Tag Archives: Andrea King

Homespun “Barbecue Apocalypse” Improves With Age

Reviews: Barbecue Apocalypse, The Sherlock Project, Life Is a Dream, and Madagascar

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In a year that included Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society and Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale among the top contenders, I could only give Matt Lyle’s Barbecue Apocalypse a lukewarm endorsement for best new play of 2015, ranking it #13 among 27 eligibles that I read for that year’s Steinberg Awards. Nor did colleagues from the American Theatre Critics Association strongly disagree with my verdict, since Lyle’s dystopian comedy didn’t make the cut for the second ballot, when we considered our consensus top 10.

But before Charlotte’s Off-Broadway decided to stage this show at The Warehouse PAC up in Cornelius, they did some reading and balloting of their own. From January through March, the company offered monthly “Page to Stage” readings presenting two different plays on each occasion. Then they asked ticketholders to vote on which of the six plays they would like to see in a fully staged production. Less than two months after the votes were counted, Barbecue is back for my reconsideration as the audience favorite.

And on further consideration, I must credit director Anne Lambert and her professional cast for convincing me that Barbecue Apocalypse is even better than I thought it would be – far more to my liking than real barbecue.

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Lyle would probably concur, since his patio hosts, Deb and Mike, are only grilling and basting because they want to avoid the embarrassment of having their friends – who are more trendy, stylish, and successful – see the interior of their home, decorated with lame movie posters. Deb succinctly describes her strategy as lowering expectations for the cuisine and the ambiance. Outdoors, she can point with pride to the fact that Mike has built the rear deck himself. Yet the barbecue event has obligated Mike to buy a propane grill off Craig’s List, and he’s afraid to light it.

He would also like Deb not to mention that he’s a professional writer, for his career earnings, after one published short story, now total 50 bucks.

All four of the guests feed the hosts’ sense of inadequacy. Deb is a decorator, foodie, and gourmet cook who makes sure to bring her own organic meat, and her husband Ash is a gadget freak, armed with the best new smartphone equipped with the most awesome apps. Win pretty much embodies his name, a former high school QB, now a successful businessman with Republican views. He lives to put Mike down and can seemingly get any woman he wants. Even his bimbo of choice, Glory with her Astrodome boobs, can claim formidable accomplishments, arriving late to the barbecue after nailing her Rockette audition.

What ultimately happens to this insulated suburban group reminds me of The Admirable Crichton, the excellent James M. Barrie tragicomedy I came across a couple of times during TV’s golden age, when colleges had core curriculums. A perfect butler to the Earl of Loam in Mayfair, London, Crichton and his betters were shipwrecked on a desert island in the Pacific, where his natural superiority emerged.

There are two basic differences between Barrie’s back-to-nature tale and Lyle’s. The shipwreck situation was reversible with rescue. Apocalypse isn’t. More to the point, Barrie was clearly targeting the blind rigidity of class distinctions. Here if we consider the implications of Barbecue Apocalypse, Lyle seems to have modernity in his crosshairs – how our world warps our aspirations and our self-worth, how it channels us into modes of living that are far from our authentic selves.

In the cramped storefront confines of the Warehouse, Lambert doesn’t attempt to design a deck that lives up to Mike’s pretensions, and Donavynn Sandusky’s costume designs are similarly déclassé, especially for the nerdy Ash. This robs Lyle’s concept of much of its slickness, which for me turned out to be a good thing. Aside from the Craig’s List mention, Lambert also dropped in a couple of local references that added to the overall homespun flavor.IMG_6440

Becca Worthington and Conrad Harvey were nearly ideal as our hosts, keenly aware of each other’s limitations and their own, yet visibly crazy for one another. Worthington with her status-conscious rigidity and stressing was clearly the closest actor onstage to Lyle’s vision, beautifully flipping her “We suck” persona after intermission and the apocalypse, when a full year of roughing it has elapsed. Harvey was more than sufficiently cuddly and self-deprecating – but credulity is stretched when a man of such size and stature is repeatedly dominated by his adversaries.

If you can accept that Greg Paroff was ever on a football field, let alone as a QB, you’ll be quite pleased with how he handles Win’s asshole antics. He is confident, he is arrogant, and if he’s possibly past 40, that only increases the disconnect between Win and his limber Rockette. Julia Benfield is absolutely adorable as Glory, and I absolutely adore how she’s still mincing around in high heels when she makes her disheveled entrance in Act 2. We totally believe that her familiarity with Tom Wopat doesn’t extend to The Dukes of Hazard in the ‘80s.

Probably not the best moment for Lambert when she cast Cole Pedigo and Jenn Grabenstetter as Ash and Lulu. They should remember the ‘80s, but I needed to stifle my doubts. Wardrobe and just the way he’s absorbed in his iPhone might help Pedigo out – and make him less wholesome, winsome, and juvenile before the apocalypse. Grabenstetter overcomes all objections when free-range Lulu gets snockered on generic canned beer, and both Pedigo and his scene partner truly click when adversity brings Ash and Lulu to a new lease on life in Act 2. I believe that’s an antler dance.

I won’t disclose what happens when Maxwell Greger walks on for his cameo deep in Act 2, but I do respect how Lyle makes him earn his paycheck with a sizable monologue. Greger does the denouement with a slight manic edge, and the technical aspects of his departure are impressively handled.

So it’s fair to say that apologies are in order for rating Barbecue Apocalypse in the middle of the pack when I first read it. Or excuses, since a rational man resided at the White House in 2015, and apocalypse seemed so fantastical.

But hold on. Charlotte’s Off-Broadway has already programmed two other plays from their “Page to Stage” readings for two fully-staged productions in the near future, Susan Lambert Hatem’s Confidence (and The Speech) for September and Lauren Gunderson’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear for next February. Maybe when these runner-ups get fleshed out, supporters of Lyle’s winning script might reconsider their votes!

A Catch-All Catch-Up

Our recent travels to Greece, Israel, and Jordan compelled us to miss a bunch of high-profile openings after we reviewed the reinvented Rite of Spring at Knight Theatre on April 6 and CP’s On Golden Pond the following evening. Even before we left, we had to pass on the Charlotte Dance Festival and CP’s Elixir of Love so we could adequately prepare for our trip. To see the birthplace of theatre, the Holy Land, and Petra, we had to miss out on the BOOM Festival, the reprise of Beautiful: The Carol King Musical, and the opportunity to host a pre-show preview of The Marriage of Figaro for Opera Carolina.

New openings when we returned were a must, so we hit the ground running with Charlotte Ballet’s Spring Works and Symphony’s Brahms-and-Bartok program. But our need to catch up with Carolina Shakespeare’s Life Is a Dream made us put off seeing PaperHouse Theatre’s Sherlock Project until it second week. It gets complicated. But I’ve tried to get up to speed while working on more reviews and features. File these under gone but not forgotten:

The Sherlock Project So a dozen actors and writers collaborated on PaperHouse Theatre’s mash-up of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story gems, producing a script that follows three guiding principles: keep it funny, keep it moving, and don’t, don’t, don’t ever explain how the great Sherlock Holmes arrives at his incredible deductions. Going back to their roots at the Frock Shop on Central Avenue, PaperHouse and director Nicia Carla found a frilly complement to the Victorian chronicles of Dr. John Watson.

But the frame of the story was wholly new, telling us that the deadeye detective in the deerstalker cap is a woman. Watson protects the woman who should be credited with all the purported exploits of Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade because he knows that Sherlock is right: The general public is even less prepared to believe a female is capable of such brilliancies than Watson is.

Besides all of the Sherlockian brilliance and nonchalant arrogance, Andrea King reveled in all of the detective’s eccentricities, whether it was shooting up a 7% solution of cocaine, tuning up a violin, or lighting up a calabash pipe. Opposite King’s insouciant self-confidence, Chaz Pofahl wrung maximum comedy from Watson’s wonder and timidity – a phenomenon compounded by the gender factor as Pofahl switched from paternal protectiveness to awe or terror while King wryly twinkled and smiled.

The two main supporting players slipped into multiple roles, Angie C as a cavalcade of damsels in distress and Berry Newkirk in the plumiest cameos, ranging from the dull-witted Lestrade to the razor-sharp Professor Moriarty, mythically uncatchable. Apart from directing behind the scenes, Carla conspired in the action as Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’s discreet housemaid. Carla not only ushered in Sherlock’s distraught clientele or evil adversaries, she also presided over scene changes, when audience members had to exit the Frock Shop’s parlor to a murder scene in the adjoining room or out on the porch when Sherlock was pursuing… something. Had to do with fire.

Or when it was intermission, time for little cucumber sandwiches.

The whole show was a wonderful diversion. PaperHouse had to add another performance to their run, which we caught last Wednesday, and the remaining nights were already sold out. Like the PaperHouse faithful, I couldn’t get enough of The Sherlock Project. I wanted lots more – beginning with how did Sherlock deduce that Watson had just come from Afghanistan when they first met?

Life Is a Dream – Convinced it was a comedy rather than a political melodrama, Shakespeare Carolina and director S. Wilson Lee kidnapped Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s classic, written during Spain’s Golden Age, and transported it more than three centuries forward from a mythical Poland to a mythical Las Vegas. There in a seedy club on the strip, the two factions with their eyes on the throne were Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack and Marlon Brando’s Wild Bunch.

Lee’s wild conceit didn’t do nearly as much harm as I thought it would, mainly because ShakesCar didn’t have the budget to carry it too far at Duke Energy Theatre, and the strong cast mostly played their roles as the text, sensibly adapted by Jo Clifford, said they should. So much depended on the broad shoulders of David Hayes as Segismundo. Heir to the throne of Poland, Segismundo has been locked away Prometheus-like in a mountain dungeon for his whole life by his father, King Basilio, who is foolishly trying to ward off the dire destiny predicted by an astrologer.

A boiling rage seethes inside of Segismundo, and a less mightily built actor than Hayes might need to strain himself to encompass it. Hayes projected the mighty rage rather naturally, which made it easier for him to flow convincingly into Segismundo’s softer emotions when – before he has even suspected his royal lineage – he is handed the Polish throne and the power to act on his newly awakened sexual urges as he sees fit.

Called upon to give a far more nuanced performance as Basilio, Russell Rowe delivered. Yes, he was cruel, but also conflicted, with a lifelong dread deftly mixed into his forcefulness. Though I feared the convoluted plot might be abridged or simplified, the intrigue, the complexity, and the epic monologues were almost entirely intact. As the vengeful Rosaura, Teresa Abernethy brought forth the masculine-feminine blend that the transgendered Clifford was aiming for in her translation, and James Cartee, an actor who often keeps nothing in reserve, showed unusual probity and maturity as Clotaldo, even as he tried to figure out his long-lost child’s gender.

Nobody was more suavely dressed by costume designer Mandy Kendall than James Lee Walker II as Astolfo, the successor that Basilio wanted if the true heir didn’t pass his test. But if anybody was victimized by Lee’s Rat Pack concept, it was Walker. I have no idea why he persisted in speaking so rapidly and unintelligibly, unlike any work I’d seen from him before. Was he attempting a Sammy Davis Jr. imitation? Couldn’t figure out what accounted for this curious outing.

Betrothed to this strange hipster, Maggie Monahan beautifully brought out the agonies of queen-to-be Estrella. Maybe the most Shakespearean role in this ShakesCar production was Ted Patterson as Clarin, who tags after the disguised Rosaura from the opening scene, as either her companion or servant – but definitely our clown.

On the strength of this effort, theatergoers can be excited about ShakesCar’s next invasion of Spirit Square, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus at Duke Energy from June 28 to July 7.

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Madagascar – Okay, so I’ll grant that the musical adaptation of the 2005 Dreamworks film didn’t have the gravitas of the greatest Children’s Theatre of Charlotte extravaganzas of the past like their Boundless Grace and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – or the bite of Ramona Quimby and Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing. But this confection was nearly perfection. Under the direction of Michelle Long, Madagascar hit a family-friendly sweet spot, straddling the realms of cartoon silliness, cinematic adventure, and theatrical slapstick and dance. I just didn’t like the deejay, everybody-get-up-and-act-stupid thing.

Scenic design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec never lost its freshness thanks to a slick stage crew and the eye-popping lighting by Gordon W. Olson, while the animal costumes by Magda Guichard probably made the strongest case for live theatre against multiplex animation. Choreography by Tod A. Kubo chimed well with Long’s direction, which used areas of McColl Family Theatre that rarely come into play.

Centering around four animals that break out of Central Park Zoo, Madagascar introduced us to Marty the zebra and his wanderlust. We moved swiftly from there. Following the lead of four penguins bound for Antarctica, Marty escaped the zoo, seeking a weekend in Connecticut. Not only are police, animal control, and TV bulletins on his trail, so were his pals Gloria the hippo, Alex the lion, and Melman the giraffe. Embarking underground in the Manhattan subway, Marty hardly stretched credulity much further by winding up off Africa.

Deon Releford-Lee was a spectacular triple-threat as Marty, but what dazzled most was the multitude of gems in this supporting cast, beginning with an intimidating Alex from leonine Traven Harrington and – on stilts, of course – a timorous Melman from Caleb Sigmon. Dominique Atwater disappointed me as Gloria, but only because we didn’t get enough of our hippo after her first big splash. Olivia Edge, Allison Snow-Rhinehart, and Rahsheem Shabazz fared better, drawing multiple roles.

While the book by Kevin Del Aguila shone more brightly than the musical score by George Noriega and Joel Someillan, I was amazed that so much story and song could be squeezed into barely more than 60 minutes. Combined with last October’s Mary Poppins, the exploits of Madagascar prove that musical production is an enduring strength at Children’s Theatre. I can’t think of a season at ImaginOn that had sturdier bookends than these musicals that began and concluded 2017-18. The crowd that turned out for the final performance affirmed that the 7th Street fantasy palace has perfected the craft of producing family fare.

Not only that, it showed me that Charlotte families have spread the word.

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Best of Charlotte, 2017

Best of Charlotte, 2017

By Perry Tannenbaum

                                           Best ActorJeremy DeCarlos

 

Among local performers, there are strong candidacies from Brian Logsdon (Pride and Prejudice and Ragtime), Jonavan Adams (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and The Christians), Scott A. Miller (Stupid F@#%ing Bird and The Submission), Jermaine Gamble (A Raisin in the Sun and Jitney) and Tyler Smith (Ragtime and Memphis). All of them sparkled on multiple occasions. But the runaway victory goes to Jeremy DeCarlos, who laps the field – in range and productivity – with four scintillating outings. Draped in a braided Hussar jacket, DeCarlos just finished channeling his inner Jimi Hendrix as the devilish St. Jimmy in American Idiot. That was the last of his Actor’s Theatre gems over the past year, including some cross-dressing preaching in Bootycandy, his insouciant devotion in Stupid F@#%ing Bird, and his amazing transformation – from Jerry Lewis nerd to Incredible Hulk-ish monster – in The Toxic Avenger.

Best Actress – Shar Marlin

The field of contenders is larger among the ladies, but the roles were more thinly distributed, eliminating productivity as a decisive criterion. But which other benchmark should override all others? If it’s flesh-crawling menace, Sarah Woldum gets the edge, bringing Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla to life in She Who Watches. Leslie Giles was the funniest as the blind librarian in The Toxic Avenger, Lucia Stetson the most revelatory as Mother in Ragtime, and Allison Snow Rhinehart was better than her Broadway counterpart as Mama in Memphis. And how can I forget the sizzling dominatrix arrogance of Nonye Obichere as Whatsername in American Idiot? I’m turning instead to Shar Marlin for her sheer power and imperial dominance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a dramatic stunner that also showed Shar’s blues singing chops. Dignity in the face of exploitation and discrimination. Diva!

Best Comedy – Women Playing Hamlet

 

Theatre Charlotte’s You Can’t Take It With You and the Citizens of the Universe farewell, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, were arguably the zaniest productions of the 2016-17, while the Chekhov knockoff from Actor’s Theatre, Stupid F@#%ing Bird, was surely the most poignant. And what about OnQ Productions’ A Brown Tale from James T. Alfred, maybe the funniest one-man show I’ve ever seen? All were worthy candidates, but I’m going to let Chickspeare split this prize with Donna Scott Productions for their joint production of Women Playing Hamlet. Glynnis O’Donoghue starred as the soap queen saddled with the lead role in the Mona Lisa of tragedies, and the galaxy of comediennes – all in multiple roles – offering her questionable advice included Tania Kelly, Andrea King, Vivian T Howell, and Sheila Snow Proctor.

Best Musical – Ragtime

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Folks who confine their diet of musicals in Charlotte to touring productions at the PAC are missing out bigtime on the locally-produced blockbusters playing out at smaller venues around town. Actor’s Theatre scrambled to produce a marvelous Toxic Avenger at a storefront church because this city doesn’t have the vision to see the arts flourish on Freedom Drive without a needless morass of red tape. Still in exile, they just brought the noise of American Idiot to Queens University for a face-melting month. After reminding us how finely they can produce A Year With Frog and Toad, Children’s Theatre astonished with the world premiere of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical. With more than one Broadway-level performance, Theatre showed us their mettle with Memphis, and CPCC re-emphasized that their musical excellence isn’t confined to summer anymore. Maybe it was sheer luck, but CP’s wintertime production of Ragtime was the most timely of the year, underscoring the sad fact that institutional racism, police brutality, and prejudice against immigrants aren’t quaint relics of the Jazz Age. As the martyred Coalhouse Walker, Tyler Smith’s impassioned “We are all Coalhouse!” reverberated through a city in turmoil.

Best Drama – Jitney

Early last season, PaperHouse Theatre proved that The Frock Shop on Central Avenue was the perfect site for a creepshow with a dazzling She Who Watches, and early this season, a legend made a comeback when Steve Umberger and his Playworks Group brought a sterling production of The Christians to Booth Playhouse. In between, as Charlotte was fully wakening to how badly we have neglected and mistreated our underclass, theatergoers may have finally been zonked by the realization that our city is exceptionally rife with African American acting and directing talent. Kim Parati made an auspicious directorial debut at Theatre Charlotte with a freshened-up Raisin in the Sun, but this was a vintage year for August Wilson – in two dramas directed by Corlis Hayes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at CPCC and Brand New Sheriff’s Jitney at Spirit Square. Hayes brought out the best in John W. Price and Jermaine Gamble as the father-son antagonists in Jitney, with Gerard Hazelton adding a mix of comedy and poignancy as the gypsy cab company’s resident lush. Move over OnQ Productions, there really is a brand new black company in town – our second! – producing professional-grade work.

Best Night @ Symphony – Mahler’s “Resurrection”

While a well-played Beethoven symphony, a Rossini overture, a Strauss tone poem, or a Mozart concerto might be the secret sauce to get newcomers to become Charlotte Symphony subscribers, longtime concertgoers like me wish to dismount the warhorses and hear something off the beaten trail. There’s plenty out there that will please both camps: big, unfamiliar orchestral works that will instantly grab you by the lapels even if Symphony hasn’t reprised them within the last decade. Armed with an audacious orchestra and choir, plus two soloists who have sung with Opera Carolina, Davidson College showed the way with a rousing performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, set to poetry by Walt Whitman. That’s the sort of daring we hope for from Charlotte Symphony’s British maestro, Christopher Warren-Green. We did get a British Isles-themed evening when pieces by Edward Elgar and Peter Maxwell Davies, spiced up with a bagpiper, were served with Mendelssohn’s “Scottish.” Utilizing the Symphony Chorus and distinguished guest vocalists, Warren-Green turned up the power with a pair of Bruckner chorales last November and Mendelssohn’s Elijah last March. If you wanted to sample the full capabilities of Symphony, their chorus, and the guest vocalists Warren-Green can summon to Belk Theater, you had to hear them introducing the wonders of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 to an astounded audience.

Best Night @ the Opera – The Girl of the West

Under maestro James Meena, Opera Carolina does the oldies better than ever, as their uproarious Barber of Seville and their vivacious, ultimately anguished La Traviata amply proved. There was even some audacity in the 2016-17 programming as OpCar partnered with Warehouse Performing Arts Center and the D9 Brewing Company to produce an evening of three short operas – including the world premiere of Scott Joiner’s “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera)” – at the brewery in Cornelius. Yes, a world premiere on Treynorth Drive! But most exciting was the Charlotte premiere of Puccini’s The Girl of the West, as Meena collaborated with six other international companies, including New York City Opera and Teatro del Giglio in Lucca, Puccini’s hometown. Singing was exemplary, persuading me that this second-tier Puccini opera was actually a first-rate work, and staging was anything but stodgy or conservative: much of the scenery was animated and bold, with authentic relics evoking the Wild West supplied by our own dearly beloved Wells Fargo. An appreciable, if infinitesimal, atonement for all the bank’s Wild West chicanery.

 

One-Two Punch of Surprises Powers “Eat the Runt”

Review: Eat the Runt

By Perry Tannenbaum

Even before you set out for the Charlotte Art League, the quest for parking, and the unique Eat the Runt from Donna Scott Productions, you need to remember one key preparation: bring your smartphone. Yes, you’ll be asked to turn off or silence the device when the action is set to begin, but before that, you’ll be asked to join the remainder of the audience in choosing the cast for that evening’s performance.

Eight actors vie for the seven roles listed in your program. The audience goes through the cast list one by one, voting their choice for each role on a group texting setup by punching the number assigned to each actor. Playwright Avery Crozier gives each of the characters at his (or her) second-tier art museum a unisex name, so any member of the ensemble directed by Tonya Bludsworth might play any of the roles on a given night.

To execute all of the possible 40,320 casting permutations, each actor must be prepared to play all of the roles, wear all of the costumes, and pounce on cues from all his or her castmates. That not only multiplies what each character has to memorize and the number of costumes designer Luci Wilson has to create, it also multiplies the amount of time that the ensemble must devote to rehearsal – even though they can’t begin to cover all the possible scene partners they will have during the actual run of Runt performances.

On the Saturday night that I attended, I voted with the audience on four of our choices: Ericka Ross as grantwriter Chris, Stephen Seay as human resources coordinator Jean, Tracie Frank as curator of modern art Hollis, and Kevin Shimko as museum director Pinky. Andrea King won the juiciest – and most demanding – role as Merritt, interviewing for a vacant position at the museum. Kevin Aoussou as director of development Royce and Jenn Grabenstetter as museum trustee Sidney rounded out the cast.

Somehow Stephen West-Rogers’ previous exploits in theatrical versions of Fight Club and Trainspotting had escaped the notice of Donna Scott fans. Nor did his new clean-shaven look bring fresh evocations of his ruggedness. As a result, West-Rogers was the odd man out, sent away to take the night off when Shimko snagged the last remaining role.

After this poignant moment, presided over by Scott, we were asked to give the cast a few minutes to sort things out, a reasonable enough request, I thought. When they returned, it was virtually impossible to find any indication that this wasn’t the fixed cast that had rehearsed Eat the Runt every night. King especially was a delight as Merritt, deftly bringing out the applicant’s uncanny ability to take the ideal approach for each museum official who interviewed her.

Merritt’s chameleonic shifts bespoke either a dangerously unstable personality or a cunning Machiavel – one perhaps gifted with psychic powers. Whether it’s the hemorrhoidal HR coordinator, the horny development director, the coke-addicted curator, or the defensive trustee, Merritt always seems to pounce on the perfect approach without any need for probing. It’s only when she’s spouting Ayn Rand to the museum director that Merritt drops hints of a supernatural gift.

Forget about the gimmickry at the top of the evening, it’s very rare for any playwright to be able to detonate a walloping surprise at the end of Act 1 and at the end of Act 2. Crozier not only achieved that, but the surprise at the end of the evening slickly explains away much of the puzzlement we may experience as the series of job interviews metastasizes and explodes.

A few days later, some of the deception that had been played on me became clearer. By then, I couldn’t regret the fun ride that Eat the Runt had taken me on. It may be radically different for you if your casting choices turn out to be more incongruous, risqué, or preposterous. That may increase the already plentiful comedy.

The Ghost of “(I Hate) Hamlet” Returns – With a Vengeance

Review: Women Playing Hamlet

By Perry Tannenbaum

Written and premiered in an era when only men could perform on stage, Hamlet has been performed many times with the finest actresses of their day in the title role. Poetic justice, playwright William Missouri Downs will tell you in his Women Playing Hamlet, since Shakespeare’s magnum opus is a revenge tragedy. Compounding this revenge – and attracting the notice of Charlotte’s Chickspeare banditas and Donna Scott Productions – Downs has decreed that all roles in his comedy, regardless of gender, shall be played by women.

Braininess and silliness play well together at Charlotte Art League, where Donna Scott Productions previously mustered the oddball Civil War re-enactors of Shiloh Rules and the eccentric Amish of The Book of Liz. Most of the cast gathered by director Tonya Bludsworth have performed with both Donna Scott and the Chix before.

Oddballs abound here as well. The most stressed, conflicted, and self-doubting of these is Jessica Ostergaard, who has had the awesome role of Hamlet unexpectedly thrust upon her – despite a résumé that includes a killed-off character in the Young and the Restless and a flicker of a cameo in a Tarantino film (also dying). Everyone in New York who advises Jessica on this prodigious undertaking, whether the advice is solicited or not, tells her that she is too young to play Hamlet. And every one of these opinions has a certain amount of credibility, since everyone on Manhattan Island has an MFA in Acting, from your lowly Starbucks barkeep on up to your legendary acting guru.

Glynnis O’Donoghue has always had a look that mixes determined pluckiness and confused vulnerability, so she is always as perfect a Jessica as director Bludsworth could hope for. She soaks up the pithy pointers with the eagerness of a puppy and absorbs discouraging words with the most endearing and pathetic pout, one that still retains a glint of chin-up determination.

Downs layers on interesting reasons why Jessica should identify with the brooding Danish Prince. At her father’s funeral, we learn that Jessica’s mom announced her intent to marry her uncle. Somehow that doesn’t sound quite so sinister when the announcement is made in a folksy Minnesota accent, don’t-you-know.

That tawdry revelation allows Sheila Snow Proctor, as Minnesota Mother, to steal one scene from O’Donoghue in a flashback. More often, Proctor regally sports a turban, à la Norma Desmond, as Jessica’s acting guru. This imperious Gwen terrifies Jessica with her frank appraisals and such rigid dogmas as “Hamlet is the ‘Mona Lisa’ of plays.” If this formula reminds you of the TV actor haunted by John Barrymore in Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet, a very popular comedy in the early 1990’s, then you have the gist.

Nonetheless, Snow gets maximum mileage out of her scenes with the cringing O’Donoghue, because she maintains a stony hauteur that defies contradiction. And she is far from Jessica’s only tormentor. Tania Kelly, Vivian T Howell, and Andrea King all play five different roles along Jessica’s bumbling odyssey – with at least two apiece that are standouts. Howell is best as the Starbucks know-it-all and as Gwen’s other student, a ditzy model content to be patronized.

King and Kelly draw more eccentric assignments. As Jessica’s young niece Emily, a very immature Pippi Longstocking-ish Minnesotan, King unwillingly accompanies Jessica to the theater and gets the aspiring actress in trouble with Patrick Stewart during the movie star’s attempt at Hamlet. After disrupting the performance, damage control doesn’t go so well for Jessica at first, compounding Stewart’s rage against texting and tweeting. King’s other triumph is Lord Derby, a renowned Shakespearean scholar in his dotage.

Kelly hardly needs to do more than walk onstage to draw laughs, but she is especially memorable as a more shambling and déclassé academic, Jessica’s Humanities Professor, a veritable fount of dubious information. But Kelly surpasses herself as the Gravedigger, a scene where Downs gives us glints of Shakespearean depth. For a brief moment, we’re outside the hustle and bustle of Broadway and the ephemera of actors’ pretensions.

Chuck Bludworth’s projection slides underscore the web-based slickness and superficiality of the city. With no lack of self-esteem whatsoever, Gwen and the two academics manage to amuse us while educating us about the melancholy Dane and the women who have played him. But the dimly lit graveyard scene is something different. In this wilderness, Downs’s comedy and Shakespeare’s tragedy intermingle, for the two gravediggers in the Bard’s script were actually called Clowns in the dramatis personae. Somehow, Kelly’s portrayal makes me wish to see her tossing Yorick’s skull one day.

 

Less Bard and More Beer

Theater Reviews: Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some!) and The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Four centuries after William Shakespeare’s death, Charlotte’s own Chickspeare inhabits a parallel universe. Or maybe it’s retribution: while all of the Bard’s works were performed by all-male theatre troupes, all of Chickspeare’s productions since 1998 have been “All women! All the time!” as originally promised. The “All Shakespeare” in the middle of that slogan was gradually blurred and dropped as the Chix added Reduced Shakespeare Company lampoons to their rep and then ventured father afield.

Written by Michael Carleton, James FitzGerald, and John K. Alvarez, Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some!) is very much in the spirit of Reduced Shakespeare’s original assault on the Elizabethan titan’s complete works. The parentheses in the title, the quickie romp through multiple classics by three actors playing multiple roles, and the devotion of all of Act 2 to a single extravagant lampoon all follow the Reduced template.

But gender only begins to describe the difference between Chickspeare’s version and the 2010 Actor’s Theatre Every Christmas. The new model is as much an event as it is a theatre production, an experience that begins and ends at the newer NoDa Brewery on N. Tryon Street. In between, there are a couple of shuttle bus rides back and forth from the original Brewery location on N. Davidson Street. You’ll find more brew choices on tap at North Tryon, but the enticement of lifting a mug and participating in the many “To beer!” toasts during the Chix performance at North Davidson is hard to resist.

Few did last Friday night. Besides the brewskis, we had Anne Lambert lubricating the experience with a steady feed of Christmas trivia challenges on the bus ride to the show and the conviviality of the Chix banditas – Sheila Snow Proctor, Lane Morris, and Tanya McClellan – during their performance. But mainly, it was the beer that induced the party atmosphere.

Directing the show, Joanna Gerdy and Andrea King had a healthy disregard for the script. The playwrights labored under a handicap that never afflicted the Reduced Shakespeare collaborators when they chose ancient targets like Hamlet, the Bible, and American history for their merry desecrations. Unlike your seasonal carols, most of our familiar Christmas stories aren’t free-range prey. Copyright law prevents satiric assaults upon Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the Charlie Brown Christmas, and the Yuletide yarns of Truman Capote, Dylan Thomas, and Jean Sheperd.

When Carleton, FitzGerald, and Alvarez lashed out at these restrictions, the result was “Gustav, the Green-Nosed Rain-Goat,” not the funniest sketch you’ll ever see. Morris never plays the mutated venison as if it were comedy gold, so there’s never any deadly straining to make it funnier than it is. We’ll raise a glass, and then we’ll move on.

The premise of the show is that Proctor wishes to proceed traditionally with a presentation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but Morris and McClellan are sick and tired of the same old stuff. Before they’ll allow Snow to read her Dickens and play her Scrooge, she must join them in a medley of other Christmas faves, including Frosty the Snowman, Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, the Grinch, O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” and – maybe if there’s enough time – the inevitable It’s a Wonderful Life.

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There isn’t enough time, but that doesn’t deter Morris. While Proctor is on-task as Scrooge, with McClellan visiting her as all three ghosts, Morris keeps insisting that Proctor is George Bailey, inflicting on us a bevy of characters from New Bedford Falls, including George’s guardian angel, his brother, his banker nemesis, and his adoring wife. By the time Lane reaches the wife, it comes off oddly like a female impersonation.

Fortunately, Proctor is the ideal Scrooge in the face of these torments. There’s a bit of Oliver Hardy and Bud Abbott in her forbearance, but we somehow remain on her side throughout her ordeal. At the climax of Christmas Carol, Morris is still bedeviling her, so she finally submits to becoming George Bailey – in a schizophrenic frenzy that finds her shuttling between Scrooge and Bailey as both McClellan and Morris assail her.

In her surrender, Proctor produces a Jimmy Stewart impersonation that’s barely good enough to let you know what she’s doing. It will probably improve during the next couple of weekends as the run continues, but I’m not sure it should. Likewise, Proctor can be a mite slow changing costumes, but McClellan’s patience with her cast mate is so priceless, it would hardly pay for Proctor to hurry.

It’s been a rocky road for Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte since developers forced them out of their longtime home on Stonewall Street last summer. We thought they would resurface on Louise Avenue, but negotiations there collapsed, and the company tacked toward Freedom Drive. City and county paperwork delayed the opening, so their Toxic Avenger was redirected to a nearby church, and the current Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical has been rerouted to the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance, Charlotte Ballet’s HQ on N. Tryon Street.

I was curious to see how director Chip Decker and his design team would adapt to studios with so much space and such a high ceiling. With two fair-sized ramshackle trailers, topped by two jumbo projection screens, height isn’t a problem, and the design team fills out the stage with a fence, some Florida flamingo kitsch, an incongruous array of Star Wars memorabilia and, dead center of the stage between the two trailers, a half-decorated Christmas tree.

That odd tree, straddling the borderline between Rufus and Darleen’s properties, triggers Betsy Kelso’s plotline. Rufus loves Christmas and adores Darleen, but mean Darleen snarls “Bah” and “Humbug” to both. She will not decorate her trailer or even allow Rufus onto her property to decorate her side of the tree. That’s a source of huge consternation to Betty, the manager of Armadillo Acres, who has always wanted – but failed – to win the big prize awarded to the best-decorated trailer park. A vague curse plagues Armadillo Acres, and it too will to be exorcised before we reach a happy ending.

There’s a certain amount of respectability in Betty, so we’re fortunate that it is more than counterbalanced by the trashiness of her other tenants, Pickles and Lin (short for Linoleum). They also come in handy when ghosts are needed to populate Darleen’s Dickensian dream sequence. Rufus’s romantic fantasies and Betty’s hopes of nabbing top kitsch honors are revived when Darleen, in an effort to pull the plug on the park’s Christmas lights, gets electrocuted by Rufus’s déclassé cable-splitter and wakens with amnesia. That enables her to forget what a Scrooge she is and the fact that she belongs to Jackie, owner of a slutty pancake joint.

If you missed the first and second comings of this trashy romp, it’s good for you to know all the basics I’ve detailed. Although Actor’s Theatre has done well with the Charlotte Ballet space, they have thoroughly failed to conquer its acoustics. So the songs and lyrics by David Nehls are more crucial to your enjoyment than usual – but often unintelligible over the four-piece band led by music director Brad Fugate.

Tommy Foster isn’t as rednecky as Ryan Stamey was as Rufus, but he’s a tad more pathetic and lovable. Karen Christensen is more than sufficiently bitchy as Darleen, and we often forget that Matt Kenyon is in drag as Lin. (So does he, I suspect.) But Jon Parker Douglas nearly steals the show as Jackie when he is possessed during the climactic exorcism. It’s an epileptic farting fantasia that isn’t quickly forgotten – and the kind of broad physical comedy this acoustically-challenged show desperately needs.

 

Not Your Same Old Vampire

Reviews: She Who Watches and Charlotte Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

Performances of She Who Watches run through Oct. 30 at Frock Shop.

 

When J. Sheridan Le Fanu serialized Carmilla in 1871-72, Count Dracula wasn’t even a gleam in Bram Stoker’s eye. Yet a quarter of a century later, when Dracula became the paradigm for modern vampire literature, Stoker himself acknowledged that Le Fanu’s most famous novella was a part of that gleam. So after a steady sprinkling of October visitations from the undead lord of Transylvania — no less than seven Metrolina Dracula productions since 2002 — it’s nice to see a change of pace in the form of a new PaperHouse Theatre adaptation of Le Fanu’s spellbinding horror classic.

Eerie echoes are a key motif in the storytelling, which co-directors Nicia Carla and Chester Shepherd have retitled She Who Watches in their adaptation. The narrator of the story, Laura, is haunted by a nightmarish experience from her childhood, when she awoke to find a teen-aged girl in her bedroom. That girl seemed to fall into a slumber on Laura’s chest, but when she awoke the second time, what the girl was doing made her shriek in terror. And then, before her governess could come to the rescue, the girl vanished into thin air!

It would be cruel to divulge much of what happens 12 years after this creepy prologue, but you’re correct in assuming that the beautiful face indelibly etched in Laura’s memory is Carmilla. How Carmilla returns to Laura’s home — and ultimately, her bed — took just under 69 minutes to deliciously unfold on opening night, with neat surprises and more eerie echoes along the way. That’s about the same amount of time you might spend in your family car getting from the I-277 overpass to the dubious thrills of Scarowinds.

It’s a shorter, more enjoyable evening at PaperHouse’s customary haunt, The Frock Shop. Le Fanu’s story placed the action at a lonely Austrian castle in a place called Styria, but the parlor of the Frock Shop cottage on Central Avenue seems to suit Carla and Shepherd quite dandily. The antique atmosphere is built in, augmented by a gallery of starchy, frilly, diaphanous, and full-length costumes designed by Magda Guichard.

Lighting designer Chaz Pofahl, strategically potting the illumination levels, is certainly a part of the spooky conspiracy, but our stage directors also utilize the windows lining two of the parlor’s walls to pique the suspense and ambiance. Perhaps emboldened by the numerous film, stage and TV adaptations of Carmilla that have come before, Carla and Sheperd have done some character shuffling as well. Instead of a kindly father, Laura’s lone parent is a coolish mom, and instead of a distressed friend of her father, General Spielsdorf, we get a more down-to-earth and frazzled Aunt Jean.

The core protagonists remain the same, and we’re very fortunate there. After two strong outings in Theatre Charlotte’s Miracle Worker and PaperHouse’s Much Ado About Nothing, Sarah Woldum is probably the busiest actress in town this year, taking on the role of Carmilla. She seems to revel in the menace of this role, seething with a mysterious intensity when she isn’t softening her prey with endearments. The whole chemistry of her is different from Dracula’s, seemingly resistant to daylight, but you wonder whether her episodes of weakness are symptoms of a gnawing blood hunger or simply playacting to draw sympathy. When Woldum becomes the predator, Carmilla’s rapacity is as much sexual as it is animal.

Racquel Nadhiri spoke too softly at the outset, compounding my difficulties with her Jamaican accent, so I won’t give her top marks as our Narrator. But Nadhiri beautifully captures the mixture of attraction and repulsion that is the essence of Laura’s reaction to Carmilla. Our empathy for Laura’s victimhood is that much stronger because it stems from her sunny heroism.

The ending that Carla and Shepherd have devised for her — distinctly different from Le Fanu’s — fits Nadhiri like a glove, and you might say that the word “bloodcurdling” was specially cooked up to describe her screams.

Two interludes punctuate the action, so you can get refills on the beverages that were served on the front lawn as you first entered, or you might nosh on cream puffs and sausage balls. When we reached the denouement, the audience was split in two, half of us ascending the staircase to witness the climactic encounter between Laura and Carmilla in the bedroom, half of us remaining downstairs to hear the disclosures that Laura’s mom receives from Aunt Jean.

You’ll have a better appreciation of the synchronicity of the two scenes from the downstairs vantage point, but everyone gets the chance to see both scenes — because, we realize, they actually occur simultaneously.

As I’ve already hinted, the cold and clueless Mother isn’t the plum role here, so you won’t be seeing Andrea King at her best, though she’s very good, of course. Most of the scene stealing comes from Rebecca Costas, busily changing costumes and characters throughout the show. Maybe her most comical turn is as the Doctor who says she’ll return so nervously that you can be absolutely sure she won’t, but she’s also pretty funny as Hunch-Hag, dispensing some fairly toxic marital insight to audience members.

Costas also gets a couple of serious cameos, first as the mysterious and malevolent Countess, Carmilla’s aunt. More urgent — and earnest — is Aunt Jean as the action comes to a boil.

Since her stint as she-devil Abigail Williams in CPCC Theatre’s 2001 production of The Crucible, Costas has only emerged briefly and intermittently on the local scene. It’s a kick to see her shining 15 years later in such a versatile performance, her devilish fire not only intact but several degrees hotter.

Charlotte Symphony’s 85th season is off to an exciting start, and Mary A. Deissler, the new president and CEO, is already making her impact. She has things to say, both onstage at Belk Theater when the orchestra plays and in the CSO program booklet, which isn’t as staid and stagnant as it used to be. Sitting down to last week’s Beethoven Symphony No. 2 concert, I found new artwork, festooned with pumpkins, on the cover.

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The two artworks I’ve seen on the booklet covers, through two 2016-17 Classics concerts, already doubles the number I’ve seen in previous seasons. More importantly, Deissler has kept an inside page, opposite the page where you find tonight’s composers and compositions listed, reserved for herself. So instead of some generic remarks designed to linger more or more inanely as the season wore on, Deissler did a reset on page 17A.

The Welcome Page addressed the divisiveness that has fractured our community in recent weeks, the unifying power of music, and Deissler’s gratitude that we were back at a time when healing is needed. Rang true.

Switching from music director Christopher Warren-Green to guest conductor Michael Christie, the Beethoven offerings were more varied and adventurous than the All-Tchaikovsky season opener, veering off into Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and his Totentanz before we jackknifed into György Ligeti’s folksier and funkier Concert Românesc.

Guest soloist Benedetto Lupo and the CSO brass were a bit overeager and brutish in the opening section of the concerto, but after the pianist navigated through his first softer, lyrical passages, everyone seemed to settle into a more relaxed groove. A fresh production wrinkle further enlivened the concert: a projection screen descended over the Belk stage so an overhead camera could transmit a bird’s eye view of the hurtin’ that Lupo was delivering to a defenseless Steinway Model D.

Van Cliburn himself might have winced.

Shakespeare Pens a Sitcom

Theater Review: The Comedy of Errors

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Up on North Tryon Street at NoDa Brewing Company, Chickspeare is flipping the script again.

Founded upon the principle that Shakespeare’s works, originally performed by all-male companies in Merrie Olde England, can also be performed by all-female companies in Modern America, Chickspeare now propounds a new heresy. Although the Bard’s first great work, The Comedy of Errors, has its roots in Ancient Rome, why can’t we equate this trusty old farce with our own dopey TV sitcoms?

Executing this audacious concept, Chickspeare director Andrea King decrees a modicum of pruning and reshaping upon the script, along with hefty helpings of mugging, styling, and profiling from her hambone cast. If that weren’t enough to win us over — and it definitely was last Saturday night — then there’s the prepaid cupful of NoDa Brewing’s draft beer to further lubricate our receptivity. Four different brews were flowing from the kegs.

As the old story unfolds in modern dress, linkage to American sitcoms comes largely through familiar theme songs. When the luckless Egeon tells how his twin sons, both named Antipholus, were separated during infancy along with their parents, the fateful sea voyage is evoked by the familiar shipwreck of The Minnow immortalized in the ballad of Gilligan’s Island — plus an extremely cheesy scene change. Later when Antipholus of Syracuse marvels at the fact that everyone recognizes him in Ephesus, where he has never been before, his astonishment is punctuated by the theme song from Cheers, that Boston pub where everybody knows your name.

Action comes fast and quick in this Shakespeare in the Park(ing Lot) production, so I didn’t keep track of all the sitcom and game-show themes that zoomed by, or whether references to The Jeffersons, Mission Impossible, Laverne and Shirley, and The Beverly Hillbillies were linked quite as cunningly to the text. These “Chicksbeer” shows are all outdoors, with a nearby food truck supplementing the brewery offerings, but the evening performances beginning at 7 p.m. make some extra buffoonery possible as the Ephesian nitwits take multiple stabs at pointing to the setting sun.

Two sets of identical twins scurry about during this carnival of confusion, for the two Antipholuses are served by two Dromios who were also separated during infancy. Their befuddlement can only be sustained if they don’t meet, so it isn’t until deep in act five that all four of our protagonists must appear simultaneously before us. Historically, directors have relied upon actors’ height, costumes, and grooming to bridge the inevitable gap in physical appearances. Only recently have I seen or heard of directors who explore the comic possibilities of radically mismatching the identical twins.

King adopts yet another strategy. Perhaps inspired by her own recent experience in PaperHouse Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing, where she was briefly Dogberry and Leonato simultaneously, King has cast Caroline Renfro as both Antipholuses and Tania Kelly as both Dromios. Talk about flipping the script! In most productions of Comedy of Errors, we’re challenged to perceive the twins as identical in spite of their obvious physical differences. At the NoDa Brewing Company parking lot, we’re challenged to keep track of which identical twin is which.

A couple of visual aids are helpful. When Kelly is the Dromio who dwells in Ephesus, she dons a dopey floppy hat, and when Renfro appears as the Syracusan Antipholus, she flips out a Clark Kent set of eyeglass frames. As you’ll see in the zany staging of her nativity, this Antipholus was actually born with eyeglasses. Additionally, the philandering Antipholus of Ephesus seems to be tipsy for nearly the whole evening.

Chickspeare (Photo by Weldon Weaver)

That extra degree of differentiation for Renfro seems justified. With all the thankless errands, unjust castigations, and slapstick beatings that Kelly absorbs as the two Dromios, it eventually ceases to matter which whipping boy is drawing the belly laughs. Except when Dromio of Syracuse is pursued by the amply padded Carmen Bartlett as Nell, Antipholus of Ephesus’ kitchen maid — and his manservant’s massive wife.

Kelly works up a delightful lather as she gets most of the shtick, but Renfro generates her share of zaniness, perhaps most memorably when she picks up a mic-like prop and hosts an impromptu segment of … let’s call it The Dating Game. Antipholus of Syracuse is less hotly pursued by his twin’s wife, but the scantily clad Alexandria White definitively stamps herself as the hottie of the house as Adriana, spurned though she might be by the look-alike Antipholus while her real husband is cheating on her.

Theme music from Bewitched may have been cued up when the alluring Adriana invited her Syracuse brother-in-law to her home for dinner. Not only can’t Antipholus believe his good fortune, he is smitten by Adriana’s sister, Luciana. Some of the juice seems to be drained from this faux love triangle to trim this production to its desired running time, so we miss some of the sisters’ consternation when the Syracusan obeys his instincts and speaks his heart. Likewise, Dromio of Syracuse’s eventual relief seemed to overshadow his master’s delight in the denouement.

So Kacy Southerland didn’t get the fullest opportunity to explore the virtues of Luciana — or their ultimate reward. But she moonlights as Amelia, the local abbess, so she can lavish additional virtue on Egeon’s long-lost wife and gush forth the bliss of her reunion with her children and her husband.

Arrested in the opening scene for being a Syracusan on Ephesian soil, Amanda Liles isn’t seen much as Egeon after narrating the hilarious sea saga that sets up the plot. Not to fear, she resurfaces as the frustrated goldsmith, Angelo, who can’t get paid for the necklace he fashions for the philandering Antipholus — and as the courtesan he’s two-timing with. Of course, Egeon must be there for the sentimental reunions, so Liles has her schizoid moment, splitting into Angelo as all is settled.

Cara Wood is the Duke of Ephesus, who — mercifully? — grants Egeon 24 hours to raise the ransom money that will enable him to avoid execution for his trespass. We need more Duke at the end when the terrified Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio take refuge at the Abbey and the implacable Adriana wants her husband back. Wood tosses off the Duke — and an arresting officer in the necklace affair — with far more distinction than we usually see, never detracting from the merry mood.

Chickspeare has a knack for broadly entertaining while duly honoring the Bard, making the texts accessible to common folk four centuries after they played to the groundlings.

Symptomatic of the troupe’s sure touch here is how they treat the often intimidating soliloquies. Instead of making them occasions for declamatory orations, they’re prerecorded and presented as interior monologues, brought down to the level of cartoonish thought bubbles that pop with crass and delicious effervescence.

Yeah, the Chix banditas understand what contemporary audiences crave, and their Chicksbeer series deftly taps in.

A Mad Tea Party at the Frock Shop

Theatre Review: Much Ado About Nothing

By Perry Tannenbaum

Much Ado1For a second straight spring, PaperHouse Theatre is using the Frock Shop on Central Avenue as a backdrop for an English comedy, but you can be sure that this year’s Much Ado About Nothing is far more freewheeling and lighthearted than last year’s A Woman of No Importance. Oscar Wilde’s work was about class, privilege, loyalty, and ideals, while Shakespeare’s is very much about misconceptions and manipulation.

Last June, the prissiness of Frock Shop and its charming hominess were upheld in the Victorian finery worn by the cast. Now as we arrive at June 2016, we can observe that formality has been largely relaxed, the better for all the cast to not only change costumes but also to change characters. Even the saltiest and wittiest of the lovebirds, Beatrice and Benedick, get to moonlight as buffoons. Hero and Claudio, the more ardent and tedious couple, also get in their comic licks, Hero working for her own destruction as Borachio, a sleazy stoner, and Claudio crossdressing as Ursula, Hero’s maidservant.

Nicia Carla adds deftly to the lightheartedness of the comedy in her first attempt at directing a Shakespearean script. Both the cuts she has applied to the script and the clarity that survives despite those hefty splices testify that she’s quite good at it. Several of the players on hand have experience with the Bard, and it shows.

The barbs Beatrice and Benedick exchange in Much Ado hearken back to the strife between Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, while the malicious scheming against Claudio prefigures the work of Iago in Othello and Edmund, the bastard noble in King Lear. So when Carla lightens the comedy, there’s a risk of diluting the drama. Yet the church scene where the wedding goes awry is one of the best of the evening.

Whether benign or virulent, manipulation is hard to pull off perfectly. In Much Ado, both plots are unmasked, but there are provocative contrasts in how each is resolved. Order is restored as the plot against Beatrice and Benedick exposes the love that both were hiding deep within – lingering from a liaison that had been broken off before the action begins, before Benedick marched off into battle. But the haze of the catastrophe that could have been hovers over the happy resolution of the deception practiced upon Claudio.

In the PaperHouse production, that darkness adds poignancy to the ultimate happiness Claudio and Hero achieve. After bringing so much youth and vitality to Annie Sullivan at Theatre Charlotte back in March, Sarah Woldum is softer and shyer as Hero with the same lurking buoyancy of youth, and it’s hard to believe that Deven Ginyard is a college freshman playing Claudio – unless we assume he has taken about seven gap years after high school.

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Chester Shepherd was at the heart of the success of last year’s Woman of No Importance when he was paired with Katy Shepherd. Now Shepherd is fencing with Alexandria White, whom I previously encountered last June as a glamorous gallery of discards in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Yet I can’t say these Shakespearean lovebirds are noticeably less wholesome than the romantic fledglings we followed around The Frock Shop last June when PaperHouse also tackled Wilde.

Curiously, the jousting lovers’ lack of sharpness doesn’t throw this Much Ado off-kilter because of all the zaniness that Carla strews around them. Andrea King and Shawna Pledger are the chief perpetrators of the low comedy, King as a Dogberry who’ll remind you of a backwoods highway trooper and Pledger in a trio of crossdressing roles, recycling the same crappy hair scrap as The Friar’s eyebrows and Don John’s mustache. Or vice versa? The thing just hangs like a sorry backwards necklace when not in use.

As I’ve mentioned, the lovers also moonlight as lowlifes. Woldum gets the juiciest opportunities when she crossdresses as Borachio, but Ginyard’s matronly bustle as Ursula is also a hoot. King upstages them all when she must appear simultaneously as both her characters, Hero’s father Leonato and the bumbling Dogberry. On these occasions, King produces a Dogberry puppet and converses with herself. Not great puppetry, but it is great fun.

Adding to the merriment, PaperHouse serves up tea, hot and soft beverages, and finger foods at various intervals before and during the show. A Pavlovian bell signals those times when you’ll move among the downstairs rooms during the production as well as the front porch, lawn, and rear parking lot. All in all, a pretty mad tea party.