Category Archives: Theatre

CP’s “Joseph” Connects With Talent and Style, Frustrates With Ongoing Audio Woes

Review:  Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Halton Theater

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Before this weekend, Halton Theater hadn’t opened its doors to a theatre crowd since February 2020, and Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre had been dark since July 2019, when they closed their five-show season with A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Returning to the Halton stage as guest director of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Tom Hollis posed a poignant question during his introductory remarks. Does it really count as a season when a company offers its audience just one production? Even the most loyal Central Piedmont supporter can’t buy a 2021 season ticket, that’s for sure. And until Central Piedmont Community College completes its recovery from a debilitating ransomware attack this past winter, they won’t be able to accept credit card payments at their Overcash ticket windows. Cash or checks for walk-ups, plastic for online sales only.

Opening night at Halton was a cautious first step back toward pre-pandemic norms – with a Delta-be-damned giddiness to it as COVID protocols were loosened at last. For most of the crowd mingling in the Halton lobby before and after the show, this was probably the first public event they had risked in at least 16 months, a milestone moment. For the theatre folk scattered among us, it was an emotional reunion – an affirmation.

Last season was originally envisioned as Hollis’s grand valedictory after nearly four decades at Central Piedmont, his latter years as theatre department chair. An encore reset of the lost 2020 season was rumored for a while as Central Piedmont scrambled with their winter programming, so Joseph is a double surprise – not among the shows announced for the lost 47th Central Piedmont Summer Theatre season and the only show replacing them. Previously mounted in Summer 1993 and revived in Summer 2001 at the now-demolished Pease Auditorium (the CPCC Theatre production of 2008 at the Halton was a wintertime affair) – with rousing success on all occasions – Joseph is likely more bankable than Footloose, lighter on the budget than The Music Man, and far better-known and cheaper to produce than Something Rotten! Additionally, there is likely a finely calculated ecology in a true Central Piedmont Summer season that allows the college the biggest bang for their bucks when auditioning and casting their overall troupe of performers and designers. These discarded musicals, plus Peter Pan Jr. and a Ken Ludwig comedy, might conceivably be in cold storage, slated for resurrection in 2022.THEA2021-DLV-0708-1267

Sitting in Row K, I only noticed one gentleman taking a restroom break during this intermission-free presentation, and I was somewhat surprised that the cast began taking their bows a mere 71 minutes after the show commenced. Another eight minutes came packaged in a “Megamix” reprise of Webber’s most bodacious songs – or parodies, since the composer delights in shuttling among an unlikely array of genres in retelling the most epic tale from the Book of Genesis, aided by Tim Rice’s lyrics. The news of Joseph’s demise is delivered to his doting father, Jacob, in the form of a sobbing lone-prairie cowboy song. Pharaoh is transformed into a pre-historic Elvis as he rocks his account of his prophetic dreams. The poverty of Joseph’s 11 brothers during the years of famine takes on the nostalgic air of a sad French café, complete with Apache dancer, and Naphtali’s pleas for the innocence of little brother Benjamin come in the form of a Caribbean calypso.THEA2021-DLV-0708-1815

Curiously, the irreverence and multitudinous anachronisms of this Webber-Rice concoction, not to mention the narrative alterations of Holy Writ, have never seemed to spark any massive public outcry from Judeo-Christian clergy. Maybe the outright anachronisms, beginning with the Technicolor in the title, insulate all the irreverence and textual tinkering from being taken seriously. James Duke’s scenic design and Bob Croghan’s costume design underscore the assurance that we are not in the immediate vicinity of ancient Egypt or Canaan, fortified by the equally anachronistic projection designs by Infante Media. No, this is more like a Disney or a Las Vegas style of Egypt, with Duke taking full advantage of the lordly height of the Halton stage compared with Pease’s pancake panorama. Our Elvis is also a Vegas version, clearly the sequined, jumpsuited, decadent superstar of his latter days. The Duke-Infante collaboration is so glittery and colorful that it is only slightly upstaged by Croghan’s creations for Pharaoh and Joseph.THEA2021-DLV-0708-1357

You don’t often get the chance to design a costume that is hyped in the title of a show, and Croghan, on the Charlotte scene even longer than I, doesn’t disappoint. The impact of this mid-pandemic return to live theatre caught me off-guard several times. Each time a major character made his or her first entrance – Lindsey Schroeder as our Narrator, Rixey Terry as Joseph, and J. Michael Beech as Pharaoh – I had that tingling sensation of recognizing something basic and exciting that had been missing in my life for over a year.

My biggest surprise, a frisson of renewal, came from the audience when they reacted to the most iconic moment in Joseph, when the brothers picked up the skirts of Croghan’s knockout dreamcoat so that it formed a pinwheel around Rixey, spinning around as he, Schroeder, and the ensemble sang “Joseph’s Coat.” Anybody even glancingly familiar with musical theatre anticipates this moment before it happens, or at least recalls it fondly from a previous encounter. But part of the audience at Halton erupted in delighted and surprised laughter, recalling what the first London and Broadway and high school audiences must have experienced when Joseph was new and reminding me of my own delight back in 1993.THEA2021-DLV-0708-1130

Rixey walked a treacherous tightrope, blending innocence with vanity as beautifully and energetically as any Joseph I’ve ever seen, lacking the cloying wholesomeness that only true Donny Osmond fans will miss. Maybe a plunge or two into that saccharine syrup might make Rixey more memorable in “Any Dream Will Do,” but I would prefer that he add a sprinkling of excess to those melodramatic moments when he is unjustly imprisoned, crying out his “Close Every Door.” Lighting designer Jeff Childs does come to the prisoner’s rescue, adding some spiritual gravitas.

Schroeder was brimful of brilliance as the Narrator, infusing enough energy into her string of recitative that it never devolved into tedious singsong, though she was often unintelligible. Beech’s misfortunes with his microphone were even more egregious as Pharaoh, including intermittent sonic dropouts, but his audio setup was likely jostled over the course of the evening, since he donned different costumes and headgear for his other roles – Jacob, Potiphar, and the doomed Baker.

Admittedly, it’s churlish of me to keep harping on Central Piedmont’s defective sound equipment and the cavalcade of professional-grade technicians who have failed to tame it. North of $115 million are being spent on replacing Pease, originally a lecture hall, with a genuine theatre facility, while Central Piedmont’s audio woes have gone unaddressed since 2005, when the Halton was new. But new generations come to the Halton every year, and new summer visitors from afar get their first taste of Charlotte theatre there – and they still need to be cautioned. By the time the “Megamix” came around on opening night, Beech’s “Song of the King” was only fitfully audible and Schroeder’s mic was intermittently dropping out.

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More power, then, to the performers onstage who merrily soldiered through. Even the charade of the brothers’ mournful moments was untarnished. All of the cameo solos hit their marks. Matthew Howie was hilariously rusticated as Reuben delivering the bad news to Jacob with “One More Angel,” and Neifert Enrique as Simeon – aided by his brothers and Emma Metzger’s scene-stealing table dance – brought a boulevardier’s wistful regret to “Those Canaan Days,” with more than a soupçon of self-mockery in his lamentations.

Even more THEA2021-DLV-0708-2049irrepressible and irresistible was the calypso lightness and joy that Griffin Digsby brought to the “Benjamin Calypso” as Naphtali. Around the third or fourth time Digsby reached the “Oh no! Not he!” refrain, I had to stop myself, for I had started to sing along. Just another adjustment I’ll need to make after 16 months of consuming theatre in front of my computer monitor and TV set. It was hard to be displeased by anything that accompanied this welcome change.

Gay Educators Freak While Their Gay Students Cope in “Neaptide”

Review: Neaptide Via Vimeo from UNC School of the Arts

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In a twisted way, this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic year brought more to Ticket Knowlton’s senior year thesis than it took away. Slated to direct the UNC School of the Arts’ production of Neaptide by British feminist playwright Sarah Daniels, Knowlton lost the opportunity to interact with cast, crew, and design team in a normal theatre environment and to see the effect of their work on a live audience. But Knowlton (identifying as they/them/their) remained the first gender-nonconforming director to pilot a School of Drama show, and they weren’t content to simply livestream the production or to simply record it as if it were a standard TV studio sitcom.

The product that resulted from months of experimentation, adjustment, improvisation, and collaboration feels like a faithfully recorded theatrical production– with added sparks of cinematic up-closeness and video editing. And the polish from both the School of Drama cast and the video team, compounded by lighting and design that made me nostalgic for the edgy contemporary drama I would catch at various unexpected sites around London, was nothing short of astonishing. Every shot by Jeremiah McLamb and his JerFilm Productions comes through the traditional “fourth wall,” but always from the perfect angle and distance. Two days after I witnessed the Neaptide streamcast, this ranking of the World’s Best Drama Schools in The Hollywood Reporter, placing UNCSA fourth, reassured me that I could believe my eyes.

Neaptide, the first play by a contemporary playwright to be produced at the National Theatre back in 1986, is twisty enough on its own. Two lesbians will be seen in the faculty lounge that becomes the center of gravity for Daniels’ dramatic action. Or is it three? They are so closeted during the Margaret Thatcher Era in the UK. Bringing things to a head, two student lesbians are caught kissing in the girls’ bathroom, and instead of discreetly agreeing to tone it down, both decide boldly to come out. This brewing scandal tugs at the sympathies of our heroine, Claire, on the rise as the best teacher at the school, while drawing a defensive and punishing reaction from Beatrice, the school principal who has just rewarded Claire’s excellence with a promotion. Yet both Claire and Beatrice have good reasons not to champion these renegade students. Claire’s ambivalence, with her career and custody of her daughter Poppy at stake, is the most compelling quandary.

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So for my American ears, the flabbiness and misdirection of Daniels’ script turned out to be godsends. We began in a sanitorium with Claire’s sister Val, harshly spotlit, alone on a hospital gurney. Not long afterwards, her Mom drops by – an earnest, meddling, judgmental, endlessly tedious and annoying Joyce in a bravura performance by Jane Clara Cooper. Imagine a whining Mary Tyler Moore on acid. When we flash back after this encounter, most of which I hardly understood, I presumed that our main focus would be on how dear Val wound up in this loony bin. Eventually, we do learn what Val has done to earn her hospital gown – but there’s nothing close to profundity about why she’s done it. Eddy Grace gets to give us an emotionally intense performance as Val, her mania at the hospital followed by scenes with her children and her husband Colin, including the crackup.

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Yet Val and Joyce, along with whatever the crux of their antipathy may have been, drift rather abruptly to the periphery after the opening sequence. By the time we began homing in on Val and her precious relationship with Poppy, I found that I was sufficiently oriented to navigate their British accents and to follow the main storylines almost effortlessly. During the initial hospital scene, I was loading up to pillory accent coach Robin Christian-McNair, but ultimately, I was quite amazed by her results. The banter in the faculty lounge – and the lesbian scandal – are even more intelligible than the familial grappling.

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Contrasting with the pandemonium and crassness of Val’s household (television! dry cereal!), Claire’s home life is serenity, love, and cultural enrichment. Notwithstanding Joyce’s backbiting intrusions, Daniels goes out of her way to show us that Claire is the worthiest of moms. Like the playwright, Claire is a bit of a propagandist, reading to dear Poppy the myth of Demeter and her daughters as a bedtime story. Persephone, the daughter who is abducted by Hades, is paralleled to Poppy, so her dad Lawrence must surely be the King of the Underworld.

I wasn’t put off by the not-so-subtle indoctrination of this bedtime ritual as much as I was by its sweet tedium, for it wastes much of Yasmin Pascall’s time onstage as Claire, obliging her to establish herself in lullaby mode as being cuddly and wholesome. Pascall’s talent comes out far more powerfully when she faces the big conflicts in Claire’s life, at home and at school, struggling with ambivalence as a parent and teacher. We also see a frazzled Pascall – and some fairly insane slapstick – when Claire tries to cope with Val’s incorrigible brood at the breakfast table.

Since Daniels hardly assigns two dimensions for Parker Robertson to work with as Lawrence, let alone three, we’re more likely to invest ourselves with the drama at school, and an edgier gender struggle that Claire is more hesitant in coming to terms with. Making it easier was Noa Beckham-Chasnoff as Beatrice, the school principal, whose sex and sexuality have taught her the Gospel of expedience. It grows more shocking and heinous to find that her punitive attitude toward Diane and Terri, the teen lesbians, has somehow been hardened by Bea’s settled ways of dealing with her own sexuality. Perhaps conceived as belonging to the same generation, Beckham-Chasnoff shows us a Beatrice who is as tightly wound as Joyce, but primmer. Bea’s growth and development seem more natural during the arc of her action, so we can feel more affection for her towards the end.

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Knowlton and the JerFilm Productions film team mostly show us over-the-shoulder views of Lawrence, dooming whatever attempts Robertson may have made to humanize him. Amar Bains finds the richest terrain among the men’s roles, infusing Colin with spurts of anxiety, fear, frustration, powerlessness, and despair as he tries to cope with Val’s volatility. The other boys and men onstage are rather comical, though Lawrence Davis brings a chummy sleaziness to Roger, the English teacher who lusts after Claire, a portrayal that sets him apart. Daniels isn’t at all sentimental about her lesbian teens, allowing N’yomi Stewart as Diane and Belle Le as Terri to act more like punkish, rambunctious pals than lovers. Olivia Daponde is sweet innocence and devotion as Poppy, though perhaps not as malleable and fragile as her elders think. In an inadvertently comical moment, Daponde is barely light enough for Pascall to carry offstage at the end of their tender lullaby scene. Pascall manages that lift as heroically as the other burdens of her role.

By the way, if you’re appalled that any mother would name her child Ticket, she didn’t. They did, just recently. And it’s okay if you call them Lil Ticky. Me? I’m sticking with Ticket, even if they go paperless.

Festival Hall at Spoleto Isn’t the Best Fit for THE WOMAN IN BLACK

Review: “THE WOMAN IN BLACK certainly has a pedigree”

By Perry Tannenbaum

Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Perhaps we can declare that social distancing is as antithetical to telling a gripping ghost story as it is to sustaining a great vibe at a bar or a pub. After a 30-year run in London’s West End, where it remains on a pandemic-induced hiatus, THE WOMAN IN BLACK certainly has a pedigree to please. The play, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, is only surpassed by Dame Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap as the longest-running play in West End history.

Currently in a 16-performance run at Spoleto Festival USA through June 13, the production is the real McCoy, delivered by the same artistic team that brought an acclaimed transplant of this creepshow to the McKissick Hotel in New York in January 2020. Yet between the time that THE WOMAN IN BLACK was announced as part of Spoleto’s 2021 lineup and opening night, the chosen venue for this production – the intriguing Charleston Visitor Center Bus Shed – had to be changed.

Now it’s completely indoors at Festival Hall, better known to longtime Spoleto subscribers as Memminger Auditorium. While the Memminger has been hospitable to such dark and gloomy pieces as Don Giovanni and Amistad, both of them lavishly and audaciously staged, the house seems to overwhelm this smaller, more conventional and portable spectacle. Nor does the spacing of our seats, with no empty seats in the spaces between us, help the atmosphere. In London, where it will play to 432 seats on three levels at the Fortune Theatre, you would probably feel much closer – and certainly more huddled together.

The conspicuously diminutive proportions of this production seem to most adversely affect Peter Bradley as Arthur Kipps. Shambling, humdrum, and somewhat diffident, Kipps has sought out the help of The Actor, to assist him in narrating his ghostly encounters to his family – and hopefully exorcize his feelings of being haunted and accursed. Not the boldest, most flamboyant or operatic of stage heroes.

 

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Nick Owen as The Actor, on the other hand, has the luxury of being full-throated from the moment he enters the hall, hails Arthur from afar, and joins him onstage. Encouraging Kipps to project and emote, Owens can sustain a professional polish and a pedagogic authority, keeping his frustrations genially in check while trying to coax the aging solicitor into coming out of his shell.

Yet Arthur keeps resisting, meaning that we won’t hear Bradley projecting for a while. Mallatratt takes a little too long in building his own theatrical framework around Hill’s narrative; and director Robin Herford, who has not only directed all the seminal productions of THE WOMAN IN BLACK but also commissioned the original adaptation, is in no hurry. More ghost story and less framework would have suited me just fine the first time I saw this play in 2009 at Theatre Charlotte. Same here.

The solution that The Actor finds to his dilemma may strike non-actors as odd. When Arthur resists all urgings to become more voluble and dramatic, The Actor suggests that they switch roles: he will take on the role of Kipps in this narrative while Arthur will tackle all the other roles. Many an actor has testified that the joy and liberation of acting is in the escape from self into the skin of another person.

That idea works for Mallatratt and his protagonist. I didn’t find any hints, as I did when Kipps was portrayed in Charlotte, that either Bradley or Herford had any notion that the stodgy solicitor should suffer any relapses into hesitation or diffidence once roles were switched. It was full steam ahead for Bradley, probably the best call for those of us at Festival Hall who had strained to hear him in the early going.

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As we plunged into Kipps’s narrative, Bradley was most memorable as Keckwith, a rustic cart driver who takes Arthur to and from the haunted house, and Sam Daily, the country squire who lends him his trusty dog, Spider. The terror and consternation that we see from Mr. Jerome, the liaison between Arthur and the deceased owner of the creepy Eel Marsh House, also links us to the stage-frightened Arthur we find at the beginning.

Neither production that I’ve now seen entertained the idea of The Actor simulating Arthur’s timidity when he takes on the role. Owen takes the years off the middle-aged man and glamorizes him as a somewhat intrepid action hero. When Arthur attempts to save Spider from sinking into quicksand, and when he investigates the knocking sounds in the abandoned nursery of an abandoned house in the middle of the night, a certain amount of steely backbone in required.

The manuscript that The Actor encounters is a five-hour read in his professional opinion, subtly assuring us that he has not read it – and that as he does, he will be experiencing the story as freshly as we do. Owen’s ability to retain a thin veneer of suave James Bond professionalism as The Actor, even in the most frightful and harrowing moments of Arthur’s adventures, is a key factor in his experiencing maximum shock when The Actor – and the audience – suddenly realize that he has become enmeshed in the story.

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As I reported back in 2009, when my wife only grabbed my knee once, those frights are neither the most intense or frequent. I found the reveals of the Marsh House’s stairway and nursery to be deliciously macabre delights, thanks to the artistry of set designer Michael Holt and lighting designer Anshuman Bhatia, who also serves as production manager. Yet I suspect that many will leave WOMAN IN BLACK at Festival Hall firmly convinced that sound designer Sebastian Frost delivered the most unnerving jolts of fright with a scattering of ultra-loud outbursts.

Such scarifying devices are no more welcome to me in theatre than they are in cinema, though the general public seems to accept them readily enough. Here I can admit that they compensated somewhat for the lack of campfire ghostliness and tribal involvement at Festival Hall. A bus shed would likely have been better, creepier, if conditions had allowed.

Women’s Theatre Festival’s “Othello” Is Femme-tastic

Review: Women’s Theatre Festival production of Othello

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In so many ways, the new Women’s Theatre Festival production of Othello is radically different than any we’ve seen before. For starters, take the text, a modern verse translation by Mfoniso Udofiacommissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and flying off to Raleigh for its world premiere, streaming on a dedicated YouTube channel. As a longtime advocate of translating Shakespeare’s works into a form that would be as readily accessible to English-speaking audiences as plays by Moliere or Chekhov, I can attest that such an eminently sensible undertaking is widely viewed as sacrilege – among scholars, academics, and the theatre community. Less heretical is what director JaMeeka Holloway does with the 16th century settings of the tragedy, transporting the Moor of Venice to a fictional Venice College of today, where cellphones and laptops and Zoom meetings are all part of student life.

Utilizing an all-Black femme creative team and a diverse all-female cast, Holloway is boldly at odds with the Udofia translation, setting up many fascinating tensions between the modernized Shakespearean text and her production. Othello is now a debate champion of international stature and no longer a military general. Cassio is appointed as Othello’s second in Venice’s glorified debate society, slighting our honest Iago. Perhaps most bewilderingly, genders are blurred. Or fluid? Holloway often jumps off the binary confines of the Udofia translation and onto frontiers of non-binary gender or gender neutrality.Screen Shot 2021-04-09 at 12.28.45 PM

Contradicting the helpful captions projected at the bottom of our screens, Brabantio remains Desdemona’s father – and a Senator. Othello is still described as Desdemona’s husband and far older than Nubia Monks appears to be. Attending an all-women’s college, Othello is still spoken of as a general and, more puzzlingly, within the space of a few words, “She is a great man.” The disgraced Cassio gets a similarly straddling description, “She is a ladies’ man,” when Iago denigrates her, plotting her murder with Roderigo. And as you might suspect, Emilia continues to extenuate any duplicities she may be contemplating with the dastardly examples of men showing her the way.

Trespasses upon Udofia’s text remain slight, strictly confined to gender, because Holloway wordlessly transports Othello to America with a cinematic prologue that fully sets up the Moor’s champion status and the undercurrent of Venice College political rivalry, scored with eerie electronic music, hip-hop beats, and a sleek R&B groove. The feel of this WTF effort abruptly shifts from cinema to video when the actors begin to speak, establishing a useful borderline. Where Holloway wishes to underscore racism and white supremacy in Othello’s downfall, Udofia is already on board for her.

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Most of the references to Othello as a Moor have disappeared in translation. The mighty general is far more often called Black, an animal, an ape, or a monkey, lending a more racist tang to Shakespeare’s many casual mentions – left intact – of Othello as a devil. We also see pretty quickly that Udofia is willing to expand upon Shakespeare’s verse and insert her own wit. After she translates Iago’s scornful opening description of rival Cassio as an “arithmetician” with “a mathematician,” she layers on “This adder – and subtractor – this bipedal calculator.” A slithering new laugh for Othello!

All 36 playwrights recruited for OSF’s Play On! Project, charged with translating all of Shakespeare’s theatrical works, must wrestle with the question of what to modernize and what to leave untouched and antique. When the film version of The Wizard of Oz was an annual rite on network TV, we all knew the narcotic sleep-inducing effects of poppies readily enough. Yet Udofia comes upon Iago’s mesmerizing “Not poppy, nor mandragora,// Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,// Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep// Which thou ow’dst yesterday,” and begins with “Not heroin,” stripping the horrid beauty away from Iago’s incantation. On the other hand, Udofia disdains a feminist touch that Holloway might have relished, changing “put money in thy purse” to “put money in your pocket” as Iago palliates and advises Roderigo. Wearing a masculine sport jacket, Roderigo is addressed here as a man, another spot where Udofia’s translation is unaltered.

Holloway is intentional and color-conscious in her casting and has chosen to keep Othello’s, Iago’s, and Roderigo’s races consistent with the demands of Shakespeare’s original text while the rest of the cast displays a more varied spectrum from Shakespeare’s concept, most notably Cassio, Brabantio, and Emilia. Although the gender and racial inconsistencies may vitiate Holloway’s salvos against institutionalized racism, they don’t loosen the grip of Shakespeare’s drama in the slightest. I would also venture to say that WTF’s all-female presentation shines a grimmer spotlight on the virulent misogyny that heats up Shakespeare’s rhetoric, from both Iago and Othello, two of the playwright’s largest roles. We are particularly fortunate in the prime antagonists Holloway has chosen, Monks as Othello and Zandi Carlson as Iago, who deliver this pervasive misogyny with cringeworthy gusto.Screen Shot 2021-04-09 at 12.22.38 PM

We expect no less from The Moor. What sets Monks truly apart as Othello, from the four Othellos whom I’ve seen live in four Charlotte productions since the turn of the century – and others on stage and screen before then – is the youthfulness of her portrayal, occasionally scented with her femininity. That youthful energy is most recognizable in the first bloom of the tragic couple’s love, when Othello tells of marrying Desdemona and later when she’s impatient to consummate their marriage. A similar energy overflows when Othello returns triumphantly from Cyprus, brandishing her trophy with all the glee and swagger of an NFL or WNBA champion who has just captured the title. A distinctively feminine flavor also surfaces in the little chuckles and sighs that come from Othello as she recalls her courtship for the Senate. As wholesome and appealing as Monks is to me for all of these qualities, we should also be aware of how Othello’s strength, poise, and confidence are viewed by Iago and Brabantio, the white establishment. Brabantio sees his prerogative to oppress Blacks – and dictate his daughter’s future – upended by Othello’s value to the state (or here, the College) while Iago sees her as usurping his supremacy. The furious hatred that Iago conceives for Othello is made more monstrous by the touches of youth, openness, and femininity that Monks has added.

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There’s a vein of White privilege in Carlson’s portrayal of Iago that many will see as female cattiness when she conspires with Roderigo. Goading Cassio into drunkenness or inflating his ego on his past and present romantic conquests, Carlson serves up a cocktail that mixes gossipy confidences with barroom or locker-room badinage. Okay, so I do suspect Carlson may have stolen some glances at the text while delivering a couple of Iago’s longer monologues, but she is clearly a consummate master at the webcam, taking us into her diabolical musings and schemes. Would cheating truly compromise Iago’s villainy – or would such sneakiness compound it? Whole new vistas have been opened by the webcam and the Zoom format, breathing fresh life into theatrical monologues and Shakespearean soliloquy. Carlson’s work here is a prime exhibit.

The backgrounds that production designer Keyanna Alexander has selected for her scenic design, whether elegant or cheesy, were beautifully curated. Daylight splashes all around the scene where Othello returns triumphantly from her overseas adventure, reunited with Desdemona, who was separated from her during the voyage; and the actual laptop computer framing the Moor’s arraignment at the Senate is a hoot, a very polished touch to boot. Or how about Danyelle Monson as Bianca, introducing herself on a webcast shown to us on a cellphone, with emojis and chat cascading down the screen? But however grungy and cool the video concept was, I wish WTF had used better webcams and mics to execute it. Chiefly victimized was Jazmyn Boone as Iago’s wife Emilia, a marvelously frail and fallible portrait that was often muffled or not heard at all.

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Unless you had visions of a blonde, straight-haired Desdemona who was cloyingly chaste and submissive, Alicia Piemme Nelson‘s performance was easily the most conventional Shakespeare in sight, offering the best proof that a modernized text really does work – a courtesy to the Bard that is long overdue. Adoring yet sassy, far more dignified than coquettish, Nelson gave us a slight update on Dez, one that meshed well with Monks’ soulful charisma. She also inspired one of Holloway’s most resourceful camera placements, an overhead shot of her in the famed deathbed scene.

All of the supporting players are excellent, down to Mieko Gavia as a fulminating, browbeating Brabantio and Elaine Wang as a cool preoccupied Duke. Special delights come from the comical turns by Danyel Geddie and Marissa Garcia as Iago’s tools. Geddie brings us a Cassio who fancies himself a bon vivant, though we see her brown-bagging her wine; susceptible enough to drink that we can seriously question Othello’s choices in subordinates; and a party person who seems perfectly matched with Monson’s buxom, fun-loving Bianca. Garcia as Roderigo was so sincerely besotted with Desdemona that I hated to see such a pure soul so wickedly betrayed by Iago.

The new lens that Holloway had us seeing through was somewhat distorted when it focused on Roderigo, normally a depraved older man who thinks he can buy a beautiful daughter’s love from her mercenary father. Such creeps are longtime theatre staples. When a company decrees all-female casting on a Shakespeare tragedy, when a director’s concept further circumscribes the playwright’s creations to college age on a college campus, and a pandemic further constricts the space, action, and interaction allowed to the actors… stuff gets lost. Here, it was Roderigo’s corruption and depravity. He never had a single ducat in his hand, let alone his pocket.

Holloway has added a cinematic epilogue to silently complete the framing of her Venice College concept, one that dispels its complexities and contradictions. Along the way, if we’ve allowed this WTF production to lead us where it will, I’d say Holloway and her exemplary cast have revealed more than they’ve sacrificed. Far more.

Cernyak-Spatz’s Memoir Gets Better, More Urgent, With Age – and Video

Review: Protective Custody: PRISONER 34042

By Perry Tannenbaum

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If you missed the 2018 staged reading of Protective Custody: PRISONER 34042, Charles LaBorde’s adaptation of Holocaust survivor Susan Cernyak-Spatz’s memoir – or Three Bone Theatre’s world premiere production in 2019 – fate has been kind to you in 2021 with another reprise. Cernyak-Spatz, freed from the Birkenau and Auschwitz concentration camps at the age of 22 in 1945, lived long enough to see her story dramatized onstage. Already ailing, she lived only two weeks after attending the performance at Spirit Square on the opening weekend of the run.

Half whimsically and half seriously, she told the stage director Dennis Delamar to take the show on the road before she died at age 97. Founder of the UNC-Charlotte’s Holocaust Studies program and a professor of German language and literature, Dr. Cernyak-Spatz had seen plenty in her long life, but she couldn’t foresee the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on theatre and the arts around the globe, particularly how streaming would become de rigueur. Instead of on the road, Protective Custody is now online, free for the asking on your computer monitor or on your television screen.2021~Prisoner 34042-15

Of course, Cernyak-Spatz’s deathbed wishes weren’t about vanity, for the UNCC professor had lectured widely on the Holocaust and her personal survival, holding a passionate belief that we forget this horrific history at our own peril. What you may find disarming about Susan’s staged account, once again performed by Leslie Giles with the aid of Paula Baldwin as her dresser-mother-dancing beau-Nazi guard-fellow prisoner-rapist-Nazi accordionist-American rescuer, is how dispassionate her tone often is, punctuated by eruptions of bitter irony, cynicism, and rage. She tells us she lost her modesty long ago in the concentration camps, how animalistic she needed to become to survive them, implicitly conceding that the Nazis were at least partially victorious in dehumanizing her.

They surely hardened her, maybe the greatest irony of all. “I was strangely detached from the incredibility of what I heard,” she tells us after a Nazi guard has welcomed her to Birkenau by explaining – and describing – the extermination that is happening to newcomers who aren’t as lucky as she. Those younger than 16 and older than 35 rode immediately to “the gas.” We have all heard about the fiendish efficiency of the Nazis’ extermination systems and apparatus, but Susan repeatedly calls our attention to how the Nazis systematically humiliated and dehumanized their prisoners, squeezing as much work out of them as possible with the smallest expenditure. Cruelty is constant, even as the Third Reich faces defeat. Ordering the death march out of the camps as the avenging Russian Red Army approaches, the guard barks, “A bullet in the head for those who cannot walk!”

2021~Prisoner 34042-10Detachment and inhumanity are inevitable results of the plum jobs Susan is able to land at Auschwitz. The cushiest requires nothing more of her than drawing a line through the names of fellow prisoners, thousands of them, who have passed through “the gas” and the crematoriums. Another requires her to sort through the clothes and possessions of those who haven’t been as lucky as she has been – she can even scavenge some choice articles of clothing. No doubt this aspect of the story fascinated LaBorde as he adapted Cernyak-Spatz’s sprawling memoir for the stage. Thinking of changes in wardrobe as the organizing principle of Susan’s narrative is his idea, not hers. Magda Guichard’s wide range of costume designs help LaBorde depict Susan’s precipitous fall from her upper middle-class status in Vienna to her total degradation at the Birkenau death camp. Delamar spares Giles from the fullest indignities that the script allows, letting his star wear a flesh-colored leotard when Susan is ordered to strip for a delousing shower and allowing her to retain her own disheveled hair when she is shaven bald. A sleekly coiffed wig is removed to suggest the transition.

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PRISONER 34042 remains a potent brew in spite of these discreet alterations, with language, lurid descriptions, and a vaguely simulated rape scene that might give today’s helicopter parents some pause. Perhaps the sponsorship of this filming by Culture Blocks, which partners with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system, was the inspiration for addressing such qualms with a more benign Student Edition of the film. (Unabridged, as far as I could determine.) Filmed at McGlohon Theatre by SimplisticPhobia Productions, the three-person camera crew helmed by Will Jenkins helps to dramatize the action with angled close-ups, from stage right or stage left, that nearly fill our screens with the two players. These give way to centered long shots that remind us that we’re in a theatre, especially when Giles perches over the lip of the McGlohon stage and, after the Nazi accordionist plays the verse, sings the first eight bars of “Stardust.”

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Somehow all of the spot-on lighting changes by production designer Ryan Maloney stand out in better relief now than they did at Duke Energy Theatre 17 months ago, and photographs of Susan and her parents are far better showcased when shown in split-screen. Maloney also shines in sound design, whether bringing us that charming accordion, the sound of the cattle cars rumbling to the deathcamps with their human cargo, or the air-raid sirens when liberation is near. Decking his actors out in body mics that offer very crisp reproduction on the video, Maloney also provided pragmatic reasons for Giles to keep her hair and don a leotard.

Calmly helping Giles through all her costume changes and repeatedly partnering with her at key moments, Baldwin’s surrogate work seemed far more awesome as I re-watched her alternately stony and empathetic portrayals. Fearsome and melting like an iceberg, how much scurrying was Baldwin doing behind the scene, transforming from Mom to debonair boyfriend or from prisoner to Nazi oppressor, and how much of stage manager Callie Richards’ work was devoted to making Baldwin’s metamorphoses look effortless? She will likely be undervalued by many who see her because she has so few lines, but Delamar and LaBorde have given Baldwin a new epilogue to deliver after Giles is gone, and her perfection continues. A final elegant touch happened when she hung up one last article of clothing, surely the only costume Guichard didn’t design, for we see it on film immediately afterwards – with the real Dr. Cernyak-Spatz wearing it.

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Giles’ performance would be cleaner and bobble-free if cuts had been decreed during the filming rather than entirely in post-production. Yet after all the immaculate multi-take perfection that I’ve seen for months in screening films and TV series at home, it was wonderful to experience the arc and energy and stamina of a true live performance, warts and nerves – with lapses in Austrian accent – and all. Giles’true professionalism emerges in adversity, and like the performance at Spirit Square that I attended in 2019, accent and performance grew stronger as her story progressed, as we witnessed Susan’s perils and desperate hopes gripping her more and more.

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The little coda that LaBorde added to Cernyak-Spatz’s 2005 memoir, taking aim at emboldened White Supremacists and Anti-Semites as well as hate-spewing demagogues in the halls of Congress and the White House, sounded more potent and relevant on Easter Sunday than they did in late 2019 when Donald Trump was still our President. Maybe Delamar and Giles were simply more insistent on emphasizing LaBorde’s message. Or maybe the impact was greater for me now because, as these Holocaust echoes recede into the past, it’s more important than ever to remember them, remember how they recently grew more virulent and threatened our republic – and to call them out where they are still lurking.

“Tropical Secrets” Presents a Bittersweet Wartime Escape from Genocide

Review: Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Havana has never been the homeland of the Jewish people. Yet as we quickly learn in Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, now streaming from Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, it was often more hospitable to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi oppression, terror and genocide than most other nations – including the USA. If that surprises you, imagine how 11-year-old Daniel felt when he made this discovery in 1940.

In the wake of the infamous Kristallnacht terror across Germany, Daniel’s parents rush him onto an ocean liner bound for New York, promising to meet him there. The ship isn’t allowed into the harbor. They sail north. Knowing there are Jews on board, the Canadians also turn them away. Young Daniel, who was holding his grandfather’s hand when rioters shot him down on Kristallnacht in the middle of the street, is learning some of the cruelest lessons of the world on his own, cast adrift from his family.

Interestingly enough, Margarita Engle’s story, adapted for the stage by L M Feldman, is almost equally about the 10-year-old Paloma, nee Maria Dolorosa. From the outset, her problems are paralleled with Daniel’s. Paloma’s mom abruptly decides to leave Cuba for Europe. Needing to become closer to her dad in the wake of Mom’s abandonment, Paloma finds herself turned away. Seems like an unfair comparison at first, but Engle constantly asks us throughout this new 75-minute drama to re-examine our perspectives and our sense of proportion.

Moral certitudes are questioned during the turmoil of World War II as we watch Daniel acclimate to Cuba while still holding out hope that his parents will find him – or that he will find a way to New York. A huge flip in sentiment and loyalty happens across Havana when news reaches the island that Pearl Harbor has been bombed. Instead of marking him as fodder for the horrific Nazi deathcamps, the Yellow Star that Daniel had been forced to pin on his shirt back in Munich now becomes the badge that prevents him from being arrested as a German spy.2021~Tropical Secrets-37

As with many children’s classics, kids perceive basic truths more readily than their elders. Paloma’s father, known across the island as El Gordo, is the decider when it comes to which ships are allowed to dock in Havana and which are turned away. He tries to explain to little Paloma that he makes his decisions pragmatically rather than on principle. “The world runs on business!” he proclaims with conviction. Paloma looks her dad straight in the eye and tells him, “The world runs on kindness!” Engle’s kids also have depth, as when Daniel informs Paloma, “In Germany, you have to wear a star on your shirt, so everyone can know what you are and hate you for it.”2021~Tropical Secrets-65

Adults here aren’t perfect role models chiefly because of their practical struggles to survive and thrive. With most of the world turning the Jews away, El Gordo naturally feels pressure not to open the floodgates. Yup, immigration issues! And though Daniel’s mentor, David, staunchly wears a brightly embroidered yarmulke with pride, he also bends to practicality, peddling his ice cream in his little pushcart on the Sabbath. When Jews are suddenly perceived as friends and Germans suddenly become loathsome, suspicious, and targeted for arrest, David abruptly veers to the other end of the spectrum, opposed to allowing any foreign ship to dock in Havana until the war is over – even if Daniel’s parents happen to be on board. El Gordo, on the other hand, stands fairly firm – except for raising the price of entry.

In the shifting mists of these patriarchs’ outlooks, blown by the winds of war, Engle’s Havana takes on some of the ambiguities of Casablanca. We aren’t on the same exalted levels of politics, decadence, or romance, but you may find yourself identifying more deeply with the everyday humanity of her people. You may also experience more keenly the anguish of survivors who are left in suspense for months and years about whether those dearest to them are still alive – and empathize more keenly with those who are wracked with memories of those who have died.

Most poignant, the kids rise to heroism in acting out their natural beliefs when, after the universe flips with Pearl Harbor, they encounter a Jewish mother on the run. Why would Miriam, a German Jew, be so terrified now? Because her only living relative, daughter-in-law Marta, is a Christian. For Daniel and Paloma, it is axiomatic that both are equally entitled to live in peace. Marta and Miriam, on the other hand, wrestle with the question of how fully they should describe to their rescuers the full details of the horrors they have left behind.

Thankfully for parents wondering whether Tropical Secrets might become to heavy for their youngest, Engle takes us to precipice without jumping over. There’s plenty for her to show us about kids conquering the language barrier and bonding, and there’s plenty for the kids and their elders to teach us about Judaism, Yiddish, and carnival. Helping Feldman transform Engle’s poetry into engrossing drama, stage director David Winitsky has made a welcome return to Charlotte after a year’s absence, having hosted the Charlotte Jewish Playwriting Contest at Shalom Park for the previous three seasons.2021~Tropical Secrets-28

Two dramaturges, Carmen Pelaez and Wendy Bable, helped him and his cast get the history and the cultures across accurately. Anita J. Tripathi’s scenic design radiates hacienda elegance, but it was Robyn Warfield’s lighting that filled out the atmosphere and took us beyond the city when the story needed to travel, while Magda Guichard’s costumes deftly differentiated between the nationalities and the social classes.

Most gratifying after so many months of deprivation, isolation, and lockdown was watching such a professional all-adult cast captured so well in immaculately recorded audio and video. Because this world premiere was immediately headed for film, where kids are always kids, Adrian Thornburg and Isabel Gonzalez had the steepest obstacles to overcome as Daniel and Paloma. Thornburg’s path was to shrivel himself inwards with Daniel’s sullenness when we first see him, though Winitsky might have eased off a little on all our hero’s resentful turning away. Gonzalez’ regression moved in the opposite direction, outwards with an excess of energy and often with open arms. In less than a minute, I found myself returning to a familiar theatre world, where adults can pass as kids and be as tall – or taller than – their parents.

In Europe, on the ocean liner, and in Cuba, four other actors played multiple roles, at least one of them memorable for each player. Tom Scott as David had the dignity, tenacity, and flexibility of a time-tested Jewish survivalist, stretching himself more than usual to immerse himself in the ice cream peddler, while Frank Dominguez was stubbornly set in his ways as El Gordo, professionally urbane, gradually realizing how off-putting his pomposity has become. Paula Baldwin and Margaret Dalton complemented each other nicely as two different tandems, first as border guards who stole Daniel’s boots and broke his flute, later as the fugitives, Miriam and Marta. Baldwin as the suffering Miriam could be the most fearful, grieving, and overprotective, but Dalton as Marta delivered the best retort: “When things are ugly, you cannot help but speak it ugly.”2021~Tropical Secrets-79

Maybe the best secret in Feldman’s adaptation is the time taken to breath in the tropical air. Percussionist Raphael Torn and pianist Charlene Thomas bring the tang of rhythm and music to the street a couple of times. When Paloma takes Daniel to the festival, when she takes him to the beach at night, and when she brings him back to music again and again, fresh air infuses our hero’s life as he accepts the kindness of a friend. He tacitly acknowledges that after the bombs of world war and Kristallnacht, there is balm in Cuba – in the oranges, the coconuts, the drums, the Afro-Cuban beat, and in carnival.

“Hadleyburg High” Takes Streaming to School

Review: Hadleyburg High at Little Theatre of Winston-Salem

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By Perry Tannenbaum

 We’ve only had a year, at most, to acclimate to the restraints imposed upon theatre and performing artists by the pandemic – and to wrestle with the sensible precautions imposed on audiences. Even that slim amount of time becomes constricted when you consider the amount of time it takes for an artist to come to grips with COVID conditions and navigate what he or she can feasibly create.

Adjustments have been further constricted by the time required for a presenter to navigate the practicalities of production, schedule an event, shoot and edit and upload a livestream, and reconnect with an audience whose attention may have drifted away to Play Station and Roku. Still when something like Hadleyburg High from the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem comes along, getting so many things so right and making all of its answers to problems that have stumped so many other theatre companies seem so simple and obvious, I found myself wondering why it had taken so long.

Up until Hadleyburg High, streamed theatre productions I had reviewed existed in a binary universe. Companies either recorded their actors onstage wearing masks or they squeezed their actors onto a ZOOM grid, as many as eight wee rectangles cramped into one larger screen designed to hold 12 participants. The only escape from masking and ZOOMing has been a one-person monologue. But as Chad Edwards’ adaptation of Mark Twain’s “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” amply proves, masking and ZOOMing aren’t the only paradigms available to a resourceful theatre artist.

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From the outset, Edwards expands the possibilities, presenting his vengeful mischief-making narrator, The Stranger, as a podcaster who can quite naturally fill our screens – and proceed as soon as we key in the proper passcode. Instead of her planned episode, “New York’s Five Most Haunted Places,” on her Stranger Than Fiction blogspot, The Stranger plans to tell us of an exploit that she herself is somewhat surprised at pulling off, the hoodwinking of Hadleyburg High.

Sadly enough, The Stranger had not been able to fit in during her sojourn at the perfect school, where perfect students got perfect grades, lived perfect lives, and won every state championship worth winning. Everybody had known everybody else at Hadleyburg, but nobody troubled to welcome her or get to know her during the semester she spent there. She couldn’t wait to leave Hadleyburg when the semester ended, and she couldn’t wait to devise her vengeance – by exposing the pretense and corruption beneath the perfect students’ perfect veneer.

Now in Twain’s 1899 short story, telling a fable that happened “many years ago,” a whole proud and pretentious town, not a mere high school, was exposed by an offended stranger who had passed among the townspeople. Twain’s story was served up from an omniscient narrator rather than from a snarky, disaffected teenage girl. When Edwards, who also directed, plunges into his narrative, The Stranger disappears until we’re deep into the denouement. Without our narrator’s voice guiding us, point of view regained its original omniscient form, as Edwards adopted a split-screen format for the dialogues that ensued, simulating a series of video calls on the Hadleyburg High students’ laptops. A huge leap of the imagination wasn’t necessary as we switched gears from The Stranger’s first-person account.

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The Stranger’s locked box with a note attached – the famed “temptation” of Twain’s tale – is delivered to Casey, the Student Council president. Conferring with Tammy, her bestie, Casey makes it clear that she hopes to keep the locked box and the riches it contains a secret from the rest of the school, which would thwart The Stranger’s scheme. Tammy, however, is a relatively straight arrow, not the greedy politician that Casey is, so she’s leery of conspiring with her friend, though she prides herself on having the computer skills necessary to break the code that will unlock the box.

Denied by Tammy, Casey turns to Brent for help in getting out the word of The Stranger’s quest to discover the student who had offered the advice that had helped create the fortune contained in the locked box, a tempting $100,000. Each student who believed he or she had given this advice was to submit a form to Mrs. Calloway, the teacher that The Stranger trusted most, stating word-for-word what the exact advice was. Keyed into box, the exact words would unlock the cash prize.

Edwards isn’t shy about injecting some fresh comedy into his retelling, along with altering a plot twist or two. When Tammy changes her mind, getting a bit greedy, Brent turns out to be a bit of a screw-up when Casey tells him not to send out the announcement after all. And The Stranger’s affinity with Mrs. Calloway turns out to be justified by the teacher’s deep flaws. Another nice touch is Frances, reporting for “Hadleyburg Student News” about the amazing giveaway, as Edwards reverts to his podcast format.

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Reactions from various students to the bulletin, intercut with Frances’ report, helps to widen the roster of imposter Samaritans who will submit their entry forms and set the stage for the catastrophic reveal. All of the students at Hadleyburg know that they didn’t donate the $20 that seeded The Stranger’s fortune, but an email sent out by The Stranger explains why each of them deserves the prize. Edwards was able to preserve most of Twain’s original design in baiting this trap. Like Twain’s letter writer, Edwards’ email correspondent has just returned from Mexico.

The famous advice is also replicated – exactly. Edwards finally goes to ZOOM format when the trap is sprung. He added Calloway to preside over the reading of the students’ entries, a Mr. Banks to be caretaker for the digital lockbox, and a Mr. Caldwell as the school principal. What Edwards couldn’t do in a ZOOM format was to underscore the shame of the tempted hypocrites to a whole town, or even to a full high school student body and faculty. Only eight students, eventually including The Stranger, are crowded onto the ZOOM grid with the adults. After the podcasts and the video calls, this climactic scene did seem populated by a throng. Nor did Edwards disappoint me in dealing with the fallout from the public disgrace, resourcefully adjusting his plot.

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Performances weren’t professionally polished down to the smallest cameo, but you’ll find that Edwards’ design bends to such imperfections, particularly when Hadleyburg High students are reacting for a newscast. It was also interesting to watch how emphasis shifted from Casey as Council president to the morally ambivalent Tammy as the action proceeded. Playing the typical stuck-up high school queen bee that we know so well from teen comedy flicks, Adair Addison had most of the zingers in the early action as Casey, reveling in her smugness and sense of privilege. It’s a fun role to play. Tammy’s trials, however, more closely echoed the struggles that Twain’s most upstanding citizens had in his Hadleyburg, and as the webcast proceeded, I appreciated Sabrina Layman’s ambivalence and vacillation more and more, particularly after the ZOOM meeting took an unexpected turn.

Ella Kiser framed the production nicely as The Stranger, assuming an outsider’s sense of resentment from the moment she addressed her podcast audience as “deviants.” Unlike Olivia Samuels, who was so polished as Frances in her newscasts that she could pass for a TV anchor, Kiser retained a nerdy vibe and we could easily imagine her sitting alone, in front of her laptop, with her teen angst and defiance. Screw-up or not, Noah Goldstein was the coolest and most relaxed of the Hadleyburg students, squinting and bending toward us each time he was messaged or emailed, so we really did think of him as lounging in front of his laptop in his tacky bedroom. Addison was such a diva as Casey that we delighted when Goldstein and Layman pushed back in bargaining for their share of the undeserved cash.

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All of the adults were very fine, though only Bethany Schultz as Calloway ever garnered a substantial share of our screens. Schultz was a fascinating study, never surrendering her dignity to Tammy no matter how much Calloway was compromised, yet layering on a nervous, impulsive edge. Ken Ashford as Principal Caldwell and Mickey Hyland as Banks did most of the heavy lifting in reacting to the mass humiliation of Hadleyburg’s perfect students. As the principal, Ashford registered the steep descent from pride to shame – with plenty of surprise and outrage in between. Hyland remained the respectable adult in the room, mostly concerned with damage control as the school’s disgrace metastasized.

We could sense that Casey hadn’t received the comeuppance she truly deserved when the ZOOM meeting adjourned. This and other loose ends were neatly tied together with late-breaking podcasts from Tammy and Frances before The Stranger returned with a final update on her Stranger Than Fiction blogspot. While Edwards decided to detour around Hadleyburg’s memorable temptation motto, the path he chose otherwise was almost perfect.

Wilde Gets a Manicure, Not a Makeover

Review: The Importance of Being Earnest in a Pandemic at CPCC

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Oscar Wilde fell on tough times after writing his comic masterwork, The Importance of Being Earnest, in 1895 – but whatever else he succumbed to, including humiliation and imprisonment that very same year, Wilde never faced the Spanish Flu, let alone COVID-19. Our supply of pandemic epigrams would have been unquestionably enriched if history had played out otherwise. So I did have hopes, when I signed up for CPCC Theatre’s webcast of The Importance of Being Earnest in a Pandemic, that history would be redeemed.

Compounding pandemic and winter woes, a ransomware attack on CP plagued this production, delaying its opening by a full week and ratcheting up my eagerness. Subtitling his three-act romp “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” Wilde could have had a field day opening a Pandora’s box of pandemic paradoxes. The new script by Don Zolidis, sad to say, performs little more than a manicure on Wilde’s popular script – nothing like the refresh or update a more ambitious and talented playwright might have attempted.

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Masks and social distancing are occasionally acknowledged during the CP webcast, ably directed and designed by James Duke. Since our comedy comes to us on the Zoom format, the formalities of signing in and out of the grid are observed – often with an odd doorbell ring that gets its own mini-screen among the human characters’. Pandemic or not, no other technology aside from those martialed by Zoom advances us past 1895.

Nobody specific seems to have died during the pandemic in London, where we meet at Algernon Moncrieff’s flat for Act 1. None of the proper folk he and his lazy manservant Lane receive – including the duplicitous “Jack” Worthing, his lady fair Gwendolyn Fairfax, and the imperious Lady Bracknell – seems to have suffered any grave losses. Bucolic serenity also seems to prevail when we adjourn to Jack’s country manor for Act 2, where we meet Worthing’s lovely ward, Cicely Cardew, who is pursued there by Algernon, posing as Jack’s invented brother.

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That’s odd, because Jack’s butler Merriman has disappeared during Zolidis’s tidying of the script. Couldn’t he have been in a susceptible age group or have been afflicted by a pre-existing condition before he was taken away from us so cruelly? As it is, we must skip over an accounting of Algy’s luggage when he arrives for his surprise visit – and poor Jack is left without a surrogate to quickly order a cab for the sly mischief maker.

Tidying is never really what happens here, for doling out a comedy onto an orderly Zoom grid messes it up irreparably. Two marriage proposals happen across multiple locations on paired screens, which oddly show Algy and Gwen and then Jack and Cicely facing us when they would normally be gazing exclusively and adoringly at each other. The screen kissing is an cute touch, I’ll admit. Pure pandemic. Later on, the simultaneous withholding of permission to marry from the ladies’ guardians crisscrosses our monitors on four separate mini-screens as seven of the eight cast members get involved in the climactic melee.

Anybody yearning for reruns of Hollywood Squares will be ecstatic during this flashy denouement.

It helps that Wilde provided us with two women who had already settled on the men they would marry before they proposed – in Cicely’s case, incontestably documented in her diary, before she had even met her Ernest. More than that, we are lucky to have both Algernon and Lady Bracknell on hand. Tatters in time and space mean nothing to these perfectly insouciant personalities. They each see the world around them with uniquely absurd viewpoints. Both are uniquely acclimated to absurdity.

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Andrew Blackwell is especially satisfying as Algernon, conducting himself with an equipoise that suggests that all is well with the world. Until it isn’t, when fretting and fussing must be immediately rejected as ways of fixing things. A cucumber sandwich or a good muffin seem as capable of bringing bliss to Blackwell as the hand of Miss Cardew. Sensible fellow.

At the other end of the spectrum, with even more certitude, is Lady Bracknell. Nothing is right with the world unless it has received her certification. Milady is one of the most celebrated creations of the British stage, a plum that leading actresses and actors have salivated over for more than a century. Brionna Knight isn’t merely confronting this heritage in tackling Lady Bracknell, she’s taking on the constraints of a cruelly decimated screen.

A small restricted screen, it turns out, is fully adequate for conveying the bliss of devouring a cucumber sandwich. Lick your fingers afterwards and nothing is lost. But ruling as a stern monarch over an empire? Lady B needs a stage, a big stage, and a larger-than-life portrayal. Crowding her computer monitor in front of a tastefully decorated green screen, Knight is rarely visible below her collarbones. A diva needs more, so we never find out whether Knight can be one.

Among the other players, only Miyoni Heard is comparably disadvantaged as Miss Prism, Cicely’s incompetent governess. Heard must content herself with a dull gray background each time she appears, along with a microphone that screams out for an upgrade. Nor does Duke illuminate his governess in a way that would prompt him to take credit for lighting design, settling for a dim silhouetted look that would suggest Miss Prism was in a witness protection program. Ironically, Prism becomes the key witness at the end of Act 3 as we unravel the mystery of Jack’s origins.

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Knight is at her best in launching Prism’s reckoning, but Jacob Feldpausch as Jack swoops in nicely at this point to help Heard prolong our suspense. Wilde himself contributes superb contrivance to sustaining the tension, one of those craftsy things that can emerge the seventh time you’ve enjoyed a great comedy. More than Jack’s exit to fetch an old handbag is involved as Wilde deftly pumps the brakes. Lady B must forget the name of a lost family member after 28 years, she must also have a clue, and Jack must own a copy of the Army Lists spanning the last 40 years to finally track it down.

Brilliant.

The remaining glitter in this production comes from the ladies who portray Wilde’s eccentric, cocksure bachelorettes. As befits a relation of Lady B, Mia Venuto as Gwendolyn can nonchalantly claim the adoration of all male Londoners as her birthright, never doubting her allure or her marriageability. On the other hand, Jeanine Diaz as Cecily is as adrift and insecure in her condition as Jack is on their country manor, equally given to doing the adoring.

Wilde finely calculates his romantic relationships, to be sure, but what elevates his comedy above the epigrams of Algy and Lady B, above how fate serves Jack up to Gwen on a silver platter, is how his complications set Gwen and Cicely against each other as mortal enemies, dueling with their diaries. When these betrothed ladies are most deceived and most misunderstanding of each other, Venuto and Diaz offer up their best work, carving a perfect circle out of their confusion and caprice.

Of course, this spitfire confrontation would be even more delectable if the women were face-to-face at CP’s Halton Theater and we were all sitting there, laughing at their raging befuddlement even as we understood it so well. On Zoom, it’s so easy for them to mind their manners and resist clawing each other’s eyes out! But what can we do? We’re all in this pandemic together.

Grace and Kindness Glow in Anna Deavere Smith’s Answers to Adversity

Review: A Deeper Dive Into Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy  – With a 2020 Refresh

By Perry Tannenbaum

 Winner of multiple Drama Desk Awards for her plays – and her solo performances in them – Anna Deavere Smith has forged a unique synthesis from her skills as a playwright, actress, journalist, and teacher. Her groundbreaking monologues, Fires in the Mirror (1992) and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 (1994), were skillfully edited from hundreds of interviews that Smith taped with people involved in two distinctively American events, the Crown Heights race riots of 1991 and the Los Angeles rioting of 1992 that followed the acquittal of police officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King. After compacting the taped interviews into taut monologues, Smith channeled each of her characters in performances of carefully crafted mimicry. In artfully distilling the essence of her characters, Smith cumulatively distills us with her art in a fascinating, unique way.

On a webcast presented by The Schaeffer Center for Performing Arts at Appalachian State University, “An Evening with Anna Deavere Smith: Reclaiming Grace in the Face of Adversity,” Smith came onscreen in a way that freshly meshed theatre, lecture, pedagogy, and discussion. Dr. Paulette Marty, theatre arts professor at App State, introduced Smith, instantly departing from normal theatre presentation. Marty and Smith joined in laying the groundwork for the evening’s theme, chosen so aptly in the face earth-shattering events that have rocked us all in the past year – for Smith had prologues of her own that preceded each of her three extended portraits. Of course, such a video conference would be a staid affair in 2021 without a stream of chatter rolling along the margin of our screens. Viewers of this free webstream had a chatroom for making comments – and afterwards, as Marty interviewed Smith, the professor lifted some of her questions from that chatline.

Apparently, a side benefit of all Smith’s researches is all the prime leftovers she can deliver from those hundreds of interviews. For her rendezvous with App State, to which she linked live from New York, Smith had distillations of interviews she had taped while researching Let Me Down Easy (2008). These dated back to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and included sitdowns with Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and the late Congressman John Lewis, who walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in the famed 1965 Selma March.

Before these well-known figures, Smith introduced us to Kirsa Kurtzberg, a white physician who worked at a charity hospital in New Orleans in the midst of the Katrina disaster. Smith wove together two strands of the Kurtzberg interview in crafting her monologue, a description of the “worst asshole” she had run across in her hospital work, followed by recollections of her patients’ cynical stoicism during the Katrina ordeal. That worst person turned out to be a doctor who was her superior: he not only demonstrated absolute coldness and distaste toward his patients, but when Kurtzberg called him out on his poisonous attitude, declared that she would inevitably come to feel the same way in time.

When Katrina inundated New Orleans, Kurtzberg watched the city’s reaction unfold as private hospitals were evacuated and the charity hospital was abandoned. Worse, they opened the levees on that part of town in order to save the more valuable real estate. It was not only revelatory to Kurtzberg that her patients, overwhelming black, would be treated with such disregard and disdain, but also that these unfortunates were not at all surprised, telling her in advance that the unthinkable would happen.

If we thought that these were the darkest perceptions we would need to entertain, Smith’s portrait of Bryan Stevenson proved us wrong. Since founding the Equal Justice Initiative, Smith reminded us, Stevenson has opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, commemorating nearly 4400 victims of “racial terror lynchings” between 1877 and 1950. What Smith then concluded about America is piercing, damning, and true – more indelibly now since January 6: we are a post-genocidal society. Smith’s interview with Stevenson spotlighted a failed attempt to obtain a stay of execution for a prisoner on death row who was intellectually disabled. This is the kind of work Stevenson has dedicated his career to performing, as well as the famed case, exonerating a wrongly convicted murderer, that became the cornerstone of his memoir, Just Mercy, and the film derived from that book.

The question that Stevenson repeatedly asked in court with respect to the intellectually disabled, “Why do we kill broken people?” morphed into another question when the Supreme Court rejected his appeal at the eleventh hour. “Why do I do this?” His self-reflection yielded a brutally honest answer, “Because I’m broken, too.” This realization was illuminated by a childhood memory of the frustration, violence, and humiliation that broke out when he, his mother, and the black community stood in line – at the back of the line – waiting to be vaccinated for polio. Like his mom, Stevenson concluded, he was seeking a way not to be silent about this perennial brokenness.

The portrait of Congressman Lewis, eulogized just last summer by three former American presidents at Ebenezer Baptist Church, was the most hopeful and conciliatory in Smith’s trilogy. “Brother” also featured the most rewarding stretch of Smith’s acting skills as she adapted Lewis’s slow, distinctively accented drawl. He spoke of his yearly pilgrimage to Selma, a ritual that included stopovers in Birmingham and Montgomery, but unexpectedly, the moments of grace that he gleaned from this commemoration shone a spotlight on white people upstaging him. The first was the current Montgomery Police Chief, who publicly apologized for the beating that his department had inflicted upon him decades earlier. It was the first such apology that Lewis could remember.

What touched Lewis equally was that the Police Chief took off his badge and offered it to him. Then the moments of grace, for when Lewis answered, “I cannot accept your badge – I’m not worthy,” the chief insisted, saying. “I can get another.” An additional opportunity to forgive came to Lewis after an event that had happened even longer ago, on May 9, 1961, when the future Congressman was brutalized in Rock Hill. The son of one of those cops came to Lewis’s office to ask for forgiveness, and Lewis granted it immediately. They hugged, called each other brother, and by Lewis’s count, met 49 times afterwards.

While the post-performance discussion wasn’t my prime reason for attending, it provided a soft landing from the heights of Lewis’s moments of grace and a chance to hear some of Smith’s views head-on. Among the topics she tackled so ably, in response to Marty’s probing and pertinent questions, were the pathology of America’s police, the media’s addiction to big pharma and the auto industry, the plight of black artists, the need for a public health rethink, and the enduring need for theatre now and post-pandemic. She even dropped a suggestion on Marty, App State, and academia to deal with our times. “You might laugh,” she said, “but we need a department of kindness.” Out of nowhere, there was a religious distinction to be made. “Jesus wasn’t nice. He was kind.”

2020 or Not 2020

Review: A Half-Masked Christmas Carol at Theatre Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Luckily, the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, so friendly and jolly with his glowing torch, was more than 175 years removed from 2020 when he made his first oxymoronic appearance in print. Christmas of 1843 may not have been the best ever as it greeted Dickens’ original readers, but it had to be more festive than 2020, the gloomiest in centuries.

While it’s possible to retreat into the nostalgia of numerous movie and TV adaptations of the Yuletide classic, Charlotte is one of hundreds of cities where watching live theatrical adaptations has become a holiday tradition. So it’s fascinating, even revelatory to see how Theatre Charlotte is adapting to the unprecedented circumstances of 2020 in presenting its 14th annual production of A Christmas Carol.

It’s a remarkable chameleon, adapted by Julius Arthur Leonard and co-directed by Stuart Spencer and Chris Timmons. This is truly a to-be-or-not-to-be effort: Live and virtual, at Theatre Charlotte on Queens Road and not, set in Dickens’ London in the 19th century and unmistakably invaded by COVID-19 and the constraints of the pandemic. 2020 or not 2020.

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Watching the virtual version recorded at the Queens Road barn, I was surprised to find how Dickens’ characters, in period costumes designed by Chelsea Retalic, replicated daily life today. While Marley and the three famous Christmas Ghosts wore masks, others – including Scrooge, his nephew, and the Cratchits – did not. No wonder poor Tiny Tim is dying!

Live outdoor performances of Theatre Charlotte’s pandemic edition of Dickens premiered at Christ South’s Old Dairy Farm in Waxhaw on Reid Dairy Road, which may account for some of the anomalies we see when we tune in to the indoor version. Outdoors, winter is upon us, so Spencer and Timmons may not have wished their Scrooge to change into his jammies. Besides that, an outdoor shift in scene from the Scrooge & Marley counting house to Ebenezer’s bedroom may have been unwieldy out on the farm.

So all of the action, aside from the Ghosts’ travels, is confined to Scrooge’s office until he sallies forth on Christmas day. To achieve this economy and consistency, Spencer and Timmons alter the plot just a little, sending Scrooge outdoors for dinner and having him realize that he has forgotten his pocket watch at his office. That’s where Marley and the Ghosts will now do their haunting. Nor do our directors forget about Ebenezer’s watch or his watch chain, elegantly transforming it into a fresh plot point without changing any of the dialogue.

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The uncredited set design, likely by Timmons, is very spare, silhouettes of city and government buildings in the background, connected to the Scrooge & Marley firm by a stunted staircase and a front door. No walls or windows obscure our view of the sidewalk outside the office or the silhouetted figures that traverse it. Inside, we never need more at Scrooge’s HQ than desks for Ebenezer and his oppressed drone Bob Cratchit. Bedtime is never observed, so there’s no longer any need for a bed. When we visit the Cratchits or Scrooge’s nephew Fred, as much as a cushioned chair and a wee table are necessary, so that Fred’s wife may have a glass of wine and a decanter nearby, but that is all.

Sound design by Timmons and Vito Abate only blunders with the opening and closing of Scrooge’s front door. Opening it lets in a hullabaloo of street sounds and closing it silences the noise – except we can clearly hear the footsteps of whoever departs on the sidewalk. Grander and more successful are the sounds heralding the supernatural entrances of Marley and the three Christmas Ghosts, while lighting by Rick Wiggins brashly suggests that all three of Scrooge’s guides have celestial origins.

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Hank West, mostly prized around town for his comedy exploits, is not a complete stranger to mean roles, having portrayed the Marquis de Sade in 2003. There’s nothing missing of Scrooge’s flinty cantankerousness in the opening scene. West’s rebuffs of a charitable solicitor (just one this year instead of two) and his nephew Fred are even more repellent than his tyranny and resentment toward Cratchit. It’s when we approach West’s comedic wheelhouse where we find him woefully hamstrung. Deprived of Scrooge’s bedclothes and his dopey nightcap – the lone accessories that make Ebenezer vulnerable or adorable through five-sixths of the story – West must accompany the Ghosts in business attire.

Worse than that, West must give us a Scrooge who dances with glee, realizing that he hasn’t missed Christmas morning, dressed up like an adult going to work rather than as a child waking from – and to – a fabulous holiday dream. Missing this parcel of Dickens’ visual genius, we can appreciate it more, for the nightcap and bedclothes are also as indispensable to the distinctive flavor of Scrooge’s supernatural journeys as the Ghosts’ personalities.

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West’s comedy isn’t totally eclipsed, peeping out in his retorts to Cratchit and the Solicitor, in his timing of remarks after visitors exit, and in his sunny sallies around town making his many amends. Of course, the final prank on Cratchit when he comes in late on the 26th is handsomely done, though I was a little surprised by West’s decision to underplay Scrooge’s mischievousness and glee as he did Ebenezer’s playacting.

More women than men are seen onstage here, with Andrea King tipping the balance as Bob Cratchit. At work, she is purely deferential toward Scrooge, and King’s entrance on the 26th has a stealth worthy of Chaplin or Lucille Ball. We probably notice that at home, King’s Cratchit as a husband and a father comes off as less of a patriarch than we’re accustomed to. Can’t say that I minded much – am I becoming too evolved?

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Seeing both Allen Andrews as Christmas Yet to Come and Josh Logsdon as Marley’s Ghost wearing masks hardly detracted from their portrayals. Logsdon’s mask had an orifice that seemed rimmed with teeth, he was bundled up with enough rags under his chains to look like a leper, and a huge gray wig affixed to his head with a shroud-like kerchief made him even more loathsome. Notwithstanding Scrooge’s doubts, when Logsdon bemoaned his fate and issued Marley’s warnings, there was far more grave than gravy in this ghost.

More noticeable were the alterations that masks imposed on the women Ghosts. Reprising her role as Christmas Past, Anna McCarty had a veiled look in her gleaming white gown, Arabian or ecclesiastical in its modesty. Yet when she needed to be strong and authoritative, McCarty didn’t disappoint, even though she seemed more socially-distanced than her castmates. Lechetze Lewis as Christmas Present was free to mingle more in her garrulous London tour. Her lively interaction with Fred and his wife, Andrews and Mary Lynn Bain, offered the most spectacular display of Retalic’s costume designs this side of Marley.

Andrews’ entreaties that Uncle Scrooge come dine with Fred were nearly as foundational in establishing the Christmas spirit on Queens Road as Cratchit’s sufferings and goodwill. Bain was also more impactful when she doubled as Belle, Scrooge’s sweetheart in the flashback, particularly when she returns her engagement ring, releases Ebenezer from his obligations, and decries his worship of Mammon.

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Little moments like this, Cratchit applauding Fred’s advocacy of Christmas, and the perfect view we get of Cratchit sneaking in late after the holiday are among the many testaments we get to the work of Megan Shiflett and Nick Allison behind the cameras – delivering the best angles from the best distances. Theatre Charlotte may not have the resources that CPCC can boast in video gear, but they’re outstripping every live video I’ve seen from the college, because Spencer and Timmons are so deftly cuing their cameras where to be and when.

Amid the special hardships of 2020, local theatre companies are substantially sharpening their video techniques and their cinema savvy, good tidings that will pay dividends when COVID-19 is conquered.

With Jill Bloede executing the Narrator’s role in such a ceremonious British style, and with the likes of Tom Ollis and Rebecca Kirby as the Fezziwigs, quality runs deep in this cast – as deep as you’d expect with productions running twice the five performances this one is getting. There’s plenty of mileage left in the virtual version, which continues its on-demand run through January 2.