Tag Archives: David Hensley

Free Reign’s “Saint Joan” Handsomely Shaves a Shavian Tragedy

Review: George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan

By Perry Tannenbaum

Saint Joan at Duke Energy in Charlott

Didacticism and verbosity are probably the chief reasons why George Bernard Shaw has fallen out of favor, even if those charges are often overblown and undeserved. The Anglo-Irish playwright’s works, faithfully presented each summer in rotation at the Shaw Festival in beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake up in Ontario, can seem musty and intimidating compared to today’s snappy sitcom dialogue or yesteryear’s sleek Oscar Wilde epigrams.

Of course, the more didactic and verbose a GBS play might be, the less a director might feel she or he can reshape it. So there’s often a backstage disinclination to wrestle with Shaw’s once-revered scripts that conspires with the audience fear factor.

Maybe that explains why the last two Shaw productions I’ve seen, nearly five years apart, have both been Saint Joan. My first live encounter with Shaw’s only tragedy was at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre in New York in a lively Bedlam Theatre production. Almost instantly, I could see that this is one play where the playwright has loosened his tight grip on his stage characters. Here the story has a grip on him, and even before I found it confirmed in his humongous preface (more than half the size of the play), it was obvious that he not only deeply researched the exploits of Joan of Arc, but he had also meticulously studied the transcripts of her witchcraft trial.

Saint Joan at Duke Energy in CharlottActor/director Eric Tucker and his Bedlam cast had a field day with the script, divvying up 25 roles among four actors. Shaw’s contention that there was no villain in the Maid of Orleans’ undoing came through vividly in an evening that mixed some fun into the high seriousness – but the evening was three hours long, hardly making a dent in GBS’s notorious loquacity. The new Free Reign Theatre production, currently at Spirit Square, brings Saint Joan more fully into the realm of accessibility. Director David Hensley noticeably shaves the Shavian discourse, and company founder Charles Holmes has free rein to ply his fight directing craft. Multiple episodes of spirited swordplay are sprinkled amid the wordplay.

Hensley deploys four times as many actors on the drama, allowing it to breathe more naturally than Bedlam’s insane reduction, where one of the actors might actually change roles mid-sentence and reply to himself. A more benign form of such absurdity persists with Free Reign, where the same French faces we saw opposing and abetting Joan’s miraculous rise to military leadership suddenly transform into her enemies in the angry and confounded English camp.

In a role that has been mainly populated by the great dames of theatre history rather than precocious teens, Amy Cheek makes an amazing splash the first time I’ve seen her in Charlotte. There were times, over the course of the evening, a relatively svelte 2:15 at Duke Energy Theater, when I felt that her excellence was all that was necessary. There is, as her elders say repeatedly, something about her – an ardent belief that infuses a Peter Pan cocksureness yet never crosses over into presumptuous arrogance.Saint Joan at Duke Energy in Charlotte

At times, the light radiating from within, kindled for Joan by the voices of the warrior archangel Michael and Saints Margaret and Catherine, made me believe Cheek was the ideal age for this role. Predecessors have included the likes of Uta Hagen, Katharine Cornell, Sybil Thorndike, Judi Dench, and the aforementioned Redgrave.

It tickled me that most of the other Free Reign players did so well – and that Hensley decreed that they aren’t all men. Five women flit through this surprisingly nimble evening. Particularly delightful was the idea of having the pert and diminutive Alexandria Creech portraying the timorous Dauphin, the future King Charles VII of France. The holy coronation at Rheims Cathedral can only happen if Joan can prod him into standing up for himself and forcefully claiming his rightful throne. With Russell Rowe thundering as the Archbishop of Rheims, Holmes glowering as military commander-in-chief Monseigneur de la Trémouille, and both of them towering over Creech, chances for an upswell of valor from the Dauphin look slim.

Saint Joan at Duke Energy in CharlottCreech can not only hide behind her courtiers when the Dauphin stages his first audience with Joan, she can nearly disappear. But Cheek also towers over this Dauphin – a little bit – so it’s a nifty tug of war for the future king’s favor. Holmes retains his bellicosity when he briefly appears at the English encampment as the Black Prince, but he becomes slightly more sympathetic at the trial as Peter Cauchon, somewhat doubtful that La Pucelle is a witch but absolutely certain that she is the worst of heretics.

Rowe follows a more interesting arc when he changes into an Englishman, becoming the implacable and somewhat stupid Chaplain John de Stogumber, who believes so rabidly in Joan’s witchery that it’s alarming. At the trial, he appears to be a mashup of the Chaplain and the Canon de Courcelles, who zealously brings over 60 charges against The Maid to the bench. Stogumber seethes mightily when Cauchon trims those charges to a mere 12, violently advocating that Joan be burnt at the stake – until he actually sees her on fire. He was so shaken and chastened by the spectacle that I almost pitied him, a truly wrenching turnaround.Saint Joan at Duke Energy in Charlotte

The Maid attracts believers and followers along the way, of course, and the most impressive of these are the hulking David Hayes as Bertrand de Poulengey, Joan’s first champion, and Robert Brafford as the wily renegade Dunois, who shrewdly sizes up her military acumen. Hayes resurfaces at La Pucelle’s side in the pivotal battle scenes before drawing a fearsome, taciturn role as her Executioner. Brafford sheds his good heartedness but retains his craftiness when he becomes The Earl of Warwick. The coolest of Joan’s enemies, Warwick is willing to offer a bounty to anyone who betrays The Maid – not the most dramatic thrust in Shaw’s script, so I suspect the suave and calculating Brafford was the most victimized by cuts to the script.

Every now and then, as in Boeing Boeing, we get the treat of seeing Emmanuel Barbe in a French role. As Robert de Baudricourt, the first nobleman to be won over by Joan’s eloquence and spunk, Barbe helps to get things off to a flavorful start. By the end of the first scene and its exhilarating little coda – and miracle! – this Free Reign production had already captivated me. As Shaw well knew, Joan’s story has that power.

 

Actor’s Gym Unearths a Gem in “Fallen Angels”

Review: Fallen Angels

By Perry Tannenbaum

When a playwright puts the finishing touches on his or her latest comedy, it’s without any knowledge about how prevailing attitudes and expectations might change out in the audience over the next 93 years. No playwright has ever had the chance to look back that far, and that includes Noël Coward, whose Fallen Angels is playing at Duke Energy Theater in an Actor’s Gym production directed by Tony Wright.

Knowing Noël, I’d say he’d either gasp or laugh out loud. Opportunity knocks for Coward’s protagonists, Julia Sterroll and Jane Banbury, when their husbands head off on a golfing weekend just when an old flame of both ladies, Maurice Duclos, sends them billet-doux saying that he’ll be arriving back in London after an absence of many years –so many years that the husbands, Fred and Willy, have no idea of who Maurice is nor any knowledge of his torrid affairs with their wives.

After Fred’s departure, Julia is momentarily left alone with her new smarty-pants maid, Saunders. That’s when Jane arrives at the Sterrolls’, all aflutter with the news. Julia, who was just a few minutes earlier discussing with Fred exactly how much fire was left in their mellowing marriage, hadn’t yet read her note from Maurice. It quickly becomes evident, as the women discuss Maurice, that those flames still burn brightly, perhaps more brightly than ever. They’re a little scared.What will they do when he arrives?

Their first impulse is exactly what an audience would expect – in 1925: to flee as quickly as they can to protect their honor, which presumably cannot withstand Maurice’s irresistible charms. A mere 35 years after Oscar Wilde had declared, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” such an outlook was still wicked, irresponsible, and risqué.

Nowadays, coaxed by Madison Avenue, amoral leaders, social media, and longstanding American traditions of fierce individuality, we find ourselves – regardless of gender – inwardly urging Julia and Jane, Go for it! Whereas we’re taken aback in 2018 by the ladies’ knee-jerk-prissiness, their eventual decision to stay and face Maurice was immoral enough to give London’s censors pause before allowing Fallen Angels to be performed.

Once Julia and Jane have opted for what we perceive as the road-more-taken, you might expect that attitude adjustment becomes far less necessary. Yet in more subtle ways, the presumption of wickedness works its way deeply to the bones of Coward’s comedy. Instead of building his comedy upon Julia and Jane’s rekindled romances – and their wacky or delicious maneuverings to keep their husbands in the dark – we find an unexpected amount of time devoted to maintaining their wicked resolve. Here our complications arise from the women’s resorting to martinis and champagne to sustain their courage during their excited vigil.

So it’s helpful that Tony Wright and his design team keep reminding us that the people onstage are living indifferent times. While Tim Baxter-Ferguson’s set design isn’t the ultimate in elegance, the requirements of a British drawing room are met, including a baby grand where Saunders will upstage Julia. Davita Galloway’s costumes, particularly the flapper-flavored outfits for the partying ladies as they sip their martinis, stamp the era most decisively.

The women must dominate this comedy,and Wright has found a marvelously varied trio. Originally played by Tallulah Bankhead, Julia is the formidable serenity that is serially agitated by Saunders, Jane, and Maurice to comical effect. Jennifer Barnette takes that serenity to a loftier, more angelic plane, slightly muting her discomfiture and giving more space for the eccentricities of Saunders and Jane to shine. Karina Caporino pounces on her opportunity as Jane with frenetic energy, more brittle and midlife than we’ve ever seen her, which easily makes Jane the most screwball of her trademark neurotics.

Erin Darcy as Saunders is possibly the most vivid period trimming in this whole confection, a servant who is more knowledgeable, widely traveled, and skilled than the mistress she serves, aware of her superiority and maybe a little bit haughty about it. Saunders’ sophistication lays bare the delusion that the Sterrolls or the Banburys are living lives of consequence. Perhaps it’s Darcy’s aplomb at the piano that gives Barnette her best episode of humiliation.

In this context, Emmanuel Barbe is a perfect choice as Maurice. He is suave and self-assured, with a savoir-fair that is unmistakably French, yet he doesn’t quite have the polish and youth that would make knees buckle in high society. Barbe’s down-market elegance is still more than enough to make David Hensley as Fred and Michael Anderson as Willy seem gullible, dimwitted, and humdrum. Hensley as Fred seems to be the sort who feels like he’s fulfilling his destiny by opening a newspaper at the breakfast table, while Anderson, once he reconciles with Fred and Jane, gives Willy exactly the smiling insouciance that Wright wants for his ending.

I have to go back to 2005 and The Tempest to find the last Actor’s Gym production I reviewed. It’s great to have Wright and his Gym back on the scene, especially when the Gym unearths a gem like this.

 

ShakesCar Puts Women Behind “The Iron Mask”

Review:  The Man in the Iron Mask

By:  Perry Tannenbaum

Hand it to Shakespeare Carolina and Amy Schiede. Producing their own adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s The Man in the Iron Mask outdoors at the Winthrop University Amphitheatre, they haven’t stinted on the swordplay or the fighting. Even though two of the major swashbuckling roles – identical twins who take turns ruling France as Louis XIV – have been handed over to women (including Schiede herself), the hostile action sustains a high standard.

Better yet, in choosing the final installment of the epic Three Musketeers saga, they’ve also maximized the drama and the suspense. Some of our heroes didn’t survive when Dumas closed the book on Aramis, Porthos, Athos, and D’Artagnan. Like the film and TV series before it, Schiede’s adaptation takes a free-range approach in incorporating plot points, assigning actions to various characters, and determining their fates. Perhaps the most suspenseful element is Schiede’s choice of which identical twin, Louis or Phillipe, ultimately sits on the throne.

The 1937 Hollywood version had it differently than the novel, serialized between 1847 and 1850.

There’s no hurry in unveiling Aramis’s plot to unseat King Louis as he brings Athos to a tailor to be measured for evening attire worthy of a reception that superintendent of finances Fouquet is hosting at his home for the conceited monarch. Aramis will need both Athos and Porthos to help free Phillipe from the Bastille, where he has been imprisoned since birth, unaware of his own royal origins. But we won’t learn the motives for Aramis’s machinations until much later. Needless to say, only lofty ambitions would justify such risk.

Fellow musketeers, Athos and Porthos don’t question Aramis closely at the outset, After all, didn’t they originate the famous gung-ho “All for one, and one for all!” slogan? But Aramis is sly enough not to divulge his scheme to D’Artagnan, who is fiercely loyal to the king despite reservations about Louis’s character. So with finance minister Colbert intriguing against Fouquet, D’Artagnan protecting Louis, and Phillipe totally ignorant about all that reigning as the king of France entails, there is plenty of suspense surrounding the success of the three musketeers’ plot.

Obviously, the perils won’t be over if Phillipe is secreted onto the throne.

With straight-arrow D’Artagnan on the royalist side of the conflict, you might experience some ambivalence about whom to root for as the moon rises over this production. David Hensley is rather starchy and subdued as D’Artagnan at the outset, making it easier for us to lean toward Aramis and Philippe, but Hensley does perk up when his king imperils his pals.

Tom Ollis makes sure that we see Aramis as more rascally and duplicitous than noble, but Schiede epitomizes naïveté and nonchalant regality as Philippe. She is surely the more righteous and beneficent claimant to the throne, especially since Katie Bearden revels in Louis’s arrogance, even when the monarch is cast into the Bastille and encased in the iron mask.

Charles Holmes directs at a near-galloping pace, which accounted for some bobbled lines on opening night and some audibility dropouts, particularly from a couple of the women. Nobody will find Holmes’s set designs particularly lavish when Louis holds court, nor do we descend into dim dreariness when we shift to the Bastille. Yet I liked the overall concept, placing the kings’ dungeon up a flight of stairs and above the action rather than below or in a dingy corner. Homage is paid to the idea that royals are imprisoned in towers awaiting their fates – and angelic Phillipe’s early monologue about being content with the daily sight of the skies plays better there.

Holmes also lurks onstage as Athos, sufficiently lighthearted to be carried along in the perilous drift of the musketeers’ plot, yet tender enough to be broken by the death of his son. David Hayes is even more rightfully cast as Porthos, the Ajax among the musketeers. Unfortunately, the prop fashioned for him at a climactic moment – the barrel of dynamite that he hurls into a tunnel – doesn’t sufficiently emphasize his preternatural strength.

A richer script from Schiede would have given Chris O’Neill more to work with in evoking Fouquet’s corrupt tendencies, but that opens the door for Gina Belmont to come off all the more wicked as his rival, Colbert. More detail might have helped us determine whether Anne, the queen mother, was duped by Colbert or strategically taking his side. Amy Hillard is so icily imperious as Anne that she’s also mysterious. Watch her faint when she sees the two twins standing in front of her for the first time. You’ll never know whether she’s shocked to learn she has two sons – or shocked to find that her evil plot against one of them has failed.

Midsummer Night’s Catastrophe

Theatre review: Miss Julie

By Perry Tannenbaum

There is danger beneath the summer moon in August Strindberg’s Miss Julie as a spoiled, wanton, and impulsive heiress toys with daddy’s dutiful and ambitious valet. But there are ambiguities about Miss Julie – a fairly wide latitude in how she can be portrayed – and the echoes of Strindberg’s 1889 script reverberate into Oscar Wilde’s Salome and a bunch of Tennessee Williams dramas, further complicating our response.

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Shakespeare Carolina is giving us the opportunity to view Strindberg’s classic up close in a new production at the fine Johnson Hall black box on the Winthrop University campus. Up close, we can easily see that director S. Wilson Lee has skewed his casting a little younger than the 25 prescribed by the playwright for his title character and the 30 advised for Jean, her valet. Caitlin Byrne seems a little more innocent as Julie than Strindberg perhaps intends, a little less stung and desperate because her recent fiancée has broken it off.

Still we can see her kinship with Salome in her awareness of her allure, her earthy wantonness, her expertise at manipulation, and her seething desire to command the men who desire her – leading to Julie’s contempt for all of them. She’s just not as evil and cruel as Wilde’s wicked temptress. Nor does she completely enjoy the upper hand with Jean.

When he’s a few years older, David Hensley will be able to mix more of Jean’s worldliness in with his youthful confidence and ambition. Right now, when the master’s bell startles him, Hensley’s reaction looks inbred where his reflexive response should be at odds with his better judgment. But there’s enough self-assurance in this Jean for us to see that Strindberg considers him to be the Darwinian winner in his on-again-off-again romance with Julie.

If Hensley were a little more commanding, we’d see the parallels between Jean-Julie and Stanley Kowalski-Blanche DuBois more readily, but you’ll likely leave Johnson Hall perceiving the template. You really can’t miss the affinity between Julie and so many toxic women in heat that have proliferated since the days of Strindberg and Wilde.

She comes into the servants’ quarters from a Swedish Midsummer Eve celebration, exhilarated and maybe tipsy. We’ve already heard about the break-up of her engagement, her bold improprieties during the Midsummer revels, and it isn’t long after she arrives that Julie expresses her admiration for Jean’s dance moves. Kristin, the cook who believes Jean’s future domestic bliss will be with her, quickly senses the threat of Julie’s impulsiveness and caprice.

Gayle Taggart has Kristin beautifully measured. She’s prim and proper in her apron, equally alarmed by Jean’s gropings above his station and Julie’s dips below hers. Strindberg actually sets her age five years above Jean’s, in a region where marriage and family have become more urgent for Kristin than for Julie. With Taggart, that biological urgency pretty much disappears, subordinated to her fear of losing Jean. You could imagine her as older than Hensley, but I doubt it. What comes to the fore with Taggart is that Kristin is more of a woman than Julie, an element that spices up the drama.

With her conventional attitudes and pieties, you don’t think Kristin is going to matter, but in the denouement, she does.

As Shakespeare Once Said: “Wanna Make Something of It?”

Theater review: [They Fight]

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Scrappy company that they are, Shakespeare Carolina didn’t simply throw in the towel when rights to stage Albert Camus’s Caligula were yanked away. No, as you can see at Duke Energy Theater, they decided to put up a fight – actually, eight of them from a cross-section of the Shakespeare’s work, plays that we’ve seen often in Charlotte as well as a couple we haven’t. [They Fight] is thus a pupu power platter of fight scenes from Hamlet, King Lear, As You Like It, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, plus a double serving of Romeo and Juliet.

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Conceiving, adapting, and fight choreographing the show, Charles Holmes has a good grasp of the guilty pleasure aspect of what ShakesCar is presenting. We get very little in Holmes’s set-up about what made Coriolanus ripe for his tragic fall and even less about his toxic mom, Volumnia. Nah, we’re going to “skip all that and go to the last three pages.” So Coriolanus fights Aufidius – not exactly as it happens in the text – but we’re spared the details of why they’re fighting. We do get the idea that Aufidius regards our hero as a traitor, and the outcome of his hubris is the same.

Other irreverent quips are sprinkled among the concise introductions. Once the characters strut onto the stage, Holmes’ alterations of the script only became annoying in a more familiar scene, where Edmund’s belated penitence in Lear after he is mortally wounded no longer occurs. Amid the hurly-burly of that brotherly brawl between Edmund and Edgar, which of the women is Goneril and which is Regan only gets clarified when one poisons the other – if you’re already familiar with the script.

But with less than two weeks to hone this fight anthology into performance trim, the cast does well, auguring well for ShakesCar’s upcoming productions of The Taming of the Shrew and August Strindberg’s Miss Julie later this summer. From a fighting standpoint, another fight choreographer or two would help to prevent us from thinking we’re seeing the same thrusts, slashes, and parries over and over. But Holmes and stage director Chris O‘Neill are cagey enough to insert fights, one in each half of the show, that leap outside the swashbuckling envelope.

The first of these is the bout between Orlando and Charles the Wrestler from the opening act of As You Like It, with the imposing David Hayes portraying Charles with full WWWF-style villainy, strutting invincibly and baiting the crowd as he seemingly destroys the hapless Zade Patterson as our hero – to the horror of Amy Hilliard as Rosalind and Mandy Kendall as Celia. Patterson returned in a far more comical turn after intermission as Cloten, the spoiled son of the evil conniving queen in Cymbeline – with as much aptitude for mortal combat as Tim Conway.

David Hensley as Guiderius butchers this arrogant pipsqueak, with Kevin Sario as Guiderius’ brother and Manu Barbe as their “father”/kidnapper looking on. Before tasting Guiderius’ sword, Cloten is also on the receiving end of some badinage about his clothing, so Kendall, doubling as costumer, rightfully drapes Hensley in a dopey, gleaming outfit that underscores Cloten’s foppery. Looks good on Hensley, though, after he emerges victorious.

Sad to say, Kendall and O’Neill had just been asleep at the wheel in the Lear showdown, where that bastard Edmund is not supposed to recognize his legitimate brother Edgar until after he is defeated. Yeah, that Lear scene could stand some rethinking.
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With the second half of [They Fight] rounded out by the classic fencing bout from Hamlet and the famed “Lay on, Macduff!” clash from Macbeth, the show attains heights that the early action can’t match. Pitted against Hamlet as Laertes, Ted Patterson does get his chance to make his confession on the brink of death, while Kevin Aoussou adds the most satisfying portion to the carnage as the justly traduced King Claudius. Holmes makes his most impressive combat appearance as the deluded Macbeth, while the strapping Hayes is more of a Galahad than an underdog as the implacable Macduff.Now the fights from Romeo and Juliet, both presented before intermission, are lively enough – and the second one, Tybalt versus Mercutio, is certainly climactic. But Romeo certainly earns Mercutio’s “both your houses” imprecation with his unfortunate intervention, not a flattering farewell to this great Shakespearean hero. So Holmes and O’Neill have judged rightly in placing these populous scuffles before the break, with Katie Bearden as Tybalt, Robert Brafford as Mercutio, and Andrew White as the peace-loving Romeo.

But why have an intermission at all when your running time totals less than 70 minutes? Three more fights, one less intermission, and two more weeks of rehearsal to sharpen the tech and the combat would make [They Fight] very worthy of a second round. It would be fun – more fun – to see what this show would look like if it were brought back in less haste. While Holmes’ choreography ably simulates the fight scenes of Hollywood action flicks, it would add a little if Holmes and his combatants owned up to the fakery and absurdity of it all. Just once in a while.

Oh yeah, and it would also be nice to see Caligula at the Duke someday. That is, if the sonuvabitch holding onto the rights so tightly would let the show go on.