Monthly Archives: November 2019

Viking Queen “Lear” Remains True to the Bard

Review: Lear by Free Reign Theatre Company

By Perry Tannenbaum

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We’ve had more than a couple of productions of King Lear in the Metrolina area during the new millennium – plus a couple of offshoots like Lear ReLoaded and Lear Unplugged in Boiling Springs and Davidson. So it would be natural for you to suspect that Lear, from the young Free Reign Theatre Company, is some sort of mashup, modernization, or abridgement of William Shakespeare’s towering tragedy.

Not so. The title has been shortened for a different reason: old Lear is now a woman. The production at Spirit Square clocks in at about three hours and 15 minutes, including intermission, fairly consonant with the lengths of King Lear presentations by the Charlotte Shakespeare Festival in 2011 at McGlohon Theatre and the NC Shakespeare Lear of 2008 up in High Point, both starring Graham Smith. Free Reign’s edit actually provides more Lear than the 2006 Classic Theatre of Charlotte production in NoDa, when director Tony Wright performed deft surgery on the script.

You don’t have to twist or contort your expectations to enjoy this Lear. Directed by Heather Bucsh, the Free Reign take on Shakespearean production is conspicuously low-budget, with respect to scenery, compared to the others I’ve mentioned. Yet Bucsh has also designed the Viking costumes – as pointedly as she directs – so we accustom ourselves to watching palace scenes, royal inhospitality, and eye gougings played out with little more than picnic tables.

The play and the players are the thing, beginning with Lisa Essex as Lear. Hitting the right note with this monarch in the Bard’s opening scene is a supreme test, both for a director and an actor tackling the title role for the first time. Questions already lurk in the playscript for them to grapple with. What kind of relationships has Lear established with his daughters? Why is he dividing his kingdom? And perhaps most puzzling of all, after calling upon his daughters to compete for their inherited portions on the basis of how much they love daddy, why does he decide the results of the competition while the daughters are still competing?

Maybe it’s useful, then, that Essex struggles to project the age, the command, and the explosive presence of the eccentric king. It doesn’t help that she is neither big nor tall – nor guarded by the 100, 50, or even 25 riotous knights that Shakespeare tells us are serving His Highness. We can gloss over questions of plausibility quite easily as we try getting used to the concept that this woman is truly master of all the lands she is divvying up.

As Lear diminishes in her worldly power, becomes more isolated and disrespected, finally losing her sanity, Essex steadily grows in dramatic power. By the time Lear is raving mad on the stormy heath, challenging winds and hurricanoes to do their worst, Essex is near her peak. But it’s when the storm is over that we see this Lear’s madness most vividly. Essex and Bucsh don’t pick up on every nuanced life lesson that the humbled queen is learning about “elemental man” from her Fool and Edgar (disguised as a crazed beggar), but I’ve never seen a Lear that’s more out of his mind than Essex looks out of hers.

There is a breathtaking depth to her downfall and disintegration, so when we move from the sin-and-punishment portion of her story to her grace-and-forgiveness reunion with Cordelia, the good daughter he has wronged, it’s as profoundly moving as any Lear I’ve seen.

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Even in the grand opening, Bucsh and her cast impress me when we look away from the throne. For one thing, we don’t have to look far. Goneril and Regan, along with their husbands, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, are scrunched together at that picnic table. So we quickly get a sense of their evil conspiratorial kinship – with a hint of the mutual enmity and jealousy that will kill them both. It’s there when they speak and when they listen. Kristin Varnell looks mean and barbaric as Goneril, even as she sits closest to her dad at the table, and Rebecca Gossage is the essence of wantonness as Regan, more slyly concealed near the far end of the group.

There’s a more substantial contrast between Albany and Cornwall, where the good-natured cluelessness of Nathan Hall as Albany is markedly different from Mathew Schantz’s scowling distemper as Cornwall. But what impresses me most about Busch’s work is what she does in the parallel plot, where the Earl of Gloucester is as deceived in his valuation of his sons, Edgar and Edmund, as Lear is with her daughters. Here Free Reign’s gender switch actually improves Shakespeare’s fearful symmetry.

Robert Brafford beautifully handles the slimy cunning of the bastard Edmund, a villain who addresses us directly more than any other Shakespeare schemer this side of Iago. He gets a warrior look to his beard’s coiffure that sets him apart from all but Schantz as Cornwall, relishing the competing attentions of Goneril and Regan as much as cozening his father and brother. Russell Rowe mutes the foolishness of Gloucester, not making a banquet out of the Earl’s reliance on astrological portents. That only slightly abbreviates his learning curve when he’s blinded – while his pitifulness remains intact.

What will stand out most for me when I recall this Lear is the beautifully reimagined performance of Katie Bearden as Edgar – the best Edgar that I have seen. Anywhere. Her role unfolds in three stages: hoodwinked Edgar, the fugitive Tom of Bedlam beggar, and champion warrior Edgar. The first stage is unremarkable enough, with Bearden choosing to be naïve and credulous instead of bookish and trusting, the way we see him most often. Magic begins when Bearden transforms into the Bedlam beggar, a howling combination of ‘60s icons Janis Joplin and Tiny Tim that somehow combines savagery with vulnerability.

I won’t begin to describe the look of Bearden as the disguised Edgar who emerges from hiding to challenge brother Edmund to mortal combat, but I’ll say this: revenge in a Shakespearean production has never tasted sweeter to me. As a result, my focus shifted slightly as the multiple denouements played out in Lear. I found myself as invested in Edgar’s revenge upon his brother as I usually am in the vicious Edmund-Goneril-Regan love triangle – notwithstanding Charles Holmes’s mediocre fight choreography when the brother gladiators clashed.

Sadly, Essex’s real-life daughter, Madeleine Essex, didn’t rise to even that level on opening night. Bucsh had her looking sweet and pure compared to her sibs, and the younger Essex took her portrayal in a fine direction, toward modesty and shyness, with perhaps a pinch of trepidation.

If only Lear’s dying description of Cordelia’s voice as “soft, gentle, and low” hadn’t pushed her to the verge of whispering in the opening scene. And perhaps a livelier, more spontaneous “No cause, no cause” would have made my tears flow more freely in the luminous reunion. Yet there were moments – startling moments – when Essex showed us just how loud and emotional Cordelia can be.

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No such inconsistencies dogged of Courtney Harris’s bluster as Kent, the loyal knight that Lear banishes with Cordelia, though she could register more chastening and enlightenment at the end of her journey. And I’ve been seeing excellent portrayals by women of Lear’s saucy, prickly Fool for so long that Amy Schiede Cheek’s winsome élan in the role comes as no shock, even with her ram’s horns and lyre. The suspense nowadays is whether productions will deal with the Bard’s failure to tell us the Fool’s ultimate fate. Bucsh and Cheek do tackle that matter decisively.

The best portent of the evening happened when I first walked into Duke Energy Theater and found the place nearly sold-out on opening night. Evidently, word-of-mouth about Free Reign has spread, unfazed by Lear in any form. The quality of this work ought to keep them coming, even if the actors come out for their bows at 11:15pm.

Just one point of order: since you’ve changed the gender of all her personal pronouns, could you please stop calling this queen “Sir”? I don’t think either Queen Elizabeth was addressed that way.

Soul and Spirit of the Caribbean in a Ramshackle Village

Review: Once on This Island

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

The Company of the North American Tour of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. Photo by Joan Marcus. 2019

Early in the colorful Tony Award-winning revival of Once on This Island, we learn what differentiates the upper-class grand hommes of this French Antilles fantasyland from the darker-skinned impoverished peasants they have shunned. The upper crust have their money, their steady flow of rich tourists, their fine champagne, their Frenchified style, and their mastery of their own fates. The peasants in this jewel of the Caribbean? They have their religion. They pray to their gods of earth, water, and love who rule their lives – along with the demon of death.

They remain remarkably upbeat despite finding themselves at the mercy of merciless deities: “And if the gods decide to send a hurricane… we dance!” Or so they sing.

In her adaptation of Rosa Guy’s My Love, My Love, Lynn Ahrens and her peasant islanders retain their sunniness even though they live and narrate a tragic tale. Shimmering with steel drums and assorted Caribbean percussion, Stephen Flaherty’s score is on the same radiant page. After the opening “We Dance” cited above, even the most dramatic songs, like “Pray” and “Forever Yours,” almost always have an uptempo episode. As “Some Say” hints, you’re blessed if you merely end up “in a story or a song.”

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For the plucky islanders, the glass is always at least half full. Ti Moun arrives near the home of Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie as wee girl, perched up in a tree after the storm and tide that washed away her native village deposits her there. Tonton and Mama adopt her as soon as they confirm that she can speak. Instead of fretting over or mourning her ancestors, Ti Moun grows up thinking that her miraculous survival signals that the gods have a special purpose for her.

It comes when Daniel Beauxhomme comes riding along during another bad storm and crashes his car on the beach. While the smitten Ti Moun is desperately nursing Daniel back to health, Papa Ge – the demon of death – comes to claim him and break her heart. Ti Moun shocks the demon by offering up her life in exchange for his. Love beyond love.

The story that plays out afterwards; with echoes of Little Mermaid, Romeo and Juliet, and a couple of choice pagan myths retold in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; breaks Ti Moun’s heart anyway. At this most vulnerable moment, she has a second grim encounter with Papa Ge – and once again, she thwarts the demon. After that, we see that, in a hopelessly endlessly downtrodden way, Ti Moun truly is a favorite of the gods. Especially if being in a song and a story is sufficient proof.

You can’t replicate the campfire configuration of Circle in the Square, the Broadway theater where This Island was revived, so the intimate community feel of the show hasn’t made it intact to Belk Theater. But there’s a storytelling vibe in Ahrens’ book and ten Storytellers in director Michael Arden’s touring production. Scenic designer Dave Laffrey also provides a considerable amount of audience seating onstage at the fringes of his ramshackle set, and Arden adds a whirl of pre-show activity and buzz from his actors.

I suspected that the onstage spectators were plucked from the rear of the uppermost balcony, for I didn’t spy many other empty seats on opening night. A full house also nurtures that community feel, and word-of-mouth will no doubt extend the welcome of this cheery, warm-hearted entertainment.

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Complementing the ramshackle scenery are the makeshift Clint Ramos costume designs, enabling the peasantry to transform into gods simply by accessorizing. The most amusing transformation occurs when Kyle Ramar Freeman dons his Mother of Earth skirt as Asaka. But make no mistake, Jahmaul Bakare as Agwe and Cassondra James as Erzulie have no less flair as the God of Water and the Goddess of Love. Arden’s concept seems to want the gods both ways, earthy peasants and mighty deities at the same time.

Ahrens and Flaherty chime in well with this transparently folkloric attitude. “Some Say” offers multiple variants on how Ti Moun survived the arduous journey across the island to the grand hommes’s stronghold – implying that religion is storytelling, but so genially that few will realize their values are being challenged.

Breathing life, hope, and a sunburst of energy into all this Caribbean mythmaking is UNC School of the Arts grad Courtnee Carter as Ti Moun, dressed in flaming red from the moment she makes her star entrance, supplanting the precocious Mimi Crossland (alternating with Mariana Diop) playing the toddler Ti. Carter brings us the simplicity of Ti Moun’s purposefulness and the steadfast power of her conviction. “I know this,” she tells the villagers who advise her against nursing Daniel back to life: this is why the gods placed her here.

Carter belts her climactic ballad compellingly, though “Forever Yours” isn’t really special melodically, and when Papa Ge’s intrusion quickens the tempo just as a recovering Daniel has joined Ti Moun in duet, Carter’s “take my life – my soul – for his!” is heart-stopping and fearless. Tamyra Gray as Papa Ge gets the last fiendish cackle in this song and proves to be a formidable adversary, relishing her macabre stealth and her monstrous ashen costume.

Recumbent, recuperating, and rejecting, Michael Ivan Carrier never quite gets the chance to show us that Daniel is worthy of Ti Moun’s epic adoration. Get over it. Carrier does get the chance to show us he’s more textured than most Prince Charmings. Similarly, Ahrens and Flaherty provide meatier roles for Ti Moun’s adoptive parents than you’ll see for parents or stepparents of most Cinderellas and Sleeping Beautys. In “One Small Girl” and “Ti Moun,” Philip Boykin and Danielle Lee Graves demonstrate that Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie are as much the soul of the island as the gods.

Grit and Endurance at Birkenau – and Urgency Today

Review: Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042

By Perry Tannenbaum

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For those of us who didn’t endure or survive it, talking about the Holocaust can be awkward, uncomfortable, and disturbing. I should know: Invited to a 1991 production of I Never Saw Another Butterfly by Children’s Theatre, my own uncle – brought to Charlotte as a pre-eminent authority on gifted children – turned down the opportunity to see a fine Teen Ensemble in action. Very likely, the I in the title was the biggest red flag for Uncle Abe – the threat of hearing a first-hand account of the horrors, the inhumanity, and the suffering. Even from teens.

Ah, but what if you weren’t the child of Jewish American immigrants, safe from the Nazi killing machine and the misfortunes of growing up Jewish inside the Third Reich? If you had grown up Jewish in Berlin and Vienna, if you had seen the belly of the beast as a concentration camp prisoner at Auschwitz and Birkenau, smelled the smoke of the crematorium from the moment you arrived, dreaded every morning roll call, and reverted to your animal instincts just to survive – even then, after surviving this unfathomable ordeal, you’re unlikely to feel comfortable talking about it.

Come to Duke Energy Theater and you’ll see why.

The screening of Surviving Birkenau at the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival late last month was a preliminary reminder. Like Three Bone Theatre’s world premiere of Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042, now at Spirit Square through Sunday, Ron Small’s documentary was all about the early life of Dr. Susan Cerynak-Spatz and how she managed to outlast her brutal captors – ultimately escaping Adolph Hitler’s infamous “final solution.”

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After the film, there was a panel discussion and time set aside for audience questions. Among those on the panel were Three Bone Theatre artistic director Robin Tynes-Miller, Charles LaBorde, the actor-playwright-educator who adapted Cernyak-Spatz’s memoir, and Dennis Delamar, who is directing it. Joining the panel was Jackie Fishman, Cernyak-Spatz’s daughter, who had appeared briefly during the film and was instrumental in greenlighting the new play.

It was Fishman who inadvertently delineated the key difference between the Cernyak-Spatz we had just seen onscreen at the Levine Jewish Community Center and the one who I would see portrayed at Duke Energy the following week. Asked about how her mom had discussed the Holocaust in their home while she was growing up, Fishman recalled that the subject was rarely mentioned. Avoided.

We had just watched a woman who, already well into her 90’s when Surviving Birkenau was filmed, had spoken – and as a UNC Charlotte professor, lectured – all over the US and around the world for decades about her Holocaust experiences and studies. She hadn’t been at all uncomfortable about doing so once again for the cameras. The woman that LaBorde would have us meet, Leslie Giles playing the role, is 40-something according to the script, about the same age Cernyak-Spatz was when she and Fishman attended the same Midwest college together.

[Getting an actress who could replicate the 97-year-old today is borderline impossible. Recently felled by a stroke, Cernyak-Spatz willed herself out of her sickbed and attended last Sunday evening’s performance. Brava, Susan!]

What LaBorde has done, taking the author who published her memoir in 2005 and making her some 40 years younger, isn’t exactly unusual for adaptations we see onstage, in movies, or in opera. But when you’re dealing with Holocaust material, the discomfort factor needs to be part of your calculus.

For LaBorde, audience discomfort is definitely a consideration. You can see it and hear it as the play begins. But what LaBorde, Giles, and Delamar didn’t calibrate – or consider – was Susan’s discomfort four decades earlier.

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Instead of immediately plunging us into the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938 and all that she and millions of other Jews experienced after that, in a gradual crescendo of horrific inhumanity, Susan introduces us to a rack of clothes that – with a Dresser, portrayed by Paula Baldwin – will help her to guide us through all the major transformations that befell her from the days of her relatively idyllic childhood in Vienna onwards. It was during the lighter pleasantries opening the show that Giles faced what nobody had anticipated.

Whether it was because so many theatrefolk were in the audience on opening night or because of the grim subject, this wasn’t the kind of crowd that shouted back a greeting if you started off with a “Good evening!” or a hearty hello, Nothing came out of us in response to Susan’s welcome. Not even enough for Giles to come back with the obligatory, “Aw, you can do better than that!”

It was an awkward moment – but also a momentary glimpse of what we would see if we were being addressed by a Susan who had real trepidations about broaching a story that might be uncomfortable or disturbing for us to hear. Or for her to relive. Giles proceeded to tell Susan’s story with all the confidence that’s on the pages of the original Protective Custody memoir, in a voice that, benefiting from fruitful time spent with Cernyak-Spatz’s audiobook, occasionally replicated Susan’s with chilling accuracy.

And what a story it was, a powerful no-bull account of what life was like in the showcase Theresienstadt camp and the more harrowing living conditions at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Nor was there any sugarcoating of what it took from Susan to survive. Actually, the show is pretty amazing when you consider that Three Bone Theatre skipped the preliminary processes of a full staged reading or an intermediate workshop version. The entire production team was learning for the first time how an audience would react to the full script.

All that I saw on opening night was at a surprisingly advanced state of development. LaBorde, Giles, and Delamar have delivered far more than a mere chronology of a descent into hell. There are a couple of times when the highly detailed narrative is paused. One happens when Susan ponders how a bad decision by her mom changed the course of both their lives – and poisoned Susan’s attitude towards her to this day. Another recounts how Susan lost her faith in God.

Giles makes these into moments that challenge us – and LaBorde gives her another at the end of the evening when Susan turns her unflinching gaze on today’s world and the question of whether we have learned anything from the history she has devoted her life to preserving. She frames the Never again question in a way calculated to make us uncomfortable one last time.

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More moments such as these, with Susan speaking her heart, voicing her sense of urgency, or simply engaging us directly would help in fleshing out Prisoner 34042, which now has a somewhat boney 80-minute runtime. I’ll be surer of whether LaBorde has mined all the details from the memoir to give his drama maximum power when I finish the ebook, but what I’ve already read convinces me that the task of distilling the book was as daunting as he has said.

Paying more attention to the drama inherent in becoming comfortable with the Holocaust conversation – or at least usefully informed by it – might also turn up the temperature, but there were also times that I felt more dialogue between the two women onstage could spark more tension, light and warmth. Even though she rarely spoke, Baldwin brought me some of the most touching drama of the evening. Curiously enough, her most affecting moments came at the end, when she ditched her Euro accents and became a couple of Americans who welcomed Susan to freedom. Choked me up.

Of course, we can credit much of Baldwin’s liberating impact to the vivid narrative Cernyak-Spatz had written, LaBorde had adapted, and Giles had so deeply immersed herself in, taking her audience along with her on her journey. Already portraying Susan’s mom and various Nazi jackboots, Baldwin could be helping to make Giles’ journey even more intense along the way. But I won’t disagree with anyone who emerges from Spirit Square feeling that Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042 is informative, intense, and impactful enough as it stands.

Disturbing? I hope so.

CSO and Graf Make Debussy’s “Faun” a Dynamic Prelude

Review:  Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Slipping out of town for Charlotte Symphony’s Firebird concert back in October, maestro Christopher Warren-Green has orchestrated a nice little three-month vacation for himself, but so far, the music director’s pinch-hitters on the podium haven’t let him or us down. Christopher James Lees was best when he lit into the Stravinsky that subscribers came for, and last week in his Queen City debut, German-born guest conductor Hans Graf demonstrated his mastery at Knight Theater on works by Brahms, Mozart, and the evening’s headliner, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

The CSO rarely leads off their programs with their marquee piece, but L’Après-midi was the shortest on the bill, so its position wasn’t shocking. The last time the piece was played as part of a Classics Series in 2003, the beloved tone poem actually launched Symphony’s season after musicians went on strike over pay cuts. Since that momentous “French Masters” program conducted by Christof Perick at Belk Theater, Warren-Green has presented L’Après-midi at UNC Charlotte in a most unusual concert – scientifically proving that, after an Allegro from Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, a little Debussy will bring your blood pressure back down.

A medicinal effect wasn’t Graf’s aim at all, scorning the notion that L’Après-midi is all about casting a misty, hypnotic spell. There were actually pauses in the performance, like you’ll hear in recorded accounts conducted by Herbert von Karajan and Bernard Haitink. You could actually imagine Debussy conceiving his interpretation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s symbolist poem as a series of scenes and reveries. When the orchestra swelled, the dynamic range was as robust as Simon Rattle’s recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, reminding me how unaccustomed I was to sitting so close to the ensemble at Knight Theater. Yet the woodwinds blended piquantly where they should, and principal flutist Victor Wang exquisitely led us into the enchanted glade.

In another auspicious debut, Chinese-born Angelo Xiang Yu gave a showy, ebullient account of Mozart’s “Turkish” Violin Concerto No. 5, sparking outbursts of audience applause after the opening Allegro aperto movement and after the less-familiar middle Adagio. Yu forcefully produced a gleaming, golden tone from his 290-year-old Stradivarius and seemed to be having fun even in the slow movement. Like Graf, Yu relished changing tempos and dynamics, approaches that yield happier results with Mozart than with Debussy’s concupiscent Faun. A little puckish mischief was mixed with the fun during the final Rondeau, making the joy even more contagious. More gusto from the lower strings during the “Turkish” section of the finale would have added some agreeable lagniappe.

Yu never did hide his delight in performing, so it wasn’t surprising that he could be coaxed into an encore. Yu probably wasn’t punning when he said he had first heard his little Piazzolla tango on YouTube a couple of days earlier – and still hadn’t been able to acquire the sheet music. Maybe it’s in the mail, since it sounded to me like the Tango Etude No. 3 that I was able to find on Spotify in a couple of versions.

Likely judging that audiences will always enjoy Brahms Symphony No. 2, especially its concluding Allegro con spirito, CSO has now programmed it three times during the last six years. Outside the Classics Series rotation, that final movement last popped up at a 2015 Bachtoberfest at the Knight. Until we reached that rousing spirito at the full 2014 performance, Warren-Green and the orchestra had sounded rather spiritless. Continuing to emphasize dynamic contrasts, yet still vigilant with detail, Graf drew more excitement from his musicians and more energy from Brahms.

The opening Allegro non troppo was especially freshened with sharper shaping, eloquent violins, and a new hint of sadness from the cellos. Yet Graf kept his finger more persistently on the slower middle movements, where languor has won out in the past. The Allegro con spirito now hearkened back to the opening of the Mozart, where Symphony and Yu initially lulled us with a deceptive sense of calm. On both occasions, Graf had the orchestra exploding brilliantly, and with trumpets blaring and principal timpanist Ariel Zaviezo unleashed, the evening ended giddily, like a triumphant military march just slightly out of control.

Op Carolina Animates “Macbeth” in “Game of Thrones” Style

Review: Verdi’s Macbeth

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Witches, ghosts, Scottish clans, regicide, guilty sleepwalking, and Shakespeare’s most famous despairing rhetoric have kept Macbeth among the Bard’s most-produced tragedies. Onstage, we’ve seen such spinoffs as Tiny Ninja Macbeth and Kabuki Macbeth in Charlotte conjuring up the one Shakespeare title that theatre veterans dread to say aloud. I suspect that, in opera as in theatre, only Romeo and Juliet has inspired more adaptations and spinoffs.

Further riffs on Macbeth have been applied by opera directors. Perhaps the most notorious were the costumes and scenic design of Mark Thompson at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008, where the Thane of Cawdor, prior to meeting the witches’ coven in post-WW2 Scotland, came riding onto the battlefield in an army Jeep. Trading on the popularity of Game of Thrones, stage director Ivan Stefanutti – adding his own costume and scenic designs to his new brew at Opera Carolina – has been quite content to return the action to 11th century Scotland, where King Duncan was murdered in 1040.

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Undoubtably trusting Op Carolina artistic director James Meena, who directed the company’s premiere of Macbeth in 2004, Stefanutti brings baritone Mark Rucker back to Belk Theater to headline his high-concept production in the title role. Rucker conquered vocally as convincingly as before, though his tendency to waddle across the stage rather than striding confidently has become more noticeable during his 15-year hiatus. Stefanutti limits Macbeth’s mobility in his staging to the point that he is often upstaged by the Witches and Lady Macbeth.

Yet it must be said that Rucker’s hulking lack of grace chimes well with the Game of Thrones design concept, emphasizing the barbaric elements of the bloodthirsty king. It was probably a worse decision for Stefanutti not to delegate the animated backdrop of his production to a different artist. As executed with Michael Baumgarten, Stefanutti’s animations are way too busy, too much like a low-budget video game, and occasionally over-the-top, especially when the ghost of Banquo appears.

For some reason, there were stretches when the animations strove to simulate traditional set pieces and backdrops. Scrolling through a series of these stage-filling line drawings while the stage was vacant, Baumgarten made it look like Macbeth’s throne was riding an elevator from one hall to another! In a far, far niftier stroke, color begins to seep into the design concept when Macduff launches his vengeful rebellion against Macbeth, escalating further when Lady M has her sleepwalking scene.

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Thrones fans will likely adore the Witches’ costumes with their piercing LED eyes and floor-length beards, but their singing is equally triumphant. Outfitted in less outré gear, the men’s half of the Op Carolina Chorus is vocally as outstanding as the women’s. Obviously, the entire ensemble drew plenty of attention from Meena in rehearsals – and plenty of blocking from Stefanutti.

The youngbloods making their Charlotte debuts all do well under Meena’s baton. Bass baritone Song Zaikuan excels as Banquo even when that ridiculously large ghost animation looms behind him. Tenor Gianluca Sciarpeletti sings purely, but he struck me as too youthful to have lost a gaggle of children, which may account for his shortage of gravitas. In the other tenor role, Johnathan Kaufman’s similarly pure voice and manner are more of what we expect of Prince Malcolm, who assumes the Scottish crown after the showdown between the Macs.

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Biggest disappointment of the night was soprano Othalie Graham as Lady Macbeth. On opening night, she seemed to have lost the bloom that I found in her voice when she made her Op Carolina debut in 2013 as Aïda. Reading Macbeth’s letter, plotting Duncan’s death, and even singing gaily at the haunted banquet, Graham had me wincing each time she prepared to sing an upward interval. Couldn’t be sure she would land on precisely the right note. Yet she still cuts a charismatic figure onstage, with genuine diva acting chops. Lady M’s white gowns by Stefanutti enhance Graham’s royal glow, setting her apart from her gloomy surroundings.

Warmed up and relaxed, Graham was at her best in her valedictory sleepwalking scene. From that highlight onwards, action from singers other than the Witches picked up, Meena continued to draw spirited work from the Op Carolina Orchestra, and those mammoth animations didn’t distract during the climactic battle.

All in all, Op Carolina seems to have created a stylized Macbeth that would spark mass appeal. After all the toil and trouble that Meena, Stefanutti, and Rucker put into this spectacle – with more LED-eyed Witches than I could count – I was shocked that more people weren’t at Belk Theater to soak up all the fun, spookiness, and Game of Thrones cachet.

Upsizing “Little Shop” at CP

Review: Little Shop of Horrors

By Perry Tannenbaum

Little Shop of Horrors Final Dress Rehearsal; October 24th, 2019

What seemed so axiomatic when Little Shop of Horrors opened Off-Broadway in 1982 – that it was a little musical – was shunted aside when the smash hit was finally revived on Broadway in 2003. Bringing the show to Broadway seemed against the grain to Howard Ashman after he had directed his own original adaptation of Roger Corman’s 1960 sci-fi comedy. His misgivings were borne out by the lukewarm reviews from the New York critics and the equally tepid box office.

Big productions of Little Shop, like the touring version that hit Ovens Auditorium in 2005, have been aberrations. Around the country, the welcome mat for Ashman’s artful adaptation, with a rockin’ doo-wop score by Alan Menken, is customarily rolled out by smaller regional companies and community theatres.

A little surprising, then, to see Central Piedmont Theatre bringing Audrey, Seymour, and Audrey II to Halton Theater, which is only marginally smaller than the Virginia Theatre (now the August Wilson), where it ran on Broadway. But guess what? Charlotte isn’t receiving Little Shop as if it were a niche musical for guerilla companies and intimate venues. A robust crowd turned out for this past Sunday’s matinee, with armloads of tickets sold up in the oft-empty Halton balcony.

Little Shop of Horrors Final Dress Rehearsal; October 24th, 2019

Nor is director Ron Chisholm and his CP team shying away from the challenge of making Little Shop big. James Duke’s set design fills the stage from wing to wing, and Chisholm pours a larger cast around Audrey and Seymour than the one that populated Mushnik’s Flower Shop and Skid Row in the Broadway revival. I should also say that Chisholm pours a larger cast into Audrey II, but I won’t spoil how that plays out.

My wife Sue didn’t recognize any of the names on the CP cast list, which ultimately demonstrated just how deep Charlotte’s talent pool is these days. The name I recognized from her starring role over the summer in CP’s Beehive, Iris DeWitt, was not to be recognized here at Mushnik’s. With body mics liberally distributed among the Skid Row citizenry, it’s safest to say that DeWitt represented onstage by the latter Audrey II puppets. That’s when the alien plant lets loose with her infamous “Feed Me,” displaying its vocal gifts upon growing to maturity.LITTLESHOPOFHORRORS-123.jpg

While you need a full-throated – even intimidating – voice that DeWitt brings to an invader that metastasizes into a global threat, we need to get more ambivalent impressions of Seymour, Mushnik, and the human Audrey. We empathize with the orphaned Seymour, who is bossed by Mushnik, bullied by Mushnik, terrified by Audrey’s dentist boyfriend, and ignored by Audrey.

Until Seymour becomes homicidal.

Then we see him feeding body parts to Audrey 2 and covering up his guilt by luring Mushnik into the same maw. He’s reluctant to do 2’s bidding and become a bloodthirsty killer, but it’s bringing him fortune, fame, and – in his mind – the Audrey who has hitherto shunned him. Ultimately, he pushes back, ready to face what his recovered integrity brings him. It’s a fairly daunting role for Matthew Howie in his Charlotte debut, and the dude must also prove he can sing – both as a downtrodden clod and, in “Suddenly, Seymour,” as a newly-minted romantic hero. Howie knows how, and Chisholm gives him a comical Clark Kent moment to punctuate his transformation.

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Nearly 60 years after she first appeared onscreen, we look more askance at Audrey for absorbing and covering up the abuse she takes from Orin, her dentist boyfriend, than we do for her presumed promiscuity. She encourages Seymour to stand up to Mushnik, and when he suddenly achieves celebrity, declares she isn’t good enough for him. Anna Farish proved to be sensational in her own way as Seymour’s ideal, belting “Suddenly Seymour” opposite Howie with equal gusto in their duet and tapping into Audrey’s humdrum sweetness in the gooey “Somewhere That’s Green.”

I quite envy anyone who hears the reprise of that bucolic ballad for the first time. The sick comedy of it comes through in Farish’s last gasps, but that was one of multiple moments when I wished I were seeing Little Shop in a more intimate venue. Because a huge set piece by Duke was spun around when we went from the outdoor squalor of Skid Row to the inside of the flower shop, scenes at the shop played too far away upstage for maximum enjoyment.

Little Shop of Horrors Final Dress Rehearsal; October 24th, 2019

On the other hand, there were plenty of outsized performances besides DeWitt’s to help bridge the distance. Most outré was Victor Tran as the sadistic, laughing-gas fueled Orin, who gets to shine late in Act 1 singing “Dentist” with a backup trio, somewhat denuded of its usual 50’s trimmings. Clad in leather when he calls on Audrey, Tran also gets to handle two of the most interesting props in this production, an emasculated motorcycle and the wondrous dentist’s chair he mounts in order to terrorize Seymour – extracting only a single tooth, alas.

Jake Yara has that slight avuncular quality – and the hearty voice – you want to see in Mushnik and plenty of the selfish greed you want to see offsetting it. Mushnik is a bit of a Jewish stereotype, more comical than offensive. But when Yara sings “Mushnik and Son” with Howie, as Mushnik offers to make the suddenly promising Seymour his partner, there’s a pinch of warm regard mixed into his cunning pragmatism. On the street, where the alleys and trashcan evoke the seedy ‘hood, Katie Marcelino, Logan Cosper, and Taylor Goodwin do more than just sing backup.

They keep it real. So does the ensemble actor who plays the neighborhood drunk, rousing from his stupor only long enough to sing the low notes.

“And Then There Were None” Keeps Us Guessing as the Body Count Mounts

Review: Dame Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Theatre audiences love mysteries. Action, intrigue, plot twists, murder, and maybe a jolt of romance – they deliver an intoxicating brew and demand your heightened attention. Yet there aren’t nearly enough theatre mysteries to satisfy audience demand. The big names in the field are Christie and the Holmeses – Sherlock and Rupert. Either purloined from Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories or cynically refashioned and rebranded for commercial consumption, Sherlock is the mystery detective personified. Rupert Holmes has had the chutzpah to craft two mystery musicals, Drood and Curtains, as well as two mystery dramas that premiered here in Charlotte, Accomplice and Thumbs.

Whether onstage or in bookstores, Dame Agatha Christie is the unchallenged queen of mysteries. A trio of Christie titles are constantly making the rounds: The Mousetrap, renowned as the longest-running stage production of all time since 1952; Witness for the Prosecution, especially after Billy Wilder’s Oscar-nominated film in 1957; and, first presented as Ten Little N-Words back in 1943, And Then There Were None.

Christie’s zero-sum mystery is based on the most beloved of her 72 novels and one of the six best-selling novels of all time. There’s absolutely no problem with name recognition at Theatre Charlotte, where few seats were left on opening night. Nor was there any sign that director Dave Blamy had any difficulty attracting sufficient local talent to fill his cast of 10 suspects/victims who arrive on Soldier Island, all claiming to have been invited by the same person they’ve never met. An eleventh cast member ferries the guests, the butler, and the maid from the mainland and then departs.

Or does he?

Whoever sent out the invitations was selective, choosing only people who were responsible for other people’s deaths. They will all be victims, in the killer’s mind, who deserve to die. A recording that the butler has been instructed to play calls out each of the guests’ names and tells the group whose death he or she is responsible for. Justice is to be meted out to them all, for there is no escaping to the mainland.IMG_1674

That only begins to describe the fiendishness and arrogance of the killer who is on the loose, probably hiding in plain sight. Hanging over the mantle – and printed as an insert in our programs – is a poem, “Ten Little Soldier Boys,” chronicling how the group dwindled until “there were none.” As the dwindling survivors of the murderous rampage soon figure out, the poem has become a template for how the killer will snuff out each of them, following the order of the poem. The first “choked his little self,” the second “overslept himself,” the third “got left behind,” and so on.

Each time one of the guests is murdered, a soldier boy figurine sitting on the mantle disappears or falls to the floor.

It’s an elegant touch, an impressive sleight-of-hand, another affirmation that the killer is in control and always one or two steps ahead of his victims – another way he or she is toying with the ineffectual survivors who remain, mocking their efforts. And ours.

Chris Timmons’ set design, one of the best and most beautiful he has built during his 13-year tenure at the Queens Road barn, has four exits on its two levels, allowing a certain amount of bustle and confusion as we track the whereabouts of our chief suspects. We’re also rubbernecking where the next victim is, for we never know who that will be until late in the game – this is a diabolical game, right? – and only vaguely how the next murder will be done.IMG_1668

Blamy keeps the action flowing masterfully, varying his pacing, and getting Christie’s suspects to engage with each other intensively. Once the game is afoot, we must believe that each one’s demeanor – suave, artless, judgmental, analytical, scientific, or dignified – hides the heart of a maniacal murderer.

The Theatre Charlotte veterans are as reliable as we expect them to be. Caryn Crye drips piety and primness as spinster Emily Brent, saving her most severely moralizing barbs for young Vera Claythorne, whom she views as scandalously immodest. Johnny Hohenstein, not always on his best form on opening night, was sleazy and obnoxious as retired policeman William Blore when he hit his stride, both deceitful and maybe a little stupid. Timothy Huffman was actually a little less commanding than we’ve seen him before as retired General Mackenzie, perhaps too overcome by guilt and senility to be a serious threat.

On the other hand, Philip Robertson emerges as a natural leader and investigator as Sir Lawrence Wargrave, a retired judge who gets all the guests to respond to the crimes they’re accused of, rousing suspicions and animosities among the group. Thanks to him, we see the rogues’ gallery we’re dealing with fairly clearly.

Among the Queens Road newcomers, Peter Finnegan takes top-of-the-class honors as adventurer Philip Lombard. After a startling local debut as Bottom in Actor’s Theatre’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in August, Finnegan turns the pistol-toting Lombard from a semi-romantic hero into an Indiana Jones rascal, absorbing multiple rejections and altering the chemistry between him and Vera. Jonathan Stevens’ breakout performance at CPCC came even more recently as Lord Wessex in Shakespeare in Love. Some of that same aristocratic conceit and bearing transfers well to Rogers the butler, and his toxic superiority to Mrs. Rogers also has a familiar ring.

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As Mrs. Rogers, Cadie Pittman comes closer to a breakout role, giving the overworked maidservant a nice resentful edge. We keep guessing about Vera and her past because newcomer Quincy Stanford keeps her so unpredictable as she establishes bumpy relationships with both Lombard and Emily. It’s hard to surpass Finnegan for reckless swagger, but newcomer Carson Edwards gives it a try as inconsiderate daredevil Anthony Marston. He’s somewhat thwarted by the playboy outfit designed for him by costumer Chelsea Retalic, more apt to drink champagne than bourbon, and too carefree to carry a gun.

Rounding out our primary suspects, Will Lampe makes an interesting study as Dr. Armstrong. He might be a truly timorous, harmless, and useful physician, but Lampe’s fearfulness could be a façade if he’s furtively dealing out death with his medicinal syringes. Then he disappears! Dead? Lurking? The tension ratchets up suspensefully as we puzzle out whether he’s the “red herring” in the “Ten Little Soldier Boys” poem or the latest addition to the body count.

 

Charlotte’s Witness to Genocide

Preview: Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042, a Three Bone Theatre Production

By Perry Tannenbaum

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At age 97, Dr. Susan Cernyak-Spatz can look back on a life well-lived – and a life well-told. Neither outcome seemed possible on May 7, 1942, when Cernyak-Spatz and her mom responded to an invitation from the Nazi invaders who had occupied Czechoslovakia. It was an invitation that Jews could not refuse. They assembled at a large public square, where they were marched across the city of Prague in broad daylight, herded to a freight station, loaded onto trains, and transported to the Theresienstadt concentration camps.

Survival was already against the odds. Those odds grew slimmer on January 31, 1943, when Cernyak-Spatz was transported from Theresienstadt, the “showplace” camp built to deceive International Red Cross inspectors, to Birkenau, the belly of the beast in Adolph Hitler’s genocide machine.

Yet Cernyak-Spatz did survive. She survived a transfer deeper into the belly, to Auschwitz, and an attack of typhus fever brought on by the toxic living conditions there. Even after the Russians began “liberating” Eastern Europe, Cernyak-Spatz survived a grueling death march in the custody of her captors.

And oh baby, since arriving in the US nearly three-quarters of a century ago, Cernyak-Spatz has told her story – well and often. New generations have heard it at Jewish Sunday schools and at UNC Charlotte, where she is still a professor emerita in German literature. In classrooms, in lecture halls, and in synagogues across America and Europe – including Germany – she has opened fresh eyes to Nazi atrocities. In books she has authored about her life, the Holocaust, and Theresienstadt, Cernyak-Spatz has chronicled the unthinkable horrors she survived – horrors that millions of other Jews did not survive.

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The story keeps getting told. At the upcoming Charlotte Jewish Film Festival, filmmaker Ron Small’s documentary biopic, Surviving Birkenau, will be screened on October 26. And next week at Spirit Square, a project initiated by Cernyak-Spatz’s daughter, Jackie Fishman, and notables of the QC’s theatre community comes to fruition. Charles LaBorde’s adaptation of Cernyak-Spatz’s memoirs, Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042, opens on November 1 in a Three Bone Theatre production directed by Dennis Delamar.

The idea for presenting a one-woman show focused on his longtime friend Susan’s life had been moldering in Delamar’s mind since 2005 when he directed the Charlotte premiere of Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning I Am My Own Wife, an adaptation of transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s autobiography.

“That survivor’s story carried us through the Holocaust and also the fall of the Berlin Wall and made me start visualizing something similarly possible about another person’s unique Holocaust story. Someone I actually knew and cared for very much – Susan! Since then, I thought the idea was a really good one, but it stayed in the back of mind, dormant. Cut to eleven years later.”

Pieces began falling into place when Fishman, education coordinator at the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice, brought Delamar and LaBorde to Queens University for a reading of Address Unknown in April 2017, reviving one of multiple Holocaust plays LaBorde had already written. Almost inevitably, Delamar broached his long-gestating idea with Fishman during rehearsals.

“Jackie was immediately ecstatic over the idea,” he recalls, “as if I had said some magic words. ‘Let’s do it! Mom has already written her story down, the book she published in 2005. Have you read it? I’ll get you a copy.’ At that moment, Jackie became a key driving force behind this play getting done, a mission she has continued to energize as a daughter’s gift to her mother.”

Though Fishman had been one of his most valued teachers back when LaBorde was principal of Northwest School of the Arts, he didn’t see a natural transition of Protective Custody from page to stage: “too many people, too complex a story to pare down enough for an audience to follow.” LaBorde was prepared to walk away – until he came face-to-face with Fishman’s enthusiasm for the project. So he gave the book a second look.

With Three Bone Theatre aboard – and Cernyak-Spatz greenlighting the project – Delamar and LaBorde returned to Queens University, where the Greenspon Center hosted an even more exciting event last December than they had the year before. For Cernyak-Spatz was seated in the front row of a packed house at a reading-stage performance of a new LaBorde play, doubly honored at the occasion.

Nor did Cernyak-Spatz sit idly by as the latest incarnation of her life story took shape. She and her daughters, Jackie and Wendy Fishman, have been intensively involved in the process, checking facts, suggesting enhancements, correcting pronunciations, and fine-tuning the voice of the Susan we will see onstage.

“My favorite bit of research,” LaBorde reveals, “was to ask Wendy and Jackie if their mother would say the line I had written early in the play, ‘Somebody fucked up.’ Their reaction was to look at each other and then say simultaneously, ‘Oh, yeah.’”

My own research for this momentous Three Bone premiere took me to Prague last month – and from there to the fortress site of the Theresienstadt camps, the town of Terezín, and the Museum of the Ghetto. In Prague, my wife Sue and I stood in one of the squares where Cernyak-Spatz may have been marched to the transport awaiting her at the freight yards. Our guide told us that we were standing on pavement made from the shattered gravestones from a demolished Jewish cemetery.

At Theresienstadt we saw the barracks where Jews were warehoused in hall-length beds three and four levels high, no toilets provided. We saw a washroom built to hoodwink the Red Cross, lined with sinks where no water has ever flowed. We saw cemeteries near Theresienstadt and Terzín larger than football fields – with marked graves, unmarked graves, and mass graves. We were guided to the Secret Synagogue where I read the most heartbreaking plea to God that I’ve ever seen in a house of worship, written in Hebrew:

“PLEASE RETURN FROM YOUR WRATH.”

And outside Terezín, adjoining one of the burial grounds, we saw the crematoriums, restored by the Luski Family, a name familiar throughout Charlotte’s Jewish community. Maybe the most chilling and revelatory things I saw were the records displayed at the Ghetto Museum of the transports, punctiliously kept by the Nazis: dates, points of origin, and numbers of Protective Custody prisoners brought into Theresienstadt via the transports. Of the hundreds, sometimes thousands who were loaded into the cattle cars, I never saw that even 100 survived any of these horrific transports. More than once, the number was zero.

Clearly, Cernyak-Spatz bucked prodigious odds to arrive at Theresienstadt, to survive her journey to Birkenau, and finally reach Ravensbrueck, the destination of her January 1945 death march. Susan does use the word “miracle” in LaBorde’s script to account for her eluding “the gas.” Once.

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Benefiting from the guidance of the Fishmans – and the sound of the real Cernyak-Spatz’s voice (yes, there’s a Prisoner 34042 audiobook!) – Leslie Giles takes on the daunting challenge of being Susan at Duke Energy Theater, assisted by Paula Baldwin as The Dresser.

“Oh my gosh, daunting doesn’t even begin to describe how it feels to take on this very special project about this incredible person,” says Giles. “The amount of lines would be enough to scare some actors away, and then to top it off with the very real and gritty details makes it overwhelming at times. That said, it is absolutely worth it, probably the most important piece of work I’ve ever performed in my entire career. It is one thing to read about these events in a book. It is another thing to watch the story coming alive in front of you.”

Reflecting on the wonder of her survival, Cernyak-Spatz scoffs at the notion that she had any special wisdom. “Our entire day was taken up with thinking of survival,” she declares. “We had to be alert like wild animals. Wild animals don’t do much thinking. They survive. We ate anything that wouldn’t eat us. There was no time to dwell on faith or God; you had to give up your expectations of a normal universe. Perhaps my naivete allowed me to take great risks that paid off.”

If it weren’t for the war, Cernyak-Spatz says she would have likely become a dancer or an actress. Indeed, she has occasionally performed onstage here in the QC, most recently when I called her one the “islands in a stream of ineptitude” in my review of Theatre Charlotte’s production of A Little Night Music in 2006. No wonder she treasures the gift of a new drama dedicated to her in her twilight years.

There’s also a twinkle of artistry in the title of her memoirs. The Nazis didn’t simply record your prisoner number in a ledger or stitch it into your prison clothes – it was tattooed into your forearm. They fancied themselves the master race, so they could house Jews and brand Jews and liquidate Jews like cattle. The 34042 that endures in Cernyak-Spatz’s title does not signify their triumph.

“The title serves my purpose of explaining the steps and the de-humanization of a group of human beings. When one is ultimately reduced to no more than a number, the extrapolation is that there’s no worth to this life and it can be easily disposed of. I have outlived the Third Reich, triumphed over them, with a successful and productive life – raised a Jewish family and have told my story all over the world. Anyone who sees the tattooed number on my arm becomes a witness to this history.”