Tag Archives: Chester Shepherd

Actor’s Theatre Stages a Superior “Hand to God” – In Hilarious Spurts

Review:  Hand to God

By Perry Tannenbaum

There are certainly instances when a touring version of a Broadway hit comes to Charlotte – or when a local company tackles a Broadway or off-Broadway show I’ve previously reviewed – that I’m tempted to tell people that they missed out by not catching this show up in New York. On the other hand, there are stellar productions like the Actor’s Theatre take on Robert Askins’ Hand to God, currently at the Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus, that make me wish to tell all who saw the Broadway version, “You wuz robbed!”

Elements of what director Chip Decker and his Actor’s Theatre cast deliver just make me wish to exclaim “Wow!” because they’re done so well, while others make me think “Of course!” because the Broadway production missed them. The wows begin with Decker’s set, proving once and for all that the Hadley is more than a make-do location until Actor’s settles into its new facility on Freedom Drive. Next year, we hope.

Seating capacity is in the off-Broadway category, but the height and width of the drab Texas church basement, where we meet Jason and his widowed mom, belies any cramped expectations. It’s high enough so that an unexpected entrance from street level can be fairly epic – and risky. When we adjourn to a nearby playground, a pair of swings can smoothly descend from the fly loft so that Jason’s tentative overtures to Jessica, his puppet class classmate, can go freakily awry.

The chief reason why things go wrong all through this dark 80-minute comedy is Jason’s puppet, whom he calls Tyrone. If what I read about Hand to God productions around the country is indicative, props designer Carrie Cranford has created four Tyrones. And maybe some spares. Each one is bigger, more ornate, and demonic than his predecessor. From what I remember – and what I can pull down on YouTube – Cranford’s latter creations are more fearsome than those that terrorized Broadway.

We see a relatively benign incarnation of Tyrone before the action begins, recounting the story of humanity leading up to the invention of the Devil as a convenient excuse for the evil that we do. But couldn’t this disclaimer be a diversionary tactic from the Devil? Bwa-ha-ha!

Askins, of course, wants to have it both ways. There are numerous reasons for us to conclude that Tyrone’s lewd spewings stem from his troubled past, most notably the death of his father, and his mom Margery’s outré way of coping with her grief. She’s still not a great mom, doesn’t have much control over her sexual cravings, and she’s forcing Jason into this whole church-and-puppetry scene.

Pressured by Pastor Greg to present a puppet show at an upcoming Sunday service, Margery is deaf to her son’s desperate pleas to give up puppeteering. So is Tyrone, who has developed a life – and a voice – of his own.

After similar bullied roles at Actor’s Theatre in Bad Jews and Stupid Fucking Bird, we can rely upon Chester Shepherd to be a frailer Jason than the more imposing Steven Boyer was on Broadway in 2015. But the softer Jason is paired in Shepherd with a more vehement, rabid, and guttural Tyrone than Boyer was at the Booth Theatre – a voice that leaves Cookie Monster in the dust, fully worthy of Cranford’s latter puppets. Shepherd’s manipulation of these puppets is as uncanny as the abrupt and violent shifts in his voice when Jason and Tyrone engage in their fiercest showdowns.

I read that one Jason/Tyrone in a regional production steamed his vocal cords after every performance. Not sure if that would be enough to repair the abuse I saw Shepherd inflict on his larynx. At certain points, I had to worry whether Shepherd had gotten carried away – OK, possessed – by his Tyrone. It’s an extraordinary performance, that’s for sure, but never a slick one: though Jason flaps Tyrone’s toothy yap, Askins doesn’t want the lad to attempt ventriloquism.

Nicely aligned with the diminutive Shepherd, Decker has deglamorized the older generation, offering us better assurance that Margery truly is at loose ends, that Pastor Greg might be desperate for her companionship, and that we’re truly in Cypress, Texas, and not Hollywood. Longtime leading man Mark Kudisch and Geneva Carr were less reassuring on Broadway than Brett Gentile and Marla Brown are at the Hadley.

Brown is more than sufficiently attractive to believably draw the attentions of Pastor Greg and Timothy, the resentful delinquent in her puppet class. But she comes at us frumpier, more frazzled and humdrum domesticated. That works so well for the nasty surprises she has in store for us and for the two teenage boys.

From the first time he performed at Actor’s Theatre in 2004 as a domineering cop in Lobby Hero, Gentile has shown the ability to be the tough guy, capable of truly bodacious bellowing if you set him loose. Yet he can turn around and be meek and pastoral, visibly wounded by Margery’s rejection. Unlike Kudisch, with his John Wayne bulk, when Gentile confronts Timothy or the rabid Tyrone, you can wonder what the outcome will be. These were probably the chief “Of course!” moments for me at the Hadley.

Grant Zavitkovsky isn’t as wiry or urban as his Broadway counterpart, so he doesn’t come across at first with quite the same nastiness and menace as Timothy, but his better looks and substantial size are better reasons for Jason to fear him and envy his success with women. There’s also a slight patina of complacency to Zavitkovsky that works very nicely before those instants when Margery and later Tyrone shock him.

Behind the multiple layers of her costume, Lizzie Medlin remains somewhat inscrutable as Jessica throughout Act 1. She recoils from Tyrone’s first breakouts with an utter spontaneity that compounds Jason’s embarrassment. Yet her later actions partially vindicate Tyrone’s contention that his lewd frankness was the best way to go. Nothing she does prepares us for her action heroics in Act 2.

All I’ve got say about that is to congratulate Medlin, Shepherd, Decker, and Cranford on the most hilarious puppet sex I’ve ever seen – and probably the best puppet therapy. Way better than Broadway, though perhaps the elderly ladies in the front row should have been warned that they were sitting in a splash zone.

Amid this unique brew of the bawdy, the violent, and the diabolical, Askins would have us contemplate the ontology of evil, the devil, and saviors. I could see where you might wish to skip that assignment.

 

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“Stupid F@#%ing Bird” Mashes Chekhov With Giddy Modernism

Review: Stupid F@#%ing Bird

By Perry Tannenbaum

If you’re looking for clear outspoken themes and messages onstage, there are better places to look than the aching comedies of Anton Chekhov. Among his contemporaries, Count Leo Tolstoy found the best works of Chekhov difficult to grasp yet full of insights into “the inner workings of the human soul.” Chekhov’s mix of clinical objectivity and soul-searching empathy would become touchstones of modern drama and modern acting technique.

So it’s no surprise that Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, irreverently retitled Stupid F@#%ing Bird, is so willfully modernistic. Conrad Arkadina, nee Konstantine Gavrolovich Trepleff in the original, doesn’t merely write the bad script we see performed early in Act 1. He’s also the author of this play that we’re watching and will pause to tell us about it from time to time. But that doesn’t mean his mom, film producer Emma Arkadina, or his Uncle Eugene – a dying doctor – won’t also address us and lay bare their ostensibly fictional souls.

We can almost go around the complete cast in this Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production simply by cataloguing their unrequited loves. Mash, who is madly in love with Conrad, is desperately beloved by Dev. But Conrad burns for the beautiful Nina, who offers body and soul to the famous writer Trigorin, who is in a committed relationship with Emma – until he isn’t. Passion for other people or for art is the essence of futility among this crowd, often leading to self-loathing. Even Trigorin, slightly weary with his own fame, has restless longings that go unfulfilled.

If you already know The Seagull well, the idea of Conrad being our author is more than slightly absurd, for in the denouement, his spiraling depression begins with his ripping up all his manuscripts when he realizes he can never have Nina. Compounding the absurdity, Conrad frankly tells us of the catastrophe to come.

Assuming that you can find the Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus near Myers Park Traditional School, you’ll find that director Chip Decker – with his own fantastical set design and Hallie Gray’s lighting – has grasped the zany bittersweetness of this script remarkably well. The mixture of wholesomeness, naïveté, candor, and earnestness that Chester Shepherd brings to Conrad further ensures success. Somehow, in this blizzard of fiction and reality, where Conrad is both the playwright and his protagonist, Shepherd can come to his audience for advice and handle our spontaneous feedback.

He realizes that Nina, a rather bad actress who sustains a career, is not particularly worthy of his love. Hell, Mariana Bracciale as Nina is well aware of her shortcomings as an actress, with a slight Julia Louis-Dreyfus charm wrapped into her maddening flightiness. Scott A. Miller as Trigorin realizes Nina’s shallowness as well as anyone, his mind at odds with his loins in his struggle to decide what to do about her, yet he also grasps that his rascality is as much of his charm as his talent.

Emma suffers in her relationship with Trigorin and in her lack of aptitude for parenting Conrad, yet Becca Worthington is most disarming in her acknowledgement to us that she’s the meanie in this story, unlikely to redeem herself. Every one else lurks on the periphery, adding to the impression that our main characters are living in a teeming world. I was fairly smitten with the comedy of Carmen A. Lawrence as Mash, for she mopes so hopelessly – and needlessly, since the loving, patient, and wise Dev is crazy about her.

Peripheral or not, Jeremy DeCarlos as Dev combines with Lawrence to give their scenes a Midsummer Night’s Dream giddiness, for neither of them is among our gifted characters. Yet DeCarlos, more goofball here than I’ve ever seen him before, seems to have the knowledge that his waiting game – and his faith that Mash will come to her senses – will be rewarded. It’s a part of his calm wisdom, which occasionally reminds Conrad (and us) what an unbalanced, disturbingly normal hysteric he is.

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.

Image result for picture of benedetto lupo playing piano

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.

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.

Much Ado2

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.