Category Archives: Theatre

CP’s “Becket” Struggles With Loyalty, Faith, and Caring

Review: Becket

By Perry Tannenbaum

When Becket began at Halton Theater this past Sunday afternoon, it struck me as a vast historical tapestry. I was a bit startled to find that I was asking myself, Why didn’t Shakespeare ever take up this story? As Jean Anouilh’s drama rumbled majestically on, however, quite a different question gripped me: Isn’t this a glorified two-hander between King Henry II and Thomas Becket, with other characters strewn around them like so many chess pieces?

This seems to be only the second play that CPCC has presented at Halton Theater – the first since Noises Off in 2012. You can infer from that history that theatre department chair Tom Hollis, who directs here for CPCC Theatre, is not a big fan of the Halton when CP isn’t using it for Broadway musicals. His pre-performance invitation to the audience to find seats closer to the stage during intermission underscored his wariness.

Hollis has had to make peace with the Halton – for now, anyway – because Pease Auditorium, the longtime anchor of dramatic presentations at CP, will soon be facing the wrecking ball. A new building with theatre facilities will replace it at that razed site. Very likely, Hollis is also surprising himself a little with this Becket because scene designer Jennifer O’Kelly has filled the stage so handsomely, both horizontally and vertically.

The pillars spaced across the stage are at least three times as tall as the squat dimensions of panoramic Pease would allow, so the impressive scenery evokes Las Vegas more than London. Action does cheat forward at times to the floor that covers Halton’s commodious orchestra pit, but the chief reason we hear all the actors so well is sound designer Stephen Lancaster’s sure hand with the hall’s famously wayward audio system.

With so little between those pillars, which must remain fixed whether we’re sallying forth to a Saxon hut or to a French battlefield, there are many times that you accept O’Kelly’s set as the sort of backdrop we’ve accustomed ourselves to in Shakespearean productions. Unfortunately, the wide range of characters that Becket engages aside from Henry, from sullen peasants to a pragmatic French king, don’t deliver the rich depth we’re accustomed to in the Bard’s teeming histories.

Henry is selfish, lecherous, petulant, and spoiled throughout, but Becket transforms, beginning as a wily manipulator who thrives on the challenge of hunting and the thrill of battle. At his core, only fitfully awakened, are a set of scruples and a sense of honor. He is as apt as Henry to forget that he’s an archdeacon of the church.

In the long arc of the story, we watch Becket, appointed by Henry as chancellor of England, helping his king to extract taxes from the church. But then Henry miscalculates and appoints Becket as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, reasoning that that his old chum will make it so much easier to shake down the church. Becket shocks his benefactor after he becomes Archbishop, renouncing the chancellorship and returning the chancellor’s ring to Henry, and standing up for the church. In bare feet, renouncing worldly possessions.

In the shorter arc that plays out through much of the first act, very much along the same contours as the larger arc, we get a more vivid sense of who Henry and Becket are. After a daylong hunting excursion, the pair stop to rest and refresh at the Saxons’ hut. While the father is fetching water for the king, Henry takes a fancy to his daughter. To protect the girl from Henry’s ravishing, Becket professes to want her for himself. Henry yields the nameless girl up – on condition that he can demand payback later. When they return to the castle, Henry names his price. He lays claim to Becket’s mistress, Gwendolyn.

You can outwit and outmaneuver a monarch, we’re repeatedly shown, but power ultimately prevails. Gwendolyn and the Saxon girl are crucial to illustrating Anouilh’s point, but Shakespeare would have granted them the privilege of also being people. Hollis seems to empathize with the slenderness of these roles, giving both to Gabriela Celecia, who does what she can. Becket declares that he has never really loved anyone, but that doesn’t give cover to the playwright. Nor is this simply misogyny on Anouilh’s part, for the English clergy – and The Pope, for that matter – are also paper-thin. Seriously, he couldn’t give the Pope a name?

Ailing and decrepit, the Archbishop whom Becket will succeed is discerned easily enough amid the clergy, and Jim Greenwood gives him ample texture, the best of his multiple roles. But I can only report that Rob Craig was the Bishop of York, Roger Watson was the Bishop of York, and John DeMicco were the Huey, Dewey, and Louie of the English church. As a group, they are fine and spirited with a righteousness that is balanced with practicality. Or greed, depending on your view of the church.

Tony Wright is one of the best all-around theatre professionals we have in Charlotte, and his own company, Actor’s Gym, will soon be returning to the local scene, reviving Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels at Spirit Square. You can recognize various elements of Wright’s greatest hits as an actor – beginning with the comically delusional Elwood P. Dowd and the swashbuckling Zastrozzi – in the sunny, insouciant wickedness he brings to Henry II. The world is Henry’s playpen, so you almost laugh at his dark moments. They are petulant rather than profound.

Cole Long doesn’t always convince me as a man of valor, not exactly conjuring up Laurence Olivier or Richard Burton, the Beckets of Broadway and Hollywood. Lacking that physicality may be advantageous for Long when he tackles Becket’s more prominent traits, his wiliness, his deference, his fundamental decency, and his spiritual struggles to experience love and faith. With so few consequential people around Anouilh’s protagonists, we don’t need to pause and register that Long doesn’t ooze leadership qualities. He’s most credible as a loyal subject and surrogate before excelling as a fugitive.

The most affecting of Anouilh’s minor characters bloom when Becket becomes openly defiant towards his king. Rick Taylor’s portrait of King Louis of France has a weathered, wizened dignity to it as he offers refuge to the renegade Archbishop. Yet there is no heartbreak from His Highness when sympathy and goodwill toward the holy refugee must give way to expedience.

Accompanying Becket through his latter tribulations, the Little Monk that Becket has taken under his wing still seethes with Saxon resentment of Norman rule, nicely calibrated in Jake Dodge’s portrayal. Like Gwendolyn, he’s there for a purpose, but the fierce allegiance that Becket inspires in the Little Monk – contrasted with Henry’s inability to keep anyone’s true loyalty – strikes a deeper chord.

Aided by the age difference between them, Christy Stephens as the Queen Mother and Amy Pearre Dunn as the Young Queen transcend cardboard as the chief irritants of Henry’s court after intermission. Yes, Henry is lonely without Becket by his side, but he’s also afflicted.

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“Matilda” Is Less Sweet and More Abrasive at ImaginOn

Review:  Matilda The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

The time lag between what opens on Broadway and what tours at Belk Theater has narrowed in recent years. Likewise, the gap between when the tour comes through town and when local companies get their hands on Broadway properties has also shrunk. With the arrival of Matilda The Musical at ImaginOn last weekend just two years after it played Belk Theater, it became apparent that CPCC Summer Theatre, Theatre Charlotte, or Children’s Theatre can expect to mount Broadway hits that are just as fresh from their New York runs as the off-Broadway sensations that Actor’s Theatre brings us.

Even with this slimmer interval, I fear that Roald Dahl‘s Matilda isn’t aging gracefully as a children’s story at McColl Family Theatre. It returns a bit awkwardly in a year when children are cruelly and inhumanely seized as pawns to discourage asylum seekers from Latin America. You might feel more comfortable with this story than I did just two days after I’d watched a Supreme Court nominee opt for yelling and indignation as his go-to defenses against credible accusations of sexual assault in sworn testimony on Capitol Hill.

I’m not sure which aspect of the Saturday afternoon performance disturbed me more. Was it director Adam Burke and his star, Tommy Foster, conniving to make the evil Miss Trunchbull more realistic than she had been in 2016; or was it the parents in the audience, bringing their anklebiters to the show and ignoring recommendations that it was suitable for 6-and-up? I was surprised – and slightly reassured – when so many stayed after intermission but not at all shocked when the adults sitting next to us fled.

Foster had some comical tricks up his beefy sleeves as the hammer-throwing harridan, turning a couple of unexpected cartwheels and almost executing a split. But Trunchbull’s implacable cruelty sometimes verged on rabid, when she unveiled all the “chokey” dungeons reserved for misbehaving and disobedient students at her school or when she pulled the ears of one cowering student about a foot away from his head. Neat technical effects, but perhaps too realistic for comfort.

Dahl wrote his Matilda in 1988, a decade before Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events took off – and before some of the edgier “anti” musicals like Urinetown began to invade Broadway. So his macabre sensibility here became more and more in tune with the times. With all its demonic cogs and gears, HannaH Crowell’s set design (fiendishly augmented by Kelly Colburn’s projections) brought home to me how Dahl’s sensibility had morphed during the quarter of a century following Willy Wonka and his iconic chocolate factory. Nothing particularly sweet here.

Matilda Wormwood certainly had more natural talents and gifts than Charlie Bucket, who snagged the lucky ticket to meet Wonka and taste his chocolate wonders. She is a precocious reader, which disgusts her dimwit parents and astounds Miss Honey, her timorous first grade teacher. As a storyteller, she holds the local librarian spellbound. Pitted against the fearsome, sadistic Trunchbull, Matilda turns out to have a combination of psychic and telekinetic powers that bring her victory – wielded with a sly naughtiness.

You need more than Orphan Annie pluck to play this role, and Allie Joseph has it. She nails Matilda’s signature solos, “Naughty” and “When I Grow Up,” and she sparkles in the spotlight – Colburn’s projections going wild behind – telling her four part “Acrobat Story” to Mrs. Phelps, the librarian. There’s a touch a grim determination in Joseph’s naughtiness that nicely counterbalances the added malignity that Foster brings to Trunchbull. Without too much suspension of disbelief, Joseph also passes for a first grader.

Also supplying counterweight to Trunchbull’s regimentation and brutality are Matilda’s other tormentors, her nutball parents. Caleb Sigmon gets to do the heavier comedy lifting as Mr. Wormwood, loudly dressed by costume designer Magda Guichard, victimized by Matilda’s vicious pranks, and cuckolded by his wife. A crooked used car salesman way beyond his depth in attempting to hoodwink Russian mobsters, Matilda’s dad deserves every indignity that comes his way, especially when he tears up his daughter’s library book. Yet Sigmon retains a wonderful energy amid all Dad’s atrocities, vicissitudes and cluelessness.

Wrapped up in her competitive ballroom dancing – and her sleazy partner Rudolpho (the lithe Paul Montagnese) – Matilda’s mom doesn’t realize she’s nine months pregnant with an unwanted second child when Matilda is born. That’s a high level of stupidity to sustain, but Lucianne Hamilton is more than equal to the task as Mrs. Wormwood, particularly when she schools Miss Honey on her philosophy of education.

Absorbing this lecture as well as Miss Trunchbull’s tirade, Miss Honey earns the right to sing “Pathetic” as her signature song, yet Bailey Rose builds Honey’s strength on stoical acceptance and self-awareness, her warmth toward Matilda counting for far more than her passivity. More comical appreciation comes from Janeta Jackson as Mrs. Phelps, the librarian who listens so raptly to Matilda’s acrobat saga.

Dennis Kelly‘s adaptation of Dahl’s novel is admirably intricate and well-crafted, but I find myself less impressed with Tim Minchin‘s music and lyrics, which might be more palatable with the vitality of Annie or the wit of Avenue Q. You still need to listen – carefully – to the cast album to decipher what the kids’ choruses are singing. Whether the older kids are rattling their cages in welcoming the first-graders on their first day or Matilda’s class is celebrating victory over Trunchbull, the music sounds a bit savage, as if Annie and her fellow orphans were on a bad acid trip. The transition from Belk Theater to the smaller McColl seemed to augment the abrasiveness.

Yet some of Matilda’s classmates do distinguish themselves. Calvin Jia-Hao Mar is consistently adorable as Nigel, who spends much of his time cowering or fainting whether or not Trunchbull is persecuting him. Ryan Campos is a more formidable martyr as the heroic Bruce, a young glutton who steals a piece of Trunchbull’s chocolate cake and is forced to eat the whole thing as his punishment. And though I can’t tell you why we’re bothered with Matilda’s best friend Lavender, Jeannie Ware made her charmingly self-important when we returned from intermission.

Sometimes Predictable, “The Legend of Georgia McBride” Is a Raunchy, Rockin’ Delight

Review:  The Legend of Georgia McBride

By Perry Tannenbaum

While there may be “Good Rockin’ Tonight” when Elvis impersonator Casey steps up to the microphone at Cleo’s Club down in the Florida Panhandle, there isn’t a big hunk o’ love emanating from the audience. On some nights, there isn’t even an audience, except for Eddie, the super low-key club owner. As we begin Matthew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride with a bumbling, subdued curtain speech from Eddie, we’re keenly aware that both Casey and his boss are in sore need of makeovers. Our sympathies are mostly invested in Casey in this lip-syncing comedy presented by Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. He’s younger, and the odds are against him, especially when Casey’s wife Jo informs him that his paycheck from Cleo’s has bounced once again, and they’re behind on the rent. No big surprises on the next complications that Lopez serves up to Jo and Casey’s dismay: Casey has just shelled out considerable dough on a new Elvis jumpsuit, Jo’s home pregnancy kit has just tested positive, and Eddie has been trying to work up the nerve to fire his headliner.

Seedy comedy and outré musicals have become the irreverent essence of the Actor’s Theatre brand. With Lizzie in August revisiting the sensational Lizzie Borden murders to a live heavy metal groove and now with this Georgia McBride jukeboxer, ATC has launched its 30th season – and their first full season as resident company at Queens University – by playing solidly to their strengths. Chip Decker’s set design is hardly wider than those we routinely saw at Actor’s in its old Stonewall Street location, with three distinct spaces side by side. Jo and Casey’s living room and kitchen flanks the Cleo’s proscenium on one side with the club’s dressing room on the other. What the Hadley Theater at Queens also allows is a nice thrust stage performing space where the entire cast can eventually perform Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” for their curtain calls.

Yes, as Lopez’s title telegraphs, that’s where we’re heading. Obeying what his ledger is telling him rather than his own personal inclinations, Eddie brings in a pair of drag queens to strut his stage. Casey can stay on if he’ll tend bar, take it or leave it. Symptomatic of his sunny passivity, Casey takes it rather than daring to blaze his own trail. The new gals, Tracy Mills and Anorexia Nervosa are both more diva-like in standing up for themselves. From the moment they enter the dressing room, you expect that at least one of them will go Bette Davis on us and proclaim, “What a dump!” Rexy is the more temperamental and imperious of the two – when he isn’t so drunk that he can’t stand up. One night, when Rexy cannot be revived – let alone hoisted upon his roller skates – Casey is called on to fill in. Either he dresses up as Edith Piaf, or Eddie really will fire him.

This setup for The Legend offers more than merely the bawdiness of drag. We get to enjoy bad drag and bad lip-syncing as Casey wrestles with a bra, pantyhose, and the French language for the first time in his life. Prodded to forge his own identity in dragdom, Casey swivels his new Georgia McBride persona away from the drag trinity of Judy Garland, Piaf, and Liza Minelli. Cutting up his Elvis jumpsuit to fit his newly bolstered tush, the freshly inspired Casey adds female rockers to the customary Broadway-cabaret drag spectrum, including Connie Francis, Madonna, and numerous others beyond my ken. But even when Cleo’s begins to prosper, the sunny go-with-the-flow Casey still doesn’t have the guts to tell Jo about the transformation that has changed his fortunes. Warning: some very predictable scenes ensue between Casey and Jo.

Under the astute direction of Billy Ensley, Georgia McBride transcends this hackneyed marital turmoil with a cavalcade of winsome and hilarious performances on the Cleo’s stage. They are the springboard for tacky, butch, and saccharine creations from costume designer Carrie Cranford ranging from Nazi leather to Busby Berkeley chiffon. The inspired choreographer goes inexplicably uncredited – but I suspect some needless modesty from Ensley himself, a preeminent triple threat back in his acting days.

Judging from reviews of past productions, I’m confident that Lopez left plenty of latitude in his script for characterizations and song selections. If history is a judge, Elvis can drag either country or rock into drag, and both Eddie and Jo can be more loud, nasty and assertive than they were here. I cannot remember when James K. Flynn was funnier than he was on opening night, inconspicuously evolving from a terse mumbling rube to a glittering ebullient emcee – and beyond. Nor did Juanita B. Green rub me wrong as Jo, improbably remaining slightly adorable even when she threw her husband out. I got the idea that only a preternaturally compliant soul like Casey’s would comply.

Ensley’s casting choices for his drag queens are just as brilliant, especially since two of the three are making their debuts with the company. Over the years, Ryan Stamey has conspired on many of ATC’s wildest musicals as an actor, music director, and instrumentalist, so it wasn’t at all surprising to see him making a grand entrance as Rexy in full diva mode, on heels high enough to require a dismount. Stamey actually did multiple dismounts from those heels, doubling as Casey’s put-upon landlord, Jason, and executing bodacious changes in makeup and costumes. As Rexy, he strengthened the impact of Casey’s climactic crisis with his confessional monologue on what he has suffered to pursue his art form, a topic that Lopez should have explored more deeply. I also suspect that Stamey had a hand in formulating the eclectic playlist. I just wished that Rexy had performed more of those drag numbers.

With his elegant serenity and his razor-sharp zingers, Paul Reeves Leopard’s performance as Tracy reminded me of Coco Peru and Charles Busch, two supreme queens I’ve been fortunate enough to see live. In the midst of Casey’s crisis, he also gets a nice moment of truth at Tracy’s front door, answering Casey’s pathetic apologies and entreaties with makeup, dress, and wig discarded for the night – bathrobe-and-hairnet deglamorized, with all his steely maturity on display. Everybody seemed stronger and more mature than Casey, thanks to the sunny optimism and gentle humility Sean Riehm brought to the role. Anybody, man or woman, would let him be his or her teddy bear! Physically, Riehm is well-sculpted but not intimidating, with legs that can inspire a woman’s jealousy. Riehm’s lithe movements underscore the logic of the Elvis-to-Georgia transition: in and out of the jumpsuit, those swiveling hips are very much a part of his job description. Another warning: if you sit in the front row at the Hadley, you are a prime target for a lap dance from a drag queen. Mine was a first for me, the most memorable moment of a fun evening. You won’t be able to experience that when Jim Parsons plays Tracy in the upcoming Fox 2000 film.

Hatem’s “Confidence (and The Speech)” Loses Its Way but Delivers a Poignant Ending

Review:  Confidence (and The Speech)

Nathaniel Gillespie, Jonathan Hoskins and Greg Parroff in a scene from CONFIDENCE Sept 2018

By Perry Tannenbaum

Say what you want about Jimmy Carter, he wasn’t about lining his pockets with money or telling other nations what to do, and he certainly wasn’t about cozying up to the Russians. Among his more controversial – and principled – actions, President Carter slapped a grain embargo on Russia in response to their invasion of Afghanistan and pulled us out of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. In the midst of an energy crisis, Carter faced a TV camera inside the Oval Office and, wearing a drab cardigan sweater, urged a nationwide audience to turn down their thermostats to 68ºF. After the turmoil of Nixon, Cambodia, and Watergate, President Carter was barely in office two days when he granted blanket amnesty for Vietnam War draft evaders. Probably his most egregious faux pas was reminding wasteful and self-indulgent Americans that we were wasteful and self-indulgent, that two-thirds of us were so apathetic that we didn’t bother to vote, that there was a growing distrust of government and the press, and that our nation’s self-confidence was slowly eroding. Free spending and trickle-down Reaganomics proved to be far more palatable to our shrewd electorate.

Actor Jo Hall plays President Jimmy Carter in CONFIDENCE Sept 2018

Using the pivotal “Crisis of Confidence speech of 1979 as her ground zero, with occasional traces of animus from the shocking 2016 election result, playwright Susan Lambert Hatem reappraises Carter’s leadership and courage in Confidence (and The Speech). Hatem’s sister, producer Anne Lambert, is directing a workshop production of the new play at Spirit Square with the company she founded, Charlotte’s Off Broadway. Taking us to Camp David, where Carter took an extra 10 days to refine his address – convening a domestic summit where he gathered ideas from “business and labor, teachers and preachers, Governors, mayors, and private citizens” – Hatem also trains a critical eye on how much input and impact women had on the deliberations. Seven years after Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” it wasn’t exactly a roar.

To look at the Camp David process pointedly from this outsider’s angle, Hatem erects an unusual framework. For her eyes and ears, the playwright recruits a somewhat disillusioned history professor, Cynthia Cooper, who served as a White House intern when Carter’s national address was being crafted. We’re not exactly sure when young Jonathan Rollins approaches Cooper after one of her lectures (not until the end of the evening, anyway), asking her for her reminiscences on Carter, but his persistence is rewarded. There is one catch: Cooper will take us behind the scenes at Camp David only if she portrays President Carter in the retelling. Rollins will need to switch genders as well and portray the young Cynthia.

Josephine Hall takes on the challenge of rekindling our affection for Carter, and she captures 39’s dignity, determination, and quiet uprightness rather well, but the hours she presumably spent watching YouTube videos of Carter have been wasted. She hasn’t listened well enough to produce Jimmy’s distinct Georgia sound, producing a generic drawl that London and New York would deem adequate for their most pallid Tennessee Williams revivals. Nor does Hatem take the opportunity to shine a bright light on the difference a woman in a pantsuit and heels might have made if she had been standing in Carter’s shoes. Unexpectedly, Hall does her best work during her technically impossible private scenes with Rosalynn Carter and in the equally impossible town hall segment when Jimmy listens to the voice of the people and responds. These responses are improvised at every performance, for three audience members will be chosen to give input to the President on key questions facing the nation.

Berry Newkirk, Greg Paroff, Paul Gibson, Maxwell Greger and Josephine Hall in a scene from CONFIDENCE Sept 2018.JPG

Subjected to unwanted advances when he becomes Young Cynthia – and relegated to typing up notes and brewing coffee – Jonathan Hoskins drew a more revelatory role as Rollins. The harassment and abrasive sexism come from pollster Pat Caddell as Cynthia gathers information and works with speechwriter Hendrick Hertzberg. Hoskins gave us enough prissy drag comedy mincing around in heels to effectively contrast and underscore those serious moments when Young Cynthia was being ignored, patronized and disrespected. Another fine episode lies in wait for Hoskins at the end when Rollins sheds his importunate and demure pretenses to reveal his true identity. These are the moments when Hatem is most successful.

Focusing on the polls, the process, and the pragmatism of aligning the speech with Carter’s re-election prospects, Hatem neglects the content of the speech and how it responded to the crises it addressed. It all seemed so promising and convincing in the playwright’s rendering of the first staff meeting at Camp David. In addition to those already named, press secretary Jody Powell, chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, communications director Gerald Rafshoon, and Vice President Walter Mondale all seemed professional, intelligent, and capable. All were agreed that the speech originally for July 4 had been a disastrous snooze and that Carter had been wise to postpone it at the last minute and regroup. The thrust of the message, the stakes, and the pitfalls were briskly and excitingly laid out.

After we grasped Carter’s motivations, process and practicalities stifled the flow of ideas vying for inclusion in the final draft. Rafshoon and Jordan remained thinner than cardboard and as Mondale became little more than an ominous negative voice, Powell became a glib appeaser to a press corps hungry for substance. The play veered along a similar path for us with its gender-bending protagonists, sidestepping the meat of the speech. Deepening the portraits of Rafshoon, Jordan, and Mondale would be one way for Hatem to go – leaving Maxwell Greger to ably provide comic relief as the unctuous Powell. But I suspect the better path might be for her to parade more fleetingly developed characters into the mix – those teachers and preachers and businessmen and politicians that Carter talked about in his speech.

Actor Josephine Hall as President Jimmy Carter and Actor Lane Morris as First Lady Rosalynn Carter in COB's CONFIDENCE Sept 2018Yes, I’d advise doubling and tripling the roles of the staffers. Then Josh Logsdon would have more to do than Mondale’s brooding fatalism, the criminally underused Berry Newkirk could more fully display the full spectrum of his talents, and Paul Gibson as Jordan could flub a more interesting variety of lines. That tack would also present ways of sneaking in more background info about 1979 America and let us outside of the White House West Wing bubble that Hatem creates. With those enrichment opportunities missed, Greg Paroff as Hertzberg, both avuncular and ambivalent, emerged as the most compelling performer in a supporting role while Nathaniel Gillespie was convincingly cringeworthy as Caddell.

Technically, the Charlotte’s Off-Broadway production also disclosed its workshop status. The upstage screens weren’t utilized nearly enough for projections, furniture occasionally boomed or rattled backstage, and on one unfortunate occasion, a folding table failed to become Young Cynthia’s bed for a bedroom scene. But the Lambert sisters’ efforts eventually made a favorable impression on me with a new resolution that Hatem wrote in response to the catastrophe of Election Night 2016. I really shouldn’t reveal what happens, but I will say that it brought tears to my eyes – for a poignant reason I’ve never experienced before: knowing that what I was seeing and hearing onstage couldn’t possibly be true.

 

New Horror and Grotesquerie as Phantom Moves to Coney for “Love Never Dies”

Review:  Love Never Dies

By Perry Tannenbaum

Your knees won’t buckle when you enter Belk Theater to see Love Never Dies, Anthony Lloyd Webber’s long-awaited sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. There’s no gleaming chandelier looming ominously over ticketholders in the front rows, nor will you see any nooks or gargoyles spanning the stage proscenium. Until the curtain rose, about the only aspect of the new Lloyd Webber melodrama that reminded me of its predecessor on opening night was the size of the crowd who had come to see it. A near sellout – not too shabby for a musical that has never played on Broadway.

Compared with recent tours that stopped at the Belk – Lion King, Book of Mormon, Something Rotten! or even the homespun Bright Star – this new Lloyd Webber juggernaut looks rather drab before the lights go down. We find ourselves… wait, in Coney Island? Yes, the macabre Madame Giry and her bubbly, high-strung daughter Meg have spirited The Phantom far from the ill-fated Paris Opera House without telling the songbird he still obsesses over, Christine Daaé. It’s 10 years later, and The Phantom has grown fabulously wealthy as an amusement park tycoon.

So wealthy that when Oscar Hammerstein offers Christine a fortune for her to cross the Atlantic – with her husband Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, and her son Gustave – to make her stage comeback, The Phantom is able to double that offer without hesitation.

If only she will SING for him again!!

Now how The Phantom became so rich and why Madame and Meg Giry have been so deeply committed to him are details you will need to ferret out in Frederick Forsyth’s 1999 page-turner, The Phantom of Manhattan. Ben Elton’s book is very loosely based on the Forsyth sequel, changing nearly as much as he left out. Specifically where The Phantom expects Christine to sing is rather vague, and the chief reason for his having a subterranean lair is to echo his old Paris Opera surroundings.

Elton changes Lloyd Webber’s previous work with hardly less impunity. If you remember Phantom well, you’ll be surprised to learn that Gustave is the lovechild of The Phantom and Christine – and that Christine feels spurned, jilted, and cruelly deceived by her former kidnapper. Many things must change in the sequel simply because there is little compulsion for Christine to be at The Phantom’s park, his hotel, his theater, or whatever. Opera was Christine’s life and soul back in her Paris days. Yet he hasn’t even written a new opera for her. Just one song. The nerve!

You’re forgiven, then, if you feel disoriented in the world of Lloyd Webber’s Phantom sequel. But there are vivid echoes of the past in the music and the love triangle at the core of the story. The most exciting new wrinkle is the five-way tug of war over Gustave. Not only are the lovers fighting over the boy. Less forthrightly, so are the Girys, who see him as an obstacle between them and The Phantom’s estate. It’s borderline comical how the good people who love him repeatedly lose track of poor Gustave. It’s a high proportion of the melodrama.

Lloyd Webber’s music is in the vein of Phantom, but not nearly as good – nor as memorable as either Sunset Boulevard or The Woman in White, his most successful follow-ups before his School of Rock comeback. “Till I Hear You Sing” gets us off to a promising start, extensively echoing Phantom as the masked composer bemoans his ten long years without his angelic muse, but until we reach the title song deep in Act 2, there was little rhapsodic flamboyance to fulfill the early promise.

Sung by Jake Heston Miller on opening night, Gustave is a bit of an angel himself, and his duet with Mom, “Love With Your Heart,” is an ingratiating waltz. The barroom confrontation between The Phantom and Raoul has an eerie early morning edge to it, spiked with the animus of their “Devil Take the Hindmost” duet. You’ll also find a thrilling éclat in a couple of The Phantom’s entrances, for Lloyd Webber has replaced the organ, his formerly favored instrument, with pounding drums in his sequel.

Scenic and costume design, both by Gabriela Tylesova, mesh beautifully, especially effective in evoking the lights of Coney Island and Christine’s posh hotel suite. And does she also take credit for the wonderfully saturnine carriage that whisks Christine and family off to Coney? Our unofficial greeters or coachpersons – Stephen Petrovich as the gangly Gangle, rotund Richard Koon as the clownish Squelch, and the super-diminutive Katrina Kemp as Fleck – perfectly cue the phantasmagoria to come with their garish attire. Okay, they are the phantasmagoria to come, especially the Little Person.

This tour has been on the road for almost exactly one year, and the core of major players, even Miller as Gustave, has remained nearly perfectly intact. Obviously we’re seeing a solid unit that has completely jelled. Bronson Norris Murphy as The Phantom is the only interloper, rising up over the course of the tour from ensemble roles and proving to be an excellent fit from the moment the curtain first reveals him. Perhaps most indispensable is Meghan Picerno, whom I saw early last year, glittering and gay as Cunegonde in the New York City Opera production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.

ALW doesn’t write nearly so well in Love Never Dies, but he seems to write as stratospherically high, so I suspect a voice like Picerno’s is welcomed here for as long as she wishes. She not only nails the high notes, she also immerses herself in the passion. You’re not listening to great music when Picerno and Murphy tear into their “Beneath a Moonless Sky” duet, but you’re witnessing some riveting theatre as they lash out at each other.

Grown destitute and dissolute, Raoul isn’t the matinee idol of yore, but Sean Thompson puts some gravity into his drunken brooding, so his self-pitying “Why Does She Love Me?” acquires a Sinatra-like maturity. Madame Giry is quite the callous, grasping harpy now, but with Karen Mason so implacably dark and wicked in the role, it’s a pity that Elton and Lloyd Webber haven’t given her more space to spew her venom. On the other hand, to see Meg so debased and preoccupied with her cringe-worthy “Bathing Beauty” earns a purple heart for Mary Michael Patterson, who soldiers through these indignities every night. The spotlight does fall on her in the frantic denouement, a rather startling transformation.

While it’s difficult to forgive how thoroughly Elton and Lloyd Webber botch the Girys, my biggest beef may be with the instrumentation of Love Never Dies. If you’re going to Coney Island to evoke circus horror and grotesquery, the sound of a calliope is a must. Please fix that instantly, Lord Andrew. It’s a start.

Fleet Buffoonery Conquers Enchantment in “Peter and the Starcatcher”

Review: Peter and the Starcatcher

By Perry Tannenbaum

As a fairly frequent reader of Dave Barry’s newspaper work, still recycling in Miami Herald newsletters a full 13 years after he left, I’ve developed a healthy skepticism about whether the humorist is capable of being serious about anything. I was optimistic that I might witness a breakthrough back in 2012 when I realized – as I was preparing to review the original Broadway production – that Rick Elice’s Tony Award-nominated Peter and the Starcatcher was adapted from a novel by Barry and Ridley Pearson.

Surely a prequel to Peter Pan, the most adulated and beloved story of the 20th century, would give Barry the incentive to see beyond his next one-liner, especially with a collaborator on board to keep him from jumping the rails. The giddy acclaim buzzing around the show and its five Tony wins for acting and design further fueled my optimism. On a July evening, I entered the Brooks Atkinson Theatre with the wild expectation of seeing a play that artfully, joyfully, and humorously dovetailed with James M. Barrie’s indelible fantasy.

My expectations were badly misaligned with the clever deconstruct of storytelling that I saw. Elice and Barry were equally tone-deaf to the sense of enchantment that Barrie brought to Peter Pan and to the Englishman’s flavorful zest for the primitive. In its belated rush to chime with the story so many of us grew up with, Starcatcher plopped Neverland in the middle of the ocean rather than up in the stars, Peter remained far from the heartless arrogant joy we all remember, and we were left to figure out that Barry’s Molly was Barrie’s Mary, Wendy’s elegant mom.

Unhindered by my former expectations, I found the touring version of Starcatcher far more enjoyable than the Broadway version when it came to Charlotte in 2014. A lot of credit went to the players. There was more chemistry at Knight Theater between Peter and Molly than I saw on Broadway, therefore more heart emerging from Elice’s script, and unlike the fellow who tried so hard to please as Tony Award winner Christian Borle’s replacement, John Sanders seemed to be having a great time as Black Stache, alias Captain Hook.

Yet I must have still been searching for Barry-Barrie links that I might have missed two years earlier, because I found myself even more pleased last week when Theatre Charlotte opened their 91st season with Jill Bloede directing a strong cast in Peter and the Starcatcher. Adept at zany comedy and slapstick, Bloede knows what this piece is – and what it isn’t. She has prodded Dave Blamy to the top of his game as Stache, no less funny here than in his award-winning turns at Actor’s Theatre in The 39 Steps and The Scene, eight years ago and more. How far can Blamy go over-the-top? The climactic amputation scene will be your delightful answer. Part-time foil and part-time torment, Jeff Powell as Smee outbumbles his master, perpetually aflutter and the perfect complement for Blamy,

Prime yourself for buffoonish villainy rather than hapless wicked cunning to get the full effect of Blamy Stache. The other wicked captain onstage, Tim Huffman as Captain Slank, takes up some of the slack on wickedness and menace – not a surprise if you saw Huffman in his Queens Road debut in The Crucible. Two piratical seamen have gotten wind of the treasure that Lord Leonard Aster is transporting to India. Getting both vessels to sea obliges us to accept that Lord Aster would want her Molly to sail separately from her father with one of the two treasure chests.

With Troy Feay making his Theatre Charlotte debut as milord, there was plenty starchy British propriety on board one of the ships, and with Johnny Hohenstein crossdressing as Mrs. Bumbrake, there was plenty of bawdy bustle aboard the other. Bowen Abbey woos her with intermittent success as Alf, allowing Hohenstein some comical vacillations – and partially explaining her slack supervision of Molly. Hey, they’re all kidnapped anyway, so Mrs. B has some cover for her negligence.

Also kidnapped – sold into slavery, if you want to get picky – are three orphan boys whom Molly befriends. By the process of elimination, we can figure out that the urchin with no name, played with a soft chip on his shoulder by Patrick Stepp, will eventually emerge as Peter. In the spirit of adventure, Molly seeks them out in the bowels of the pirate ship, and in the spirit of Barrie’s Wendy, she takes on the burden of educating the Lost Boys. Fifteen-year-old Ailey Finn is more than sufficiently precocious to portray both the tomboy and maternal dimensions of Molly. Why not? She was Rose of Sharon nearly a year ago in Theatre Charlotte’s Grapes of Wrath!

Stepp and Finn both render their roles like they’re on the cusp of puberty, so their mutual awakening comes moments before they must part forever. With Bloede at the helm, this is the most poignant ending I’ve seen in any Starcatcher production.

We seem to get there at warp speed, even though Bloede manages to sharpen Captain Slank and Mrs. Bumbrake more than I’ve previously experienced. Yet the sensory bombardment is so constant that I can admit without shame that, while I can tell you that Jesse Pritchard and A.J. White played the orphans creditably, I can’t say for sure whether Prentiss was the ornery one or Ted. Likewise, a peep into Wikipedia was necessary to nail down which character wooed Mrs. B.

Somebody remarked to me in the lobby at intermission that Peter and the Starcatcher is like children’s theatre for adults. If you’ve seen ensembles in children’s productions who break away from their characters and directly narrate to the audience, you’ll see the truth of that comment hand-in-hand with Elice’s deconstructing mischief. We are taking in a lot of information here. Listening to the players is often a more reliable indicator of where we are than following the changes in Chris Timmons’ spare set design, nicely coordinated with Gordon Olson’s lighting.

Keeping pace with all that happens is hard enough without worrying how Elice’s play connects with Barrie’s. So don’t. It was only on my third go-round that I realized how important the sound designer’s contributions are to making Starcatcher work. No sound designer is listed in the Theatre Charlotte playbill, so I’ll cite Ben Sparenberg and Rick Wiggins, listed jointly as light and sound board operators. Bloede and her cast certainly keep them busy, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that both of them might be cuing sounds together when tensions intensify.

You won’t find much enchantment in this 91st season launch, but there’s some magic aboard one of the ships when we land in Neverland. The journey is roaring good fun at its best, and it’s running with professional polish and precision.

A Georgia-Born Playwright Reappraises Carter – in the Age of Trump

Preview: Confidence (and The Speech)

CATS cast photo + Anne + Susan #1[4]

By Perry Tannenbaum

Oceans are rising. California keeps burning. Women are still facing stalkers, abusers, detractors, and depressed wages. Innocent blacks are beaten and shot in the back by rogue cops – or point blank by vigilantes. Wouldn’t it be great to be led by a President who cares? While Obama nostalgia and Hillary regrets are keenest, all other past commanders in chief and presidential hopefuls – except maybe Bush 43 – seem to be more palatable alternatives than the racist boor who now sits so empty-headedly at his empty Oval Office desk.

Even Jimmy Carter? Why yes, says playwright Susan Lambert Hatem, whose Confidence (and The Speech) premieres at Duke Energy Theater this week. Growing up in Decatur, GA, a three-hour drive from the famed Plains presidential peanut farm, Hatem has been fascinated by the Carter presidency and his exceptional post-presidency since childhood. Her impulse to reappraise Carter began before the 2016 election.

Among Carter’s signature achievements were establishing the Departments of Education and Energy and successfully bringing Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat together to the peace table for the Camp David Accords. Hatem has made a pilgrimage to attend Carter’s Sunday preaching at his plain Plains church and has extensively researched the record.

“He appointed more women justices and more minority justices than all previous administrations – put together,” she points out. “Carter paved the way to something. There is no Obama presidency without Carter’s presidency. His administration never dropped a bomb. Never started a war. Eight American soldiers were killed on his watch.”

When Confidence began taking shape in 2015, Hatem had good reason to expect that she would also be able to claim that Carter’s presidency paved the way to Hillary Clinton. Equipped with sound theatrical sense, Hatem knew that showing Carter establishing government agencies or appointing women and minorities wasn’t a dramatic pathway to resuscitating his stature.

Instead, she decided to focus on his pivotal “Crisis of Confidence” speech of 1979 addressing America’s energy crisis. She learned that Carter had cancelled the energy address he had originally scheduled for July Fourth and sequestered himself at Camp David for 10 days before emerging with what Hatem calls “The Speech.” Those 10 days were an attempt to change the course of our history.

“I discovered that the initial reaction to that speech was intensely positive,” Hatem recalls. “It was the best public reaction to a speech the White House had ever seen – there were phone calls and letters praising the speech. Later, the speech was used against him and became known as the ‘malaise’ speech – though he never said malaise.”

Before moving into his policy decisions and recommendations, Carter described an ingathering and reaching out.

“I invited to Camp David people from almost every segment of our society,” he told the nationwide TV audience, “business and labor, teachers and preachers, governors, mayors, and private citizens. And then I left Camp David to listen to other Americans, men and women like you. It has been an extraordinary ten days, and I want to share with you what I’ve heard.”

Hatem not only examines the domestic summit that Carter held at Camp David, she flips the script with her narrative structure. Young Jonathan Rollins approaches 60-year-old college professor Cynthia Cooper, a former Carter aide, and asks her to recall the leadup to the “Crisis of Confidence” speech. Cooper consents – on condition that Young Jonathan plays Young Cynthia in the retelling. Professor Cooper will play President Carter.

Why? Because Hatem is not just interested in how history is made. She’s concerned with who gets to make it. Set in 2019, when President Hillary would presumably declare her candidacy for a second term, Confidence (and The Speech) would be a look back at how we began to evolve toward this landmark of feminist progress.

And then came the shock of Election Night, November 8…

“After the 2016 election – I didn’t know what to do,” Hatem admits. “I had to put the play down for a bit. I couldn’t work on it. I didn’t know how the play would make any sense any more. Then January 2017 was the Woman’s March, and I was re-inspired. I knew I had to finish it. So many women were stepping up. So many LGBTQ activists. So many black women and men. So many voices were rising. I wrote a new ending – a cathartic ending to me. An ending that I think will excite some, and confuse others. It is purposefully somewhat ambiguous… and not.”

The road from re-inspiration to this week’s Charlotte premiere ran through Hatem’s sister, Anne Lambert, who already had two significant production projects in the works during 2017. Last summer, she was on the producing team at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte that presented a staged reading of Bend in the Road, a musical adaption of the beloved Anne of Green Gables. Then in late fall, Lambert’s own company, Charlotte’s Off-Broadway, presented a fully professional local premiere of Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain.

Lambert had co-founded the all-female Chickspeare theatre troupe at a local brewery 20 years ago, so her sister’s gender-bending concept was right up her alley. Confidence was one of six plays that were read at Camp North End this past winter as part of the Charlotte’s Off-Broadway “Page to Stage 2018” series. Of the six works read script-in-hand from February through March, Hatem’s will mark the third to receive a full production.

This time around, Lambert is wearing two hats, producing and directing. Hatem especially values her sister’s experience with dark Shakespearean plays – where the Chickspeare gender-bending wasn’t done for cheap laughs or sexual effect.

“What I’m trying to do is explore how the cross-gendering can reveal another layer to the play’s themes,” says Hatem. “That’s where Anne and her direction have been so great.”

The Lambert Sisters tapped Josephine Hall for the challenging roles of Professor Cooper and President Carter – in an unusual three-way FaceTime audition with the playwright in LA, the producer in Charlotte, and their star in Greensboro. We haven’t seen Josephine Hall in a local production since she prowled Stonewall Street in Cougar: The Musical, the last of her three Actor’s Theatre appearances during the 2014-15 season. Though she teaches acting and voice at Greensboro College, Hall hasn’t totally disappeared from view. Some of us saw her at Belk Theater when the first national tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time came to town in February 2017.

Hatem knew some people who had worked with Hall on that tour, and Lambert had been impressed with her performance in Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike at Actor’s Theatre. You could say they were pre-sold before they hooked up via their iPhones.

After starring as the discontented daughter of a former Reagan ambassador in the 2014 Actor’s Theatre production of Other Desert Cities, you also might say that Hall was serendipitously unsold on President Ronald Reagan. The Hollywood actor successfully pinned the malaise label on Carter’s watershed speech and wrested the presidency from him in 1980.

“I believe The Speech is a missed opportunity,” Hall says after living with it through months of study and rehearsals. “Most people – not just Americans – don’t want to think too deeply or like to change their daily habits. Carter was asking for both. It’s really no wonder that most people chose the ‘all is well, just spend more’ approach offered by Reaganomics. It is very sad, however. I try to imagine a world where America had paid attention and led the world down a more sustainable path.”

Pride Rock Remains Strong in “Rafiki Tour” of “The Lion King”

Review:  THE LION KING

By Perry Tannenbaum

Among the multitude of musicals they have brought to Broadway, Disney proclaims The Lion King as the world’s #1 musical, not just theirs. Very likely, more people around the globe have seen the show than any other Broadway musical in history. Yet as the megahit reaches its 21st Broadway birthday, the key question we ask each other about it is evolving. As generations grow up and older, we’re less inclined to ask each other if we’ve seen The Lion King. Now in its fourth Charlotte run at Belk Theater, we’re apt to ask each other how many times we’ve seen the tour or, more nostalgically, “Do you remember your first time?”

With all the massing of puppetry for its curtain-raising “Circle of Life,” Lion King wasn’t built to start on time. It’s a bit like a Carowinds ride that doesn’t begin until seatbelts are fastened or doors are locked. Of all beginnings, you don’t want to miss this beginning.

A significant part of why I keep coming back is to be wowed by that opening, of course, but that wow factor diminishes a tad during the five-year intervals between tours. Watching newbies respond to the legendary puppet parade is what keeps the experience fresh for me. My wife Sue has ceded her usual seat for the last two iterations, giving me the opportunity to be up-close when a granddaughter and a great-grandmother took it all in for the first time.

In aisle seats.

Come to think of it, I don’t remember anybody arriving late on press night or taking a seat after the great procession. When a show becomes a family heirloom, as LION KING undoubtedly has, somebody in each group must know the score – and the necessity of arriving before lockdown.

The magic of the puppets, particularly the tall giraffes and the gargantuan elephant, has often been cited as triggering the unique theatricality of director/designer Julie Taymor’s inspired adaptation. But since this company has been designated the “Rafiki Tour,” it’s fitting to direct our attention toward the shaman who greets us and summons the animals to Pride Rock. Not only has Rafiki been favored with a gender switch from the 1994 animated Disney original, she has also discreetly shed her baboon origins. From the outset, we get the message that this unparalleled ceremony is humans paying homage to the animal kingdom – and life itself – in the most respectful and beautiful ways we can devise.

On top of that, there’s percussion, singing, and later even birds in the upper levels of the hall, a cathedral effect. The spectacle envelopes us and uplifts us. Of course you’d want to come back!

Elements of the story echo biblical and Shakespearean motifs that resonate deep within us. What we also treasure about Lion King is how it manages to celebrate both liberty and responsibility as Simba, the future Lion King, matures – always maintaining a firm grasp on which of those values is most important. Delaying justice until Simba gets his priorities sorted out makes it all the more satisfying when he ascends to his rightful throne. Yet the long arc of his drama is punctuated with low, low comedy along the way.

Mukulisiwe Goba as Rafiki and Mark Campbell as Simba’s usurping uncle, King Scar, have traveled long and far on multiple tours of this show, very much a part of its fabric. Crying out her “Nants’ Ingonyama” chant to the kingdom, Goba seems to be as much the soul of Taymor’s Africa as the ginormous sun that rises over the savannah or the iconic baobab tree than spans it. Campbell’s tigerish costume looks weathered from its epic journeying, equally emblematic of Scar’s wickedness and old age. He also wields a cane, adding a dimension of Richard III decrepitude to his seniority and immorality. The 2013 Scar labored with that same limitation – so I can’t continue to overlook the clumsiness of the climactic fight choreography. Clean it up, Diz, especially the last reversal.

Nick Cordileone as the chattery meerkat Timon and Ben Lipitz as the stinky warthog Pumbaa repeat their 2013 stints at Belk Theater, so the comedy in the carefree tropics has never been better. Back at Pride Rock and at the Elephant Graveyard, Greg Jackson is the model of punctilious British servility – and timidity – as Zazu, a high-pitched hornbill with a hilarious puppet.

Nia Holloway returns as Nala, Simba’s destined queen, as lithe and graceful in her movements as ever. Chemistry between her and the new adult Simba, Jared Dixon, isn’t as torrid as it was five years ago. Holloway is more regal and commanding than before, while Dixon is more naïve, exuberant, and happy-go-lucky than his predecessor. It’s as if the mystic grace of Holloway’s cat movements rubs off on Dixon, imparting the gravitas that he has lacked. Goba also intercedes magically in her most dramatic moment as Rafiki.

Only in his afterlife does King Mufasa succeed with his wayward son, and Gerald Ramsey has exactly the right combination of regal strength, fatherly forbearance, and tragic stoicism. Young Simba, who lingers onstage throughout the first act, is the sort of role that could launch a future Michael Jackson. Two youngsters on the cusp of adolescence rotate in the role on tour, keeping with the Broadway practice. Charlotte native Ramon Reed certainly didn’t disappoint on press night, with ebullience to burn. Understandable, since he’s also listed in the current Broadway cast at ibdb.com.

Straddling Broadway, Black Panther and Black Diamond

Preview: Eclipsed

By Perry Tannenbaum

Few writers who have brought a script to the Broadway stage have also had a major acting role in a major Hollywood film. Mae West, Orson Welles, Sam Shepard, Mel Brooks, Maya Angelou, and Woody Allen have legit claims. Perhaps the stealthiest addition to this very short list happened this summer when Danai Gurira emerged in the Marvel universe as Okoye, the spear-wielding generalissimo of Wakanda in The Black Panther. You’ll look long and far for a review that reminds us that Gurira’s Eclipsed not only came to Broadway in 2016, it scooped up six Tony Award nominations, including one for Best Play.

Of course, the record was set straight when Panther became a megahit and Gurira, already a star of The Walking Dead series on AMC, rose even higher in the firmament. Feature stories about Gurira consistently cited Eclipsed among her accomplishments. Additional light reflected back on Eclipsed from Lupita Nyong’o, the glam spy of Panther. Nyong’o was nominated for a Tony as the leading lady in Gurira’s play after her Oscar-winning performance in 12 Years a Slave.

Gurira’s rare achievement is definitely drawing the spotlight now that Eclipsed is making its rounds among regional theatres. Bringing Eclipsed to Spirit Square this week, Brand New Sheriff Productions certainly isn’t ignoring the playwright’s Walking Dead and Panther connections as it spreads the word.

You won’t find any zombies at Duke Energy Theater, but connections between Black Panther and Eclipsed are substantial. Both dramas are set in Africa. While Wakanda is a fantastical high-tech kingdom in Marvel geography, Gurira’s Liberia is quite real – but no less dramatic. After spending a good chunk of her childhood in Zimbabwe, Gujira returned to the continent on a grant from the prestigious Theatre Communications Group in 2007 and interviewed more than 30 women who had been victimized by Liberia’s civil war.

Among these women – some of whom were serially raped, others whose daughters had been kidnapped and turned into sex slaves – Gujira took four of their names for her characters. Three are wives of the unseen Commanding Officer, a brutal rebel leader against president Charles Taylor, and the other is a peace activist seeking to bring the war to an end.

The fifth woman, at the heart of this drama, is unnamed. “The Girl” is CO’s most recent captive, and two of his wives, Helena and Bessie, are hoping to shield her from him.

Yes, Eclipsed was the first play to hit Broadway with an all-black female cast. Just don’t get the idea that Gujira’s script is all about victimhood and peacemaking. CO’s other wife, Maima, is a freedom fighter with the Liberian rebels, and she returns from the battlefield with some serious weaponry strapped to her shoulder.

Maima is not only an action figure vaguely akin to Okoye in Black Panther, she’s modeled after Col. Black Diamond, a female Liberian freedom fighter. Guijira saw a picture of the warrior in a New York Times feature in 2003, the year that the Second Liberian Civil War ended. Black Diamond was the inspiration for Gujira’s mission to Liberia – and for Eclipsed. The way Maima sees it, men aren’t going to rape you if you’re toting an AK-47.

That’s where actress Tracie Frank comes in. A self-confessed blerd, she knew about Marvel and Black Panther long before she knew about Eclipsed, and she knew Gujira as Okoye before she realized that the film’s action hero was also playwright. She has done major roles around town in A Trip to Bountiful and the title role of Caroline, or Change. But nothing like Wife #2, Maima.

“Truthfully, I didn’t even see myself in that role when it did come along,” Frank admits. “As I read the script to prep for the audition, I decided to read for the two ‘motherly’ roles. I remember absently thinking, ‘wow, whoever plays Maima will have to be tough!’”

Director Dee Abdullah thought differently, handing Maima’s lines to Frank after her first reading.

“I was surprised,” Frank recalls, “but I went out and read her again – not as an impartial observer, but as a version of myself… and I knew it was right. I guess I feel like Wife #2 chose me.”

Well, so did Abdullah after a hiatus from directing of five full years. A co-founder of Carolina Actors Studio Theatre with Ed Gilweit, Abdullah was no longer at the core of CAST when the company folded in 2014, but she was devastated by the loss. Corlis Hayes shoved a life raft towards her when she directed August Wilson’s Jitney for BNS last summer, asking Abdullah to design the costumes.

That gig positioned her for Eclipsed. Another BNS blerd, Abdullah has been on board as a Black Panther fan before the film but only slightly acquainted with Eclipsed because of the Nyong’o connection. After researching the story, she knew this was the project to get her back into directing.

“As you might remember,” Abdullah says, “I am not one to shy away from difficult subject matter. This play gave me all the complications a human spirit could endure and still survive. It is about women and their courage to survive under the worst circumstances that life could hand them. It is also based on real stories of the Liberian civil wars, which made it more compelling for me.”

Away from the scene for five years, Abdullah had grown out of touch with the local talent that would show up for auditions. Three of her five choices – Toni Oliver as Helena, Racquel Ena Mae Nadhiri as Bessie, and Gbale Allen as The Girl – are new to the Charlotte scene. Aside from Frank, Ruby Edwards as Rita, the peace negotiator, will be the only familiar face.

“All of the women had a special quality about them that make me want to look at them on stage,” Abdullah recalls. “Tracie has a power that came across much more grounded than the others. Her character makes a choice that takes her on a much more difficult journey than the other women – I needed someone who could convey that energy while staying grounded in truth. The Girl is the only character that goes through a transformation during the course of the play. Gbale gave the innocence as well as the confident toughness that this character needed to pull this role.”

Getting the roles was just the beginning of this ensemble’s journey. Casting by Abdullah was done four months in advance, with rehearsals beginning in late April, so the performers could research the culture, learn the civil war history, bond with one another and learn a Liberian accent. Oh yeah, there’s also some footage online of Frank and Allen wielding their firearms.

“Dee has been quite unique,” Frank affirms, “and I can’t imagine anyone else directing this play. She’s intuitive and observant – she sees what’s under the surface – and that’s vital in a story like this one.”

Abdullah is pleased with the dedication her cast has put into their work, and Frank believes the results will show.

“There’s a natural rhythm to our interactions,” she explains, “one that comes from knowing each other, caring for each other, being annoyed by one another! We’ve formed a sisterhood that won’t end when the [show] closes on September 1st. We’ve learned and experienced so much over this spring and summer. It has been unforgettable.”

“Sex With Strangers” Is a Steamy, Brainy Brew

Review:  Sex With Strangers

By Perry Tannenbaum

I can’t tell you exactly how many scenes in Sex With Strangers end with heavy petting and preludes to lovemaking, but the number seemed to me sufficient to ensure that playwright Laura Eason wasn’t misleading or overpromising in her title. In case you thought otherwise when you saw this Warehouse Theatre production at Spirit Square, Eason had a hedge.

The title turns out to be the brainchild of one of her characters, author-entrepreneur Ethan Kane, who has parleyed a series of blog posts into a bestselling book and an upcoming movie version that he’s hurrying to complete a screenplay for. Sealing the slick commerciality of his burgeoning franchise, Kane has written them all under the penname of Ethan Strange.

Kane’s serial posts stem from an idea that likely struck him at a bar: to have sex with 50 strange women over the course of a year – and write up each of his conquests in vivid, imaginative detail. Naturally, all of these escapades began, approximately weekly, at a bar. This wheeling-and-dealing serial seducer shows up in a Northern Michigan cabin, ostensibly seeking the peace and quiet needed to finish his screenplay but actually stalking Olivia Lago, who is already occupying this Airbnb retreat in the middle of a fierce winter blizzard.

While the blizzard makes it more difficult for Olivia to turn Ethan away, plowing ahead through it is the first tip-off we get about Ethan’s powerful persistence. Through a mutual friend, he has heard about Olivia’s work as an author and sincerely admires the single book she has published – enough to think that posting her unpublished work on his new website could be a pathway to redeeming himself from his smutty, unsavory past.

Olivia is not nearly as complex. Or adventurous. After her first novel received mixed reviews, she became pathologically discouraged, retreating into teaching and thinking of her more recent writing as a hobby. She balks at the idea of Ethan even seeing her new work, let alone exposing it to the scrutiny of the worldwide web. Ah, but you don’t serially seduce 50 women without possessing charms and attractions, right? And Ethan can also offer literary and Hollywood connections.

Louise Robertson last directed for the Warehouse in 2010, when their production of The Road to Mecca capped the company’s first season at their Cornelius storefront and put them firmly on the Charlotte theatre map. She casts and directs no less adroitly here, calling forth layered performances from Cynthia Farbman Harris and Dominic Weaver. There are numerous types of contrasts and conflicts to mull over in Eason’s script, but perhaps the most precisely nuanced clash is the generation gap. Olivia is older than Ethan, not at all savvy about eBooks and uploading files to Amazon, yet she isn’t so much older that a sexual spark between them cannot quickly ignite.

There are other frictions roiling in their relationship. Ethan’s excess of sexual experience – some of it made up for his posts, some of it callous – and his penchant for publicizing his intimacies make Olivia suspicious. On the other hand, Ethan suspects that Olivia has a condescending attitude toward his writing talents, yielding to him physically only because of what he is giving her professionally. There’s enough manipulation and betrayal on both sides to keep us guessing – and ambivalent about rooting for them as a couple.

Harris isn’t exactly delicate or fragile, so her vulnerability as Olivia isn’t instantly obvious when she lets Ethan enter out of the cold. There is also considerable depth to her artistic discouragement, mixed with a lingering sense of embittering self-worth, that makes her more accessible to Ethan’s physical advances than to his professional outreach. It’s quite a study as Harris more gradually allows Weaver to awaken Olivia’s self-esteem and daring.

Weaver shows us an Ethan who can be viewed as the polar opposite of Olivia: cocky, confident, and articulate on the surface; bitter, brooding, and self-doubting at his core. The best of Weaver emerges when Ethan discovers just how high he has enabled Olivia to fly. But then, I’m a guy. For the women at Duke Energy Theatre, the best of Weaver may well have come across when he ripped off his shirt. Happened more than once.

For the second week of their run, Warehouse returns to their storefront home in Cornelius, where Sex With Strangers might nestle a little more comfortably. At their final Spirit Square performance last Saturday, they ran out of playbills, evidently unprepared for the heavier turnout at the larger venue. Dealing with the larger stage also seemed slightly problematical, with scene changes eating up more clock than I’m accustomed to. Ben Pierce’s lighting design traveled well, but I was less satisfied with his sets. A glance at the playbill was necessary to inform me that, during intermission, we had moved from that Michigan cabin to Olivia’s Chicago apartment. Although the painting we saw in Act 1 had changed, it was hanging in the exact same spot.

Overall, I found it a pleasant surprise to encounter as much brains as body heat in Sex With Strangers. The shoptalk won’t be above the heads of theatergoers decently schooled in lit and mildly attuned to contemporary authors. Those who don’t know that FSG stands for Farrar, Straus and Giroux will at least get that Olivia and Ethan are talking about a prestigious publisher that prints honest-to-goodness hardbound books.

It’s refreshing to see protagonists onstage who still care about such things – to see writers shown as emotional, impulsive, and even hormone-driven. We often are.