Monthly Archives: June 2017

“Waiting for Godot” Tops Spoleto’s Edgy Theatre Lineup

Reviews: Waiting for Godot, Ramona, Murmurs, Angel, and While I Have the Floor at Spoleto Festival USA31624608012_e7866a37c7_kBy Perry Tannenbaum

Programming at Spoleto Festival USA runs in cycles as it evolves. Now in its 41st season in Charleston, SC, there is a breadth of performing arts at the 17-day event that is unparalleled this side of the annual Edinburgh Festival in the UK. Opera, dance, symphony, chamber music, jazz, and theatre flit around at nine or 10 venues daily from 11:00 AM until late in the evening. Some category-defying hybrids are also hatched during the revels.

Ever since Gian Carlo Menotti founded the American branch of his Italian festival, capitalizing on his prestige as an opera composer who briefly conquered Broadway in the early ‘50s, Spoleto has been unapologetically international in its flavor and fiercely challenging in its thrust. Last year marked a welcoming celebration of the festival’s 40th season with a long-overdue production of Porgy and Bess in its native Charleston setting – at the gloriously renovated and reopened Gaillard Center, the grandest hall in town.

Complementing the homecoming vibe signaled by the lavish Porgy and Bess, jazz programming returned homewards from its distinctively European bent to a noticeably more American groove, with René Marie, Randy Weston, Freddy Cole, Cécile McLorin Salvant, and Arturo O’Farrill topping the lineup. Three large dance troupes invaded Charleston, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and LA Dance Project the most recognizable of these. Theatre was also noticeably less edgy and foreign, with Gate Theatre’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Jonny Donahue’s off-Broadway charmer, Every Brilliant Thing, among the imports.

34427821263_6eb650f394_oFor 2017, Spoleto Festival has largely shuttled back to its edgier, more challenging, and more cryptic self. The Charles Lloyd Quartet took some jazz lovers beyond their comfort zones, singer Sofia Rei came from Argentina backed by a free jazz trio, and Dee Dee Bridgewater frankly declared that she was forsaking jazz this year for Memphis blues and soul. Only one dance troupe, the Marís Pagés Company, was large enough to command the Gaillard stage, the balance shifting to smaller groups and more outré choreography.

Led by Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the 2017 theatre lineup is similarly trim, challenging, and audacious. Under the direction of Garry Hynes, this Druid Theatre production made it clearer to me that Vladimir and Estagon, awaiting the mysterious Godot and his nebulous benefits, are unsure of where they are, what day it is, and when they last met. Hynes, who won the 1998 Tony Award for directing The Beauty Queen of Leenane, also makes the friendship and mutual loyalty between our protagonists more open to question than previous productions I’ve seen. Instead of shying away from the script’s absurdism, Hynes embraces it.

30962035363_a1fd65f0fc_kMaybe other directors feel that too much absurdism might risk audience confusion and vertigo. Turns out that amping up the absurdity made the show more comical for the audience at Dock Street Theatre. Strangely enough, Aaron Monoghan as the more ignorant Estragon, isn’t as funny as his cohort. While Monoghan is a purer, less salty fool as Estragon, willowy Marty Rae turns Vladimir into a comical joy, his inquiries into his friend’s mind and his reactions to those revelation drawing equal mirth.

Although Hynes acquiesced, in a public interview at the Charleston Library Society with Martha Teichner, to the notion that Pozzo and Lucky are mere distractions in the tedium of our protagonists’ lives, her staging says otherwise. Compounding the vaudevillian exaggeration that Beckett lavishes upon Pozzo the oppressor and Lucky the oppressed, Rory Nolan as Pozzo and Garrett Lombard as Lucky upsize them, exaggerations in the flesh – and in Lombard’s case, in the hair – augmented by Doreen McKenna’s shabby and surreal costumes.

Juxtaposed with our lonely and futile heroes, Druid’s Pozzo and Lucky both seem gargantuan and powerful, though Lucky’s is a sleeping strength that Vladimir and Estragon fear to waken. At some level, they look like invaders from a real world that our lovable protagonists have skirted. Downtrodden as he is, Lucky seems to be lucky to be employed, even if humiliating subservience is the price.

So what if his boss is an overbearing boor? So is the President who won our Electoral College.31397965210_5e7f347a4a_kWhile Godot plays at Dock Street from the beginning to the end of Spoleto, there are four other presentations categorized as theatre by the festival that peep in for more limited engagements, five or six performances apiece at smaller venues. The most charming so far has been Ramona, Gabriadze Theatre’s first production at Spoleto – and at Emmett Robinson Theatre – since their doleful and stultifying Battle of Stalingrad in 2003. This time, Rezo Gabriadze’s fanciful script for marionettes and puppeteers is about a shuttling engine whose travel vistas are no more than 300 meters and the mighty love of her life, Ermon, a Trans-Siberia locomotive who spans Mother Russia in his wanderings.

As this true Penelope waits patiently for her Ulysses, a militaristic railroad official tyrannizes over her and a friend. Like any other sensible woman in these circumstances, Ramona and her pal decide to run away to the circus! Scandalous rumors reach Ermon up on tundra, but he remains steadfast in his trust. The ending is very tragic because Ramona is less adept as a tightrope walker than she was as a train. Absurd comedy doesn’t prevent the poignancy of these star-crossed lovers from shining through.

Though both had considerable strengths, Victoria Thierrée Chaplin’s Murmurs and Henry Naylor’s Angel didn’t satisfy as fully. I gradually caught up with what was happening in Avital Lvova’s portrayal of Rahana, the Angel of Kobani, but I needed my wife’s help in grasping the full details after Angel was over. Based on a true story, our narrator becomes a latter-day Joan of Arc champion of the Kurds, amassing 100 kills as a sharpshooter battling ISIS for control of her hometown.

Lvova is well-cast as an action hero, but in the rat-tat-tat battle scenes where she throws herself around on the floor, I found her to be largely unintelligible. Another woman in our row at Woolfe Theatre moved closer to the stage soon after the topsy-turvy opening, and a few minutes later, I slunk into an empty seat that was even closer to the action. I was still missing some of what Lvova was saying at close distance. Part of the excitement was how Angel broke a fundamental rule of one-person shows at the very end. I wished that I could press a rewind button to more fully enjoy it from the beginning.30928658544_4f681df730_k

A visual stunner, Murmurs had virtually no dialogue and not too much more coherence or character development. The subtitle, Aurélia and Her Ghosts, seems to have been dropped between the time that the festival brochure was printed and when the official program book – 152 pages – was codified. But it remains a useful description of the action. Aurélia Thierrée portrayed the heroine who, when we first met her, was on the verge being evicted – or rescued – from her crumbling tenement.

The crisis throws Aurélia into a strange state, for she experiences flashbacks, hallucinations, and things that go bump in the night. Instead of dialogue, Chaplin and Armando Santin provided choreography, but not enough of it to keep me consistently engaged, and Chaplin’s costume designs – with a team of three other designers – outstayed their novelty. More choreography and an infusion of music, maniacal or otherwise, would make this striking piece more impactful.

While Murmurs may be yearning to be a full-fledged dance, Ayodele Casel’s While I Have the Floor, categorized by Spoleto as dance, has an unmistakable hankering to be regarded as theatre. Like Murmurs, Casel’s world premiere morphed after the season brochures were sent out: her “virtuosic piece exploring language, communication, identity and legacy” coalesced into a tap dancer’s autobiography as the piece crystalized into a one-woman show with a title.34335386953_50bae8da23_kCasel not only explores her own artistic evolution, she connects us with heritage of tapping, tracing its development from the mid-19th century through such mainstays as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Jimmy Slyde, Gregory Hines, and Savion Glover. She doesn’t hide her childhood infatuation with Fred & Ginger and engagingly recounts her first confrontation – as a collegian – with a true proponent of the art.

As YouTube can presumably verify, Casel’s demos of tapping are intricately rhythmic and visually dazzling. But the big surprise here is Casel’s acting chops. She can turn on the tears at a moment’s notice, and as a writer, she finds a compelling reason to display that talent. Toward the end, which threatens the dump us off at today and Casel’s well-earned fame, our narrator sprouts a mission and a cause: to revive the memory of female tappers before her and to make sure their names aren’t forgotten again.

Until you’ve witnessed While I Have the Floor, you probably haven’t seen a tap-dance show that reaches an emotional peak. Now it’s here, and Spoleto can be very proud of hosting its world premiere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Physical Comedy Reigns Supreme in “The Actress”

Review: The Actress

By Perry Tannenbaum

You can certainly find subtler, more poetic titles than The Actress, a bittersweet comedy by Peter Quilter – with judicious snatches of Chekhov – now at Spirit Square. We follow storied actress Lydia Martin into her dressing room as she gives her farewell performance in The Cherry Orchard, electing to retire from the stage while makeup can still mask her flaws and she can still remember her lines.

With two dips into Lydia’s onstage performance and an intermission sandwiched in between, all framed by her arrival at the theater and an impromptu post-performance celebration in her dressing room, we have a neatly symmetrical five-part structure. Quilter adds a nice little wrinkle at the end as Lydia and her ex-husband adjourn to the darkened stage for a final communion. In Ryan Maloney’s set design, about a third of the Duke Energy Theatre is set aside for the Chekhov action, but I could easily imagine how beautifully this last scene would flow on a revolving set. Maloney’s lighting design recovers some of that magic.

Until that point, I found a curious lack of theatre magic and specificity. Although the Three Bone Theatre playbill specifies 1933 as the time of the action, the script doesn’t seem to help director Charles LaBorde to establish a time or a place for Lydia’s farewell. Oddly, the backstage action isn’t theatrical enough to convince me that this is a particularly momentous show. There are no acting colleagues or mentors slipping in to send her off, no reporters or photographers, not even Cherry Orchard castmates before or after the performance.

The only other person involved in the production is the director’s sedulous emissary, Margaret, who relays the unseen director’s notes to Lydia – a patently needless exercise, since it’s doubly impossible that the star will ever make use of them. Yes, there are congratulatory flowers all over the place, some from colleagues and others from admirers, but her dresser, Katherine, still finds it necessary to mist the room with perfume before Lydia enters. Amy Wada digs into Katherine’s uncertainty about whether she means anything to Lydia after a long, long business relationship, but Corlis Hayes seems to accept Margaret as a royal waste of time, mostly motivated by the prospect of leaving with a collectible memento.

Everyone else is a visitor, except perhaps for Harriet, Lydia’s agent. With Lydia retiring, Harriet doesn’t have any business with her client but she does have something to say. When Harriet is persistently shushed and ignored at the little afterparty – while drinking more and more of Lydia’s best brandy, not the swill that she presented as a token gift – whatever she had intended to say is horribly twisted, one of the most dramatic spots in this production. Zendyn Duellman, consistently irritating with her high sycophantic energy as Harriet, becomes even more memorable here.

The rest of the backstage story is largely comedy. Lugging an industrial-strength decrepitude up the stairs to Lydia’s door, Hank West is able to unleash a mighty volley of coughs and wheezes when he gets there as Lydia’s rich fiancé, Charles. Whisking Lydia off to his native Switzerland seems laughably ambitious for someone so old and easily winded, but amid his bodacious wheezing, West endows Charles with a forbearance and determination that ultimately make him a bit endearing.

Ex-husband Paul has considerably more energy behind his persistence, and neither verbal rebuffs nor physical slaps from Lydia discourage his overtures. Bob Paolino definitely tunes into the love-hate relationship between these former intimates, and despite his conspicuous lack of appreciation for the theatre and Lydia’s artistry, brings us a redeeming softness and fatherliness when her career officially ends.

I wasn’t convinced that Paula Baldwin could wholeheartedly throw herself into Lydia’s ambivalent reaction to Paul’s forcible advances. When he called for a 1933 setting, LaBorde may have had those Hollywood films in mind where a leading man might respond, “you can hit harder than that,” to a slap in the face and manfully take it as a woman’s encouragement. That’s definitely the drift here as both Lydia and Paul get mussed up in a physical comedy interlude while the actress keeps her audience waiting.

Trouble is, when Lydia’s daughter Nicole walks through the door, Lydia has an aversion to her smoking – and a guilt about sneaking a cig for herself – that are 60 years ahead of their time. So the demands on Baldwin go beyond ambivalence. She’s actually best in Act 2, when her past faults as a wife, mother, and person come into clearer focus and a warmer, more down-to-earth side of her surfaces. She also manages to convince us that it’s not all about money with Charles.

Nicole isn’t severely messed up or resentful in Robin Tynes’ perky portrayal. We get the idea from Tynes that Nicole is a gentle reminder of Lydia’s past lapses as a wife and parent – also a counterweight against those plans to flit off to Switzerland. But once he puts her before us, Quilter doesn’t invest nearly enough into Nicole. I didn’t detect the English accent that might make her objections to Mom’s proposed move to Switzerland seem petulant and selfish. Sounding totally American, Tynes gave me the impression that Mom’s displacement would be transoceanic. Sure, she seems unsettled, but not enough to be profoundly unhappy.

More substance to Nicole would add more definition to her ambivalence – and Quilter’s serpentine script does wind up being very much about ambivalence. Ultimately, Lydia finds herself choosing between career and domestic comforts, between love and sex, and between familiar family and a new kind of life. So Quilter’s title is subtler than he probably intended. Notwithstanding its setting and the sterling Three Bone Theatre performances that make it come alive, The Actress is hardly about theatre at all.

CP Gets Its Act Together for Summer 2017

Preview: CPCC Summer Theatre 2017

Fiddler on the Roof Promos

By Perry Tannenbaum

Entering its 44th season, Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre would be hard-pressed to surpass the lineup of shows they presented last year – Annie, Chicago, Sleuth, and Sister Act. But there are good reasons for the folks on Elizabeth Avenue to be super-confident that 2017 will be even more successful at the box office.

Yes, the family-friendly mix of popular Broadway musicals, adult comedy, and an AM kiddie show will provide the perfect refuge from a slapstick presidency that hasn’t managed to derail our strong economy (yet). And yes, after 10 years of random screeches, thumps, and bumps in the night, technicians were able to exorcise the demons that had previously haunted the Halton Theater sound system. Throughout the 2016 season, CP had its act completely together and gremlin-free.

Three beloved Broadway hits are coming to the Halton to keep the good thing going, beginning with Fiddler on the Roof (June 2-10) and followed by A Chorus Line (June 16-24) before CPCC Summer Theatre makes its exit with the pop ABBA jukeboxer, Mamma Mia! (July 14-22). In between the last two Broadway extravaganzas, the summer’s kiddie musical, James and the Giant Peach (June 28-July 8) takes over the Halton by day while the nighttime action scoots across Elizabeth Avenue to Pease Auditorium with A Comedy of Tenors (June 30-July 9).

Oh yeah, one more reliable predictor of success: “We have had record season ticket sales so far,” says Tom Hollis, the CP Theatre Department chair who runs the show and will direct Fiddler and Mamma Mia!

The process of selecting CP’s summer lineup, says Hollis, is ongoing throughout the year with suggestions from audience, from members of the creative team, and consultation with other theater companies. CP wants the lowdown on what others are programming and how well tickets are selling. Radar is also aimed at what Broadway producers are making freshly available from their inventory.

“There used to be a rule of thumb that said you should wait four or five years before you do a show that had toured through,” Hollis recalls. “But that no longer seems to hold true. Our experience with Les Miz and Phantom showed that proximity to the tours actually increased sales.”

It might be assumed that tours of these perennials and Mamma Mia! – which has touched down in Charlotte no less than six times since 2002 – would spark interest in enthusiasts to see them again. Yet Hollis cites trade publication data indicating that audiences across the country who attend Broadway Lights series like those offered here by Blumenthal Performing Arts don’t ordinarily attend local theatre.

“Maybe they have spent all their money on those tickets and can’t afford to attend more,” Hollis speculates. “What we are seeing is that the combination of our more competitive pricing in comparison with the touring houses and the quality of our product makes it possible for people who love theatre but can’t afford the tour prices to see the show in our theater and bring the entire family when they do it.”

Fiddler on the Roof Promos

On the other hand, CP allows absence to make their subscribers’ hearts grow fonder of shows they’ve previously presented. Both Fiddler and Chorus Line have been done before on campus but never at the Halton, which became the home for CP’s big musicals in the fall of 2005. Budgetary considerations also go into the lineup formula, so comparatively barebones productions like Chorus Line and Chicago help to rein in the bottom line.

Additional economies are available through casting, when an actor can take on multiple roles, navigating a labyrinth of rehearsals and performances to appear in as many as four of the five shows that CP Summer mounts in an eight-week span. It takes eagerness, enthusiasm, and plenty of stamina to go through such a demanding grind, which is why the Summer acting company always skews so young.

In seasons when CP is planning shows like Annie or Oliver, they’ll hold separate auditions in February for kids on top of the cattle calls for local actors and aspiring high school interns. Then in early March, directors will trek to the Southeastern Theatre Conference for regional auditions, where collegians and recent grads come in search of summer work. CP signed up six budding pros at this year’s auditions in Lexington, KY. Look for some of this new blood in A Chorus Line, where young triple threats belong.

Perhaps the optics of overly youthful casts have grown stale for Hollis and his colleagues as the years roll by, or maybe budgetary purse strings are loosening, but we’re recognizing more veteran locals who are returning annually to the Halton and to Pease for CP’s summer rites.

Jerry Colbert, whose CP credits date back to 1974 and took the Laurence Olivier role in last summer’s Sleuth, returns as one of the over-the-hill candidates who might be the father of the bride-to-be in Mamma Mia! Alongside Colbert, Dan Brunson and Kathryn Stamas will be familiar to more recent subscribers. James K. Flynn, fatherly enough to play Tevye when CP last presented Fiddler, moves into A Comedy of Tenors along with two other familiars, Craig Estep and Caroline Renfro.

For the second successive summer, Susan Cherin Gundersheim is teamed with Beau Stroupe. Last year, she was Daddy Warbucks factotum Grace Farrell in Annie. Now in Fiddler, she gets to variously torment Tevye – or emote to his fake dream – as Golde, the mother of his five daughters.

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Stroupe has walked a rocky road to Anatevka and the iconic role of the Scripture-fracturing dairyman. Photos of Stroupe as Daddy Warbucks show him with scarcely less hair than he had when he was finishing chemotherapy in late 2013 – more than a year after a grapefruit-sized malignancy was found in his intestine. A rather hostile divorce compounded his woes, so his role as the predatory Chauvelin in The Scarlet Pimpernel during the next summer seemed to chime with his embattled temperament.

The road from chemo to Anatevka led through Cherry Tree Lane, where Stroupe was George Banks, the starchy and clueless father who was transformed – along with his unruly children – in Mary Poppins through the magical nanny. A role he neither knew nor cared about until he began rehearsing, Banks awakened in Stroupe a new affection for father roles.

Warbucks pointed him in the same direction. “Again, the journey of a seemingly rigid and even detached businessman to one of tender-hearted father figure,” says Stroupe.

“I certainly relate to the journey of a father with my own four children through the difficulty of divorce and the slow healing process. It’s easy to understand the juggling act of breadwinner, patriarch, husband, father and visible member of the community. When Tevye is saying goodbye to Hodel at the train station, it takes very little effort for me to feel what any true father feels when letting his child go to live a life of their own choosing.”

New directions will be running amok when CP opens A Comedy of Tenors, Ken Ludwig’s sequel to Lend Me a Tenor, a CP Summer hit way back in 1996. No matter what its pedigree is, Ludwig’s operatic farce – think three tenors misbehaving in Paris – is the newest show CP has ever done, from farm to fork after its New Jersey world premiere in less than two years. Unheard of, as Tevye would say.

And Renfro, CP’s go-to action heroine in Dial M for Murder and Wait Until Dark, tackles a comedy – with a Russian accent! As sexy diva Tatiana Racon, Renfro will have her sights set on a very married tenor, but her seduction will farcically misfire.

“There will definitely be some good old-fashioned vamping,” Renfro promises. “I am so psyched about doing the accent. And so freaked out about it. At this point in my career, the thing that appeals to me most about a role is doing something I’ve never done before, especially if it scares me.”