Daily Archives: September 13, 2018

Fleet Buffoonery Conquers Enchantment in “Peter and the Starcatcher”

Review: Peter and the Starcatcher

By Perry Tannenbaum

As a fairly frequent reader of Dave Barry’s newspaper work, still recycling in Miami Herald newsletters a full 13 years after he left, I’ve developed a healthy skepticism about whether the humorist is capable of being serious about anything. I was optimistic that I might witness a breakthrough back in 2012 when I realized – as I was preparing to review the original Broadway production – that Rick Elice’s Tony Award-nominated Peter and the Starcatcher was adapted from a novel by Barry and Ridley Pearson.

Surely a prequel to Peter Pan, the most adulated and beloved story of the 20th century, would give Barry the incentive to see beyond his next one-liner, especially with a collaborator on board to keep him from jumping the rails. The giddy acclaim buzzing around the show and its five Tony wins for acting and design further fueled my optimism. On a July evening, I entered the Brooks Atkinson Theatre with the wild expectation of seeing a play that artfully, joyfully, and humorously dovetailed with James M. Barrie’s indelible fantasy.

My expectations were badly misaligned with the clever deconstruct of storytelling that I saw. Elice and Barry were equally tone-deaf to the sense of enchantment that Barrie brought to Peter Pan and to the Englishman’s flavorful zest for the primitive. In its belated rush to chime with the story so many of us grew up with, Starcatcher plopped Neverland in the middle of the ocean rather than up in the stars, Peter remained far from the heartless arrogant joy we all remember, and we were left to figure out that Barry’s Molly was Barrie’s Mary, Wendy’s elegant mom.

Unhindered by my former expectations, I found the touring version of Starcatcher far more enjoyable than the Broadway version when it came to Charlotte in 2014. A lot of credit went to the players. There was more chemistry at Knight Theater between Peter and Molly than I saw on Broadway, therefore more heart emerging from Elice’s script, and unlike the fellow who tried so hard to please as Tony Award winner Christian Borle’s replacement, John Sanders seemed to be having a great time as Black Stache, alias Captain Hook.

Yet I must have still been searching for Barry-Barrie links that I might have missed two years earlier, because I found myself even more pleased last week when Theatre Charlotte opened their 91st season with Jill Bloede directing a strong cast in Peter and the Starcatcher. Adept at zany comedy and slapstick, Bloede knows what this piece is – and what it isn’t. She has prodded Dave Blamy to the top of his game as Stache, no less funny here than in his award-winning turns at Actor’s Theatre in The 39 Steps and The Scene, eight years ago and more. How far can Blamy go over-the-top? The climactic amputation scene will be your delightful answer. Part-time foil and part-time torment, Jeff Powell as Smee outbumbles his master, perpetually aflutter and the perfect complement for Blamy,

Prime yourself for buffoonish villainy rather than hapless wicked cunning to get the full effect of Blamy Stache. The other wicked captain onstage, Tim Huffman as Captain Slank, takes up some of the slack on wickedness and menace – not a surprise if you saw Huffman in his Queens Road debut in The Crucible. Two piratical seamen have gotten wind of the treasure that Lord Leonard Aster is transporting to India. Getting both vessels to sea obliges us to accept that Lord Aster would want her Molly to sail separately from her father with one of the two treasure chests.

With Troy Feay making his Theatre Charlotte debut as milord, there was plenty starchy British propriety on board one of the ships, and with Johnny Hohenstein crossdressing as Mrs. Bumbrake, there was plenty of bawdy bustle aboard the other. Bowen Abbey woos her with intermittent success as Alf, allowing Hohenstein some comical vacillations – and partially explaining her slack supervision of Molly. Hey, they’re all kidnapped anyway, so Mrs. B has some cover for her negligence.

Also kidnapped – sold into slavery, if you want to get picky – are three orphan boys whom Molly befriends. By the process of elimination, we can figure out that the urchin with no name, played with a soft chip on his shoulder by Patrick Stepp, will eventually emerge as Peter. In the spirit of adventure, Molly seeks them out in the bowels of the pirate ship, and in the spirit of Barrie’s Wendy, she takes on the burden of educating the Lost Boys. Fifteen-year-old Ailey Finn is more than sufficiently precocious to portray both the tomboy and maternal dimensions of Molly. Why not? She was Rose of Sharon nearly a year ago in Theatre Charlotte’s Grapes of Wrath!

Stepp and Finn both render their roles like they’re on the cusp of puberty, so their mutual awakening comes moments before they must part forever. With Bloede at the helm, this is the most poignant ending I’ve seen in any Starcatcher production.

We seem to get there at warp speed, even though Bloede manages to sharpen Captain Slank and Mrs. Bumbrake more than I’ve previously experienced. Yet the sensory bombardment is so constant that I can admit without shame that, while I can tell you that Jesse Pritchard and A.J. White played the orphans creditably, I can’t say for sure whether Prentiss was the ornery one or Ted. Likewise, a peep into Wikipedia was necessary to nail down which character wooed Mrs. B.

Somebody remarked to me in the lobby at intermission that Peter and the Starcatcher is like children’s theatre for adults. If you’ve seen ensembles in children’s productions who break away from their characters and directly narrate to the audience, you’ll see the truth of that comment hand-in-hand with Elice’s deconstructing mischief. We are taking in a lot of information here. Listening to the players is often a more reliable indicator of where we are than following the changes in Chris Timmons’ spare set design, nicely coordinated with Gordon Olson’s lighting.

Keeping pace with all that happens is hard enough without worrying how Elice’s play connects with Barrie’s. So don’t. It was only on my third go-round that I realized how important the sound designer’s contributions are to making Starcatcher work. No sound designer is listed in the Theatre Charlotte playbill, so I’ll cite Ben Sparenberg and Rick Wiggins, listed jointly as light and sound board operators. Bloede and her cast certainly keep them busy, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that both of them might be cuing sounds together when tensions intensify.

You won’t find much enchantment in this 91st season launch, but there’s some magic aboard one of the ships when we land in Neverland. The journey is roaring good fun at its best, and it’s running with professional polish and precision.

A Georgia-Born Playwright Reappraises Carter – in the Age of Trump

Preview: Confidence (and The Speech)

CATS cast photo + Anne + Susan #1[4]

By Perry Tannenbaum

Oceans are rising. California keeps burning. Women are still facing stalkers, abusers, detractors, and depressed wages. Innocent blacks are beaten and shot in the back by rogue cops – or point blank by vigilantes. Wouldn’t it be great to be led by a President who cares? While Obama nostalgia and Hillary regrets are keenest, all other past commanders in chief and presidential hopefuls – except maybe Bush 43 – seem to be more palatable alternatives than the racist boor who now sits so empty-headedly at his empty Oval Office desk.

Even Jimmy Carter? Why yes, says playwright Susan Lambert Hatem, whose Confidence (and The Speech) premieres at Duke Energy Theater this week. Growing up in Decatur, GA, a three-hour drive from the famed Plains presidential peanut farm, Hatem has been fascinated by the Carter presidency and his exceptional post-presidency since childhood. Her impulse to reappraise Carter began before the 2016 election.

Among Carter’s signature achievements were establishing the Departments of Education and Energy and successfully bringing Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat together to the peace table for the Camp David Accords. Hatem has made a pilgrimage to attend Carter’s Sunday preaching at his plain Plains church and has extensively researched the record.

“He appointed more women justices and more minority justices than all previous administrations – put together,” she points out. “Carter paved the way to something. There is no Obama presidency without Carter’s presidency. His administration never dropped a bomb. Never started a war. Eight American soldiers were killed on his watch.”

When Confidence began taking shape in 2015, Hatem had good reason to expect that she would also be able to claim that Carter’s presidency paved the way to Hillary Clinton. Equipped with sound theatrical sense, Hatem knew that showing Carter establishing government agencies or appointing women and minorities wasn’t a dramatic pathway to resuscitating his stature.

Instead, she decided to focus on his pivotal “Crisis of Confidence” speech of 1979 addressing America’s energy crisis. She learned that Carter had cancelled the energy address he had originally scheduled for July Fourth and sequestered himself at Camp David for 10 days before emerging with what Hatem calls “The Speech.” Those 10 days were an attempt to change the course of our history.

“I discovered that the initial reaction to that speech was intensely positive,” Hatem recalls. “It was the best public reaction to a speech the White House had ever seen – there were phone calls and letters praising the speech. Later, the speech was used against him and became known as the ‘malaise’ speech – though he never said malaise.”

Before moving into his policy decisions and recommendations, Carter described an ingathering and reaching out.

“I invited to Camp David people from almost every segment of our society,” he told the nationwide TV audience, “business and labor, teachers and preachers, governors, mayors, and private citizens. And then I left Camp David to listen to other Americans, men and women like you. It has been an extraordinary ten days, and I want to share with you what I’ve heard.”

Hatem not only examines the domestic summit that Carter held at Camp David, she flips the script with her narrative structure. Young Jonathan Rollins approaches 60-year-old college professor Cynthia Cooper, a former Carter aide, and asks her to recall the leadup to the “Crisis of Confidence” speech. Cooper consents – on condition that Young Jonathan plays Young Cynthia in the retelling. Professor Cooper will play President Carter.

Why? Because Hatem is not just interested in how history is made. She’s concerned with who gets to make it. Set in 2019, when President Hillary would presumably declare her candidacy for a second term, Confidence (and The Speech) would be a look back at how we began to evolve toward this landmark of feminist progress.

And then came the shock of Election Night, November 8…

“After the 2016 election – I didn’t know what to do,” Hatem admits. “I had to put the play down for a bit. I couldn’t work on it. I didn’t know how the play would make any sense any more. Then January 2017 was the Woman’s March, and I was re-inspired. I knew I had to finish it. So many women were stepping up. So many LGBTQ activists. So many black women and men. So many voices were rising. I wrote a new ending – a cathartic ending to me. An ending that I think will excite some, and confuse others. It is purposefully somewhat ambiguous… and not.”

The road from re-inspiration to this week’s Charlotte premiere ran through Hatem’s sister, Anne Lambert, who already had two significant production projects in the works during 2017. Last summer, she was on the producing team at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte that presented a staged reading of Bend in the Road, a musical adaption of the beloved Anne of Green Gables. Then in late fall, Lambert’s own company, Charlotte’s Off-Broadway, presented a fully professional local premiere of Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain.

Lambert had co-founded the all-female Chickspeare theatre troupe at a local brewery 20 years ago, so her sister’s gender-bending concept was right up her alley. Confidence was one of six plays that were read at Camp North End this past winter as part of the Charlotte’s Off-Broadway “Page to Stage 2018” series. Of the six works read script-in-hand from February through March, Hatem’s will mark the third to receive a full production.

This time around, Lambert is wearing two hats, producing and directing. Hatem especially values her sister’s experience with dark Shakespearean plays – where the Chickspeare gender-bending wasn’t done for cheap laughs or sexual effect.

“What I’m trying to do is explore how the cross-gendering can reveal another layer to the play’s themes,” says Hatem. “That’s where Anne and her direction have been so great.”

The Lambert Sisters tapped Josephine Hall for the challenging roles of Professor Cooper and President Carter – in an unusual three-way FaceTime audition with the playwright in LA, the producer in Charlotte, and their star in Greensboro. We haven’t seen Josephine Hall in a local production since she prowled Stonewall Street in Cougar: The Musical, the last of her three Actor’s Theatre appearances during the 2014-15 season. Though she teaches acting and voice at Greensboro College, Hall hasn’t totally disappeared from view. Some of us saw her at Belk Theater when the first national tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time came to town in February 2017.

Hatem knew some people who had worked with Hall on that tour, and Lambert had been impressed with her performance in Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike at Actor’s Theatre. You could say they were pre-sold before they hooked up via their iPhones.

After starring as the discontented daughter of a former Reagan ambassador in the 2014 Actor’s Theatre production of Other Desert Cities, you also might say that Hall was serendipitously unsold on President Ronald Reagan. The Hollywood actor successfully pinned the malaise label on Carter’s watershed speech and wrested the presidency from him in 1980.

“I believe The Speech is a missed opportunity,” Hall says after living with it through months of study and rehearsals. “Most people – not just Americans – don’t want to think too deeply or like to change their daily habits. Carter was asking for both. It’s really no wonder that most people chose the ‘all is well, just spend more’ approach offered by Reaganomics. It is very sad, however. I try to imagine a world where America had paid attention and led the world down a more sustainable path.”