shows. I took on a mission after a time because I’m weird like that, but here in Charlotte we started off doing shows just to do them.

Was there a special niche that your company was intended to fill?

We wanted an alternative to the Harvey, Brigadoons, and 1776’s that played on repeat in Greenville. You had the Warehouse Theatre, which was playing it safe at the time to secure dollars as they transitioned into a more professional theatre.

We wanted to be a dirty, gritty theatre who could perform anywhere at any time. We wanted to be fringe but we were too stupid at the time to consider ourselves that. Greenville didn’t know what to do with us – we actually got a show banned because of Bob Jones – Creation of the World and Other Business by Arthur Miller. The reason they objected to that show was that Jesus was being played by a black man. Meanwhile, across downtown… because we were running two shows at the same time, I was having a guy jack off on another guy dressed as a horse – in a horse stable – while doing Equus. No one said one damn word about it.

My favorite moment from that time was when Doug McCoy of Center Stage waltzed over to our table at the Stax Omega Restaurant – this man trained me in high school, so we were old friends – and told us our little theatre was cute. That he enjoyed our show, but if we really wanted to do theatre to come work for him.

I love that old queen – god rest his soul – but he was one of the reasons why we were doing what we were doing. His theatre was the most “out there theatre” in town, and they were doing Li’l Abner and Company. To be fair, they also did Wit and As Bees in Honey Drown that year.

Here in Charlotte, I wanted to fill the gap of fringe theatre. There wasn’t any here. Some would say there still isn’t. I didn’t set out to mainly do films on stage but that is what brought people – brand new audience members – in. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone walk up to me and say, “This was my first time for going to the theater. This was fantastic! Is all theatre like this?”

I’m not sure how many theatres will squish a toy bird filled with jello on your sir, but sure. All theatre is like this – go see some!

This is something we sorely need more of here. So, I guess you can say I fell into it.

You’ve presented theatre in other places before you came to Charlotte, and you surely have presented theatre in a lot of different places in Charlotte. So what’s with the Gypsy wandering?

The best education in life is travel. If you have the opportunity, go everywhere. I love seeing life and the world… which stands in contrast to the other side of my mask that wants to turn this planet into a new asteroid belt.

I’ve never felt at home anywhere, personally, except behind the wheel of whatever I’m driving across country. That being said, I’ve always been drawn to Charlotte for some damn reason I can’t quite identify. I love the South… I was born here. It’s in my blood. I also love old New York… pre-Giuliani and Buzzard’s Bay in Massachusetts and Amsterdam and Sidney and Denpasar and Biscayne Beach.

I’ve been a part of many circuses as a clown/fool/jester/mascot. Meeting people, drinking, and having fun knowing that you’re gonna move on to a whole new crop of folk is exhilarating to me. I do have to say – this last go round as a Tortuga Twin did throw me for a twist.

I had just really come into my own here in Charlotte and what the fuck did I do? I went on the road for four years with a Ren fest group. It was a crossroads of ideas and I’m still not sure if my personal GPS gave me the best directions on that one.

As far as being a theatre without a home here in Charlotte. I find it makes me and my crews quick on our feet, able to adapt to problems quicker and – quite frankly – better than almost any other artistic group in the city practicing the craft of theatre. I can put on a show anywhere at any time.

That was something I wanted to do way back in 2001 and probably is born out of my commedia roots. Having a space is great, but I’m a poor honkey and poor honkeys don’t tend to keep theatre spaces. The good side of that is I don’t ever have to worry about going through what ATC [Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte] is going through. Or UpStage and those members of the LIT [League of Independent Theatres] who found themselves without a place to put up their works cheaply. Or Off Tryon or Barebones or any other of those many, many theatres out in the graveyard of Charlotte arts.

Not having a space to put up your spectacle is nonsense. You can put on a show in a parking lot. I fear many people here have a very narrow mind when it comes to how you do theatre.

That being said, it has become increasingly hard to do work here as we allow more and more things to be bulldozed to make way for people who may be coming or maybe not. Overall, it makes for a more resilient company in my opinion – one that doesn’t fold ‘cause you don’t know where you are going to hang your lights.

How and why did COTU resurface in Charlotte?

The Rocky Horror Show, drugs, Jim Yost, John Hartness, Chris O’Neill, Barbizon, the Milestone, two women, and you. It’s a complicated formula. The Rocky show I was lucky enough to play Riff Raff in for the Spartanburg Shoestring Players fully awoke the theatre diva in me.

Charlotte was rife with new theatres and great opportunities! I WANTED to be part of theatre, and this community beckoned. Where there was an inter-theatre softball game, tons of small theatres, Artbomb… the MTA and 24 theatre shows. It was a big city without the cost.

For a beleaguered soul like mine at the time, it was something that felt like “home,” so here I plopped. Especially since my girl at time needed some space. So why not move two hours away! It was then where I actually put in some time to begin being part of this community.

Jim Yost and John Hartness gave me my first opportunities. Over and above that, I worked with anyone who needed a hand and doing whatever needed to be done. It allowed me to do something on nearly every stage in town. Then – a lovesick fool – I left Charlotte to follow my heart’s desire to Yellowstone. (I put up a show there ‘cause I was bored.)

When that relationship – predictably – didn’t work out I ended up back in Greenville. Very shortly thereafter, I met a gal at a GWAR show here in Charlotte and it was love at first fake bloodbath. However, when her dealer was decapitated, I said, “I’m moving to Charlotte, wanna join me?”

Once back, I worked with every place I could find – again – while waving as Uncle Sam on the side of the road and giving numbskulls directions for OnStar. By then, the South End Performing Arts center was gone and with it so many of the small theatres that had been one of the main reasons for me being here in the first place. Then O’Neill restarted Shakespeare Carolina and John Hartness directed Hamlet.

During this time, Hartness gave me a tech job at Barbizon – which kept me here. THEN – your review of Hamlet enabled the director in me. When I left for Yellowstone, I had my pick of places to do work. By the time I got back less than a year later… there was virtually nothing. Queen City had not come into its own yet… Collaborative Arts was just starting out. There was OnQ starting to make its first push… Vickie Evans was on the outskirts of my radar…. But. There was no fringe.

Nothing was picking up the vacuum left by Barebones and Epic Arts and Innovative and … I can keep going. I mean, there was CAST… and that meant long rehearsal periods, and while the risk was there, there wasn’ t the excitement of being out in the element. They had no true grit!

Yeah, I just called CAST out for playing it safe. I mean – the worst show I have ever seen was produced at CAST – White Man Dancing. This bothered me – greatly (and not just that show!). The director in me said, “Fuck it – let’s get to work.” I still had all my old files and ideas.

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Before Hamlet closed I had worked out a plan to do Trainspotting – the script I had been hunting for ten years – at the Milestone. A rather cold (it was winter at the Milestone), but monumental success.

Artistic creativity traditionally travels east to west where theatre is concerned, great Broadway comedies and dramas getting turned into movies. Traffic in the other direction usually involves adding musical scores to proven Hollywood hits. So where did you come up with the idea of adapting favorite films to the stage without layering on songs, music, and dance?

I chose Trainspotting because I fucking loved the film. I had read that it was play before it was a movie back in college but could never find a copy of the script. During Hamlet, I made a mission to find this play – not to put it on, just to find it. I did find it – in New Zealand. A limited press of four plays by Harry Gibson. It was an expensive book that I wish I still owned. (I drunkenly gave it away to… Matt Cosper?).

The play was fantastic and by Hamlet’s close, I already moved on putting it on stage. I had an idea to print color programs – and my gal at the time had come across a large set of expanded CD sets, which we stuffed with local band CD’s and songs that played throughout the show. In the aftermath, I “realized” people didn’t come to see the new kids on the block but to see Trainspotting.

So I decided to press the point. My thought was, if I can get people who have never been to see a theatrical show – or haven’t in years – I could trick them into seeing something they know. Hook ‘em! Then pull an Uncle Vanya on them. Open up the viewer pools, right? What I missed was, some of the people seeing Trainspotting were looking for the folks like the ones running Three Bone and Appalachian Creative.

They had no idea what to do with me. So I was alone in the theatre community again, but I was pulling people who didn’t attend Uncle Vanyas. Somehow, I stumbled into a niche. There IS a hungry audience who LOVE live performance, but they want stories they are familiar with.

Now on the song and dance bit. I hate musicals. For every Little Shop, you have 40 The Last Star Fighters. This whole trend of just putting shit out there that had some sort of film source material with a slapdash music behind it ‘cause that’s what people say the masses want – is shite. Utter shite. And it is reflected in what is on stage. Crap music… crappier adapted story. Maybe some good dancing and definitely great lighting, effects, and costumes.

You need those to hide the fact that the work sucks. Not the performances – in most cases – but the way the story is being retold. Take away all those bells and whistles – are you still telling a story or just bouncing from one song to the next? Personally, I feel you get more from the story without the song and dance.

There’s more nuisance to a play and it relates more to your audience. But just in case it doesn’t, sit in their laps while throwing vomit and shit at them. All I know is that I don’t want Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs to do a whole musical number about cutting off a fucking ear. Fuck that. Cut the ear off and let the blood drip.

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What I hope have been able to offer is for the viewer to move past what we can expect from a script we already know in one format and bring to light new aspects of those familiar moments. Eternal Sunshine, for example – I had quite a number of people tell me they hated the film but loved the stage show. It made them want to go back and watch the movie – making them rethink why they remembered the film in the first place.

If you added music to those, I feel it would lose resonance. I mean – I play up the comedy ‘cause I’m a hack, but even then, what I was hearing from a lot of our audiences was that what was on the page leaped out into life and grabbed you by the balls. Much more so than any song and dance or even on the screen.

How do you decide on which movies you want to stage, and what sort of difficulties do you encounter? Have there been instances of false starts, frustrating failures, forbidden rights, or just plain fuck-it’s-I’ve-changed-my-mind?

Trainspotting was a show I wanted to do ‘cause I loved the movie back in college. And the book I read after seeing the movie. After that, I thought to myself, what else is out there? That didn’t go very far because most translations just end up being fucking musicals.

It was like that until I focused on what I thought would be good to translate to stage, coupled with movies I liked or directors I was fond of and crosschecked that with books that had been turned into movies. I found that Fight Club had been done in Seattle and tracked it down. Tarantino [Reservoir Dogs] was another – but there is no book for him, just the movie script. That took a while to get any answers on, but several theatres have mounted that as a play, and I did research through them.

For a while, that was my method – finding out that another theatre had done a show somewhere in the world and pestering the crap out of them to find out how. Sometimes I made decisions by asking the social media world what it wanted to see. Adapting a script meant getting someone from a distribution company, the writer, and production teams to sign off on it.

That always means a mixture of editing and adapting. Some were easy – such as Night of the Living Dead (which is public domain), and others were…complex. Like Eternal. That script still needs another 20 pages chopped off.

There are those you can’t do – I desperately want to bring Nightmare Before Christmas and Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas to stage (both Disney. Anything Disney is off the table.) – and others that are way too much of a burden to bring to life. Like Clue. You have to ask Hasbro for the rights – but they say you need to get the rights from Paramount, who will tell you to talk to Universal… who tells you to talk to Hasbro.

Thing is, once you get Hasbro to sign off, Samuel French comes in and complains about the Cluedo script they have and demand that you pay royalties there as well – making the whole thing rather expensive or another protracted timeline between companies talking to one another.

But it has been done before. In fact- there is such a demand for the Clue script these days that I have been informed that they are attempting to make an official version that will be marketed out by HASBRO proper, removing Samuel French, Universal, and Paramount from the equation altogether.

I suspect as soon as that hits the market Theatre Charlotte will drop a pretty penny on it- unless ATC survives it’s current homelessness. There were some change-my-mind shows, like “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.” Desperately wanted to do that show but backed out of doing it for cost and space on the calendar.

You also encounter scams. I’ve been scammed by a company that didn’t have the proper rights and had to scuttle a show because of it right on the eve of opening. Frustrating as hell and puts a strain on the ole ticker.

Then there’s just bad scripts. Like Clockwork Orange. The official adaptation is terrible. Just plain terrible. That’s one where I was like “Fuck this script.” There are other versions but getting those have proven to be painstakingly hard.

There’s also the rare idea that doesn’t pan with available scripts- like M.A.S.H. and The Land of the People Who Do What They Want (better known as V for Vendetta). The MASH ideas would have involved using the local reserve for equipment, an uncle for a helicopter, and a local high school for a football field. You’d then follow the show in a living 4077 [hospital]. You could follow any character – a la Punchdrunk theatre style entertainment.

With V for Vendetta there was a translation issue – the play was in Norwegian… and my idea would have been a follow-the-show event much like Disturbance. The translating ended up being a bit too much to handle so I scuttled it.

There a few translations to stage out there I’ve heard of but never found except a new one – adapted by Sean Mason out of Manchester. I’ve already contacted him and he and I are talking about how I can bring it to the stage in the future for a US premiere.

Let me finish on one that is a movie but not why we were doing it: The Man in the Iron Mask. I wanted to do a big sword show since Princess Bride. Big swashbuckling scenes… I actually wrote a Pirate script that was awful. The concept was sound, but man – I couldn’t handle the story I was trying to write then.

I may go to work on it again soon – who knows? But when I approached Mandy Kendall with the big sword idea she jumped to her favorite writer – Dumas. I didn’t want a 3 Musketeers play and she suggested Iron Mask. We got to work, and I did most of the adapting of the script from the source material. A thoroughly fun adventure as I had never actually read any of the Musketeers stories.

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What do you look back on as your best productions?

Trainspotting at Story Slam is perhaps the closest that came to the vision I had in my head to make it to the stage. The Milestone version had my widest scope of inclusion, like with local bands and such. Lion in Winter was a fantastic show and for me personally, I believe that is my best work.

As far as overall idea? Big Labowski, Princess Bride, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Which were the most fun to be involved in?

Disturbance in Whitechapel. It was a unique idea – for me at least. And running around setting up bodies, explaining what was going on to cops, getting spaces to let us do what we were doing, and actually researching/writing the damn thing was probably one of the most fun times I’ve ever had on a project. Second time through, I put up stage curtains on all the windows, bought a bunch of wine, and hunkered down in my Ripper cave for 48 hours.

Then again this list: Big Labowski, Princess Bride, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind all make the top as well.

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Was Fight Club the ultimate nightmare, or was there worse?

Don’t get me wrong – Fight Club was a logistical nightmare. I kept losing spaces and Marlas… and there was that train and the rain…. but that was a cakewalk compared to having to deal with the Chop Shop during Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Jay – the owner – is a wonderful guy, but he just doesn’t get what it takes to do theatre. Or be an audience member.

Often he would come in with someone and talk loudly during the show. He even did that one night at SEEDS during Lion in Winter. We all busted ass to get R&G together, and I broke down in the greenroom on our final night ‘cause he had been telling me about an hour before show that he was shutting us down at a certain time – mainly ‘cause the audiences weren’t that big for R&G.

He was being a dick about it, so I panicked. Tania Kelly, Megan Stegall, and I worked out a way to leapfrog through scenes to bring down the run time. Only problem is, and this is a good problem, the last night was standing room only. We packed the place. The look on his face when he walked in halfway through the first act – and during an entrance from that side – was priceless. We didn’t cut a single line and ran over about 5 minutes.

There have been other headaches. Most of those led to aborted shows, or debacles like the Queen City Fringe. Probably the most troublesome all around was a night when Colby Davis showed up drunk to a night of Eternal Sunshine during its second run. He continued to drink during the show and took some liberties on stage with the actresses that were never rehearsed. I’ve never had such a breakdown in cast trust and the resulting alienation before or since.

To this day, the decision not to replace him for the rest of the run has haunted me. It directly affected the show, the mindset of people working with me afterwards, and many of my personal relationships. It was a rookie directorial mistake and one I should have been more prepped for.

What are the best things that you’ve found about the Charlotte scene since your arrival in 2008 – and what has really pissed you off?

Well, here’s the thing. I’ve been popping in and out of Charlotte since 1995. When I moved here on this current run back in ‘05, I had a pretty rosy attitude about Charlotte and the theatre here. One of the best things about Charlotte is the ability to create and the amount that was being created. There was once a lot of places to put on shows. Not that there isn’t now – but once again, the days are gone when you could pick and choose from what was a healthy community.

Add to that the loss of so many buildings, plus the fact that everyone has become money-starved since around 2012, and that picture isn’t so great anymore. One of the cool things I’ve found out as of late is the hidden African American theatre here. There’s some great work going on there that doesn’t get a lot of press. I guess that’s true all around. Charlotte has an abundance of people who wish and want to create and want to play. That’s one of its best parts.

I don’t think we utilize that base well enough. The theatre community itself is very caring about the idea of theatre, but they have little want to present a united front to show the general public that we do indeed have a theatre community outside of touring shows.

As for what pisses me off? City Council. Toll lanes. Pat McCrory. The statement theatre is dead. The idea that in a city of 800,000 people, we don’t have a professional theatre. Even worse – that no one outside of the community seems to care. That that very same caring community dismisses people like myself when I’m warning of bullshit like what happened to ATC.

I started my own theatre column three years ago and have been bitching a lot on those pages about our inability to save our theatre groups. I’m pissed that our community is so dismissive of each other. That an organization like the LIT that claimed to be inclusive were immediately exclusive. I’m pissed that that mentality runs throughout the community. I dislike cliques even though I’m actually part of that problem myself.

I dislike that newcomers have a hard time getting a foot in the door. Theatre minds here rarely take a chance… and even when they do, it’s the safest option. I’m not saying be dangerous like those assholes at Chicago’s Profiles Theatre. There’s a difference between daring and dangerous.

When we had a chance to gather together to make a comprehensive plan for the theatres in town, we just let it die. I’m referring to the meeting that the A&S Council called at CAST. Had a great turnout. We separated into groups, met a few times and it became readily apparent that some people just didn’t want others to participate. To be a community, you have to be ready to accept everyone out there – mimes and all.

Nothing came of that whole shebang, and look where we are today. No CAST. ATC is not functioning. Most of the fringe groups have withered.

I have to say artistic morale is quite low, and it shouldn’t be. I have met so many wonderful and talented people here, and I want them all to be able to put up the work they want to make. That being said, there’s a lot more to be pissed about right now than happy, unless you’re doing theatre outside of Charlotte.

Do you think you’ve made an impact – and if so, how would you describe it?

Oh, yeah. I think I helped spur the last surge of storefront theatre. I remember going to work at the Children’s Theatre and talking with Matt Cosper about GONZO and Trainspotting. He said, “I want to do that. I wanna do what you do, Cartee.” Now if memory serves – he had been doing that a few years earlier. Actor’s Farm?

At any rate, as Fight Club was going up – Machine Theatre started its engines. Stephen Seay was starting his own group independently. I feel that between the three of us, we jumpstarted the small theatre scene. Seay was pulling in his demographic at Petra’s. Machine was getting a high five from the theatre community, and I was pumping the general public with shows like Reservoir Dogs.

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2 or 3 years running, an actor who got their first Charlotte part by running into COTU auditions ended up becoming Newcomer of the Year. There are a multitude of folks who started at COTU who are now bigger parts of the theatre community. These people may never had joined up due to the mindset of a lot of theatres in the area. Michael Ford got the bug in letting me do GONZO at the Mill… that directly led to UpStage.

I could be vain here – but it seems that where I went, people seemed to follow. I started doing theatre in a space and – lo and behold – others wanted to come and play too. I felt confined in a space and moved to another – suddenly others were there as well. I think – while not the first by a long shot – I did lead the charge for others even if only in terms of space.

Ideas were like that as well – like the Fringe Fest. Not the first attempt at a fringe (despite BOOM saying so), but the idea on the scope is still something I believe Charlotte needs. The aforementioned BOOM it a direct result of that effort. I like to think I’ve grown talent pools and opened Charlottean masses to theatre that is more approachable for them (‘cause not everyone wants to see a Neil Labute, and let’s face it, Uncle Vanya).

I’ve also been up in everyone’s happy little spot telling them everything is not as kosher as it seems. We have major problems, and we have to deal with them – and some of those problems are very much our fault. People don’t like hearing that, but it does make them think. I was only too happy to help.

What made you decide to close up shop in Charlotte?

Charlotte did. One of the reasons I moved here was cost. It was cheap. In the past three years, everything has shot up beyond what I want to pay. That alone didn’t do it. I have great issues with this state politically and even more so locally. The great bulldozing that has gone on has greatly depressed me. Destroying the neighborhoods I enjoyed living in has only made me want to flee this place altogether. Artistically, I feel trapped. I find there is little support for theatre in Charlotte in general.

Living and working in this art is a mite hard anywhere, so to have extra obstacles thrown in your path becomes untenable after a time. Artistically, I need a new canvas. I want to be surrounded by people with some differing thoughts and more accepting. I want to live in an accepting community that seeks to be stronger rather than one who tears itself apart every few years.

I’ve also become a bit of a detriment to my own shows by simply speaking my mind. You piss off enough people and they, in turn, like to poison the well. To be fair – some of that piss and vinegar is warranted. I try not to be a bad guy, but sometimes I just am. Mainly due to lack of funds.

The short and sweet of it is, Charlotte has become untenable for artists like myself to live and work. So: I want to run away to another, more accepting community where I can get better pay and have the work I want to create be better received by my fellow artists and not just the public.

What are your plans after December 10?

I have a position in Austin I’m pursuing that will open up at the beginning of the year. I’m planning on taking a year off from theatre to write. I have several shows I want write, and I’m working on a book. I do plan on being back here in some form next summer with O’Neill’s Shakespeare Carolina. What, I can’t say out loud yet.

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After that, I’m jumping hardcore into theatre there and helping out as much as this miserable flesh will let me. I also plan on starting a COTU branch there.

I’m not moving just to say fuck you Charlotte. There are long term plans – like starting up a COTU circuit. Creating a talent circuit and do short exchanges between cities. My friends are still in Orlando, I have a man in Baltimore, and more than a few Citizens here are threatening to take up the mantle and run shows.

See, here’s the thing about COTU I think people have not truly gotten. COTU – its core concept – is that anyone can do this. And everyone should. Once you do a show with us, you are a Citizen and are absolutely free to go and start your own thing or do your COTU show. You can request any and all resources that may be available or get direction on where to do a show or who may be available for tech, acting, and other such things.

I can be utilized from afar, as was the case when I was in Oklahoma and wrote, did the press, and set up a space for Nick Iammatteo’s production of Sid and Nancy here in Charlotte. There’s a team of ladies who are good candidates for a new core. I encourage it.

As for me – it’s getting close to about time to hit the old dusty trail. But I do have a few more shows first!

COTU firebrand founder James Cartee pulls the plug

Going down in a blaze of glory

We’ve had one professional theatre company in Charlotte that drew the likes of Hilary Swank, Tony Kushner, Beth Henley, Andre De Shields, Emily Skinner and Bonnie Franklin to town. Another company was so prolific that they often had two productions running at the same time in their final days. Scores of fringe companies, held up by dogged determination and duct tape, have sprouted up, wrought miracles on shoestring budgets, and disappeared overnight.

James Cartee in Gonzo: A Brutal Chrysalis. (Photo courtesy of COTU)

  • James Cartee in Gonzo: A Brutal Chrysalis. (Photo courtesy of COTU)

So did the pro company, Charlotte Repertory, and the prolific company, Carolina Actors Studio Theatre — both trashed by rogue boards of directors.

But we’ve never had anything like James Cartee and his Citizens of the Universe. Never bedeviled by meddlesome bean counters, Cartee is closing down his company and leaving Charlotte — with his own special flair. One of his final shows, O’Brother, is up and running at NoDa Brewery as we go to press. Another, Gonzo: A Brutal Chrysalis, opens next week. Four more Citizens productions are in the works before COTU brings down the curtain on its final show on December 10.

The company’s name came from “Sure Thing,” the first short play in David Ives’ All in the Timing, which was the first show COTU co-produced in 2001, over in Greenville, SC. A comic sketch with a multitude of false starts, “Sure Thing” was an apt reference, since COTU popped up afterwards in multiple places, including Orlando and Yellowstone, before taking root here.

Their first Charlotte effort, Trainspotting at the Milestone Club (a frosty success in late January of 2008), was emblematic of what made COTU unique. From the beginning, Cartee’s shows voyaged to places nobody else had considered before: Fight Club in a Central Avenue parking lot, Reservoir Dogs at Studio 1212, Princess Bride at the Breakfast Club, Gonzo: A Brutal Chrysalis at The Graduate, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Chop Shop, Titus Andronicus in the back patio of Snug Harbor, A Disturbance in Whitechapel along multiple streets and venues in NoDa, The Lion in Winter at SEEDS, Nosferatu in the backlot of Salvaged Beauty, and Sid and Nancy at The Mill (before it became UpStage).

Cast of COTU's Fight Club. (Photo courtesy of COTU)

  • Cast of COTU’s Fight Club. (Photo courtesy of COTU)

Cartee considers his company fringe theatre, but his roaming, pioneering spirit as he invaded new territories established COTU as Charlotte’s quintessential guerrilla group. The trailblazing has left lasting marks. Some of these previously unexplored places, most notably UpStage, caught on as performance venues with other companies.

Just as important are Cartee’s colonizing instincts. The third — and likely last — Carolina Arts & Theatre Awards will be staged at Snug Harbor in September, gathering the community’s theatre artists together and celebrating their achievements. More fundamental was the Queen City Fringe Festival of 2013. Cartee’s attempt to set NoDa, Plaza-Midwood and Elizabeth ablaze with live performances didn’t exactly ignite those neighborhoods, but it demonstrated that it could be done — paving a way for other groups and artsy shenanigans, like this year’s successful BOOM Festival.

Yet the idea of taking favorites and cult movies and turning them into live theatre — never adorning them with song and dance — remains Cartee’s exclusive turf. That mission actually evolved from an epic 10-year quest to find the playscript for Trainspotting that Cartee heard about back in his college days. He tracked down a rare book of four plays by Harry Gibson in New Zealand, paid a pretty penny for it, and found it more fabulous than he’d expected.

But it was audience reaction that convinced Cartee that he was on to something. People weren’t coming to see Trainspotting out of curiosity for a new group in town, so much as they were connecting with the movie title.

“There is a hungry audience who love live performance,” says Cartee, “but they want stories they are familiar with. My thought was, if I can get people who have never been to see a theatrical show — or haven’t in years — I could trick them into seeing something they know. Hook ’em! Then pull an Uncle Vanya on them.”

After Reservoir Dogs, COTU actually did produce Uncle Vanya at Story Slam in 2010. That was four months before reviving Trainspotting at the same Central Avenue venue.

Berry Newkirk in COTU's Trainspotting. (Photo courtesy of COTU)

  • Berry Newkirk in COTU’s Trainspotting. (Photo courtesy of COTU)

Trainspotting at Story Slam is perhaps the closest that I came to the vision I had in my head to make it to the stage,” Cartee reminisces. “Lion in Winter was a fantastic show and for me personally, I believe that is my best work. As far as overall idea? Big Lebowski, Princess Bride, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I play up the comedy ’cause I’m a hack, but even then, what I was hearing from a lot of our audiences was that what was on the page leaped out into life and grabbed you by the balls. Much more so than any song and dance or even on the screen.”

A sharp edge is often evident in Cartee’s hacking, for there’s another rich vein that runs COTU’s history, whether it’s favorite movies plopped onstage or classic literature. With titles that include Titus, Reservoir Dogs, Beowulf, and The Disturbance in Whitechapel — chronicling the rampage of Jack the Ripper — COTU’s catalogue is easily the bloodiest in the annals of Charlotte theatre. The one time that he detoured into a musical, Cartee’s COTU presented The Rocky Horror Show.

But musicals are not his thing. “All I know is that I don’t want Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs to do a whole musical number about cutting off a fucking ear. Fuck that. Cut the ear off and let the blood drip.”

Megan York and Colby Davis in COTU’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (Photo courtesy of COTU)

  • Megan York and Colby Davis in COTU’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (Photo courtesy of COTU)

There’s plenty more gore to come. The newest installment of Disturbance, Fear the Ripper, will transplant Jack’s final rampage to Plaza-Midwood — with five new endings — and at the Halloween end of October, Silence will reign. That one comes with the chained convict Hannibal Lecter.

Is there anything left undone? Probably not, since the man who labels himself the Intergalactic Peacekeeper of COTU is letting his imagination fly into outer space in two of his valedictories. After Gonzo: A Brutal Chrysalis, Cartee and COTU will present The Rapture Sampler Platter, a variety of new, short plays based on the word and theme rapture, Sept. 8-10.

The theatre troupe will revisit its final frontier in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, December 1-10. And it should be a blast.

Final Fireworks in the COTU Universe: Cartee discloses details on upcoming COTU shows

The Rapture Sampler Platter, Sept. 8-10 @ Pure Pizza Variety of new, short plays based on the word and/theme Rapture. “I choose to do another Sampler Platter ‘cause I feel that new work is always a must. We need to be churning out work like crazy to exercise our minds… and I choose to do it on a short timeline so that we can maximize actor talent pools. I want to give anyone who has never directed a chance to see what that’s like. So this project is all about bringing new minds together with new work, giving them a deadline and seeing what pops out.”

Disturbance In Whitechapel: Fear the Ripper, Sept. 28-Oct. 3 @ Plaza-Midwood In a city with what seems to have a convention of killers, who is the real Ripper? Why has he returned? And can Abberline finally put an end to this menace? This time we invade the streets of Plaza-Midwood to seek out the fiend. “Disturbance is always a blast. Last year I added a separate storyline which split the audience up at times. Of course five new endings. There was no way I was going to leave without carrying out another slaughter.”

Silence, Oct. 27-30, Nov. 4-6 @ The Roxbury Clarice has her job cut out for her – and maybe literally. She has to match wits with the notorious Hannibal Lecter while she seeks to prevent another murderer from striking again. “Which brings me to the Halloween show. What better than a thriller with a cannibal? Blood…. lots of blood.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dec. 1-4, 7-10 @ Unknown Brewery Possibly the last surviving human, Arthur Dent, is rescued by Ford Prefect by hitchhiking onto a passing spacecraft. Then they set of on a series of misadventures wi th Trillian, a depressed android and the President of the Galaxy. some think this was general a good idea on their part. “The biggest show I could think of that’s been on my plate is Hitchhiker’s Guide. Love those books, TV show, radio show… and I wanted to see a live show. I mean when they did this in Liverpool, it had a hovercraft! I won’t be doing that… but I will be bringing the universe to you.”

The Roads Both Taken

Theater review: If/Then

By Perry Tannenbaum

Unless you’ve been stubbornly clinging to some medieval idea of predestination, you’ve probably realized that the unfolding of your life, like human history, is simply one actuality plucked from an infinite number of possibilities. There are so many profound, iffy, or split-second decisions along the way that could have led you to different outcomes, so many instances of split-second timing that could have put you in different places – or in different company.

If/Then (Jackie Burns)

  • If/Then (Jackie Burns)

Brian Yorkey’s book for If/Then, with music by Tom Kitt, isn’t the first script to show us what happens if a single stitch in history is dropped. It’s a Wonderful Life demonstrated the difference a single person can make in the lives surrounding him and in a town’s destiny. Back to the Future was a sci-fi study of a how the slightest tweak of the past can resonate – and radiate – for generations to come.
Yorkey gives us an evening-long double exposure for just a few years in the life of Elizabeth. A talented woman with city planning creds, Elizabeth bumps into two old chums in Madison Square Park when she returns to New York after divorcing her husband in Phoenix. Lucas is a bisexual old flame who is hyper-seriously immersed in activism, while Kate is a gregarious lesbian who’s an ace kindergarten teacher.

Hinging on whether she picks up a cell phone call or not, Elizabeth either leaves the park with the intention of meeting Lucas or Kate that night. Meeting Lucas, she becomes Beth, the powerful city planner. Or she’ll rendezvous with Kate – on a course to become Liz, meet a future husband, drift into teaching and motherhood, and wear glasses to make herself look smarter.

Scenes in Beth’s life and Liz’s life dissolve into one another as the glasses come on and off, lightly pointing out the joys and sacrifices of both career and family. At times, scenes merge – at Elizabeth’s birthday party or in her bedroom. Sound confusing? It is.

After seeing Idina Menzel star as Elizabeth on Broadway, I found it much easier to track Liz and Beth’s separate lives in the touring version now at Belk Theater. Yet after concentrating so hard on sorting out the Beth path from the Liz path, I still had to confront Yorkey’s confusing loop back to Madison Square Park at the end of the night – and the numinous haze that Elizabeth’s best friends had been turned into.

For the paths Elizabeth takes affect the destinies of both Lucas and Kate. In one scenario, Liz’s future husband introduces Lucas to his future husband, and in the other scenario, Beth is there to prevent Kate from divorcing her wife. In the welter of Kitt’s power ballads, the ones Liz sings so much like Beth’s, the background and the whole point begin to get blurry.

On Broadway, Menzel appeared to be a self-absorbed superstar condescending to play two mere mortals most of the night. I actually like Jackie Burns better on the tour. Yes, Burns turns every one of her ballads into an American Idol extravaganza as Menzel did, adoring her own voice to the point of frequently obliterating Yorkey’s lyrics, but she invests herself more in Liz and Beth between ballads, and we can feel more for her when her hearts are broken. True, her climactic “Always Starting Over” isn’t the three-act opera Menzel made of it, but her “What the Fuck?” just might be a little more comical – because Burns is more inclined toward vulnerability.

As Lucas, Anthony Rapp gets to be tender in the Beth scenario, singing “You Don’t Need to Love Me.” Opposite Liz, Lucas is more appealing and domestic, responding to the more romantically inclined David (Marc Delacruz) in the “Best Worst Mistake” duet. But apart from his opposition and cynicism when Beth accepts a high-powered government job, Lucas doesn’t really figure in the important dialectic.

That’s where Kate and Josh come in. When Liz runs into her future husband for a second time in a subway car, it’s Kate who tells her that the universe is trying to send her a message in “It’s a Sign” – and that Josh is the messenger. Combatting Liz’s rationality, Tamyra Gray has the kooky energy you’d expect from a prize-winning schoolteacher who proudly consults her horoscope and believes in fate.

Seen first in military camo after a tour of duty overseas, David either does or doesn’t encounter Elizabeth at the right split second in the park, but it turns out that he combines brawn and brains when he does, for he’s a surgeon. His arguments against Liz’s rationalism and her actuarial calculations of probability are more eloquent in “You Never Know” and more existential in the “Here I Go” duet.

Matthew Hydzik keenly understands the connection between those songs as Josh, and he brings out what is compelling about their arguments better than his Broadway counterpart. Statistics aside, we don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future, and any tough but important decision we make in life will always be an intrepid plunge into the unknown. Even when things don’t work exactly as we hoped and planned – which is what the odds truly favor – it’s questionable that we’d want a do-over. For what we experience becomes who we are.

That’s pretty much what Liz is telling us in “Always Starting Over.”

Now do Elizabeth’s forking paths offer us a fresh insight – or are they an effective way to underscore the preciousness and suspense of every moment that we live? I’m only slightly more convinced the second time around. People that I overheard leaving Belk Theater on opening night were more preoccupied with figuring out what had happened than what it meant.

Can’t Get Enough of Your Nun, Babe

Reviews of Sister Act and Killing Women

By Perry Tannenbaum

Maybe Ophelia should have followed Hamlet’s advice. Julie Andrews — or was that Carrie Underwood? — checked into a nunnery in The Sound of Music and, in spite of some serious compatibility issues, wound up with a husband and a singing group. The same thing happened to Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act when she hid from a Las Vegas gangster at a San Francisco convent and wound up leading a choir of nuns in a command performance for the Pope.

Sister Act runs through July 23 at CPCC’s Halton Theater. (Photo by Chris Record)

(Photo by Chris Record)

The musical version, transplanted to Philly and currently completing a very successful summer season at CPCC, makes it a little clearer that lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier gets her man. Some might say that Sweaty Eddie, the shy and timid police desk sergeant who whisks Deloris into hiding, mans up at just the right moment and gets his woman. No matter, there’s plenty of righteous jubilation at the end.

Relationships with Deloris tend to be turbulent. She disdains the timid Eddie even though she knows he has a crush on her. Yet she submits to the indignity of being gangster Curtis Jackson’s piece-on-the-side, because he might soften up and get her a record deal. That relationship sours when Curtis gives Deloris one of his wife’s hand-me-down coats for Christmas — a rather noxious blue number — but before we can see whether she’ll follow through on her resolve to walk out on him, she witnesses Curtis killing off one of his henchmen.

So that relationship is also on the rocks.

It’s only when Eddie puts her in the witness protection program at Queen of Angels Cathedral that we arrive at the relationship that gives Sister Act its true spark. Eddie and Curtis merely represent the diverging paths Deloris might take in life. Mother Superior is her polar opposite, disciplined, dignified, god-fearing, ascetic, and tradition-bound. Comical shockwaves fly in both directions when they meet — as soon as Mother Superior espies Deloris’s glittery scanty attire, and as soon as Deloris whips out a cig.

What elevates this script, adapted by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner from Joseph Howard’s screenplay, is the attention it gives to the Mother Superior’s spiritual crisis as Deloris’s leadership of the choir brings crass commercial success to the struggling Cathedral. The stinging line she nails Deloris with, “God sent you here for a purpose — take the hint,” gets flung right back in Mother Superior’s face.

CP and director Corey Mitchell are so fortunate to have Paula Baldwin for their top nun. While Baldwin gets great comedy mileage out of Mother Superior’s discomfiture, she also delves deeply enough into the Mother’s spiritual anguish for us to empathize, even if we can’t climb aboard. It would be an overstatement to say that Baldwin can’t sing a note, but there are some notes Mitchell and music director Drina Keen should have advised her not to sing. Speaking some of “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” would have helped, but it remains one of the evening’s highlights.

Conversely, singing rather than acting is Jessica Rebecca’s strong suit as Deloris. She’s a fair substitute for the infallible Whoopi in the comical moments, but she’s an absolute force of nature when she breaks into song. I’m not sure that Rebecca even needs a mic when she’s belting at Halton Theater, but she was certainly overmiked for most of opening night.

I only began to feel raw emotion from Rebecca at Eddie’s apartment when she sang “Fabulous, Baby!” her second pass at proclaiming her aspirations. So it was especially devastating when she suddenly grew soft segueing into the title song, where she realizes the love, sisterhood, responsibility, and growth she has experienced at Queen of Angels. A goose-bump moment, for sure.

Rebecca towers over Christian Deon Williams, making it all the easier for him to simulate Eddie’s timidity, but the richness in his lower range as he sings his aspirational “I Could Be That Guy” tips us off to his manliness too soon. Big as he is, Stephen Stamps could stand to be raunchier — and older — as Curtis to get the full comical menace out of “When I Find My Baby,” a doo-wop love song with murderous intent, but his Barry White shtick later on is workin’, Babe.

Curtis’s backup thugs have a nice ethnic diversity, Justin Miller as Joey, Alex Aguilar as Pablo, and Justin Rivers as TJ, all of them getting prime spots in “Lady in a Long Black Dress.” More individuality is lavished upon Monsignor O’Hara and three of the nuns. It’s Beau Stroupe as O’Hara who prevails upon Mother Superior to offer refuge to Deloris and is then surprised — and surprisingly enthused — about the rock and gospel Deloris infuses into Sunday services.

Megan Postle is preternaturally welcoming and upbeat as Sister Mary Patrick, exactly the quality needed to maximize the comedy of “It’s Good to Be a Nun.” Caroline Chisholm is the conflicted postulant, Mary Robert, instantly drawn to Deloris’s worldliness. She has some prodigious high notes lurking within her, but Chisholm maintains her innocence even after Deloris helps set them free. As the usurped choir director, Sister Mary Lazarus, Kathryn Stamas is the most surprising of the nuns. Not only can she kick aside a piano stool with a flair that would make Jerry Lee Lewis proud, she can kick her left foot as high as her ear, kicking sideways.

Unless you truly expected the Halton’s stage to be transformed into a cathedral worthy of a Pope’s visit, you’ll be impressed by Jennifer O’Kelly’s set designs — and by how slickly one scene melts into another. Except for the glittery getups worn by Deloris and her backup duo, costume designer Theresa Bush reins it in, but the papal finale is pretty fab.

Alan Menken’s “Here Within These Walls” echoes his own “Beauty and the Beast,” a letdown where there should be uplift. But his “Sunday Morning Fever” — and a couple of his other songs here — will waken disco memories of Travolta, the Bee Gees, and their Saturday Night Fever, a trashy touch that somehow adds to the fun.

A shot from Killing Women. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Seay)

(Photo courtesy of Stephen Seay)

A similar vein of humor runs through Killing Women, a black comedy presented by Stephen Seay Productions at UpStage. Gwen is involuntarily recruited into a ring of hired killers, a profession totally inimical to motherhood. Forget about spiritual uplift as two other pistol packers, vulgar Abby and elegant Lucy, pitch in with the childcare.

Gwen earns one of the most hilarious character descriptions I’ve ever heard, rightly labeled a “do-it-yourself widow” by Abby. The action really revolves around Abby, for after Lucy splatters her hitman husband’s brains on their living room wall, Abby’s callous boss, Ramone, decrees that she must knock the mother off. What passes for Abby’s heart shines through here, for she sells Ramone on the notion of grooming Lucy to replace her dead husband at the firm — but only gets one week to deliver.

Turns out that Gwen has considerable aptitude: she’s a crack shot and more than one hitman is smitten by her, though her body disposal skills need work. Luci Wilson carries the show as Gwen, no less rough-around-the-edges now than when I first saw her in 2008 with the Robot Johnson sketch comedy group. That’s a good thing, and when we finally see all her tattoos, we’re not even slightly surprised.

A less confident, more wired performer, Elizabeth Simpson seems to know Gwen from the inside, and Seay casts two blue-chippers, Lesley Ann Giles and Christopher Jones, to fill out his front-liners as Lucy and Ramone. Cameos are quirky as everything else in Marisa Wegrzyn’s script, Matthew Schantz and Field Cantey handling them quite well.

DCP’s Energetic “Fox in the Fairway” Is Nearly as Funny as a Sitcom

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Foxhunting and golf are both centuries old, so as a fancier of farces with keen sporting interests, I was intrigued when Ken Ludwig’s The Fox on the Fairway arrived in North Carolina during the summer of 2012. Ludwig is probably the most reliable farceur our nation has produced in the past 50 years, his Moon Over Buffalo arguably an even finer example than his more renowned Lend Me a Tenor. But after its NC premiere at Flat Rock Playhouse, followed shortly afterwards with another production at Old Courthouse Theatre in Concord, the presumably inevitable Charlotte premiere still hasn’t happened. So, in spite of my recent disappointment with Davidson Community PlayersSingin’ in the Rain, I yielded to the prospect of finally tracking down The Fox at Duke Family Performance Hall, the same place where DCP had remounted their Gene Kelly musical without either a rain shower or a sturdy lamppost.

Assuming that it wasn’t going to be subjected to undue stress, I was greatly encouraged when I first saw Clay James’ sturdy set design for the clubhouse at the Quail Valley Country Club, where all the action takes place. My optimism was immediately punctured when the fun was intended to begin. Each of the six characters we were about to see made a quick entrance, delivered a one-liner, and scooted back to the wings. Even if it were executed well, that’s a pretty cheesy way to open a show. While director Paige Johnston Thomas had apparently communicated the needs for energy and speed to her cast, the lesson of strength was either omitted or lost. I couldn’t really hear most of the words these players were blurting out, and the problem didn’t entirely disappear as the plot unfolded, though I detected improvement after intermission.

Justin is the newly hired assistant at Quail Valley, eager to please his new boss, Bingham, and even more eager to become engaged to Louise, who already works there. We soon find that Bingham has even more pressing concerns. He has been consistently losing to his condescending and underhanded rival, Dickie, in the annual tournament between his club and the Crouching Squirrel, Dickie’s club. Dickie gives Bingham 2-to-1 odds on the outcome, betting $200,000 against Bingham’s $100,000, but Bingham must also surrender his wife’s antique shop if Quail Valley loses. Before agreeing to this wager – which seems less lopsided the more you think about it – Dickie has already stolen Quail Valley’s best golfer away to the Crouching Squirrel team. And it seems that Dickie has also stolen the affections of Bingham’s nagging wife, Muriel. If that weren’t enough, Bingham’s future as president of Quail Valley hinges on the outcome of the tournament.

As it turns out, Bingham’s situation isn’t altogether hopeless. When Justin told him that he shot a 136 the last time he was out on a golf course, he neglected to mention that he had played two rounds. Then there’s his VP, Pamela, who knows her way around the technicalities of club rules well enough to quickly enroll Justin as a member, qualified to compete in the tournament. She also amply reciprocates the affection that Bingham was too shy to act upon back in the days when he was a pimply kid. Quail Valley thus has a representative who can conquer on the course if Justin can maintain his delicate equipoise. An eight-stroke lead could vanish in a heartbeat if some bad news rattles him. Now we know that is sure to happen, right? The reason, in this instance, is Louise’s inability to withhold the truth from her fiancé, even if the upshot is horrendous.

indexConsistency and logic prove wobbly throughout the evening. Bingham undergoes rigorous questioning when he adds Justin to his team without the customary waiting period, yet Dickie earns a free pass on taking away Quail Valley’s best golfer overnight. The whole idea of the clubs having competing teams is discarded in the blink of an eye – it’s Justin versus the traitorous Tramplemain, one-on-one. Dickie takes pains to wager on Muriel’s shop when he already has Muriel, and Louise manages to call off the engagement because Justin is justly mistrustful of her. About the only artful part of Ludwig’s plotting comes at the end, after he has detonated all his ludicrous catastrophes. Only then do we get the first inkling of what foxes have to do with anything that we’ve seen.

In this mating of unlikely disabilities, Tim Hager as the ultra-neurotic Justin was by far the more satisfying performer. With the onset of the bad news, Hager turned the club’s sofa into a hilarious prop as he unraveled all over it. Rachel Bammel was more than sufficiently juvenile as Louise, but her superabundant energy undid her whenever she spoke frantically. Hager wasn’t always entirely intelligible either, particularly in the climactic argument before intermission. Brian Rassler as Bingham and Abigail Pagán as Pamela had the right kind of hesitantly magnetic chemistry between them. I can readily forgive Pagán for being slightly younger than ideal for Pamela because she gave us a portrayal that was as vivid as Hager’s, and she was the one person on stage who consistently cared about reaching up to the mezzanine with her voice. By contrast, Rassler was always agreeably confused throughout Bingham’s many trials, his constant stress filled in the blanks when I missed the actual words.

Stuart and Leslie Jonap, as Dickie and Muriel, were equally gifted in portraying the villains, bestowing one dimension apiece to the swindling club prez and the nagging wife. Both Jonaps could also stretch to two dimensions – and turn up the heat – when the nasties invaded each other’s space. They were perfect examples of why blithe farces and community theatre companies are such a perfect fit. If only Ludwig had provided a better script, they might have been able to shine. Instead, they could only enhance the feeling that, six years after Ludwig’s play was originally staged in Washington, DC, we’re still watching a chaotic first draft of a farce. Everyone was trying so hard, but despite the heroics of Hager and Pagán, this brew never rose to the level of a TV sitcom – though I’m sure it’s as good as many that have perished as a pilot. As for the cheesy shtick that goes with the curtain calls, don’t blame Thomas. The director is only staging what’s on the page, where silliness occasionally devolves into stupidity.

Flynn Brings Warmth and Humor to the Haunting Confessions of “Blessed Assurance”

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Forty years after getting free of a dirty business, Jerry still feels irrevocably soiled by the experience. Allan Gurganus’ 1991 Blessed Assurance, a novella adapted for the stage by Steve Willis, is a study of regret – and the lessons and wisdom that are its residue. Settling into an easy chair with a cup of tea at his beach house near the Outer Banks, Jerry tells us right from the start what is eating at him, robbing him of sleep as he nears 60 years of age: “I sold funeral insurance to North Carolina black people.” Jerry explains the huge cultural importance that African Americans attach to their funerals. The reasons he gives for taking the job explain why he empathizes with the people he is victimizing. He was raised in poverty in Falls, North Carolina, under the white fluffy clouds emitted by the nearby cotton mill, and his job as an insurance salesman was his ticket to a better life, helping to support his family – Dad is already afflicted with brown lung from constantly inhaling the fibers – and paying for his education. Delivered as a one-man show by actor James K. Flynn under the direction of Starving Artist Productions‘ founder Nathan Rouse, the stage version of Blessed Assurance became very much a narrative as Jerry’s confession proceeded, with some subtle literary qualities tying it together.

Pre-eminent among these is the title, familiar enough as a hymn at Gastonia’s First United Methodist Church Theatre, where this touring production is now being staged. Gurganus doesn’t drop the hymn into Jerry’s narrative until he reaches the denouement. Then it’s a bombshell, sparking Jerry to an irrational fever of self-loathing and penitence. Before then, “assurance” is the fractured way that Jerry’s black clients in Baby Africa pronounce insurance. My years as a social worker in African American homes down in Columbia, South Carolina, 30 years after the 1947-48 events that Jerry recalls, confirm not only the continued importance of funeral insurance in the community but also the pronunciation, though I recall “insurance” – the first syllable restored with a vengeance – as equally popular.

But to Vesta Lotte Battle, the most memorable of Jerry’s clientele, what he sold was “assurance.” There was nothing fraudulent about the Windlass Insurance policies, but the terms were grim for an impoverished community: miss two consecutive Saturday payments and you not only forfeit the benefits of this policy, you also forfeit all previous policies that you may have paid off in full. Selling this kind of product is not a suitable job for a man saddled with a conscience, and Jerry’s boss at Windlass tells him as much when he hires him. Switching to his boss Sam’s voice, Jerry recites the insidious words he must live by, “The minute they smell heart on you, Jer, you’re down the toilet.”

It’s a gradual, entertaining, and ultimately harrowing flush as Jerry continues to make his Saturday rounds. A freed slave from the Civil War pushing 90, Vesta has sunk enough money, quarter by quarter, to hire the Duke Ellington Band, the Goodyear blimp, and maybe Eleanor Roosevelt to brighten up her funeral. Jerry sees that and tells her so, but when Vesta can’t keep up with her payments, he starts covering for her delinquencies. It’s not only that he feels sorry for Vesta; he comes to cherish her company. We eventually may realize, with more subtlety, that it’s entirely possible that Jerry’s enjoyment of tea originated in Vesta’s humble home. Showing his heart puts Jerry in an excruciating moral dilemma. The money he’s advancing to Vesta – and numerous other impoverished residents of Baby Africa – is coming at the expense of his wheezing parents and his own educational advancement. Sam, not at all a heartless monster, notices how preternaturally careworn his star 19-year-old salesman has grown.

Flynn turned in a performance that was, by turns, warm, gripping, and funny. Willis’ script is nicely balanced for a one-man show, its two most memorable episodes enabling Flynn to establish contrasting moods. First comes the comedy, when Jerry’s ramshackle Nash breaks down during a heavy downpour. The whole destitute community seems to enjoy his misadventures as he tries fruitlessly to change his flat tire in the mud while fending off hordes of vicious stray dogs. Even more spellbinding is the scene in church, where Jerry, finally witnessing a black funeral, has his epiphany. Either one of these monologues raises Blessed Assurance above the ordinary one-man theatrical, but afterwards, there’s still a kicker held in reserve that may leave you gasping.

Andrew Lloyd in Oz? Impossorus!

Theater review: The Wizard of Oz

By Perry Tannenbaum

So the tandem of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber is on the prowl again. Back in 2011, they decided that the classic 1939 screen musical, The Wizard of Oz, could be freshened up, expanded, and made suitable for the London stage. Or by the looks of Robert Jones’s scenic and costume designs, maybe they thought they could repackage the old L. Frank Baum gem and transform it into a Wicked sequel. The show played the Palladium for just over a year-and-a-half, opened and closed with an all-Canadian cast in Toronto in 2013, and began a nine-month North American tour shortly afterwards.

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Now it’s nearing the end of another tour that began in Cleveland back in December. While the production and the whole idea of Webber and Rice mingling with Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg struck me as wild and daring, it’s obvious second thoughts about omissions from the original screenplay and score – not to mention the new songs – have long ago been struck from Lord Webber’s to-do list. And indeed, the current edition at Belk Theater this week is as polished as an emerald.

Yet the Arlen-Harburg “If I Were King of the Forest” is still missing. So it’s pure stubbornness or boneheadedness that accounts for the new creative team clinging – for five years! – to the notion that this wonderfully comical counterbalance to the wishful “Over the Rainbow” isn’t exponentially better than any of the songs they’ve replaced it with. Dear Andrew, if no one else has told you so, let me be the first.

The best of the new songs, “Bring Me the Broomstick,” gives Act 1 a thunderous ending. And the title character should get a song, don’t you think? Trouble is, the Wizard’s directive, sending Dorothy and friends off on their second quest after reaching Emerald City, occurs comparatively late in the movie, after all of its songs have been sung. There’s no remaining original material for Webber and Rice to use in weaving Act 2.

Of course, they write new songs, one of them for the Wicked Witch. The Green One’s “Red Shoes Blues” arguably contains Rice’s wittiest new lyrics, cementing my notion that we’relooking at the Witch through post-Wicked glasses. Similarly, a strain of bimbo conceit will be noticed in Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, replacing the saccharine fairy godmother hatched by MGM.
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The new stage script by Webber and Jeremy Sams contrives reprises of “Over the Rainbow” and “If I Only Had a Brain,” with Rice repurposing the latter as “If We Only Had a Plan” when Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow must fend for themselves. Once the Wicked Witch [spoiler alert] is melted, Webber resurrects a song that had been on the cutting room floor for over 70 years as the Witch’s liberated Winkies sing “Hail-Hail! The Witch Is Dead” – a bizarre but delightful production number with nightsticks – reusing the melody from the joyous “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead.”

A subtler leaning toward Wicked may be discerned in Sarah Lasko’s portrayal of Dorothy Gale, more of an adolescent malcontent and less of a pre-pubescent castaway. There’s more wanderlust mixed into the yearning of “Over the Rainbow,” more defiance and less pouting in her confrontations with Lion, Wizard, and the Wicked Witch. The hambone element is dialed down a notch or two in Mark A. Harmon’s portraits of Professor Marvel and The Wizard, both of whom get new songs, yet he’s vivid enough for us to instantly realize that he’s also the officious Gatekeeper when we first arrive in Oz.

I liked Webber’s impulses in gently enhancing the comedy from Scarecrow and Tin Man. Not only are crows unafraid of Adam Vanek as the Man of Straw, they form a puppet trio singing backup in his “If I Only Had a Brain.” Always the most pallid of Dorothy’s friends in the movie, Jay McGill gets to spout flame from Tin Man’s funnel hat and make a variety of rusty and tinny sounds as he moves.
Robbed of his signature song, Aaron Fried must content himself to be the least important musically of Dorothy’s friends as the Cowardly Lion, but he emerges nevertheless as the most potent comedy force. With less innocence and naïveté in the New Millennium Dorothy to hate, Shani Hadjian can’t be nearly as wicked as the Wicked Witch was in the film, but she sells her song, and she’s pretty damn nasty as the implacable Miss Gulch. It’s harder for Rachel Womble to layer on comical notes as Glinda, particularly since designer Jones dresses the Good Witch in glittery midnight blue. You’re asking for trouble when you tamper with Tinkerbell or the Good Witch.

Technically, this Wizard is as advanced as any touring shows we’ve seen. Wonders of the scenery include scrim-filling projections taking us inside the Kansas tornado, a plastic Munchkinland with more color than a bag of Skittles, a swiveling Yellow Brick Road, and an illuminated clock outside the Witch’s Castle that suddenly conveys the pleadings of Uncle Henry and Auntie Em – in quaint black and white – dissolving into the Witch’s diabolical mockery.

Maybe just a notch below what you might expect on Broadway. The stage extravaganza adds about 16 minutes of running time to the movie version, and despite some extra shenanigans from the Lion, I found myself surprisingly moved when Dorothy had to say goodbye to her pals. Webber makes it clearer, when Dorothy wakes up in Kansas, that she really didn’t say goodbye to those cherished friends – a consolation for 2016 audiences that wasn’t necessary in 1939. That’s a shame.

CP Summer’s “Sleuth” Plays Its Mind Games With Exceptional Polish

Theater Review: Sleuth

By Perry Tannenbaum

Between the time that Edward Albee was the playwright of the moment on Broadway with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962 and the torch was passed along to Peter Shaffer when Broadway unveiled his two sensations, Equus in 1973 and Amadeus in 1979, Peter’s twin brother, Anthony, probably came the closest to equaling their éclat with Sleuth in 1970. Central Piedmont Community College produced Amadeus at Pease Auditorium in 2006, so they can no longer be accused of favoritism between the twins now that they’re bringing Sleuth to the same venue. Sleuth is tricksy, twisty, and suspenseful, a battle of wits between a successful mystery writer and a younger travel agent who plans to wed the writer’s wife once the estranged couple is legally divorced. Above all, Sleuth is brainy, witty entertainment with undeniable appeal.

Andrew Wyke, the celebrated detective novelist, while cultivating lavish and eccentric tastes, has a keen sporting zest for game playing – and takes vicious delight in besting an opponent. But Wyke underestimates Milo Tindle, a scrappy fellow of humbler origins who turns out to be far more resilient and resourceful than we might have thought.

When Anthony’s Sleuth burst on Broadway, it logged more performances in its initial run than either of Peter’s hits in their original runs – more performances, in fact, than Virginia Woolf has logged to date in all four of its Broadway engagements combined. Sleuth still has not achieved the prestige – or sparked the Broadway revivals – of the others. It’s noticeably lighter; the whole game playing motif seems borrowed from Virginia Woolf, particularly when Sleuth becomes a best-two-out-of-three affair – and the movie version starring Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier seems so definitive. It may have been more than 40 years since I last saw this film, but as the action unfolded at Pease, I remembered Olivier’s distinctive way of reading “Punchinello” a minute before the moment arrived, and Wyke’s wounded, “You mocked Meridew!” evoked a similar echo.

At Halton Theater, where CPCC Summer Theatre launched their 2016 season with Annie and Chicago, production polish – including the Halton’s historically wayward sound system – has risen to unprecedented heights. With James Burns’ scenic design and Don Ketchum’s technical direction, that trend continues at panoramic Pease, where the width of the stage may be four times its height. Under these constraints, Burns delivers the most luxurious set ever seen at Pease for Wyke’s country home, lavishly outfitted with more props, furnishings, and glazed windows than the script requires. The big maritime dummy that must laugh at Wyke’s wit, the crockery that must shatter under gunfire, and the concealed wall safe that must explode all responded reliably on cue, though a little more volume and smoke from the dynamite would not be amiss. Really, it’s a kind of synergy: Burns’ set establishes confidence in the solidity of the production and Ketchum’s tech makes good on it.

Gerry Colbert was masterful in bringing out the charming and the vile aspects of Wyke’s fine breeding, a wily spider meticulously weaving a fatal web to ensnare his younger, less urbane guest. Christian Casper wasn’t the most docile patsy as Milo, all the better as Wkye gradually, skillfully exposes and preys upon his weaknesses and insecurities. It was delightful to see Milo’s comeback in Game Two after intermission, though I needed to depend on overheard audience reaction after the show to confirm that the disguise devised for Casper by costume designer Rachel Engstrom really worked. Watching Wyke crumble under Inspector Doppler’s examination was perhaps the most satisfying part of Colbert’s whole performance, a retribution the patrician brute richly deserved.

Only Game Three of the drama failed to meet my highest expectations. Directing the show, Carey Kugler uses the full width of the Pease stage as skillfully as you’ll ever see, but in opting for clarity at the end instead of heightened tension and urgency, the thrill of this thriller is diluted. The ten minutes that Wyke has to solve Milo’s three riddles before the cops arrive felt like 20. Getting Milo’s clues clearly and following Wyke’s ratiocination isn’t as important as conveying his terror. In the aftermath, I was quite satisfied with how Colbert and Casper ended their joust, but Kugler and lighting designer Sarah Ackerman need to find a way to frame it more dramatically.

If you haven’t seen Sleuth before, there are some twists and deceptions from Shaffer that I must not betray. Watching these unravel for the first time in live performance is a special pleasure, but those coming back to Sleuth will find a unique joy in listening to the whoops of surprise during and after the show. For that reason, I can’t comment in any detail on the work of newcomers Stanley Rushton as Inspector Doppler, Robin Mayfield as Detective Tarrant, and Liam McNulty as Constable Higgs. I can only give you my word that they were every bit as effective as Phillip Farrar, Harold K. Newman, and Roger Purnell were in the original Broadway production.

As Shakespeare Once Said: “Wanna Make Something of It?”

Theater review: [They Fight]

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Scrappy company that they are, Shakespeare Carolina didn’t simply throw in the towel when rights to stage Albert Camus’s Caligula were yanked away. No, as you can see at Duke Energy Theater, they decided to put up a fight – actually, eight of them from a cross-section of the Shakespeare’s work, plays that we’ve seen often in Charlotte as well as a couple we haven’t. [They Fight] is thus a pupu power platter of fight scenes from Hamlet, King Lear, As You Like It, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, plus a double serving of Romeo and Juliet.

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Conceiving, adapting, and fight choreographing the show, Charles Holmes has a good grasp of the guilty pleasure aspect of what ShakesCar is presenting. We get very little in Holmes’s set-up about what made Coriolanus ripe for his tragic fall and even less about his toxic mom, Volumnia. Nah, we’re going to “skip all that and go to the last three pages.” So Coriolanus fights Aufidius – not exactly as it happens in the text – but we’re spared the details of why they’re fighting. We do get the idea that Aufidius regards our hero as a traitor, and the outcome of his hubris is the same.

Other irreverent quips are sprinkled among the concise introductions. Once the characters strut onto the stage, Holmes’ alterations of the script only became annoying in a more familiar scene, where Edmund’s belated penitence in Lear after he is mortally wounded no longer occurs. Amid the hurly-burly of that brotherly brawl between Edmund and Edgar, which of the women is Goneril and which is Regan only gets clarified when one poisons the other – if you’re already familiar with the script.

But with less than two weeks to hone this fight anthology into performance trim, the cast does well, auguring well for ShakesCar’s upcoming productions of The Taming of the Shrew and August Strindberg’s Miss Julie later this summer. From a fighting standpoint, another fight choreographer or two would help to prevent us from thinking we’re seeing the same thrusts, slashes, and parries over and over. But Holmes and stage director Chris O‘Neill are cagey enough to insert fights, one in each half of the show, that leap outside the swashbuckling envelope.

The first of these is the bout between Orlando and Charles the Wrestler from the opening act of As You Like It, with the imposing David Hayes portraying Charles with full WWWF-style villainy, strutting invincibly and baiting the crowd as he seemingly destroys the hapless Zade Patterson as our hero – to the horror of Amy Hilliard as Rosalind and Mandy Kendall as Celia. Patterson returned in a far more comical turn after intermission as Cloten, the spoiled son of the evil conniving queen in Cymbeline – with as much aptitude for mortal combat as Tim Conway.

David Hensley as Guiderius butchers this arrogant pipsqueak, with Kevin Sario as Guiderius’ brother and Manu Barbe as their “father”/kidnapper looking on. Before tasting Guiderius’ sword, Cloten is also on the receiving end of some badinage about his clothing, so Kendall, doubling as costumer, rightfully drapes Hensley in a dopey, gleaming outfit that underscores Cloten’s foppery. Looks good on Hensley, though, after he emerges victorious.

Sad to say, Kendall and O’Neill had just been asleep at the wheel in the Lear showdown, where that bastard Edmund is not supposed to recognize his legitimate brother Edgar until after he is defeated. Yeah, that Lear scene could stand some rethinking.
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With the second half of [They Fight] rounded out by the classic fencing bout from Hamlet and the famed “Lay on, Macduff!” clash from Macbeth, the show attains heights that the early action can’t match. Pitted against Hamlet as Laertes, Ted Patterson does get his chance to make his confession on the brink of death, while Kevin Aoussou adds the most satisfying portion to the carnage as the justly traduced King Claudius. Holmes makes his most impressive combat appearance as the deluded Macbeth, while the strapping Hayes is more of a Galahad than an underdog as the implacable Macduff.Now the fights from Romeo and Juliet, both presented before intermission, are lively enough – and the second one, Tybalt versus Mercutio, is certainly climactic. But Romeo certainly earns Mercutio’s “both your houses” imprecation with his unfortunate intervention, not a flattering farewell to this great Shakespearean hero. So Holmes and O’Neill have judged rightly in placing these populous scuffles before the break, with Katie Bearden as Tybalt, Robert Brafford as Mercutio, and Andrew White as the peace-loving Romeo.

But why have an intermission at all when your running time totals less than 70 minutes? Three more fights, one less intermission, and two more weeks of rehearsal to sharpen the tech and the combat would make [They Fight] very worthy of a second round. It would be fun – more fun – to see what this show would look like if it were brought back in less haste. While Holmes’ choreography ably simulates the fight scenes of Hollywood action flicks, it would add a little if Holmes and his combatants owned up to the fakery and absurdity of it all. Just once in a while.

Oh yeah, and it would also be nice to see Caligula at the Duke someday. That is, if the sonuvabitch holding onto the rights so tightly would let the show go on.