Tag Archives: Ann Marie Costa

Jane Shall Have Jill in DC’s Hip-Hop “Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Theater Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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By Perry Tannenbaum

If you have the notion that America’s liberal arts colleges are hidebound guardians of the past, mired in fossilizing traditions, you may wish to check out Davidson College’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Unorthodox thinking was already obvious when I looked at the cover of the playbill. Instead of the Grecian colonnades or laurel wreathes you might expect for a lyrical Shakespearean comedy that mostly transpires within 25 miles of Athens, the cameo portrait of Fairy Queen Titania and the bewitched Bottom is done in comic strip style. All of the basic info – title, playwright, director, dates – is set in that impossibly perfect hand-lettering that worshipers of Superman and Batman grew up with. Furthermore, entering Duke Family Performance Hall, I was already tipped off to the fact that director Ann Marie Costa would be infusing the Bard’s text with plenty of hip-hop rhythms and dance, thanks to the ministrations of beatmaker Mighty DJ DR and spoken word artists Boris “Bluz” Rogers and Carlos Robson.

Given the problematical acoustics of the Duke, I was fairly anxious about what I might need to contend with in the style – and the beat – of this production concept. But there was more. In the opening scene, when Egeus petitions the heroic Duke Theseus in hopes that he will force his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius, the groom he intends for her, there were a couple of radical switches. Hermia’s father was nowhere to be found, replaced by Egeia, a heartless mother. Perhaps more shocking, Hermia’s true love, Lysander, had also disappeared, replaced by Lydia. If Joe Gardner’s elegantly simple set design and Martha Making’s contemporary costumes weren’t enough, Lydia’s plan to elope with Hermia and marry her assured me that we weren’t in ancient Athens anymore.

I would have been dizzy with disorientation if these alterations had been delivered with hip-hop embroidering, but the lovers’ couplets and the mechanicals’ prosaic rehearsal scene afterwards were plainly spoken. As so often happens, the uniqueness of a Midsummer Night’s Dream production becomes manifest when we leave Athens behind and plunge into the nearby woods. Back in 1987, when NC Shakespeare was still alive and touring, Hermia and Lysander traipsed into the forest carrying their own Samsonite luggage. In 2003, deposed Charlotte Repertory Theatre founder Steve Umberger found refuge at Theatre Charlotte, bringing Cirque du Soleil acrobat Karl Baumann with him – to go where no Puck had gone before. Costa says in her director’s notes that she was inspired by a recent visit to New York City, where she saw spontaneous performances by street musicians, beatmakers, and break dancers in the city’s public parks. The nocturnal woods is exactly the right place for disorientation to be encouraged.

So as soon as we first saw Puck conversing with the First Fairy, we got a steady flow of hip-hop movement, choreographed Emily Hunter – with plenty of urban attitude – accompanying the hip-hop reaffirmations that most of the fairy dialogue is rhymed. Tatiana Pless was so vivacious as the Fairy that I presumed she was Puck for a few moments, but not to worry, Pless got more play and multiple costume changes as Mustardseed and Moonshine. Graham Marema was quite engaging as Puck after her comparatively subdued arrival, but it was Colin Bye’s bravura exploits as Puck’s master, King Oberon, that enabled the whole hip-hop concept to click. His tall frame topped with a pom knit hat, Bye became a living breathing testimonial to the efficacy of YouTube hip-hop tutorials. He rarely moved from one spot onstage to another without a lithe moonwalking glide – nearly on point, increasing the impact of his lanky height. The sensation Bye made as Oberon was only enhanced by the starchy, stiff, and proper impression he made in his other role as Theseus in the opening scene.dsc_0758

While discord between Hermia and her mom unsettles Athens, there is parallel discord in the fairy kingdom, where the proud Queen Titania is denying custody of an adorable kidnapped boy – and conjugal visitations! – to King Oberon. To bring peace to both kingdoms, Oberon must teach Titania a lesson and restore Demetrius to his previous fiancée, Helena. Oberon dispatches Puck to retrieve a faraway flower whose juice can be made into a love potion that can be applied to a sleeper’s eyes. When the sleeper awakes, he or she will fall in love with the first person or animal that comes into sight. Oberon himself applies the potion to Titania, but fortunately, he deputizes Puck to find Demetrius and apply that same potion so that he’ll become enamored with Helena again when he awakes. Half of the fun we experience in the woods results from Puck messing up and applying the potion to Lydia instead of Demetrius. The other half comes from what Puck gets right, transforming the incorrigible Nick Bottom into a man with a donkey’s head in the middle of the mechanicals’ inept rehearsal. That’s who – or what – Titania sees when she first awakes.

After seeing Midsummer numerous times before, I found Kanise Thompson a little less shrewish than most Titanias because of the boogie in her movement and the hip-hop delights of her fairy entourage. Arrayed in the funky garments of the hip-hop culture, this entourage combined to make the queen’s bedtime the most regal event of the evening. Thompson did reappear later in the evening as Hippolyta, whose nuptials with Theseus were another regal event, but her best moments came when she heaped love on the repellent Bottom and when she sensuously reconciled with Oberon. Although he couldn’t compete with the most commanding Bottoms that I’ve seen, Sam Giberga had some bodacious moments as Nick, particularly when he was vaunting his versatility as an actor and getting vamped by the queen. Louder braying, please!dsc_1063

The whole hip-hop concept went so well for me that acclimating to the gender and sexuality alterations presented more of a challenge. Sarah Kostoryz as Helena may have more reason to be offended by Lydia’s advances, but the text offers no guidance, and she reacted as if a Lysander were still pursuing her. I’ve also seen more vicious taunting of her shorter rival Hermia when their antipathy heats up. As Hermia, Izem Ustun could give the most conventional performance among the lovers, for it made no difference who her admirers were when both of them abandoned her. Uztun swam bravely against the handicap of her relative conventionality, no more sensitive to Hermia’s shortness than Kostoryz’s provocations warranted.

Soft-pedaling her altered sexuality, Blaire Ebert was a very courtly and principled Lydia, and she tore after Demetrius fearlessly. Now when Lydia’s conflict with Demetrius escalated from verbal to physical, I could perceive some difficulties in the audience. As Lydia and Demetrius rolled over one another on the forest floor, there seemed to be a mixture of shocked silence, nervous laughter, and redoubled laughter from various sections of the house. There was no avoiding it: the lesbian Lydia’s attack on the straight Demetrius often had the look of lovemaking as they lingered on the floor. Similar to Ebert, Ed Pritchard portrayed Demetrius as if nothing had changed, a problematical proposition when your fiancée turns out to be gay or bisexual, but the text offers no more guidance to our Demetrius than it does for Helena or Lydia. I would have expected all four of the lovers – especially during the taunting and fighting – to have more fun with the newly hatched absurdities.

The cuts that Costa applied to the script may have shortened the mortals’ time onstage more than the fairies’, or maybe the extra juice from the hip-hop idiom just made the fairies more exciting and accessible. I’m sure that I’ve seen Midsummer productions where the mechanicals don’t perform their Bergamask after their travesty of a tragedy, and I’ve also seen productions where the fairy king and queen don’t return. Returning both of these to the final scene added to the sense of revelry, merriment, and magic. When the last huge exits went to King Oberon and Queen Titania instead of the three newly wedded Athenian couples, the sudden hush when Puck was left all alone onstage was all the more poignant and dramatic. After such an unusual, energetic staging, Merema had no difficulty at all in coaxing us to give her our hands.

Making and Faking Love

Theater reviews: Stage Kiss and Charlotte Squawks: 12 Angry Hens

Returning from intermission at the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s production of Stage Kiss, I was strangely disoriented when I saw the set for Act 2 of Sarah Ruhl’s comedy. For most of Act 1, our protagonists were the leading players in a revival of a sentimental drama, The Last Kiss. “She” had been Ada Wilcox, a happily married woman given one month to live, and “He” was Johnny Lowell, the love of her life, reunited with his long-lost love through the generosity of Ada’s husband.

Robert Lee Simmons as “He” and Lisa Hugo as “She” in Stage Kiss. (Photo by George Hendricks Photography)

  • Robert Lee Simmons as “He” and Lisa Hugo as “She” in Stage Kiss. (Photo by George Hendricks Photography)

He and She had also had a youthful romance earlier in their acting careers, before director Adrian Schwalbach had unwittingly united them by casting them as the leads in this sudsy revival. By the end of the play’s brief run, He and She have fallen back in love for real, despite the fact that She now has a for-real husband and teenage daughter. So they skip the closing night cast party, the better to consummate their rekindled romance.

Somehow when I saw the rundown Greenwich Village apartment where the lovers adjourned, I momentarily forgot that He was not Johnny Lowell, the celebrated sculptor who flew in from Sweden to be at Ada’s bedside. No, He’s merely one of the legions of fine actors strewn around Manhattan who have sacrificed the niceties of middle class comfort to pursue their art.

Of course, what Ruhl very much wishes to demonstrate is that, while kissing nine times at each performance eight times a week for four weeks – after additional weeks of rehearsal — She and He have also let themselves forget that they are not Ada and Johnny. Or at least they have allowed themselves to become confused about it.

If you’ve ever immersed yourself in a major stage role for a couple of months, you already know how easy it is to slip away from the role you’re playing in life to the one you play onstage. Shuttling back and forth is an occupational hazard for actors — or a welcome escape.

Watching the rehearsals for The Last Kiss, plus a Schwalbach opus that occupies us in Act 2, we discover additional layers that Ruhl has woven into her comedy. For one, He has richly earned the squalor he lives in, for He is a wretched actor in both of these wretched plays-within-the-play. In The Last Kiss, He is understudied by Kevin, a gay actor who is even more wretched, noticeably uncomfortable with all that hetero kissing.

We can also see that She is not being ensnared by a web of glamor as she endures Kevin’s awkwardness, an injury to her co-star, and eventually an injury of her own. In the final Actor’s Theatre production at their Stonewall Street location, we see the artifice that goes into theatre on a stage that is almost stripped bare of scenery.

But there must be artistry if we’re to believe we’re really watching an incompetent director directing wretched actors in wretched plays and that an able actress, after a long hiatus, can return to the stage and be so seduced by the experience. Our director, Ann Marie Costa, helps us to navigate, deftly calibrating the inadequacy we see from Robert Lee Simmons as He/Johnny and the wild incompetence we see from Chip Decker as Kevin.

Decker gives us more excess than Simmons, who gives plenty, so it’s quite clear that Costa has them both shunning restraint. When it comes to Schwalbach, a director who devoutly avoids prescribing how his actors should act, Costa no doubt found that Ruhl was taunting her into decisiveness. What we get from Dennis Delamar, then, is just a slight winking acknowledgement that directors’ sanctimonious abdication of their directing responsibilities is absolutely absurd, particularly when a script is bad — or you’re also the playwright.

When we first see her, She doesn’t give the best audition for Ada. In fact, She arrives so late that auditions are actually over. From the outset, Schwalbach’s laxity is working in her favor, so Lisa Hugo must constantly be deciding how much or how little of She’s fallibility should be added to all the shoddiness and incompetence surrounding her. I can almost hear Costa telling Hugo, “go with your instincts,” echoing Schwalbach. Otherwise, how would Hugo’s performance come off so naturally without ever seeming to be calculated?

It’s easy enough to track Mark Sutch in this cast, playing both Ada’s and She’s husband, but Emily Ramirez and Katy Shepherd conspire on a flipflop. Ramirez plays Ada’s daughter before returning as He’s bong-puffing girlfriend after the break, while Shepherd goes from Ada’s maid to She’s daughter. Sutch gets to be the first grownup in the room, catching up with the wayward actress, a welcome infusion of sanity. Yet even more welcome, in an undeniably cerebral comedy, is the real emotion that Shepherd brings us as the abandoned child.

Ultimately, those family moments aren’t intended to stick with us. That’s why Ada and Johnny have names but the actors who play them have none at all. What Ruhl has written, masquerading as a comedy, is a meditation on the nature of theatre and playacting.

The anger of Charlotte Squawks: 12 Angry Hens can be difficult to perceive at times. Surveying the foibles of our city, state and nation since last year’s 11th Glower, producer Mike Collins and writer Brian Kahn came up with craft beer, airline bonus miles, Rocket Mortgages, Johnny Manziel and food chains as fresh new objects of satire. Win or lose, the Panthers and the Hornets always get a song parody apiece at Booth Playhouse, so that segment was a black hole in this year’s satirical cavalcade. In the ongoing lampooning of Morris Jenkins and Bobby, their latenight vigils have now blossomed into bromance.

Charlotte Squawks: 12 Angry Hens runs through June 26 at Booth Playhouse. (Photo by LunahZon Photography)

  • Charlotte Squawks: 12 Angry Hens runs through June 26 at Booth Playhouse. (Photo by LunahZon Photography)

So a backhanded thanks must go to the angry hens in Raleigh who hurriedly passed HB2 and to our lame-brained governor who hurriedly signed it. The bathroom hysteria and the nationwide backlash were the sparks that Kahn sorely needed to make Squawks squawk. Patrick Ratchford, who responds to Mr. Jenkins’ overtures so repellently as Bobby, reprises his Governor McCrory impersonation in “This Is So Unfair, Man.” This parody of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” the second of the night, allows McCrory to catalogue the businesses that have voiced disapproval of HB2 and scrapped plans to move here. And “Let ‘Em Pee,” parodying the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” underscores the stupidity of it all.

If anyone stole the show from Ratchford, it was Robbie Jaeger, who took flight as Mr. Jenkins in a weird Dirty Dancing mashup. Weirder yet was his stint as a crazed Charlotte trolley car driver in “Helter Streetcar,” a parody of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.”

It’s a political year, but I can’t say that the pokes at survivors Bernie Sanders, Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump are as pointed as those aimed at the dearly departed Ted Cruz. I had to wonder whether the annual filmed appearances by Pat McCrory could possibly continue.

The answer came early as McCrory began his customary video on the five screens spread around the Booth – and was emphatically stopped almost as soon as he started, with a classy simulation of Gov Pat being flushed down a toilet. One of the best moments ever for Squawks.