Tag Archives: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte

Taking Down a Classic Thriller, Lateral Lisp and All

Review: Silence! The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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From God of Carnage to Hand to God to The Toxic Avenger and beyond, I’ve seen many of the original Broadway and Off-Broadway shows that Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has gone on to present in their Queen City premieres. What is singular about Silence! The Musical, perhaps unprecedented, is the fact that the original New York production at PS122 was unquestionably smaller, shabbier and more low-budget than the one currently playing at Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus.

This Charlotte debut is seven years more distant from Silence of the Lambs, the Academy Award winning thriller that Hunter Bell and his musical cronies, Jon and Al Kaplan, targeted with their satiric mischief and malice. Back in 2012, I was already bemoaning my failure to refresh my memories of the 1991 film with a full viewing before I went to see this nasty sendup.

Oops! I neglected my own warning last week, allowing my aging VHS tape to gather seven more years of dust before heading out to see what director Chip Decker and his cast would do in their assaults on Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. I must confess that my perspective was more than a little skewed, for by August 2019, I found myself remembering the Bell/Kaplans musical at least as well as the Jonathan Demme film.

What I remember most about the PS122 show, besides its fundamental crassness and cheapness, was its dimly-lit, wicked cult ritual ambiance. Reasonably enough, Decker and his design team are going for something different: a musical! Evan Kinsley’s set design spans the Hadley stage and so does Emily Hunter’s choreography, with a gamboling chorus of Lambs in a matched set of wooly white ears by Carrie Cranford.

Where Actor’s Theatre, Off-Broadway, and Demme intersect best are in the takeoffs on Foster and Hopkins. Leslie Giles has a veritable feasht exaggerating FBI trainee Clarice Starling’s lateral lishp, surely enough to convulse audiences seeing this Foster takedown for the first time, but not as mean and relentless as the mockery Jenn Harris dished out in New York. What will further delight Charlotte audiences, however, is the sweet bless-her-heart drawl that Giles lavishes on Clarice’s entreaties and interrogations – and her expletive explosion when her sexist boss slights her is a comedy shocker.

There was plenty of seediness in the original Lambs for the Kaplans and Bell to build on. Clarice’s confrontation with Hannibal the Cannibal results from her boss’s unsavory idea of sending Starling down into the bowels of a criminal madhouse to pick Lecter’s brain – hoping that the psychiatric insights of one serial killer can help the FBI catch another. Maybe some kind of natural attraction will coax Dr. Lecter into opening up. Clarice’s descent into the Baltimore loony bin confirms that a rare visit from a woman will indeed rouse the snakes in the pit as the trainee walks the gauntlet of cells leading to Lecter.

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A couple of the arousals fuel the most memorable moments of ejaculation and rapture. After the best spurt of physical comedy, we reach the innermost sanctum where the Cannibal is caged, and the shoddy cheapness of his protective enclosure becomes one of the show’s numerous running gags. At the climax of the first Lecter-Starling tête-a-tête, Rob Addison gets to deliver Hannibal’s deathless love ballad, “If I Could Smell Her Cunt.”

Addison’s rhapsody mushrooms into a ballet fantasia centering around Ashton Guthrie and Lizzie Medlin’s pas-de-deux as Dream Lecter and Dream Clarice. While Hunter’s choreography is more than sufficiently purple and passionate, we fall short on crotch crudity from Giles, and Cranford’s costuming muffs the opportunity for the Lambs to deliver a labial flowering. Yet it’s here that Addison is surpassingly effective, for his creepy drone as Lecter not only replicates the familiar Hopkins bouquet, but his singing voice is robust and raspy. We stay firmly in an Off-Broadway joint during Addison’s rhapsodizing instead of detouring, as PS122 did, into Broadway spectacular.

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Other than the equine Mr. Ed, I couldn’t fathom what Jeremy DeCarlos was going for in his portrayal of the at-large crossdressing serial killer Jame Gumb, alias Buffalo Bill. To make things worse, production values reach their zenith when DeCarlos sings his showstopper, “Put the Fucking Lotion in the Basket,” to his latest captive, Senator Martin’s suitably plump (“Are You About a Size 14”) daughter Catherine. If Kinsley hadn’t troubled to elevate his sadistic serial killer to such a commanding height on his impressive set, flimsier security arrangements similar to the Cannibal’s would have played funnier.

Rest assured that verisimilitude isn’t a top priority elsewhere in Decker’s scheme. Kacy Connon excels as both Senator Martin and her daughter Catherine while Ryan Dunn shapeshifts from Clarice’s dad to agent-in-charge Jack Crawford, all without discarding their Lambketeer ears. Dunn’s eyeglasses shtick worked every time with the opening night crowd, and in welcoming Clarice to the institutional home of Hannibal, Nick Culp sleazily Clarice set the tone for the unfettered lechery to come.

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Clarice lucks out when Crawford cruelly reassigns her, but she shows up unawares and unprepared at Buffalo Bill’s lair. That disadvantage results in the last of the three scenes we remember best from the screen thriller, the duel to the death on Bill’s home turf in pitch darkness, Clarice armed with her automatic pistol and the psychopath wearing night vision glasses. Peppered with song (“In the Dark With a Maniac”), this parody comes off as winningly as the great prison sequence where we first encountered Lecter – and better than the previous climax when the Cannibal escapes.

Hallie Gray’s lighting design is a valuable asset when tensions intensify, and Kinsley’s tall scenery isn’t a total waste. At times, it adds to the absurdity of the Lamb chorus, but it pays off most handsomely at the end in Hannibal’s demonic farewell, adding a dimension that even Hollywood couldn’t boast.

 

A Séance With 200% Certainty

Review: The Great Beyond

By:  Perry Tannenbaum

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When you walk into Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus for the world premiere of Steven Dietz’s The Great Beyond, you’ll be treated to a rare “don’t-think-about-elephants” experience. Even if you haven’t read the prepublicity around town, seen the spots on local TV and the web, or thoroughly perused your playbill, your emissary from Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, artistic director Chip Decker, will call your attention to the elephant in the hall. While Dietz’s spooky new drama can stand on its own, it was written with an interconnected companion piece, The Ghost of Splinter Cove, that is now premiering at ImaginOn in a taut 53-minute Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

So once you’ve heard that, can you really be satisfied seeing The Great Beyond without going to see Dietz’s companion piece? Probably not.

If you’ve somehow failed to pay attention to the prepublicity, the playbill, and the curtain speech, all of them telling you that the action of Splinter Cove is happening downstairs in the basement of the same house at the same time in the same family as the action we’re seeing upstairs, the parents upstairs will remind you frequently enough of the strange adventure their kids are having below.

More than that, thanks to Evan Kinsley’s scenic design, which offers us a smidge of the home’s exterior, we get glimpses of the basement action through translucent windows that peep above ground. So it isn’t just a matter of Rex, the dad, opening the door to the basement and checking up on how his kids are doing – with prerecorded replies. No, no, no. Beginning with camping gear that he bought for his son Nate’s birthday, Rex has sent them on a wilderness adventure, with a smartphone app hooked up to the home’s electronics simulating the sounds, the natural lights, and the weather of the great outdoors.

At unexpected moments, then, the handiwork of lighting designer Hallie Gray and sound designer Rob Witmer captures our attention – and whets the curiosity of the three women who have gathered with Rex for an adventure of their own. The historic collaboration between two theatre companies is called “The Second Story Project,” but it’s at Queens U that we see why.

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Dietz has said that The Great Beyond is a reunion play, and it certainly follows a template we’ve seen before, bringing far-flung and estranged kinfolk together, comically or dramatically uncomfortable with each other, after a death in the family. Here Rex has brought his two kids to the home of his former father-in-law, where his distraught ex, Monica, served as caretaker during Tobias’ last difficult days. Relations between Rex and Monica seem cordial enough, though she isn’t a big fan of his elaborate camping scheme for their children – since it brings unpleasant family history to mind.

It’s also obvious that Rex retains a genuine affection for Tobias, whom he calls The Captain like everybody else in the family. The real family strife will rev up when Monica’s wayward younger sister Emily arrives. Or actually, it begins before, because the rigid and judgmental Monica has labelled Emily as a chronic latecomer – on the basis of one past incident – so hostilities can begin as soon as Emily arrives. On time, of course.

Not that Emily is flawless. A recovering alcoholic who now limits herself to one full glass of wine at the same time every day, Emily has made Dad’s home the last stop on an epic apology tour, launched five years ago when she achieved sobriety, spanning 23 states and two foreign countries. A straight arrow and a black sheep, the bread-and-butter combatants of countless theatre clashes are poised to have it out! But unlike Sordid Lives or Appropriate, two of the funeral-triggered plays we’ve seen before in Charlotte, the dead Tobias will also be invited to the reunion.

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You see, Emily is bringing her bisexual partner Rene to this sad reunion, hoping to summon up the spirit of Tobias at a séance later in the evening. It’s Tobias, not Monica, that Emily has really earmarked for receiving her last apology, and she thinks that Rene, a spiritual medium, can make contact and make it happen.

As if the friction between Monica and Emily weren’t torrid enough already! Now they need the scornful, skeptical, and sarcastic Monica to complete the circle around the séance table. Outnumbered three to one in this tussle – and somewhat pre-empted by Dietz’s two play titles – you can guess how Monica’s opposition to the séance turns out. As for whether Tobias shows up, I can safely defer to Dietz himself, who was present at the post-performance powwow on opening night. He told us that one of chief pleasures he found in telling this story came in conveying his 100% positive conviction that the supernatural visitations at séances are absolutely bogus and his 100% certainty that those visitations are absolutely real.

Whatever you may think of the action around the table, you can’t deny that Dietz has made intensive efforts to sustain our ambivalence, giving us numerous reasons to believe that the house Tobias built with his own hands is in the grip of the supernatural – countered by an equal number of escape routes to disbelief. But to his credit, Dietz leaves us with a giddy sense of confusion rather than a rational set of alternatives as we attempt to arrive at the truth now – and the truth about the tragedy that has haunted the family for nearly 40 years – teasing us out of thought.

That giddy confusion will be compounded when you factor the climax of Splinter Cove into your calculations. If you go to Hadley with somebody – whether an adult or a child – you can expect that conversation on your way home will be peppered with lively clarifications and disputes.

Decker certainly holds up his end of Actor’s Theatre’s historic collaboration with Children’s Theatre. Rather than missing core elements of the script that I’d seen when I read it (a fundamental reason I customarily avoid reading scripts I’m scheduled to review unless I’m planning to interview a playwright before seeing the production), Decker and his superb cast managed to bring Dietz’s drama more intensely to life and reveal the power – and comedy – of a couple of moments that I’d overlooked. Didn’t hurt that Dietz was here in Charlotte, tweaking both of his scripts during the process.

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All of these roles are beautifully rounded, so it wasn’t surprising to see the keen relish that the players took in them. It would be hard to overpraise Tonya Bludsworth’s work as Monica, the meanie who has worked so devotedly and so selfishly to be The Captain’s favorite. Bludsworth brings out the humor and the sharpness of Monica’s mocking sarcasm, turns it off when she realizes she’s wrong, has moments of self-awareness, and is delightful in so many different ways during the séance she has so grudgingly agreed to. There’s a bit of swagger to her, for all of her starchiness.

Robin Tynes-Miller mixes Emily’s feelings of resentment and remorse to perfection and turns them up high. Her wrenching efforts toward reformation make Bludsworth’s cynicism and rejection all the meaner. Tynes also hones in on just how thin-skinned and childish Emily remains as the younger sib, allowing Bludsworth the delight of intentionally provoking her, elevating Monica’s wickedness at times to villainy. For all her weakness, it is Emily who powers the story forward when her determination is steeled, yet Tynes makes her lapses likable, so we’re still rooting for her when Rene and Rex must rally behind her cause.

Dietz has Rene doing a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to coaxing Monica to the table – and an even greater share of the calming and reassuring that Emily needs when her frustrations with her recalcitrant sister get the better of her. Tania Kelly does it all with a confident authority, belying Monica’s presumptions of what a medium should be. Not a dreamcatcher earring in sight, and no Whoopi Goldberg kookiness.

As patient and sure as she is at the séance table, unruffled by Monica’s taunts, Rene also takes it upon herself – without any desperate urgency – to rectify Monica’s obsolete assessment of Emily’s character. Rene is the mother of Sydney, the third child downstairs at play with Nate and Cora, and Kelly dials in the right amount of parental concern and trust in Rex. Most of all, when the doors and windows are unlocked, the candles lit, and the incantations begin, Kelly makes us believe that Rene is in earnest and something amazing could happen.

Rex is the glue that binds Dietz’s plays most firmly together, and Scott Tynes-Miller beautifully captures his strength, his self-deprecation, and his insouciance. For the most part, Rex’s role is as a peacemaker in the siblings’ brawls, the steadying force that Monica realizes she was foolish to discard. Miller not only gets the last of the play’s four monologues, addressed directly to us, he also demonstrates to closest bond to Tobias, briefly recalling how The Captain taught him to be a man. Turns out to be a surprisingly important plot point. There’s a nice through-line that Miller finds in Rex, for he has a firm and quiet purposefulness, and like Emily, arrives with a mission. That turns out to be yet another way that he binds Dietz’s magical plays together.

There’s much more to the story of The Great Beyond than I’ve disclosed here – with surprises stirred in that are calculated to startle and astound. Much of this story is expanded upon and illuminated in The Ghost of Splinter Cove. So your intuition to see the companion piece will not lead you astray.

Upstairs/Downstairs in a Haunted House

Previews: The Great Beyond and The Ghost of Splinter Cove

By Perry Tannenbaum

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An old living room card table shaking uncontrollably during a candlelit séance… an unidentified ghost – or two – lurking in the dark basement, where kids are at play… and an 8-year-old child who has been missing for nearly 40 years.

These are some of the chilling elements in two new nail-biting plays hitting the QC. Upstairs with the adults at the séance, the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production of The Great Beyond begins previews this Thursday on the Queens University campus, officially premiering next Wednesday. Next Friday at ImaginOn, The Ghost of Splinter Cove takes us downstairs into the basement with three imperiled kids in a world premiere Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

Both spooktaculars are by renowned playwright Steven Dietz, who splits most of his time between Seattle and Austin, where he teaches his craft at the U of Texas. Dietz has written and adapted more than 40 plays, and a slew of them have been performed in various theaters across town, including God’s Country, Lonely Planet, Yankee Tavern, and Becky’s New Car (a “Show of the Year” winner in 2010).

But these two newbies would never have been written if Dietz hadn’t gotten on a plane and met with Adam Burke and Chip Decker here in Charlotte.

Burke, the artistic director at Children’s Theatre, and Decker, his counterpart at Actor’s Theatre, had cooked up their concept during a 2015 meetup. Cooperating was feasible between their two companies, but what kind of project would bring audiences together to see the kinship between Decker’s adult theatre and TYA – Burke’s theatre for young audiences?

Decker and Burke both have considerable experience in bringing new plays to their theaters, so it was obvious that their joint project would be a new script. But what if they commissioned two scripts, each one designed to funnel audience from their theater to the other theater while both shows were in production?!

Somehow the two plays and their stories would have to interlock. Yet to encourage rather than force audiences at one company’s theater to also see the other company’s play, each of the two plays would have to stand independently on its own. The concept that would be named The Second Story Project was born – in excited brainstorming interspersed with copious cups of coffee.

When Burke and Decker decided to move forward, there were no funds earmarked for the project, no playwright commissioned to create the scripts, and no parameters detailing how the two stories would interconnect. There was just one dynamite concept that had never been tried before.

“It’s always a leap of faith to do anything, especially something new,” Decker observes. “We just both hit on it, felt it was a good solid idea, and when you feel that way, you have to jump in with both feet and hope there’s a safety net at the bottom.”

Looking back on it, Dietz was a super-obvious choice. Multiple productions of his plays had been presented at Actor’s and Children’s, but Decker and Burke were thinking about advertising in trade publications or soliciting proposals – until the successful run of Dietz’s adaptation of Jackie and Me at ImaginOn turned on the lightbulb in Decker’s skull.

He sums up his realization: “We’re looking for a playwright who has a great voice for theatre for younger audiences and a playwright who has an experienced track record with adult audiences, we’ve both produced Steven Dietz plays, why should we look any further – especially the first time out?”

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Burke had sort of blocked out the idea of looking to an established adult playwright, calculating that the TYA piece would be the higher hurdle.

“I am more confident that someone who can write a great play for young people can write a great play for adults than I am of the reverse,” Burke explains. “So when Chip suggested Steven, I’m like, ‘Ah, yes, of course!’ There are only a handful of people that are moving between the two worlds successfully.”

Dietz was a little wary, wanting to make sure that there wasn’t some special issue or theme that his scripts were expected to address. Getting reassurances of his complete freedom, he warmed to the prospect of such an unprecedented challenge.

“What was so beautiful about the idea was that it was so simple,” Dietz recalls. “The core of the pitch to me was something shared. A shared story, a shared theme – something shared. And in one theater piece, we see it through young people’s eyes, and in the other, we see it through grownups’ eyes. That’s just like Post-it Note simple!”

The playwright was also on Burke’s wavelength with respect to the primacy of the TYA piece. It would be the more difficult piece to write and take more time. So it needed to be written first. Unlike other commissions that Dietz has fulfilled, neither The Ghost of Splinter Cove nor The Great Beyond turned out to be a play he would have written anyway. No barely-started scripts or scribbled scenarios were on his studio shelves waiting for these unique commissions.

Dietz suspected that he would make many false starts on his youth play – and he did. The upstairs/downstairs idea didn’t occur to him immediately, but when it did, it seemed like an elegantly simple way to make his plays interlock. But what kind of full-length play can be staged in a basement?

“I had this little tiny notion,” Dietz reveals. “I had a friend who had his kids try out his camping equipment in their basement once. And of course, that is what’s beautiful about writing for young people: where they go on that camping trip in their imagination is much more dynamic than getting out even on the San Juan Islands, which is near my house. Because it’s in their imaginations, so it can be anywhere.”

Especially when your brand-new camping gear is a birthday gift, you’re in a strange haunted house for the first time in your life… and there’s a smartphone app your dad bought you that makes your whole camping adventure come alive!

So that’s the downstairs core of the Second Story Project. From time to time, Dad calls down from upstairs, making sure the kids are settled in and sending down snacks. The two plays interconnect with those conversations – we only see Dad in The Great Beyond – and there are key props that will be common to both of Dietz’s eerie dramas.

Upstairs, where the séance happens, the parents are having a dinner reunion after a great family loss, and we learn why the kids have never visited this house before. For Dietz, there was a unique benefit in crafting his two new plays as a matched set.

“Writing [Splinter Cove] taught me about those kids’ parents,” Dietz remarks. “In any other play I’ve ever written, they would just be offstage characters. This process doesn’t have offstage characters, really. They have characters onstage at the other theater.”

And they’re not necessarily alive. Bwa-ha-ha!

Two Iconic Singer-Songwriters Collide

Reviews: Nina Simone: Four Women and Ain’t Misbehavin’

By Perry Tannenbaum

With three new theater productions opening last week from Actor’s Theatre, Brand New Sheriff, and Theatre Charlotte – all sporting all-black casts – we have entered a Black History Month in Charlotte that is more about black history than ever before. Some of the African Americans who might be expected to show up for those auditions will be shining in the spotlight somewhere else this weekend as Children’s Theatre of Charlotte opens Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds at ImaginOn.

Unless you count university productions, we haven’t had more than one truly black theater production here in Charlotte during any Black History Month in the past 10 years.

So our Black History Month upgrade – and the stunning amount of local black talent necessary to make it happen – was definitely on my mind as I took in all of these shows. But a couple of times, in Actor’s Theatre’s tribute to Nina Simone and Theatre Charlotte’s Fat Waller revue, I found myself flashing back to January 2003.

That’s when a bi-racial Charlotte Rep production of Let Me Sing featured two black Broadway veterans, Gretha Boston and André de Shields, who boasted five Tony Award nominations and two wins between them.

Nina Simone: Four Women from Actor’s Theatre threw a new perspective on what are usually regarded as Rep’s declining years. The title role, calling for a passionate Black Power advocate and a charismatic singer-songwriter, would obviously benefit from the Broadway star power that Michael Bush, with his Manhattan Theatre Club connections, was able to lure down to our Booth Playhouse during Rep’s latter days.

De Shields was actually one of the original stars of Ain’t Misbehavin’ when it opened at Manhattan Theatre Club and took the Tony for Best Musical in 1978. So my thoughts naturally returned to De Shields, Rep, and Let Me Sing when Theatre Charlotte opened the Fats Waller musical revue two days after Actor’s opened their Simone musical. On this night at least, I had the satisfaction of recalling the Broadway star and feeling that our fair Queen City was getting along just fine without him.

A lot of the credit goes to Charlotte’s own Tony winner, educator extraordinaire Corey Mitchell, who directs this sassy 94-minute show at the Queens Road barn. The cast he culled from auditions is consistently spectacular, whether they’re singing or dancing, but we also need to slice off some accolades to the seven-piece jazz band led by trombonist Tyrone Jefferson, featuring Neal Davenport at the piano. Kudos to choreographer Ashlyn Sumner: with some formidable talents to work with, she has stretched them.

Conceived by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., Misbehavin’ goes about capturing Waller’s essence by culling the gems from his imposing oeuvre and preserving the pianist’s penchant for interpolating sly comments and wisecracks between his lyrics. Comical gems like “The Viper’s Drag,” “Find Out What They Like (and How They Like It),” and “Your Feet’s Too Big,” all score big. Adapting and orchestrating, Luther Handerson and Jeffrey Gutcheon usually go with the grain of Waller’s merry, mischievous recordings, but occasionally they go against it, slowing down “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Mean to Me” so they sound brand new.

Yet Waller also composed one solemn anthem that belongs in the same elite pantheon as Simone’s “Four Women” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” The introductory chords from the piano were all I needed to tell me that “Black and Blue” was on its way with lyricist Andy Razaf’s indelible refrain: What did I do to be so black and blue?

After delivering more than an hour of pure ebullient joy, it was a powerful question to ask. Lighting designer Chris Timmons dimmed his gels over Tim Parati’s funky nightclub set, Jefferson hushed the band, and Mitchell huddled his entire cast downstage where all five could look us coldly in the eye.

Never afflicted with obliquity. Waller and Razaf answered their own question: My only sin is in my skin.

Keston Steele has the most amazing voice in this cast, and it’s not just her range and volume. Steele may look small, but as “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” proves, this lady can g-g-growl! Best dancer is more of a toss-up. Look no further than Nonye Obichere kicking “How Ya Baby” if you’re looking for somebody startling and athletic. Tyler Smith is your man if your quest is for someone smooth and sensual.

Smith was the comedy showstopper – and the chief reason why De Shields can stay right where he is – delighting us with his stealth and style in “The Viper’s Drag,” but Marvin King was just as hilarious in the outright insulting “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Danielle Burke’s breakout moments were her mellow “Squeeze Me” solo and her bawdy “Find Out What They Like” duet with Steele.

The songlist is loaded with Fats faves that will get your toes tapping, including “Handful of Keys,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” “Fat and Greasy,” and “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” Or you might get into the sway of “Jitterbug Waltz” and “Lounging at the Waldorf.” All in all, another insane overachievement for Charlotte’s community theater. Pass the reefer and the champagne!

Production values at Hadley Theater looked like they would be up to the usual high Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte standard when we took our seats on opening night of Nina Simone: Four Women. Chip Decker’s set design for the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, is colorful and impressive. And shifty: when Decker detonates his sound design, simulating the bomb blast that killed four black girls on September 15, 1963, the walls twist acutely to register the racist atrocity.

But after Lizzie and American Idiot, two arrestingly loud shows at ATC’s new Queens University home, this Christina Ham drama was often too soft-spoken to be clearly heard – even though I spotted the actors wearing head mics late in the 86-minute performance. That was a major element that can improve as the run continues.

Shortcomings in Ham’s script and Chanel Blanchett’s stage direction are not so easily remedied. I’m sure the playwright didn’t intend to be insulting, but her scenario basically tells us that Simone went down to the 16th Street church, stationed herself defiantly behind the sanctuary keyboard with the intention of completing her livid protest song, “Mississippi Goddam.” While completing her response to the murder of Medgar Evers three months earlier in Mississippi, three of the women who would be immortalized in “Four Women” walked in off the street to take refuge from the violence still raging out on the streets of Birmingham.

Fate basically hands the songwriter one of her most revered compositions, if you take Ham literally.

I’m not sure that Blanchett wants us to take the story that way. Played with stormy intensity by Destiny Stone, Simone is already hostile and militant when she arrives in Birmingham. Nina’s urgent need to get her song finished only begins to catalog the reasons why she antagonizes each of the three women who walk in on her. Sarah is a humdrum housemaid who would rather pursue MLK non-violence than take Malcolm X action. Sephronia is a yellow-skinned socialite who doesn’t struggle at all financially like Sarah, drawing class hatred from the housekeeper for her money and scorn from Simone for her political aloofness.

Further stirring the pot is Sweet Thing, seething because she can’t have Sephronia’s fiancé though she can have his baby. This liquor-swigging streetwalker draws hatred and scorn from all quarters, for how she lives and for entering a holy place. Beware, though, she’s brandishing a knife.

Although the arguments are passionate, Blanchett blunts their sharpness, preferring to space her players rather than getting them in each other’s faces – until Arlethia Friday arrives as Sweet Thing. Stone, Erica Ja-Ki Truesdale as Sarah and Krystal Gardner as Sephronia often face us instead of the person they’re arguing with. Maybe Blanchett doesn’t really believe that Simone and the “intruders” are really there at the Baptist Church. Having these actors appear like they’re reliving the first play they ever performed in grade-school doesn’t solve the problem.

After all the verbal and physical combat, the title song breaks out. It’s surreal: all three women miraculously know their lyric and their order in the song. I’m guessing this dramatic flouting of logic will help distract us from the fundamental flip she burdens Stone with in portraying Simone. For 80 minutes, she has heaped hatred, anger, and scorn upon these women who are interfering with her creative process. Now she’s deeply empathetic toward them all, turning them into emblems of scarred, heroic black womanhood.

With 11 other songs along the way, there are sudden lurches as we move forward, cutting abruptly from argument to song. Stone’s singing, with pianist Judith Porter leading a driving quartet, is the show’s most human element as she channels Simone’s fire into “Sinnerman,” “Mississippi Goddam,” and the last of the “Four Women.” Stripped of the backup singers that sugarcoat Simone’s recordings of “Young, Gifted, and Black,” I liked the crispness of Stone’s even better.

Intensity was never Stone’s problem. What I was looking for was more arrogant self-assurance lifting her rage to a higher plane – a serene majesty that earns you the title of High Priestess of Soul. A few more leading roles, not to mention turning 30, will likely do the trick someday. Probably because she comes in toting a flask and a knife, getting the liberty to stagger around the stage rather than finding a mark and facing front, Friday’s Sweet Thing is the best acting we see. She isn’t Simone’s Sweet Thing until she sings her, but she’s closer to what Nina had in mind than Ham’s housemaid. Darting between the worlds of rock, jazz, blues, folk, and soul, Simone has eluded many who would find excitement and enjoyment in her music. Ham’s writing marshals key facts in this North Carolina native’s life into the dialogue but never really captures her soul. The songs in Four Women and Stone’s singing could be a gateway to that treasure trove.

40 Whacks and Some Heavy-Metal Slaying

Preview: Lizzie

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

When we first learn about Lizzie Borden, it’s through an antique schoolyard rhyme, and there’s no doubt. Miss Borden was an axe murderer – and not a dainty one. Forty whacks for Mom, a pause for reflection… then 41 for Dad. But in the real world back in 1892, Borden was acquitted of the gory double murders that had happened at her home in Fall River, Massachusetts. And the actual number of whacks, for Lizzie’s dad and stepmother combined, was less than 30.

Notwithstanding the uncertainty of her guilt – and the poetic license taken in her song – Lizzie remains legendary and the prime suspect. But the action hero of a hard rock musical? Writer/director Tim Maner and songwriter Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer sorta had that idea in 1990. Putting together four songs and staging their experimental rock theatre production in SoHo, the duo originally called their confection Lizzie Borden: An American Musical.

Over the next 13 years, the work was reworked, fitfully revived, and workshopped. New songs were tacked on, the skeletal storyline was fleshed out, and Alan Stevens Hewitt joined the writing team. As the work grew to a full-fledged two-act musical – or at least a rock concert musical – the title continued to become leaner. Long story short, Lizzie is now rockin’ on the Queens U campus, transitioning from previews to its official Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte opening this week.

From its Borden beginnings, Lizzie has always featured four women in the singing roles. Aside from the legendary slayer, there’s Lizzie’s elder sister Emma, next door neighbor Alice Russell, and housemaid Bridget Sullivan. Actor’s Theatre is taking it way further – presenting an all-woman edition. The sextet of instrumental slayers joining the cast onstage at Hadley Theater will all be women. Ditto the design team, the choreographer, the music director, the stage manager, and the stage director.

Cue Joanna Gerdy. Despite her lofty reputation as an actress, co-founder of Chickspeare, and eminent teaching doyenne, Gerdy has strayed into crass and bloody musicals before, directing Little Shop of Horrors and Bonnie and Clyde. You might think that an actress lauded for her dramatic performances in The Miracle Worker, Macbeth and Our Town would be more powerfully drawn to Joan Baez than Joan Jett.

You’d be right. But the slashing score of Lizzie still grabs Gerdy.

“I love the music in this show,” she gushes. “And what’s not to love? Think Heart, Joan Jett, The Runaways, Stevie Nicks…you get the idea! Lizzie runs the gamut from catchy melodic storytelling, to outrageous punk rock anthems, to evocative ballads. There are head-banging moments juxtaposed with gut-wrenching stillness. There are lyrics straight out of Macbeth, and in fact, a Weird Sister vibe throughout.”

The skip-rope song was all that had ever grabbed Gerdy about Borden when Actor’s Theatre artistic director Chip Decker asked her to take the reins. She was happy to find that the familiar rhyme starts off the evening, setting the creepy tone. But it still wouldn’t be worth the effort for Gerdy if things didn’t get serious before they got gory.

Lizzie unlocks the doors in the House of Borden, shows us what may have been going on behind them, and we can’t help but feel for this trapped, desperate, powerless girl,” Gerdy explains. “Women were living under a harsh Victorian moral code, and Lizzie Borden was likely trapped inside a house hiding even more heinous goings-on. For me, this play gives powerful voice to women in a time when they were often voiceless and powerless.”

So the biggest mystery that Lizzie will explore, with ever-increasing decibels, isn’t the question of if this New Englander committed these horrific crimes but why. What could have brought so much stress and pressure on poor Lizzie that there was only this path forward? Obviously, it will be an accumulation of actions and events.

“From the moment the audience walks in,” says Gerdy, “they should feel totally creeped out, unsettled, off-balance…that feeling that something bad is already happening, and it’s going to get worse. And when it does, it will rock your face off! As the story intensifies and the Patriarchy is smashed, the women are empowered to literally shed the trappings of their Victorian entrapment…and they become rock stars!”

Shedding a walking cane to play the role, Katy Shepherd can closely identify with Lizzie’s feelings of powerlessness. After splashing down sensationally in Charlotte, romping around ImaginOn in the title role of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse for Children’s Theatre, following that up with more grownup triumphs in A Woman of No Importance and Rock of Ages (her Actor’s Theatre debut), Shepherd’s sensational 2015 was followed by a nightmarish 2016. Stricken by celiac disease coupled with severe anemia, Shepherd underwent surgery five times, the last on December 29. The surgery before that had left her bedridden for a month – not even allowed to sit. Now that’s trapped.

“Every day I can walk, let alone perform, is such a gift!” Shepherd declares. “American Idiot [with Actor’s Theatre last season] was my first show back with a healthy body, and our wonderful choreographer Tod Kubo even remarked on how my dancing had even improved since our last show together. I feel so present and grateful being healthy, and any role that I play now will have a touch of that.”

Gerdy hadn’t met Shepherd before auditions and had no knowledge of her backstory. Knowing where Katy had come from to get there had nothing to do with why Gerdy was impressed. Seeing her in the moment was enough.

“Katy’s vocal power blew me away!” Gerdy remembers. “At the auditions, I found myself spending a lot of time watching what people were doing when they weren’t singing or performing. And that’s what tipped the scales for me: She was ALWAYS compelling, even, or perhaps especially, in the moments when she was listening and just being. She made me care about Lizzie and want to watch her, listen to her, and root for her. And those eyes! She can shift from vulnerable to vixen in the blink of an eye – literally.”

The spark for Shepherd comes from how different this supposed murderess is from her, the range of emotions she is called upon to project – and some pretty insane vocals.

“Every song is one to brace yourself for,” Shepherd warns. “This music delivers in a way I have never experienced before. From abuse, to murder, to seduction, to betrayal – it’s all there. And it all ROCKS.”

Nor is Shepherd through battering down obstacles that lie in her path. Taking on Lizzie, she had only three off days in July, and before rehearsing seven days a week until 10 or 11pm at night, she’s holding down a full-time day job teaching at Children’s Theatre’s summer camp. Gerdy has been keeping track, imagining the extra time Shepherd devotes to learning lines, absorbing the music, and refining her portrait of a legend.

“And she has done all of this during her first pregnancy!” Gerdy marvels. “She’s a force; I’m in awe of her, honestly, and am incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity to work with and get to know her.”

So we finally arrive at the question no journalist can shirk when confronting an esteemed actor who has penetrated into the deepest recesses of Lizzie Borden’s soul and lived there for over a month. To put it rather coarsely: Was Lizzie a lezzie?!?

“Considering that there are only women in this show,” Shepherd shoots back, “and you’ve always got to have a love story, I’ll let you do the math!”

New Plays, New Place, and New Hope at Actor’s Theatre

Preview of The Luckiest People

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Trashy musicals, irreverent spoofs, and trendy new works by black and feminist playwrights aren’t the only things Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has done well over the past 29 years. Around the country, when their artistic and administrative staff attend national conferences with their colleagues, they find that a big part of the company’s reputation rests on their commitment to nurturing new plays.

After two years of instability and uncertainty – and two full seasons without reviving their NuVoices Festival – Actor’s Theatre is getting back to that. This week, they’re opening Meridith Friedman’s The Luckiest People, part of a rolling world premiere that began in Denver. In May, the company will be part of another rolling world premiere, presenting David Valdes Greenwood’s The Mermaid Hour.

Both of these new plays were previously presented in reading stage productions at NuVoices 4 in January 2016, with all of the actors performing script-in-hand. No scenery, no costumes, and limited rehearsal.

NuVoices 4 was one of the last events at 615 E. Stonewall Street, ATC’s last permanent home before developers’ wrecking balls demolished the site. After a misadventure in the Belmont neighborhood near Plaza-Midwood, the company was supposed to reopen at 2219 Freedom Drive late in October 2016.

Instead, they had to move Toxic Avenger a block away to the City Center Church, of all places, the first of four unforeseen sites where ATC’s 2016-17 season was staged. Until last fall, when Actor’s Theatre launched their current season with American Idiot, subscribers never knew where the next production would crop up.

That’s when ATC announced that Freedom Drive was still on hold and that their next two productions would remain at Hadley Theatre on the Queens University campus. But after that?

Now we know. Luckiest People, Mermaid Hour, and The Mountaintop will all be at the Hadley. More importantly, ATC artistic director Chip Decker and John Sisko, dean of Queens U’s College of Arts & Sciences, have just inked a deal that will keep ATC on campus as the U’s resident theatre company for the next five years.

From necessity to desperation to near-relief, it’s been quite a rollercoaster for Decker, his board members, and ATC’s loyal fans. “We’re off life support but still in ER,” Decker quips. “In a better hospital.”

Sisko arrived at Queens in the summer of 2016, when all seemed to be going smoothly with ATC’s relocation. After the abortive opening in October and a subsequent revival of The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical at the McBride-Bonnefoux Dance Center – a horrid acoustic mismatch for a live musical – Sisko wasn’t hearing any signs of life, so he reached out.

Down at Freedom Drive, one hurdle was following another. Parking had to be upgraded to satisfy the City, architects’ drawings kept getting sent back for tiny inaccuracies. Think about this one the next time you walk through the metal canyons of a parking lot to find your car: Decker and his company had to shell out thousands of dollars to get an engineer to certify that the concrete slab – one that had held up a mechanic’s shop and the building itself for 50 years – could support an audience.

“We were slowly bleeding money to death.”

After Bootycandy ran at Mint Museum, Stupid Fucking Bird was staged at the Hadley last spring, a clear signal that Sisko and Queens U brass were unfazed by ATC’s edgy fare. Decker quickly recognized that this would be the finest venue his company had ever performed in. By far.

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The lightbulb came on, and Decker invited Sisko out to grab some coffee and chat about the future.

“It took me a long time to quit beating my head against the wall to make Freedom Drive happen,” Decker recalls. “Having the passion for something and wanting it so bad, I kind of started being blind to the writing on the wall. We were at the point, Perry, and I shared this with John, and I said, ‘We’re do or die. We’re either going to close, or something different is going to work.’”

When Sisko saw how well Stupid Bird went, concern about ATC’s struggle gave way to recognizing the opportunities that bringing the company on board could open. ATC could offer technical support for Theatre Department productions during the academic year, they could offer internships to graduating students, they could oversee a summer theatre festival with performances on the quad under the stars, and they could teach courses about theatre production and administration.

“ATC is the backbone of the Queens theatre program, and it’s a mutually beneficial relationship,” Sisko says. “We have parents who are a little worried about their children being an arts major. But when they’re an arts major and they have 30 credits on the business side of the arts as well, then they are in better position when they face post-graduation.”

Talks are already under way on prospects of reviving the NuVoices Festival as early as this summer, and Decker is already salivating at the prospects. At previous festivals, the four playwrights, four directors, and their casts had to rehearse and perform on a single space at Stonewall. On the Queens campus, there will be multitudes of classrooms at ATC’s disposal, playwrights will be able to interact and talk shop, or simply do rewrites – on the quad, in some greenspace, or in a classroom instead of a hotel.

“They can all come together and talk about the process of playwriting, what it takes to get it produced,” says Decker. “Queens can bring in their MFA creative writing students for master classes with the playwrights on how do you get seen, how do you get published, how do you get your word out there, what it literally takes to become a professional writer on the scene.”

With the opening of The Luckiest People this week, ignition for whole process gets revved up again, because NuVoices is one of very few festivals across the country that promises a full production for every winning entry.

Dennis Delamar, a longtime actor and director at ATC, is doubly excited: he’s reprising the central role of Oscar Hoffman two years closer to the irascible old SOB’s actual age, and he’s performing for the first time at the Hadley knowing that the company has their feet back under them.

Under cross-examination, Delamar can catalog why Oscar is so difficult as he seeks to impose himself on his son’s household – just when he and his male partner are adopting a son. There’s the culture shock of moving from Great Neck, NY, to California; the many physical torments of Paget’s disease; the recent death of his devoted wife; and the pure cussedness of a Jewish trial lawyer who revels in disputation. Even his sharp sense of humor is thorny.

NuVoices gives this role an extra charge. “Being on the ground floor of a new piece of theatre is pretty thrilling,” says Delamar, “a professional collaboration that offers one an opportunity to offer one’s own unique interpretation while the playwright is still in the ‘making it better’ stages.”

Participating in NuVoices gave Delamar the opportunity to meet the playwright and learn first-hand how she drew his character from her own Great Neck grandfather. Thanks to Facebook, Delamar stayed in touch, conferring with Friedman when she made further revisions.

“I felt quite comfortable to write to her about a significant moment for Oscar I noticed had been changed,” he confides. “Taking time to explain to me the history and logic of the change, Meridith reminded me how much I appreciate working with this gifted and open minded writer. She listens. She is wise. I agreed with the change and loved that we could confer so openly about it.”

Yes, the thrill is back at ATC – with new plays and new hope.

“All the signs from this last year together suggest that it’s going to work out extremely well,” says Sisko.