Monthly Archives: October 2021

“Open” Needs More Space and Time

Review: Open from Three Bone Theatre @ The Arts Factory

By Perry Tannenbaum

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We’ve had two new presidents and three elections since the last time I saw a show at The Arts Factory in September 2012. One of those presidents and one of those elections lit the spark that became Crystal Skillman’s Open in 2019. Now that Spirit Square is shuttered for redevelopment, Open is the first of what figures to be a steady migration of local theatre productions from Uptown at 7th Street to the nifty black box on the other side of I-77 at 1545 West Trade.

Directed for Three Bone Theatre by Sarah Provencal, Open is a one-woman show featuring Danielle Banks in her Charlotte debut.

We can actually trace the hour when Open began germinating on the surreal “morning after” of November 9, 2016.

“Once He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named was elected,” Skillman said in a subsequent interview, “the intolerant times in which we lived have increased. The day after he was elected at six AM, two men in a car driving past me shouted ‘Hilary lost, bitch!’” Out of her anger and pain came a need to escape the world of intolerance and hate she suddenly found herself in.

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Skillman decided that she needed magic, and her script propounds the idea that we all need magic – and we all can believe in it if we choose. The woman who addresses us, Kristen, is a magician. The Magician.

Except that she isn’t. Kristen is actually a freelance writer, a soon-to-be electronically published author of her first young adult novel, who has extensively researched magic. She will rely on us, her audience, to believe in her magic and to imagine the balls she isn’t juggling, the metal rings she isn’t interlocking and pulling apart, the rope she isn’t cutting and magically restoring, and the deck of playing cards she isn’t shuffling or spreading or offering to an audience member to pick from.

Circuitously, we learn why Kristen needs this magic as she spins her love story. Each of three acts is delineated: first love, commitment, and sacrifice. Yeah, you’ll need to head to the other side of town for The Rocky Horror Show if you’re looking for something silly or frivolous.

While telling us how she has been coaxed out of the closet into a deepening relationship with Jenny, a Kinko’s worker who has helped her with her manuscript, Kristen clues us into why she resists coming out and commitment. Before leaving home for good, Kristen’s dad had encouraged her to be who she truly was – but never to tell Mom because it would kill her.

Kristen’s fondness for misdirection may explain her drift into magic, and her fear of commitment leads to Jenny’s horrendous misfortune, which is much worse than being taunted by a couple of MAGA maniacs. The assault on Jenny by a gang of homophobes has left her in the hospital with a tenuous grip on life. Compounding Kristen’s shock and guilt, Jenny’s parents don’t want her anywhere near their precious daughter.

Now Kristen must not only believe in magic. She must start believing in herself.

Watching my first live Three Bone production in over 20 months, I couldn’t help thinking every so often how ideal Open could have been as an online webcast during the long pandemic lockdown. Scenery, casting, costuming, and playing time are more limited than Prisoner 34042, the distinguished new two-hander that Three Bone premiered in 2019 and reprised online back in April. Already condensed.

The colorful lighting design by Christy Lancaster and Gordon Olson helps Banks in delineating the various segments of her narrative within her three acts and in framing her magic, but Provencal’s sound design is more noticeable and necessary, helping us get our bearings – and adding charm to the magic. Otherwise, the hurried and constricted presentation of Kristen’s story occasionally robbed it of sticking power.

Open lacked the tension of dialogue that frequently punctuated the narrative of 34042, when one of the actresses played multiple roles opposite our heroine. In an online presentation, the absence of additional actors in Open would merely be one more frill we were giving up for COVID-19, starting with not being in a real theater with a real audience in front of artfully fabricated scenery.

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Seeing Open in an actual theater space obliges Banks to be more active and dramatic than if she were confined to a TV or computer monitor. And she really is wonderful as Kristen and The Magician, engaging with the audience with a youthful, bubbly vivacity that is only faintly tinged with shyness and hesitance. Banks is genuine in these roles, seemingly herself. We feel ourselves empathetically reaching out to her.

Unfortunately, Banks stays true to those two roles when she’s replicating key dialogues she has had with her beloved Jenny. Here, presumably with Provencal’s approval, the amateur magician becomes an amateur ventriloquist. Banks makes Jenny sound more timorous and shyer instead of the more mature and assertive human who urged Kristen to come out and pushed for lasting commitment.

Having issued so many indulgences and suspended so much disbelief, couldn’t we be asked to go a little further and accept the premise that the bubbly, slightly shy and awkward novelist/magician could miraculously, on cue, become an accomplished actress who can believably channel the Jenny she is so attached to and guilt-ridden about? Sign me up.

 

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Without a substantial Jenny and without the two sets of parents present before us, elements of Kristen’s story begin to deflate and impact less forcefully. It’s not like Skillman didn’t have plenty of time and space to fill in these absences and give Open more heft.

Symptomatic of her crippling haste, Skillman tacks on an unnamed fourth act or epilogue that could be titled “Reconciliation.” Within the space of a single phone call, Kristen’s grief is dispelled – along with maybe her horror, guilt, and regret. On our drive home, I asked my wife Sue and our friend Carol whether this had all happened before or after Kristen had left the hospital for the last time.

None of us could say for sure.

Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Is Luxuriously Long and Varied, Culminating in a Sizzling “Rite of Spring”

Review: Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Sitting next to an audience member I’d never met before and conversing with her, thanks to the COVID vaccines and to our vaccination cards that had been scrupulously checked in the Belk Theater lobby, I could share her excitement in being back to see the Charlotte Ballet, out in public without pods or social distancing, and enjoying live performance in a real audience for the first time in nearly 19 months. Even though we were all masked – discarding social distancing seems to increase our tendency to take this precaution seriously – my wife Sue and I felt a distinct residue of wariness.

Yet my trepidations must be an infinitesimal fraction of the wariness anti-vaxxers maintain toward getting vaccinated and an infinitesimal fraction of the daily risks they’re willing to take. Trusting that the people sitting next to you and the people checking them are trustworthy was a calculated leap of faith, my first occasion of sitting next to a stranger since March 2020, so I could understand why the upper tiers at Belk Theater were empty for Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, and why the orchestra and Grand Tiers weren’t teeming to capacity.

Gathering us together for their big celebration after two postponements, Ballet didn’t shrink from keeping us together, offering us a longer and more varied program than we’ve seen in many a season. More than that, they welcomed Christopher Warren-Green and the Charlotte Symphony to the pit (have we ever seen him down there before?) to perform a Philip Glass piece and brought four masked Symphony principals onstage to fuel a performance of Antonin Dvořák’s Piano Quintet. With the exception of Salvatore Aiello’s electrifying setting for Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the program didn’t find Charlotte Ballet in a retrospective mood.

Christopher Stuart, the new Charlotte Ballet II program director, jumped into the fray first with a new piece, “Then, Now, Forever,” set to the live Glass. Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, whose work has been featured at Spoleto Festival USA on a couple of occasions dating back to 2009, made an edgier Charlotte debut with “A Picture of You Falling,” paired with the Stuart piece before the first of two intermissions. Framed by the two intervals, Val Caniparoli appeared in Charlotte for the first time with Ibsen’s House, interestingly set to the Dvořák. All of these choreographers were present for the celebration – except for Aiello, the former North Carolina Dance Theatre artistic director who died in 1995 at the age of 51.

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The company itself, launching season 51, looked no less fresh and new, especially with etoile Sarah Hayes Harkins happily sidelined on maternity leave. No less than five dancers were taking their first steps as new members of Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II, including two Isabellas, Franco and Bertellotti, who are time-sharing a role in the three performances of Ibsen’s House through Saturday. Meanwhile, a trio of seven-year veterans of the troupe; Sarah Lapointe, Raven Barkley, and Amelia Sturt-Dilley; are striding more to the forefront. Lapointe and Barkley struck me as the most arresting presences in Section 1 of the “Then, Now, Forever” suite. Tempo quickened noticeably for Section 2, with newcomers Franco and Emerson Dayton paired with Ben Ingel and Davis Preciado. Easing back to a languid midtempo Section 3, Lapointe poured out her newfound imperious confidence opposite Rees Launer, which made the fast pace of Section 4 that much celebratory, teeming with 10 dancers. Stuart’s choreographic style didn’t startlingly depart from classical models, so his costume design collaboration with Katherine Zywczyk, as well as the dancers, somewhat upstaged him. Backlighting and dramatically silhouetting the famously inert Belk Theater organ pipes, lighting designer Jeff Emory made them useful for the first time in their ignominious history.

Standing spotlights were the scenery for Pite’s “A Picture of You Falling,” surrounding Sturt-Dilley and Andrés Trezevant in a semi-circular formation as the tenuously connected couple performed to Owen Belton’s original 2008 music and Pite’s cold, emotion-free text. We are perhaps invited, without any cordiality, to identify with this brief deconstructed romance, first from Trezevant’s point of view as he faced himself and the repetitive emptiness of his life. Eventually, we escape from this spiral as Pite takes us to the moment where he literally bumps into Sturt-Dilley.

Flirtation and courtship do not figure on this island of light in Pite’s pitch-black universe, so when Trezevant is shown falling, the effect is from gravity rather than love – “This is you falling,” “This is you collapsing” – and his heart literally hits the floor rather than filling with passion. Sturt-Dilley seemed to take over the lead, drawing our empathy for a while, as the little chronicle climaxed at “The Place,” with a light hint that what’s happening, as the two are engaged in their pas de deux, isn’t happening to him. “This is how it happens” transitioned swiftly, without the luxury of regret, “to this is how it ends” after repeated, obsessive descriptions of the room, something like a Last Year in Marienbad video loop or some classically gloomy Ingmar Bergman. Repeated collapses followed, and the falling featured some slo-mo and freeze-frame touches reminiscent of The Matrix.

We haven’t seen any Ibsen from our local theatre companies in Charlotte since a lackluster production of A Doll’s House in 1999, so Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House figured to be a bad mismatch with the Queen City’s theatre tastes, theatre history, and local theatre professionals outside UNC Charlotte, where they presumably remember that the Norwegian is revered as the father of modern drama. Caniparoli showcased five oppressed Victorian women, including the heroines from Ghosts, Lady from the Sea, Rosmersholm, and the title character of Hedda Gabler. Yet it would be irresponsible for me to recommend catching up with these scripts, for there was little from Dayton and Ingel that reminded me of feminist icon Nora Helmer, insensitive ingrate husband Torvald, and A Doll’s House – or anything at all from Lapointe as Hedda, Josh Hall as George Tesman, Sturt-Dilley as Mrs Alving, and Peter Mazuroski as her son Oswald that awakened memories of Gabler or Ghosts, the other Ibsen staples in Caniparoli’s gallery that I’ve seen. Dayton captured Nora’s early timidity beautifully and Lapointe had a steely resoluteness that was almost intimidating, yet we never found ourselves in the vicinity of the notorious endings of their dramas. Scenic and costume designer Sandra Woodall is best in evoking this strait-laced and corseted era, and Caniparoli excels brilliantly in choreographing the Dvořák, whose 1887 quintet was completed between the times that Ghosts and Hedda Gabler premiered.

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Having already previewed The Rite of Spring, we need not dwell on the fire and fury of Lapointe as The Chosen One – other than to say that Lapointe didn’t disappoint and completely owned the sacrificial maiden’s every move (Sturt-Dilley dances the role on Friday and Lapointe returns Saturday). Lapointe upstaged and literally towered over everyone else in sight, but the clash between Ingel as the Old Chieftain and James Kopecky as the Young Warrior was primal, intensely physical, and thrilling. Presiding over everything with a shamanistic presence as the curtain went up was Nadine Barton as the Earth Figure, a grand coming out for her in her third year. About the only clear reminder we had all evening of concessions we’re still making to COVID was the absence of live winds, brass, and percussion blaring forth and flailing away at Stravinsky’s score in the orchestra pit. Representing the Salvatore Aiello Trust, curator Jerri Kumery brought the spirit of the choreographer into the hall, and the 17 dancers onstage kept the temperature of his work white-hot.

Too Much Will Be Plenty in Charlotte Ballet’s “Rite of Spring” Revival

Preview: Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Nothing about North Carolina Dance Theatre’s 50th anniversary was predictable when the company was founded in 1970 at the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1970. Economics transplanted the headquarters of the troupe to Charlotte in 1990, and their marketing department changed the name to Charlotte Ballet in 2014. Due to COVID, even the year of the jubilee celebration had to be reset to 2021 – and then, because the pandemic lingered, that celebration, scheduled for April, had to be pushed back again to October.

So why should the celebration itself be predictable – all champagne, fluff, fizz, and thanksgiving? This week’s program will be capped with a reprise of Salvatore Aiello’s The Rite of Spring, a savage, primal spectacle set to Igor Stravinsky’s notorious groundbreaking score. Appropriate for April, no doubt, but bold and pagan now that we’ve endured into October.

“We are not easing back into it,” says Kati Hanlon Mayo, who danced the part of The Chosen One – the one who is sacrificed – when The Rite premiered in 1993. “We are not daintily coming back to the theater and doing something light and fluffy. We are back, and we are powerful.”

Known as Kati Hanlon back in those NCDT days, Mayo had only recently joined the company when Aiello chose her to be The Chosen One. Now an associate director at the Charlotte Ballet Academy, Mayo is coaching her successors, Amelia Sturt-Dilley and Sarah Lapointe, both of whom are beginning their seventh seasons with the company.

Asserting the power of dance was as much on Aiello’s mind in 1993 as reminding the community is now. Famously, the premiere Stavinsky’s incendiary score with Vaslav Nijinsky’s outré choreography provoked a sensation at its 1913 Paris premiere, nearly a riot. So the Aiello premiere 80 years later in Charlotte was not presented with some trepidation.

“We were fairly new to Charlotte,” Mayo recalls, “and we were doing some really wonderful rep, but I think he really wanted to show the limits of what he could do, like test the waters with the audiences here in Charlotte and see how that would pan out. I remember being a little bit anxious, nervous about the audience reaction even when we premiered it in Asheville. I didn’t know if it would be just too much – you know, too different from what they would expect, like a ballet with tutus.”

To create music and choreography that will consume audiences with their power, it is almost axiomatic that both the composer and the choreographer themselves must be consumed. Then it’s the dancers’ turn.

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“We all knew that Sal really wanted to do his version of The Rite of Spring,” Mayo says. “He had spoken to us about it. He was almost obsessive about the score and his research and the work that he was doing. Sometimes you would see him on lunch breaks, just working out choreography, working on counts. So when it came to us, for me personally, I was not used to contemporary work like that, and such tribal – like bombastic – music and dance, but for some reason, between Sal and myself and the rest of the company, it just clicked.”

Jerri Kumery, currently the ballet master at Richmond Ballet, was Aiello’s associate artistic director when his masterwork was in development, taking every choreographic note, passing along every correction, and giving out “The Bible” – notations on Stravinsky’s entire score – to all the dancers. Curator of The Salvatore Aiello Trust, it is Kumery who now brings the spirit of choreographer to rehearsals at the Patricia McBride & Jean Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance, while Mayo brings the authentic essence of The Chosen One.

Along with “The Bible.”

“Very thick,” says Lapointe, describing this holy writ. “All counts of every single section. And it’s very helpful, very detailed. It’s amazing.”

Amazing enough that it was performed again and again in Charlotte in 1993, 1996, 1997, 2000, and lastly in 2003, more than seven years after Aiello’s untimely death in 1995 at the age of 51. If the success of NCDT’s Rite of Spring paved the way for the audacity of Angels in America in 1996, the resulting furor of the Angels controversy sent shockwaves back to the dancers: Mayo vividly remembers “being very frightened that we would be asked not to perform” in 1997.

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The spectacle has a visceral impact. Taken back to pagan ritual, tribal warring, intoxicating dance, and human sacrifice – while witnessing the combustible power of the dances and the rituals – we may ruefully note how little humanity has changed over the eons. Although Lapointe assures us that the dancers will not be attired like the infamous rioters in DC on January 6, the point will resonate.

As we experience the incantatory derangement of Stravinsky’s music and watch an entire tribe go haywire, both Mayo and Lapointe hint that there’s more than a little voodoo magic in being out there, centerstage, and knowing that you have been chosen to bring the sensational role of The Chosen One to life – and death.

“We have to come up to the music,” Mayo says, “and we have to go beyond what the music is delivering to the audience. And that’s the challenge. And that’s what I think we find so beautiful in his choreography is that it’s not hard to get there with the movement he’s given us. It’s easy to match that music, which is a tall order.”

You will have to wait for this climax, of course. Lapointe and Sturt-Dilley won’t be appearing until about halfway into Aiello’s 40-minute ballet, entering with a bevy of young maidens. Then there’s the drama of being chosen for the ultimate sacrifice before we go hurtling into it. And yes, The Chosen One gets swept away as surely as the audience does.

“There’s parts where I feel like a wild animal,” Lapointe exclaims, “and I just feel so rambunctious, so wild, so free and natural. It’s a feeling like no other, really. Yeah, the music, the costumes, everyone around you banging on the floor, it all comes together – just how it’s supposed to. It’s kind of surreal. I don’t think I’ve ever done a piece that just makes it come out of you like that.”

The Rite of Spring will be the longest piece in Charlotte Ballet’s 50th anniversary celebration, its obvious pièce de resistance, and the rousing finale. Lapointe dances The Chosen One at the Thursday and Saturday night performances and Sturt-Dilley takes over the lead on Friday. Both are appearing in the other three pieces as well. First in the running order will be a premiere choreographed by Charlotte Ballet II program director Christopher Stuart, set to a Philip Glass score to be played by the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. A longer piece, Crystal Pite’s A Picture of You, comes next, followed by Val Caniparoli’s even longer Ibsen’s House.

The human sacrifice at the end of the evening shouldn’t be dismaying. More than a couple of religions celebrate the mysteries of death and rebirth, and The One Who Dies is at the heart their power. You can be sure the ancient mojo of Aiello’s Rite hasn’t been lost on the women who have danced in its vortex. The Chosen One’s nobility and her awesome dignity come through her acceptance of her fate.

In our ZOOM interview, Mayo and Lapointe intertwined to describe the experience.

“There are many points within the choreography,” Mayo began, “where you’ve found that you’re the Chosen One… It’s a conflict, but you feel this…”

“…power,” Lapointe interjected.

“…power,” Mayo continued. “If you can think of it as something you’ve been reaching towards, you’re honored by it. But yet… It’s part of the ritual, and you’re not going to end in the best manner… However, it’s an honor to be chosen! It’s an honor to be that force.”

“And to be that,” added Lapointe, “for the tribe and for everyone else.”

“My Wonderful Birthday Suit” Is a Rainbow-Bright Celebration of Diversity With Impressive Depth

Review: My Wonderful Birthday Suit @ ImaginOn

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Racism and xenophobia: pretty heavy subjects for a children’s play aimed at ages four-and-up, you might say. Yet if you recall “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” the racist’s confession from South Pacific sung by a U.S. Army lieutenant, the haters don’t wait to school their children in bigotry until they’re six, seven, or eight. In that grim light, Gloria Bond Clunie’s My Wonderful Birthday Suit, now in live performances at ImaginOn in an eye-popping Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production, comes right on time in teaching love and acceptance. Clunie’s play, directed by the playwright herself, is a rainbow-bright celebration of diversity.

Or perhaps a magical mystery tour, since the friends we first encounter in this magical place called Moonbeam are Oobladee and Oobladah. Clunie likes to keep things vague, so kids can decide for themselves whether Moonbeam is a city, country, hemisphere, or a lavishly developed rainbow. Oobladee is our hostess, greeting us before her best friend Oobladah arrives. Dee, like Clunie, relishes surprises – and maybe confounding expectations along the way. Rising above the balcony level, where Oobladee has her front door, there’s an 18-foot-tall Thinking Tree, a great place for contemplation and attitude adjustment that will summon you with a deep hum, decorated with lights and inhabited by a huge yellow bird named Bobo. Logically enough, Bobo will most often peep out of his knothole to dispense… bows.

With gift-wrapped presents strewn all across the McColl Family Theatre stage, bows are a handy commodity for Oobladee, for as she explains to us – and Oobladah when he arrives – she is planning a surprise birthday party for her best friend on the other side of the rainbow, city, country, or solar system. Her longtime friend Shebopshebe will be visiting Oobladee for the first time on this side, and there will be lights, music, presents, more presents, and cake!! A big cake. The wary, less upbeat Oobladah is not a big fan of surprises or waiting or sharing. He is uncomfortable with all of this.

Oobladah has never had a surprise party nor anywhere near this number of gifts for his birthday. He has never heard of Shebopshebe, and he cannot wrap his head around the idea that somebody else can be Oobladee’s best friend when he is. He wants to eat the cake and see what the presents are now. The monochromatic giftwraps in a wide spectrum of shiny hues are actually upstaged by the rainbow colors of Sydney Lynne Thomas’s set design and Kahei Shum McRae’s rainbow-crazed costumes for both Ooblas. Yet when Clunie wishes to rivet our attention on the gifts, she knows the way, for the smallest gift of all is the heaviest – and Oobladah actually groans when the director has him carry it over to stage right. Further confounding expectations, the biggest of the presents by far, gleaming in sparkly blue, is the lightest, and Clunie conspires with lighting designer Robyn Warfield and sound designer G. Clausen to make this huge cube (topped by a Bobo bow) an irresistible object of wonder for Oobladee and Oobladah. This teasing no doubt also enflamed the curiosities of the kiddies in the theater.

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To divert Oobladah – and educate both him and the anklebiters in the audience on what a surprise party actually is – Oobladee oversees a rehearsal of the triggering and greeting routine, cuing her lights with handclaps. Lights are dimmed as Shebopshebe appears silhouetted behind the rainbow doorway, and the surprise comes off perfectly as she enters and leans over the balcony. But the path toward opening the presents and sharing the humongous cake isn’t smooth. Shebopshebe was dressed in a coordinated outfit of light and dark purples, Oobladah’s favorite color, rather than the rainbow splendor of both Ooblas. No, that wasn’t the big problem, and it was heartwarming that the kids and parents in the house were as surprised as I was.

It went further – and deeper – than the two-besties thing. “You’re brown!” Oobladah said, pointing at Shebopshebe. Each time he repeated it, the simple description became meaner, nastier, angrier, and uglier. Really cringeworthy, as kids can be when they’re candid, and unmistakably hurtful. Obviously, the previous “respect” lesson up in the Thinking Tree hasn’t stuck with Oobladah, and one or two more climbs up its limbs would be necessary before we were done. As Clunie reached the didactic section of her hour-long drama, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the playwright found a way to teach lessons to all three players – and to briefly explore the roots of Oobladah’s racism – all with admirable tact.

You see, Oobladah has been told that brown people, people from there, people like Shebopshebe are… The sentence is never completed. Children and their parents can fill in the blanks with their imaginations, but Clunie refuses to poison the air with misinformation. We’re simply reminded that the haters, knowingly or unknowingly, really do start teaching hate to kids at a very tender age. Somewhat predictably, after the hurt he has inflicted, Oobladah must learn that he was wrong, and he must learn to apologize. Nor does Clunie gloss over the need for Shebopshebe to learn how to forgive.

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That is no small challenge for Renee Welsh-Noel as Shebopshebe after Will Burton-Edwards has been so forceful in delivering Oobladah’s odious mix of racism and xenophobia. Last to arrive on the scene, Welsh-Noel emerged as the strongest character onstage, for she also gave the sunshiney, conciliating Oobladee an earful. No, Shebopshebe isn’t a great fan of the blithe “I don’t see color” crowd. She not only knows she’s brown, she revels in being brown. She wants people to see her color, and she rejects the misguided charity of those who are willing to ignore it. If you have found Courtney Reasoner just a little spacey and peace-loving as Oobladee, you will find your qualms and her intentions validated when she draws Shebopshebe’s rebuke. Or you might see yourself fingered as an antique Flower Power peacenik and go “Ouch!”

Yet as Clunie begins to wrap up, we realize that she isn’t merely about how we shouldn’t act and feel. Turns out that it’s not at all accidental that each of the giftwraps is a single distinct color as she fancifully ties her positive message together. My Wonderful Birthday Suit is more than a title. It’s part and parcel of Clunie’s meaningful and rewarding outlook.

Spacious Setting at Halton Theater Creates Fresh Perspective for “You Can’t Take It With You”

Review: You Can’t Take It With You

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Picking up our tickets for You Can’t Take It With You in the Overcash lobby outside Halton Theater, I was asked how many times I had seen this comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart before. Reflexively, I answered four or five times – discovering, to my surprise, that I was replying without a groan. My later researches proved my estimate to be correct, for I have now seen local productions on at least five occasions dating back to 1990, including presentations by Charlotte Shakespeare, Old Courthouse Theatre (1991), and two at Theatre Charlotte (2001 and 2016), along with the current Central Piedmont Theatre effort. Over the years, I’ve gradually warmed to the script, perhaps because it’s better-respected now than when the 1937 Pulitzer Prize winner was turned into a star-studded screwball extravaganza in the 1938 Oscar-winning film.

Each time I’ve beaten back my resistance to reviewing You Can’t Take It on recent occasions, I’ve found myself taking away something new. The last time I saw the comedy, just days after the 2016 election, I found myself imagining how in tune with public sentiment the Kaufman-Hart concoction must have seemed when it first premiered – after the 1936 election. Hardly shocked or even surprised anymore by the cavalcade of eccentricity in the Sycamore family and their outré circle, I found myself newly fascinated by patriarch Martin Vanderhof’s anti-government stance and the playwrights’ decidedly anti-Wall Street sentiments. Of course, I had no idea at that time how much I could come to loathe a President who boasted about not paying his income taxes.

Nearly five years later, the similarities – and dissimilarities – between Martin and The Donald have popped into sharper focus, creating a provocative tension. What struck me most forcefully this time around was how much You Can’t Take It With You is about the classic clash of New York values, the free-thinking Bohemian chaos at the Vanderhof home, around the corner from Columbia University, and the stuffy, moneyed callousness of Wall Street, the planet’s financial capital, still wobbling after the crash. Maybe the other thing that struck me with new force was also a result of the Trump Effect. This play is absolutely crawling with Russian influences: emigres, ballet, socialism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, and blintzes. No wonder at all why the place gets raided by G-Men.

Kaufman and Hart would have no doubt delighted in Jennifer O’Kelly’s vast set design, for they described this expanse as an “every-man-for-himself room,” where every member of the household has the freedom – and space – to do whatever he or she pleases. “For here,” they added, “meals are eaten, plays are written, snakes collected, ballet steps practiced, xylophones played, printing presses operated – if there were room enough there would probably be ice skating.” With admirable restraint, there is no Zamboni in sight under Paula Baldwin’s deft direction, and the wide vista of the O’Kelly’s set encourages players to move quickly to answer the front door at stage left, to step lively in reaching centerstage, and to speak loudly so that all might hear. Baldwin was also spied at the back of Halton Theater on a couple of occasions, perhaps after hovering near the soundboard, for the sound from body mics onstage was exceptionally problem-free. Sound design by Ismail Out, including cuts of Johnny Mercer’s “Goody Goody” from 1936, was also on-target.

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The plot revolves around the possible nuptials between Alice Sycamore, Martin’s granddaughter, and her Wall Street boss, Tony Kirby. As Alice sees it, the multitudinous eccentricities of the Vanderhof household are an insuperable barrier between her and the ultra-respectable Kirbys. Obviously, Alice is conflicted about her family, loving them all while seeing them with the clarity of the only household member in daily contact with the outside world. Tony, as it turns out, is no less attuned to the shortcomings of his own family, so he pushes for a meeting with Alice’s family and then for the inevitably explosive rendezvous between his folks and hers. Did we mention that Alice’s dad, Paul, fashions fireworks with his faithful assistant, Mr. De Pinna? No, because all of those chemical reactions happen down in the cellar, out of view.

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Having to move so quickly across O’Kelly’s arena seems to endow all the residents of the Vanderhof home with an enthusiastic complacency, so engrossed are they all in their eccentricities. Pam Coble Newcomer is the restless artist of the family as Martin’s daughter, Penny Sycamore, working on a couple of her 11 unfinished playscripts as we watch, until she decides it’s time to resume work on painting a portrait of Mr. De Pinna posing in a Grecian tunic that she abandoned years ago. Abigail Adams is Penny’s eldest daughter, Essie, the perennial ballet student who also makes candies, and Braden Asbury is her husband, who mostly splits his time between the xylophone and the printing press in his nook. He also likes to make masks and serves as Essie’s candy seller and the family pamphleteer. Busy fella. So you’ll notice that Kaufman and Hart enjoy piling multiple enthusiasms on their characters.

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Contrasts can be extreme, sometimes with a zany logic. As Boris Kolenkhov, Essie’s ballet teacher, John Sexton can beat a taskmaster’s cane on the floor in perpetual frustration, since Essie shows no promise whatsoever, and then, at the most inopportune moment, reveal his zest for wrestling. It’s a lot for the Kirbys to digest all at once, but other weirdos like Mr. De Pinna are likely to show up on the Vanderhof doorstep and never leave. Weirdest of these may be Corlis Hayes as Gay Wellington, a flamboyant actress who would steal every scene if she weren’t spending so much time passed out on the settee from excess drink. Of course, cameos from those government raiders and an overnight stay in jail didn’t improve the Kirbys’ first impressions of Alice’s family. Nor do the fireworks down in the cellar remain inert. As the elder Kirbys, Rick Taylor and Pamela Thorson were as starchy as can be, but Thorson was especially regal in taking affront.

THEA2021-DLV-0923-4325In the face of such humiliating catastrophe, Alice wished to exile herself to the Adirondacks, but Charlie Grass managed even here not to be overly annoying in her shame and mortification as the one “normal” member of her family. Love and practicality are nicely mixed in this Alice. Serene and optimistic as ever, Martin, Penny, and Paul are able to laugh off the misadventures of the previous night. Newcomer as Penny, Jeremy Cartee as Paul, and Dennis Delamar as Martin became especially endearing from this moment forward, maintaining their equanimity after this buffeting of adversity. Galumphing and awkward in the early going, in and out of his mad scientist coveralls, Cartee showed some touching solicitude toward the wife and daughter when crisis struck. Delamar, in his second go-round as Martin, has thoroughly mastered his dignity and glow, aided by Emily McCurdy’s costume design and James Duke’s lighting.

Whether or not Baldwin was looking for a James Stewart type in replicating the onscreen chemistry between Alice and Tony (judge for yourself when you see Grass’s hair), Timothy Hager brings some of the same height and charming gawkiness to the role. Although O’Kelly does her best to clutter up her set, there is never the sense that Tony is slumming because the space is so expansive. That spaciousness also tends to dilute whatever humble, homespun quality you might have associated with Vanderhof and his clan in past viewings.

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With Baldwin’s staging, you’ll likely find that the wide-open space enhances Delamar’s eloquence when he delivers Martin’s signature monologue in the final act. If you can tear your eyes away from Delamar, you’ll notice that Newcomer has been deployed far to stage right, leaning forward on the sofa in rapt attention, beaming and proud of her daddy. Most other family members have been spread out around a stage that has more than a couple of times been teeming with tumult. All eyes are Grandpa, all the family are respectfully still, radiating pride and content. It gives a special moment an extra aura.