Daily Archives: May 17, 2018

Charlotte’s Ace Comedienne Takes on a Touchy-Feely Challenge

Preview:  Every Brilliant Thing

By Perry Tannenbaum

Written by two Brits, Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe, Every Brilliant Thing began life in 2013 in a little English town and didn’t achieve any kind of renown until Donahoe brought the one-man show across the pond in an off-Broadway production the following year. An HBO movie in 2016, a coveted engagement at Spoleto Festival USA last season, and numerous productions across the country have spread the word.

To an uncommon degree, this one-man show relies on audience participation to tell the story. When a vet comes by to put down the young narrator’s dog, Sherlock Bones, a person from the audience is picked to play the vet. When Mum is taken “to hospital,” an audience member helps deliver the scene where Dad explains that the boy’s mother has made her first suicide attempt.

And when the boy draws up his list of “everything brilliant in the world. Everything worth living for,” in a lifelong effort to cheer Mum up and keep her alive, audience members who are given hand-written scraps of paper before the show call out items on the epic list. #1, Ice cream, #2, Water fights, and so on.

But Every Brilliant Thing doesn’t have to be a one-man show. Or British. At Spirit Square, where the Three Bone Theatre production opens next week, it won’t be.

“One of the exciting things about the script is that the playwright has specified that this story can be told by any actor, any gender identity, any race, any age,” says Three Bone artistic director Robin Tynes.

Rehearsals started back in December. There were no auditions. With so much emceeing, audience interaction, and stand-up comedy skill required, your garden-variety audition wouldn’t help a director to make her choice. Tynes just handed the script to Tania Kelly.

Tynes needed someone who could draw an audience to Duke Energy Theater, somebody with proven improv chops. “Tania was an obvious choice to me. She has extensive emcee experience, comedy experience through Robot Johnson and other shows, and people love watching her on stage. We worked with Tania in our production of Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, so I knew she had the dramatic chops for the piece. I think she’s an excellent actress who often times gets pigeonholed into solely comedic roles.”

Kelly offers a slightly different account of getting the script from Tynes. “I read it,” she recalls, “and then immediately sent her a message that said, ‘WHAT DO I NEED TO DO TO BE IN THIS?’ We had a meeting and then I got to do the best thing ever. I wanted to do this show so bad because I immediately related to the story. But then on top of that, the writer also gave a lot of freedom in the casting of the Narrator with all those really interesting footnotes. So, I don’t think anything super drastic needed to be changed.”

Recently named the recipient of A Seat at the Table’s inaugural “She Is Dope” Award, Kelly is best known for how smart, brainy, snarky, and caustic her performances have been. She was the worst psychiatrist ever in Beyond Therapy in 2011 and a prodigiously misinformed humanities professor last year in Women Playing Hamlet. But Kelly’s dopiest exploit remains her stint as both Dromios in the 2016 Chickspeare presentation of The Comedy of Errors.

Tynes plans to give Kelly a more intimate and clubby atmosphere to work in at Duke Energy Theater, reducing seating capacity to around 100 people and putting her star to work before the action begins, working and engaging the crowd. Kelly agrees that her unique résumé has been invaluable.

“Robot Johnson has definitely been a master class in ‘Just roll with it, trust your friends, and man these drunks are loud,’” Kelly quips. “Also I was a DJ/Emcee for tweens for Radio Disney for like five years, and I feel like that skill has really helped lately. But also yes, this is still, for real, absolutely terrifying.”

With all the unpredictable audience participation that Kelly is called upon to cope with, the rehearsal process had to be re-engineered. It wasn’t altogether private, one-on-one, or hush-hush.

“Danielle Melendez, our stage manager, and Robin have worked really hard to organize a series of test audiences for me to interact with for just those scenes. Which has made this such a fun and unique process for all of us. We’ve been essentially running a series of experiments. It’s been pretty cool.”

Kelly doesn’t mention that a recent performance at Catawba College earned her a standing ovation, but Tynes does. There’s still some polishing going on behind the scenes as opening night approaches. Yet the object has never been to make the Three Bone version anything like the off-Broadway production that won Every Brilliant Thing its acclaim. Tynes has devoutly avoided watching any other version of the show, including the HBO special.

“It was also thrilling for us,” says Tynes, “to interpret and mold this script that was crafted by a white British man to fit an African-American woman. While casting Tania was not intentionally political – she was hands-down the best person for the job – it has inherently changed how I view the script. We’re discussing and diving into mental health, and the demographic in the United States with the least access to mental health care is women of color. I love that by having Tania play this role, a woman of color is at the forefront of this discussion about mental health care and support systems.”

Davidson’s pudgy cuddliness will vanish when Kelly takes over his role, but the heavy moments – and the touchy-feely ones – will be part of the challenge that she’s embracing. Kelly dismisses any talk of the larger significance of the event. “This is a really funny show about depression,” she insists. “I’m just telling a really gorgeously written story.”

Fair warning: you might feel otherwise. With all its shtick and spontaneity, Every Brilliant Thing becomes something of a ritual when different audience voices chime in, a ritual of empathy, celebration, and healing.

“Actually, we are all telling this story together,” Kelly agrees. “The audience is creating this with me every night. I have never done anything like this before. I can’t wait for y’all to see it!”

Oh, and don’t be surprised if Sherlock Bones is renamed Chuck Barkley. He’s Kelly’s dog now, and it’s Kelly’s show.

 

Egg-spressive Brothers Cook Up “Something Rotten!” for Elizabethan Stage

Review:  Something Rotten!

RottenTour_1487

By Perry Tannenbaum

The more you know about Shakespeare – and the more you know about Broadway musicals – love ‘em or hate ‘em – the more you’ll laugh out loud at Something Rotten. Conceived by songwriter Wayne Kirkpatrick and funnyman Karey Kirkpatrick, who teamed up on the music and lyrics (with a book by Karey K. and John O’Farrell), Rotten smells a lot like The Producers exported to Elizabethan England. Very much like the Mel Brooks classic, two partners hatch an impossibly bad idea for a hit show.

Big difference: the Bottom brothers, Nick and Nigel, aren’t trying to birth the biggest bomb of all time. Fueled by an intense jealousy of William Shakespeare, a bard of rockstar celebrity who shamelessly steals all of Nigel’s best lines, Nick seeks out a soothsayer to help him beat Shakespeare to the next big thing in theatre – and to Shakespeare’s greatest hit.

The soothsayer, Nostradamus, can hardly believe what he sees himself when he peers into the future. That’s because the seer doesn’t exactly see it with 20/20 vision. Through a glass foggily, Nostradamus sees that musicals are the future, isn’t quite sure how and why they work, and his divinations are sprinkled with inklings of Cats, Fiddler, Annie, Phantom, Lion King, tap dance, kick lines, and much more. Using his own imagination, Nick’s “The Black Death” isn’t quite the artistic abortion that “Springtime for Hitler” would be, but the showman realizes he’s in trouble.RottenTour_9089

So he returns to Nostradamus, reasoning that he can produce a musical version of the greatest tragedy Shakespeare hasn’t yet written. Once again, the soothsayer can’t quite read the eye chart. He confidently outlines the scrambled story of “Omelet.” Egg-citedly, Nick launches into an even more misbegotten concept, trying to whip up Nigel’s enthusiasm for “Omelet: The Musical.” You can write some truly rotten stuff when eggs are your inspiration.

That’s where the score manages to shine most brightly – in the Kirkpatricks’ intentionally rotten songs. There’s also a certain mean animus to Nick’s “God, I Hate Shakespeare” that I liked, contrasted with the panache of Shakespeare’s “Will Power” and the pampered idol’s excessive pouting in “Hard to Be the Bard.” But the opening “Welcome to the Renaissance,” severely overmiked on opening night, is gratifyingly transformed into the evening’s prime showstopper, “A Musical.” A bit of self-satire creeps in at the end of the show when the oh-so-familiar tune outwears its freshness with one last permutation.

On the other hand, the clever script provides a bounty of hambone for the cast to sink its teeth into – and a lot for Shakespeare to keep stealing, for besides Bottom, there is a Yorick, a Peter Quince, a Portia, and even a Jewish Shylock roaming the stage. While Adam Pascal offers us a glitzier gloss on Shakespeare than Christian Borle’s on Broadway, it plays well, and Blake Hammond’s Nostradamus is very much in the gonzo footsteps of Brad Oskar.

RottenTour_1502

Nick’s sponsorship problems open the door for Jeff Brooks’ comical antics as Shylock, and Nigel’s budding love life meets some funny, latently gay opposition from Scott Cote as Brother Jeremiah, Portia’s puritanical dad. While the female roles aren’t much to feast on, both Autumn Hurlbert as Portia and Maggie Lakis as Nick’s wife Bea show signs of modernity and liberation. Admiring Nigel’s talent, Portia proves to be familiar with contemporary Elizabethan poets, and worried that their future dreams might be hobbled by Nick’s financial woes, Bea goes out and gets a job.

A shitty job, but it’s a job.

The Kirkpatricks manage to conceive a satisfying pair of brothers with different outlooks and solid loyalties – a mundane verisimilitude that allows the more outré supporting cast members to repeatedly steal the show from them. Josh Grisetti as Nigel charms us with his purity and his shyness while Rob McClure as Nick brims with all the right energy you need to hawk the rotten ideas that drive Something Rotten. Ah, but when it’s a foregone conclusion that you’ll never be as funny as the Nick Bottom that Shakespeare created, a certain amount of flop sweat comes with the gig.