Tag Archives: Chip Decker

Time’s Up for Heavy Drama in “The Mermaid Hour,” but the Lyricism Lingers On

Review: The Mermaid Hour

By Perry Tannenbaum

Two years ago, when The Mermaid Hour first came to town as a reading stage production at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, the David Valdes Greenwood script seemed fresh, urgent, and dramatic. In the binary world of 2016, the 12-year-old child at the heart of this story, Vi, née Victor, was pressuring her parents to let her start taking hormone blockers, the first step in transitioning to womanhood. Coping with a transgender child felt like heavy stuff for Vi’s parents, Bird and Pilar, working-class Bostonians. Freaking out seemed a reasonable reaction when your child, dressed as a mermaid, launches a YouTube video that gets 20,000 views.

Today, it’s a world where binary and non-binary gender concepts coexist, and while there’s a good chance that you haven’t quite gotten the new terminologies down, you’ve probably gotten a helpful memo or two – and very likely gotten the drift. Sexual freedom doesn’t merely imply a wider latitude of accepted actions, it also signifies identifying as each of us sees fit.

So in a beautifully designed full production by Actor’s Theatre of Greenwood’s drama, it’s not surprising to discover that the 9th grader playing Vi, Toni Reali, is a non-binary actor who prefers they as their pronoun of choice. That will be a lot for many who are seeing The Mermaid Hour for the first time to wrap their heads around. But for those like me who have already accomplished that, I’m not sure that the expiration dates for the story’s peak freshness, urgency, and drama haven’t already passed.

It’s fortunate, then, that the Actor’s Theatre reprise directed by Laley Lippard layers on so much visual lyricism, a magical mix of set and sound design by Chip Decker, costumes by Carrie Cranford, and lighting by Hallie Gray. Adults and even Vi’s best friend Jacob look comparatively humdrum, and so do their surroundings. But when we ascend to Vi’s bedroom, the aqua colors glow and the mermaid couture glitters – worn by both Vi and her hermaphroditic online inspiration, Merperson/Crux.

 

Merperson seems to float in a rainbow ether as they declaim the “Mermaid Hour” podcasts that enflame Vi’s ambitions, taking up the space of what ordinarily would be the child’s window onto the outside world. Of course, Vi’s bedroom is also the studio where she records her YouTube manifesto, her mermaid outfit more basic and makeshift than the splendor that Alex Aguilar gets to model as Merperson.

Part of the impression the podcast star and their prodigy make is a shared aspiration to transcend everyday life. The exotic, the outrageous, the risqué, and the enchanting are in exquisite balance in these scenes, but the consternation caused by the 20,000 views garnered by Vi’s video now strikes us as an overreaction. When YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and crowdfunding sensations regularly make the Nightly News, Vi’s surprise that her video would elicit such a massive response seems just as yesterday as her parents’ shock.

Though Decker could probably pot down his microphone a couple of notches, Aguilar strikes an important balance of his own, clearly connecting with Vi over the web with his urgings and yearnings yet adult and archly artificial in ways she couldn’t understand. Reali heightens this dimension of the mermaids’ chemistry with a wonderful lack of artifice, so spontaneous and unaffected that Crux’s protectiveness toward them late in the show seems perfectly natural, even though the mermaid reemerges on a city street dressed in leather.

Two of my fave Charlotte performers disappointed me a little as Vi’s confounded folks. Adyana de la Torre-Brucker had to shoulder the burden of being the most stubborn obstacle to Vi’s urges, but her take on Pilar’s irritation at discovering that maybe she didn’t quite rock being a mother struck me as too energetic. A little more heart and a little less stressing would work wonders. Meanwhile, Jeremy DeCarlos, who has previously demonstrated the ability to be cast as anything, was flunking working class cluelessness as Bird – sorry, the man radiates too much savvy – until he fairly nailed a lengthy monologue toward the end, earning a respectable grade.

As Jacob’s mom, Mika, Amy Wada had a clearer, more interesting path to credibility. What alarms Mika is that her Asian relatives across the Pacific now know about Vi’s video – and that their grandson is adored by a pink-haired boy who identifies as a mermaid. Laughing off your elders isn’t so easily done in ancient civilizations, and Wada carries off her globalized dilemma well.

With a cast this diverse, I doubt anyone will mind that nobody has a New England accent, despite the fact that Bird’s monologue makes it clear they’ve resided in Beantown for quite a while. At the calm center of all this specious uproar is Alec Celis as Jacob, the gay object of Vi’s adulation. He firmly tells Vi that they can be friends, nothing more, but doesn’t give her grief over the video. The fact that he and Vi have exposed themselves to each other in his bedroom hardly earns a shrug when Mama Mika freaks. What ticks him off – mildly – is when Mika tells him that he and Vi can’t associate.

By default, Jacob may be the best role model we see onstage, because he rolls with the post-binary gender tide rather than pushing either way. Anyone expecting high excitement from The Mermaid Hour might do well to follow his example. Although Greenwood’s script doesn’t sizzle with drama, it provides powerful affirmation for trans and non-binary people in the audience who don’t often see themselves portrayed onstage. It also injects some remedial education into theatergoers who have slept on their trans neighbors’ existence or their worth until now. With some fabulous color and lighting.

 

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People Messing With Other People Keep “The Luckiest People” Lively

Review: The Luckiest People

By Perry Tannenbaum

“Grow old along with me, The best is yet to be,” Rabbi Ben Ezra famously says in a Robert Browning poem, but tragic heroes King Lear and Willy Loman would probably have sided with my mom. She keeps telling me: “Young is better.” At Hadley Theatre, tucked away on the Queens University campus, playwright Meridith Friedman significantly compounds the controversy in The Luckiest People. In this Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production directed by Sidney Horton, Friedman’s charming comedy-drama revolves around Oscar Hoffman, who is stranded by the death of his beloved wife, Dorothy, in a California assisted-living community, deeply lonely with myriad aches, pains, and complaints.

Most of these complaints, some fairly hilarious, are poured into his son Richard’s ears – plus the insinuation that he was responsible for letting his mom die. Oscar’s other child, Laura, has managed to distance herself from the fray, living in Shanghai and delaying her arrival until the funeral because she couldn’t stand to face her mom during her final hours.

So yes, Friedman sometimes seems to hint that caring for your parents as they journey toward their final transition might be at least as agonizing as experiencing it. That impression, however, is undercut by another perspective.

Layered onto all the love-hate friction between Oscar and his children is Richard’s relationship with his partner David. Richard and David are close to adopting a son when Oscar, ignorant of these plans, decides that the time has come for him to leave his place and move in with his son.

One transitioning child is enough for Richard and David to handle in their household, but David watches as Richard uses his father’s needs – and the possibility of his moving in – as excuses to drag his feet on the adoption. Although he himself becomes the target of Oscar’s testiness, David also sees that Richard is more than a little hypertense in dealing with Dad’s needs, complaints, and accusations. Oscar and Richard were born and raised as New York Jews while David is a comparatively mellow California Christian, apparently unacquainted with weaponized guilt.

Because Laura must return to Shanghai, Friedman compresses the bulk of her action into just a few days. That’s long enough for David – and us – to get the notion that Richard and Laura aren’t suffering so much because their dad is really tormenting them. They’re suffering because neither of them is really a grownup. Maybe Richard isn’t ready for parenthood after all.

Leaning over to that point of view can happen if we forget what a handful Oscar can be. Or we can catch ourselves laying the blame on Oscar for his children’s stunted growth. It’s complicated. Fully drawn dramatic families usually are.

Clearly reveling in the height of the Hadley, where Actor’s Theatre has recently inked a deal to be Queens U’s resident theatre for the next five years, executive director Chip Decker has put on his scenic designer hat and built two adjoining rooms at different levels. One of them is Oscar’s modest living room and the other, tellingly larger, is Robert’s kitchen. Of course there’s room for everybody!

Horton has a great sense for how Friedman’s comedy and drama should mix and how the Hoffman family’s humor and anger should suddenly erupt – and there’s a pretty wonderful cast at his command. In this rolling world premiere, Dennis Delamar gets the chance to reprise and further develop his Oscar, a role he originated in staged readings at the NuVoices Festival of 2016. Stooped over, stubborn, selfish, whip smart, and half blind, he is a thorny person to deal with. He’s still holding a grudge over transplanting from Great Neck, New York, to sunny California; yet late in life, Delamar shows us very naturally that Oscar still has possibilities for personal growth.

On the other hand, we might resist the notion that the perpetually tentative or exasperated Richard will ever loosen up, for until the final scene, in a nuanced performance seething with hidden fire, Tim Ross keeps him looking stressed or depressed. Some of that anger even carries over from his scenes with his father and his lover to his scattered tête-à-têtes with his wayward sister. Huddled with little Laura, Ross makes sure we also see an older, wiser brother, with glints of maturity, responsibility, and an aptitude for parenting.

Eventually, both Oscar and Richard emerge as our protagonists. When that happens, we’re likely to realize that Laura and David have both been part of the alchemy. Susan Stein makes an auspicious Charlotte debut as Laura, obviously the loosey-goosey sib from the moment she first enters. Laura is the one who has taken all the leaps into matrimony, motherhood, and now infidelity that Richard is wary of, and Stein makes her self-justifying zingers nearly as memorable as those Oscar aims at his caregivers and over-the-hill neighbors.

All of Friedman’s illuminating edifice probably wouldn’t have collapsed if she had made David a little less perfect, but Scott A. Miller, one of our best, finds a way to texturize him. Mostly, we empathize with David because we see how hurt he is by Oscar’s slights and Richard’s failures to commit, smiling weakly yet persevering with firm resolve. He also has a tête-à-tête or two with Laura, but you can count on Miller to make these more relaxed, conspiratorial, and gossipy.

My only disappointment on opening night was the size of the crowd. The place on Radcliffe Avenue can be a little difficult to find the first time out, but a show this warm and rich is definitely worth the trouble. These are, as the relevant song says, “people who need people,” and you’ll likely never see Delamar or Ross in better form than at the Hadley in The Luckiest People.

New Plays, New Place, and New Hope at Actor’s Theatre

Preview of The Luckiest People

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Trashy musicals, irreverent spoofs, and trendy new works by black and feminist playwrights aren’t the only things Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has done well over the past 29 years. Around the country, when their artistic and administrative staff attend national conferences with their colleagues, they find that a big part of the company’s reputation rests on their commitment to nurturing new plays.

After two years of instability and uncertainty – and two full seasons without reviving their NuVoices Festival – Actor’s Theatre is getting back to that. This week, they’re opening Meridith Friedman’s The Luckiest People, part of a rolling world premiere that began in Denver. In May, the company will be part of another rolling world premiere, presenting David Valdes Greenwood’s The Mermaid Hour.

Both of these new plays were previously presented in reading stage productions at NuVoices 4 in January 2016, with all of the actors performing script-in-hand. No scenery, no costumes, and limited rehearsal.

NuVoices 4 was one of the last events at 615 E. Stonewall Street, ATC’s last permanent home before developers’ wrecking balls demolished the site. After a misadventure in the Belmont neighborhood near Plaza-Midwood, the company was supposed to reopen at 2219 Freedom Drive late in October 2016.

Instead, they had to move Toxic Avenger a block away to the City Center Church, of all places, the first of four unforeseen sites where ATC’s 2016-17 season was staged. Until last fall, when Actor’s Theatre launched their current season with American Idiot, subscribers never knew where the next production would crop up.

That’s when ATC announced that Freedom Drive was still on hold and that their next two productions would remain at Hadley Theatre on the Queens University campus. But after that?

Now we know. Luckiest People, Mermaid Hour, and The Mountaintop will all be at the Hadley. More importantly, ATC artistic director Chip Decker and John Sisko, dean of Queens U’s College of Arts & Sciences, have just inked a deal that will keep ATC on campus as the U’s resident theatre company for the next five years.

From necessity to desperation to near-relief, it’s been quite a rollercoaster for Decker, his board members, and ATC’s loyal fans. “We’re off life support but still in ER,” Decker quips. “In a better hospital.”

Sisko arrived at Queens in the summer of 2016, when all seemed to be going smoothly with ATC’s relocation. After the abortive opening in October and a subsequent revival of The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical at the McBride-Bonnefoux Dance Center – a horrid acoustic mismatch for a live musical – Sisko wasn’t hearing any signs of life, so he reached out.

Down at Freedom Drive, one hurdle was following another. Parking had to be upgraded to satisfy the City, architects’ drawings kept getting sent back for tiny inaccuracies. Think about this one the next time you walk through the metal canyons of a parking lot to find your car: Decker and his company had to shell out thousands of dollars to get an engineer to certify that the concrete slab – one that had held up a mechanic’s shop and the building itself for 50 years – could support an audience.

“We were slowly bleeding money to death.”

After Bootycandy ran at Mint Museum, Stupid Fucking Bird was staged at the Hadley last spring, a clear signal that Sisko and Queens U brass were unfazed by ATC’s edgy fare. Decker quickly recognized that this would be the finest venue his company had ever performed in. By far.

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The lightbulb came on, and Decker invited Sisko out to grab some coffee and chat about the future.

“It took me a long time to quit beating my head against the wall to make Freedom Drive happen,” Decker recalls. “Having the passion for something and wanting it so bad, I kind of started being blind to the writing on the wall. We were at the point, Perry, and I shared this with John, and I said, ‘We’re do or die. We’re either going to close, or something different is going to work.’”

When Sisko saw how well Stupid Bird went, concern about ATC’s struggle gave way to recognizing the opportunities that bringing the company on board could open. ATC could offer technical support for Theatre Department productions during the academic year, they could offer internships to graduating students, they could oversee a summer theatre festival with performances on the quad under the stars, and they could teach courses about theatre production and administration.

“ATC is the backbone of the Queens theatre program, and it’s a mutually beneficial relationship,” Sisko says. “We have parents who are a little worried about their children being an arts major. But when they’re an arts major and they have 30 credits on the business side of the arts as well, then they are in better position when they face post-graduation.”

Talks are already under way on prospects of reviving the NuVoices Festival as early as this summer, and Decker is already salivating at the prospects. At previous festivals, the four playwrights, four directors, and their casts had to rehearse and perform on a single space at Stonewall. On the Queens campus, there will be multitudes of classrooms at ATC’s disposal, playwrights will be able to interact and talk shop, or simply do rewrites – on the quad, in some greenspace, or in a classroom instead of a hotel.

“They can all come together and talk about the process of playwriting, what it takes to get it produced,” says Decker. “Queens can bring in their MFA creative writing students for master classes with the playwrights on how do you get seen, how do you get published, how do you get your word out there, what it literally takes to become a professional writer on the scene.”

With the opening of The Luckiest People this week, ignition for whole process gets revved up again, because NuVoices is one of very few festivals across the country that promises a full production for every winning entry.

Dennis Delamar, a longtime actor and director at ATC, is doubly excited: he’s reprising the central role of Oscar Hoffman two years closer to the irascible old SOB’s actual age, and he’s performing for the first time at the Hadley knowing that the company has their feet back under them.

Under cross-examination, Delamar can catalog why Oscar is so difficult as he seeks to impose himself on his son’s household – just when he and his male partner are adopting a son. There’s the culture shock of moving from Great Neck, NY, to California; the many physical torments of Paget’s disease; the recent death of his devoted wife; and the pure cussedness of a Jewish trial lawyer who revels in disputation. Even his sharp sense of humor is thorny.

NuVoices gives this role an extra charge. “Being on the ground floor of a new piece of theatre is pretty thrilling,” says Delamar, “a professional collaboration that offers one an opportunity to offer one’s own unique interpretation while the playwright is still in the ‘making it better’ stages.”

Participating in NuVoices gave Delamar the opportunity to meet the playwright and learn first-hand how she drew his character from her own Great Neck grandfather. Thanks to Facebook, Delamar stayed in touch, conferring with Friedman when she made further revisions.

“I felt quite comfortable to write to her about a significant moment for Oscar I noticed had been changed,” he confides. “Taking time to explain to me the history and logic of the change, Meridith reminded me how much I appreciate working with this gifted and open minded writer. She listens. She is wise. I agreed with the change and loved that we could confer so openly about it.”

Yes, the thrill is back at ATC – with new plays and new hope.

“All the signs from this last year together suggest that it’s going to work out extremely well,” says Sisko.

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.

 

Actor’s Theatre Makes “American Idiot” an Immersive Face-Melting Experience

Review: American Idiot

By Perry Tannenbaum

Young love and the ills of the world are so frequently the focus of rock musicals that we sometimes feel little need to decipher the words that jangle together with the actions and emotions we’re seeing onstage. This week is a particularly rockin’ and raucous week in Charlotte, with the 20-year revival tour of Rent and the new Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production of American Idiot opening on consecutive nights.

The original premiere of the Jonathan Larson musical and the 2004 Green Day album were separated by a mere eight years. While the young adult angst lived on, the world had completely changed: the old preoccupations with AIDS and AZT were supplanted by post-9/11 disillusionment and a scattershot scorn for suburbia, corporate America, the war-mongering George W, and the powerlessness of teens to change any of it.

Actor’s Theatre certainly knows powerlessness. Scheduled to open their new location on Freedom Drive last October, they had to be content to offer tours of their production-ready facility. Governmental regulations, foot-dragging and red tape have pushed back the opening to a still undetermined date in 2018. For a second consecutive show, Actor’s Theatre is relying on the kindness of Queens University and their Hadley Theatre, a facility they share with Myers Park Traditional School. Once you get past the decorous entrance and the antiseptic hallway, the black box venue actually possesses much of the off-Broadway feel we’ve come to expect from this company.

At the core of this production are a stage director, music director, choreographer, and a couple of lead actors who have figured prominently in past Actor’s Theatre productions at their demolished former home on Stonewall Street. They may be taking their exile from a permanent home personally, now that it’s prolonged to nearly 18 months, with an understandable urge to scream. Producing artistic director Chip Decker didn’t appear to be worried about reining any of them in, especially music director Ryan Stamey and choreographer Tod A. Kubo.

Stamey stands behind a keyboard at the edge of the stage, looking up at a six-piece band perched above the middle of the stage, occasionally leaning into a microphone and joining the vocalists. There’s a cellist embedded in the sextet whom I never heard. Likewise, the tropical strains of steel guitar, so clearly soothing in the background of the Broadway cast album on “Give Me Novacaine,” has been almost completely sandpapered away by Stamey’s heavy-metal approach.

The storyline, not exactly robust on the Grammy Award-winning concept album, has been somewhat bolstered by lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong and stage director Michael Mayer in their book. Instead of a single Jesus of Suburbia, the musical has three. We have the original Johnny, who escapes the burbs only to encounter his hipster, heroin-shooting alter ego, St. Jimmy, and the possible love of his life, Whatsername.

At a neighborhood 7-Eleven, Johnny meets two other chums who have been crucified by suburbia – and turned into American Idiots – Will and Tunny. Only one of those two will use the bus tickets Johnny has purchased for the trio’s glorious breakaway. Will’s girlfriend, Heather, shows up and places his hand on her belly, obviating the need of saying to him that she’s pregnant. Apparently, punk rockers aren’t very articulate, for Tunny doesn’t do much of anything in the big city, mostly lying face down on a bed until lured by a US Army commercial to go off and fight in an unspecified foreign war.

With two more self-pitying saviors and two additional girlfriends worked into the story – Tunny eventually finds The Extraordinary Girl – Armstrong added more Green Day music to his score, conveniently taken from 21st Century Breakdown, the follow-up album to American Idiot. Their decibel level tamped down to barely bearable, the band is so face-meltingly loud that you have to admire the singers’ will to prevail. Decker doles out the most expressive and outré action to Johnny and St. Jimmy, keying electrifying performances from Matt Carlson and Jeremy DeCarlos respectively.

From his defiant and rebellious posturing in suburbia, Carlson became pure decadence in the city, simulating casual sex, shooting dope, and reeling around in a stupor as he sang. To contrast with this charismatic dissipation, DeCarlos had to take extreme measures to strike us as Johnny’s inner Beelzebub. There has always been a physical resemblance between DeCarlos and Jimi Hendrix, and I had to suspect that St. Jimmy would be the role to set it loose. Costume designer Carrie Cranford audaciously joined in the conspiracy, supplying a flamboyant jacket that evokes the Hussar military jacket Hendrix sported back in the late ‘60s. There wasn’t a headband or a Mexican bandit’s sombrero in the outfit, but the outrageous hairdo more than compensated, so puffed and straightened that I didn’t notice the thin dangling braids at first.

Coupled with this look were spell-casting gesticulations that went beyond the Wicked Witch of the West and World Wide Wrestling in their shamelessness, and I’ve never heard DeCarlos sing with such ferocity before, though there are also seductive and manic moments for St. Jimmy. Where exactly in this charismatic performance the ministrations of Kubo’s choreography began was difficult for me to divine, but the choreographer should definitely get a large proportion of the credit for making this American Idiot such an immersive, visceral experience. Like Actor’s Theatre general manager Martin Kettling told us in his curtain speech, the ensemble frequently used the platform looming above the stage as a jungle gym, often joining the musicians at the top. Over and over, I saw daring dance moves that must have come after Kubo hopefully asked, “Can you try this?” in rehearsals.

Some of the most arresting action came from the women, differentiating the Charlotte American Idiot from the Broadway edition, where hard rock seemed to be the exclusive playpen of macho sexist louts. Nonye Obichere was particularly stunning as Whatsername, all Johnny could handle and more, singing and dancing with a dominatrix edge. As Heather, Lizzie Medlin was more bitchy and Gothic, upstaging Steven Buchanan, who was mostly confined to the vicinity of a sofa once Will grudgingly chose domesticity as his direction in life.

Grant Zavitkovsky was underpowered, undermiked, and largely unintelligible as Tunny in the early going, but those problems thankfully vanished by the time he enlisted. While the budgetary concessions Decker made in his set design worked well, the technical economies he adopted meant that Tunny’s wartime travails were far less catastrophic. No matter how well Grant Zavitkovskyperformed the role, The Extraordinary Girl couldn’t be nearly as extraordinary in her devotion.

There’s a self-critical bent in Armstrong’s leading men that is totally at odds with the striving, sentimental nobility and martyrdom of the Rent heroes and heroines. Lyrical and melodic takeaways from American Idiot aren’t as vivid or memorable as those you might find in the sassy “Out Tonight” or the anthemic “What You Own” that Larson crafted for his glorified squatters. I didn’t find myself nearly as much on the side of Armstrong’s troubled American Idiots, but I did feel they should be listened to. Even if I hadn’t known how passionately Carlson and DeCarlos felt about this music, I would have heard it in their voices and seen it in their actions.

A Labor of Rockin’ Love and Face-Melting Fury

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Preview:  American Idiot

By Perry Tannenbaum

Anger, alienation, disillusionment, and frustration were all part of the high-octane fuel that powered Green Day’s punk rock opera, American Idiot, in 2004. The group’s first post-9/11 CD struck a chord, winning awards on both sides of the Atlantic, including Best Rock Album at the Grammys. The targets of the group’s wrath – media, suburbia, Bush Era militarism, and ubiquitous TV – remained fresh enough for Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong and stage director Michael Mayer to transform the celebrated album into a Broadway musical in 201o.

Starting their second consecutive season in exile from their planned-and-purchased permanent home on Freedom Drive, still tangled up in a red tape mess of zoning, safety, and building regulations – on an existing building, mind you – Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has a bit of pent-up anger, frustration, and disillusionment of their own. They may be wrapping all of that into their incoming American Idiot grenade.

The Charlotte premiere opens in previews this week on the campus of Queens University, the second consecutive show that Actor’s Theatre has brought to Hadley Theater. Official opening night will happen next Wednesday.

ATC artistic director Chip Decker not only empathizes with the angst of American Idiot, he gets the band.

“I have loved Green Day’s music since the [1991] album Kerplunk,” Decker boasts. “American Idiot dropped in 2004, and I could not listen to it enough. I think we were all reeling still from 9/11, the wars, etc., and this album gave a release valve to many who were angry, scared, lost, disillusioned and looking for hope in a difficult time.”

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The leading men feel at least as deeply about the music as their director. In fact, you can gauge their respective ages by when they climbed aboard the Green Day bandwagon. Matt Carlson, who plays Johnny, the Jesus of Suburbia hero from the album, says he latched onto American Idiot when he was about 14, and that it was the first album he learned to play on guitar from beginning to end.

Jeremy DeCarlos, a mainstay in the finest Actor’s Theatre productions since 2004 –onstage or thrashing his guitar – plays Johnny’s alter ego, St. Jimmy, leading the suburban Jesus into citified debaucheries. He says he got the Green Day bug during the summer of 1994, when “Basket Case” was a hit single off the Dookie album.

“I felt like Billie Joe wasn’t just singing to me, but as me in a way,” DeCarlos recalls. “I ran out and bought the album and wore a hole into it. When my mother presented me with my first guitar, I told myself that if I ever learned how to play one song on it, it would be Green Day’s ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).’ It took me roughly a month, but the first song I ever learned on guitar was a Green Day song!”

So how does a punk rock opera with three characters become a musical that can fill a Broadway stage? Well, Armstrong and Mayer added new characters, and Green Day chipped in with more music, conveniently ripped off from 21st Century Breakdown, the follow-up album to American Idiot.

Now instead of one disgruntled Jesus itching to escape suburbia, there are three – Johnny, Will, and Tunny – along with three women. Johnny and Tunny do escape, respectively to the wicked city and the US Army, but Will won’t, dutifully staying behind when he learns that Heather (the only woman in the show with a name) is pregnant with his child. So yes, we get three depressing outcomes to wail over.

“The book is wafer thin, single ply generic toilet paper thin,” Decker admits, “but I feel like that was a very intentional choice. I was able to find my own voice and feelings in the album, and I think that is what the story lines do in this. They present a thought and feeling, but do not try and insist that the viewer (or listener) accept that view as the truth.”

And just because he reveres the music doesn’t mean that Carlson worships the suburban Jesus he’s delivering to us as the leading man. Johnny actually comes off as something of a jerk when Carlson describes him, and he isn’t sure we’ll like him: “He is the edgy, cocky punk guy you knew in high school who never did anything with his life.”

But the music! That draws a different reaction from the young rocker. Like many of Green Day’s faithful, Carlson was a bit leery and disappointed when he first heard that the punk band was taking their act to Broadway. Had to be an artistic sellout, right?

When he eventually encountered to final product, Carlson was pleasantly surprised. “The American Idiot album is so different versus the stage score,” he opines. “I love the simple punk rock sound of the album, but maybe because I’m into musical theatre, I like the stage version even better. On stage, the concept album is made more complete with the play script and music.”

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There’s more music in the musical, but all of it remains guitar-and-drum driven. Instead of muscling up with strings, winds, and brass, Broadway orchestrator/arranger Tom Kitt beefed up the sound with more voices and harmonies. You’ll hear a pronounced difference, to take just one example, if you listen to the Broadway cast album version of “Give Me Novacaine.”

The lyrics come through just a tad more clearly, as if we’re in a theater rather than concert hall. The sound of the steel guitar is noticeably richer, with a more relaxed Hawaiian flavor. With the onset of the thrashing section, the crescendo is more dramatic, louder drums and added male voices yield an anthemic thrust. Reaching the soothing outro, we hear – can it be true? – a group of female backups caressing our ears.

But hold on a second. The prospect of seeing ATC musical director Ryan Stamey lead a Broadway-sized band into Hadley Theater isn’t any more likely than the possibility we’ll see over three dozen flat-screen TV monitors stuck up on the back wall. One violin and one cello are promised, but the instrumental congregation will be trimmed from eight to five, a definite U-turn toward true punk rock intimacy.

Yes, we’ll see two guitars, just like on Broadway.

Decker has been known to strap on a bass guitar himself, and he often lurks in the wings as a sound designer when he isn’t acting or directing. One of the most admirable Actor’s Theatre achievements over the years has been their ability to deliver the youthful energy of such high voltage musicals as Hedwig and Rock of Ages without repulsing their graying subscribers who prefer decibel levels below triple digits.

“You know, this is always a tough balancing act,” Decker says, “because our bands are legit power musicians who want everything to go to 11! But there is so much story in the lyrics of musicals, that if you can’t hear the words, you don’t know the story. So yeah, keeping it balanced and rocking is the challenge. Our cast is doing a great job telling their story, and I think people will dig it. Or you can just go and rock the fuck out. Either way, your face will be melted.”

“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.

Sizzling Satire and Seething Inner Turmoil

Review:  Bootycandy

By Perry Tannenbaum

Weird black mothers roam the Mint Museum stage at the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s latest migratory production. One mamma refers to her son’s genitalia as bootycandy, while another mamma actually names her daughter Genitalia. The weirdness of Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy only begins there, for I don’t think either of these mothers – or their children – ever meet, though the bootycandy boy emerges as our antihero, Sutter. Presumably, this mildly sadistic gay man was messed up by his mom.

Perhaps all of the above have fallen under the influence under the flamboyant influence of Reverend Benson who strides to his pulpit in priestly black robes and exits in a flaming red formal dress and white high-heeled shoes. Or perhaps none of the others knows him, because Rev. Benson preaches directly to us, not at all happy about the intolerance and homophobia we’re spreading around the neighborhood.

Late in Act 1, we get a delightfully specious explanation for all this disconnection. The only white person in the cast seats himself on a chair upstage, seemingly prepared to lead a group therapy session. No, he is actually moderating a symposium where three of the four black cast members have gathered – excluding Sutter. After their previous trashy or swishy turns, they are now the three different playwrights who have written all the action we’ve seen so far. Sophisticated, intellectual, and artsy, they give the Moderator a really hard time.

That veiled hostility toward white people is the underbelly of what mostly seems to be a sharply satirical look at black folk. Mostly we’re looking at hilarious set pieces. Friends try to dissuade Genitalia’s expectant mom from committing her folly while gossiping lustily about it. Or years later, we see Sutter’s mom absolutely putting her foot down on his participation in a sissy high school musical, insisting that he take up a sport while his disengaged stepdad mostly buries himself behind a newspaper.

And of course, the remedy for somebody repeatedly stalking Sutter on the way home from the library isn’t to call the cops – it’s to stop reading those damn Jackie Collins books. The Michael Jackson Thriller jacket continues to fly under Mom’s radar.

More bizarre and surreal is the grownup Genitalia, in a white bridal gown, un- or dis-marrying Intifada in a formal ceremony, complete with increasingly antagonistic vows, ending with bitch slaps from both lesbians. So when Sutter and his boyfriend Larry agree on an assignation with a lonely white guy, what could go wrong?

Kevin Aoussou, who has played a variety of dark roles for Shakespeare Carolina, including Dorian Gray a couple of years ago, mixes it up a little bit more for us here as Sutter. He’s in much lighter scenes now as the younger Sutter, subjected to the bootycandy and compulsory sports indignities inflicted upon him by his mom, more vulnerable and less arrogant. He’s also capable of insight and regret here, delivering a more fully rounded portrayal here than we’ve seen from him before.

Yet the show largely belongs to Jeremy DeCarlos from the moment he tosses off Reverend Benson’s black robes and applies his lipstick. Equally satisfying after his low-key and sympathetic episodes as Step Dad and Larry (the boyfriend), he reappears as Old Granny at an old age home, where she serves up solace to Sutter (and flashbacks for us) when he visits her. All this wisdom and warm reminiscence are bartered for contraband edible eats.

Lydia Williamson and Ericka Ross sinuously intertwine throughout the two-hour evening as mothers, daughters, and playwrights. As the immature mom insisting on naming her daughter Genitalia and later as the more butch daughter Intifada, Williamson certainly lays down a credible case for being the more incorrigible of the two. But while Ross is purposely overmatched as Genitalia, her insensitivity and homophobia as Sutter’s mom are as chilling as they are hilarious.

Directing the show, Martin Damien Wilkins gives all his black performers license to take it far enough over-the-top to remind us occasionally of The Colored Museum, George C. Wolfe’s hilarious 1986 subversion of honored black theatre traditions. Relying primarily on projections, set designer Chip Decker comes fairly close to convincing us that The Mint is Actor’s Theatre’s permanent home. Certainly the acoustics here are far more hospitable than the disastrous holiday sojourn at Charlotte Ballet’s McBride-Bonnefoux studio for The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical.

Maybe the niftiest touch from Wilkins, restoring some of the distance between Colored Museum and this 2011 satire, is the consistently natural work he calls forth from Chaz Pofahl in five different roles. Except as the fulsome officiator at the Genitalia-Intifada breakup, Pofahl is consistently life-sized and somewhat pitiful as our white guy – even when he turns up as the pervert stalking the teen-aged Sutter from the library. Instead of shocking me as Sutter and Larry’s victim later on, when he came out to the hallway outside his hotel room completely naked, he broke my heart a little bit.

Arguably, he’s the only player who bares body or soul all evening long.

Wild as it is, Bootycandy is an autobiographical piece by a black gay playwright with an incongruously Irish name. A portion of O’Hara’s animus is directed intellectually toward his own black community, and another more visceral portion is directed reflexively toward white people. Most poignant of all is the remaining scrutiny that O’Hara directs toward himself and his own shortcomings.

Less Bard and More Beer

Theater Reviews: Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some!) and The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Four centuries after William Shakespeare’s death, Charlotte’s own Chickspeare inhabits a parallel universe. Or maybe it’s retribution: while all of the Bard’s works were performed by all-male theatre troupes, all of Chickspeare’s productions since 1998 have been “All women! All the time!” as originally promised. The “All Shakespeare” in the middle of that slogan was gradually blurred and dropped as the Chix added Reduced Shakespeare Company lampoons to their rep and then ventured father afield.

Written by Michael Carleton, James FitzGerald, and John K. Alvarez, Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some!) is very much in the spirit of Reduced Shakespeare’s original assault on the Elizabethan titan’s complete works. The parentheses in the title, the quickie romp through multiple classics by three actors playing multiple roles, and the devotion of all of Act 2 to a single extravagant lampoon all follow the Reduced template.

But gender only begins to describe the difference between Chickspeare’s version and the 2010 Actor’s Theatre Every Christmas. The new model is as much an event as it is a theatre production, an experience that begins and ends at the newer NoDa Brewery on N. Tryon Street. In between, there are a couple of shuttle bus rides back and forth from the original Brewery location on N. Davidson Street. You’ll find more brew choices on tap at North Tryon, but the enticement of lifting a mug and participating in the many “To beer!” toasts during the Chix performance at North Davidson is hard to resist.

Few did last Friday night. Besides the brewskis, we had Anne Lambert lubricating the experience with a steady feed of Christmas trivia challenges on the bus ride to the show and the conviviality of the Chix banditas – Sheila Snow Proctor, Lane Morris, and Tanya McClellan – during their performance. But mainly, it was the beer that induced the party atmosphere.

Directing the show, Joanna Gerdy and Andrea King had a healthy disregard for the script. The playwrights labored under a handicap that never afflicted the Reduced Shakespeare collaborators when they chose ancient targets like Hamlet, the Bible, and American history for their merry desecrations. Unlike your seasonal carols, most of our familiar Christmas stories aren’t free-range prey. Copyright law prevents satiric assaults upon Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the Charlie Brown Christmas, and the Yuletide yarns of Truman Capote, Dylan Thomas, and Jean Sheperd.

When Carleton, FitzGerald, and Alvarez lashed out at these restrictions, the result was “Gustav, the Green-Nosed Rain-Goat,” not the funniest sketch you’ll ever see. Morris never plays the mutated venison as if it were comedy gold, so there’s never any deadly straining to make it funnier than it is. We’ll raise a glass, and then we’ll move on.

The premise of the show is that Proctor wishes to proceed traditionally with a presentation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but Morris and McClellan are sick and tired of the same old stuff. Before they’ll allow Snow to read her Dickens and play her Scrooge, she must join them in a medley of other Christmas faves, including Frosty the Snowman, Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, the Grinch, O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” and – maybe if there’s enough time – the inevitable It’s a Wonderful Life.

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There isn’t enough time, but that doesn’t deter Morris. While Proctor is on-task as Scrooge, with McClellan visiting her as all three ghosts, Morris keeps insisting that Proctor is George Bailey, inflicting on us a bevy of characters from New Bedford Falls, including George’s guardian angel, his brother, his banker nemesis, and his adoring wife. By the time Lane reaches the wife, it comes off oddly like a female impersonation.

Fortunately, Proctor is the ideal Scrooge in the face of these torments. There’s a bit of Oliver Hardy and Bud Abbott in her forbearance, but we somehow remain on her side throughout her ordeal. At the climax of Christmas Carol, Morris is still bedeviling her, so she finally submits to becoming George Bailey – in a schizophrenic frenzy that finds her shuttling between Scrooge and Bailey as both McClellan and Morris assail her.

In her surrender, Proctor produces a Jimmy Stewart impersonation that’s barely good enough to let you know what she’s doing. It will probably improve during the next couple of weekends as the run continues, but I’m not sure it should. Likewise, Proctor can be a mite slow changing costumes, but McClellan’s patience with her cast mate is so priceless, it would hardly pay for Proctor to hurry.

It’s been a rocky road for Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte since developers forced them out of their longtime home on Stonewall Street last summer. We thought they would resurface on Louise Avenue, but negotiations there collapsed, and the company tacked toward Freedom Drive. City and county paperwork delayed the opening, so their Toxic Avenger was redirected to a nearby church, and the current Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical has been rerouted to the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance, Charlotte Ballet’s HQ on N. Tryon Street.

I was curious to see how director Chip Decker and his design team would adapt to studios with so much space and such a high ceiling. With two fair-sized ramshackle trailers, topped by two jumbo projection screens, height isn’t a problem, and the design team fills out the stage with a fence, some Florida flamingo kitsch, an incongruous array of Star Wars memorabilia and, dead center of the stage between the two trailers, a half-decorated Christmas tree.

That odd tree, straddling the borderline between Rufus and Darleen’s properties, triggers Betsy Kelso’s plotline. Rufus loves Christmas and adores Darleen, but mean Darleen snarls “Bah” and “Humbug” to both. She will not decorate her trailer or even allow Rufus onto her property to decorate her side of the tree. That’s a source of huge consternation to Betty, the manager of Armadillo Acres, who has always wanted – but failed – to win the big prize awarded to the best-decorated trailer park. A vague curse plagues Armadillo Acres, and it too will to be exorcised before we reach a happy ending.

There’s a certain amount of respectability in Betty, so we’re fortunate that it is more than counterbalanced by the trashiness of her other tenants, Pickles and Lin (short for Linoleum). They also come in handy when ghosts are needed to populate Darleen’s Dickensian dream sequence. Rufus’s romantic fantasies and Betty’s hopes of nabbing top kitsch honors are revived when Darleen, in an effort to pull the plug on the park’s Christmas lights, gets electrocuted by Rufus’s déclassé cable-splitter and wakens with amnesia. That enables her to forget what a Scrooge she is and the fact that she belongs to Jackie, owner of a slutty pancake joint.

If you missed the first and second comings of this trashy romp, it’s good for you to know all the basics I’ve detailed. Although Actor’s Theatre has done well with the Charlotte Ballet space, they have thoroughly failed to conquer its acoustics. So the songs and lyrics by David Nehls are more crucial to your enjoyment than usual – but often unintelligible over the four-piece band led by music director Brad Fugate.

Tommy Foster isn’t as rednecky as Ryan Stamey was as Rufus, but he’s a tad more pathetic and lovable. Karen Christensen is more than sufficiently bitchy as Darleen, and we often forget that Matt Kenyon is in drag as Lin. (So does he, I suspect.) But Jon Parker Douglas nearly steals the show as Jackie when he is possessed during the climactic exorcism. It’s an epileptic farting fantasia that isn’t quickly forgotten – and the kind of broad physical comedy this acoustically-challenged show desperately needs.

 

The Nerd Who Terrorized New Jersey

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Theater Reviews:  The Toxic Avenger and Pride and Prejudice

By Perry Tannenbaum

I’m not sure how or when such epithets as “Armpit of the East” or “Scrotum of the Nation” rained down on New Jersey, but they were certainly commonplace before the onset of The Sopranos or Chris Christie. It’s also clear that when Lloyd Kaufman and Joe Ritter cooked up their 1984 screenplay for The Toxic Avenger, they weren’t intending to prettify the Garden State’s battered image. About the only love they showed for Jersey was shooting the film there.

A mere 24 years elapsed before Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, following their successful collaboration on Memphis, hooked up on a Toxic musical adaptation. The record-breaking reception of the show in New Brunswick, before its off-Broadway transfer in 2009, only underscored how highly Jerseyites cherish their notoriety.

DiPietro liberally refashions Kaufman’s original plot, but political corruption, organized crime, unconscionable pollution, and unchecked violence are still among its hallmarks. Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, newly resurrected on Freedom Drive after its recent homelessness, embraces all of these horrors with the merry glee it applied to Evil Dead The Musical seven years ago. Billy Ensley directed that 2009 gorefest on Stonewall Street, but ATC artistic director Chip Decker takes the reins here, reminding us that crass sci-fi musical parodies are at the core of this company’s DNA.

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Journeying from screen to stage, Melvin Ferd the Third has lost his signature janitorial mop, but he’s still a hopeless nerd and still smitten by the blind Sarah, who is now a librarian. The new Melvin is an environmental crusader from the get-go, and his plunge into an oozing drum of green toxic goo is far more malignant, ordered by corrupt Tromaville mayor Babs Belgoody. Where does Melvin find the goods on Mayor Belgoody’s polluting schemes? At the library, of course, cleverly filed away by Sarah where they are least likely to be found: among the important policy speeches of Michele Bachmann.

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Something underhanded seems to have occurred here, since Bachmann didn’t achieve her peak infamy until the 2012 election cycle. Suspicion falls on the prankish Decker, who compounds his violations of DiPietro’s script by introducing the image of Donald Trump later in the evening. Hopefully, that glorified groper will be forgotten by the time the Avenger concludes his rampages on November 12.

Yes, if you didn’t already know, what doesn’t kill Melvin makes him Toxie, the avenging mutant monster. This is exactly where Actor’s Theatre upstages the off-Broadway production once again. In 2009, Ensley simply had the luxury of a better pool of actors to choose from for Evil Dead. This year, Decker enjoys no luxuries whatsoever. ATC and City Hall couldn’t dot all the i’s on permits for the new location at 2219 Freedom Drive in time for opening night last Wednesday, so Decker & Co. were obliged to move next door to Center City Church & The Movement Center at 2225 Freedom.

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On very short notice. So the set designer is listed as Dire Circumstance in the playbill while other members of the design team have vanished altogether. Whether by accident or design, then, Decker doesn’t make the mistake that plagued the off-Broadway show: overproduction. In the New York version, when Melvin emerged from the chemical dumpsite as Toxie, the green carbuncled mask that covered his head was not only horrific, it robbed actor Nick Cordero of all further facial expression.

Jeremy DeCarlos doesn’t have to combat that handicap. As cool, graceful, and intelligent as DeCarlos has always seemed onstage, I expected both the nerdy Melvin and the homicidal Toxie to be difficult stretches for him. Clearly, I had no idea how well DeCarlos could channel the dopey sound and body language of Jerry Lewis as the socially inept earth scientist. When he emerged from the flimsy façade of chemical drums as Toxie, there were some wrappings on his arms to offer a semblance of might, but it was Decker at the soundboard who offered the more telling boost, amping up DeCarlos’ voice and synthesizing his monster roar.

No, the wrappings and the roars don’t close the gap between DeCarlos and fearsomeness – but that’s another reason why his Toxie is so much more hilarious than the more technically polished off-Broadway version, which often forgot it was a spoof. Leslie Giles certainly isn’t forgetting her spoofery as Sarah, helpless ingénue or aggressive vamp as the occasion demands – and her blind stick shtick with the hapless Melvin is a corny gift that keeps on giving. Sarah’s big number, “My Big French Boyfriend,” struck me as the best in the show.

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Lisa Hugo, who was so precisely calibrated in the complex leading role of Stage Kiss earlier this year, the last ATC production at Stonewall Street, gets to loosen up in multiple roles. When she isn’t the melodramatic, megalomaniacal Mayor, she’s usually Melvin’s disapproving Mom. These two nasty women turn out to be old enemies from their school days, so their “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore” confrontation deep in Act 2 was a manic reminder of a similar duet in the Jekyll & Hyde musical. Ma Ferd also gets an effective “All Men Are Freaks” duet with Sarah.

Ryan Stamey and Dominique Atwater divvy up nearly all the remaining roles, more than I could keep track of, with Matthew Blake Johnson subbing for Atwater on opening night. Somebody needs to terrorize Sarah, toss Melvin into the toxic goo, get their asses kicked by Toxie, scurry around with missing limbs, and represent the hordes of Tromavillians who idolize the grotesque mutant. Stamey and Johnson performed every one of these worthy missions, and more, with the suave sophistication you would expect.

Yes, the middle school auditorium atmospherics of the Movement Center hall are somewhat against the grain of the gorey Toxic Avenger irreverence, but it served better than expected for what turns out to be a unique guerilla theatre project. If you arrive early for one of the remaining performances, you might get a brief tour of the new ATC space next door. What’s going on now on Freedom Drive bodes well for the company and the resourceful artists who make it go.

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Jon Jory is best known as the artistic director who brought renown to the Humana Festival and the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville – and widely believed to have penned Keely and Du, Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage, and Anton in Show Business under the penname of Jane Martin. When it comes to adapting Jane Austen, whose Pride and Prejudice is currently on view at Pease Auditorium in a CPCC Theatre production, Jory is no dilettante. He has also adapted Sense and Sensibility and Emma.

Even if all the subtleties aren’t always pointed under Heather Wilson-Bowlby’s poised direction, it becomes obvious that Jory’s adaptation preserves the style and thrust of Austen’s liveliest masterwork. Most of the credit goes to Moriah Thomason as Austen’s prejudging heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, though it’s hard to deny she is amply counterbalanced by the hauteur of Brian Logsdon as Fitzwilliam Darcy. Thomason unveiled her elegance in the ATC production of Stick Fly back in February. Here she adds vivacity and wit, so I couldn’t get enough of her.

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We see where Elizabeth gets her wit from in Tony Wright’s slightly jaundiced portrait of her father, and Anne Lambert’s rendition of Mrs. Bennet has more than enough vanity, giddiness, and silliness to distribute among the younger Bennet sibs. My chief disappointment was the hoarseness that afflicted Lexie Simerly as Liz’s elder sister Jane. If only she could have borrowed some extra decibels from Iris DeWitt, whose towering presence made the imperious Lady Catherine De Bourgh a perfect victim of Elizabeth’s punctiliously polite sass.