Monthly Archives: September 2019

AMOS McGEE Takes Us Into Uncharted Pre-K Territory

Review: Children’s Theatre of Charlotte presents A SICK DAY FOR AMOS MCGEE

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When you watch the new Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production of A SICK DAY FOR AMOS MCGEE, you and your child might not realize that Amos is employed as a zookeeper. You won’t see Amos swabbing down or feeding the animals that he visits – an elephant, a tortoise, a penguin, a rhino, and an owl – nor will you see him sweeping any cages or disposing of any droppings.

The time Amos spends with the zoo animals, to be honest, never looks like work. Thanks to the text by Philip C. Stead, adapted for the stage by Nicole B. Adkins, what Amos does looks exactly like friendship. He sits down to a game of chess with the elephant, races – and discreetly loses to – the tortoise, sits quietly and patiently with the shy penguin, and wipes the allergy-prone rhino’s nose. Time has truly flown by when dusk comes and Amos reads the owl a bedtime story.

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What struck me more forcefully than Amos’s vocation in Scottie Rowell’s puppet design, excellently derived from Erin Stead’s illustration, was his age. He’s elderly. You don’t need much youthfulness or foot speed to play chess, lose a race to a tortoise, extract a hankie from your pocket, or read a book.

 

So if you come to Wells Fargo Playhouse, you’ll find that Children’s Theatre is carving out a new niche with this leisurely-paced production sensitively directed by Melissa Ohlman-Roberge. It’s theatre for pre-K, and kids that I saw at the opening performance last Thursday seemed to find the pacing perfect. Oldsters and anklebiters are a natural combo, like peanut butter and jelly.

I did begin to wonder whether all the unhurried quality time Amos was spending with his zoo friends was the “sick day” of the title, for it takes up a larger proportion of our time at the theater than it does in the book. And I also began to suspect that Amos McGee wasn’t as fit for Children’s Theatre’s vaunted Kindness Project as it might be for a Friendship Initiative.

All that was neatly sorted out after Amos returned home and his new day began the next morning – a sick day when he just didn’t want to get out of bed. Consternation breaks out at the zoo. Elephant is missing his chess rival, tortoise is raring to race, and rhino is a mess. More than ever, we see that the animals don’t regard Amos as a zookeeper. When he doesn’t appear on schedule, we see that they regard him as a friend and as an integral part of their day. Their healthy day.

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When it becomes obvious to Amos’s friends that something is wrong, the kindness breaks out. Apparently, the animals recognize the city bus that Amos arrives on each day, so they resolve to take it to his house and pay him a visit. I’m assuming that animals who play chess and understand stories can devise ways to take leave of the zoo, pay their bus fares, and squeeze through the entrance to their friend’s apartment. But how do they find Amos’s place? If I figure anything out, I’ll let you know.

What matters, of course, is that Amos is modeling behavior that the animals appreciate, count on, and reciprocate. As the tortoise plays hide-and-seek with Amos, penguin sits quietly with his friend, and owl initiates story time, we’re likely to realize something that probably should have hit us when Amos was well: he gets as much from his friends as he gives.

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The three actors who serve as our puppeteers and take turns narrating gravitate toward a middle ground between ninja invisibility and emcee assertiveness, earnestly directing their attention – and ours – toward the puppets most of the time and calmly genial, never loud, in addressing us. Kids are likely to have a lively debate over which of Rowell’s puppet stars we should like best, elephant and tortoise perhaps leading the pack, but a call to express a preference among the puppeteers – Ron Lee McGill, Kevin Sarlo, or Lydia Williamson – will likely be met with blank stares.

All three puppeteers efface themselves sufficiently to allow Amos and the animals to be the stars. They’re like good parents for kids in this pre-K age group, encouraging their children to discover and play without going too far in voicing their views or imposing their structure. Yes, this is fertile new ground for theatre, worthy of further exploration.

Ample Eloquence Thrusts Home Against Faulty Amplification

Review: Shakespeare Carolina’s Cyrano

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Not surprisingly, Edmond Rostand was a theatrical reactionary. His most famous drama, Cyrano de Bergerac, was the last play written in verse or poetry that is still widely revived. The verse plays of William Butler Yeats, Maxwell Anderson and Archibald MacLeish have long since fallen by the wayside, but Rostand’s throwback along with his more whimsical Les Romanesques, transmuted into the evergreen musical, The Fantasticks, still endure.

But lately, Rostand’s original French text has been buffeted by film and stage adaptations that take us far from the playwright’s classic Alexandrine couplets – and the Brian Hooker verse translation that Jose Ferrer immortalized playing the title role. My last brush with a traditional Cyrano was in 1997 in an Off-Broadway production, when Frank Langella heroically took the title role in an abridged rendering of the Hooker translation.

The Anthony Burgess version, performed in SouthEnd by Epic Arts Repertory Theatre in 2004, took some liberties with parts that the translator didn’t fancy – and Laura Depta took on the title role, liberating it from traditional menfolk. So it’s been awhile since Charlotte has seen a traditional Cyrano, though the opera composed by David DiChiera, presented here by Opera Carolina late in 2017, reminded us of the huge scale and tapestry that Rostand imagined.

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You won’t find comparable operatic grandeur in the SlimFast Cyrano adapted by Jason O’Connell and

Brenda Withers, presented outdoors at the Winthrop Amphitheater by Shakespeare Carolina. Among the 44 “persons” catalogued in the original cast list are groups of cadets, poets, pastrycooks, pages, and musicians. After all these, Rostand calls for citizens, musketeers, thieves, children, Spanish soldiers, intellectuals, academicians, nuns, etc. O’Connell and Withers distill these multitudes into a script that ShakesCar presents with a cast of five – fewer people than you’ll see onstage in any precious little revival of The Fantasticks.

Naturally, O’Connell and Withers keep those five actors very busy in multiple roles. Even James Cartee, who will settle into the role of Cyrano, appears in a curiously updated prologue, falling off a ladder and setting off an ambulance-vs.-Uber debate on how to get him to a hospital. Stefani Cronley, off my radar since her debut in Fahrenheit 451 two years ago, must moonlight as a cadet when she isn’t Roxane, the beautiful lady of surprising depth and courage who absorbs Cyrano’s undeclared love and Christian’s inarticulate rapture.

Christian is fairly stunning himself, which may explain why Daniel Brown reappears as Sister Marthe when he has finished wooing Roxane. S. Wilson Lee also has an interesting array of roles; including Montfleury, a bogus poet whom Cyrano mocks; DeGuiche, a powerful noble who stalks Roxane; and Ragueneau, a friendly baker. The scenes we remember best from traditional productions, the moonlit scene in Roxane’s courtyard and the finale 15 years later at the Ladies of the Cross Convent, don’t really suffer dramatically from the O’Connell-Withers compression.

On the other hand, the remaining scenes were conceived on a grand scale. Cyrano heckles and denounces Montfleury at a theatrical presentation, he has an ill-fated triste with Roxane and meets Christian for the first time amid a hubbub of impoverished poets at Ragueneau’s bakery. And the unique love triangle climaxes at a besieged castle defended by Cyrano, Christian, and the cadets of Gascoyne. These are the scenes where Rostand’s multitudes are normally deployed.

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This Cyrano also applies the shears to our hero’s swordsmanship and literary prowess, so Monsieur De Bergerac doesn’t sensationally compose a ballade at Winthrop while outfencing and casually slaying a hapless enemy – and Cyrano’s gazette gets short shrift in the final scene. There is simply less reason here to admire and fear this dashing cavalier.

But the new script occasionally rhymes, and Cartee gives Cyrano ample eloquence. He wears a mask of his own design to underscore his ugliness, and his pacing is perfection when he verbally demolishes the simpleton who has the nerve to declare that Cyrano’s nose is outsized – with 20 or more elegant and witty self-deprecating descriptions he improvises on the spot. Confronting Roxane, he is timidity and deference, abashed by his own repulsiveness, yet with a touch of élan. He grows noticeably bolder under the cover of darkness when he woos his beloved on Christian’s behalf.

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Chris O’Neill’s costume and scenic design prove adequate for the more intimate scenes, largely because of the strength of his stage direction and Danny Wilt’s deft lighting. Until the end, when I felt that Cronley was a bit monochromatic in her weepiness, I was nicely swept into Roxane’s impetuous vigor. Dealing with Cyrano and Christian, Cronley’s eager energy dispelled any suspicion that Roxane was stupid, and the scenes with Christian were always pitch-perfect.

Of course, it’s Christian who readily strikes us as more dimwitted than Roxane at first, but Brown convincingly rides the tide of enlightenment that happens to this young buck as he becomes better and better acquainted with both Cyrano and Roxane. Montfleury and DeGuiche are akin in their foppishness and prissiness with Lee in both roles, which turns out to be quite fine, since De Guiche’s predatory lechery and his worldly power adequately supply sharp distinctions. Lee’s gentle geniality as Ragueneau also helps keeps things afloat and affecting at the end.

What may sink ShakesCar’s production for those less familiar with Rostand is the quirky performance of the sound system. Nearly all of the time, I could hear the players whether or not their microphones were working at that moment. But the in-and-out of the amplification, often in the space of a single line, gets to be annoying and distracting – a possible obstacle to understanding if this is your first encounter with this classic. I could only marvel how the entire cast soldiered through this adversity unfazed.

Hopefully, electronic glitches won’t mar the remainder of the run, for this compressed Cyrano certainly has plenty of panache.

Trying an Offramp on the Highway to Prison

Review: Pipeline by Three Bone Theatre

By Perry Tannenbaum

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One of 25 winners of the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Grant” last year, playwright Dominique Morisseau has begun, somewhat belatedly, a stealth invasion of the Queen City. How stealthy? UNC Charlotte and Three Bone Theatre, the first two outfits to present Morisseau works here, both latched onto the same acclaimed Detroit ‘67 for productions that would have opened a little more than a month apart.

That mutual unawareness was mercifully cleared up. Instead of two competing productions of the same 2013 script, we’re introduced to Morisseau by Three Bone with a newer work, Pipeline, that premiered at Lincoln Center two summers ago. ’67 matriculates on September 27 at the Robinson Hall Black Box.

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With a detached black dad checking his smartphone instead of making quality time for his teen-aged son, Pipeline feels 50 years more contemporary than Detroit must be. Yet the tide that high school English teacher Nya desperately resists, the progression of young black men’s lives from school to prison, comes at her with the lethal force of an eternal verity. Like mythic Greek royals seeking to avoid a sure fate pronounced by a Delphic oracle, Nya and her ex-husband Xavier have sent their son Omari off to a private boarding school to avoid the inner-city trail to incarceration.

It isn’t working. Although he isn’t dealing drugs, isn’t in a gang, and has a girlfriend who values him, Omari is volatile. In a classroom discussion of Richard Wright’s Native Son, the teacher has zeroed in on him to explain why Bigger Thomas explodes with such anger and violence – presumably because he, as the black kid the class, was best qualified to understand.

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The questioning escalated in a confrontation and then a physical action from Omari that seems open to dispute. Push, shove, assault, or a simple attempt to leave the room? Whatever happened – we never see the video that went viral – Omari not only faces possible expulsion but the teacher might press charges. Jail may already be on the horizon.

Nobody takes this unexpected defeat harder than Nya. She hasn’t merely been fighting against this tide of imprisonment and doom in her family. Every day in her classroom, she fights the good fight with wave after wave of young men, period after period, year after year. Teaching Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” written in 1959, Nya doesn’t merely wish her students to understand what the dropout pool players are saying in their semi-literate three-word sentences, she wants them to avoid living it.

So as Nya melts down in front of her students, Omari’s fate and her defeat acquire an Arthur Miller All My Sons moral weight, for she is angered and tinged with guilt at the same time. She is dangerous and out of control as she barges into Jasmine’s dorm room, demanding to know where her son has run off to.

Here is probably the best entry point into Morisseau’s subtext, for Nya gets a free pass on losing her cool and overstepping where Omari doesn’t. Just don’t get so caught up in Nya’s trespasses that you sleep on those of her colleague, Laurie, a white teacher. My first impulses were to see her as an empathizing sounding board for Nya’s anguished feelings and, together with security guard Dun, as a co-worker who underscores the sense of working in a terrifying, corrupting jungle teeming with at-risk youth.

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Ah, but keep your eye on what happens after Laurie snaps, striking one of her students – to break up a fight! Criticism gets hurled at Laurie by Nya and Dun, and surely there will be consequences from New York City school administration. But nobody onstage, not even Nya, believes that Laurie might be fired (in effect, expelled) and nobody, including me, entertains the notion that she might be brought up on assault charges.

These assumptions are the exact opposite of what we take for granted as applying to the Omaris, the Trayvons, and their black brethren striving to reach adulthood in America without being jailed or shot down in cold blood. We’ve all been numbed by this norm that is so hard-wired into American life.

While scene changes at Duke Energy Theater are a bit plodding in this Three Bone production, Ryan Maloney’s set design takes us where we need to go, and his projections add liveliness to the action, especially the poetry demo. Directing this meaty, turbulent, and layered script, Sidney Horton keeps the heat at about medium-high, so the playwright’s light shines through and we don’t suffer exhaustion.

And my goodness, the high-grade performances we get from LeShea Nicole as Nya and Susan Stein as Laurie make Horton look like the genius. Nicole discards all the irony we’ve seen from her in the past and gives us an earnestness and a heart-on-my-sleeve openness that marks an artistic breakthrough. When Nya teaches the last sentence of the Brooks poem, “We Die soon,” we get the full impact of what she feels is at stake.

Yet Nicole doesn’t get the luxury of delivering full-bore anger and toughness all the time as Stein does. Nya has a tender maternal side that peeps through even in the confrontation with Jasmine, Omari’s girlfriend. Stein offers us the sort of scrappy New Yorker whom I remember seeing and hearing so often when I was growing up. Yeah, her Laurie is back on the job after having her face put back together, but don’t you dare pity her.

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All of Nya’s fire and fury would be for naught if Morisseau hadn’t endowed Omari with enough complexity, strength and nuance for her to care about. Deandre Sanders takes a beautiful approach, playing Omari as a troubled young man rather than an immature teen. Nor does Sanders mute Omari’s big blind spot, his perpetually seething anger toward his dad. Omari’s scenes with Jasmine, his mom, and his dad are all multifaceted, Sanders projecting a manly grace and style that only partly veil the powder keg. Omari and his dad arguably draw the most noteworthy of Davita Galloway’s costume designs. That never hurts.

Slick, cold, and distant as he may be, Graham Williams as Xavier lets us know with only a trace of bitterness that he has taken the bullet for the breakup of his marriage to Nya. She slammed the door on him, now wants him back, and all this while has been peddling the myth that he abandoned his family – stoking Omari’s anger and partiality with the deception. So the guilt that afflicts Nya is not at all numinous.

Morisseau and Horton don’t neglect the smallest roles. While somewhat annoying in his pursuit of Nya, Marcus Fitzpatrick as Dun ably makes his point that the English teacher might be doing some income group profiling in undervaluing the school security guard. Meanwhile Alexis Jones gets to spray Jasmine with a few immature traits, letting us know there are some smarts mixed in with the coed’s insecurities and, in her showdown with Nya, that there is true worth behind her petulance.

Taking Down a Classic Thriller, Lateral Lisp and All

Review: Silence! The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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From God of Carnage to Hand to God to The Toxic Avenger and beyond, I’ve seen many of the original Broadway and Off-Broadway shows that Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has gone on to present in their Queen City premieres. What is singular about Silence! The Musical, perhaps unprecedented, is the fact that the original New York production at PS122 was unquestionably smaller, shabbier and more low-budget than the one currently playing at Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus.

This Charlotte debut is seven years more distant from Silence of the Lambs, the Academy Award winning thriller that Hunter Bell and his musical cronies, Jon and Al Kaplan, targeted with their satiric mischief and malice. Back in 2012, I was already bemoaning my failure to refresh my memories of the 1991 film with a full viewing before I went to see this nasty sendup.

Oops! I neglected my own warning last week, allowing my aging VHS tape to gather seven more years of dust before heading out to see what director Chip Decker and his cast would do in their assaults on Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. I must confess that my perspective was more than a little skewed, for by August 2019, I found myself remembering the Bell/Kaplans musical at least as well as the Jonathan Demme film.

What I remember most about the PS122 show, besides its fundamental crassness and cheapness, was its dimly-lit, wicked cult ritual ambiance. Reasonably enough, Decker and his design team are going for something different: a musical! Evan Kinsley’s set design spans the Hadley stage and so does Emily Hunter’s choreography, with a gamboling chorus of Lambs in a matched set of wooly white ears by Carrie Cranford.

Where Actor’s Theatre, Off-Broadway, and Demme intersect best are in the takeoffs on Foster and Hopkins. Leslie Giles has a veritable feasht exaggerating FBI trainee Clarice Starling’s lateral lishp, surely enough to convulse audiences seeing this Foster takedown for the first time, but not as mean and relentless as the mockery Jenn Harris dished out in New York. What will further delight Charlotte audiences, however, is the sweet bless-her-heart drawl that Giles lavishes on Clarice’s entreaties and interrogations – and her expletive explosion when her sexist boss slights her is a comedy shocker.

There was plenty of seediness in the original Lambs for the Kaplans and Bell to build on. Clarice’s confrontation with Hannibal the Cannibal results from her boss’s unsavory idea of sending Starling down into the bowels of a criminal madhouse to pick Lecter’s brain – hoping that the psychiatric insights of one serial killer can help the FBI catch another. Maybe some kind of natural attraction will coax Dr. Lecter into opening up. Clarice’s descent into the Baltimore loony bin confirms that a rare visit from a woman will indeed rouse the snakes in the pit as the trainee walks the gauntlet of cells leading to Lecter.

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A couple of the arousals fuel the most memorable moments of ejaculation and rapture. After the best spurt of physical comedy, we reach the innermost sanctum where the Cannibal is caged, and the shoddy cheapness of his protective enclosure becomes one of the show’s numerous running gags. At the climax of the first Lecter-Starling tête-a-tête, Rob Addison gets to deliver Hannibal’s deathless love ballad, “If I Could Smell Her Cunt.”

Addison’s rhapsody mushrooms into a ballet fantasia centering around Ashton Guthrie and Lizzie Medlin’s pas-de-deux as Dream Lecter and Dream Clarice. While Hunter’s choreography is more than sufficiently purple and passionate, we fall short on crotch crudity from Giles, and Cranford’s costuming muffs the opportunity for the Lambs to deliver a labial flowering. Yet it’s here that Addison is surpassingly effective, for his creepy drone as Lecter not only replicates the familiar Hopkins bouquet, but his singing voice is robust and raspy. We stay firmly in an Off-Broadway joint during Addison’s rhapsodizing instead of detouring, as PS122 did, into Broadway spectacular.

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Other than the equine Mr. Ed, I couldn’t fathom what Jeremy DeCarlos was going for in his portrayal of the at-large crossdressing serial killer Jame Gumb, alias Buffalo Bill. To make things worse, production values reach their zenith when DeCarlos sings his showstopper, “Put the Fucking Lotion in the Basket,” to his latest captive, Senator Martin’s suitably plump (“Are You About a Size 14”) daughter Catherine. If Kinsley hadn’t troubled to elevate his sadistic serial killer to such a commanding height on his impressive set, flimsier security arrangements similar to the Cannibal’s would have played funnier.

Rest assured that verisimilitude isn’t a top priority elsewhere in Decker’s scheme. Kacy Connon excels as both Senator Martin and her daughter Catherine while Ryan Dunn shapeshifts from Clarice’s dad to agent-in-charge Jack Crawford, all without discarding their Lambketeer ears. Dunn’s eyeglasses shtick worked every time with the opening night crowd, and in welcoming Clarice to the institutional home of Hannibal, Nick Culp sleazily Clarice set the tone for the unfettered lechery to come.

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Clarice lucks out when Crawford cruelly reassigns her, but she shows up unawares and unprepared at Buffalo Bill’s lair. That disadvantage results in the last of the three scenes we remember best from the screen thriller, the duel to the death on Bill’s home turf in pitch darkness, Clarice armed with her automatic pistol and the psychopath wearing night vision glasses. Peppered with song (“In the Dark With a Maniac”), this parody comes off as winningly as the great prison sequence where we first encountered Lecter – and better than the previous climax when the Cannibal escapes.

Hallie Gray’s lighting design is a valuable asset when tensions intensify, and Kinsley’s tall scenery isn’t a total waste. At times, it adds to the absurdity of the Lamb chorus, but it pays off most handsomely at the end in Hannibal’s demonic farewell, adding a dimension that even Hollywood couldn’t boast.