Category Archives: Theatre

Black Lives Really Do Matter in Spoleto’s Stirring Counter-Crusade

Review: Opera, Chamber, and Orchestral Music @ Spoleto Festival USA

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Recognition of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement and the We See You White American Theatre manifesto (issued by a coalition of BIPOC artists in 2020) were certainly on Nigel Redden’s mind when he decided that the 2021 Spoleto Festival USA would be his last as general director. White and long-tenured at the Charleston arts fest, Redden saw himself personifying what needed to be changed, not merely in American theatre but across the nation’s arts.

Yet that wasn’t to say that Spoleto was backward in infusing diversity into its programming or in embracing contemporary, cutting-edge work in its presentations of music, theatre, and dance – which made Redden’s swan song, at a Festival that constricted and hamstrung by Covid-19, all the more poignant. But all Redden’s work was not truly done, even after he officially stepped down last October, for there was one grand project of his that had yet to be completed. Spoleto’s commission of Omar, the much-anticipated new opera by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels would at last be unveiled after being shelved for two years.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Based on the slim autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, the only known narrative by an American slave written in Arabic, Giddens’ new work was appropriately co-commissioned by the University of North Carolina, for Omar’s servitude began in Charleston before he escaped to a more benign slaveholder up in Fayetteville, NC. Rather than letting this world premiere stand as an isolated testament to Redden’s legacy – or a belated rebuke targeting the infamous Muslim ban of 2017 – incoming general director Mena Mark Hanna has emphatically made Omar the tone-setting centerpiece of his first Spoleto.

Predictably enough, Giddens and Abels sat for a public interview with Martha Teichner on the afternoon following the premiere, just a few hours before she and her husband, Francesco Turrissi, appeared in an outdoor concert at Cistern Yard. Five days after the world premiere at Sottile Theatre, the principal singers from Omar and the choir resurfaced at Charleston Gaillard Center for a “Lift Every Voice” concert, further affirming Black Lives. But that theme, as well as Ibn Said’s African origins and Islamic faith, suffused the Festival’s programming more deeply than that.2022~Spoleto-142

In the jazz sector, for example, two African artists were featured with their ensembles at the Cistern on successive night after Giddens’ concert, Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour and his orchestra followed by South African pianist Nduduzo Makhatini and his quartet. More importantly, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, three years after participating in a Geri Allen tribute, paid homage to his distinguished mom, harpist/organist/composer Alice Coltrane and her 1971 Universal Consciousness album, a spiritual landmark that defined Indocentric jazz, laced with flavorings of Africa, India, Egypt, and the Holy Land.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Unholy Wars was another Spoleto commission, with tenor Karim Sulayman as its lead creator, furthering the pro-Muslim thrust of the Festival’s opera lineup. Taking up Claudio Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, the 1624 opera that extracted its tragic love story from Torquato Tasso’s epic Jerusalem Delivered, Sulayman boldly flipped the First Crusade narrative. Sulayman, a first-generation American born in Chicago to Lebanese immigrants, conceived a counter-Crusade, attempting to render vocal compositions by Monteverdi, Handel, and others through the perspective of those defamed and marginalized by the prevailing white Western narrative.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Portraying the narrator, Sulayman chiefly championed the warrior woman Clorinda – who needed to be white-skinned and convert to Christianity for 17th century Europe to see her as worthy of Tancredi, the valiant Christian knight who mistakenly slayed his beloved in combat. Soprano Raha Mirzadegan as Clorinda outshone bass baritone John Taylor Ward’s portrayal of Tancredi, while dancer Coral Dolphin, devising her moves with choreographer Ebony Williams, upstaged them both. We could conclude, in stage director Kevin Newberry’s scheme of things, that Dolphin’s dancing silently represented the Black beauty that Clorinda was never allowed to be.

Known for directing such cutting-edge operas as Doubt, Fellow Travelers, and The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Newberry had no qualms about creating huge disconnects between his actors’ actions and the Italian they sang. Costume designer David C. Woolard was similarly liberated in attiring them, evoking Lawrence of Arabia more readily than Richard the Lion-Hearted. Water, sand, heavy rope, and four simple chairs supplanted onstage scenery at Dock Stage Theater, but Michael Commendatore’s steady stream of animated projection designs, coupled with the production’s supertitles, more than compensated for the sparseness onstage, keeping us awash in sensory overload. If you tried to keep pace with the supertitles on high, sometimes barely legible, you could easily be distracted from the action below.

Consulting your program booklet to determine what was being sung by which composer would only have compounded your confusion. Best to listen, look, and enjoy. For if this sensory-rich spectacle – laden with mysterious sand and water ceremony – strayed far from fulfilling Sulayman’s intentions, the music, the voices, and the dance yielded constant pleasure, wonder, and delight.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

More touted and deliciously marketable, Giddens’ Omar proved to be more treasurable and on-task, providing tenor Jamez McCorkle with a career-making opportunity in the title role. Directing this stunning world premiere, director Kaneza Schall is laser-focused on the most pivotal event in Said’s life in America when, imprisoned in Fayetteville, he is released from jail and purchased by a benign master because of he has – miraculously, in the eyes of local yokels – written in Arabic script on the walls of his cell.

Written and printed language, from the floor upwards to the Sottile’s fly loft, is everywhere in Schall’s concept: dominant in Amy Rubin’s set, Joshua Higgason’s video, even permeating the costumes by April Hickman and Micheline Russell-Brown. If you ever believed the libelous presumption that Africans were all brought to America bereft of any literacy, maintained in their pristine backwardness by their benevolent masters, Schall’s vision of Omar was here to brashly disabuse you.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

And if you were under the impression that Africans came ashore in Charleston without any coherent Abrahamic religion, their poor souls yearning to be redeemed by the beneficence of Christianity, Giddens labored lovingly to enlighten you, the beauty and spirituality of her score enhanced by Abels’ deft orchestrations. As a librettist, Giddens could have benefited from some discreet assistance – and the challenge of scoring somebody else’s text. Melodious and religious as it is, Omar could stand to be a more dramatic opera, and as a librettist, Giddens could have usefully been more detailed.

Stressing Said’s spirituality, Giddens neglects his intellect, never referencing the range of his studies or the full spectrum of his manuscripts. Nor is there a full fleshing-out of why Said was imprisoned in Fayetteville or how it could be that Major General James Owen could take him home without returning the fugitive slave to his previous master, described in The Autobiography as “a small, weak, and wicked man, called Johnson, a complete infidel, who had no fear of God at all.”Screenshot 2022-06-27 at 16-55-14 Spoleto Opera Honors An Extraordinary Slave Whose Life Mattered Classical Voice North America

The embellishments that Giddens gives us are all gorgeous. Owen’s daughter, Eliza, has a beautiful aria sung by Rebecca Jo Loeb, entreating her dignified dad to see the providence in Omar’s coming to their city. Further mentoring our hero, soprano Laquita Mitchell was Julie, a fellow slave in Fayetteville who will vividly remember her previous meeting with Omar at a Charleston slave auction. More majestically, mezzo-soprano Cheryse McLeod Lewis is a recurring presence as Omar’s mother, Fatima. Long after she is slain by the marauders who enslave Omar, she comes back to her son in a dream, warning him that Johnson is fast approaching to murder him. Mitchell and Lewis subsequently team up to urge Omar to write his story, a summit meeting with McCorkle that is the clear musical – and emotional – high point of the evening.

Plum roles also go to baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, who gets to sing both of Omar’s masters, the cruel and godless Johnson before intermission and the benign, bible-toting Owen afterwards. The question of whether Said sincerely converts from Islam to Christianity is pointedly left open. Notwithstanding his utter triumph, we probably have not seen the full magnificence that McCorkle can bring to Omar, for he was hobbled in the opening performances, wearing a therapeutic boot over his left ankle that I, for one, didn’t notice until he resurfaced as the highlight of the “Lift Every Voice” concert, bringing down the house with a powerful “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Scanning the remainder of Spoleto’s classical offerings, I’m tempted to linger in the operatic realm, for Yuval Sharon’s upside-down reimagining of La bohème at Gaillard Center, despite its time-saving cuts to Act 2, completely overcame my misgivings about seeing Puccini’s four acts staged in reverse order. Yet there were more flooring innovations, debuts, and premieres elsewhere.52126095047_f231ab5e32_o

Program III of the chamber music series epitomized how the lunchtime concerts have evolved at Dock Street Theater under violinist and host Geoff Nuttall’s stewardship. Baritone saxophonist Steven Banks brought a composition of his, “As I Am,” for his debut, a winsome duet with pianist Pedja Muzijevic. Renowned composer Osvaldo Golijov, a longtime collaborator with Nuttall’s St. Lawrence Quartet, was on hand to introduce his Ever Yours octet, which neatly followed a performance of the work that inspired him, Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet, op. 76 no. 2.

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Upstaging all of these guys was the smashing debut of recorder virtuoso Tabea Debus, playing three different instruments – often two simultaneously – on German composer Moritz Eggert’s Auer Atem for three recorders and one player. Equally outré and modernistic, More or Less for pre-recorded and live violin was a new composition by Mark Applebaum, customized for Livia Sohn (Nuttall’s spouse) while she was recuperating from a hand injury that only allowed her to play with two fingers on her left hand. If it weren’t bizarre enough to see Sohn on the Dock Street stage facing a mounted bookshelf speaker, the prankish Applebaum was on hand to drape the speaker in a loud yellow wig after the performance was done.

On the orchestral front, two works at different concerts wowed me. Capping a program at Gaillard which had featured works by György Ligeti and Edmund Thornton Jenkins, John Kennedy conducted Aiōn, an extraordinary three-movement work by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Hatching a soundworld that could be massively placid, deafeningly chaotic, weirdly unearthly, or awesome with oceanic majesty, Aiōn decisively quashed my urge to slip away to The Cistern for Coltrane and his luminous harpist, Brandee Younger. We were forced to arrive a full 30 minutes after that religious rite began.2022~Spoleto-260

My final event before saying goodbye to Spoleto 2022 treated me to sights I’d never seen before. On an all-Tyshawn Sorey program, Sorey ascended to the podium at Sottile Theatre and took us all to a pioneering borderland between composition and improvisation that he titled Autoschiadisms. Instead of a baton, Sorey brandished a sharpie beating time, sheets of typing paper with written prompts, or simply his bare hands making signals. Sometimes Sorey simply allowed the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra (splendid as usual) to run on autopilot while he huddled over his score, writing new prompts with his sharpie on blank pages before holding them high.2022~Spoleto-273

And the music was as wonderful as it was exciting, clearly an advance upon the other compositions on the bill, For Roscoe Mitchell and For Marcos Balter, conducted respectively by Kennedy and Kellen Gray. In the surreal aftermath of his triumphant premiere, Sorey had reason to linger onstage during a good chunk of the intermission. Musicians from the Orchestra swarmed him, waiting patiently for Sorey to autograph the sheets of paper that the composer had just used to lead them. The ink was barely dry where the MacArthur Genius of 2017 was obliged to write some more.

Warren-Green Bids Farewell With a Rousing Beethoven “Ode to Joy”

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Beethoven’s Ninth

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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May 20, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Even back in the early ‘90s, when Charlotte Symphony struggled to sustain respectable mediocrity, the valedictory concert led by Leo Driehuys in 1993 proved that the orchestra could always rise to the occasion when called upon to perform Beethoven’s thrilling Ninth Symphony. Having heard the same ensemble bludgeon Beethoven’s “Eroica” to blandness just months earlier, it was hard for me to believe that the inspiration came solely from the composer. I struggled with the answer to this anomaly until I interviewed Driehuys’s successor, Peter McCoppin, shortly before his final season at the end of the millennium.

Not referencing Beethoven at all, but explaining why he enjoyed his years in Charlotte so thoroughly, McCoppin observed that the Queen City is incredibly fertile ground for choristers and choruses. You just had to count the churches around town to see his point. Not only had the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte brought extra spark to Beethoven’s “Choral Symphony,” they had also arguably sparked the Charlotte Symphony musicians they were partnering with.

The Oratorios have undergone numerous metamorphoses during the past three decades, at discreet intervals absorbed into Symphony, renamed the Charlotte Symphony Chorus, and eventually set free to seek their own gigs, rebranded once again as the Charlotte Master Chorale. Yet each time it was necessary to muster the instrumental and vocal artillery needed for Beethoven’s masterwork – indeed, classical music’s masterwork – the Chorale has admirably answered the call.

In a recent interview prefacing his valedictory concert as Symphony’s music director after 12 fruitful seasons, Christopher Warren-Green revealed that the chorus had been “one of the big incentives for me to come to Charlotte because of the great repertoire that was written for orchestra and chorus.” Little wonder, then, that Maestro Warren-Green has chosen to conclude his tenure by including the Master Chorale in his final “Ode to Joy” concert – or that he has already announced that, when he returns this coming December as Symphony’s music adviser and conductor laureate, the choir will be in the mix once more as he conducts Handel’s Messiah at Knight Theater.

There always seem to be extra layers of drama and excitement when the “Choral Symphony” returns to Belk Theater, never more than when Christof Perick made his 2001 debut as music director just 10 days after 9/11. Fast forward to the fourth Ninth that Symphony has programmed since then, and there was still a palpable sense of a special occasion in the hall. Symphony president and CEO David Fisk saluted Warren-Green before he made his grand entrance, greeted with a lusty standing ovation. Maestro then pooh-poohed all of Fisk’s accolades, paid tribute to four newly retired Symphony musicians, and – prior to a nifty and brief exit – exhorted the audience to keep supporting the CSO “or I’ll never forgive you.”

That was the last laugh of the evening as Warren-Green returned to the podium, signaled the Chorale to be seated, and presided over the Symphony as Beethoven brought them to a boil, quicker than a microwave oven, in his opening Allegro ma non troppo. Warren-Green’s Ninth would by a turbulent one, far more timely than timeless, discarding many chances for liquid lyricism in favor of alert and spirited rigor – almost militant but never quite lapsing into rigidity with the onset of its rousing quicker tempos. The incisiveness of Jacob Lipham’s timpani came upon us quickly, never allowing us to rest for long, while the affecting woodwinds and the lively strings offered eloquent counterweights.

When we reached the Molto vivace second movement, with its industrious bustle and perpetual overlapping, Warren-Green enabled us to hear early foreshadowings of the teeming humanity we’ll find in the epic fourth movement, struggling toward togetherness and brotherhood. Excitement in the overlaps between various sections of the orchestra was increased dramatically by spasmodic boosts in dynamics and the sharp whacks of the timpani. Also pushing against the flow of the violins and the warmth of the cellos were the percolating winds and the moaning French horns.

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Between the second and third movements, the last true pause in this symphony, the guest soloists entered and took their seats at center stage: bass baritone Jordan Bisch, tenor Sean Panikkar, soprano Alicia Russell Tagert, and (substituting for Briana Hunter) mezzo-soprano Sarah Larson. The two little girls seated in front of my mom and me perked up expectantly at this point, only to be let down by the relatively tranquil Adagio molto e cantabile. The little girls weren’t as restless or fidgety during this lovely movement as you might expect little boys to be, but their attentiveness waned noticeably – despite the sweetness of the first violins, the affecting violas and second violins, and the mellifluous woodwinds and horns. Their adorable decorum was threatened most by the beautiful confluence between clarinet, horn, and flute as the penultimate movement faded into the concluding Presto.

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Having this glorious score in front of you, with its magnificent build-up to the signature fireworks waiting to explode, must be so gratifying and fulfilling as a musical conductor stands on the podium, heading into the homestretch of his 12-year tenure. Surely, the musicians and choristers sensed the excitement and shared an eagerness to deliver. The first violins were certainly ardent and rich over the churning violas and second violins as the build-up began, yet as the gradual gravitation toward the brotherhood theme was beginning, I noticed that Warren-Green was doing something different and new. Instead of seating his cellos and double basses to our right, they were now spread in a long row, starting in front of the podium and reaching to the left edge of the stage in nearly a straight line.

So there was a little more than the usual edge as the journey to the brotherhood theme launched, continuing with dogged inevitability after the woodwinds mischievously flashed back to the agitations of the second movement. Violas layered onto the cellos and basses, adding to the smoldering sensation, and the violins accelerated the familiar strains until the brass made them soar. The little girls in front of us were completely re-engaged ahead of the next magnificent build. Bisch sounded stronger and more robust in his opening declaration, “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! (Oh friends, not these sounds!),” culminating in the announcement of his Joy agenda (“Freude!”), than he did reprising the brotherhood refrain as he plunged into Friedrich Schiller’s “An die Freude (Ode to Joy).” More than a couple of bass baritones who have recorded these passages have fared the same. Perhaps that was Beethoven’s design, for ample reinforcements will emphatically arrive on the scene, first the soloists and then the phalanxes of choristers who were elevated over everyone upstage, ably representing Schiller’s millions.

At least a couple of regatherings follow, as all of us who love the Ninth well know. There’s a grand, brassy military march while the vocalists inhale for awhile and hold their fire, and then there are those sublime audible inhalations as Schiller’s lyrics, helpfully translated in supertitles above the Belk stage, took us “above the canopy of stars” in an ethereally protracted chord. When the Master Chorale reached peak tempo in the concluding Allegro assai vivace, like a herd of horses urged by Warren-Green to full gallop, one of the little girls turned to the other with an OMG expression on her face that her mom would have treasured until her dying day if she had seen it. At this moment, the greatest pleasure in watching kids experience this magnificent storm of sound for the first time is being able to say to yourself. “You ain’t heard nuthin’ yet!”

O’Rowe’s “The Approach” Isn’t Quite Reaching Us

Review: The Approach at Spoleto Festival USA

By Perry Tannenbaum

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It’s tempting to declare Mark O’Rowe’s new play, THE APPROACH, a retro or even misogynistic drama. Now in its US premiere at Spoleto Festival USA through June 12, from the Dublin-based Landmark Productions, O’Rowe’s elegantly circular piece – which he himself directs – does little to push against the stereotyped notion that women chatter endlessly about their men, their family, old times, how wonderful they still look, and how happy or unhappy they are.

Except for the endless part: we peep in on a revolve of five or six dialogues between Anna, Cora, and Denise within the compact space of about 65 minutes. With the exception of a reconciliation scene between Denise and Anna, who turn out to be long-estranged sisters, all the meetings seem to have begun with two of the women bumping into one another by accident. All the scenes, except the last, end with effusions on how wonderful it was to get back together and earnest promises to be back in touch soon – always preceded by abrupt sorry-gotta-goes and never followed with any follow-up.

Not that the caring for their men goes any deeper. In three of the dialogues, the women are asked to cite examples of their special man’s special thoughtfulness. Anna tells Cora about the time Oliver surprised her by creating a crossword puzzle with clues that unlocked intimacies that only the two of them could know. We laugh when Cora passes this story along to Denise as exemplifying her special man’s specialness. And when this running joke completes its cycle after a number of years, when Denise gets back together we’re a little surprised that Anna has little reaction – and no recognition – when her sister tells the crossword tale.51897018530_a375cd359b_o

The joke is on us at that point, for the adorable crossword anecdote didn’t begin with Anna, either. Anna is the touchstone in the other repeated motif as O’Rowe completes the circle of his story. The final scene between Cora and Anna, like the opening scene between the same women, begins with Cora admiring Anna’s bracelet and Anna taking it off to give Cora a closer look. O’Rowe subtly emphasizes that this is the same bracelet as before, for not only is the store where Anna says she bought it the same, but so is the other place where she saw it. Neither of the women realizes that she is repeating herself.

Yet it is exactly here that the playwright has exposed himself, for it’s obvious that he is more interested in neatly tying up his design than in delving into the truth of his characters. At 65 minutes, his “approach” to his characters is even more superficial than how he shows theirs to be to one another. As a failure of the imagination, The Approach seemingly exposes a failure of a male playwright to visualize women discussing their careers and our world, a failure that might be said to typify all men – as easily as the shallowness and deceit he depicts in Anna, Cora, and Denise can be said to typify all women.

At a murky and rundown coffee shop, around a drab table where two pairs of colorless cups and saucers are never touched, designed and dimly lit by Sinéad McKenna, the nebulous unreality of the women is accented by their surroundings. The width of the table is enough to establish an unbridged distance between the women as they converse. Although the action spans years, I can’t be sure that O’Rowe required designer Ciara Fleming to provide the cast with any changes in attire – or hairstyle – as the actors sojourned backstage and fictional time was elapsing. These are staple embellishments in American comedies that follow similar cyclical formats.51896708539_0dac4e5b31_o

With a steady undercurrent of dolor that O’Rowe constantly spreads so close to its surface, The Approach never threatens to become a laugh-fest. Nor does the distance between the women at this café prompt O’Rowe to demand that his players speak loudly enough to counteract the inevitable din of a public place. So like previous Irish imports staged at Dock Street Theatre, we struggle to hear and understand these women.

As Denise, Derbhle Crotty emerges as the most consistently audible and scrutable of the cast, which makes sense since this sib professes to be the blithe spirit in this bunch. She liked Oliver before he ditched Anna, but the estrangement persisted past his funeral when his ex pointedly refused to attend. Now that she’s blissfully remarried – to that thoughtful soul who customized a crossword puzzle to their relationship – and carrying this paragon’s second child, she doubts that she ever truly loved the man she stole away from her sister. Naturally, that makes the rift between the two exes more painful and gives Crotty a wider spectrum of feelings to explore.

Adding irony to the rift, along with some scathing satire, Aisling O’Sullivan as Anna has already revealed that she has similar doubts about her love for Oliver. So O’Sullivan’s portraiture is the darkest and most resentful by far, dimly lit up by her superficial friendliness towards Cora and her belated willingness to reconcile with Denise and assuage her sister’s pain and guilt. It’s a pianissimo portrait that also enables us to imagine why Oliver drifted away from this darkness to Denise’s comparative sunniness. He could be unloved by the cheerier sister.

Sketched as the most superficial of the three women, Catherine Walker as Cora could easily have chosen to be the most boisterous. Instead, Walker recedes into the nebulosity of her surroundings at least as completely as the siblings do. Cora has never really sustained a relationship with a man, it would seem; nor is there any enduring closeness with either of the sisters, for all their shared memories. With the blandly wholesome path Walker has chosen, we can assume that the reason Cora’s relationships fail to cement isn’t that she’s clinging or annoying. No, it’s because Cora is so indistinct, so uncaring, and so forgettable that her relations are so tenuous.

She could have been a liaison between the sisters instead of merely another acquaintance they had in common, and she could have become instrumental in their reconciliation. As their sounding board, Cora is our gateway into the hearts of Anna and Denise – our connection with the sisters – meeting infrequently enough with them to keep us informed as they catch up. No other need for her can be discerned.

A couple of days after I witnessed THE APPROACH at Dock Street Theatre, I overheard a couple of women at another Spoleto event describing the struggles they had experienced in hearing and understanding the play. “But at least you put it all together eventually,” their sympathetic listener consoled. If O’Rowe in directing, and his cast in acting, had served O’Rowe the playwright more diligently and energetically, most of those struggles would have been avoided. And the experience would be far more pleasurable – and what the script deserves.

“Until the Flood” Overflows With Inner City Insights

Review: Until the Flood at Spoleto Festival USA

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Conceived and acted by Dael Orlandersmith, UNTIL THE FLOOD is an amazing, transformative theatre experience, briefly at Spoleto Festival USA through June 6. You quickly got the feeling that it was even more transformative for the playwright while she was interviewing the people she portrays – and likely transformative for the actress inhabiting those people before you. Commissioned by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2016, Orlandersmith was tasked with crafting a response to the shooting of Michael Brown by policeman Darren Wilson in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, on the night of August 9, 2014.

In carrying out her mission, Orlandersmith’s inquiry was an examination and a diagnosis of the effects of Brown’s shooting – not an investigation of the fatal event seeking to determine culpability. Her fundamental, open-ended question to many Ferguson and St. Louis residents, Orlandersmith told us in a public conversation at Spoleto during her run, was How did this event affect you?2022~Spoleto-161

Out of the answers she received – some of them stunning, no doubt – Orlandersmith forged eight composites, each of whom delivers a monologue until we circle back to retired English teacher Louisa Hemphill in completing our 75-minute visit to Ferguson. Set designer Takeshi Kata is sharply focused on making us feel like we are truly in Ferguson, with nearly antique objects such as a lamppost, an easy chair, a floor lamp, a coat stand, and a barber’s chair strategically strewn across the Festival Hall stage. This simple layout was surrounded by the sort of grassroots memorial that always seems to sprout up at the site of heart-rending American murders, a profusion of flowers, candles, cuddly stuffed animals, scribbled cards and messages, framed photos, and liquor bottles.2022~Spoleto-176

Kaye Voyce’s costume designs, all that Orlandersmith really needed to quickly change character, echoed the inner-city decrepitude. A couple of shawls and a few jackets – including a camo hoodie and a St. Louis Cardinals warmup – partially signaled the changes, while Nicholas Hussong’s video designs darkly completed the settings for the monologues. Helpfully, they were impressionistic depictions of building exteriors rather than realistic indoor depictions, so we knew we were at a steak house for retired policemen Rusty Harden, a wine bar for high school teacher Connie, and Reuben Little’s barbershop. The scene only brightened a little when minister Edna Lewis draped herself in a clerical shawl and we saw a rather photographic representation of her church.

So all of these Orlandersmith composites are rather specific and sharply drawn, usually memorable for at least one vivid anecdote in each monologue. We get to know the backgrounds of Hassan, the fluid rapper, racist electrician Dougray Smith, and aspiring high school student Paul, for in delving into how these people became who they are, the playwright was exploring how we became who we are.2022~Spoleto-171

Orlandersmith sought to be objective in order to be revelatory. She is keenly selective in what she relays to us and artful in how she orders her materials and lifts her respondents’ words imaginatively into the hallowed realm of theatre. Resisting the urge to layer on subsequent racial and political episodes as she continues traveling with her show, she has let UNTIL THE FLOOD accrue an aura of authoritative prophecy with the passage of time. The flood has only deepened since 2016.

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Even though Orlandersmith steps out of character to offer a brief coda at the end, she never tips off her point of view. But we can detect patterns. The three women are cordial and rational while, with the exception of the soft-spoken Paul, toxic masculinity runs riot among the five men. Reuben and Rusty are the most workaday specimens while Hassan and Dougray are the most dangerous and explosive. Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting is darkest and bleakest when these menacing men are before us.

About the only time I found Orlandersmith gently manipulating her monologues, so that we saw what she saw in Ferguson, was in the sequence of confessionals from the retired cop and the rapper who followed immediately afterwards. Rusty, the retired white cop, still remembers the wild look of in the eyes of Black youths, approaching him or at close quarters, seeming to be daring him to fire his gun – sometimes wanting him to. Working himself into a fury, the cool fluid rapper Hassan loudly proclaims that he had such feelings. Yes, that exact death wish that had just astonished me when the cop spoke of it.2022~Spoleto-163

Could there really be such desperation rampaging through our cities and ghettos? Orlandersmith confirmed her viewpoint the following afternoon in her conversation Martha Teichner, casually turning to the audience during the Q&A and asking us, “Have you ever heard of suicide by cop?”

I had not – which capsulizes why it was so vital for me to hear and heed UNTIL THE FLOOD.

Domingo’s Dot Makes Its Point

Review: Three Bone Theatre Presents Dot

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.

–Robert Frost, “The Oven Bird”

Since their return to live performance last October, Three Bone Theatre has been contracting and then expanding as they adapt to The Arts Factory, their new base of operations on W. Trade Street. They were breathing in at first, perhaps, with a compact one-woman show, and now they’re breathing out. Open was smaller in every way than either of the two productions Three Bone had streamcast during the QC’s lockdowns, Prisoner 34042 and their New Black Playwrights Fest. Smaller cast, shorter running time, and probably smaller audience.

From what I’ve been able to discern, each of Three Bone’s 2022 shows has been bigger, longer, and better attended than the one before. With Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children back in March, we saw a larger cast, a longer show, and actual scenery. Meanwhile, armed with masks and vaccination cards, more theatergoers seemed ready to venture out into the night to see a relevant post-apocalyptic drama.

Colman Domingo’s Dot detains us longer and offers us more characters to consider, though it’s clear that Philadelphia matriarch Dottie Shealy is far and away the one that we – and her three children – should be most concerned about. It’s the Christmas holiday season in Philly, a time when the children converge around a tall spruce tree with enough lead time to collaborate on the decorations. Shelly, the eldest and a lawyer, is holding down the fort while her sibs, Donnie and Averie, have the freedom to flounder in their careers.

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Shelly rightfully feels that she must watch her mom like a hawk. Ever since Dotty was hauled into a local police station after speeding at 95mph, unthinkable anywhere near Philly, Shelly has been unsure what bizarre lapse Mom might have next. With the onset of dementia and a diagnosis of progressing Alzheimer’s, Dotty shuttles between the self her children have always known and somebody prone to forgetting names and events, losing track of where she is and what time it is, or coming back from her kitchen with a bag of Oreos instead of the salt she went in for.

Unable to keep tabs on Dotty around-the-clock, Shelly has hired a gentle young Indian man, Fidel, to help her out. But Shelly is out of patience and out of her depth, so she has become a bit bossy and toxic. Not only has she hidden Mom’s car keys, she uses her disorientation to trick her into signing legal papers she doesn’t understand and going to bed in the middle of the day. Calling for a family conference with Donnie and Averie deep in Act 2, she locks Dotty in her bedroom, astonishing her sibs. Convinced that Mom is planning to kill herself – driving around at 95mph is a serious symptom – Shelly has also developed a paranoid attitude toward Fidel, suspecting him of helping Dotty to hatch her plan.

Woven into all this dramatic intrigue – and all of Shelly’s questionable choices – you’ll find that Domingo has provided plenty of opportunities for comedy. Shelly’s deceitful and aggressive coping mechanisms compromise her character for us long before her sibs arrive on the scene. So we can see why Donnie and Averie would both impugn her credibility and resent her bossiness, no matter how stressed she may be. Aside from that pushback, Dotty can be quite formidable herself when she’s lucid, with quite the sharp tongue on her.

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Perceptive, too. She could always see that Donnie was “gay as giftwrap,” even before her daughters knew. Nor is Dotty totally blind to her own decline, despite all the resistance she puts up against Shelly. It’s hard to believe that Dotty would off herself on Christmas as a reaction to her own deterioration, when all the family is gathered ‘round, but there is definitely something secretive about her interactions with Fidel.

Navigating Dotty’s mood swings, mental lapses, and surreptitious plotting takes a performer over some tricky terrain, requiring sudden hairpin turns; but if you saw Lillie Ann Oden as the wary, savvy, and pragmatic wife in The Children, you’ll likely have little doubt that she can tackle this black Philly matriarch. With Corey Mitchell back as director, after an all-too-common two-year hiatus from the local scene, you might find that Oden still exceeds your high expectations with her saltiness, her increasing confusion, and her sheer naturalness.

While Dotty and her struggles are comparatively fresh onstage, experienced actors and theatergoers will likely recognize the regathering sibs as somewhat formulaic. It won’t be the first time we’ve seen one of a set of sibs turn out to be disagreeably disapproving and controlling, nor will it be a shock to see a sister or brother who is insouciantly adrift, unsettled, charismatic, and irresponsible. Kookiness is often in the mix. Domingo takes pains to give Valerie Thames as Shelly, Marvin King as Donnie, and Nasha Shandri as Averie distinctive personalities and detailed backstories for them to inhabit.

You’re still forgiven if you occasionally find yourself feeling that these capable actors are filling in time-tested sitcom slots or a template lifted from Crimes of the Heart and skillfully refurbished. Thames gets to switch during intermission from a pineapple hair color to a bright raspberry, signaling that she may be the responsible sister but has no intention of remaining anonymous – at the same time showing us that Shelly can be vulnerable, sensitive to Mom’s criticisms.

Long before Shandri has made her first entrance, we’re aware that Averie is the most outré and unbridled of the Shealys. Yet we’re very quickly aware that there’s a loving, conciliatory core to Averie. Over and over, we see that the estrangement between the two sisters is strictly one-sided. It’s Averie who counsels Shelly, with full persuasiveness of a sister, that changing hair colors isn’t quite the right path. She must ditch Andre instead, her hairdresser. Off-handedly and gradually, Shandri and King reveal to us that Shelly undervalues both her sibs.

Jackie and Dotty

Likely an autobiographical creation from Domingo, Donnie is the sibling who most breaks the sitcom mold. King is a moderately daring casting choice from Mitchell, not reminding me of giftwrap at all, but he’s immensely likable without hardly trying. Although he never earmarks him as his parents’ favorite, Domingo clearly designates Donnie as the most beloved of the Shealys. Two additional characters are devoted to double-underlining this point, Tommy Prudenti as Donnie’s husband and Amy Dunn as his high school sweetheart.

Jackie, still carrying a torch for her old flame (among other things), is a useful character from the very beginning, long before she tries to come between Donnie and Adam. Frank conversations between Dotty and her children seem to have ceased years before her current aging crisis, and as the houselights go down, Shelly and her mom have no plausible reason to exchange information about each other that we need to know as quickly as possible. Jackie’s coming back home and catching up with her old flame’s mom, after years away in New York, opens up windows for us into what’s happening with both Dotty and Shelly.

Donnie and Adam

Dunn’s slant on Jackie takes into account that she is not at all opposed to homewrecking, so she can be a bit brash and irritating, though she usefully questions the crueler aspects of Shelly’s caretaking. She brings out a lot from Dottie and Shelly in the beginning, but it’s Prudenti as Adam who really brings out the best in his mother-in-law, unexpectedly reminding her of her dead husband. Due to his marital issues with Donnie, we get to feel that we know Donnie nearly as well as Dottie and Shelly, though Domingo overestimates our interest in seeing them sort out their love lives.

Both Jackie and Adam, interestingly enough, are white, so there’s a refreshing lack of racial tension in Dot, though the meanness of Philly’s inner city lurks plainly enough in the background. In fact, Jackie is Jewish, further broadening the palette. In these matters, Domingo is most subtle, for there is a shared prejudice against Fidel among the younger Shealys, leading them to underestimate the foreigner, either through unwarranted suspicion or dismissiveness. Our dear Dottie is the first to properly gauge his intelligence and worth.

In his theatrical debut, computer science grad student Satheesh Kandula gives us a marvelously mild account of Fidel, diffident and polite but not at all servile. Kandula is hardly a credible target for xenophobia, but we’re not terribly surprised to see it happening – and it might give us pause if we consider the possibility that Fidel may understand Dottie better than anyone else onstage. What he and his co-conspirator wind up concocting for Christmas turns out to be the best lesson of the night.

Only Jackie calls Dottie “Mrs. Shealy,” and absolutely nobody presumes to call her Dot. So why is that Domingo’s title? I’ve yet to read a review that mulls that question over, though I consider the answers – pragmatic or literary – worth pondering. “Dottie” might hint too broadly that Domingo’s protagonist has gone crazy, a matter that the playwright would surely prefer to remain ambiguous.

The other reason for the title is about what Domingo does wish to say. He’s using the diminutive of Dorothy and Dottie to emphasize that Dottie, in her drift toward dementia and Alzheimer’s, is becoming different, “a diminished thing” as Robert Frost would say. At the same time, she remains the same. That’s the main point of Dot.

Heretical Fairy-Tailored Format Is a Winner at the Knight

Review: Charlotte Ballet Premieres Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy Tailored Classic

By Perry Tannenbaum

Final Dance by Jeff Cravotta

Whether paired with Vampire Lesbians of Sodom onstage, orchestrated by Tchaikovsky for ballet, or adapted by talents as diverse as Walt Disney and Matthew Bourne, Sleeping Beauty isn’t a title that sleeps for long. Between here and Greensboro, the title appeared more than a dozen times on our cultural calendars between 2005 and 2020. So it’s a bit of a shock to find that the Charlotte Ballet’s world premiere of Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy Tailored Classic, one of the first cultural events in Charlotte to be cancelled with the onset of COVID in March 2020, has slumbered more than two years before finally coming to life.

Actually, it had been more than three years since Charlotte Symphony last played the Tchaikovsky score live at Knight Theater. But not the whole score. Mikhail Pletnev’s benchmark recording with the Russian National Orchestra clocks in at two hours and 45 minutes, about 75 minutes longer than the typical Nutcracker performance. So if by “tailored” you were hoping that Charlotte Ballet and choreographer Matthew Hart mean trimmed – substantially trimmed – then you can breathe a sigh of relief.

More exciting, the fairy-tailored concept embraces a format that some balletomanes might find heretical, integrating a spoken narrative with the dance. Obviously, spoken narration invites a more intimate interaction between the performers and the audience, especially the anklebiters that adults may have dragged into Knight Theater with them. But really, what might seem outré to ballet fans is perfectly de rigueur for parents and kiddies attending Symphony’s Saturday morning concerts, drawn to Belk Theater by the lure of Francis Poulenc’s Babar, Serge Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, or similar fare.Nurse Fairies by Jeff Cravotta

Traci Gilchrest-Kubie, portraying little Princess Aurora’s doting Nurse, is our graceful trailblazing narrator. Once upon a time, you may recall, Gilchrest-Kubie was a perennial lead dancer when the company was known as NC Dance Theatre, but she has transitioned within the organization over the past 10 years and now serves as Repetiteur – rehearsal director, if you don’t speak ballet – for both CharBallet and CharBallet II. She has also worked behind the scenes, staging several company productions, as she also does here alongside Charlotte Ballet II director Christopher Stuart.

While the playbill didn’t specify who was responsible for the narrative script, it was worthy of credit, pleasingly spare like Prokofiev’s beloved Peter. Turns out that the nifty narration was co-written by Hart and acting coach Jane Wymark. Ostensibly modeled after Marius Petipa’s original 1890 choreography, Hart allows himself and his dancers some strikingly whimsical moments. Perhaps the most pointed of these came when Rees Launer as Puss in Boots and Meredith Hwang as the White Cat danced their featured pas de deux at Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund’s gala wedding celebration.Aurora Group by Jeff Cravotta

If the tentative meowing music, abruptly segueing into hissing and clawing, sounds oddly familiar, it’s because Disney sacrilegiously applied it to the climactic moment when Sleeping Beauty finds a spindle high up in an abandoned turret of her castle and pricks her finger on it, fulfilling the Evil Fairy Maleficent’s curse. Not to be outdone by Disney’s irreverence, Hart had Puss twerking to that same macabre music.

The magical role of Princess Aurora will be timeshared by no fewer than four dancers between now and the closing May 8 matinee, but that hardly implies that the ballerinas’ burdens have been lightened. Sarah Hayes Harkins, who played Aurora on opening night, was fated to play the title role twice more, but she was also slated to take on Gilchrest-Kubie’s narrative role at three other performances, so she had lines and steps to rehearse. Meanwhile, Harkins’ opening night partner, James Kopecky as Prince Florimund, had two more turns scheduled as Aurora’s destined beau, five as her father the King, and three more as Prince West, one of the marriage prospects presented at the princess’s inauspicious 16th birthday ball.

One of the most rewarding qualities of CharBallet’s extravaganzas, for audiences and dancers alike, continues to be the freedom that the company allows to their principal dancers – encouraging them to bring their own style and personality to each role they play, rather than enforcing a bland and boring sameness. So you’ll find a gratifying individuality to Harkins’ Aurora as she pours regal elegance into her, along with touches of youthful delight, mischief, and a wisp of loneliness. Other Auroras sharing the role (Emerson Dayton, Amelia Sturt-Dilley, and Isabella Franco) might strike you as more nubile, childish, coquettish, or amorous.

As Florimund, Kopecky is almost pathologically sensitive and sincere, an absolute dreamboat for the naïve young fry in the audience, but I expect that Josh Hall, consigned to the role of King on opening night, will stir older libidos when he takes over as the destined Prince, paired with Dayton in her maiden season with CharBallet. Kopecky’s sublimity, on the other hand, chimed well with Harkins’ ethereality – and contrasted deliciously with Colby Foss’s flamboyant rendering of Carabosse, Tchaikovsky’s Evil Fairy.Carabosse 2 by Jeff Cravotta

Of course, the Sleeping Beauty that former CharBallet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux premiered here in 2012 is still deeply embedded in the company’s DNA, so a crossdressing Carabosse won’t be a total shock to loyal subscribers. But Disney’s Maleficent can also be cited as part of the evolution of Hart’s Carabosse. When Tchaikovsky stretched the rather thin storyline to epic length, he largely relied upon celebrations, a Sweet 16 and a wedding piled upon the original christening.

Disney wanted drama, so he didn’t discard Carabosse after the opening scene, or even after the birthday party, where Tchaikovsky began the tradition of having her disguised and smuggling a contraband spindle into the kingdom. No, she is still around a century later, in Disney’s scenario and in Hart’s, barring Prince Florimund from waking his ladylove and providing some sorely needed pushback against the predestined outcome.

Foss’s bravura requires a counterweight that’s stronger than the magically-challenged Florimund, so the Lilac Fairy, “wisest of the Fairies” according to the Nurse, is elevated as much as Carabosse in Hart’s scenario. In fact, with Sarah Lapointe’s sparkle, power, and serenity, you can make the case that Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy are the plum roles in this Fairy Tailored Classic rather than Aurora and Florimund, though Harkins and Kopecky do conquer the most challenging choreography.Court by Jeff Cravotta

Sharing the Lilac gig with three other dancers, Lapointe will actually spend most of this CharBallet run as Aurora’s mom, the Queen. When Foss isn’t making a meal of Carabosse’s malignity, he will trade places with Andrés Trezevant, looking very cavalier on opening night as Catalabutte, the officious and slightly pompous page who presides over every ceremony. While the costumes designed for him by Peter Docherty aren’t nearly as wicked, gnarly and spectacular as Carabosse’s outfits, Trezevant was accorded a wardrobe change after the 100-year intermission, wielding his scepter in a purple-and-blue livery for Aurora’s birthdays before rocking a copper-and-blue ensemble for the wedding.

While Docherty’s scenery is not quite as eye-popping as his costumes, Jennifer Propst’s lighting design dramatically contrasts the daylight of the public celebrations with the moody gloom of the sleeping kingdom and castle. Aside from the dimly lit apparition of the Sleeping Beauty behind a misty scrim, Docherty and Propst combine on a nice effect as the Lilac Fairy’s spell first takes hold. Vines descend dramatically from the fly loft, covering most of the courtyard as we move toward the intermission blackout.

Thanks to the Nurse’s ongoing narrative, there is extra charm to the intermission. Before nodding off in front of the proscenium and slipping away to the wings, Gilchrest-Kubie announced the 20-minute interval and drew our attention to the slowly moving clock projected high over centerstage. Just a single minute hand sweeps clockwise around the clock after the lights come up. Only the clockface has been reconfigured so we’re gradually counting up to 100 like a speedometer, instead of the usual 12 or 60, as Sleeping Beauty’s sleep flies by.

Compared to Aurora’s century-long coma, the two years we’ve had to wait for this Fairy Tailored Classic are nothing to complain about. On the contrary, we have a ballet wakening of our own to celebrate.

Biff! POW!! Welcome to Geek Theatre

Review: She Kills Monsters at The Arts Factory

By Perry Tannenbaum

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The curtain is finally going up in Charlotte on the works of playwright Qui Nyugen, the American son of Vietnamese parents who founded the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company back in 2000. Soon afterwards, Nyugen’s brainchild transplanted from Ohio to Off-Broadway – where it became the first theatre company sponsored by NY Comic Con and the wellspring of “Geek Theatre.” Emphasizing sci-fi, stage combat, and gaming – with a biff! POW! comic book edge – Nyugen’s 2011 comedy-drama She Kills Monsters is typical of the breed.

Of course, the monsters are no more real onstage at The Arts Factory than they are in Dungeons & Dragons tabletop role playing. Try outlandish costumes, fantasy projections, and puppets.

So this co-production from Charlotte’s Off-Broadway and Women-In-Plays, directed by Sheri Marvin, is plenty of fun, much louder than it is fearsome. Yet there is a serious side to Agnes Evans’ quest for the Lost Soul of Athens in the fantasy realm of New Landia. Wresting the stolen Lost Soul from the fearsome five-headed Tiamat isn’t truly the crux of Agnes’s quest. Nor was it stolen, precisely, for we’re back in 1995, when demon overlord Orcus actually traded the soul for a neat TV/VCR combo.1

Agnes, a humdrum high-school English teacher, is on a quest to connect after losing her parents and her younger sister, Tillie, in a car accident. While preparing to liquidate her childhood home and move in with longtime boyfriend Miles, Agnes stumbles upon an unfinished Dungeons & Dragons module that Tillie has left behind – a first baby step toward realizing just how little she knew about her little sister while she was alive. Taking the module to Chuck, the notorious Dragon Master of Athens (Ohio), big sister learns that Tillie remains a D&D legend, revered as Tillius the Paladin in the gaming world.

More humbling secrets lie ahead as Agnes enters the fantasy world of her sister’s legacy: Tillie was gay, and she was bullied at school – the school where Agnes teaches. Of course, live theatre heightens the impact of these revelations, thanks to some subtle nudging from Nyugen and a logical plot twist. Tillie is in the game as one of the companions who helps Agnes on her quest, and she’s a central character in the storyline. Nyugen enables Agnes to effortlessly converse with Tillius, who comes back to life during their adventures, giving the action hero a chance to vent the resentments she still feels toward her neglectful sister.6

Friends of Tillie’s are in the storyline as well, along with Miles, who is cast as one the obstacles who must be slain if Agnes and her companions are to have their rendezvous with the five-headed Tiamat. So are the bullies, succubi named Evil Gabbi and Evil Tina, aliases that are not at all obscure. Of course, as Agnes shuttles between the role-playing D&D world and real life, she encounters all of Tillie’s companions – and enemies – at school.

And since the same actors portray the characters Tillie invented and the people they are modeled after, the difference between the fantasy world and the real world is largely erased, far more for us than Agnes, who is presumably encountering the tabletop D&D dramatis personae as plastic action figures.

If you can manage to take so much silliness seriously, you might descry a distinct vein of feminism in Marvin’s directing, for the men, when not merely annoying, consistently deliver their villainous vaunts at high volume. Kudos, then, to Nyugen as well for upending this traditionally masculine world of geekery. Needless to say, the real heavy lifting is done by our mostly female clan of heroic gladiators under the guidance of fight choreographer Katie Bearden and fight captain Nathan Morris, who moonlights as Dragon Master Chuck.5

Lighting by Sean Kimbro decisively marks the borders between Agnes’ worlds. But the costumes by Ramsey Lyric enhance the fun and immerse us in Nyugen’s quirky fantasy. The tight leather action suit sported by Charlie Grass as Tillius, along with her dungeon war paint, instantly grabs our attention, the Viking war gear of her party dimly gleams its savagery, and the monkish cowl enveloping Morris as Chuck marks him as a mystic master of the dark D&D arts. Juxtaposed with these costumes, with Lyric’s fabrications representing New Landia outlandish ogres, and with his climactic Tiamat, Luna Mackie as Agnes looks rather humdrum in her functional everyday attire.

While Mackie is toughening as Agnes, Grass is softening as the resentful warrior sister, a gradual and graceful rapprochement overall with numerous bumps along the way, as Tillie drops one revelation after another. Mackie doesn’t immediately strike us as having much adventure queen potential, but her speedy transformation is nicely gauged – if you consider the difference between the learning curve of a board game and an apprenticeship for a black belt.

Rushed or not, Mackie’s metamorphosis is stunning: she absolutely rocks the role of Agnes the Asshatted. Yet there might be some in the audience who see Grass as playing the title role. They are that good, for we can see the softness and vulnerability behind the black leather and the black war paint as soon as they stride onto the scene. Their ferocity is a volatile mix of bellicose energy and pent-up resentment. There’s enough sincere force coming from Grass for Mackie to be genuinely shaken, so Agnes’s perseverance became authentic and ultimately admirable on opening night. For just a moment, the rapprochement of the sisters was rather moving for me.

Now we can get somber and sententious about the bullying and gender crises we witness here, but it’s back in 2011 when Nyugen writes his Vampire Cowboy romp and 1995 when he sets the action. So for Marvin and her cast, this is signal enough for outsized posturing from heroes and villains alike, epic declamations of WrestleMania proportions, mixed with the stereotypes and pettiness of a high school sitcom.9

While Mackie and Grass are admirably divided within, Caleb Hinkley as Miles gets to play two separate versions of the same person, big sister’s boyfriend that Tillie despises and the D&D distortion of him that Tillius can destroy. Kaeleigh Miller as Kelly and Kaliope, Joe Watson as Ronnie and Orcus, and Charlie Napier as Steve are also recognizably twin versions, real and imaginary, of the same people. For the evil succubi, Nevaeh Woolens as Tina and Michelle Strom as Gabbi, the gulf between reality and fantasy pointedly diminishes, for both are cheerleaders in Athens and New Landia – with bloodier tops and mouths as succubi.

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Amari Rice may have the most lighthearted pair of roles as Vera, an incompetent guidance counselor in real life, and The Beholder, an appropriately short-lived enemy in New Landia. Easily the most poignant and affecting dual roles belong to Elizabeth Marvin. When we first meet her in New Landia, Marvin as Lilith is a horned demon queen who is Tillius’s closest companion, wielding a wicked battle axe, but in real life she is Lily, no boldness to her whatsoever, shyly denying any past relationship with Tillie, and likely in the closet.

Mostly bellowing, officiating, and narrating under his mystical hood as our Dungeon Master, Morris as Chuck subtly changes in the real high school world as he introduces Agnes to her late sister’s friends and tormentors. But learning the true-life identity of Tillius the Paladin, Chuck clearly sparks Agnes’s curiosity – and her epic D&D adventure – with his open, larger-than-life admiration. Under the radar, he is also learning about Tillie and Agnes as he presides over the elder sister’s D&D initiation.

In that respect, Chuck’s journey is the most like our own. Forget about Greek tragedy, and enjoy Geek theatre.

Kirkwood’s “The Children” Asks Hard Questions of Good, Smart, Caring People

Review: Three Bone Theatre Presents The Children

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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March 13, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Two retired nuclear physicists, a husband and wife both in their sixties, have taken up residence in a cozy coastal UK cottage, where they are visited without receiving prior notice by a former co-worker they haven’t seen in some 38 years, also in her sixties. These are the only characters we see in Lucy Kirkwood’s acclaimed drama, now playing at The Arts Factory in a taut Three Bone Theatre production – and I can’t say that any of the three physicists ever mentions his or her parents. Nor are there any flashback scenes in this 90-minute one-act that take us back four decades or more to when these over-the-hill atomic whizzes were young and previously together. So why exactly has Kirkwood called her dystopian drama The Children?The Cast of The Children

It’s the sort of question that rewards repeated asking as the plot proceeds and we learn more and more about the past that Hazel, Robin, and Rose have shared – and the daunting future ahead of them. There are a couple of substantial answers that gradually emerge, the subtler of these turning out to be personal and intimate. For the lives and careers of all three retirees have been shaped by past decisions to have or not to have children. More obvious, and more to the point, are the decisions that must soon be made in the wake of a disaster at the nuclear plant where all three of these physicists used to work, decisions that will impact not only their children, but also, locally and globally, the children – depending on how guilty, responsible, or obligated they feel.

We’re obviously dealing with a catastrophe on a scale equal to those at Chernobyl in 1986 and, even more pertinently with the earthquakes and tsunamis enfolded into Kirkwood’s concept, Fukushima in 2011, five years before the commissioned piece premiered in London. The cottage where Hazel and Robin are living is perilously close to the fenced-off area surrounding Ground Zero, which remains destabilized. Amid the brevity of Rose’s visit, Kirkwood manages to spread a veil of nebulosity over the extent and permanence of the damage inflicted by the catastrophe. There’s an ongoing rationing of food and electricity, but the couple’s isolation and their aversion to the Internet puts a lid on the info we get. Hazel and Robin are retired, yes. But in light of their isolation, ignorance, and apathy, we might also say – as Rose probably would – that they are resigned, not really thinking about how they might best use their remaining time.

Certainly, the cottage dwellers aren’t stressing over their culpability for the devastation that surrounds them when Rose intrudes. They would seem to be following Candide’s example at the end of Voltaire’s wicked, wicked novel, tending to their own gardens – or in Robin’s case, their fields, where he makes his daily escape before coming home to dine on Hazel’s homegrown salads. After 38 years, Hazel and Rose still have each other sized up rather well, Hazel knowing more about Rose’s attachment to her husband – and vice versa – than he would believe, and Rose knowing something about Robin’s wife that he never even suspected. As Kirkwood interweaves these personal revelations with the possible global crisis engulfing them, we began to understand how a group of nuclear physicists could have been blind for so long to the fiery red flags signaling so clearly to them that nuclear catastrophe was at hand. In their personal and professional lives, they have seriously miscalculated.The Children- Robin and Hazel

Directed by Three Bone co-founder Robin Tynes-Miller, with set design by Ryan Maloney and props by Jackie Hohenstein, this Charlotte premiere huddles the audience around the action in an intimate stadium layout like a miniaturized Circle in the Square on Broadway. The humble coziness of the setting, not at all contradicted by Davita Galloway’s costume designs, make this cottage look more rusticated than most production photos that come up on a Google search. Likewise, Lillie Ann Oden and Michael Harris have a more weathered look than the London and Broadway marrieds, as if they had aimed their portraiture toward farmers in their sixties or physicists in their seventies.

This rustic approach actually has some advantages, for Mitzi Corrigan as their visitor seems slightly younger, more active, more enlightened, and more modern than her hosts at first blush. She claims to have forewarned Hazel and Robin via email before appearing at their doorstep, and the laptop she is toting backs her up, looking out of place here in this back-to-basics abode. When it becomes apparent that Rose has been around the neighborhood for some time on her personal crusade, we cannot be surprised that this couple – steeped in stasis – has been unaware.The Children- Hazel and Rose

Another key thing that Tynes-Miller gets right, despite the longstanding hurts and grudges that will emerge among these former co-workers, is that all of them are good people, bonded together by the preventable tragedy that has broken them all. Oden has an edge to her as Hazel, dealing with the most guilts, savvy enough to be wary of Rose, yet the defensive chip on her shoulder is more like a light skillet held behind her back than a double-barrel shotgun dangling under her arm. She is polite, she is friendly, even loving, but you’ve got to coax it out of her now. As the former Don Juan of the nuclear plant, Harris mixes a shrunken amount of confident swagger into Robin and an occasional urge to dance into his prevailing disillusion, disappointment, and bitterness – with more to swallow heading his way. Beneath the crusty brooding, he’s tenderer, more considerate than his spouse, still sharp enough to be shocked and to make a quick decision.

Rose has had the most hurt to deal with over the years, yet Corrigan poured a sheen of insouciance and quiet purpose over her – until the old hurts and grudges spurted to the surface. She needed to be impressive in tamping down these emotions, with clear-eyed pragmatism and poise to succeed in her ultimate mission of persuasion. Or was it seduction that motivated her, as Hazel had good reason to suspect?The Children- Rose and Robin 1

Sadly, we cut all these people a hefty amount of slack because there is so much more than the overly hasty development of nuclear energy befouling our planet. Other industries are complicit in building a multitude of time bombs we constantly hear ticking around us, and many governments have dirty hands. Chernobyl and Fukushima have receded into the past, our gazes drawn to other filthy objects and humans. These ordinary people, for all the wrong they have done to each other, all the mess they have left for their children to clean up, are questioning whether they should continue sitting back, enjoying their retirement years, and doing absolutely nothing about it.

Maybe they’re the ones who should pitch in and help, despite the fact that no one person living in a toxic irradiated wasteland can even begin to turn the global tide. No, these fine actors are telling us as we look over their shoulders: many, many more ordinary people need to be doing the asking – and the acting.

Brooklyn Grace Receives a Classic Museum

Review: BNS Productions Presents The Colored Museum

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In every decade since it premiered Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 1986, George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum has had a homegrown revival here in Charlotte. GM Productions premiered it up in the Attic Theatre at the old Afro-Am Cultural Center on 7th Street in 1993, and Carolina Actors Studio Theatre brought it to their C.A.S.T. location out in Plaza-Midwood ten years later. On Q Productions finally smuggled Wolfe’s 11 vignettes – or “exhibits” – into an Uptown site at Spirit Square in 2011.

Now BNS Productions has brought Colored Museum to its unlikeliest location, the Brooklyn Grace Venue, alias the Grace AME Zion Church on S Brevard Street. Each new revival more fully cements Wolfe’s satire as a classic – Winthrop U and UNC Charlotte have also chimed in with productions since 2009 – and each new resurrection that I see strikes me as fresh and hilarious as the first.

Of course, nothing compares with the edge and impact of your maiden encounter. Wolfe hurls a few choice barbs at white folk, mostly mocking their bland cruelty, but armed with an all-Black cast, it’s African-Americans and their culture that he assails with the most conspicuous gusto. All Colored Museum casts get to feast most hilariously on the sufferings and posturings of the Younger family in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Walter Lee’s wailings against “the man” in this “Last Mama-On-The-Couch Play” take a detour into Beau Willie Brown’s barbarity in Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls.CCC02756

Familiarity with those two stage gems helps you to savor Graham Williams, Sr.’s over-the-top brilliance as Walter-Lee-Beau-Willie, but his reappearance, immediately after intermission, as The Man only magnifies his triumph. For Wolfe delights especially in depicting the disfigurements that black people inflict upon themselves to survive and succeed in white America. The Kid, played by Jonathan Caldwell, must now disown and discard his Afro-comb, dashiki, autographed Stokely Carmichael photo, Afro-sheen, Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone recordings, along with Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice – replaced, The Man tells him, by The Color Purple.

Black Power and protest must be tossed into the trashcan along with slavery if you wish to get to the top. The Kid is dismayed, incredulous, and beside himself when The Man reaches for… The Temptations Greatest Hits! Yes, if The Man is to feel totally comfortable in his black business suit and fully acclimate to white blandness, even “My Girl” must bite the dust.CCC02782

Women also get choice bits from Wolfe, beginning with Nasha Shandri as our prim stewardess, Miss Pat, welcoming us aboard Celebrity Slaveship and inviting us to fasten our shackles as we cross the Atlantic to Savannah. Dancing in the aisles seems to be allowed during our voyage – as long as we keep our shackles on – but “No drums!” Of course, we will get a bluesy cooking lesson from Sandra Thomas as Aunt Ethel, teaching us, with abundant historical ingredients, how to cook up “a batch of Negroes.” Uncanny Aunt Jemima resemblance here.

Shandri and Thomas both reappear in “The Last Mama-On-The-Couch,” with Thomas in the title role switching from cheery to grumpy and Shandri upbraiding Walter-Lee-Beau-Willie (and cataloguing her own sufferings) as Medea Jones, a subtle reminder that white folk are also known to drop babies from great heights. Most of this skit targets Raisin, of course, with Toi Aquila R.J. as Lady in Plaid serving as Shange’s leading Colored Girls emissary.

Meanwhile James Lee Walker, II, has a tasty role as our narrator, bestowing an Oscar-like statuette upon one actress after a heart-rending monologue and then ripping it out of her grasp when the next actress tops her.CCC02580

Walker has already topped himself as the regal, finger-snapping drag queen who imparts “The Gospel According to Miss Roj.” Revisiting Wolfe’s Museum, director Dee Abdullah limits herself to the crossdressing that’s in the script. In 2003, by contrast, Aunt Ethel and Last Mama were also done in drag. But Abdullah brings back Chris Thompson from the CAST production, so the West African choreography at Brooklyn Grace – and the forbidden drumming – have the same sparkle.CCC02717-1

Acoustically, the Grace isn’t ideal for theatre, nor is the place outfitted for professional-grade lighting design. But Abdullah, Sandra Thomas, and Shacana Kimble compensate, teaming up for an admirable array of costumes, from the frumpiness of Last Mama to the imperious splendor of Roj – and on the other side of intermission, the voguish gown of LaLa Lamazing Grace, an expatriated Josephine Baker wannabe done with slaying disdain by Jess Johnson. Until her down-home roots are exposed.CCC02449

In “Hairpiece,” Shandri plays a woman who has literally burnt her roots. Or as Johnson puts it as LaWanda, “She done fried, dyed, and de-chemicalized her shit to death.” All to please the man that Shandri is now dumping. LaWanda is actually a talking wig stand, facing us on a makeup table (and presumably Shandri as well in a fourth-wall mirror). She’s debating whether her owner should be shaking her hot-pressed tresses back and forth when she irately gives her boyfriend the ax, or whether Janine, the Afro wig contemptuously advocated by LaTonya Lewis, should be the fearsome choice to make him shrivel.

While the wigs are debating whether Shandri is most powerful in her natural or chemicalized crown, it’s easy to forget the satirical barb that Wolfe has tossed toward the menfolk. The finally-dispensable boyfriend was a “political quick-change artist,” Janine dishes. Every time “he changed his ideology, she went and changed her hair to fit the occasion.”

Style is important, that’s for sure. Aside from Raisin, the most sacred cow that Wolfe takes down is Ebony Magazine, the barbershop bible of African-American life. Lewis and Williams are the supermodel couple of “The Photo Shoot” who have given away their lives to be beautiful and wear fabulous clothes month after month. Relentlessly smiling and feeling no pain.

Perhaps the wisest thing about Wolfe’s Museum – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the absurd – is that it’s simply there. Do with it as you wish.

“The ultimate questions from Wolfe apply with a fierce pertinence to all oppressed peoples,” I wrote in response to Abdullah’s 2003 production with CAST. “How do we carry the baggage of the past into the future without hampering and crippling ourselves? And how do we leave this baggage behind without discarding key parts of our culture, our heritage, and our identity? These grim questions go unanswered, but watching this energized ensemble wrestling with them will likely double you over with laughter.”

Can’t improve very much on those observations – unless I compress them for 2022 into Wolfe’s words. At the beginning of our journey and again at evening’s end, our stewardess, Miss Pat, tells us: “Before exiting, check the overhead as any baggage you don’t claim, we trash.”

That’s the key choice Wolfe aims to leave us with.