Tag Archives: Beth Killion

Enjoying Is Easier Than Understanding “The Pride”

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Review:  The Pride

By Perry Tannenbaum

Back in the late 1950s, Philip has decided that his deep feelings for Oliver are a repugnant disease rather than a natural attraction. But in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride, there is another Philip, 50 years later in 2008, who is also crazy about Oliver. Since there are no longer any prohibitions or taboos against homosexuality, Philip now wishes to have a strong and exclusive relationship with Oliver, who still loves him.

Yet as we quickly see in the Queen City Theatre Company production, now at Spirit Square through Saturday, there is still a catch. Exclusivity is under siege. When we first encounter the modern-day Oliver, Philip will walk in on him moments after a casual hookup has gone sour with a sex worker who has dressed up in a Nazi uniform for their sadistic tryst. Finding his wayward partner in this compromising state hardens Philip’s resolve to move out of the apartment they’re sharing, so he leaves.

More radical measures are necessary in 1958. Philip goes to a Doctor who will crush the so-called perversion that lurks inside. Obviously, there is something sinister about this Doctor, augmented by Emily Eudy’s lighting design. We might find a more pointed message embedded in Campbell’s curious 1958-2008 juxtapositions: he means us to see that the sexual adjustment Doctor is a kind of Nazi – because he and the sex worker both reinforce Philip’s feeling that his relationship with Oliver is wrong, and because they are both played by the same actor.

And there you have The Pride in a nutshell, a colorfully told pair of stories, liberally sprinkled with humor, which yields up its messages obliquely through its strange juxtapositions. Because the same actors do both Philips and both Olivers, we likely assume they’re the same souls in two different eras. If they stand before us more than speculatively, reincarnated in our current millennium, then those 1958 blokes need to hurry up and die in order to reach their late 20s or early 30s just 50 years later.

Trouble is, for anybody who wishes to “get” The Pride, Campbell is as content to leave the question of what we’re seeing as open as the question of what our takeaway should be. Enjoying the show comes more easily, for director Glenn T. Griffin has brilliantly cast his men. Steven Buchanan brings an urbane twinkle to the free-spirited Olivers, yet there is a predatory edge to his persistent pursuit. We see something more intense than resistance from Cory Collins as the two Philips in reaction to the Olivers, closer to absolute loathing – some of it directed toward himself.

So this tightly-wound, comparatively starchy guy will snap unexpectedly, and Collins, Buchanan, and Griffin conspire to stage that moment superbly. What often cools the momentum established by Buchanan and Collins are the scenes with the two Sylvias. In 1958, she’s Philip’s wife, instrumental in bringing her husband close to Oliver, a children’s book author that she’s illustrating for; and in 2008, she’s an actress and Oliver’s close confidante.

Wearing two different Barbi Van Schaick wigs that help us to quickly differentiate between the two eras, Katie Addison is credible enough as the two Sylvias – but she’s only fitfully intelligible. Sifting through Addison’s British accent is so difficult that I could fully lose my grasp on what was happening when she was onstage.

No such problems when Michael Harris came along for his two bizarre roles. When Harris’s arms and wrists go limp as he switches from Nazi role-playing to the sex worker’s everyday personality, it’s an absolute hoot, amplified by Beth Killion’s radically contrasting costume designs. On the other hand, Harris was slightly terrifying as The Doctor, hardly better than Nazis in his steely contempt for gays.

This is how it was in most of the ostensibly civilized world 50+ years ago, and this is what we could be going back to in the era of HB2.

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Writing Tips and Serial Seductions

Theater Review: Seminar @ Spirit Square

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By Perry Tannenbaum

We all know that politics, connections, and strategic socializing often figure into securing Hollywood production budgets and achieving Hollywood stardom. We’re apt to think of the proverbial casting couch as Tinseltown’s exclusive domain. But can the same tools also work in the literary world, where writers aspire to lucrative publication and enduring prestige?

 

You better believe it, playwright Theresa Rebeck tells us in Seminar, a surprisingly steamy — and sometimes dark — comedy that brings Three Bone Theatre to Spirit Square for the first time. The veneers of artistry, aesthetics, and collegiality rapidly disintegrate in successive encounters with a famed writer and his very exclusive fiction-writing class. Izzy, Douglas, Martin, and Kate all scrape together $5,000 apiece for the privilege of being praised, critiqued, berated, and mentored by Leonard in weekly sessions at Kate’s posh Upper West Side apartment.

Kate has been honing her story about a narrator obsessed with Jane Austen for so long that cleverness and craft are all that remain. Izzy’s writing, on the other hand, is so laced with sensuousness and sexuality that it rouses mighty urges in every man in the room — and she knows exactly what she’s doing. Douglas arrives with a fine literary pedigree, key connections, and a manuscript that is already under consideration by The New Yorker.

Martin has had the toughest time scraping up the necessary cash for tuition, so tough that he has been evicted from his apartment. He wouldn’t need to pay any rent if he could crash in one of Kate’s many extra bedrooms, but he’s oblivious to the possibility that Good Samaritan impulses might not be the primary reason why Kate says yes. There are more than a couple of things that Martin is oblivious to, and he’s very guarded about showing his writing to anyone, so he’s a useful person for Rebeck to have around for expositional purposes. So much must be explained to him until he becomes central to the story.

Meanwhile, it’s Izzy and her serial seductions that stir the pot and drive the plot. There’s actually an admirable amount of balance in Rebeck’s script, but in the Broadway production directed by Sam Gold, the important character seemed to be movie star Alan Rickman as Leonard, while the students often seemed to be mundane minnows swimming in his orbit.

Leonard is a revered writer who is still globetrotting on reporting assignments despite his literary decline, so Rickman’s aging celebrity was not amiss. And Rebeck delves so deeply into the mysteries of teaching and mentoring writers that our fluctuating assessment of Leonard’s efficacy emerges as more important than any other subject Seminar tackles. But Rickman’s aura, for better or worse, made Leonard appear above the politics, the exploitation, and the literary logrolling.

With Michael Harris in the role (and probably in the best form of his life), the fault lines in Leonard’s character — and his redeeming humanity — are more readily evident. Three Bone director Steven Levine doesn’t have the luxury of imposing a huge gulf between Leonard and his students from a celebrity standpoint, so we also discover who Leonard’s costar is a bit earlier in the game. Rickman’s fame — and stage presence — really didn’t allow for an equal in the Broadway production.

A subtler aspect of Rickman’s magisterial stature on Broadway was the stylish domain where Leonard held court. Ryan Maloney’s set design for Kate’s living room, flowing silk sheets for walls and simple furnishings, has an unmistakable elegance, not a word I’d apply to any of Three Bone’s previous efforts in NoDa over the past four years. But it’s Maloney’s evocation of a ratty artist’s apartment later in the action, complete with its telltale writer’s clutter, that had me flashing back to the Broadway production.

Outside of ivied university walls and politically correct quads, taboos against student-teacher hookups obviously don’t apply, but with Three Bone’s comparatively leveled playing field, it’s easier to see that Izzy is playing the guys to her advantage — and actually less apparent that Leonard is playing her. Karina Caparino augments the difference by emphasizing Izzy’s wantonness and her frolicsome spirit. The Asian who played Izzy on Broadway was a little brainier, cosmopolitan. This Izzy is Bohemian with more raw and exposed emotions.

That chimes well with Harris’s more vulnerable approach to Leonard. I found myself paying far closer attention to Leonard’s big monologue, where he addresses his past disgrace. For me, it was less of a rueful confession and more of a bitter outcry of victimhood this time around, accentuated by some deft lighting cues by designer Carley Walker. Unexpectedly, it’s the previously meek Martin who pushes the esteemed writer to open up.

Michael Harris and Scott Miller in Seminar.

So yes, I can declare that Martin, in his painful — at times, infuriating — evolution demands a performance on a par with Leonard’s, and Scott A. Miller certainly delivers. I’m sure it isn’t a coincidence that Levine elicits an outing from Miller that’s as extraordinary as what we see from Harris, arguably eclipsing Miller’s stellar work earlier this year at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte in the title role of Danny, King of the Basement.

I’m only wondering how Levine did it. It’s easy to suppose that Levine enabled Miller and Harris to look inside themselves and find things they had never discovered before. That’s a typical mythology applied to directors. But here I suspect that Levine opened up new depths in Rebeck’s text, for I must admit that I thought it was a far slicker piece when I left John Golden Theatre in 2012 than I did at last Thursday night’s opening.

Beth Killion’s costume designs for Douglas aren’t as loud as those I saw on Broadway, making the well-connected student less of an object of derision. I found that new twist as enjoyable as the others, but with three of Charlotte’s best actors bringing their A games to this local premiere, Paul Gibson’s shortcomings as Douglas were more glaring than they might be otherwise. To mesh better with this ace cast, Gibson’s cue pickup needs to be swifter and his delivery surer. When he settled down — conquered his opening night jitters? — Gibson offered us a nuanced rendering of Douglas’s sense of entitlement and his nonchalant insider’s knowledge, not cartoonish at all. But his difficulties had come when he needed to dominate.

Our hostess Kate has more complexities than Izzy, and she can be even more irritating than Martin with her stubbornness and preciousness. Becca Worthington is better at Kate’s priggishness than she is at projecting the embarrassment of her privileged wealth, but there are hidden dimensions to this Kerouac hater that go undetected by Martin until the scene changes — and Worthington is marvelously attuned to those devastating surprises.

A High School Queen Drinks Drano

Reviews of Heathers: The Musical and Motherhood Out Loud

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Then the movie first came out in 1989, Heathers was already raunchy enough for an R rating. But after the musical revels of Bat Boy, Spring Awakening, Reefer Madness, and Evil Dead have already pushed the envelope, raunchy in 2016 is an altogether different proposition. Three of the first six songs in the new Queen City Theatre Company production of Heathers: The Musical take us to places where the movie feared to tread.

“Candy Store” is fairly ballsy as the three Heathers — Heather Chandler, Heather McNamara, and Heather Duke — lay down the rules for admission into their elite clique. But it’s Veronica’s “Fight for Me” that tells us ballsy is just the beginning. Newcomer J.D. shows her there’s somebody else to be impressed with at Westerburg High School. Yes, the backup singers are chanting “holy shit, holy shit, holy shit!” Pretty soon, J.D. is encountering Veronica at a 7-Eleven and enticing her with the mind-numbing effects of Slurpees in “Freeze Your Brain,” comparing a deep sip to a hit of cocaine.

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But when “Dead Girl Walking” climaxes, it’s a full-blown copulation song of animalistic force. And unlike the movie, where J.D. is always breaking into Veronica’s bedroom, here it’s Veronica hungering for J.D. and hunting him down. “Shut your mouth,” she commands, “and lose them tighty-whities!”

With Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy combining on the book, music, and lyrics, Heathers is actually the lovechild of the mischief-makers who had separately brought us Bat Boy and Reefer Madness. Besides Bat Boy, O’Keefe can claim the musicalized Legally Blonde on his résumé, while Murphy was head writer on Desperate Housewives. That should adequately preface my declaration that the musical, which rocked the off-Broadway scene in 2014, outclasses the movie in every way.

The music certainly does rock, and with KC Roberge and Matt Carlson as our leads, it’s rocking harder here in the QC than it does on the original cast album. Directing the show, Glenn T. Griffin steers us quickly away from Glee territory, with Carlson’s highly-amped and punkish read on J.D., a brilliant move when the dreamboat turns out to be a raving psychotic.

But while Veronica mulls over the relative merits of staying in the Heathers’ good graces or killing them off — an ambivalence Roberge sustains earnestly — it isn’t all sex, drugs, and rock. There are three pointed ballads in Act 2, one by a surviving Heather who is contemplating suicide, another by the cruelly shunned Martha Dunnstock (nicknamed Dump Truck) about her halcyon days in kindergarten, and a wistful Veronica-J.D. duet, “Seventeen,” on the charms of being ordinary humdrum high schoolers.

When they aren’t plotting date rape, footballers Ram and Kurt are the clowns you expect jocks to be, but the unexpected jolt of new comedy happens at their funeral when their dads deliver their eulogies. Time after time, J.D.’s acts of homicidal mayhem result in unlikely epiphanies. The Heathers Band, led at the keyboard by Mike Wilkins, gives rousing support to “My Dead Gay Son” and all the other showstoppers, but it’s Tod Kubo’s choreography that pushes the big ensembles over the top.

IMG_5097The three Heathers retain their iconic croquet mallets from the film, but costume designers Beth Killion and Ramsey Lyric get Griffin’s drift and take their outfits in a more dominatrix direction. Together in various synced poses, they are sensational — all in major roles for the first time.

Tessa Belongia, a senior at Northwest School of the Arts, has the requisite queen bee regality for Heather Chandler, a bitch that O’Keefe and Murphy just couldn’t bear putting to sleep. She appears just once after J.D. offs her with Drano in the film, but here in the musical, she haunts Veronica repeatedly.

You wonder which Heather will be top dog after Chandler’s demise, and Nonye Obichere proves to be a worthy successor as Duke, not at all the dimwit of the movie but a lingering villainess until the finale.

Ava Smith, who also auditioned for the Blumey Awards last Saturday, was McNamara, the most sensitive of the Heathers, but she doesn’t give away her softness too soon.

Martha is a conflation of two of Veronica’s classmates in the film, making for a more satisfying stage character than either of her film components, and Allison Andrews capitalizes big-time on her anguished moment in the spotlight, “Kindergarten Boyfriend.” Griffin’s casting, Liam Pearce as linebacker Ram and Kaleb Jenkins as quarterback Kurt, cures the Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum aspect of the film — Pearce is far taller — helping us to feel that Martha is smitten by a real person rather than a generic jock in a school jacket. The horny pals are also a pretty effective comedy team.

Notwithstanding Carlson’s spiked hairdo, there’s a thread of 80’s nostalgia that lingers on. J.D. has this Paleolithic, Oklahoma City notion of destroying his high school by planting remotely controlled dynamite packs throughout the building and setting them off with a detonator hidden down in the basement. Pretty lame compared with today’s hip style of grenades and assault weapons, right?

Adults are all as clueless as we remember from teen films immemorial, if not a bit eccentric. Here they’re interchangeable enough for three elders to play multiple roles. Alyson Lowe is funniest as Ms. Fleming, the hippy-dippy teacher who wants the student body to assemble and ventilate after each murder. Steven Martin and Nathan Crabtree split four Dads between them, but their gay moment at the church funeral is unforgettable — and so very 2016.

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What a wonderful idea Susan R. Rose and Joan Stein had for a Mother’s Day theatre event: a group of monologues and brief sketches, mostly by women playwrights, called Motherhood Out Loud. Turns out the brilliance of this idea largely belongs to Three Bone Theatre which staged the Charlotte premiere at McBride & Bonnefoux Center for Dance Studio last weekend. Nearly every other production that came up in my Google search, dating back to Fall 2011, opened during some month other than May.

The timing helped, for some of the 22 stories were sappy, and the five “fugues” that prefaced the five chapters — “Fast Births,” “First Day,” “Sex Talk,” “Stepping Out,” and “Coming Home” — were unnecessary. The best segments were those that confounded expectations.

Although she perpetrated all those fugues, Michele Lowe also wrote “Queen Esther,” narrated by a Jewish mother whose son refuses dress up as any of the customary male characters for his school’s Purim party.

“If We’re Using a Surrogate…,” by Marco Pennette, was a gay father’s account of arranging — and attending — his daughter’s birth, two very awkward meetings with an obliging lesbian. Theresa Rebeck’s “Baby Bird” brought us the experience of an American mother adopting a Chinese baby, and “Michael’s Date,” by Claire LaZebnik, was a mother’s account of chaperoning her autistic son on his first date.Group Hi-Res

Perhaps the most unexpected piece was “Elizabeth,” where a divorced man goes home to his elderly mom and finds that he needs to mother her.

A cast of 18, sensitively directed by Kim Parati, helped us over the rough spots. So did that timing when we came to Jessica Goldberg’s “Stars and Stripes,” about a military mother, and Annie Weisman’s concluding “My Baby,” an unabashed description of the joy and pain of childbirth. No better time for these than Mother’s Day.

 

UNC Charlotte Drops a Russian Clown into the Cogs of Heiner Müller’s “Hamletmachine”

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By Perry Tannenbaum

March 19, 2016, Charlotte, NC – More than with most scripts, it’s difficult to say what exactly Heiner Müller had in mind when he wrote Hamletmachine in 1977. Performances of Müller’s plays were banned in East Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall, so the 1979 world premiere was presented – in translation – in Paris, and when Müller himself finally directed the piece for the first time in his homeland, it was as the play-within-a-play in a far larger 1990 production of Hamlet, presumably in his own translation since that what was what he had completed before embarking on his own.

Looking at this script, which occupies just three pages in The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama (4th ed.), I’d have to say it’s presumptuous to call it a play at all, for it doesn’t offer a list of characters and doesn’t actually assign any dialogue to anyone until the second of its five parts. We can hardly greet that as a clarifying moment when Müller writes, “Ophelia (Chorus/Hamlet): I am Ophelia.” Nor is the custom of attribution religiously observed afterwards in a text that often resembles T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in its stream-of-consciousness style and allusiveness. We should not be surprised that the current production at UNC Charlotte’s Robinson Hall, presented by the College of Arts + Architecture at the Anne R. Belk Theater, not only boasts three directors but also three Ophelias and four Hamlets in a production that clocked in at just under 38 minutes.

A wide latitude of interpretation is built into the text, which explains the fact that one Japanese production lasted 12 hours. That surely isn’t the outer limit, for Müller decrees “Snow. Ice Age,” after the executions of Marx, Lenin, and Mao at the end of Part IV. Yet I must say that the UNC Charlotte production follows the text far more closely – and recognizably – than the previous production I saw in Charlotte, presented by Off-Tryon Theatre Company as part of a double bill with Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead in 2005. Leading the all-female directing team, UNCC assistant professor Robin Witt has eliminated (among other things) the appearances of King Claudius, the striptease by Ophelia, and the gravestones or lecterns that should be the university of the dead in Part III. A whole motif involving Hamlet’s armor and his axe is altered beyond recognition, and the executions of the Communist trinity, which should have been done by Hamlet with that axe, are now done bloodlessly by hanging.

I’m not sure whether there was a malfunction in Benjamin J. Stickels’ sound design, but I never discerned the voices of Lenin, Mao, and Marx, though three are listed for them in the program booklet. Similarly, the men and women dressed in white by costume designer Beth Killion are all designated as Chorus in the playbill, so I wasn’t aware until later, when I’d revisited the script, that the segment choreographed by Alex Baesen was a ballet of the dead women. It looked more like a dance of angels to me, though the woman with the little stove around her head should have told me that she was a suicide or a Holocaust victim.

There are also additions to the script by Witt and her team, including Marc Smith as a German Speaker and, most conspicuously, Kineh N’Gaojia as a Russian Clown who beautifully sings Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” for no particular reason. Before her concluding monologue as Ophelia Wheelchair, Raven Monroe inserts Todd Rundgren’s “Can We Still Be Friends.” Of course, when she begins her monologue declaring, “This is Electra speaking,” and ends by vaguely alluding to the Manson Family and Sqeaky Fromme, it’s hard to be sure who Monroe is as the lights go down on her in her wheelchair.

The sinew of Müller’s text is given when Hamlet Flag (née The Actor Playing Hamlet) has his long monologue in Part IV, “Pest in Buda / Battle for Greenland.” I’d say that the upshot of this ramble, ably delivered by Matt Miller, is that the revolutionaries who had ushered in the triumph of Communism in Eastern Europe had succeeded so well that they had rendered the possibility of current and future revolutions extinct. Looking frankly at himself, the Actor Playing Hamlet asserts that the Hamlet who once was, the brooding assassin who engineered a coup d’état, no longer exists and can no longer exist. The executions that follow are merely wishful thinking – by a populace of Hamlets who remained too indecisive too long.

Jamie Gonzalez was my favorite among the Ophelias. Her heart is not visibly a clock as the text demands. Instead, she is wheeled onstage as Ophelia Bed to deliver her lurid monologue, giving her a kinship with the Ophelia Wheelchair to come. No such connections are attempted among the Hamlets, since all four of them parade in front of us at the outset. Noah Tepper seems like he will be dominant as Hamlet Skull, conversing with a puppet Horatio (Brittany White), but he is succeeded by Tykiique Cuthkelvin as Hamlet Book and Jennifer Huddleston as Hamlet Axe before Miller’s Flag takes over. The gender bending in Witt’s casting becomes plausible enough when Miller’s Hamlet announces, “I want to be a woman.” He gets his wish when the Chorus surrounds him and dresses him up as Ophelia, but he’s back in tacky 1970s leisure wear by the time he launches into his big monologue.

While the thrust of Müller’s script is unmistakably an outcry against living under totalitarianism, its production at UNCC paradoxically affirms the benefits of dictatorship. It’s not a total coincidence that the most admired production of this piece, the 1986 revival directed by Robert Wilson (even Müller preferred it to his own), was presented at another university, NYU. Not only can university professors ignore commercial viability when deciding what they present on their stages, they can lavish resources upon each project that leave the prudential considerations of capitalism deeper in the dust.

That is the true wonder to behold when comparing the staging at Robinson Hall to the Off-Tryon version I saw in 2005. Tom Burch’s scenic design lifts this production to a frightful level of gritty German expressionism that is simply phenomenal, mirrored by the imaginative artistry of the props and costumes. Primitive stairways lead up to a platform where the mutilated German Speaker can babble, and the wall behind that platform is large enough to project the titles of each of the five parts we’re watching. When the script alludes to a television, Burch can deploy four of them, each one broadcasting nothing more than white noise.

The obvious reward of such excess is a Hamletmachine that is vivid and engaging – but no less mystifying than it is on the page. No doubt the post-performance discussion following the Saturday evening performance was helpful for amazed and baffled audience members who remained afterwards, and another discussion is scheduled with the cast and designers after the March 21 performance. Otherwise, there’s plenty to be gleaned from dramaturg Jeanmarie Higgins’ program note and the handy Tumblr website she and her dramaturgy students have established online.

© 2016 CVNC + Perry Tannenbaum