All posts by perryt77

Tappin Music Carries the Night – at the Knight – in Opera Carolina’s I Dream

Review:  I Dream

By Perry Tannenbaum

Douglas Tappin has composed approximately half of a very fine rhythm-and-blues opera, an extensively revamped I Dream that originally premiered in 2010, honoring Rev. Martin Luther King in his hometown of Atlanta. The two-act work has now been revived serendipitously to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, premiering in Toledo at 7:01pm on April 4, the exact minute of the crime a half century earlier, and getting a reprise in Charlotte in an Opera Carolina production at Knight Theater.

Showcasing Tappin’s music, Opera Carolina is presenting its first fully-staged production at Knight Theater, a venue they have only used previously for special concert events.

The unfortunate thing is that Tappin also wrote the lyrics and the libretto for I DREAM. We’re saddled with a script that slinks its way circuitously through MLK’s last 36 hours, guided by a dubious premise and punctuated by flashbacks that aren’t always dramatic. This civil rights icon doesn’t merely have a premonition that longevity isn’t to be his; he has recurring dreams about the balcony where he will be shot.

In a bizarre twist, these specious dreams become the dream of Tappin’s title, because all of King’s famed oratory – his “I Have a Dream” speech and his “Mountaintop” prophecy – are never spoken. You better know who Ralph and Hosea are, too, for in steering far away from any copyright recriminations from King’s heirs, Tappin omits their full names. Coretta and Martin aren’t blessed with their last names on the cast listings, either.

And who are Martin’s historic adversaries in his heroic struggle for civil rights? Never anyone more important than an anonymous cop wielding a billy club.

Instead of DC or Memphis, Tappin takes us to Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma. Prudent choices if we’re seeking action rather than copyrighted oratory, but Tappin’s libretto also takes us to Boston, where he met Coretta during his student days, and to a hospital bed, where a duet is sung over his recumbent form. Perhaps in a previous draft of the libretto, King was stabbed in the chest with a letter opener as he actually was at a 1958 book signing. Not anymore: here he simply collapses.

A better playwright would have tiptoed more skillfully through the copyright minefields and woven a more dramatic and compelling narrative. Tappin’s great strength is in his music. If Andrew Lloyd Webber learned profitably from the great operatic masters, I’d say that Tappin has learned profitably how to create a propulsive non-classical score from Lloyd Webber.

When we finally get to Birmingham and Selma in Act 2, the lunch counter arrest and the time in jail signal a melodic climb to King’s victory in Selma that is truly majestic and inspiring. Tappin sustains this momentum through the rendezvous with fate on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel and afterwards, when Coretta leads Martin’s people in mourning.

Although the steeply raked set design by Kevin Depinet, in placing the fatal balcony dead center, reminds me of a TV test pattern, stage director Daniel Goldstein keeps the action between scenes moving fluidly, and the singers have been more than sufficiently rehearsed to move surefootedly on the sloped surface. Musical director and orchestrator Carl Marsh seems to favor Broadway over the Metropolitan Opera in his instrumentation, including an electric guitar and electronic keyboards in the mix, but there is plenty classical heft in the 35-person ensemble with 13 musicians from Charlotte Symphony.

Opera Carolina’s frontline cast also straddles the realms of musical theatre and opera in their impressive résumés. Derrick Davis has sung an admirable range of baritone roles on Broadway and on tour, from Mufasa in Lion King to the title role in Phantom of the Opera, and his OC debut as MLK has moments of peacemaking mellowness and warrior ferocity.

Although the roles of Ralph Abernathy and Hosea Williams aren’t noteworthy for their historical accuracy or even their individuality, the voices we hear, both returning OC artists, bring the heat. Baritone Kenneth Overton as Ralph seems to be the voice of prudence and pragmatism, yet solid and formidable. As Hosea, Victor Ryan Robertson is the voice of passionate principle, his wild tenor bridling against the discipline of non-violence. The bi-play between Robertson and Davis in the jail scene is simply riveting.

Victimized by the static scenes in Boston and at the hospital, Laquita Mitchell is further disadvantaged by her divine soprano voice. I wouldn’t blame Jeremy J. Lee’s sound design or even Tappin’s libretto here, but to be understood, Mitchell needs supertitles more than anyone else onstage. As a result, mezzo Lucia Bradford upstages Coretta as Grandma in her Charlotte debut. Her maxim, movingly sung to Young Martin (Byas Yasan Monroe), ultimately becomes the most effective frame for King’s sequence of flashbacks.

With this powerhouse lineup of singers armed with Tappin’s consistently lively music, we easily weathered the lulls and inexplicable blind alleys of the composer’s script. The opening night audience for I Dream entered with plenty of enthusiasm for the legacy of Martin Luther King, the rhythm-and-blues idiom of Tappin’s opera, and Opera Carolina’s audacity in taking subscribers to new places – including Knight Theater for a refreshing change. From the buzz in the Knight lobby afterwards, I’d say the performance had clearly sustained the audience’s enthusiasm in all respects.

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Homespun “Barbecue Apocalypse” Improves With Age

Reviews: Barbecue Apocalypse, The Sherlock Project, Life Is a Dream, and Madagascar

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In a year that included Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society and Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale among the top contenders, I could only give Matt Lyle’s Barbecue Apocalypse a lukewarm endorsement for best new play of 2015, ranking it #13 among 27 eligibles that I read for that year’s Steinberg Awards. Nor did colleagues from the American Theatre Critics Association strongly disagree with my verdict, since Lyle’s dystopian comedy didn’t make the cut for the second ballot, when we considered our consensus top 10.

But before Charlotte’s Off-Broadway decided to stage this show at The Warehouse PAC up in Cornelius, they did some reading and balloting of their own. From January through March, the company offered monthly “Page to Stage” readings presenting two different plays on each occasion. Then they asked ticketholders to vote on which of the six plays they would like to see in a fully staged production. Less than two months after the votes were counted, Barbecue is back for my reconsideration as the audience favorite.

And on further consideration, I must credit director Anne Lambert and her professional cast for convincing me that Barbecue Apocalypse is even better than I thought it would be – far more to my liking than real barbecue.

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Lyle would probably concur, since his patio hosts, Deb and Mike, are only grilling and basting because they want to avoid the embarrassment of having their friends – who are more trendy, stylish, and successful – see the interior of their home, decorated with lame movie posters. Deb succinctly describes her strategy as lowering expectations for the cuisine and the ambiance. Outdoors, she can point with pride to the fact that Mike has built the rear deck himself. Yet the barbecue event has obligated Mike to buy a propane grill off Craig’s List, and he’s afraid to light it.

He would also like Deb not to mention that he’s a professional writer, for his career earnings, after one published short story, now total 50 bucks.

All four of the guests feed the hosts’ sense of inadequacy. Deb is a decorator, foodie, and gourmet cook who makes sure to bring her own organic meat, and her husband Ash is a gadget freak, armed with the best new smartphone equipped with the most awesome apps. Win pretty much embodies his name, a former high school QB, now a successful businessman with Republican views. He lives to put Mike down and can seemingly get any woman he wants. Even his bimbo of choice, Glory with her Astrodome boobs, can claim formidable accomplishments, arriving late to the barbecue after nailing her Rockette audition.

What ultimately happens to this insulated suburban group reminds me of The Admirable Crichton, the excellent James M. Barrie tragicomedy I came across a couple of times during TV’s golden age, when colleges had core curriculums. A perfect butler to the Earl of Loam in Mayfair, London, Crichton and his betters were shipwrecked on a desert island in the Pacific, where his natural superiority emerged.

There are two basic differences between Barrie’s back-to-nature tale and Lyle’s. The shipwreck situation was reversible with rescue. Apocalypse isn’t. More to the point, Barrie was clearly targeting the blind rigidity of class distinctions. Here if we consider the implications of Barbecue Apocalypse, Lyle seems to have modernity in his crosshairs – how our world warps our aspirations and our self-worth, how it channels us into modes of living that are far from our authentic selves.

In the cramped storefront confines of the Warehouse, Lambert doesn’t attempt to design a deck that lives up to Mike’s pretensions, and Donavynn Sandusky’s costume designs are similarly déclassé, especially for the nerdy Ash. This robs Lyle’s concept of much of its slickness, which for me turned out to be a good thing. Aside from the Craig’s List mention, Lambert also dropped in a couple of local references that added to the overall homespun flavor.IMG_6440

Becca Worthington and Conrad Harvey were nearly ideal as our hosts, keenly aware of each other’s limitations and their own, yet visibly crazy for one another. Worthington with her status-conscious rigidity and stressing was clearly the closest actor onstage to Lyle’s vision, beautifully flipping her “We suck” persona after intermission and the apocalypse, when a full year of roughing it has elapsed. Harvey was more than sufficiently cuddly and self-deprecating – but credulity is stretched when a man of such size and stature is repeatedly dominated by his adversaries.

If you can accept that Greg Paroff was ever on a football field, let alone as a QB, you’ll be quite pleased with how he handles Win’s asshole antics. He is confident, he is arrogant, and if he’s possibly past 40, that only increases the disconnect between Win and his limber Rockette. Julia Benfield is absolutely adorable as Glory, and I absolutely adore how she’s still mincing around in high heels when she makes her disheveled entrance in Act 2. We totally believe that her familiarity with Tom Wopat doesn’t extend to The Dukes of Hazard in the ‘80s.

Probably not the best moment for Lambert when she cast Cole Pedigo and Jenn Grabenstetter as Ash and Lulu. They should remember the ‘80s, but I needed to stifle my doubts. Wardrobe and just the way he’s absorbed in his iPhone might help Pedigo out – and make him less wholesome, winsome, and juvenile before the apocalypse. Grabenstetter overcomes all objections when free-range Lulu gets snockered on generic canned beer, and both Pedigo and his scene partner truly click when adversity brings Ash and Lulu to a new lease on life in Act 2. I believe that’s an antler dance.

I won’t disclose what happens when Maxwell Greger walks on for his cameo deep in Act 2, but I do respect how Lyle makes him earn his paycheck with a sizable monologue. Greger does the denouement with a slight manic edge, and the technical aspects of his departure are impressively handled.

So it’s fair to say that apologies are in order for rating Barbecue Apocalypse in the middle of the pack when I first read it. Or excuses, since a rational man resided at the White House in 2015, and apocalypse seemed so fantastical.

But hold on. Charlotte’s Off-Broadway has already programmed two other plays from their “Page to Stage” readings for two fully-staged productions in the near future, Susan Lambert Hatem’s Confidence (and The Speech) for September and Lauren Gunderson’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear for next February. Maybe when these runner-ups get fleshed out, supporters of Lyle’s winning script might reconsider their votes!

A Catch-All Catch-Up

Our recent travels to Greece, Israel, and Jordan compelled us to miss a bunch of high-profile openings after we reviewed the reinvented Rite of Spring at Knight Theatre on April 6 and CP’s On Golden Pond the following evening. Even before we left, we had to pass on the Charlotte Dance Festival and CP’s Elixir of Love so we could adequately prepare for our trip. To see the birthplace of theatre, the Holy Land, and Petra, we had to miss out on the BOOM Festival, the reprise of Beautiful: The Carol King Musical, and the opportunity to host a pre-show preview of The Marriage of Figaro for Opera Carolina.

New openings when we returned were a must, so we hit the ground running with Charlotte Ballet’s Spring Works and Symphony’s Brahms-and-Bartok program. But our need to catch up with Carolina Shakespeare’s Life Is a Dream made us put off seeing PaperHouse Theatre’s Sherlock Project until it second week. It gets complicated. But I’ve tried to get up to speed while working on more reviews and features. File these under gone but not forgotten:

The Sherlock Project So a dozen actors and writers collaborated on PaperHouse Theatre’s mash-up of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story gems, producing a script that follows three guiding principles: keep it funny, keep it moving, and don’t, don’t, don’t ever explain how the great Sherlock Holmes arrives at his incredible deductions. Going back to their roots at the Frock Shop on Central Avenue, PaperHouse and director Nicia Carla found a frilly complement to the Victorian chronicles of Dr. John Watson.

But the frame of the story was wholly new, telling us that the deadeye detective in the deerstalker cap is a woman. Watson protects the woman who should be credited with all the purported exploits of Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade because he knows that Sherlock is right: The general public is even less prepared to believe a female is capable of such brilliancies than Watson is.

Besides all of the Sherlockian brilliance and nonchalant arrogance, Andrea King reveled in all of the detective’s eccentricities, whether it was shooting up a 7% solution of cocaine, tuning up a violin, or lighting up a calabash pipe. Opposite King’s insouciant self-confidence, Chaz Pofahl wrung maximum comedy from Watson’s wonder and timidity – a phenomenon compounded by the gender factor as Pofahl switched from paternal protectiveness to awe or terror while King wryly twinkled and smiled.

The two main supporting players slipped into multiple roles, Angie C as a cavalcade of damsels in distress and Berry Newkirk in the plumiest cameos, ranging from the dull-witted Lestrade to the razor-sharp Professor Moriarty, mythically uncatchable. Apart from directing behind the scenes, Carla conspired in the action as Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’s discreet housemaid. Carla not only ushered in Sherlock’s distraught clientele or evil adversaries, she also presided over scene changes, when audience members had to exit the Frock Shop’s parlor to a murder scene in the adjoining room or out on the porch when Sherlock was pursuing… something. Had to do with fire.

Or when it was intermission, time for little cucumber sandwiches.

The whole show was a wonderful diversion. PaperHouse had to add another performance to their run, which we caught last Wednesday, and the remaining nights were already sold out. Like the PaperHouse faithful, I couldn’t get enough of The Sherlock Project. I wanted lots more – beginning with how did Sherlock deduce that Watson had just come from Afghanistan when they first met?

Life Is a Dream – Convinced it was a comedy rather than a political melodrama, Shakespeare Carolina and director S. Wilson Lee kidnapped Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s classic, written during Spain’s Golden Age, and transported it more than three centuries forward from a mythical Poland to a mythical Las Vegas. There in a seedy club on the strip, the two factions with their eyes on the throne were Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack and Marlon Brando’s Wild Bunch.

Lee’s wild conceit didn’t do nearly as much harm as I thought it would, mainly because ShakesCar didn’t have the budget to carry it too far at Duke Energy Theatre, and the strong cast mostly played their roles as the text, sensibly adapted by Jo Clifford, said they should. So much depended on the broad shoulders of David Hayes as Segismundo. Heir to the throne of Poland, Segismundo has been locked away Prometheus-like in a mountain dungeon for his whole life by his father, King Basilio, who is foolishly trying to ward off the dire destiny predicted by an astrologer.

A boiling rage seethes inside of Segismundo, and a less mightily built actor than Hayes might need to strain himself to encompass it. Hayes projected the mighty rage rather naturally, which made it easier for him to flow convincingly into Segismundo’s softer emotions when – before he has even suspected his royal lineage – he is handed the Polish throne and the power to act on his newly awakened sexual urges as he sees fit.

Called upon to give a far more nuanced performance as Basilio, Russell Rowe delivered. Yes, he was cruel, but also conflicted, with a lifelong dread deftly mixed into his forcefulness. Though I feared the convoluted plot might be abridged or simplified, the intrigue, the complexity, and the epic monologues were almost entirely intact. As the vengeful Rosaura, Teresa Abernethy brought forth the masculine-feminine blend that the transgendered Clifford was aiming for in her translation, and James Cartee, an actor who often keeps nothing in reserve, showed unusual probity and maturity as Clotaldo, even as he tried to figure out his long-lost child’s gender.

Nobody was more suavely dressed by costume designer Mandy Kendall than James Lee Walker II as Astolfo, the successor that Basilio wanted if the true heir didn’t pass his test. But if anybody was victimized by Lee’s Rat Pack concept, it was Walker. I have no idea why he persisted in speaking so rapidly and unintelligibly, unlike any work I’d seen from him before. Was he attempting a Sammy Davis Jr. imitation? Couldn’t figure out what accounted for this curious outing.

Betrothed to this strange hipster, Maggie Monahan beautifully brought out the agonies of queen-to-be Estrella. Maybe the most Shakespearean role in this ShakesCar production was Ted Patterson as Clarin, who tags after the disguised Rosaura from the opening scene, as either her companion or servant – but definitely our clown.

On the strength of this effort, theatergoers can be excited about ShakesCar’s next invasion of Spirit Square, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus at Duke Energy from June 28 to July 7.

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Madagascar – Okay, so I’ll grant that the musical adaptation of the 2005 Dreamworks film didn’t have the gravitas of the greatest Children’s Theatre of Charlotte extravaganzas of the past like their Boundless Grace and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – or the bite of Ramona Quimby and Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing. But this confection was nearly perfection. Under the direction of Michelle Long, Madagascar hit a family-friendly sweet spot, straddling the realms of cartoon silliness, cinematic adventure, and theatrical slapstick and dance. I just didn’t like the deejay, everybody-get-up-and-act-stupid thing.

Scenic design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec never lost its freshness thanks to a slick stage crew and the eye-popping lighting by Gordon W. Olson, while the animal costumes by Magda Guichard probably made the strongest case for live theatre against multiplex animation. Choreography by Tod A. Kubo chimed well with Long’s direction, which used areas of McColl Family Theatre that rarely come into play.

Centering around four animals that break out of Central Park Zoo, Madagascar introduced us to Marty the zebra and his wanderlust. We moved swiftly from there. Following the lead of four penguins bound for Antarctica, Marty escaped the zoo, seeking a weekend in Connecticut. Not only are police, animal control, and TV bulletins on his trail, so were his pals Gloria the hippo, Alex the lion, and Melman the giraffe. Embarking underground in the Manhattan subway, Marty hardly stretched credulity much further by winding up off Africa.

Deon Releford-Lee was a spectacular triple-threat as Marty, but what dazzled most was the multitude of gems in this supporting cast, beginning with an intimidating Alex from leonine Traven Harrington and – on stilts, of course – a timorous Melman from Caleb Sigmon. Dominique Atwater disappointed me as Gloria, but only because we didn’t get enough of our hippo after her first big splash. Olivia Edge, Allison Snow-Rhinehart, and Rahsheem Shabazz fared better, drawing multiple roles.

While the book by Kevin Del Aguila shone more brightly than the musical score by George Noriega and Joel Someillan, I was amazed that so much story and song could be squeezed into barely more than 60 minutes. Combined with last October’s Mary Poppins, the exploits of Madagascar prove that musical production is an enduring strength at Children’s Theatre. I can’t think of a season at ImaginOn that had sturdier bookends than these musicals that began and concluded 2017-18. The crowd that turned out for the final performance affirmed that the 7th Street fantasy palace has perfected the craft of producing family fare.

Not only that, it showed me that Charlotte families have spread the word.

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

Preview:  Every Brilliant Thing

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Review:  Something Rotten!

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By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A shitty job, but it’s a job.

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

 

 

 

 

Time’s Up for Heavy Drama in “The Mermaid Hour,” but the Lyricism Lingers On

Review: The Mermaid Hour

By Perry Tannenbaum

Two years ago, when The Mermaid Hour first came to town as a reading stage production at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, the David Valdes Greenwood script seemed fresh, urgent, and dramatic. In the binary world of 2016, the 12-year-old child at the heart of this story, Vi, née Victor, was pressuring her parents to let her start taking hormone blockers, the first step in transitioning to womanhood. Coping with a transgender child felt like heavy stuff for Vi’s parents, Bird and Pilar, working-class Bostonians. Freaking out seemed a reasonable reaction when your child, dressed as a mermaid, launches a YouTube video that gets 20,000 views.

Today, it’s a world where binary and non-binary gender concepts coexist, and while there’s a good chance that you haven’t quite gotten the new terminologies down, you’ve probably gotten a helpful memo or two – and very likely gotten the drift. Sexual freedom doesn’t merely imply a wider latitude of accepted actions, it also signifies identifying as each of us sees fit.

So in a beautifully designed full production by Actor’s Theatre of Greenwood’s drama, it’s not surprising to discover that the 9th grader playing Vi, Toni Reali, is a non-binary actor who prefers they as their pronoun of choice. That will be a lot for many who are seeing The Mermaid Hour for the first time to wrap their heads around. But for those like me who have already accomplished that, I’m not sure that the expiration dates for the story’s peak freshness, urgency, and drama haven’t already passed.

It’s fortunate, then, that the Actor’s Theatre reprise directed by Laley Lippard layers on so much visual lyricism, a magical mix of set and sound design by Chip Decker, costumes by Carrie Cranford, and lighting by Hallie Gray. Adults and even Vi’s best friend Jacob look comparatively humdrum, and so do their surroundings. But when we ascend to Vi’s bedroom, the aqua colors glow and the mermaid couture glitters – worn by both Vi and her hermaphroditic online inspiration, Merperson/Crux.

 

Merperson seems to float in a rainbow ether as they declaim the “Mermaid Hour” podcasts that enflame Vi’s ambitions, taking up the space of what ordinarily would be the child’s window onto the outside world. Of course, Vi’s bedroom is also the studio where she records her YouTube manifesto, her mermaid outfit more basic and makeshift than the splendor that Alex Aguilar gets to model as Merperson.

Part of the impression the podcast star and their prodigy make is a shared aspiration to transcend everyday life. The exotic, the outrageous, the risqué, and the enchanting are in exquisite balance in these scenes, but the consternation caused by the 20,000 views garnered by Vi’s video now strikes us as an overreaction. When YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and crowdfunding sensations regularly make the Nightly News, Vi’s surprise that her video would elicit such a massive response seems just as yesterday as her parents’ shock.

Though Decker could probably pot down his microphone a couple of notches, Aguilar strikes an important balance of his own, clearly connecting with Vi over the web with his urgings and yearnings yet adult and archly artificial in ways she couldn’t understand. Reali heightens this dimension of the mermaids’ chemistry with a wonderful lack of artifice, so spontaneous and unaffected that Crux’s protectiveness toward them late in the show seems perfectly natural, even though the mermaid reemerges on a city street dressed in leather.

Two of my fave Charlotte performers disappointed me a little as Vi’s confounded folks. Adyana de la Torre-Brucker had to shoulder the burden of being the most stubborn obstacle to Vi’s urges, but her take on Pilar’s irritation at discovering that maybe she didn’t quite rock being a mother struck me as too energetic. A little more heart and a little less stressing would work wonders. Meanwhile, Jeremy DeCarlos, who has previously demonstrated the ability to be cast as anything, was flunking working class cluelessness as Bird – sorry, the man radiates too much savvy – until he fairly nailed a lengthy monologue toward the end, earning a respectable grade.

As Jacob’s mom, Mika, Amy Wada had a clearer, more interesting path to credibility. What alarms Mika is that her Asian relatives across the Pacific now know about Vi’s video – and that their grandson is adored by a pink-haired boy who identifies as a mermaid. Laughing off your elders isn’t so easily done in ancient civilizations, and Wada carries off her globalized dilemma well.

With a cast this diverse, I doubt anyone will mind that nobody has a New England accent, despite the fact that Bird’s monologue makes it clear they’ve resided in Beantown for quite a while. At the calm center of all this specious uproar is Alec Celis as Jacob, the gay object of Vi’s adulation. He firmly tells Vi that they can be friends, nothing more, but doesn’t give her grief over the video. The fact that he and Vi have exposed themselves to each other in his bedroom hardly earns a shrug when Mama Mika freaks. What ticks him off – mildly – is when Mika tells him that he and Vi can’t associate.

By default, Jacob may be the best role model we see onstage, because he rolls with the post-binary gender tide rather than pushing either way. Anyone expecting high excitement from The Mermaid Hour might do well to follow his example. Although Greenwood’s script doesn’t sizzle with drama, it provides powerful affirmation for trans and non-binary people in the audience who don’t often see themselves portrayed onstage. It also injects some remedial education into theatergoers who have slept on their trans neighbors’ existence or their worth until now. With some fabulous color and lighting.

 

Comedy and Dread Haunt “The Humans” in Lower Manhattan

Review:  The Humans

By Perry Tannenbaum

Richard Thomas made his first appearance on Broadway in the late ‘50s, when he was still six years old, and he’s still in the biz 60 years later, touring with The Humans. These days, Thomas appears as one of the elders in Stephen Karam’s portrait of the Blake family, nothing at all like the paragon he once was starring as John-Boy Walton back in the ‘70s. Here he is crotchety, embittered, careworn, a bit paunchy, and – as we learn late in this 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner – disgraced.

Joining Erik on a Thanksgiving visit to their daughter Brigid’s Manhattan apartment is his wife Deirdre, his elder daughter Aimee, and his wheelchair-bound mother, “Momo” Blake. All of the visitors have their problems. Nobody in the family seems to like the grumpy, nagging, fanatically religious Deidre. Aimee has lost her girlfriend, formerly bright career prospects have slipped from her grasp, and a digestive infection sends her repeatedly to the toilet. “Momo” is stricken with Alzheimer’s, babbling rather than articulate, with a tendency to throw tantrums or wander off unexpectedly.

“Momo” also supplies us with the best affirmation of religion that we’ll see at this Thanksgiving dinner.

Our hosts, Brigid and her boyfriend Richard, actually seem better adjusted than their guests. She’s struggling as a musician, not earning as much as her lawyer sister, but she and Richard have managed to move into a two-story apartment in Chinatown, and he’s expecting a windfall of trust fund money in two years when he turns 40.

Amid the bickering, the joshing, and Deirdre’s irritating nagging about Brigid’s loss of faith and her apartment’s lack of windows and light, there are undercurrents of comedy and dread that would resonate most keenly with New Yorkers. Typical Pennsylvanians, Erik and Deidre have the aversions to living in Manhattan that have made Broadway theatergoers laugh for over a century.

Yet they manage to hit a couple of sore points. Erik recalls driving Aimee up to New York for a job interview on 9/11 and surviving the attack on the Twin Towers by sheer luck. Deidre’s worries about her daughter’s basement apartment flooding referenced an even more recent trauma, the devastation in Lower Manhattan in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Under attack by terrorists and climate change, the end-of-days atmosphere at Brigid’s adopted home is augmented by lightbulbs that go out in her new apartment and jarring, unexplained booms from the floors above.

Thomas captures the whistling-in-the-dark fate of the Blakes best, sensing that you need to work harder at projecting to the balcony at the other end of the shoebox-shaped Knight Theater. Only slightly outdone, Pamela Reed is superbly nettlesome as the mom we love to hate, while her daughters, Daisy Eagan as Brigid and Therese Plaehn as Aimee, are more agreeable but less characterful. Luis Vega as Richard was the only member of the cast who seemed to miss the memo that you need to project more forcefully at the Knight.

Each time Momo startles us, it’s important, yet Lauren Klein orchestrates these eruptions beautifully. Momo’s violent outburst had an unexpected effect on how I saw Erik toward the end. Confessing how he had let his family down, Thomas actually succeeded in making me hate him momentarily despite his 60+ years of stage and TV wholesomeness. But when Momo began flailing, Erik became her firm, patient, and dutiful son – and this John-Boy aspect that Thomas still does so well encouraged me to give Erik a second look. The mysterious ending of Karam’s drama calls forth yet another reconsideration.

“Rite of Spring” Showcases the Best of Charlotte Symphony and Ballet

Review:  Rite of Spring: Reinvented

By Perry Tannenbaum

As scarce as modern music was in Charlotte Symphony’s classics concerts last fall – or anything that wasn’t by Beethoven – subscribers can be delighted (or appalled) by the cavalcade of moderns this spring. Sibelius, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Bernstein were all beautifully represented at Belk Theater in March, encouraging Charlotte’s staunch traditionalists to discard their modern music trepidations at the beginning of April and come out en masse for Rite of Spring: Reinvented, an evening of Stravinsky.

Further enticement to come and hear Christopher Warren-Green leading the orchestra came from Charlotte Ballet. Newly led by Hope Muir in her first season as artistic director, the company would not only reprise George Balanchine’s setting for Apollon musagète, they would also be premiering a new choreographic setting by Peter Chu for the seminal Rite of Spring.

The proven excellence of Symphony in modern repertoire, the excitement of a collaboration with Charlotte Ballet, and the lure of a world premiere probably all contributed to filling the hall with subscribers and newcomers. Yet there was another element in play. While the Apollon served as a calling card for the company’s magisterial authority in all things Balanchine, the world premiere of Chu’s Rite served as a showcase for their backup Charlotte Ballet II troupe, as well as their company apprentices, youth ballet participants, and students in the Charlotte Ballet Reach program.

Serving children 7-13, Reach is obviously an impressive program with branches at the Ivory Baker Recreation Center, the Albemarle Road Recreation Center, and the Hickory Grove Recreation Center. Of the 67 performers involved in Rite of Spring, 48 were from the Reach program, all performing for the first time at Belk Theater. Some of these kids had never attended any event there before.

Such an event would be a big deal for parents and relatives – as it is when Charlotte Youth Ballet performs Ovens Auditorium or Knight Theater elsewhere in town. Conceiving his Rite of Spring as a community event, Chu didn’t hurt ticket sales at all, for those friends, parents, and relatives certainly came out to see these students perform.

What they saw raised Symphony and Ballet to a higher plateau, even in the Apollon reprise. Because Symphony had been reduced to approximately 30 players for the most recent run of Ballet’s annual Nutcracker, it had been awhile since the full ensemble had performed from the orchestra pit in their collaborative relationship. And because Opera Carolina seats the press down at stage level, this may have been the first time I’d heard them performing in the pit from the vantage point of the grand tier.

From the downstairs level, the sound of the Charlotte Symphony can be slightly constricted from the pit, although our main attention in opera is always on the stage. Up in the grand tier, where my Symphony tickets are, I found that the confines of the pit added a warm glow to the sound, a welcome aura for patrons who might find the Belk’s acoustics too clinical and in-your-face when the orchestra plays from the stage.

Performing Apollon to live music also had a gratifying effect on the Charlotte Ballet performance. Strumming on Apollo’s lyre, Josh Hall seemed to be playing the instrument for the first time, precisely in sync with Stravinsky’s score instead of vaguely going through the motions. The newfound synergy between Balanchine’s choreography and Stravinsky’s helped to make the reprise of Hall’s performance fresh again.

So did the continuing grace and charm of his three muses, Chelsea Dumas as Calliope, Sarah Hayes Harkins as Polyhymnia, and Alessandra Ball James as Terpsichore. Even the iconic sun-god tableau, perhaps the most compelling Balanchine image that Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride gave to us when they took the reins of Charlotte Ballet, was freshened by the live music. Hearing the delighted surprise of so many ballet newbies in the crowd to this famous ending freshened it more.

Depicting a human sacrifice, Stravinsky’s scenario was definitely communal – but also barbaric, no more heartwarming than Shirley Jackson’s classic, “The Lottery.” Yet in setting this oftentimes harsh music for a large group of children who hadn’t finished middle school, Chu and costume director Aimee Coleman weren’t aiming to turn this scenario into pure sunshine.

On the contrary, the most haunting images Chu and Coleman created with their large cast was of waves of migration – poor peoples under stress, fleeing war and tyranny, caring deeply for their children, and looking for a peaceful homeland. Exactly the kind of people that America’s ruling party doesn’t want to think about, let alone welcome. Chu and his large cast, to put it another way, turned the primitive barbarity of Stravinsky’s original scenario for the Ballet Russes in 1913 into a more modern barbarism – showing the effects of tyranny, war, and callous indifference upon unmistakably good people.

I’m not sure Chu’s scenario needed to be quite as inchoate as the refugees’ lives that he depicts. Showing us the tyrants, the jackboots, or the marauders that the good folk were fleeing might have given a more substantial shape to what we were witnessing. Nor did I feel that the Charlotte Ballet II dancers were stretched anywhere near to their fullest. Yet Chu’s images of mass migration and parents fretting their children’s survival were more than sufficiently powerful to make the big audience at the Belk feel involved in this community happening.

The event also seemed to be special for Warren-Green and the Symphony musicians. Apollon is more sedate than you expect Stravinsky to be, and the ensemble called forth all its beauties. But when we reached barbarities of Stravinsky’s Rite, nobody in the pit was holding back, and the essence of the music came through with all its primal force.

“On Golden Pond” Is Still Sugary at CP, but Never Cloying

Review:  On Golden Pond

By Perry Tannenbaum

Although I had not seen the original 1979 Broadway production – and had staunchly avoided playwright Ernest Thompson’s 1981 Hollywood adaptation – I thought I knew all I cared to know about On Golden Pond when it finally caught up with me at Theatre Charlotte in 2006. Through unsolicited excerpts flashed at me on TV, I had become all-too-familiar with Henry Fonda’s crustiness as Norman Thayer Jr., Katharine Hepburn’s gritty steadfastness as his wife Ethel, the whininess of Jane Fonda as their daughter Chelsea, and the gooey honey that bound them all together.

Were there other characters in the script? That was one of the unexpected delights I discovered as my first full encounter with On Golden Pond, like so many others with The Sound of Music, turned out to be better than I feared. Yet as I also find with that Rodgers and Hammerstein evergreen, there’s a recoil effect that comes with intervening years, and I was dreading On Golden Pond once again as it opened at Central Piedmont Community College.

Directed by Marilyn Carter, the stage version proved to be somewhat sweeter than the film; largely because Elyse Williams gives a sunnier, more domesticated rendering of Ethel; dispelling the hardy Yankee, outdoorsy Hepburn effect. Williams and Tom Scott are less iconic and godly as the elder Thayers than Hepburn and Henry, so Amy Pearre Dunn as Chelsea seemed far more sensible and far less petulant than Jane. Toss in the other people who enter the Thayers’ summer home in Maine, and the story seems less about age-old family animosities and far more mundane.

After many years of estrangement, Chelsea, with her dentist fiancé and his son, arrive to celebrate the dour Norman’s 80th birthday. The betrothed couple presumes to impose twice upon their hosts’ hospitality, sleeping together in the same bed and then – with Norman’s grumbling permission – dropping off Billy Jr. for a month while they fly off to Europe. The Billy invasion has unexpected results, shifting the story away from centering exclusively on the Thayers and their parenting. Ultimately, it also takes in the tribulations of Norman’s aging, his surprising capacity for growth, Ethel’s sweet forbearance, and the realities of a successful marriage.

This is the penultimate show at Pease Auditorium, which will be demolished after Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap plays there this summer. It’s hard to think of any script that has ever fit Pease’s squat stage better than Thompson’s rustic yarn, for James Duke’s set design takes fine advantage of Pease’s panoramic width, and the dwarfish staircase up to the Thayers’ bedrooms hardly seems to matter. I can’t remember if there ever was a curtain drawn across this epic stage, but a curtain would have been largely redundant when the elderly couple arrived, for all the furnishings were covered in drop cloths until, one by one, the Thayers lifted and folded them. Thompson showed a fondness for such elaborate episodes of stage business to kick off his scenes, but it grew less effective in subsequent scenes, where the scurrying business veered toward farce.

The sweeter Ethel in the CPCC Theatre production allows Scott, as a retired Penn professor, to venture close to maximum orneriness – because he’s the one formidable figure onstage. His words stung when Norman and Chelsea had their long-delayed showdown, but part of their impact came from Dunn’s stunned reaction, so I could believe that Norman was being almost casually honest rather than intentionally hurtful. Spoken by Scott instead of a cinematic icon, Norman’s inbred racism also counted for more.

The big dramatic moments of On Golden Pond, as well as most of comedic moments, come because Norman is such a thorny force to be reckoned with – and so insistently morbid. In his confrontations with Chelsea, her fiancé, and Billy, Scott not only wore Norman’s armor well but also showed that it could be pierced. With Ethel, he could be more vulnerable and yielding, which made the climax of the final scene very moving.

Williams was more than sufficiently cheery as Ethel for Norman to spout all his morbid thoughts in self-defense. Sugary, yes, but never cloying. What surprised me most about Williams’ performance opposite Scott was her consistent strength paired with one of the most robust acting voices in town. She was not only as audible as Scott in combat with Pease’s wayward acoustics, she was more consistently intelligible, for Scott occasionally softened his projection or toyed with a regional accent. There was easily enough force from Williams for us to grasp that Ethel was the decider of where things belonged in the house, yet the nuances of her deference toward Norman and its impact upon her relationship with Chelsea were also preserved.

I didn’t get the impression that Dunn was in her early forties, so I missed the overlay Chelsea’s missing her child-bearing years in her bitterness. Unresolved issues with her parents seemed nettlesome rather than crippling, with Scott taking on more of the animosity between father and daughter. Chelsea’s grudges against Mom and Dad were more evenly split here. At her point of aging, Dunn didn’t seem as desperately in need of healing as Norman did, facing the deterioration of his memory. Paul Gibson as Bill really did seem to be the adult upgrade Chelsea needed for her second marriage, showing his mettle when Norman tested it, tellingly enriching our portrait of his perspective father-in-law.

We would hardly miss mailman Charley Martin if Thompson had surgically removed him from his scenario, but Todd Magnusson makes him winsome enough, a garrulous exemplar of local color and a longtime admirer of Chelsea, though he could have been a tad surer in picking up and remembering his lines. Stepp Nadelman has more onerous difficulties to overcome in his first big Charlotte outing as Billy, and the youngster made himself better heard than many older actors have at Pease Auditorium, especially when it counted. Nadelson is no longer at an age where merely standing there and smiling would make him appealing, yet Thompson lavishes a considerable amount of texture upon Billy, commensurate with his ultimate importance to Norman. Although there were occasional drop-offs in his projection, Nadelson’s acting never flagged.

Spanish Gold in a Rat Pack Update

Preview: Life Is a Dream

By Perry Tannenbaum

With a king who tries futilely to outwit fate and a wrongfully imprisoned prince who has time – and fate – on his side, Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s Life Is a Dream hearkens back to a couple of revered Greek tragedies, Oedipus Rex and Prometheus Bound. First produced in 1636, the script also bears earmarks of Shakespeare’s most mature dramas, works like The Tempest and King Lear, where the Bard ponders questions about nature vs. nurture and “elemental man.”

Mixing in a faceoff between free will and predestination, Life Is a Dream stands as one of the two most-anthologized plays from Spain’s Golden Age. Anthologists casually refer to the piece as a drama, but the more thoughtfully considered entry in the Reader’s Encyclopedia of World Drama describes Calderón’s masterwork as “a metaphysical problem play.”

Screw that, says Shakespeare Carolina director S. Wilson Lee. He will tell you – and remind his cast of actors emphatically – that Life Is a Dream is a COMEDY.

Scorning complexity, Lee explains: “My theatre education regarding classic drama planted this nugget into my brain: Drama is divided into two categories, TRAGEDY and COMEDY. The difference? In TRAGEDY, central characters end the show dead; in COMEDY, central characters end the show married! Life Is a Dream ends with marriage.”

If that ending is real.

At a key turning point in this “comedy,” King Basilio of Poland allows his son Prince Segismundo, imprisoned since birth, to come to the royal court. It’s a test of an astrologer’s prediction that Segismundo, if allowed to live and reign, would be the ruin of the kingdom. Brought up as an isolated savage, perpetually in chains and dressed in animal pelts, Segismundo is a fairly sure bet to fail any test of readiness to rule.

Basilio has planned well what he would do if his son misuses the reins of power. He’ll see to it that Segismundo is drugged, transported back to his mountainside dungeon, and assured that his royal misadventures were nothing more than a dream. Whether that’s cruelty or comedy, this whole truth-or-illusion strand that runs through Calderón’s script is very modern.

Lee is taking it further. The “dream-state” aspects of Segismundo’s journey will serve to heighten the comedy. “Living the Dream or Dreaming the Life …whatever” will be more than a mantra for ShakesCar’s production when it opens at Spirit Square on April 19 – it will rule Lee’s design concept. King Basilio will be living the life with a modern flair, crowned with the Rat Pack aura minted a generation ago by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr.

“The look of the piece,” Lee says, “is a kind of ‘Wild Ones Meet the Rat Pack.’ Most of the locale of the production takes place in Basilio’s Place… a happenin’ lounge in Poland, Nevada. Also, the strangers, Rosaura and Clarin, come from Moscow, Pennsylvania. King Basilio is in the process of handing over his rule to the next ‘head of the Family.’ Remember, though, this could all be Segismundo’s dream!”

Lee intends to bring the audience into the dreamy action at Duke Energy Theatre. Cast members will address the audience during the show, and special seating will be available onstage at four lounge tables that will put eight of ShakesCar’s guests – two per table – in the middle of the action.

In this royal tale of turmoil, father and son are both attention-grabbers. Though brought up in a cave with the humblest clothing, Segismundo isn’t exactly a clone of Shakespeare’s Caliban. He has a caretaker, Clotando, who tutors him a bit, and it’s Segismundo’s natural depth and probity that sets him heroically apart. In the first speech he utters, he tells us that mankind’s greatest sin is being born, a line that endeared Calderón to no less of an absurdist playwright than Samuel Beckett himself.

Veering from savagery to such sublime speculation – the prince soon questions whether he was born – Segismundo spans an astonishing range of moods.

“This was easily the hardest role I have ever prepared for,” says David Hayes, a ShakesCar mainstay since 1998. “Segismundo is dancing back and forth across a very fine line between madness and sanity – to the point where my own perception got a little skewed during this process. Stan [the director] has been a key component to reining me in or removing my ‘chains.’”

To a certain extent, Hayes must not only take ownership over the full range of Segismundo, the dreamer, but our experience as well.

“Isn’t that what a dream really is?” Hayes hints. “A chaotic onslaught that blurs the lines of reality. That’s what this is.”

Counterbalancing this Marlon Brando biker persona is King Basilio as Vegas slickster. The closest role Russell Rowe has done with ShakesCar to this cruel Basilio was King Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, who renounces his wife and daughter, but Lee is telling him to think Frank Sinatra here.

Enjoying life at the top and thinking he has outwitted fate, Basilio isn’t ready to let go. Rowe doesn’t see much of a character arc in this swinging king.

“It is more of a slope,” he says, “a descent from an exalted state to a more humbled one. This downfall encompasses both roles as king and father, since the threat to his kingship is coming from his own son. After the descent, of course, there is the brief but powerful upturn at the end, as Basilio learns the difficult lesson that he can only get what he wants by giving up trying to get it.”

Of course, Segismundo doesn’t really know what he wants when we first meet him, because he has no idea yet who he is. The action is kickstarted with the arrival of Rosaura at his secluded prison, a woman who very much knows what she wants – disguised as a man. She is fiercely in pursuit of the man who jilted her, but we soon realize her similarity to Segismundo. Rosaura has also lived a long time without being aware of her true identity.

It’s a twisty plot when we arrive at Basilio’s lounge, with l-o-o-o-n-n-g speeches every step of the way. Lee is confident that the new translation eases the complexity and floweriness of Calderón’s text, helping to pave the path toward his intent of imposing a comedic style on the action. The transgendered translator, Jo Clifford (nee John Clifford), was presumably most enamored with Rosaura, who openly speaks of herself as a man and as a woman in the same speech during the Act 3 climax.

In her disguise, Teresa Abernethy gets to be one of the boys from the outset. But she doesn’t have to arrive on horseback. Nor is her opening line “Dash off, wild hippogriff!” as it was in an older translation.

“I’m still bursting out calling my horse – ride, bike, Hog – a Hippogriff!” Abernethy reveals. “Damn thing gave false promises of forever through rough terrain!”

The roughest ride for Rowe and Abernethy has been reining in the tempestuous temperaments of their characters.

“Rosaura is fueled by passion,” says Abernethy, “which propels her inner conflict. Emotion is a beast that can drag us to all sorts of domains, but for Rosaura, she is ALL IN – willing to die for her honor. My own conflict is not floating away to Rosaura’s coursing elements of shame and still participate in this play that is a comedy.”

Lee is pulling hard to keep it that way. The director wants this Shakespeare Carolina production to engage us in the bigger questions that Calderón plays with – without bogging us down in them.

“I do want the audience to think about long term abandonment and the toll it takes upon one’s psyche and cognitive process. I want the audience to relate to Rosaura’s sense of loss and dishonor. I also want the audience to ponder Basilio’s reasons and explanations regarding his treatment of Segismundo. By all means, do that. However, none of those questions will be pondered if the audience has not had a good time exploring along with the characters. Have fun!!”

 

Much of the Ambiance Is Trimmed from “A Time to Kill,” but the Mississippi Murder Trial Still Sizzles

Review:  A Time to Kill

By Perry Tannenbaum

Rupert Holmes has built a distinguished theatre career – and carved out his own special niche – by crafting mysteries for the Broadway stage. His Accomplice won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America when it played on Broadway in 1990, and after his Thumbs premiered successfully in Charlotte, it seemed Broadway-bound in 2001. Holmes’ most unique accomplishments are his two mystery musicals, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, adapted from Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel, and Curtains, a Holmes original. So it’s not at all surprising that Holmes would be the first playwright to adapt a John Grisham bestseller for the stage when he brought A Time to Kill to the Great White Way in 2013. As the current Theatre Charlotte production demonstrates, adapting Grisham’s first novel for the stage was a tall order.

Admitting that film would be a more comfortable medium for this story, director Dave Blamy conspires with set and lighting designer Chis Timmons to wedge in some clips, prefacing the action with evocations of a horrific rape of a 10-year-old girl and, deep in the story, flashing the handiwork of the Ku Klux Klan on the darkened upstage wall. From the outset, you can presume that Timmons’ design for Judge Edwin Noose’s Mississippi courtroom isn’t going anywhere. It is so sturdy and stately that you may be tempted to rise when the judge enters to launch Act 1. But Timmons manages to swivel the entire courtroom 90° during intermission, adding a sidecar to the judge’s bench that serves – somewhat shakily – as a witness box. When we adjourned to the judge’s chamber, other parts of the courthouse, or defense attorney Jake Brigance’s home, there were discreet furniture shifts while the lights were dimmed. They worked well enough.

Unfortunately, Grisham’s canvas is larger. Though we watch Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard confess to the rape and attempted murder of little Tonya in vivid Mississippi detail, we never see her father, Carl Lee Hailey, taking vengeance upon these perverts. Thanks to Christy Edney Lancaster’s sound design, we can hear the chants of protesters outside the courthouse when Carl Lee goes on trial for murder, but we cannot see the mob’s fury. When hostilities break out between black supporters of the defendant and KKK racists, we’re shielded from the riot, and when the National Guard moved in… I wasn’t sure that was even mentioned in the script.

Clocking in at a hefty 2:17, plus a 20-minute intermission, the production won’t seem skimpy at all. Instead of any prolonged attention to the KKK, Holmes takes us more intently into Jake’s defense efforts behind the scenes, bringing extra emphasis to whip-smart legal assistant Ellen Roark, disbarred attorney Lucien Wilbanks, and the pillar of the defense’s case, Dr. W.T. Bass. The psychiatrist is recruited for the purpose of confirming that Carl Lee committed the double murder while suffering from temporary insanity, but it quickly became apparent that Wilbanks had made Bass’s acquaintance in a barroom during one of his frequent sprees. For better and worse, suspense and thrills now rest on the outcome of the trial, not on the survival of Carl and Jake in the face of KKK mob mentality. We’re also called upon to hate district attorney Rufus Buckley a little bit more, for his smarmy courtroom confidence and his undisguised political ambitions.

A slick, relatively bloodless package like this would have worked better if it were performed more slickly. Blamy pushes in that direction, but Grisham’s main characters are defined by their back-stories, and their development is further hampered by the formality that legal proceedings – arraignments, pleadings, motions, and trials – impose on dialogue. All combined, the length, formality, and pervasive legalese of A Time to Kill may account for the fact that actors were stumbling over their lines more frequently on this opening night than at any show I can remember at Theatre Charlotte.

Best at handling it was Jim Greenwood, who managed to add a bumbling element to Judge Noose’s crusty old persona. The opposing attorneys, both superbly cast, didn’t break character when struggling for their next phrases, but I could detect definite cracks. Tasked with sustaining a villainous patina, Conrad Harvey was more afflicted by these lapses as the DA, but all was well when he hopped back onto the rails and he flashed his Trumpian smile to the jury. Wonderfully loathsome. Costume designer Chelsea Retalic probably had Atticus Finch in mind when she drew up Jake’s courtroom attire for Tim Hager and the analogy was often apt when Hager grew simply eloquent. But he’d be better off drawing upon Jake’s fallibility when he falters.

Hager was at his best when Jake in maneuvering behind the scenes. Wheeling and dealing are not his style. Steadfast in his beliefs, Hager seemed to get that Jake wasn’t as comfortable in his skin as those surrounding him. As the brainy, beautiful, and ambitious Roark, Jennifer Barnette knew exactly what the legal assistant wants from her gig with Jake and why she finds him attractive. Both Tom Schrachta as Lucien and Rick Taylor as Dr. Bass projected their dissoluteness without too much exaggeration – but more than enough to merit Jake’s alarm – and both of them get tasty opportunities to sober up. Neither of them missed the comical lagniappe that came with their changes.

With so much of the Mississippi ambiance trimmed away like so much gristle, it was a godsend that the black players were all so right. Ronald Jenkins registered Sheriff Ozzie Walls’ conflicted loyalties beautifully, as committed to protecting Carl Lee and seeing that justice is done as he was to keeping his prisoner in custody. As a vengeful father, thoughtless husband, and a somewhat immature man, Jonathan Caldwell had a lot of different feelings to navigate as Carl Lee, from savage rage to sheepish regret, but he wisely stayed steadfast in his belief that murdering those two bragging racists was the right thing. Yet there was deep understanding in Tracie Frank’s portrayal of Gwen Hailey, Carl’s wife. Carl defies her when he chooses Jake to defend him instead of the NAACP, who are willing to come in and do it without a fee. Frank was out there alone to give Carl Lee’s defiance substantial weight. Without Frank’s steely strength, Jake’s victory – and Carl Lee’s vindication for choosing him – wouldn’t have been as sweet. Her quiet acknowledgement seals the verdict.