Tag Archives: Cole Pedigo

Soot of Sodom Chases the Joads in “The Grapes of Wrath”

Review: The Grapes of Wrath @ Theatre Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

If you’ve ever read John Steinbeck’s sprawling masterwork, The Grapes of Wrath, you know that it’s framed with a seething anger as a picture of America’s unfulfilled promises, the cruel exploitation of the poor, and the undiminished aspirations of the Joad family. These dispossessed and determined Oklahoma sharecroppers believe in the dream.

But the Okies are tested before they reach the Promised Land of California and once they’ve arrived. Like the Israelites in the Old Testament, they must cross burning desert. Clutching onto the printed handbills promising work and honest wages, they must resist the report of a broken, disillusioned man who found California to be nothing like the handbills’ hype. They must endure attacks from anti-labor thugs who fear the latent strength of worker groups.

Perhaps most difficult of all, they must strive to hold together despite forces of attrition from within – disagreements, defections, and death. Manna doesn’t shower down upon them from heaven to ease the journey.

We easily presume, with their consuming hope of a Promised Land, that the Joads’ journey is an exodus, a liberation from the landowners who have burdened them with sufferings. Another biblical parallel suggests itself on Queens Road, where Frank Galati’s stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel is making its local debut at Theatre Charlotte – a mere 37 years in the wilderness after winning the 1980 Tony Award for Best Play.

Since vile bankers and beancounters cannot loom as large on the stage as they do on the vast canvas of Steinbeck’s pages, another biblical parallel emerges clearly. Under Ron Law’s direction, with severely weathered scenery by Chris Timmons, and stark, pitiful costume designs by Chelsea Retalic – Okie clothing and faces equally sooty – I couldn’t help sensing echoes of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in this depiction of Dust Bowl devastation.

One faint echo is the drugging of Grampa Joad when he resists leaving, a parallel to how Lot’s daughters bamboozled their dad. The loudest echo came from Ma Joad, proving that she’s the antithesis of Lot’s Wife. You’ll recall that when Lot’s family was commanded not to look back while God was raining fire and brimstone on the sinful cities, Lot’s wife disobeyed and paid a famous price.

As the Joads embark, one of Ma’s kinfolk asks if she is going to take one last look back. Her no in response, with the aid of modest embroidery, is so emphatic that we take it as a philosophy. Ma Joad looks forward and moves forward. She lives by doing what needs to be done.

It’s an outlook that she successfully hands down to her daughter, Rose of Sharon, in the poignantly perverse pieta that ends the epic story.

With a performance like Paula Baldwin’s as Ma, we readily grasp that Steinbeck wished us to see her as the steadying bedrock of the family. The jut of Baldwin’s jaw and the tightened sinews of her neck were unlike anything I’d seen from her in her numerous leading roles. She’s unrelentingly purposeful, sternly nurturing, with all the patience and endurance of the ground she stands on.

Standing firm isn’t all that simple on the raked stage that Timmons has built. His pared-down design must accommodate campfires, a riverbank, and a ramshackle jalopy able to accommodate the whole clan. The skin-and-bones truck is altogether worthy of the ridicule it draws. Inspiration taken from the Little Engine That Could? You decide.

Vying with Ma for the right to be called the backbone of the family is the second-eldest son, Tom Joad, a volatile straight-shooter who is coming home from prison after serving his time for murder. It is so telling – about Tom and his fellow Okies – that everyone seems disappointed that Tom didn’t break out of jail. Easy to rile when he or his family is threatened, Tom is a seeker of truth, curious to learn how the system works.

Max Greger subordinates Tom’s volatility to his heartland wholesomeness in a promising Charlotte debut, holding his own when he shares the spotlight with Baldwin or the wild-eyed Andrew Tarek, who shambles brilliantly about as Jim Casy, a former preacher who feels like he has lost the calling. Yet in the same way that Tom is branded as an outlaw after killing in self-defense, Casy is branded as a holy man despite his renunciation – with Steinbeck’s approval, we presume, since four gospels were written about a man with the same initials.

Amid a dust cloud of bleakness and hopelessness, these running gags slightly lift the gloom.

And though there are strong unionist sympathies in the framework of Steinbeck’s yarn, you will also find an all-American emphasis on teamwork, which Law’s cast underplays enough to keep us from smelling Hollywood. Chris Melton has an adolescent randiness as Al Joad that augurs trouble and a shotgun marriage, but he also has a way with cars, performing the marvel of getting the Joads’ jalopy going. Between bouts of guilt, discouragement, and drinking sprees, Victor Sayegh as Uncle John often struck me as the most fatherly in the clan with a generous spirit.

With a cast of 23 trafficking back and forth on the sloped stage, Law needed to shape a deep ensemble that bonded together while divvying up two hours and 15 minutes of running time. Nor could he rely on the top tier of players to deliver all the little crevasses of comedy and poignancy that lurk in the wide tapestry.

Annette Gill and Rick Taylor are largely responsible for getting us off to a rousing start as the ever-bickering oldsters, Granma and Grampa Joad, portraying them as loud and slightly doddering. We get an interesting take on Pa Joad from Ryan Dunn, who doesn’t seem broken by his family’s rude displacement but rather gladly retired from the responsibility of it all, a bit dazed by the turn of events.

Zach Radhuber goes light on the simplemindedness of Noah Joad, yielding a touching moment when he sets off on his own, and Cole Pedigo gives a nerdy edge to the befuddlement of Connie Rivers, Rose of Sharon’s husband. In some ways, Ailey Finn represents the best of the new generation as “Rosasharn,” but it’s suffering that strengthens and ennobles her, and the mysterious smile that ends the novel can’t be incorporated into a stage adaptation.

Law keeps the concept of incidental music from the Broadway version but discards the content, switching from a Tin Pin Alley songlist to a folksy Woody Guthrie flavor. “California, Here I Come” steps aside for “This Land Is Your Land.” Strumming an appropriate guitar, Tom Schrachta attacks the material a bit harshly with his robust voice, but I grew fond of that discord. Schrachta also drew the acting chore of donning a rumpled trench coat (a hint of the spy parallel in the biblical exodus story) and delivering the bad news about California to the Joads.

That same harshness remained in Schrachta’s voice. Yet now it was mixing grief, discouragement, futility, and rage – very much what Steinbeck felt about the ruinous actions of America’s bankers when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath.

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Steering Tragedy Towards Mirth

Theater Review: The Winter’s Tale

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Misdeeds in Shakespeare come in dark and light hues: they are prankish and trivial when the Bard smiles, malign and fatal when he glowers. Misunderstandings follow a similar pattern, absurd and accidental when they aren’t horrifying and purposeful. When such complications are resolved at the end of Shakespeare’s earlier plays, all is mended in the comedies and all is lost in the tragedies. But a new curvature enters the Bard’s storylines toward the end of his career, when he begins to concoct the bittersweet confections that became classified as romances. These include The Tempest, Cymbeline, Pericles and – now at Spirit Square in an outstanding Shakespeare Carolina production – The Winter’s Tale.

In these plays, tragedy strikes. But it’s survived, and we veer towards mirth. Keats may not have understood Shakespeare best among the romantic poets, for Coleridge had the finest critical mind among them, but he was best attuned to this mellowed, autumnal Shakespeare when he referred to life as “a vale of soul-making.” The protagonists in these plays reach wisdom and contentment only through great and prolonged suffering.

Before we reach these romances, Shakespeare strives to compress time as much as possible. Factions and countries seem able to raise armies and launch wars overnight in Caesar and Lear. When we reach The Winter’s Tale, Time is not only a prime element in the story, he or she is an actual character. At Duke Energy Theatre, he comes out at the end of Act 3 in the script, dressed very much like Dickens’ last Christmas ghost, to announce the intermission, leaving an hourglass on a stool.

When we come back, Time properly names himself to start Act 4, tells us that 16 years have passed while we were gone and, cued by the Bard’s blank verse, flips the hourglass to launch the continuation in Bohemia. Back in Sicilia, King Leontes has royally messed things up. Outdoing Othello in jealousy, Leontes has decided that his virtuous Queen Hermione is having an affair with his longtime buddy King Polixenes of Bohemia. Flouting all common sense, he is equally certain that Polixenes has fathered the child she is on the verge of delivering.

Stubborn and decisive, Leontes imprisons his wife, orders his most trusted servant to murder Polixenes, and sends his most valued courtier overseas to dispose of his newborn daughter. Now why was he so sure Hermione is an adulteress? When Polixenes refused Leontes’ entreaties in the opening scene to stay an extra week in Sicilia, Leontes asked Hermione to try – and she succeeded.

Polixenes and the servant escape together, and by the time Leontes discovers his folly, he has lost his wife, his son, his best friend, and his newborn daughter. And according to the Delphic oracle, whose declarations he ignored when they vindicated Hermione and Polixenes, he will remain childless and lose his kingdom unless he finds his lost daughter. Instead of tracking the infant’s scent while it is still fresh, Leontes goes to the opposite extreme of his previous bellicosity, cloistering himself with his sufferings and sorrows, mourning the true wife he wronged.

Not only does the wintry action in Sicilia turn to springtime in Bohemia when the hourglass is flipped, a whole new generation seizes the spotlight. The action blows in the opposite direction, on the wings of two young lovers who will be true to one another. Taking advantage of the new time and place, director Tony Wright flips a large portion of the cast into new roles during intermission.

Perhaps the most significant of these changes occurs just before the break when S. Wilson Lee as Antigonus, the Sicilian courtier who brings the king’s unlucky child to Bohemia, makes one of the most famous exits in theatre history, “pursued by a bear.” Lee comes back almost immediately in a new costume as a new character, the Shepherd who hears of the courtier’s grisly mauling and discovers the babe in the basket. Clearly things have turned toward comedy when a rustic illiterate marvels at his clone’s demise.

And it makes eminently good sense for Faith Benton to reverse the gender deployment that was routine in Elizabethan times, when women were barred from acting, playing Leontes’ son Mamillius in the opening act and his lost daughter Perdita after the break. Benton has a nicely understated elegance that works well for a noble who is ignorant of her nobility, and she projects virginal purity at the heart of the Bohemian scenes that artfully parallels Katie Bearden’s maternal and wifely purity at the center of the Sicilia drama.

It’s quite remarkable that Bearden can bring so much freshness to a role that reminds us of so many Desdemonas and the falsely accused Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. But it’s certainly helpful for Russell Rowe to be deceiving himself so powerfully as Leontes, a lion who creates his own dreary winter out of an apparently loving marriage.

Lowe’s overbearing authority makes Bearden’s steadfast truth and devotion all the more poignant, but it also sparks other forms of opposition. Amy Hillard as the vanished Antigonus’ tart-tongued widow is unsparing in her denunciations of the King, granting him her special clemency only when the Delphic oracle’s prophecy is fulfilled. Just as useful in the wide arcs of this storyline is Kevin Sario as Leontes’ trusted servant Camillo, an anti-Iago who saves his King from himself, ultimately engineering his redemption.

Camillo and Polixenes bridge the two halves of this Tale, so it’s interesting to watch the subtle imperfections that Charles Holmes brings to the King of Bohemia. He probably is a little more affectionate toward Hermione than is strictly proper, and when his family hurtles into crisis, his aversion toward hearing out his son Florizel parallels Leontes’ deafness toward Hermione. In this sunny new comedy world, Polixenes’ faults are more fortunate.

With his bushy hair, Cole Pedigo as Florizel strikes me as more rustic than Benton, but they do make an adoring – and adorable – couple. He actually gets to dress down when Florizel and Perdita decide to elope. Or seek asylum? Obliging him gladly is Ted Patterson as the thieving con-artist Autolycus, who will gladly favor us with a song when he’s not swindling the Old Shepherd and his Clown (Michael Anderson). Like other Shakespeare rascals, Autolycus is luckier than he is smart. Until he isn’t.

In the cavalcade of reunions that closes out this romance, the last is by far the most moving because it redeems so much lost time. A bit of a downer throughout the evening, the scenic simplicity of the production becomes most effective in this tenderest of moments, but Robert Jaeger’s costumes also lift us out of visual poverty along the way. Turns out that it has been a novel idea in Charlotte to do a Shakespeare play – rather than a riff on one – to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.

One expects a knowing selection from a company that takes the Bard’s name in vain, and Winter’s Tale, a work that resonates with Shakespeare’s final years, proves to be a very apt choice. With this current crop of newcomers and seasoned veterans, this is the best serious Shakespeare this company has done. Shakespeare Carolina really is a mature Shakespeare company now, knowing what they mean and meaning what they, Both the comedy and the drama come at us with the swagger of assured confidence. If only somebody would give them a few bucks!