Category Archives: Theatre

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.

Upsizing “Little Shop” at CP

Review: Little Shop of Horrors

By Perry Tannenbaum

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What seemed so axiomatic when Little Shop of Horrors opened Off-Broadway in 1982 – that it was a little musical – was shunted aside when the smash hit was finally revived on Broadway in 2003. Bringing the show to Broadway seemed against the grain to Howard Ashman after he had directed his own original adaptation of Roger Corman’s 1960 sci-fi comedy. His misgivings were borne out by the lukewarm reviews from the New York critics and the equally tepid box office.

Big productions of Little Shop, like the touring version that hit Ovens Auditorium in 2005, have been aberrations. Around the country, the welcome mat for Ashman’s artful adaptation, with a rockin’ doo-wop score by Alan Menken, is customarily rolled out by smaller regional companies and community theatres.

A little surprising, then, to see Central Piedmont Theatre bringing Audrey, Seymour, and Audrey II to Halton Theater, which is only marginally smaller than the Virginia Theatre (now the August Wilson), where it ran on Broadway. But guess what? Charlotte isn’t receiving Little Shop as if it were a niche musical for guerilla companies and intimate venues. A robust crowd turned out for this past Sunday’s matinee, with armloads of tickets sold up in the oft-empty Halton balcony.LITTLESHOPOFHORRORS-1.jpg

Nor is director Ron Chisholm and his CP team shying away from the challenge of making Little Shop big. James Duke’s set design fills the stage from wing to wing, and Chisholm pours a larger cast around Audrey and Seymour than the one that populated Mushnik’s Flower Shop and Skid Row in the Broadway revival. I should also say that Chisholm pours a larger cast into Audrey II, but I won’t spoil how that plays out.

My wife Sue didn’t recognize any of the names on the CP cast list, which ultimately demonstrated just how deep Charlotte’s talent pool is these days. The name I recognized from her starring role over the summer in CP’s Beehive, Iris DeWitt, was not to be recognized here at Mushnik’s. With body mics liberally distributed among the Skid Row citizenry, it’s safest to say that DeWitt represented onstage by the latter Audrey II puppets. That’s when the alien plant lets loose with her infamous “Feed Me,” displaying its vocal gifts upon growing to maturity.LITTLESHOPOFHORRORS-123.jpg

While you need a full-throated – even intimidating – voice that DeWitt brings to an invader that metastasizes into a global threat, we need to get more ambivalent impressions of Seymour, Mushnik, and the human Audrey. We empathize with the orphaned Seymour, who is bossed by Mushnik, bullied by Mushnik, terrified by Audrey’s dentist boyfriend, and ignored by Audrey.

Until Seymour becomes homicidal.

Then we see him feeding body parts to Audrey 2 and covering up his guilt by luring Mushnik into the same maw. He’s reluctant to do 2’s bidding and become a bloodthirsty killer, but it’s bringing him fortune, fame, and – in his mind – the Audrey who has hitherto shunned him. Ultimately, he pushes back, ready to face what his recovered integrity brings him. It’s a fairly daunting role for Matthew Howie in his Charlotte debut, and the dude must also prove he can sing – both as a downtrodden clod and, in “Suddenly, Seymour,” as a newly-minted romantic hero. Howie knows how, and Chisholm gives him a comical Clark Kent moment to punctuate his transformation.

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Nearly 60 years after she first appeared onscreen, we look more askance at Audrey for absorbing and covering up the abuse she takes from Orin, her dentist boyfriend, than we do for her presumed promiscuity. She encourages Seymour to stand up to Mushnik, and when he suddenly achieves celebrity, declares she isn’t good enough for him. Anna Farish proved to be sensational in her own way as Seymour’s ideal, belting “Suddenly Seymour” opposite Howie with equal gusto in their duet and tapping into Audrey’s humdrum sweetness in the gooey “Somewhere That’s Green.”

I quite envy anyone who hears the reprise of that bucolic ballad for the first time. The sick comedy of it comes through in Farish’s last gasps, but that was one of multiple moments when I wished I were seeing Little Shop in a more intimate venue. Because a huge set piece by Duke was spun around when we went from the outdoor squalor of Skid Row to the inside of the flower shop, scenes at the shop played too far away upstage for maximum enjoyment.LITTLESHOPOFHORRORS-70

On the other hand, there were plenty of outsized performances besides DeWitt’s to help bridge the distance. Most outré was Victor Tran as the sadistic, laughing-gas fueled Orin, who gets to shine late in Act 1 singing “Dentist” with a backup trio, somewhat denuded of its usual 50’s trimmings. Clad in leather when he calls on Audrey, Tran also gets to handle two of the most interesting props in this production, an emasculated motorcycle and the wondrous dentist’s chair he mounts in order to terrorize Seymour – extracting only a single tooth, alas.

Jake Yara has that slight avuncular quality – and the hearty voice – you want to see in Mushnik and plenty of the selfish greed you want to see offsetting it. Mushnik is a bit of a Jewish stereotype, more comical than offensive. But when Yara sings “Mushnik and Son” with Howie, as Mushnik offers to make the suddenly promising Seymour his partner, there’s a pinch of warm regard mixed into his cunning pragmatism. On the street, where the alleys and trashcan evoke the seedy ‘hood, Katie Marcelino, Logan Cosper, and Taylor Goodwin do more than just sing backup.

They keep it real. So does the ensemble actor who plays the neighborhood drunk, rousing from his stupor only long enough to sing the low notes.

“And Then There Were None” Keeps Us Guessing as the Body Count Mounts

Review: Dame Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Theatre audiences love mysteries. Action, intrigue, plot twists, murder, and maybe a jolt of romance – they deliver an intoxicating brew and demand your heightened attention. Yet there aren’t nearly enough theatre mysteries to satisfy audience demand. The big names in the field are Christie and the Holmeses – Sherlock and Rupert. Either purloined from Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories or cynically refashioned and rebranded for commercial consumption, Sherlock is the mystery detective personified. Rupert Holmes has had the chutzpah to craft two mystery musicals, Drood and Curtains, as well as two mystery dramas that premiered here in Charlotte, Accomplice and Thumbs.

Whether onstage or in bookstores, Dame Agatha Christie is the unchallenged queen of mysteries. A trio of Christie titles are constantly making the rounds: The Mousetrap, renowned as the longest-running stage production of all time since 1952; Witness for the Prosecution, especially after Billy Wilder’s Oscar-nominated film in 1957; and, first presented as Ten Little N-Words back in 1943, And Then There Were None.

Christie’s zero-sum mystery is based on the most beloved of her 72 novels and one of the six best-selling novels of all time. There’s absolutely no problem with name recognition at Theatre Charlotte, where few seats were left on opening night. Nor was there any sign that director Dave Blamy had any difficulty attracting sufficient local talent to fill his cast of 10 suspects/victims who arrive on Soldier Island, all claiming to have been invited by the same person they’ve never met. An eleventh cast member ferries the guests, the butler, and the maid from the mainland and then departs.

Or does he?

Whoever sent out the invitations was selective, choosing only people who were responsible for other people’s deaths. They will all be victims, in the killer’s mind, who deserve to die. A recording that the butler has been instructed to play calls out each of the guests’ names and tells the group whose death he or she is responsible for. Justice is to be meted out to them all, for there is no escaping to the mainland.IMG_1674

That only begins to describe the fiendishness and arrogance of the killer who is on the loose, probably hiding in plain sight. Hanging over the mantle – and printed as an insert in our programs – is a poem, “Ten Little Soldier Boys,” chronicling how the group dwindled until “there were none.” As the dwindling survivors of the murderous rampage soon figure out, the poem has become a template for how the killer will snuff out each of them, following the order of the poem. The first “choked his little self,” the second “overslept himself,” the third “got left behind,” and so on.

Each time one of the guests is murdered, a soldier boy figurine sitting on the mantle disappears or falls to the floor.

It’s an elegant touch, an impressive sleight-of-hand, another affirmation that the killer is in control and always one or two steps ahead of his victims – another way he or she is toying with the ineffectual survivors who remain, mocking their efforts. And ours.

Chris Timmons’ set design, one of the best and most beautiful he has built during his 13-year tenure at the Queens Road barn, has four exits on its two levels, allowing a certain amount of bustle and confusion as we track the whereabouts of our chief suspects. We’re also rubbernecking where the next victim is, for we never know who that will be until late in the game – this is a diabolical game, right? – and only vaguely how the next murder will be done.IMG_1668

Blamy keeps the action flowing masterfully, varying his pacing, and getting Christie’s suspects to engage with each other intensively. Once the game is afoot, we must believe that each one’s demeanor – suave, artless, judgmental, analytical, scientific, or dignified – hides the heart of a maniacal murderer.

The Theatre Charlotte veterans are as reliable as we expect them to be. Caryn Crye drips piety and primness as spinster Emily Brent, saving her most severely moralizing barbs for young Vera Claythorne, whom she views as scandalously immodest. Johnny Hohenstein, not always on his best form on opening night, was sleazy and obnoxious as retired policeman William Blore when he hit his stride, both deceitful and maybe a little stupid. Timothy Huffman was actually a little less commanding than we’ve seen him before as retired General Mackenzie, perhaps too overcome by guilt and senility to be a serious threat.

On the other hand, Philip Robertson emerges as a natural leader and investigator as Sir Lawrence Wargrave, a retired judge who gets all the guests to respond to the crimes they’re accused of, rousing suspicions and animosities among the group. Thanks to him, we see the rogues’ gallery we’re dealing with fairly clearly.

Among the Queens Road newcomers, Peter Finnegan takes top-of-the-class honors as adventurer Philip Lombard. After a startling local debut as Bottom in Actor’s Theatre’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in August, Finnegan turns the pistol-toting Lombard from a semi-romantic hero into an Indiana Jones rascal, absorbing multiple rejections and altering the chemistry between him and Vera. Jonathan Stevens’ breakout performance at CPCC came even more recently as Lord Wessex in Shakespeare in Love. Some of that same aristocratic conceit and bearing transfers well to Rogers the butler, and his toxic superiority to Mrs. Rogers also has a familiar ring.

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As Mrs. Rogers, Cadie Pittman comes closer to a breakout role, giving the overworked maidservant a nice resentful edge. We keep guessing about Vera and her past because newcomer Quincy Stanford keeps her so unpredictable as she establishes bumpy relationships with both Lombard and Emily. It’s hard to surpass Finnegan for reckless swagger, but newcomer Carson Edwards gives it a try as inconsiderate daredevil Anthony Marston. He’s somewhat thwarted by the playboy outfit designed for him by costumer Chelsea Retalic, more apt to drink champagne than bourbon, and too carefree to carry a gun.

Rounding out our primary suspects, Will Lampe makes an interesting study as Dr. Armstrong. He might be a truly timorous, harmless, and useful physician, but Lampe’s fearfulness could be a façade if he’s furtively dealing out death with his medicinal syringes. Then he disappears! Dead? Lurking? The tension ratchets up suspensefully as we puzzle out whether he’s the “red herring” in the “Ten Little Soldier Boys” poem or the latest addition to the body count.

 

Charlotte’s Witness to Genocide

Preview: Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042, a Three Bone Theatre Production

By Perry Tannenbaum

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At age 97, Dr. Susan Cernyak-Spatz can look back on a life well-lived – and a life well-told. Neither outcome seemed possible on May 7, 1942, when Cernyak-Spatz and her mom responded to an invitation from the Nazi invaders who had occupied Czechoslovakia. It was an invitation that Jews could not refuse. They assembled at a large public square, where they were marched across the city of Prague in broad daylight, herded to a freight station, loaded onto trains, and transported to the Theresienstadt concentration camps.

Survival was already against the odds. Those odds grew slimmer on January 31, 1943, when Cernyak-Spatz was transported from Theresienstadt, the “showplace” camp built to deceive International Red Cross inspectors, to Birkenau, the belly of the beast in Adolph Hitler’s genocide machine.

Yet Cernyak-Spatz did survive. She survived a transfer deeper into the belly, to Auschwitz, and an attack of typhus fever brought on by the toxic living conditions there. Even after the Russians began “liberating” Eastern Europe, Cernyak-Spatz survived a grueling death march in the custody of her captors.

And oh baby, since arriving in the US nearly three-quarters of a century ago, Cernyak-Spatz has told her story – well and often. New generations have heard it at Jewish Sunday schools and at UNC Charlotte, where she is still a professor emerita in German literature. In classrooms, in lecture halls, and in synagogues across America and Europe – including Germany – she has opened fresh eyes to Nazi atrocities. In books she has authored about her life, the Holocaust, and Theresienstadt, Cernyak-Spatz has chronicled the unthinkable horrors she survived – horrors that millions of other Jews did not survive.

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The story keeps getting told. At the upcoming Charlotte Jewish Film Festival, filmmaker Ron Small’s documentary biopic, Surviving Birkenau, will be screened on October 26. And next week at Spirit Square, a project initiated by Cernyak-Spatz’s daughter, Jackie Fishman, and notables of the QC’s theatre community comes to fruition. Charles LaBorde’s adaptation of Cernyak-Spatz’s memoirs, Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042, opens on November 1 in a Three Bone Theatre production directed by Dennis Delamar.

The idea for presenting a one-woman show focused on his longtime friend Susan’s life had been moldering in Delamar’s mind since 2005 when he directed the Charlotte premiere of Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning I Am My Own Wife, an adaptation of transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s autobiography.

“That survivor’s story carried us through the Holocaust and also the fall of the Berlin Wall and made me start visualizing something similarly possible about another person’s unique Holocaust story. Someone I actually knew and cared for very much – Susan! Since then, I thought the idea was a really good one, but it stayed in the back of mind, dormant. Cut to eleven years later.”

Pieces began falling into place when Fishman, education coordinator at the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice, brought Delamar and LaBorde to Queens University for a reading of Address Unknown in April 2017, reviving one of multiple Holocaust plays LaBorde had already written. Almost inevitably, Delamar broached his long-gestating idea with Fishman during rehearsals.

“Jackie was immediately ecstatic over the idea,” he recalls, “as if I had said some magic words. ‘Let’s do it! Mom has already written her story down, the book she published in 2005. Have you read it? I’ll get you a copy.’ At that moment, Jackie became a key driving force behind this play getting done, a mission she has continued to energize as a daughter’s gift to her mother.”

Though Fishman had been one of his most valued teachers back when LaBorde was principal of Northwest School of the Arts, he didn’t see a natural transition of Protective Custody from page to stage: “too many people, too complex a story to pare down enough for an audience to follow.” LaBorde was prepared to walk away – until he came face-to-face with Fishman’s enthusiasm for the project. So he gave the book a second look.

With Three Bone Theatre aboard – and Cernyak-Spatz greenlighting the project – Delamar and LaBorde returned to Queens University, where the Greenspon Center hosted an even more exciting event last December than they had the year before. For Cernyak-Spatz was seated in the front row of a packed house at a reading-stage performance of a new LaBorde play, doubly honored at the occasion.

Nor did Cernyak-Spatz sit idly by as the latest incarnation of her life story took shape. She and her daughters, Jackie and Wendy Fishman, have been intensively involved in the process, checking facts, suggesting enhancements, correcting pronunciations, and fine-tuning the voice of the Susan we will see onstage.

“My favorite bit of research,” LaBorde reveals, “was to ask Wendy and Jackie if their mother would say the line I had written early in the play, ‘Somebody fucked up.’ Their reaction was to look at each other and then say simultaneously, ‘Oh, yeah.’”

My own research for this momentous Three Bone premiere took me to Prague last month – and from there to the fortress site of the Theresienstadt camps, the town of Terezín, and the Museum of the Ghetto. In Prague, my wife Sue and I stood in one of the squares where Cernyak-Spatz may have been marched to the transport awaiting her at the freight yards. Our guide told us that we were standing on pavement made from the shattered gravestones from a demolished Jewish cemetery.

At Theresienstadt we saw the barracks where Jews were warehoused in hall-length beds three and four levels high, no toilets provided. We saw a washroom built to hoodwink the Red Cross, lined with sinks where no water has ever flowed. We saw cemeteries near Theresienstadt and Terzín larger than football fields – with marked graves, unmarked graves, and mass graves. We were guided to the Secret Synagogue where I read the most heartbreaking plea to God that I’ve ever seen in a house of worship, written in Hebrew:

“PLEASE RETURN FROM YOUR WRATH.”

And outside Terezín, adjoining one of the burial grounds, we saw the crematoriums, restored by the Luski Family, a name familiar throughout Charlotte’s Jewish community. Maybe the most chilling and revelatory things I saw were the records displayed at the Ghetto Museum of the transports, punctiliously kept by the Nazis: dates, points of origin, and numbers of Protective Custody prisoners brought into Theresienstadt via the transports. Of the hundreds, sometimes thousands who were loaded into the cattle cars, I never saw that even 100 survived any of these horrific transports. More than once, the number was zero.

Clearly, Cernyak-Spatz bucked prodigious odds to arrive at Theresienstadt, to survive her journey to Birkenau, and finally reach Ravensbrueck, the destination of her January 1945 death march. Susan does use the word “miracle” in LaBorde’s script to account for her eluding “the gas.” Once.

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Benefiting from the guidance of the Fishmans – and the sound of the real Cernyak-Spatz’s voice (yes, there’s a Prisoner 34042 audiobook!) – Leslie Giles takes on the daunting challenge of being Susan at Duke Energy Theater, assisted by Paula Baldwin as The Dresser.

“Oh my gosh, daunting doesn’t even begin to describe how it feels to take on this very special project about this incredible person,” says Giles. “The amount of lines would be enough to scare some actors away, and then to top it off with the very real and gritty details makes it overwhelming at times. That said, it is absolutely worth it, probably the most important piece of work I’ve ever performed in my entire career. It is one thing to read about these events in a book. It is another thing to watch the story coming alive in front of you.”

Reflecting on the wonder of her survival, Cernyak-Spatz scoffs at the notion that she had any special wisdom. “Our entire day was taken up with thinking of survival,” she declares. “We had to be alert like wild animals. Wild animals don’t do much thinking. They survive. We ate anything that wouldn’t eat us. There was no time to dwell on faith or God; you had to give up your expectations of a normal universe. Perhaps my naivete allowed me to take great risks that paid off.”

If it weren’t for the war, Cernyak-Spatz says she would have likely become a dancer or an actress. Indeed, she has occasionally performed onstage here in the QC, most recently when I called her one the “islands in a stream of ineptitude” in my review of Theatre Charlotte’s production of A Little Night Music in 2006. No wonder she treasures the gift of a new drama dedicated to her in her twilight years.

There’s also a twinkle of artistry in the title of her memoirs. The Nazis didn’t simply record your prisoner number in a ledger or stitch it into your prison clothes – it was tattooed into your forearm. They fancied themselves the master race, so they could house Jews and brand Jews and liquidate Jews like cattle. The 34042 that endures in Cernyak-Spatz’s title does not signify their triumph.

“The title serves my purpose of explaining the steps and the de-humanization of a group of human beings. When one is ultimately reduced to no more than a number, the extrapolation is that there’s no worth to this life and it can be easily disposed of. I have outlived the Third Reich, triumphed over them, with a successful and productive life – raised a Jewish family and have told my story all over the world. Anyone who sees the tattooed number on my arm becomes a witness to this history.”

Inside a She-Wolfpack

Review: The Wolves by Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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A couple of new productions drew my attention over the weekend, both sporting a cast of at least eight players. Yet at the two dramas, the new Countess Dracula from The Actor’s Gym and the local premiere of The Wolves by Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, there wasn’t a single male performer among the 18 that I saw. Even more surprising, it was the older, more established company that was fielding more new faces.

There aren’t any particularly sharp canine teeth on display in The Wolves, for the title pack is a women’s soccer team, but director Sarah Provencal and her design team are making a point of fielding this high-school-aged club. ATC has turned Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus into a soccer practice field, a somewhat jarring experience after you park your car, since there’s a real practice field adjacent to the lot and the school building that houses the Hadley.

In Evan Kinsley’s set design, the field and a scoreboard bisect the theater, and ticketholders can choose to sit on either side for a nicely simulated grandstand – and soccer mom – experience. The playing space was so large that ATC executive director barely made himself heard in his inimitable pre-show welcome, feeding my concern that the newcomers we were about to see would fare even worse.

Sarah DeLappe’s script and Provencal’s direction weren’t designed to allay such fears. Other than winning their next games and making it to the national tournament, the nine Wolves aren’t consumed by a single storyline as they gather for practices, and there can be multiple conversations vying for our attention at the same time, all equally tangential. Reminding me a bit of Annie Baker’s The Flick in its verité style, DeLappe develops her characters casually and obliquely as her teens’ conversations leap unexpectedly from immigration policy to Harry Potter to soccer strategy to coach’s hangover to the Khmer Rouge – and of course, juicy gossip about absent teammates.

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Compounding our difficulties – and her actors’ – Provencal conspires with soccer trainer Kirsten Allen to keep the Wolves engaged in an ongoing cavalcade of stretching exercises and soccer drills while all these scattershot conversations are popping at us from all points of the field. There’s plenty for us to see as we sift through the trivialities for telling info, and there’s plenty for the never-further-identified #25, #13, #46, #2, #7, #14, #8, and #00 (the goalie) to do, prompted by #11, the movement captain.

Along the way, we learn that we are somewhere in Middle America, that the mysterious newcomer lives in a yurt, and that another’s dad works with immigrants. There are little markers that attach to most of the others: #00 darts off the field repeatedly to vomit, the slender #2 may be anorexic, #14 is Armenian, and the movement captain, while aching to attract the notice of a college scout, takes on the responsibility of making her teammates winners. She’ll take the silliest of them aside, #8, and chastise her for making hurtful remarks to another player.

As with The Flick, another darling of Pulitzer Prize committees in recent years, you’re likely to conclude that, behind the outward aimlessness of The Wolves, an inner aimlessness lurks as well. At times, I felt like The Wolves might be a first draft of a script that could become a TV pilot for a series that HBO or Lifetime would reject as too nebulous or punchless. There are definitely players here who pique our curiosity and promise to reward deeper exploration.

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This ATC production reaches that limbo level because Provencal’s cast is so credible – both in inhabiting their roles and their soccer uniforms. I was most impressed by El Osborn as #7, the iconoclastic striker who is unexpectedly replaced by the socially awkward newcomer, Maevis Pair as an equally impressive #46. Osborn does a fine job with the glints of vulnerability that creep into #7’s haughty front after #46’s exploits on the pitch, revealing her longing for belonging when her stardom is broken. Pair evolves from her initial trepidations – counseling would likely be helpful for #46 – but she remains respectful toward #7 and a long distance from arrogance.

Maybe the fullest character on the team is Harley Winzenreid as #11, whose world is totally upended when she is no longer the hot college prospect but still the team leader. To be sure, DeLappe and Provencal provide Winzenreid with means to register the shifting landscape she copes with – and the cataclysms that befall the whole team collectively – but she’s interesting to watch as she effortlessly maintains leadership. Aside from the always disgruntled #7, who’s there to challenge her?

Not the two neurotic pups, Annarah Shephard as the nervous goalie, nor Hannah Kevitt as the inward and secretive #2, possibly anorexic. Entertaining as she may be as the ignorant and insensitive #8, Ahzjai Culbreth is well aware that she isn’t leader-of-the-pack material. What all of the teammates achieve, even as they expend so much athletic energy going through their pre-game paces, is a naturalness that I didn’t adequately appreciate until it was paused.

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That’s when the one adult in the cast, Jennifer Poarch as Soccer Mom, makes a dramatic entrance and delivers a fairly lengthy monologue. Compared to haphazardness that precedes her, Soccer Mom seems stagey, and I found myself accusing Poarch of acting. What comes across, aside from a distinct impression that Soccer Mom isn’t sure why she’s there, is that she exits without deepening her connection with her daughter or the other Wolves. After spending 90 minutes with them, I found that I had only barely begun.

New “Dracula” Sports Female Feline Fangs

Review: Countess Dracula

By:  Perry Tannenbaum

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Yes, playwright Tony Wright has flipped his villain’s gender for his new Halloween confection, Countess Dracula, but the ripest of the fiend’s victims – Mina and Lucy – remain substantially as they were when Bram Stoker published his original novel in 1897. In fact, all of Wright’s players are now women, including the vampire queen’s most implacable enemies, Jane (neé John) Harker and the occultist Professor Van Helsing.

While a mutual attraction that dare not speak its name seems to be simmering between Mina and Jane, no such restraints apply to the Countess, exclusively ravenous for female flesh and blood. Even her obedient slave, Renfield, is a woman – a madwoman with more powers than my credulity could take as this Actor’s Gym melodrama unfolded at Spirit Square.

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For some occult reason, perhaps a reluctance to hire a set designer, Wright confines all of his early action to a dance studio, where Mina and Jane are ballet students taught by a newly-minted Carlotta. (Lucy is already undead, gnawing on innocent children out and around London – and out of our sight – when the sun goes down.) It’s rather elegant, then, to see a Dracula knockoff begin with three ballerinas decorously choreographed by Melissa McDaniel dancing to music played on a phonograph, even if Wright’s budget doesn’t allow for an Edison replica that Carlotta could crank up.

This studio set-up works well enough for Dracula’s customary parlor visits and even excuses Mina’s lack of furniture. But we’re deprived of the Countess’s nocturnal invasions of Mina’s bedroom, where she overcomes such puny obstacles as garlic, wolfbane, and perhaps a locked window appreciably above ground. Forced to become a boarder offstage, Mina is a bit tainted by the thrift of the playwright’s concept.

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Beyond that, Wright is further strained to engineer Renfield’s scenes at the same studio. Conceived by Stoker as Lucy’s suitor as well as a mental health specialist, Dr. Seward now operates the asylum that adjoins the ballet school – a business model that Seward herself recognizes is absurd. To take her share of the action at the studio, Renfield must repeatedly escape from her nearby cell, employing transformative and wall-clinging powers on loan from her mistress. Despite all the fuming and fretting of her keeper, Wilma, Renfield is always back in lockup before her next appearance.

You would think that Renfield might take advantage of her escapes to lose herself in a nearby meadow or wood, where she could hunt down all the flies and spiders she so desperately craves. What keeps her around, besides Dracula’s awesome power, is sheer contrivance.

Why Wright hamstrings himself with this fixed-set concept is beyond me, especially since the playwright-director is also a very capable lighting designer who could easily transport us to Renfield’s cell and Mina’s bedroom with additional lighting placements and cues. Deep into Act 2, when Dracula’s coffins come into play – the vampire’s homes away from his true Transylvania home – Wright will be forced to change scenes. He should surrender sooner.

Taking on these challenges instead of circumventing them would probably make COUNTESS DRACULA more fun to watch. With Harker and Van Helsing mostly in men’s clothing – and the Countess enrolling for ballet lessons! – fun and frivolity are definitely on our dance card. Tarantella, Smee!

Costume designer Davita Galloway has a merry old time dressing up Corliss Hayes as Van Helsing and Katy Schultz as Harker in dinner party attire – contrasting sharply with the drab togs she devises for Teresa Abernethy as Renfield. The inmate’s insane wildness gets accentuated by impossibly long sleeves designed to convert her top to a straightjacket. Flapping away like a cheap balloon-person outside a carwash, Abernethy pretty much steals the show every time she makes one of her weird, wild-eyed entrances, either from stage right or out of the orchestra.

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Only Elisha Bryant as the Countess truly compares with Abernethy’s dominance. She has the lean, slightly skeletal look that the best male Draculas have plus wild red Joker hair almost as flaming as Abernethy’s. She doesn’t stint on the Eastern European accent and, underscoring her catlike menace, we get to see Bryant in a body suit when she prowls her ballet lesson. Hayes at her best matches Bryant’s power and command as Van Helsing, but much of the time last Saturday night, she was reminding herself why she has so ably confined her stage appearances to eccentric cameos over the past decade, stumbling over many of her lines. We can only hope for more consistent performances this week.

Exiled to a dance studio as Dr. Seward, Lillie Oden staunchly sustains the illusion she belongs there all evening long, boiling over spontaneously each time Renfield makes one of her predictable escapes. Of the three ballerinas, only Candice Houser as Carlotta seems to have been chosen primarily for her dancing skills. Olivia DeAmicis as Mina and Katy Schultz as Harker make a wonderful couple, though you might be taken by surprise when you see how Wright treats them.

Schultz is notably starchy, self-effacing, and deferential as Jane, though she wears the pants and gently pushes for a more intimate relationship. As Mina, DeAmicis is as pure, chaste and unattainable as you would expect a storybook ballerina to be. Yet when she falls under Dracula’s spell, Mina emerges from her bedroom with an aggressiveness that clearly shocks Harker. It’s DeAmicis who now exudes catlike grace and menace in predatory pursuit of her would-be lover, and we’re not speaking of a kittycat, either. There are rough edges to Wright’s new Countess Dracula, but on occasion, his creation sprouts some deliciously sharp fangs.

Children’s Theatre Puts a Cherry on Top of a Joyous “Peter Pan”

Review: Peter Pan

By Perry Tannenbaum

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It has been well over 100 years since Captain Hook first asked James M. Barrie’s signature protagonist, “Who and what art thou?” Hook has certainly evolved since then, shedding his antiquated diction, but so has “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” as the current Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production of Peter Pan jubilantly reminds us. Peter no longer answers as Barrie prescribed, “I’m youth, I’m joy! I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg!” Ever since Jerome Robbins, Betty Comden, Adolf Green, and Jule Styne got hold of him for their musical adaptation, Peter says, “I am youth. I am joy. I am freedom!” Without any official conquest or treaty, Neverland became an American territory.

Yet it must be said that, directing the show at McColl Theatre in the ImaginOn complex, Jenny Male has turned back the clock in a couple of key respects. Like the Darling family of Londoners – Wendy, John, Michael, and their parents – Renee Welsh-Noel as Peter spoke with an unmistakable British accent. Better yet, she radiated more pure bird-broken-out-of-the-egg joy than anyone I’ve seen since Mary Martin introduced this musical ages ago. The voice is also very fine, with richer low notes than I’ve heard before from a lady Peter and only a negligible loss of power at the top. Welsh-Noel also boasts more youthful energy than Cathy Rigby, the last marquee name to tour Charlotte in the title role, with a dancer’s athleticism rather than a gymnast’s.

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Fresh new joy also radiates from Caleb Ryan Sigmon, who sashays across Neverland and his pirate ship in a silken, spangled, flaming-red greatcoat designed by Ryan Moller that skirts the borders of effeminacy without quite crossing over. Male and choreographer Mavis Scully supply Sigmon with abundant shtick to feast on, and his antics kept the kiddies in a hysterical uproar of laughter. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard more excited glee during an intermission, as if parents had discovered buried treasure in the comedy, the music, and the flying action. Sigmon excelled most notably in “Hook’s Waltz,” slightly eclipsing the éclat he and his crew had created in his previous “Tango” and “Tarantella.” After he concluded the “Waltz” once, I hoped Sigmon would get a second ending to croon. Hamming up “Mrs. Hook’s little baby boy,” he did.

Political correctness, however, has taken away Tiger Lily’s former Native American zest, short-changing Desirae Powell’s chances to shine. “Indians!” and “The Pow-Wow Polka” have gone the way of the passenger pigeon, along with the “Ugg-a-Wugg” title and much of the Styne melody from what is now “True Brothers to the End.” A percussion orgy, maybe African- or Caribbean-inspired, and a splash of Scully choreography replaced the tom-tom tattoo. Hard to say what the main sore point was here, referring to Native Americans or the treaties we made with them. Either way, despite Moller’s evocative costuming, it was difficult for Powell to sustain any traction in her severely pruned role. I’m not sure it was even kosher for her to acknowledge that she was leading a tribe. Gender may also be off limits in our hypersensitive new world: Hook’s “Mysterious Lady” has disappeared, and the first greeting from Wendy to Peter is no longer “Boy.”

The Darling children, products of the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte School of Theatre Training, were absolutely wonderful, perfect examples Male’s meticulous directing. Mary Kathryn Brown artlessly delivered the full range of Wendy – eldest sib, adventurous girl, fantasy mother and wife – with all the joy and frustration of dealing with Peter. Wearing the traditional top hat, Eli Fischer was suitably priggish as John, and Andrew Ahdieh dispatched some endearing business with a teddy bear as Michael. Of course, the boys wanted to go to Neverland – Wendy hardly needed to invite them – but of course they soon got homesick after a few adventures and asked to schlep back across the galaxy. Alison Snow-Rhinehardt presided over the sleepy opening action with a sweet Julie Andrews accent as Mrs. Darling, starting off the canonic “Tender Shepherd” lullaby with a warmth that justified her children’s affections. Snow-Rhinehardt shed her formal during her brood’s absence, transforming into one of the pirate crew, but Jeremy Shane Kinser as Mr. Darling moonlights more prominently, becoming Starkey, one of Hook’s chief henchmen.

Male’s inventive overlays are certainly open to question. She frames the action with a little girl, Wendy’s future daughter, off to the side of the stage, reading the story and ultimately stepping into it for the final scene. In the meanwhile, lights come up on her occasionally as she gets swept up in the action – it seems that she’s supplanting the role of an interpreter for the hearing impaired. And if you think the woman listed in the cast as Tinker Bell is a celesta virtuoso, guess again. After twinkling on walls, furniture, and foliage all through the story, she suddenly flies into Peter’s hideout in the corporeal form of Haley Vogel, drinking Hook’s poison to save dear Peter and dying a fairy’s death. The tableau, Tink cradled in Peter’s arms before we’re entreated to resurrect her with our clapping, is like a Pietà. Kids at the Saturday matinee were as amazed as I was – and responsive. And how about Lisa Schacher as Smee? She was so lovably servile towards Hook that I didn’t begrudge her tagging along behind the Lost Boys at the end.

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Sets by Robin Best weren’t the most eye-popping that I’ve seen at the McColl, a little humdrum in the framing London scenes but bursting with life in Neverland with a preternaturally large dragonfly painted onto the skein along with clusters of grapes larger than Hook himself. The deck of Hook’s ship was, in the same vein, a monstrously enlarged replica of the boat we first saw on John’s bed, made from a folded-up newspaper. Dreamy and odd. The idea of making Nanna, the Darlings’ dog, into a big floppy puppet was brilliant, but I’m sorry to report that Male and her design team bungled the Croc rather badly, giving us only a tail dangling over the side of that newspaper boat as the action crested. Evidently, nobody at ImaginOn has checked out the wondrous Charlotte Ballet production of Peter Pan and discovered just how hilarious a costumed Croc can be.

But it would be foolish to assert that Children’s Theatre didn’t know what they were doing in this spectacular season opener. Clocking in at 140 minutes, Peter Pan surely ranks among the longest shows ever staged at the McColl Theatre, its opening act longer than most of the shows the company produces. Maybe the cagiest – and subtly effective – thing Male does is in the careful placement of her intermission. Flouting the norm, she doesn’t bring down the curtain on a rousing climax. Instead, we adjourn at the moment when Peter and Tiger Lily shake hands after saving each other from the pirates. When the lights came up, everybody in the audience – children of all ages – knew that there was more to come and that it would be good. The flying by Peter, Wendy, her sibs, and the surprising Tink is delightful throughout, but the curtain call sends Peter out over the audience, an artful cherry on top.

Flouting History and Scholarship, “Shakespeare in Love” Reveals How the Bard Became the Bard

Review: Central Piedmont Theater’s Shakespeare in Love

By Perry Tannenbaum

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For centuries, theatergoers and scholars have mulled over the question of how William Shakespeare became the magisterial genius he was, how as a poet and playwright he came to know so much, write with such a honeyed tongue, and move so many so deeply. In 1998, screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard tackled that question with Shakespeare in Love, taking a new approach and attitude. Discarding the usual methods of textual study and meticulous historical investigation, Norman and Stoppard wove a new fabric, some of it out of whole cloth and some of it stitched together from familiar scraps of information and familiar quotes.

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Two operative principles preside over their work, normalizing Shakespeare as a writer. You will certainly come away from playwright Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love, currently at Halton Theater in a handsome Central Piedmont Theatre production, with the notion that the Bard of Avon wrote about what he personally experienced and that he was a magnificent and insatiable sponge, absorbing everything that was said to him and sublimating it into magnificent verse and poetry. In the words of Henry James, repeatedly intoned in graduate level writing programs across America, Shakespeare was “one upon whom nothing is lost.”

You can also choose to be outraged by the shambles Norman and Stoppard make of actual history, beginning with the notion that the story of Romeo and Juliet is a Shakespeare original. Even undergrad lit majors know better. But you’ll likely be won over by the fun-filled attitude of Norman and Stoppard as they put together a story with sufficient romance, theatre and court intrigue, comedy, and tragedy to inspire not only Romeo and Juliet but also armloads of Shakespearean treasure afterwards. With Stoppard on the team, a genuine theatre insider, there’s a theatre-making perspective that adds to the excitement of the multiple plots that keep us scrambling to follow the action. Under the direction of Tom Hollis, the energy and enthusiasm of this teeming yarn were quite contagious for its Saturday evening audience.

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Before Will meets Viola De Lesseps, who will inspire the playwright to change his frivolous “Romeo and Ethel” comedy into the tragedy we all know – and serve as model for the heroine of Twelfth Night – a hectic stew of rivalry, antagonism, and desperation is boiling around him. Assailed by writer’s block, Will is already past the time when he promised to finish new scripts for Philip Henslowe’s Rose Theatre and Richard Burbage’s Curtain Theatre. Henslowe’s need is particularly acute because he owes money to Fennyman, a shark who employs henchmen and torture to ratchet up his coercion. Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, Shakespeare’s greatest contemporary, is a friend here, helping Will toward shaping the plot of Romeo and feeding him lines for his most famous sonnet.

All of this desperation and streetfighting are a perfect backdrop for the luminescence of Viola. A beautiful noblewoman smitten by the theatre and Shakespeare’s verse, she disguises herself as Thomas Kent in order to audition for the role of Romeo, performing a speech from the Bard’s first hit, Two Gentlemen of Verona, as a sampling. (Audience members who don’t know that women were forbidden to act onstage during the Elizabethan Era will be deftly brought up to speed.) Until Viola shows up, Will hasn’t seen much to encourage him that he’ll be able to cast “Romeo and Ethel” if he ever finishes writing it. When Kent flees the audition after flubbing some kissing business, Will pursues, only to come face-to-face with Viola. So now it’s Will’s turn to be flustered.

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Once Viola is on the scene, romance enters to dispel Will’s writer’s block and the world of Shakespeare in Love widens to include nobility, government, and royalty. Lord Essex, aspiring to Viola’s hand and fortune, is Will’s chief romantic obstacle, having obtained daddy’s permission – and Queen Elizabeth herself will also need to approve. If Viola does achieve her ambition and appear publicly onstage, the Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney, stands in the wings, empowered to instantly stop the performance and shut down the theatre.

Jennifer O’Kelly’s set design, with its Globe Theater arches and balcony, emphatically reinforces the notion that the action we’re watching in Will’s life is the stuff of Shakespearean drama. Pre-recorded music composed by Paddy Cunneen, infused with the sounds of flutes and lutes, helps in the transitions from theaters and taverns to noble and palatial surroundings. With plenty of input from companies and theatre departments as far away as Greensboro, costume designer Emily McCurdy splendidly outfits a cast of 23 playing 60 different roles – though it might be pointed out that the Queen of England should have more than one dress. Choreography by Clay Daniels, when we reach the iconic Romeo ballroom scenes in real life and in rehearsal, meshes with the music simply and authentically.

Best of all, the key roles were aptly cast. Morgan Wakefield had an abundance of breathless energy and theatre enthusiasm that never seemed nerdy and – since she was the inspiration for Juliet as well as Viola – a total lack of vanity staining her beauty. While Wakefield’s energy largely fueled the pulsing effervescence of this performance, Jack Stanford was no less on point as Shakespeare. He walked a similar tightrope between pragmatic calculation and youthful impulse that Wakefield trod, never becoming too cerebral. As lines from Shakespeare’s future works showered him from all directions throughout the evening, I always sensed from Stanford that Will was absorbing rather than stealing them.

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The nobles all sounded very polished, beginning with Jonathan Stephens as the pushy, valorous and conceited Essex and Pat Heiss as the sternly regal Queen Elizabeth – with a broad vein of worldliness. Jim Greenwood as Tilney was exactly the kind of prig you would want to cram into a trapdoor, costumed puritanically to make it obvious that he inspired Malvolio in Twelfth Night; and Anne Lambert bustled about officiously enough as Viola’s Nurse to make it obvious that Juliet should have one, too.

Out in the London jungle where the Rose Theatre struggled for survival, inexperience only occasionally peeped out among the players. Jeff Powell infused Fennyman with menace, convincingly shifting his attitude once the moneylender became stagestruck, and while Larry Wu could be downright bizarre as the tortured Henslowe, his intensity was endearing. A little more confidence and individuality would help Blake Williams in his portrayal of Kit Marlowe, but there was abundant stage presence from Bryce Mac as Ned Allyn, the star actor who took on the role of Mercutio, and from Brian Holloway as the predatory, opportunistic Burbage.

Chemistry between Stanford and Wakefield in the Will/Viola romance will sufficiently captivate groundlings new to the world of Shakespeare. But the more you’ve experienced of the Bard, the more you will be delighted by the quotes from Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Lear that also creep in. Where the intended allusions and echoes ended and where unintended parallels began was sometimes hard to discern. When Elizabeth told Viola that even she could not dissolve an ordained marriage, was this a foreshadowing of what Theseus had to tell Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? While Romeo and Juliet was virtually writing itself before my eyes, it was reassuring to recall that genuine monarchs can understand the limits of their power.

 

Dangerous and Delicious London – With a Twist

Review: Oliver! at Theatre Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Ron Law will be retiring when his 15th season as executive director at Theatre Charlotte comes to an end next spring, but he sure isn’t retiring – or even receding into the background – right now. The spotlight will shine brightest on Law in December when he stars for the first time ever as Ebenezer Scrooge in the annual revival of A Christmas Carol at the Queens Road barn. Meanwhile he’s had other things besides bookkeeping on his mind for the past month or so, since the 92nd season at Theatre Charlotte is kicking off with a different Dickens, Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and Law is the stage director.

Thanks to some impressively weathered scenic design by Josh Webb and a juicy mix of dignified and low-life costumes by Melody Branch, the current production looks vibrant and fetching before we even reach the title song, though purists will recoil at the sound of the prerecorded orchestra. Your first favorable impressions will be sustained by the fine set of adult principals that Law has gleaned from the rich Queen City talent trove that showed up for auditions. Yet the mean rigidity of Mr. Bumble, the terror of Bill Sikes, the acquisitive cunning of Fagin, and the conflicted kindness of Nancy would be largely wasted if they were directed at an Oliver who didn’t win us over.

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Atticus Ware passes his first key test as Oliver Twist simply by standing up after dinner has been served at the workhouse and having the cheek to say, “More, please!” We’ve actually seen an Oliver at Children’s Theatre long ago who looked the very antithesis of orphaned malnourishment, and it was hard to suppress a laugh. Easily two years younger than any Oliver to appear in a local production – except for Andrew Kenny in 2001 – Ware also passes muster when Bumble reassures the Sowerberrys, morticians he has sold Oliver to, that the lad will surely grow bigger.

There are prudential reasons past directors haven’t opted for an Oliver as young and small – and maybe considered cutting Bumble’s room-to-grow remark. Without a body mic, it’s hard for a middle-schooler to sing Oliver’s angelic “Where Is Love?” or his wonderstruck “Who Will Buy?” and make himself heard across an orchestra and an audience. Nicely miked-up, Ware holds up as beautifully as Andrew Griner did in Theatre Charlotte’s last Oliver! in 2007, and he adds palpable charm when he takes his turns in “I’ll Do Anything.”

Of course, the main reason why Oliver! is being offered in the metro Charlotte area for the sixth time this century is Bart’s amazing score. No fewer than a dozen of the songs have engraved themselves in my mind so that I can agreeably recall their main hooks without assistance. Familiarity can tempt directors and actors to deviate from established Oliver Twist expectations – or, in the practice of casting girls at the workhouse and in Fagin’s band of thieving urchins, widening our expectations.

Law has presented enough iterations of Christmas Carol to value and preserve the Dickensian spirit of Oliver while loosening casting requirements where the envelope has already been pushed. Johnny Hohenstein immediately stands out as a fierce and booming Mr. Bumble, while Geof Knight as Fagin and William Kirkwood as Sikes are among the best we’ve seen. Together they form an adult triumvirate who remind us that greed and corruption aren’t simply confined to the underworld.

Hohenstein is as titanic as a beleaguered husband as he is when he’s a tyrannical beadle, a definite asset. I find ample menace and intimidation in Sikes when Kirkwood delivers his growling “My Name,” and I like the sliminess that Knight brings to “You Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” – and the grim calculation of his “Reviewing the Situation.” You couldn’t get me to dispute that any of these three gave the best auditions for their respective roles.

It’s just that I want to see a craven factor, a fear of Sikes’ violent volatility that would give an extra dimension to Fagin’s craftiness. From there, the chemistry between the two rogues can be further textured by their one-time mentor-apprentice relationship. Knight just doesn’t have the appearance of a cerebral weasel, which would make these layers relatively easy and self-evident. Here it needs work.

When it comes to Sikes’ abusive relationship with Nancy, Bart gives Kristin Graf Sakamoto all that she needs to get to its heart. Even if Nancy isn’t liberated, she’s spirited, best seen in Sakamoto’s interactions with the youngsters and in her lusty, boozy rendition of her “Oom-Pah-Pah” polka. Nancy faces some grim choices with Oliver, yet Sakamoto makes it clear that fidelity to Sikes is infused with fear – propped up by fear, you could say – when she repeats her signature “As Long as He Needs Me.”

So the Sikes-Nancy-Oliver drama and suspense develops beautifully from the first moments that we see Sakamoto. There’s already a glint of welcoming light when the Artful Dodger accosts Oliver after he has escaped Bumble and the Sowerberry mortuary. Bailey Wray ignites a “Consider Yourself” welcome as Dodger, assisted by Lisa Blanton’s choreography, that seems to engulf the whole city of London. Wray himself radiates a city-sized energy all by himself. Dodger’s precocious top hat is a couple of sizes too large, a plausible wardrobe choice, but I suspect that Law has elected to keep it that way in order to keep Wray’s hyperactive hands partially occupied.

Later there’s lively bustle in Fagin’s lair when the master puts his kids through their pickpocketing drill, and a new flowering of Blanton choreography when Oliver awakens at the home of his benefactor, Mr. Brownlow. the greatness of Britain beams at us like a sunshiney day, for Ware isn’t the only vocalist in “Who Will Buy” as it swirls with increasing anthemic force. Consonant with this cornucopia of wholesomeness, Rick Taylor is upright and trusting, a quiet affirmation that goodness and kindheartedness can rise above the miasma that swallows up Bill and Nancy.

Aside from the cloudy Sikes-Fagin chemistry, Law only loses focus at the end when Fagin and Dodger make their final exits – seemingly without any emphasis or attitude. Maybe bringing them downstage would help, but it’s a moment that deserves more fiddling with and agonizing over. Last impressions are as important as our first.

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It’s still quite sensible to hurry over to Queens Road, where the corruption and goodness of humanity are as exquisitely balanced as night and day. At its core, Oliver’s journey is a progression from secluded, deprived oppression to the centers of opportunity and civilization. Performances are almost universally fresh and decisive among over 40 onstage participants, and it’s hard to overpraise the work of musical director Ryan Deal in keeping his singers fresh and precise through a long rehearsal process.

Of course, the excitement of opening night added a jolt of energy to the performance, especially for the 13 actors – plus a dog – who were making their Theatre Charlotte debuts. If you’ve never experienced Oliver! before, you will likely feel a similar jolt of discovery.

 

“Amos McGee” Takes Us Into Uncharted Pre-K Territory

Review: A Sick Day for Amos McGee at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When you watch the new Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production of A Sick Day for Amos McGee, you and your child might not realize that Amos is employed as a zookeeper. You won’t see Amos swabbing down or feeding the animals that he visits – an elephant, a tortoise, a penguin, a rhino, and an owl – nor will you see him sweeping any cages or disposing of any droppings.

The time Amos spends with the zoo animals, to be honest, never looks like work. Thanks to the text by Philip C. Stead, adapted for the stage by Nicole B. Adkins, what Amos does looks exactly like friendship. He sits down to a game of chess with the elephant, races – and discreetly loses to – the tortoise, sits quietly and patiently with the shy penguin, and wipes the allergy-prone rhino’s nose. Time has truly flown by when dusk comes and Amos reads the owl a bedtime story.

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What struck me more forcefully than Amos’s vocation in Scottie Rowell’s puppet design, excellently derived from Erin Stead’s illustration, was his age. He’s elderly. You don’t need much youthfulness or foot speed to play chess, lose a race to a tortoise, extract a hankie from your pocket, or read a book.

So if you come to Wells Fargo Playhouse, you’ll find that Children’s Theatre is carving out a new niche with this leisurely-paced production sensitively directed by Melissa Ohlman-Roberge. It’s theatre for pre-K, and kids that I saw at the opening performance last Thursday seemed to find the pacing perfect. Oldsters and anklebiters are a natural combo, like peanut butter and jelly.

I did begin to wonder whether all the unhurried quality time Amos was spending with his zoo friends was the “sick day” of the title, for it takes up a larger proportion of our time at the theater than it does in the book. And I also began to suspect that Amos McGee wasn’t as fit for Children’s Theatre’s vaunted Kindness Project as it might be for a Friendship Initiative.

All that was neatly sorted out after Amos returned home and his new day began the next morning – a sick day when he just didn’t want to get out of bed. Consternation breaks out at the zoo. Elephant is missing his chess rival, tortoise is raring to race, and rhino is a mess. More than ever, we see that the animals don’t regard Amos as a zookeeper. When he doesn’t appear on schedule, we see that they regard him as a friend and as an integral part of their day. Their healthy day.

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When it becomes obvious to Amos’s friends that something is wrong, the kindness breaks out. Apparently, the animals recognize the city bus that Amos arrives on each day, so they resolve to take it to his house and pay him a visit. I’m assuming that animals who play chess and understand stories can devise ways to take leave of the zoo, pay their bus fares, and squeeze through the entrance to their friend’s apartment. But how do they find Amos’s place? If I figure anything out, I’ll let you know.

What matters, of course, is that Amos is modeling behavior that the animals appreciate, count on, and reciprocate. As the tortoise plays hide-and-seek with Amos, penguin sits quietly with his friend, and owl initiates story time, we’re likely to realize something that probably should have hit us when Amos was well: he gets as much from his friends as he gives.

The three actors who serve as our puppeteers and take turns narrating gravitate toward a middle ground between ninja invisibility and emcee assertiveness, earnestly directing their attention – and ours – toward the puppets most of the time and calmly genial, never loud, in addressing us. Kids are likely to have a lively debate over which of Rowell’s puppet stars we should like best, elephant and tortoise perhaps leading the pack, but a call to express a preference among the puppeteers – Ron Lee McGill, Kevin Sarlo, or Lydia Williamson – will likely be met with blank stares.

All three puppeteers efface themselves sufficiently to allow Amos and the animals to be the stars. They’re like good parents for kids in this pre-K age group, encouraging their children to discover and play without going too far in voicing their views or imposing their structure. Yes, this is fertile new ground for theatre, worthy of further exploration.