Category Archives: Theatre

Jilted Women at a Wine Bar Thirsting for Blood

Review: The Norwegians

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Bundle up! If you head north on I-77 to the Warehouse PAC later this week, playwright C. Denby Swanson will carry you off to the wilds of Minnesota, where she learned the frigid core lesson that inspired her dark arctic comedy, The Norwegians: “You gotta find a lover before the first freeze, or else it’s too late.” Two unescorted women, already bundled up in igloo mode, meet in a ladies’ room at a wine bar, get sloshed together, and bitterly commiserate over recently lost boyfriends.

But Betty, a devious plotter from Kentucky, and Olive, more recently arrived from Texas, aren’t passively drowning their sorrows.

No, no, no. Our first glimpse Olive is a far weirder scene. She’s hiring two hitmen, Tor and Gus, to knock off her asshole boyfriend. It just doesn’t look that way. Tor and Gus are questioning Olive as if she were the one who was trying to get hired for a job – making her sweat sometimes like cops grilling a criminal suspect.

Less askew, but with a definitely mean edge, are the barbs that the women aim at Minnesota and Texas. The Norwegians, Tor and Gus, pretty much demolish their own nationality by describing themselves and their Lutheran ways. These aren’t Lake Wobegon bachelor Norwegians, we should remember, that Garrison Keillor described so whimsically on the Prairie Home Companion comedy franchise. These are killers – and businessmen in competition with other area hitmen, most notably the Swedish outfit.

IMG_1170 (1)They are also pathologically serious, intense, and straightforward. Late in the action, Betty will take great satisfaction in bursting Tor’s “irony cherry.” Nor is there homespun solidarity between the carnivores that Betty has recommended to Olive. Every now and then, Tor will throw the fact that Gus is only half-Norwegian in his face.

Confronted by the strangely hostile and aggressive personalities of the Norwegians, Olive begins to have second thoughts and Tor begins to question Gus’s marketing expertise. We still haven’t heard anything concrete about her ex’s atrocities, or a solid reason for this radical payback, when Olive also has qualms about Gus’s weapon of choice, a baseball bat.

More complications, plot twists, and ironies ensue – and more second thoughts. After berating Gus for mixing business with pleasure, Tor realizes that he has feelings for Olive, who is resolving not to have the warmth of a lover during the oncoming winter. Or beyond. And Betty? She’s seriously considering contacting the Swedes and canceling the hit she ordered.

Well, everybody is serious here. Swanson has a knack for spicing up her dramatic tensions with wicked barbs and comedy. Meanwhile the oddity of her situations is enhanced by her odd structuring, which keeps us glued to Olive as she shuttles back and forth – in time as well as place – from the fateful wine bar meetup to the assassins’ lair.

Directing this exotic Slurpee of intrigue, Jessica Zingher doesn’t go overboard in finessing these transitions as Becca Worthington traverses the Warehouse. Together, Zingher and Worthington make a convincing case that a low-budget production at a storefront theater is an ideal way to present the shivery eccentricity of The Norwegians. The down-market wine bar is virtually built in!

Swanson’s quirky storytelling allows Worthington to shed her victim and protagonist roles, becoming a bystander like us. Her reactions are often more fun than her spoken responses. What she sees, when Tor and Gus regularly forget about her and engage with each other, is that they are not running a good-cop, bad-cop con. There’s real friction there, personality differences that go bone-deep. Bryce Mac as Gus is seething, suspicious, and volatile. Bill Reilly as Tor is comparatively stolid, stoical, trusting, and calm. He might erupt, and there are moments when we sense that there are limits to Tor’s patience for both Olive and Gus to be wary of.

Yet both of the Norwegians are rather tight-lipped and purposeful, which keeps their interrogation and negotiation scenes with Olive taut and quick-paced. Will Olive freak out or will Gus? Worthington and Mac keep us guessing.

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Over bottles of wine at a cocktail table, Olive’s conversations with Betty are noticeably less hostile, more leisurely paced, even if they’re mulling over similar homicidal subjects. Although Olive is clearly – visibly – the glue that binds the plot together, not to mention the two halves of the Warehouse stage, it’s Kerstin VanHuss as Betty who is the most loquacious of Swanson’s characters. VanHuss feasts on Swanson’s lengthiest and most outré monologues, giving Olive the lowdown on Minnesota life and persuading her that murder is the way to go.

Watching VanHuss cajoling her newfound chum and shakily delivering her pontifications, you begin to get the skewed idea that the Norwegians are more scrupulous than Betty. Another calibration might also happen as Worthington shuttles across the stage after each of her wine bar flashbacks: you may be thinking that the grilling Gus and Tor are giving her is helping Olive snap out of a hangover and back to sobriety.

The plot thickens after Betty makes her entrance for her first scene with the guys – and the action comically intensifies. Here we ultimately find the most intricate ensemble coordination, with Zingher’s most precisely timed direction, as Betty performs an epic ransacking of her supersized handbag that seems to extend at least five minutes and spill across a quarter of the stage. Others onstage while VanHuss performs this frantic, sloppy meltdown, searching for the Swedes’ business card, are largely unconcerned with Betty’s distress, digesting other news.

But as Betty’s junk pours out, and VanHuss feverishly rummages everywhere – inside the bag and out, on the table or under it – or on the floor – her epic search syncs with maximum comical impact on the dramatic conversation proceeding on a totally different topic. Amid an avalanche of trivial debris, pauses occur and certain items emerge on cue. Maybe we can compare this unique climax to a jazz improvisation, seemingly chaotic but precisely timed.

It’s funny and memorable, that’s for sure. If not altogether happily, everything falls satisfyingly into place as Swanson’s zany, treacherous comedy concludes.

Farewell, America

Review: Come from Away

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Traveling to Europe by air, you may recall the animated maps that flash onto the seatback screens facing you, orienting passengers during the flight as your pilot follows the great circle route over the Atlantic. At the very eastern edge of North America, you’re likely to notice the name of Gander, a Newfoundland outpost oddly mixed among the names of larger, more familiar cities.

So when all of North America’s airspace was shut down during the emergency of September 11, 2001, and 38 commercial and 4 military flights were diverted to the Gander International Airport, it was the next-worst thing to forcing more than 6,600 civilians and soldiers to wait it out on the ocean. Passengers almost had to bid America farewell. It was no picnic for the citizens of nearby Gander, either, who suddenly discovered that their airport had been transformed into a major immigration hub – while the population of their sleepy town mushroomed by over 66%.

Yet somehow, the hubbub sorted itself out beyond all expectations. At the time when news hit of the warm-hearted welcome strangers were experiencing in the wilds of Newfoundland, it was the feel-good story to break through a tsunami of anger, grieving, finger-pointing, and Islamophobia. A little island of hospitality in an ocean of hostility.

Sixteen years later, when Canadian husband-and-wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein retold the story in a Broadway musical, Come from Away, the time was ripe for the Gander love-in to strike a nerve once again. When the show opened for previews in mid-February 2017, less than a month after Inauguration Day, an infamous Muslim ban had recently gone into effect, a thousand-mile Southern border wall was still a political imperative – most intensely among small town rustics, it seemed – and a wave of anti-immigration sentiment was sweeping Europe.

In that climate, Come from Away must have seemed like a rallying cry, hearkening back to a time when Christian values hadn’t devolved into round-the-clock xenophobia. This week, as the touring version of the Broadway hit rolls through Belk Theater, there hasn’t been a politically-charged photo op from an internment camp in recent memory. Iran, Ukraine, Russia, or our pathetic Panthers are more likely to inflame our passions than any imminent threat from Guatemala.

We’ve turned the page, right? I wondered if the warmth of the quirky Canadians and their spontaneous connection with a global hoard of uninvited guests would still resonate, especially when the storytelling turned out to be so objective, bland, and non-confrontational.

As studiously as Sankoff and Hein avoid controversy, analysis, or agonized post-mortems, they do go into admirable detail about the logistical challenges of accommodating thousands of detainees in the middle of nowhere. Pandemonium may have broken loose near Ground Zero, but airspace across the continent was in virtual lockdown, security precautions around aircraft especially tight. Our first peeps inside a passenger cabin, as planes languish on the ground until proper processing can be set up, show us people going stir crazy during the 28 hours they must wait before deplaning – separated from their checked luggage in an information blackout.

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Raiding their supply cabinets and freely handing out booze is one remedy a crew might try to ease the tedium, even if it doesn’t altogether restore quiet and calm – or appease the claustrophobic crone in the back row. Twelve actors draw the task of simulating all the global passengers and all the Newfoundlanders involved in this massive coping drill, so there’s an electric bustle as the actors switch from their traveler roles to townspeople.

While the passengers hovering over airstrips are disoriented, experiencing the surreal, on the ground in Gander, the impact is very much like a benign invasion has suddenly hit. An ordinary day that begins with the mayor ordering up his customary cuppa joe at Tim Horton’s is no longer pre-programmed. Instead of meeting with the leader of the school bus drivers to negotiate an end to their strike, he’ll be soliciting cooperation from this foe in transporting over 6,000 aliens from the airport to town.

Elsewhere, a school teacher will need to take charge of opening an emergency shelter and breaking the news of the attack to the passengers. Feeding, washing, and bedding all these travel-weary people must also be managed. The newcomers speak a host of languages and have a host of unforeseen needs – including kosher meals – and helping so many to simply check in with friends and relatives, by phone or by email, is a formidable challenge. It is almost comical when a local SPCA worker pops up, concerned about the plight of the cats, dogs, and monkeys stowed in the belly of the planes with the cargo.

In short, there’s a multitude of practicalities in the hurly-burly of this 100-minute musical that largely distract us from the two main things: the massive kindness that the Newfies showered on the newbies, and the massive changes to our world that came with the events in Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and aboard Flight 93. A few of the passengers remind us of the big picture. Beverley, a pilot, and Hannah, a mom, worry that loved ones may have perished, and there are multiple hints that the seeds of Islamophobia have already started germinating.

Otherwise, life goes on. Kevin T and Kevin J, a gay couple with personality differences, may or may not break up. A Texas woman and a British guy may get together, overcoming wariness, shyness, and the brevity of their acquaintance.

We aren’t deluged with one-on-one kindness from the friendly natives, but there are choice examples. The teacher, Julie Johnson as Beulah, bonds with Danielle K. Thomas as Hannah because her son is also a firefighter. Two Kevins walk into a Gander bar and find that their fears of Laramie homophobia are groundless – they’re accepted warmly and instantly. A nearby mayor invites the wary Bob to his home, opens up his liquor cabinet to the stranger, and helps him overcome his fear that he’ll wake up tomorrow without his wallet. Or how about the local store clerk? After thanking a first-time customer for shopping at Walmart, she invites her home to take a shower.

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Beginning with “Welcome to the Rock,” most of the songs in the score are sung by the entire ensemble, choreographed with the right kind of vivacity by Kelly Devine, so we often get a sense that we are watching an energetic community response after all. With a script that doesn’t have the Twin Towers, al-Qaeda, radical Islam, Osama, or even terrorism prominently in its vocabulary, that communal energy seemed to be the most potent reason why Come from Away connected so viscerally with the near-capacity crowd at Belk Theater on opening night.

While there are plenty of feel-good experiences to be found on our current media landscape, including synthetic fantasies of communities bonding together and accepting one another, Come from Away comes to us at a time when we seem hopelessly fractious and divided, digging in against each other instead of helping each other out. And the comity of Come from Away strikes us as very real, very possible – and as a rebuke that isn’t saddled with a party label.

After the opening ensemble, there isn’t much in the Sankoff and Hein score to keep us airborne until we reach “Me and the Sky,” a showcase for Beverley, who turns out to be first female airline pilot at American Airlines. Marika Aubrey ably takes the controls here, counterbalancing the levity of the barroom scene that precedes. In that episode, we get the most genuinely communal spectacle of the evening, presided over by Kevin Carolan as the mayor.

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While visitors get the opportunity to be initiated as honorary Newfies, Andrew Samonsky as Kevin T and Nick Duckart as Kevin J get to define their differences, while Chamblee Ferguson as the Brit and Christine Toy Johnson as the Texan get to share their first sloppy kiss. A local liquor, “Screech,” lubricates the zany ritual, along with a freshly-caught codfish.

Others in the cast who make an impression come across as the youngest – and maybe as surrogates or prompters for us as we watch. James Earl Jones II as the skeptical Bob registers his wonder at Northern hospitality most tellingly and holds our attention after he and his fellow passengers have returned home. When she isn’t clerking at Walmart, Julia Knitel is most notably a cub reporter on the local TV station, faced with the ginormous cataclysm of 9/11 on her first day in the field. Lanky, gawky, and adorable.

Sharone Sayegh may just be even more adorable as the SPCA zealot so mindful of the animals when all of humanity’s minds are elsewhere. No doubt about it, Come from Away comes to us with plenty of heart. Question is, will we come to Belk Theater to escape what we have become 18+ years later, or will we come to experience a reckoning? No matter which, audience reception on opening night seemed to hint that they had felt an unexpectedly positive vibe – an affirmation that, in the face of so much division and adversity assailing us, we can be better.

Still Tripping After All These Years

Review: Calouche & Co.’s Clara’s Trip

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Although Caroline Calouche’s Clara’s Trip has become a Yuletide fixture at Booth Playhouse since 2012, often playing while Charlotte Ballet’s more traditional Nutcracker runs down below at Belk Theater, the cirque and aerial variant on Tchaikovsky’s actually began a year earlier at Halton Theater. Conceived as an anti-Nutcracker or an antidote for Nut haters, the Calouche & Co. has always figured to be a better fit at the contemporary Booth than at the neo-classical Halton.

Yet a curious thing has happened between Clara’s first trip at the Booth and now her eighth. While Calouche’s brainchild has become more balanced, more polished, and less Bohemian, Booth Playhouse has become seedier and more déclassé. With all its former floor-level seating stripped away, replaced by drab moveable chairs on pitilessly exposed flooring, the Booth doesn’t boast enough style to be called Bohemian. These days, it’s the colorful Calouche costumes, scenery, and aerial apparatuses onstage that push back against a powerful suspicion that you’re in a musty old union hall.

Did I miss all the wrongheaded demolition when I last entered the Booth to hear Matthew Bourne give a pre-Cinderella interview last January – or has all this foolhardiness transpired since then? Do not know what they are thinking, and I could not google any info about current plans for the Booth.

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Turn up some stage lights on the Booth’s crimson curtain and you do get a certain cirque vibe as Calouche makes her introductory remarks and plucks a couple of volunteer performers from the audience. That audience participation may be a new wrinkle, and I noticed upgrades in Jennifer O’Kelly’s sets and projections, photos by Peter Zay, and costumes by Betsey Blackmore, Kriss Yavalek, and Calouche.

Calouche’s storyline remains pretty much as I remembered, with an accident-prone mid-20s Clara breaking her ankle at a holiday party. Rushed to an emergency room in the middle of Christmas Eve, Clara nods off into a snowy dreamworld very much like Charlotte Ballet’s pre-teen Clara does downstairs at the Belk. Only at the more adult Booth, we can ascribe Clara’s fantasy to inducements such as drugs, booze and anesthesia.

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With all the assurance she could possibly need, Carol Quirós Otárola is in her first year as Clara, probably no longer in her mid-20s and definitely not accustomed to seeming awkward or accident-prone on stage. Early on, Otárola is gracefully paired with Joseph Nguyen as Beau, Clara’s white-clad cavalier. The party scene, now more upscale than I remember it, is livened by an acrobatic Mr.-and-Mrs.-Canes duet featuring Kaila Dockal and the ever-reliable Javier Gonzalez, now in his fifth season with the company.

Once Clara is booted in her post-op cast, we get a nice outbreak of imagery. Party guests become a somewhat bizarre nightmare throng, with a couple of the mob on stilts until we’re whisked into the eye-popping snow episodes. Otárola can now be all grace paired Nguyen before the curtain comes down on all the leading dancers enjoying a snow shower.

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Act 2 is more recognizably cirque with rings, silks, and trapeze. At the same time, it is more recognizably Nutcracker with Candy Canes, Gingerbreads, Flowers, and – slithering to Tchaikovsky’s Arabian dance – Fish. Accenting the talents of Susannah Burke and Sarah Small on the rings as those slithery Fish, the mesmerizing Calouche choreography is obviously “in collaboration with the Dancers” as the program booklet states. The rapport between Conner Hall and Alan Malpass on trapeze as Mr. and Mrs. Flowers has an unmistakable circus glitter, yet we might also detect Calouche’s influence in how superbly their moves align with the “Waltz of the Flowers.” Same story when Otárola and Nguyen ascend, descend, or circle around each other on the suspended silks, so snowy and ethereal.

It’s at moments like this, however, when I still wish Clara’s Trip were more anti-Nutcracker than it is. When we’re hearing canned music in a trashed venue, the high-grade heroics of Calouche’s cirque artists don’t fully dispel the feeling that we’re watching a down-market version of the Charlotte Ballet extravaganza going on below with its million-dollar designs and its live Charlotte Symphony musicians. That’s where the prime Gingerbread and Candy Cane still reside.

So I suggest it again: shake up the customary Tchaikovsky soundtrack, even if it’s just with the Duke Ellington big-band arrangements of the score or the much-lauded piano adaptation by Stewart Goodyear released four years ago. As for all the Nutcracker score that precedes the breakout of its greatest hits, I’d suggest tossing away most of the party music altogether. Either break away from the ballet score with music you might actually hear at a contemporary Christmas party or slyly transfer some of the hits that have been axed from Act 2.

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Calouche & Co. succeed with their audience involvement and in those ensemble moments where the party and Clara’s nightmare become truly wild. The aerial and cirque flights that take Nutcracker to new frontiers will also remain welcome. Certainly the wonders of Cirque du Soleil should play a leading role in Clara’s Trip, and when Zoe Flowers, Angela Kollmer,and Charley Weaver make their splash as Monkeys on their triple-wide trapeze, we’re reminded that there’s a place for Disney preciousness on this snowy frontier.

As for the shambles that is now Booth Playhouse, stoned Baby Boomers might call that a trip. What a “trip” became back in the ‘60s could still add a worthwhile dimension to Clara’s adventures, loosening up Calouche’s characters here and there while making them more at home.

Happily, Calouche doesn’t simply vanish into the wings after her introductory emceeing. After primping for the party, she’ll pop up again at various points in the show, most prominently at the end of Act 1 in the snow sequence and in Act 2 in the role of Ballerina Ornament. She still blends in quite well with the newer talent, still can light up a stage, and she still inspires students and the statewide dance community. Quite a powerhouse, all in all.

Trailer Trash Goes to College

Review: The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

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To say that Betsy Kelso and David Nehls’ Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical is a sequel – or a prequel – would be an outrageously pretentious way of looking at this crass Yuletide concoction. Pure dirty fun, they would likely proclaim, citing as proof their most memorable song, “Fuck It, It’s Christmas.” Whether they’re targeting their own musicals or their trashy Armadillo Acres avatar for American trailer parks, the Kelso-Nehl is clearly tossing the “Great” label around with Madison Avenue nonchalance. Face it, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, its Christmas mutant, and Armadillo Acres are not so great.

Yet they have definitely struck a chord with the mischief makers at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte and their loyal audience. We first toured Armadillo Acres in 2007, seven years before Kelso and Nehls uploaded Christmas onto their fictional Northern Florida property. That first production, so much in tune with ATC’s freewheeling Off-Broadway irreverence, was popular enough for a 2010 revival – and to order up the fresh inventory one Yule after the Christmas edition was first unveiled in late 2013. I suspect that ATC’s loss of their stranglehold on local productions of The Santaland Diaries also factored in.

The move has proven to be shrewd in terms of box office and retaining exclusivity. Though the road for the company has been bumpy after they departed from their Stonewall Street location, with a regrettable stop at the McBride-Bonnefoux Dance Center in 2016 – and a two-year hiatus since that Uptown gaffe – Trailer Park Christmas has remained ATC’s baby.GATPCM 9

After remaking their production to fit their current HQ at Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus, the company seems poised to keep it that way.

Evan Kinsley’s scenic design is yet another eye-popping assertion that ATC has only begun exploring the Hadley’s full capabilities, once again capitalizing on the height and flexibility of the hall. God bless LED’s for keeping electrical costs down in Kinsley’s tacky-topia of beer-can wreaths and plastic lawn flamingoes. Kinsley also gets credit for the technical derring-do of the tall Christmas tree that straddles the borderline between the properties of Rufus Jeter and Armadillo’s resident Scrooge, Darlene Seward. Trailer park manager Betty makes repeated assertions that a Yuletide curse hangs over Armadillo Acres, and a late Vesuvius outbreak from the tree spectacularly confirms that dubious intuition.

Now it’s true that Darlene’s salacious boyfriend, restauranteur Jackson Boudreaux, undercuts all pretenses that Betty can be a trailer park manager – or that Rufus and Darlene can claim any property – by declaring that they are all squatters on land that they do not own. Such details, in the Kelso-Niehls worldview, are no doubt only for i-dotting Scrooges or Cratchits.

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By the time Jackson slithers onto the scene, Darlene has become an amnesia victim in the heat of her property dispute with Rufus. Suddenly electroshocked into loving Christmas, Darlene is now open to overtures from both men. Once this soapy love triangle is established, you might conclude that Betty has little to do. Well, she can fret over the possibility that Darlene’s amnesia might wear off – along with her holiday spirit – before Armadillo can win the annual Christmas decorations prize awarded by Mobile Homes & Gardens.

Otherwise, she and Pickles and Linoleum, all holdovers from The Great American Trailer Park Musical, are relegated to slinging flapjacks at Jackson’s lewd pancake house, singing backup vocals, and making flamboyant cameos in Darlene’s dream fantasia, an unmistakable takeoff on Scrooge and his Christmas ghosts. Carrie Cranford’s props and costumes help to sugar this Christmas Carol lagniappe – and don’t presume that the guys are left out of the fun. Or the live band.

Director/sound designer Chip Decker lavishes all the déclassé vulgarity you would expect from such a seedy romp, with a few extra crotch grabs and phallic sight gags tossed in for good measure. If the sound were only sharper, all the raunchy shtick might make up for the fact that this new Hadley Theater extravaganza lacks the seedy look and vibe of the Stonewall Street version.

Pirating cable TV, tossing tinsel on a tree, longing for the miraculously changed Darlene, and sulking off to his crappy trailer, Rufus seems to fit Nick Culp like a glove – or an old beat-up pair of sweatpants. If your last glimpse of Ashton Guthrie was as a romantic lead in Show Boat or A Gentleman’s Guide, his sleaziness here as Jackson might be revelatory. I must confess that I barely recognized him in his lounge-lizard wig, but when he had the chance to vocalize on “Baby, I’ll Be Your Santa Claus,” Guthrie delivered the goods to his “breastaurant” waitresses with #MeToo gusto.

I’m more ambivalent than I expected to be about Katy Shepherd, so strong and hard-rockin’ in the title role of Lizzie last year and so strong and hard-rockin’ now as Darlene. Shepherd just may be overthinking Darlene, for she could be artificially sweeter as the amnesiac Darlene and more comical as the park Scrooge. Yes, there’s an empathetic backstory behind Darlene’s surly Scroogyness, but do we really want realism here?

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After Renee Welsh-Noel’s semi-divine outing as Peter Pan just two months ago at Children’s Theatre, it was distressing to see her so underutilized, badly miked, and seemingly dispirited as Linoleum here. Lizzie Medlin was more in touch with the true trashiness of Pickles, but not better served by her electronics. Most at home at Armadillo Acres was Karen Christensen, transferring to Betty after a stint as Lin in previous years. Although both Welsh-Noel and Medlin have striking and skilled entrances in the Dickensian dream sequence, Christensen gets the best of them all.

 

BNS “Lion” Keeps Roaring and Romancing

Review: Be A Lion

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Without much fanfare or marketing knowhow, Rory Sheriff and his Be A Lion arrived on the local scene in 2014. The musical sequel to The Wiz has been produced here five more times since then, has drawn 12 nominations for excellence from the Metrolina Theatre Association at their recently revived annual awards, and was successfully produced at the 2019 Atlanta Black Theatre Festival, where Sheriff was honored with the Best Director prize. So the time was ripe for me to catch up with this triumphant production. Something must have clicked for Brand New Sheriff Productions for Be a Lion to have been reprised so frequently and lauded so widely.

Sure enough, I found plenty to enthusiastically recommend at Spirit Square last Friday Night. Music and lyrics by Sheriff and five others are clearly ready for prime time, costume design by Dee Abdullah and Shacana Kimble is an absolute joy, and choreography by Toi Phoenix Reynolds consistently hits the sweet spot. Perhaps most exceptional among the show’s technical and design attractions is Gbale Allen’s makeup creations, a category that isn’t adjudicated in Metrolina or Atlanta – or even on Broadway. Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Damneesha – the hellspawn of wicked witch Evilline – are merely highlights in the gallery of Allen’s splendid handiwork.

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Yet overall, I was underwhelmed. Aspects of Lion were surprisingly rudimentary for a company staple that has been so extensively developed and presumably rethought, particularly Jennifer O’Kelly’s scenic design and Sheriff’s book.

Without the blandishments of fade-dissolves, the scenery is a series of projections on a massive sheet that doesn’t stay still. Nor am I awed by the graphics, which never come close to matching Sheriff’s Broadway aspirations. When you can count the bricks on the famed Yellow Brick Road – and it twists more than a couple of times before terminating at approximately shoulder level – you aren’t seeing much of a road.

More disheartening are the lingering weaknesses in Sheriff’s script, which testify to a lack of tough, honest criticism more than to a lack of talent. Action throughout Act 1 simply drags, relieved only by the splashy costumes and the bravura singing. Really, it’s like nobody has suggested a rewrite in five years across the six-plus BNS productions here and elsewhere. As Lion rounds up the old gang with drop-ins on Tin Man and Scarecrow, encouraged by Miss One (formerly Glinda) to travel to Emerald City and claim his rightful kingdom, Sheriff fails to establish any dramatic urgency for his mission.efd8703eb37b1c8e19b483746e1d6515.jpeg[8]

The hybrid offspring of Evilline and a Flying Monkey, Damneesha knocks off her daddy and summons an army of Flying Crabs to muster behind her evil intent. The upshot of this fiendish mobilization? Who knows. We dally instead at a carnival where Tin Man presides, henpecked by wife Teenie, and at a school established by Scarecrow, where she teaches. These are the respective humdrum outcomes of being granted a heart and a brain. Not exactly dramatic substitutes for cutaways to Emerald City, where citizens could be cowering under Damneesha’s tyrannical rule and Gotham City-like chaos could break out as the oppressed masses cry out for a hero.

Not only isn’t there urgency to Lion’s quest, there’s too little drama for Sheriff to build to a big finish and emphatically announce the break. Instead, a prerecorded PA announcement tells us it’s intermission. Axiomatically, that means trouble.1c0906c97b0deab102cd3ec5f253f8c4.jpeg[8]

Somehow, Sheriff mostly finds himself in Act 2 – and we find that the writer-director-producer can also sprinkle plenty of comedy and wit in his script while revving up the drama. Damneesha and her Flying Crabs finally do get aggressive, good ole Dorothy is transported – from Harlem in a cute yellow taxi – to Oz and becomes one of the witch’s kidnap victims, and Lion comes up with a clever stratagem to save the day. Oh yeah, there’s definite evidence that Act 2 has been manicured. The Emerald City masses remain out of the picture, and Dorothy doesn’t have much to contribute, but there’s hope here that Be a Lion could evolve into a truly marketable property.

Although I can trace complete turnover in the cast since the last time Queen City Nerve editor Ryan Pitkin covered BNS in a previous life, the talent onstage now at Duke Energy Theater is exemplary, beginning with Melody Williams as the ultra-wicked Damneesha and Frank “Facheaux” Crawford as Cheetah, her hapless dad. Nikki Dunn could pass for a female impersonator as Miss One, she’s so over-the-top and outrageously dressed; and Danius Jones as Miles, Lion’s obsequious mouse servant, has a bit of weasel mixed into has DNA – and a newfound worship of Michele Obama.DSC05462[4]

At the center of Sheriff’s story, for better or worse, are Tim Bradley as Lion and K. Alana Jones as Ladawn, with the producer (and choreographer) dipping perilously deep into The Lion King in crafting their romance. Lion and Ladawn are a mushy, overlong detour from the cataclysm shaking the Oz kingdom, but the chemistry between Bradley and Jones, fueled by how well she sings and how lithely she moves, keeps them watchable. Bradley never reverts to the big cowardly clown we remember before his audience with The Wizard, but every so often, slight lapses in courage and fortitude add to his texture.

Yet I’m so glad when Lion and Ladawn quarrel and break up, allowing the Oz story to breathe.3c5332bf0b172f337626fc5c9d4f4064.jpeg

While they aren’t as cleverly integrated into Sheriff’s denouement as they were in the classic 1939 Wizard film, you will still enjoy Tin Man and Scarecrow heartily. Graham Williams as Tin Man and Jessika Johnson as Scarecrow not only get the benefits of smashing costumes and makeup, they’re both accessorized with new characters they associate with. For Williams, it’s Shar Marlin playing the termagant ball-and-chain wife Teenie to the hilt. Even better, Johnson gets two Crows to teach, Trinity Muse as Leroy Crow and Cecilia Mitchell as Walter Crow, detonating the Act 2 comedy.

Muse and Mitchell moonlight as minions of the evil Damneesha, Flying Crab #1 and Flying Crab #2. Together, they are her whole army!

 

 

It’s Hard to Shout “Humbug!” at Theatre Charlotte’s Latest Dickens

Review: A Christmas Carol

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In his 15th and final season as executive director at Theatre Charlotte, Ron Law has been doing double Dickens duty in the artistic realm. Back in September, he stage-directed Oliver! to open the 2019-20 season, and now he has stepped into the formidable role of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. There’s a satisfying finality to seeing Law onstage, reminding us of the varied roles he and his family have played in reshaping Charlotte’s community theatre, which includes establishing the Dickens classic as a Yuletide fixture on Queens Road. For subscribers whose memories extend back to 2007, when Law introduced the first annual Christmas Carol, there was also an element of nostalgia: Oliver! was the season opener that year as well.

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Law brings different strengths to the role of Scrooge than his predecessors, Kevin Campbell and Christian Casper. He was frequently the loudest of the three as the unredeemed Scrooge when I saw him on Saturday night, so his explosions of meanness could be startling, though he was not as mean-to-the-bone as Campbell was in the latter years of his tenure – nor as greedily calculating as Casper. The joy and giddiness that Scrooge radiates are really the highest hurdles for an actor, and Campbell was one of the few anywhere who have ever fully convinced me of the miser’s miraculous transformation, one of the few to really create a convincing character arc.

Of course, the capability of an actor to deliver the full range of Scrooge partly hinges upon the adaptation chosen by the company or the director – and the amount of butchery inflicted by the director upon the script. Over 100 adaptations have been created for stage, TV, and film over the years, and Theatre Charlotte has done at least three of them. The current one, directed by Aaron Mize, was adapted by Arthur Julius Leonard. Unlike some others that I’ve seen, it shows us Scrooge and future partner Jacob Marley conspiring to take over the business run by Fezziwig, Scrooge’s great benefactor. And courtesy of the Ghost of Christmas Present, we peep in on Ebenezer’s former fiancée Belle, happily married with two kids, bemoaning all that has befallen Marley and Scrooge. But the Ghost of Christmas Past only revealed Ebenezer’s first encounter with Belle at a holiday soiree hosted by Fezziwig, skipping over Young Scrooge’s marriage proposal. Thus the first conversation between Leonard’s version of Belle and her fiancé occurred when she dropped by Ebenezer’s office and returned her engagement ring. Any sense of Ebenezer having been on the path toward happiness until he took a wrong turn has basically been destroyed for anybody new to the story.

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Mize and lighting designer Chris Timmons continue to make the visit from Marley’s ghost a highlight of the show, aided by Sabrina Blanks’s costuming and accessorizing. Rick Taylor startled me more than once as Marley when sound board operator implemented Vito Abate’s original sound design and smoke seeped through Scrooge’s threshold. Taylor was sufficiently fierce, aggressive and urgent to make Law quail credibly in terror, and he was able to texturize Old Joe later on in one of the Christmas Future scenes. Costuming and atmosphere contributed decisively to making an impression this year on Queens Road. Maxwell Greger was surprisingly generic as Scrooge’s oppressed and underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit, and Keyes Miller was only marginally more satisfying as Fred, Ebenezer’s shunned nephew. Yet the garish largesse of Chip Bradley’s getup as the Ghost of Christmas Present – especially when a grubby Ignorance and Want crawled out of it – keyed his hearty success.

Only a handful of others in the 29-member cast had sufficient opportunities to leave an imprint during this production, which ran 110 minutes with an intermission. These included promising turns by Anna McCarty as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Olivia Lott as Belle, despite McCarty’s underpowered voice and Lott’s outrageous white wig, which did nothing for her romantic appeal. Mize utilized his large corps effectively toward the end of the evening when he had the bulk of them parading down the center aisle toward the stage – singing a Christmas carol, of course. But at other times, Mize seemed tone-deaf to the heart of Dickens’ appeal and how much kids should contribute to his Yule-flavored sentimentality. When the miraculously transformed Scrooge shouted down to the street to get a child’s attention, Mize had his Turkey Boy (Vann-Dutch Marek) standing up onstage near him instead of down below among the audience. Awkward. Worse was the deployment of Pearce Stinson as Tiny Tim. Perhaps misguided political correctness prevented Mize and Pearce from making much of Tim’s limp, but Mize never really allowed Pearce to shine, glow, or stand apart – even when he delivered his most famous line.

All these criticisms will likely sound as if I were shouting “humbug!” to this entire enterprise, for there was no grumbling heard as the audience filed out onto Queens Road on Saturday night, greeted warmly by cast members in the lobby. Nor were there many empty seats at Theatre Charlotte, where robust Christmas Carol sales can be expected to continue.

A Masterfully Engineered Comedy Machine

Review: The Play That Goes Wrong

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Bloopers! TV audiences, theatre audiences, and film buffs love them, for bloopers have been successfully audience-tested in TV series like America’s Home Videos, comedies like Noises Off, and countless gleanings of movie out-takes – some of them nowadays appended to the director’s cut after the credits roll. So SPOILER ALERT: you will see many bloopers at Knight Theater – really a whole evening of bloopers – when you go to see The Play That Goes Wrong.

The barrage of bloopers by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields – who have also colluded on Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Nativity Goes Wrong – often had me in stitches and left me slightly weak with laughter when I exited on opening night. It was almost merciful that I found some of the shtick repetitious or predictable, allowing me to catch my breath. Others leaving the theater were giddier than I about the madcap performances, pratfalls, and hambone hijinks.

But I also noted traces of stone-faced disgruntlement from folks here and there in the crowd, redoubled perhaps by not being able to share in the euphoria surrounding them. Bloopers just may not be so damn funny to everyone, I immediately concluded. Upon further reflection, I hedged my diagnosis: maybe bloopers are so ubiquitous that people need a respite from all those we succumb to daily as click bait on Facebook and Twitter besides all those readily available on TV and in movie houses.

Blooper burnout isn’t pervasive, that’s for sure. Hell, it’s obvious that the Lewis-Sayer-Shields team has made a franchise out of them!

So let me pause to observe how artfully crafted – and expertly engineered – the bloopers we enjoy in The Play That Goes Wrong really are. Which may be a gentle way to remind folks, giddy and disgruntled alike, that they are not really bloopers at all.

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As the other plays created on this same template imply, namely Pan and The Nativity, the Broadway hit making its touring stop at the Knight also has a storyline, a play called “The Murder at Haversham Manor” – in a “Cornley University Drama Society” production. Even before this epic fiasco began, warning signals were firing off onstage and in the hall. One stagehand scurried somewhat frantically up and down the aisles, another – helped by an actor and a recruited audience member – unsuccessfully attempted a last-minute fix of the scenery, and a third issued a warning for audience members to watch out for a chandelier, affixed somewhere with duct tape, that might fall.

Inauspicious, to say the least.

Formality briefly takes over and the curtain goes down as the University emcee makes his sometimes informative, sometimes apologetic opening remarks. Regrets are proffered for budget constraints that resulted in such economies as Two Sisters and Cat. Then the curtain goes up, ending the brief spell of semi-competence. Our murder victim, Charles Haversham, hasn’t quite finished draping himself over the settee.

A parade of characters – suspects all – enters the scene, including Haversham’s fiancée, Haversham’s brother, Haversham’s butler, the fiancée’s brother, and Inspector Carter. Consulting your faux “Haversham Manor” program, a feature I fondly remember from Noises Off, you can see that the cool and composed Chris Bean is portraying the Inspector and directing the show. Not coincidentally, Bean has previously starred at Cornley as Hamlet in Hamlet, Macbeth in Macbeth, and Othello in Othello.

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Sadly, the polished actor has rashly ventured beyond his skills behind the scenes, most disastrously in designing the scenery and making the props. A steady blizzard of technical screwups whips through and inundates the production from the moment an actor makes his first entrance. The front door, which a stagehand and actor struggled to close throughout the pre-show, now will not open. The mantel that couldn’t be affixed over the fireplace needs to be used. The stretcher to gracefully remove the corpse shreds in two.

Sometimes the clumsiness of the actors compounds the flimsiness and unreliability of the set. When a door suddenly does swing open, one of the co-stars is knocked unconscious. The beam holding up the second-story study keeps colliding with another clumsy actor, and the Bean-constructed elevator to the study proves ill-designed for repeated use – and much, much more.

By the time we reach intermission at Cornley, an insurance adjuster would not be amiss. And by the time “Habersham Manor” concludes, a delegation from FEMA ought to be dispatched.

Obviously, the real scenic designer who engineered everything that so reliably “goes wrong” in Goes Wrong – an apocalyptic demolition that must be swept up, propped up, and rebuilt for every new performance – has created an awesome and supremely frivolous masterwork. Of course, Nigel Hook took home the Drama Desk and Tony Awards for scenic design in 2017. Slam-dunk decisions as far as I’m concerned.

As casualties and destruction mount, expect those black-clad stagehands to jump into the breach, further escalating the mayhem – and the acting incompetence. Remedies can often be as zany as the catastrophes that prompt them. What can go wrong usually does.

Comparisons are inevitably made between Goes Wrong and Noises Off, a Michael Frayn concoction that must be custom-built on a revolving stage. That mammoth turntable must show us backstage mishaps, misunderstandings, and antagonisms that unfold in a touring production of a bad farce. Sandwiched around the incompetence and venom that flow freely in the middle act backstage are frontal views of the two-story set where the farce unfolds. Act 1 of Noises Off shows us a belated and ominous dress rehearsal, and in Act 3, we watch the string of disasters that result at a performance months later when the troupe’s flaws and hostilities have fully fermented.

A simpler parallel can be drawn between the Goes Wrong franchise and the chain of “abridged” comedies begun with The Complete Works of Wm Shakespeare (abridged). The writers who formed Mischief Theatre, the company that produces Goes Wrong, wrote the travesty for themselves to star in – just like founding trio of the Reduced Shakespeare Company who wrote their medleys of shticks for themselves to ham up.

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Lewis, Sayer, and Shields made it far harder on themselves when they wowed London and then starred in their own show on Broadway, as you’ll readily see when you watch their touring replacements. Skirting – or succumbing to – the disasters that befall The Play That Goes Wrong requires quick reflexes and considerable physical prowess, especially when segments of Habersham Manor begin to resemble the sinking Titanic.

Standouts include Adam Petherbridge as Cecil Haversham, the victim’s brother and the fiancée’s secret lover, perpetually genial, clumsy, theatrically amateurish, and incurably hambone. Nor could I help but admire the ruffled suavity of Chris Lanceley as the beleaguered Bean, the relatively calm eye of the storm as the Inspector, trying simultaneously to get his investigation and his production on track.

The women draw some of the most challenging physical demands. Jacqueline Jarrold as Florence Colleymore, Habersham’s two-timing fiancée, must literally fight for her role when Bianca Horn, as stage-struck stage manager Annie, steals her costume and takes over. We get some wild World Wide Wrestling action when these two tigresses tangle, not a mere catfight.

Others you’re likely to savor are Jason Bowen as the lackadaisical lighting and sound operator, Trevor, who seems to care more about his boxed set of Duran Duran than Habersham Manor, and Todd Buonopane as the sorry thespian who portrays Perkins, the dignified butler. On multiple occasions, Perkins’ mispronunciations stop the show, and in one deadly instance, Buonopane’s memory lapse throws “Habersham Manor” spinning into an endless tape loop. He’s almost as bad as Petherbridge, which is very good.

Enjoy the silly, juvenile comedy – and the marvelously sophisticated stagecraft. A couple of things do magically go right in The Play That Goes Wrong, adding some delightful wrinkles.

Viking Queen “Lear” Remains True to the Bard

Review: Lear by Free Reign Theatre Company

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soul and Spirit of the Caribbean in a Ramshackle Village

Review: Once on This Island

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grit and Endurance at Birkenau – and Urgency Today

Review: Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disturbing? I hope so.