Tag Archives: Booth Playhouse

Moving Poets Add New Phantasmagoria to a Detained Immigrant’s Upside-Down View of Heaven

Review: Heaven

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Launched in 1997 with an eerie multi-layered, multimedia production of Dracula in the crumbling ruins of the Carolina Theatre, Moving Poets has always been eclectic in its use of artforms and – devoutly edgy and occasionally inscrutable – unafraid of posing challenges to its audiences. Fueled by dancer-choreographer Till Schmidt-Rimpler and visual artist MyLoan Dinh, the company has always been international in scope, more likely to bring us Moulin Rouge, Salomé, Swan Lake, 1001 Arabian Nights or Johannesburg Stories than You Can’t Take It With You. Though Schmidt-Rimpler hailed from Germany and Dinh was a refugee of the Vietnam War, the issues of immigration and treatment of refugees were nowhere near the core of Moving Poets’ works – until long after the couple moved their company to Berlin in 2007.

The Syrian refugee crisis, reconnecting with Charlotte and the US, our great border wall scares, and caged refugee children brought those issues to the forefront. Heaven, the fifth stage of an ongoing We See Heaven Upside Down project launched by Dinh in 2015, has evolved from a visual arts project to a typically rich Moving Poets hybrid at Booth Playhouse. Original music was written by more than a half dozen composers. Dancers were deployed from the Movement Migration company and the Charlotte Ballet Academy. Native American and Mexican dance performances were also patched into a quilt woven by three different choreographers. With overlays of film, theater, video projection mapping, song, suitcase puppetry, and kinetic sculpture, Moving Poets fans and followers can expect the customary sensory onslaught with a few new twists.

Chiefly concerned with two child protagonists caged by border control hysteria, the storyline has a fairytale texture we haven’t seen from Moving Poets before. Danielle Lieberman and Nina Bischoff, sharing the role of Maria Helena, are separated from parents danced by Kim Jones and E.E. Balcos. Common sense, empathy, and human decency aren’t on Maria’s roadmap to freedom here. The key to liberation will only be theirs if they obtain the “lamp beside the golden door” from a narcissistic Pinocchio. This pointy-nosed puppet is greedily keeping the lamp among his hoarded treasures, unaware that giving up the lamp and helping Maria will enable him to become human. Without a traditional playbill and printed scenario, grasping the storyline proves uncommonly difficult, even for a Moving Poets mélange. If you scan the QR code with your smartphone, you can access a Moving Poets webpage that fills in many of the blanks – and you can find links, in wee small print, to biographical sketches and Chuck Sullivan’s “Fallen Moon Fallen Stars,” the foundational poem written for this project.

Arriving early enough with the proper scanning app, you can adequately prep for the show, or you can catch up during intermission. It’s clear, nevertheless, that more theatrical writing and acting added to this show – or a far fuller visual representation of Maria’s fantasy world in phantasmagorical scenic design, film, and projections – would make this developing Moving Poets production more comprehensible and moving. We shouldn’t have to be putting it all together after we get home and take the time to summon up a webpage. A more cohesive and coherent Heaven would certainly add impact to Lieberman and Bischoff’s performances and to Ballet Academy classmate Alex Griffith’s gangly Pinocchio. Lacking the supplementary program material or exposure to any prepublicity, people in the audience on opening night couldn’t have had any idea of what would set Maria free and, even after the charming lamp reveal, any clue that this story connected with Emma Lazarus or the Statue of Liberty.

The speaking and singing were only tied obliquely to Maria’s story, beginning with Alyce Cristina Vallejo, who started us off as a peppy Walk for Life exercise coach before she gave way to a world of migrant and refugee shadows projected on a scrim. The silhouetted lighting design by Eric Winkenwerder on the yet-unseen dancers was in satiric contrast to the aerobic self-help peppiness of Vallejo: this was our first glimpse of an immigrant wave in flight toward freedom and self-preservation. Early in Act 2, Katherine Goforth popped out of the audience as Mother Mary Katherine, recounted a phone conversation she’d had with a border wall apostle, and departed without making a connection with anyone else onstage.

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Less vaudevillian than the cameos by Vallejo and Goforth, the singing performances of Cynthia Farbman Harris as Mother Mary were enhanced by their integration with the dancers’. Farbman actually visited the imprisoned children, bestowed upon them a gift too small to see, and soon revealed herself to be a Ukrainian immigrant as she sang nostalgically and zestfully of her old Jewish shtetl, “Belz,” surrounded by most of the troupe. Mother Mary returned near the end, startlingly altered (or converted?) as she sang “Ave Maria.” Equally unexpected, Rosalia Torres-Weiner peeped in with her suitcase puppetry for a prison visit as Mother Mary, her little shtick delightfully projected by video designer Shawn Gillis onto an upstage screen.

Much of Schmidt-Rimpler’s choreography still asks plenty of floor work from his dancers, which makes it a bad fit for the reconfigured Booth Playhouse. While they’ve lifted the orchestra section closer to stage level during their renovation process, they’ve also leveled the floor near the stage, so the rows of seats closest to the stage don’t immediately slope upwards. Sitting in the fourth row – in an uncomfortable chair – I had to play peekaboo between the heads of nearer patrons to track the action as it moved across the stage floor. Overall, however, I found the fortified choreographic mix to be delightful as the Poets’ music seemed to reach a higher plateau. As composer and percussionist, David Crowe continues to be a prime mover among the live musicians perched in the Booth balcony, with rock hall-of-famer Tom Constanten at the keyboard. Saxophonist Joe Wilson adds new fire to the ensemble with his European wailings, and there is more electronic music emanating from the soundbooth than I remember at previous Moving Poets productions. The founders’ son, Kalvin Schmidt-Rimpler Dinh, is likely the digital culprit, another auspicious sign.

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Whatever indignities have been heaped on the floor and the audience seating, lights and sound are wonderful at the Booth. Aside from additional spoken and scenic context, Dinh and Schmidt-Rimpler ought to consider discreetly outfitting their performers with body mikes. Back in the olden days when Poets first shocked Charlotte, they went with two Draculas, actor Graham Smith speaking the role and Schmidt-Rimpler reprising the vampire he had portrayed with NC Dance of Theatre. Neither of the Marias in Heaven is an actress, and Poets has laudably decided to stretch their young artists’ capabilities. In the meanwhile, some amplification would be beneficial to us all.

Still Tripping After All These Years

Review: Calouche & Co.’s Clara’s Trip

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Although Caroline Calouche’s Clara’s Trip has become a Yuletide fixture at Booth Playhouse since 2012, often playing while Charlotte Ballet’s more traditional Nutcracker runs down below at Belk Theater, the cirque and aerial variant on Tchaikovsky’s actually began a year earlier at Halton Theater. Conceived as an anti-Nutcracker or an antidote for Nut haters, the Calouche & Co. has always figured to be a better fit at the contemporary Booth than at the neo-classical Halton.

Yet a curious thing has happened between Clara’s first trip at the Booth and now her eighth. While Calouche’s brainchild has become more balanced, more polished, and less Bohemian, Booth Playhouse has become seedier and more déclassé. With all its former floor-level seating stripped away, replaced by drab moveable chairs on pitilessly exposed flooring, the Booth doesn’t boast enough style to be called Bohemian. These days, it’s the colorful Calouche costumes, scenery, and aerial apparatuses onstage that push back against a powerful suspicion that you’re in a musty old union hall.

Did I miss all the wrongheaded demolition when I last entered the Booth to hear Matthew Bourne give a pre-Cinderella interview last January – or has all this foolhardiness transpired since then? Do not know what they are thinking, and I could not google any info about current plans for the Booth.

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Turn up some stage lights on the Booth’s crimson curtain and you do get a certain cirque vibe as Calouche makes her introductory remarks and plucks a couple of volunteer performers from the audience. That audience participation may be a new wrinkle, and I noticed upgrades in Jennifer O’Kelly’s sets and projections, photos by Peter Zay, and costumes by Betsey Blackmore, Kriss Yavalek, and Calouche.

Calouche’s storyline remains pretty much as I remembered, with an accident-prone mid-20s Clara breaking her ankle at a holiday party. Rushed to an emergency room in the middle of Christmas Eve, Clara nods off into a snowy dreamworld very much like Charlotte Ballet’s pre-teen Clara does downstairs at the Belk. Only at the more adult Booth, we can ascribe Clara’s fantasy to inducements such as drugs, booze and anesthesia.

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With all the assurance she could possibly need, Carol Quirós Otárola is in her first year as Clara, probably no longer in her mid-20s and definitely not accustomed to seeming awkward or accident-prone on stage. Early on, Otárola is gracefully paired with Joseph Nguyen as Beau, Clara’s white-clad cavalier. The party scene, now more upscale than I remember it, is livened by an acrobatic Mr.-and-Mrs.-Canes duet featuring Kaila Dockal and the ever-reliable Javier Gonzalez, now in his fifth season with the company.

Once Clara is booted in her post-op cast, we get a nice outbreak of imagery. Party guests become a somewhat bizarre nightmare throng, with a couple of the mob on stilts until we’re whisked into the eye-popping snow episodes. Otárola can now be all grace paired Nguyen before the curtain comes down on all the leading dancers enjoying a snow shower.

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Act 2 is more recognizably cirque with rings, silks, and trapeze. At the same time, it is more recognizably Nutcracker with Candy Canes, Gingerbreads, Flowers, and – slithering to Tchaikovsky’s Arabian dance – Fish. Accenting the talents of Susannah Burke and Sarah Small on the rings as those slithery Fish, the mesmerizing Calouche choreography is obviously “in collaboration with the Dancers” as the program booklet states. The rapport between Conner Hall and Alan Malpass on trapeze as Mr. and Mrs. Flowers has an unmistakable circus glitter, yet we might also detect Calouche’s influence in how superbly their moves align with the “Waltz of the Flowers.” Same story when Otárola and Nguyen ascend, descend, or circle around each other on the suspended silks, so snowy and ethereal.

It’s at moments like this, however, when I still wish Clara’s Trip were more anti-Nutcracker than it is. When we’re hearing canned music in a trashed venue, the high-grade heroics of Calouche’s cirque artists don’t fully dispel the feeling that we’re watching a down-market version of the Charlotte Ballet extravaganza going on below with its million-dollar designs and its live Charlotte Symphony musicians. That’s where the prime Gingerbread and Candy Cane still reside.

So I suggest it again: shake up the customary Tchaikovsky soundtrack, even if it’s just with the Duke Ellington big-band arrangements of the score or the much-lauded piano adaptation by Stewart Goodyear released four years ago. As for all the Nutcracker score that precedes the breakout of its greatest hits, I’d suggest tossing away most of the party music altogether. Either break away from the ballet score with music you might actually hear at a contemporary Christmas party or slyly transfer some of the hits that have been axed from Act 2.

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Calouche & Co. succeed with their audience involvement and in those ensemble moments where the party and Clara’s nightmare become truly wild. The aerial and cirque flights that take Nutcracker to new frontiers will also remain welcome. Certainly the wonders of Cirque du Soleil should play a leading role in Clara’s Trip, and when Zoe Flowers, Angela Kollmer,and Charley Weaver make their splash as Monkeys on their triple-wide trapeze, we’re reminded that there’s a place for Disney preciousness on this snowy frontier.

As for the shambles that is now Booth Playhouse, stoned Baby Boomers might call that a trip. What a “trip” became back in the ‘60s could still add a worthwhile dimension to Clara’s adventures, loosening up Calouche’s characters here and there while making them more at home.

Happily, Calouche doesn’t simply vanish into the wings after her introductory emceeing. After primping for the party, she’ll pop up again at various points in the show, most prominently at the end of Act 1 in the snow sequence and in Act 2 in the role of Ballerina Ornament. She still blends in quite well with the newer talent, still can light up a stage, and she still inspires students and the statewide dance community. Quite a powerhouse, all in all.

“The Realish Housewives of Charlotte” Serves Up Skits, Improv, and Spoofery

By Perry Tannenbaum

Bravo, Charlotte! After missing the boat on Bravo’s cable TV franchise of Real Housewives reality TV shows – now spinning out Real Housewives of Orange County, Atlanta, New York City, Jersey, Beverly Hill and others – the Queen City has hopped aboard a theatrical Real-ish franchise on a whirlwind tour. Detroit, San Diego, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Des Moines have already sampled the satiric backlash. When the six-member cast of The Realish Housewives of Charlotte barreled into Booth Playhouse, it was sufficiently armed with the lowdown on the metro area to dish out plenty of gasps and belly laughs.

The whole scene surprised me. With hardly a scrap of publicity, nearly every seat in the orchestra and balcony was sold out, filled mostly with avid women who had this set-up figured out before I could begin to get the hang of it. When Jackson Evans comes out as our host, Randy Bowen, it looks like Realish is a talkshow. The couches flanking him and the logotype behind him practically scream it out.

But the studio where we’re ostensibly filming the upcoming season actually serves as a substitute for those scenes on the Real series where we see the regulars profiled – or commenting cattily on action we’ve just seen. So the opening scene introduces us to the ladies – only one of whom seems to be a housewife. Ravonka claims to be married to “the baron,” but there hasn’t been a sighting of this queen bee’s globetrotting husband in years. So when Lori McClain ladles on her Russian accent, she’s apparently not evoking a Trump wife.

A rich wife, yes, for Ravonka dangles the possibility of an exotic getaway to all the others, including the tall and slim newcomer, Brooke. She’s apparently a business barracuda, quick to resent Ravonka’s superior attitude and become her adversary – even to the extent of rejecting the idea of the free vacation at Ravonka’s expense. More than one of the scenes to come will stop dead in its tracks so that Lindsey Pearlman as Brooke and McClain can have a lethal stare-down. The pushy entrepreneur makes a living out of alterations to women’s jeans that make her the butt of Ravonka’s slights.

Opposites in their way, Gwen and Desiree aren’t part of the drama. Desiree is a neck model and a fro-yo addict, and Emjoy Gavino gives her all the squeaky kookiness you’d expect from such a airhead. It’s neat that the other gals take Desiree’s addiction so seriously that they stage an intervention. Gwen, a City Councilwoman who served time for her misdeeds as a Mayor Cannon advisor, takes herself more seriously than all the others combined. All of the women seem to host at least one of the scenes, with nothing more than a lighting change to take us there in flashback.

Desiree’s event is a neck photo shoot, of course – and Gwen’s, inevitably, is a fundraiser for a worthy cause, and Katie Caussin gives her such a starchy rectitude that, for a while, you might actually believe it’s real. Played by Katy Carolina Collins with a Myers Park girl-next-door wholesomeness, C.L. is the only housewife in the bunch. She found her husband out in the audience on opening night, an unsuspecting Andy who played along enthusiastically as soon as C.L. drew in range.

While the script by Kate James and Tim Sniffen is more often about filling in the blanks with deftly researched local dirt – notorious local scandal here, nearby backwater worthy of ridicule there – space is left open for improv when the audience is engaged. All of the cast members are Chicagoans, and a couple of them have toured with The Second City, a wellspring of American sketch and improv comedy for over 50 years. When Randy revealed that Ravonka’s secret daughter, Prosecco, was sitting out in the audience, McClain’s shtick was very much in her Second City vein, clever and quick, when Prosecco spat out what she had been caught stealing at school.

Elaborately phony air-kisses are dispensed by the dozen, triggering the overall kiss-and-tell formula of Realish Housewives , but it wouldn’t be the same – or last entire seasons, if you think about it – if there weren’t epic reconciliations after the epic feuds. Or punctuating those feuds, which come back in coming episodes and seasons like fleas. Here the climactic confrontation between Ravonka and Brooke ends in mutual understanding and the customary post-mortems. It’s all so deliciously catty, trivial, insincere, and emotional that the audience couldn’t get enough of it.

I even peeped in on Bravo the following night. Yeah, this trash can be habit-forming.