Tag Archives: Charlie Grass

Biff! POW!! Welcome to Geek Theatre

Review: She Kills Monsters at The Arts Factory

By Perry Tannenbaum

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The curtain is finally going up in Charlotte on the works of playwright Qui Nyugen, the American son of Vietnamese parents who founded the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company back in 2000. Soon afterwards, Nyugen’s brainchild transplanted from Ohio to Off-Broadway – where it became the first theatre company sponsored by NY Comic Con and the wellspring of “Geek Theatre.” Emphasizing sci-fi, stage combat, and gaming – with a biff! POW! comic book edge – Nyugen’s 2011 comedy-drama She Kills Monsters is typical of the breed.

Of course, the monsters are no more real onstage at The Arts Factory than they are in Dungeons & Dragons tabletop role playing. Try outlandish costumes, fantasy projections, and puppets.

So this co-production from Charlotte’s Off-Broadway and Women-In-Plays, directed by Sheri Marvin, is plenty of fun, much louder than it is fearsome. Yet there is a serious side to Agnes Evans’ quest for the Lost Soul of Athens in the fantasy realm of New Landia. Wresting the stolen Lost Soul from the fearsome five-headed Tiamat isn’t truly the crux of Agnes’s quest. Nor was it stolen, precisely, for we’re back in 1995, when demon overlord Orcus actually traded the soul for a neat TV/VCR combo.1

Agnes, a humdrum high-school English teacher, is on a quest to connect after losing her parents and her younger sister, Tillie, in a car accident. While preparing to liquidate her childhood home and move in with longtime boyfriend Miles, Agnes stumbles upon an unfinished Dungeons & Dragons module that Tillie has left behind – a first baby step toward realizing just how little she knew about her little sister while she was alive. Taking the module to Chuck, the notorious Dragon Master of Athens (Ohio), big sister learns that Tillie remains a D&D legend, revered as Tillius the Paladin in the gaming world.

More humbling secrets lie ahead as Agnes enters the fantasy world of her sister’s legacy: Tillie was gay, and she was bullied at school – the school where Agnes teaches. Of course, live theatre heightens the impact of these revelations, thanks to some subtle nudging from Nyugen and a logical plot twist. Tillie is in the game as one of the companions who helps Agnes on her quest, and she’s a central character in the storyline. Nyugen enables Agnes to effortlessly converse with Tillius, who comes back to life during their adventures, giving the action hero a chance to vent the resentments she still feels toward her neglectful sister.6

Friends of Tillie’s are in the storyline as well, along with Miles, who is cast as one the obstacles who must be slain if Agnes and her companions are to have their rendezvous with the five-headed Tiamat. So are the bullies, succubi named Evil Gabbi and Evil Tina, aliases that are not at all obscure. Of course, as Agnes shuttles between the role-playing D&D world and real life, she encounters all of Tillie’s companions – and enemies – at school.

And since the same actors portray the characters Tillie invented and the people they are modeled after, the difference between the fantasy world and the real world is largely erased, far more for us than Agnes, who is presumably encountering the tabletop D&D dramatis personae as plastic action figures.

If you can manage to take so much silliness seriously, you might descry a distinct vein of feminism in Marvin’s directing, for the men, when not merely annoying, consistently deliver their villainous vaunts at high volume. Kudos, then, to Nyugen as well for upending this traditionally masculine world of geekery. Needless to say, the real heavy lifting is done by our mostly female clan of heroic gladiators under the guidance of fight choreographer Katie Bearden and fight captain Nathan Morris, who moonlights as Dragon Master Chuck.5

Lighting by Sean Kimbro decisively marks the borders between Agnes’ worlds. But the costumes by Ramsey Lyric enhance the fun and immerse us in Nyugen’s quirky fantasy. The tight leather action suit sported by Charlie Grass as Tillius, along with her dungeon war paint, instantly grabs our attention, the Viking war gear of her party dimly gleams its savagery, and the monkish cowl enveloping Morris as Chuck marks him as a mystic master of the dark D&D arts. Juxtaposed with these costumes, with Lyric’s fabrications representing New Landia outlandish ogres, and with his climactic Tiamat, Luna Mackie as Agnes looks rather humdrum in her functional everyday attire.

While Mackie is toughening as Agnes, Grass is softening as the resentful warrior sister, a gradual and graceful rapprochement overall with numerous bumps along the way, as Tillie drops one revelation after another. Mackie doesn’t immediately strike us as having much adventure queen potential, but her speedy transformation is nicely gauged – if you consider the difference between the learning curve of a board game and an apprenticeship for a black belt.

Rushed or not, Mackie’s metamorphosis is stunning: she absolutely rocks the role of Agnes the Asshatted. Yet there might be some in the audience who see Grass as playing the title role. They are that good, for we can see the softness and vulnerability behind the black leather and the black war paint as soon as they stride onto the scene. Their ferocity is a volatile mix of bellicose energy and pent-up resentment. There’s enough sincere force coming from Grass for Mackie to be genuinely shaken, so Agnes’s perseverance became authentic and ultimately admirable on opening night. For just a moment, the rapprochement of the sisters was rather moving for me.

Now we can get somber and sententious about the bullying and gender crises we witness here, but it’s back in 2011 when Nyugen writes his Vampire Cowboy romp and 1995 when he sets the action. So for Marvin and her cast, this is signal enough for outsized posturing from heroes and villains alike, epic declamations of WrestleMania proportions, mixed with the stereotypes and pettiness of a high school sitcom.9

While Mackie and Grass are admirably divided within, Caleb Hinkley as Miles gets to play two separate versions of the same person, big sister’s boyfriend that Tillie despises and the D&D distortion of him that Tillius can destroy. Kaeleigh Miller as Kelly and Kaliope, Joe Watson as Ronnie and Orcus, and Charlie Napier as Steve are also recognizably twin versions, real and imaginary, of the same people. For the evil succubi, Nevaeh Woolens as Tina and Michelle Strom as Gabbi, the gulf between reality and fantasy pointedly diminishes, for both are cheerleaders in Athens and New Landia – with bloodier tops and mouths as succubi.

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Amari Rice may have the most lighthearted pair of roles as Vera, an incompetent guidance counselor in real life, and The Beholder, an appropriately short-lived enemy in New Landia. Easily the most poignant and affecting dual roles belong to Elizabeth Marvin. When we first meet her in New Landia, Marvin as Lilith is a horned demon queen who is Tillius’s closest companion, wielding a wicked battle axe, but in real life she is Lily, no boldness to her whatsoever, shyly denying any past relationship with Tillie, and likely in the closet.

Mostly bellowing, officiating, and narrating under his mystical hood as our Dungeon Master, Morris as Chuck subtly changes in the real high school world as he introduces Agnes to her late sister’s friends and tormentors. But learning the true-life identity of Tillius the Paladin, Chuck clearly sparks Agnes’s curiosity – and her epic D&D adventure – with his open, larger-than-life admiration. Under the radar, he is also learning about Tillie and Agnes as he presides over the elder sister’s D&D initiation.

In that respect, Chuck’s journey is the most like our own. Forget about Greek tragedy, and enjoy Geek theatre.

Spacious Setting at Halton Theater Creates Fresh Perspective for “You Can’t Take It With You”

Review: You Can’t Take It With You

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Picking up our tickets for You Can’t Take It With You in the Overcash lobby outside Halton Theater, I was asked how many times I had seen this comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart before. Reflexively, I answered four or five times – discovering, to my surprise, that I was replying without a groan. My later researches proved my estimate to be correct, for I have now seen local productions on at least five occasions dating back to 1990, including presentations by Charlotte Shakespeare, Old Courthouse Theatre (1991), and two at Theatre Charlotte (2001 and 2016), along with the current Central Piedmont Theatre effort. Over the years, I’ve gradually warmed to the script, perhaps because it’s better-respected now than when the 1937 Pulitzer Prize winner was turned into a star-studded screwball extravaganza in the 1938 Oscar-winning film.

Each time I’ve beaten back my resistance to reviewing You Can’t Take It on recent occasions, I’ve found myself taking away something new. The last time I saw the comedy, just days after the 2016 election, I found myself imagining how in tune with public sentiment the Kaufman-Hart concoction must have seemed when it first premiered – after the 1936 election. Hardly shocked or even surprised anymore by the cavalcade of eccentricity in the Sycamore family and their outré circle, I found myself newly fascinated by patriarch Martin Vanderhof’s anti-government stance and the playwrights’ decidedly anti-Wall Street sentiments. Of course, I had no idea at that time how much I could come to loathe a President who boasted about not paying his income taxes.

Nearly five years later, the similarities – and dissimilarities – between Martin and The Donald have popped into sharper focus, creating a provocative tension. What struck me most forcefully this time around was how much You Can’t Take It With You is about the classic clash of New York values, the free-thinking Bohemian chaos at the Vanderhof home, around the corner from Columbia University, and the stuffy, moneyed callousness of Wall Street, the planet’s financial capital, still wobbling after the crash. Maybe the other thing that struck me with new force was also a result of the Trump Effect. This play is absolutely crawling with Russian influences: emigres, ballet, socialism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, and blintzes. No wonder at all why the place gets raided by G-Men.

Kaufman and Hart would have no doubt delighted in Jennifer O’Kelly’s vast set design, for they described this expanse as an “every-man-for-himself room,” where every member of the household has the freedom – and space – to do whatever he or she pleases. “For here,” they added, “meals are eaten, plays are written, snakes collected, ballet steps practiced, xylophones played, printing presses operated – if there were room enough there would probably be ice skating.” With admirable restraint, there is no Zamboni in sight under Paula Baldwin’s deft direction, and the wide vista of the O’Kelly’s set encourages players to move quickly to answer the front door at stage left, to step lively in reaching centerstage, and to speak loudly so that all might hear. Baldwin was also spied at the back of Halton Theater on a couple of occasions, perhaps after hovering near the soundboard, for the sound from body mics onstage was exceptionally problem-free. Sound design by Ismail Out, including cuts of Johnny Mercer’s “Goody Goody” from 1936, was also on-target.

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The plot revolves around the possible nuptials between Alice Sycamore, Martin’s granddaughter, and her Wall Street boss, Tony Kirby. As Alice sees it, the multitudinous eccentricities of the Vanderhof household are an insuperable barrier between her and the ultra-respectable Kirbys. Obviously, Alice is conflicted about her family, loving them all while seeing them with the clarity of the only household member in daily contact with the outside world. Tony, as it turns out, is no less attuned to the shortcomings of his own family, so he pushes for a meeting with Alice’s family and then for the inevitably explosive rendezvous between his folks and hers. Did we mention that Alice’s dad, Paul, fashions fireworks with his faithful assistant, Mr. De Pinna? No, because all of those chemical reactions happen down in the cellar, out of view.

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Having to move so quickly across O’Kelly’s arena seems to endow all the residents of the Vanderhof home with an enthusiastic complacency, so engrossed are they all in their eccentricities. Pam Coble Newcomer is the restless artist of the family as Martin’s daughter, Penny Sycamore, working on a couple of her 11 unfinished playscripts as we watch, until she decides it’s time to resume work on painting a portrait of Mr. De Pinna posing in a Grecian tunic that she abandoned years ago. Abigail Adams is Penny’s eldest daughter, Essie, the perennial ballet student who also makes candies, and Braden Asbury is her husband, who mostly splits his time between the xylophone and the printing press in his nook. He also likes to make masks and serves as Essie’s candy seller and the family pamphleteer. Busy fella. So you’ll notice that Kaufman and Hart enjoy piling multiple enthusiasms on their characters.

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Contrasts can be extreme, sometimes with a zany logic. As Boris Kolenkhov, Essie’s ballet teacher, John Sexton can beat a taskmaster’s cane on the floor in perpetual frustration, since Essie shows no promise whatsoever, and then, at the most inopportune moment, reveal his zest for wrestling. It’s a lot for the Kirbys to digest all at once, but other weirdos like Mr. De Pinna are likely to show up on the Vanderhof doorstep and never leave. Weirdest of these may be Corlis Hayes as Gay Wellington, a flamboyant actress who would steal every scene if she weren’t spending so much time passed out on the settee from excess drink. Of course, cameos from those government raiders and an overnight stay in jail didn’t improve the Kirbys’ first impressions of Alice’s family. Nor do the fireworks down in the cellar remain inert. As the elder Kirbys, Rick Taylor and Pamela Thorson were as starchy as can be, but Thorson was especially regal in taking affront.

THEA2021-DLV-0923-4325In the face of such humiliating catastrophe, Alice wished to exile herself to the Adirondacks, but Charlie Grass managed even here not to be overly annoying in her shame and mortification as the one “normal” member of her family. Love and practicality are nicely mixed in this Alice. Serene and optimistic as ever, Martin, Penny, and Paul are able to laugh off the misadventures of the previous night. Newcomer as Penny, Jeremy Cartee as Paul, and Dennis Delamar as Martin became especially endearing from this moment forward, maintaining their equanimity after this buffeting of adversity. Galumphing and awkward in the early going, in and out of his mad scientist coveralls, Cartee showed some touching solicitude toward the wife and daughter when crisis struck. Delamar, in his second go-round as Martin, has thoroughly mastered his dignity and glow, aided by Emily McCurdy’s costume design and James Duke’s lighting.

Whether or not Baldwin was looking for a James Stewart type in replicating the onscreen chemistry between Alice and Tony (judge for yourself when you see Grass’s hair), Timothy Hager brings some of the same height and charming gawkiness to the role. Although O’Kelly does her best to clutter up her set, there is never the sense that Tony is slumming because the space is so expansive. That spaciousness also tends to dilute whatever humble, homespun quality you might have associated with Vanderhof and his clan in past viewings.

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With Baldwin’s staging, you’ll likely find that the wide-open space enhances Delamar’s eloquence when he delivers Martin’s signature monologue in the final act. If you can tear your eyes away from Delamar, you’ll notice that Newcomer has been deployed far to stage right, leaning forward on the sofa in rapt attention, beaming and proud of her daddy. Most other family members have been spread out around a stage that has more than a couple of times been teeming with tumult. All eyes are Grandpa, all the family are respectfully still, radiating pride and content. It gives a special moment an extra aura.