Tag Archives: Evan Kinsley

Trailer Trash Goes to College

Review: The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

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To say that Betsy Kelso and David Nehls’ Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical is a sequel – or a prequel – would be an outrageously pretentious way of looking at this crass Yuletide concoction. Pure dirty fun, they would likely proclaim, citing as proof their most memorable song, “Fuck It, It’s Christmas.” Whether they’re targeting their own musicals or their trashy Armadillo Acres avatar for American trailer parks, the Kelso-Nehl is clearly tossing the “Great” label around with Madison Avenue nonchalance. Face it, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, its Christmas mutant, and Armadillo Acres are not so great.

Yet they have definitely struck a chord with the mischief makers at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte and their loyal audience. We first toured Armadillo Acres in 2007, seven years before Kelso and Nehls uploaded Christmas onto their fictional Northern Florida property. That first production, so much in tune with ATC’s freewheeling Off-Broadway irreverence, was popular enough for a 2010 revival – and to order up the fresh inventory one Yule after the Christmas edition was first unveiled in late 2013. I suspect that ATC’s loss of their stranglehold on local productions of The Santaland Diaries also factored in.

The move has proven to be shrewd in terms of box office and retaining exclusivity. Though the road for the company has been bumpy after they departed from their Stonewall Street location, with a regrettable stop at the McBride-Bonnefoux Dance Center in 2016 – and a two-year hiatus since that Uptown gaffe – Trailer Park Christmas has remained ATC’s baby.GATPCM 9

After remaking their production to fit their current HQ at Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus, the company seems poised to keep it that way.

Evan Kinsley’s scenic design is yet another eye-popping assertion that ATC has only begun exploring the Hadley’s full capabilities, once again capitalizing on the height and flexibility of the hall. God bless LED’s for keeping electrical costs down in Kinsley’s tacky-topia of beer-can wreaths and plastic lawn flamingoes. Kinsley also gets credit for the technical derring-do of the tall Christmas tree that straddles the borderline between the properties of Rufus Jeter and Armadillo’s resident Scrooge, Darlene Seward. Trailer park manager Betty makes repeated assertions that a Yuletide curse hangs over Armadillo Acres, and a late Vesuvius outbreak from the tree spectacularly confirms that dubious intuition.

Now it’s true that Darlene’s salacious boyfriend, restauranteur Jackson Boudreaux, undercuts all pretenses that Betty can be a trailer park manager – or that Rufus and Darlene can claim any property – by declaring that they are all squatters on land that they do not own. Such details, in the Kelso-Niehls worldview, are no doubt only for i-dotting Scrooges or Cratchits.

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By the time Jackson slithers onto the scene, Darlene has become an amnesia victim in the heat of her property dispute with Rufus. Suddenly electroshocked into loving Christmas, Darlene is now open to overtures from both men. Once this soapy love triangle is established, you might conclude that Betty has little to do. Well, she can fret over the possibility that Darlene’s amnesia might wear off – along with her holiday spirit – before Armadillo can win the annual Christmas decorations prize awarded by Mobile Homes & Gardens.

Otherwise, she and Pickles and Linoleum, all holdovers from The Great American Trailer Park Musical, are relegated to slinging flapjacks at Jackson’s lewd pancake house, singing backup vocals, and making flamboyant cameos in Darlene’s dream fantasia, an unmistakable takeoff on Scrooge and his Christmas ghosts. Carrie Cranford’s props and costumes help to sugar this Christmas Carol lagniappe – and don’t presume that the guys are left out of the fun. Or the live band.

Director/sound designer Chip Decker lavishes all the déclassé vulgarity you would expect from such a seedy romp, with a few extra crotch grabs and phallic sight gags tossed in for good measure. If the sound were only sharper, all the raunchy shtick might make up for the fact that this new Hadley Theater extravaganza lacks the seedy look and vibe of the Stonewall Street version.

Pirating cable TV, tossing tinsel on a tree, longing for the miraculously changed Darlene, and sulking off to his crappy trailer, Rufus seems to fit Nick Culp like a glove – or an old beat-up pair of sweatpants. If your last glimpse of Ashton Guthrie was as a romantic lead in Show Boat or A Gentleman’s Guide, his sleaziness here as Jackson might be revelatory. I must confess that I barely recognized him in his lounge-lizard wig, but when he had the chance to vocalize on “Baby, I’ll Be Your Santa Claus,” Guthrie delivered the goods to his “breastaurant” waitresses with #MeToo gusto.

I’m more ambivalent than I expected to be about Katy Shepherd, so strong and hard-rockin’ in the title role of Lizzie last year and so strong and hard-rockin’ now as Darlene. Shepherd just may be overthinking Darlene, for she could be artificially sweeter as the amnesiac Darlene and more comical as the park Scrooge. Yes, there’s an empathetic backstory behind Darlene’s surly Scroogyness, but do we really want realism here?

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After Renee Welsh-Noel’s semi-divine outing as Peter Pan just two months ago at Children’s Theatre, it was distressing to see her so underutilized, badly miked, and seemingly dispirited as Linoleum here. Lizzie Medlin was more in touch with the true trashiness of Pickles, but not better served by her electronics. Most at home at Armadillo Acres was Karen Christensen, transferring to Betty after a stint as Lin in previous years. Although both Welsh-Noel and Medlin have striking and skilled entrances in the Dickensian dream sequence, Christensen gets the best of them all.

 

Inside a She-Wolfpack

Review: The Wolves by Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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A couple of new productions drew my attention over the weekend, both sporting a cast of at least eight players. Yet at the two dramas, the new Countess Dracula from The Actor’s Gym and the local premiere of The Wolves by Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, there wasn’t a single male performer among the 18 that I saw. Even more surprising, it was the older, more established company that was fielding more new faces.

There aren’t any particularly sharp canine teeth on display in The Wolves, for the title pack is a women’s soccer team, but director Sarah Provencal and her design team are making a point of fielding this high-school-aged club. ATC has turned Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus into a soccer practice field, a somewhat jarring experience after you park your car, since there’s a real practice field adjacent to the lot and the school building that houses the Hadley.

In Evan Kinsley’s set design, the field and a scoreboard bisect the theater, and ticketholders can choose to sit on either side for a nicely simulated grandstand – and soccer mom – experience. The playing space was so large that ATC executive director barely made himself heard in his inimitable pre-show welcome, feeding my concern that the newcomers we were about to see would fare even worse.

Sarah DeLappe’s script and Provencal’s direction weren’t designed to allay such fears. Other than winning their next games and making it to the national tournament, the nine Wolves aren’t consumed by a single storyline as they gather for practices, and there can be multiple conversations vying for our attention at the same time, all equally tangential. Reminding me a bit of Annie Baker’s The Flick in its verité style, DeLappe develops her characters casually and obliquely as her teens’ conversations leap unexpectedly from immigration policy to Harry Potter to soccer strategy to coach’s hangover to the Khmer Rouge – and of course, juicy gossip about absent teammates.

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Compounding our difficulties – and her actors’ – Provencal conspires with soccer trainer Kirsten Allen to keep the Wolves engaged in an ongoing cavalcade of stretching exercises and soccer drills while all these scattershot conversations are popping at us from all points of the field. There’s plenty for us to see as we sift through the trivialities for telling info, and there’s plenty for the never-further-identified #25, #13, #46, #2, #7, #14, #8, and #00 (the goalie) to do, prompted by #11, the movement captain.

Along the way, we learn that we are somewhere in Middle America, that the mysterious newcomer lives in a yurt, and that another’s dad works with immigrants. There are little markers that attach to most of the others: #00 darts off the field repeatedly to vomit, the slender #2 may be anorexic, #14 is Armenian, and the movement captain, while aching to attract the notice of a college scout, takes on the responsibility of making her teammates winners. She’ll take the silliest of them aside, #8, and chastise her for making hurtful remarks to another player.

As with The Flick, another darling of Pulitzer Prize committees in recent years, you’re likely to conclude that, behind the outward aimlessness of The Wolves, an inner aimlessness lurks as well. At times, I felt like The Wolves might be a first draft of a script that could become a TV pilot for a series that HBO or Lifetime would reject as too nebulous or punchless. There are definitely players here who pique our curiosity and promise to reward deeper exploration.

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This ATC production reaches that limbo level because Provencal’s cast is so credible – both in inhabiting their roles and their soccer uniforms. I was most impressed by El Osborn as #7, the iconoclastic striker who is unexpectedly replaced by the socially awkward newcomer, Maevis Pair as an equally impressive #46. Osborn does a fine job with the glints of vulnerability that creep into #7’s haughty front after #46’s exploits on the pitch, revealing her longing for belonging when her stardom is broken. Pair evolves from her initial trepidations – counseling would likely be helpful for #46 – but she remains respectful toward #7 and a long distance from arrogance.

Maybe the fullest character on the team is Harley Winzenreid as #11, whose world is totally upended when she is no longer the hot college prospect but still the team leader. To be sure, DeLappe and Provencal provide Winzenreid with means to register the shifting landscape she copes with – and the cataclysms that befall the whole team collectively – but she’s interesting to watch as she effortlessly maintains leadership. Aside from the always disgruntled #7, who’s there to challenge her?

Not the two neurotic pups, Annarah Shephard as the nervous goalie, nor Hannah Kevitt as the inward and secretive #2, possibly anorexic. Entertaining as she may be as the ignorant and insensitive #8, Ahzjai Culbreth is well aware that she isn’t leader-of-the-pack material. What all of the teammates achieve, even as they expend so much athletic energy going through their pre-game paces, is a naturalness that I didn’t adequately appreciate until it was paused.

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That’s when the one adult in the cast, Jennifer Poarch as Soccer Mom, makes a dramatic entrance and delivers a fairly lengthy monologue. Compared to haphazardness that precedes her, Soccer Mom seems stagey, and I found myself accusing Poarch of acting. What comes across, aside from a distinct impression that Soccer Mom isn’t sure why she’s there, is that she exits without deepening her connection with her daughter or the other Wolves. After spending 90 minutes with them, I found that I had only barely begun.

Taking Down a Classic Thriller, Lateral Lisp and All

Review: Silence! The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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From God of Carnage to Hand to God to The Toxic Avenger and beyond, I’ve seen many of the original Broadway and Off-Broadway shows that Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has gone on to present in their Queen City premieres. What is singular about Silence! The Musical, perhaps unprecedented, is the fact that the original New York production at PS122 was unquestionably smaller, shabbier and more low-budget than the one currently playing at Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus.

This Charlotte debut is seven years more distant from Silence of the Lambs, the Academy Award winning thriller that Hunter Bell and his musical cronies, Jon and Al Kaplan, targeted with their satiric mischief and malice. Back in 2012, I was already bemoaning my failure to refresh my memories of the 1991 film with a full viewing before I went to see this nasty sendup.

Oops! I neglected my own warning last week, allowing my aging VHS tape to gather seven more years of dust before heading out to see what director Chip Decker and his cast would do in their assaults on Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. I must confess that my perspective was more than a little skewed, for by August 2019, I found myself remembering the Bell/Kaplans musical at least as well as the Jonathan Demme film.

What I remember most about the PS122 show, besides its fundamental crassness and cheapness, was its dimly-lit, wicked cult ritual ambiance. Reasonably enough, Decker and his design team are going for something different: a musical! Evan Kinsley’s set design spans the Hadley stage and so does Emily Hunter’s choreography, with a gamboling chorus of Lambs in a matched set of wooly white ears by Carrie Cranford.

Where Actor’s Theatre, Off-Broadway, and Demme intersect best are in the takeoffs on Foster and Hopkins. Leslie Giles has a veritable feasht exaggerating FBI trainee Clarice Starling’s lateral lishp, surely enough to convulse audiences seeing this Foster takedown for the first time, but not as mean and relentless as the mockery Jenn Harris dished out in New York. What will further delight Charlotte audiences, however, is the sweet bless-her-heart drawl that Giles lavishes on Clarice’s entreaties and interrogations – and her expletive explosion when her sexist boss slights her is a comedy shocker.

There was plenty of seediness in the original Lambs for the Kaplans and Bell to build on. Clarice’s confrontation with Hannibal the Cannibal results from her boss’s unsavory idea of sending Starling down into the bowels of a criminal madhouse to pick Lecter’s brain – hoping that the psychiatric insights of one serial killer can help the FBI catch another. Maybe some kind of natural attraction will coax Dr. Lecter into opening up. Clarice’s descent into the Baltimore loony bin confirms that a rare visit from a woman will indeed rouse the snakes in the pit as the trainee walks the gauntlet of cells leading to Lecter.

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A couple of the arousals fuel the most memorable moments of ejaculation and rapture. After the best spurt of physical comedy, we reach the innermost sanctum where the Cannibal is caged, and the shoddy cheapness of his protective enclosure becomes one of the show’s numerous running gags. At the climax of the first Lecter-Starling tête-a-tête, Rob Addison gets to deliver Hannibal’s deathless love ballad, “If I Could Smell Her Cunt.”

Addison’s rhapsody mushrooms into a ballet fantasia centering around Ashton Guthrie and Lizzie Medlin’s pas-de-deux as Dream Lecter and Dream Clarice. While Hunter’s choreography is more than sufficiently purple and passionate, we fall short on crotch crudity from Giles, and Cranford’s costuming muffs the opportunity for the Lambs to deliver a labial flowering. Yet it’s here that Addison is surpassingly effective, for his creepy drone as Lecter not only replicates the familiar Hopkins bouquet, but his singing voice is robust and raspy. We stay firmly in an Off-Broadway joint during Addison’s rhapsodizing instead of detouring, as PS122 did, into Broadway spectacular.

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Other than the equine Mr. Ed, I couldn’t fathom what Jeremy DeCarlos was going for in his portrayal of the at-large crossdressing serial killer Jame Gumb, alias Buffalo Bill. To make things worse, production values reach their zenith when DeCarlos sings his showstopper, “Put the Fucking Lotion in the Basket,” to his latest captive, Senator Martin’s suitably plump (“Are You About a Size 14”) daughter Catherine. If Kinsley hadn’t troubled to elevate his sadistic serial killer to such a commanding height on his impressive set, flimsier security arrangements similar to the Cannibal’s would have played funnier.

Rest assured that verisimilitude isn’t a top priority elsewhere in Decker’s scheme. Kacy Connon excels as both Senator Martin and her daughter Catherine while Ryan Dunn shapeshifts from Clarice’s dad to agent-in-charge Jack Crawford, all without discarding their Lambketeer ears. Dunn’s eyeglasses shtick worked every time with the opening night crowd, and in welcoming Clarice to the institutional home of Hannibal, Nick Culp sleazily Clarice set the tone for the unfettered lechery to come.

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Clarice lucks out when Crawford cruelly reassigns her, but she shows up unawares and unprepared at Buffalo Bill’s lair. That disadvantage results in the last of the three scenes we remember best from the screen thriller, the duel to the death on Bill’s home turf in pitch darkness, Clarice armed with her automatic pistol and the psychopath wearing night vision glasses. Peppered with song (“In the Dark With a Maniac”), this parody comes off as winningly as the great prison sequence where we first encountered Lecter – and better than the previous climax when the Cannibal escapes.

Hallie Gray’s lighting design is a valuable asset when tensions intensify, and Kinsley’s tall scenery isn’t a total waste. At times, it adds to the absurdity of the Lamb chorus, but it pays off most handsomely at the end in Hannibal’s demonic farewell, adding a dimension that even Hollywood couldn’t boast.

 

nuVOICES NEW PLAY FESTIVAL Bucks the Patriarchy

Review: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte staged their nuVOICES NEW PLAY FESTIVAL

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

BWW Review: nuVOICES NEW PLAY FESTIVAL Bucks the Patriarchy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s been over three years since Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte actually staged their previous nuVOICES NEW PLAY FESTIVAL, but it may not seem like that long to fans of the company and fans of the festival. For one thing ATC commits to presenting the winner of the festival – as selected by audiences and/or a panel of judges who attend staged readings of the plays – in a full-length production the following season. ATC was unusually generous toward the four playwrights whose plays were read in 2016, for two of their works were presented two years later at Queens University in 2018, Meridith Friedman’s The Luckiest People in January and David Valdes Greenwood’s The Mermaid Hour last May.

Although nuVOICES languished for the next two seasons, ATC remained productive, managing to stage four shows during the 2016-17 season while landlords, landowners, and city inspectors screwed over them. Queens University opened their arms to the wanderers in the spring of 2017 as they searched for a new home, and by the start of 2017-18, the 30-year-old ATC became the university’s resident theatre company. Stability! For ATC’s fans, seeing the resumption of nuVOICES has taken a backseat to the satisfaction of their survival.

Well, in one respect, nuVOICES was not only back but better than ever, for the fifth edition of the festival won a sizable grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The influx of NEA support seemed to raise the technical polish of the staged readings somewhat, for the handiwork of sound designer Kathryn Harding and lighting designer Evan Kinsley occasionally came into play.

Although seven of the 13 festival script readers were men, all four of the chosen scripts at nuVOICES 5 were by women. Yet there was plentiful ethnic diversity among the characters the playwrights presented onstage – and among the playwrights themselves.

First up was Nora Leahy’s Girl with Gun, a one-woman show starring Caroline Renfro as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. We caught up with Squeaky on Christmas Eve 1987 shortly after her escape from a prison in West Virginia. When apprehended, she had been on her way to rendezvous with Charles Manson, imprisoned (and seriously ailing) across the country in the California State Pen. Now as she speaks, occasionally to an unseen guard but usually to nobody in particular, she’s being detained at a ranger station, awaiting transport to Fort Worth.

We learned a few things about Squeaky that I hadn’t known, including her appearance as a kid on the Lawrence Welk Show, how she got her weird nickname, and that her bad behavior in prison also included bludgeoning a fellow inmate with a hammer. In the talkback after the show, conducted as a video call with a big-screen monitor, the playwright revealed that her play had been commissioned as a historical portrait and that she is thinking about adding 20 minutes to its current 55-minute length.

In their staged reading of Themba by Amy da Luz with Kamilah Bush, nuVoices broke with precedent by not having any talkback at all. Both the playwright and dramaturg were in town, making themselves available for a pre-show interchange with festival director Martin Kettling. A bad idea for numerous reasons. People who hadn’t already seen Girl with Gun at 6pm would not have gotten word that the customary playwright powwow was happening before the 9pm performance of Themba and not after. This likely deprived them of actually seeing the pre-show before Themba and definitely robbed them of their chance to have their questions answered afterwards. Or simply voicing their reactions.

Of course, the Bush-da Luz team also missed out on getting feedback from this Thursday night performance, though they would get a second opportunity at the twilight performance on Saturday. Really, the process should be uniform for everyone involved – audience, performers, and playwrights. If you’ve written a play that gets a nuVOICES reading, you should be able to commit to appearing in person at talkbacks.

Da Luz changed the title of her play after ATC announced their final four, so her team clearly viewed their time in Charlotte as part of a developmental process. Like Leahy’s study, Themba was a docudrama, oozing with personal stories and intensive research. At the unseen vortex of the story was Lola, a young African girl who is the beneficiary – and/or victim – of a missionary adoption in war-torn Uganda, which may not have been legal. That question comes up in a roundabout way after the adoptive father has died and his two sisters, evangelical Mary and theatre director Sarah, wrangle over who should get custody.

Ah, but the story doesn’t remain centered solely on the white adoptive family. To fortify her claim, Sarah brings her partner Fran, a Black playwright, into the fray. Fran sees that she’s being used, wonders how the father was approved, and begins to probe into the process, asking the Black adoption official Jelani some pointed questions. The probe widens, becomes a formal government investigation, and the four young women who have been lurking in the wings – until now detached from the main action but intermittently interrupting it to tell their stories – suddenly become factors in the main plot.

The four are certainly not a homogeneous group. Recognizing that they were likely rescued from poverty, slaughter, or disease, they are not universally comfortable with Christianity or the USA. Some of them are as antagonistic towards Jelani as Fran was – and the young women vented considerable animus toward each other. We had a lot to think about after Themba. In the nine-person cast directed by Heidi Breeden, Stephanie Gardner as Sarah, Lisa Hatt as Mary, Valerie Thames as Fran, and Angela Shannon as Jelani drew the juiciest roles. Nonye Obichere as an adoptee and Dennis Delamar as the sibs’ preacher dad delivered the tastiest cameos.

Friday night’s schedule went off without any further rule-breaking, beginning with Mingus, a two-hander by Tyler English-Beckwith. The basic structure reminded me fairly quickly of David Mamet’s Oleanna, with newcomer Amberlin McCormick portraying B Coleman, a college student who comes to the office of Harrison Jones, a distinguished professor of black studies portrayed by Ron McClelland. B hopes to get a letter of recommendation from Harrison and an assessment of an essay she’s planning to submit for a prestigious award.

Harrison’s acceptance is conditional. He’ll write the letter if, with his help, she sufficiently improves her essay. Thanks to Rory Sheriff’s crafty direction, we had to go very deep into this play trying to figure out who was exploiting whom, maybe misreading signals about who’s in love with whom and how that will ultimately affect their relationship. In Mingus, Harrison’s past is referenced in the title, for he aspired to play the bass like his jazz idol, Charlie Mingus, before joining the Black Panthers and being forced to alter his dreams. It may also serve as a marker for the spot where he allows his professional relationship to become personal. As in Oleanna, the student takes formal action against her mentor, but for most of us, I suspect the reason was a surprise. Final score: #MeToo 1, Patriarchy 0.

Last up was the most bizarre and comical of the nuVOICES 5 plays, Diana Burbano’s Ghosts of Bogota. Reunion plays are certainly not a rarity, and the friction between the two sisters, Lola and Sandy, was very much in the cosmopolitan-vs.-judgmental vein we had seen the night before from Sarah and Mary – with a generous sprinkling of Latinx spice. Only here the reunion is transcontinental, the Spanish-speaking sisters returning to their parents’ hometown in Colombia with their younger nightlife-loving, sleep-averse brother, who knows very little Spanish at all.

Ancient history bubbles up in Bogota as they prepare for the funeral of their grandfather. The old man, Lucho, was not beloved by any of the siblings, and he repeatedly abused Sandy. She needs to see the predator buried physically and spiritually, facing off with his ghost. Meanwhile Lola is upset because she feels she should have known what was going on and should have protected her younger sister. The ghost she needs to exorcise is her grandmother Teresa, the knowing enabler. Lucho may not be a nuanced pervert, mostly snarling when he appears, but Teresa, a product of her upbringing, is a different story.

Aside from the petty squabbles between drama queen Lola and prissy resentful Sandy, what tips this drama toward comedy is the living-the-dream insouciance of Bruno, who registers such hardships as Internet deprivation, and the scene-stealing exploits of a very lifelike head in a jar. Nothing can go terribly wrong with Creepy Jesus on the case. Kudos to Adyana De La Torre-Brucker as Lola, Glynnis O’Donoghue as Sandy, and newcomers Neifert Enrique as Bruno and Grant Cunningham as Jesus. Director Adrian Calabrese also made an auspicious debut.

nuVOICES 5 was presented at Queens University as a pay-what-you-can event, and by Friday Evening, Hadley Theatre was teeming with festival enthusiasts. An outdoor Midsummer Night’s Dream will run on the campus quad beginning on August 12, and ATC’s 31st season will begin with Silence! The Musical on August 15. The talent onstage at Hadley last week and the technical artistry behind the readings served as compelling inducements to check out those upcoming productions.

A Séance With 200% Certainty

Review: The Great Beyond

By:  Perry Tannenbaum

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When you walk into Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus for the world premiere of Steven Dietz’s The Great Beyond, you’ll be treated to a rare “don’t-think-about-elephants” experience. Even if you haven’t read the prepublicity around town, seen the spots on local TV and the web, or thoroughly perused your playbill, your emissary from Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, artistic director Chip Decker, will call your attention to the elephant in the hall. While Dietz’s spooky new drama can stand on its own, it was written with an interconnected companion piece, The Ghost of Splinter Cove, that is now premiering at ImaginOn in a taut 53-minute Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

So once you’ve heard that, can you really be satisfied seeing The Great Beyond without going to see Dietz’s companion piece? Probably not.

If you’ve somehow failed to pay attention to the prepublicity, the playbill, and the curtain speech, all of them telling you that the action of Splinter Cove is happening downstairs in the basement of the same house at the same time in the same family as the action we’re seeing upstairs, the parents upstairs will remind you frequently enough of the strange adventure their kids are having below.

More than that, thanks to Evan Kinsley’s scenic design, which offers us a smidge of the home’s exterior, we get glimpses of the basement action through translucent windows that peep above ground. So it isn’t just a matter of Rex, the dad, opening the door to the basement and checking up on how his kids are doing – with prerecorded replies. No, no, no. Beginning with camping gear that he bought for his son Nate’s birthday, Rex has sent them on a wilderness adventure, with a smartphone app hooked up to the home’s electronics simulating the sounds, the natural lights, and the weather of the great outdoors.

At unexpected moments, then, the handiwork of lighting designer Hallie Gray and sound designer Rob Witmer captures our attention – and whets the curiosity of the three women who have gathered with Rex for an adventure of their own. The historic collaboration between two theatre companies is called “The Second Story Project,” but it’s at Queens U that we see why.

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Dietz has said that The Great Beyond is a reunion play, and it certainly follows a template we’ve seen before, bringing far-flung and estranged kinfolk together, comically or dramatically uncomfortable with each other, after a death in the family. Here Rex has brought his two kids to the home of his former father-in-law, where his distraught ex, Monica, served as caretaker during Tobias’ last difficult days. Relations between Rex and Monica seem cordial enough, though she isn’t a big fan of his elaborate camping scheme for their children – since it brings unpleasant family history to mind.

It’s also obvious that Rex retains a genuine affection for Tobias, whom he calls The Captain like everybody else in the family. The real family strife will rev up when Monica’s wayward younger sister Emily arrives. Or actually, it begins before, because the rigid and judgmental Monica has labelled Emily as a chronic latecomer – on the basis of one past incident – so hostilities can begin as soon as Emily arrives. On time, of course.

Not that Emily is flawless. A recovering alcoholic who now limits herself to one full glass of wine at the same time every day, Emily has made Dad’s home the last stop on an epic apology tour, launched five years ago when she achieved sobriety, spanning 23 states and two foreign countries. A straight arrow and a black sheep, the bread-and-butter combatants of countless theatre clashes are poised to have it out! But unlike Sordid Lives or Appropriate, two of the funeral-triggered plays we’ve seen before in Charlotte, the dead Tobias will also be invited to the reunion.

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You see, Emily is bringing her bisexual partner Rene to this sad reunion, hoping to summon up the spirit of Tobias at a séance later in the evening. It’s Tobias, not Monica, that Emily has really earmarked for receiving her last apology, and she thinks that Rene, a spiritual medium, can make contact and make it happen.

As if the friction between Monica and Emily weren’t torrid enough already! Now they need the scornful, skeptical, and sarcastic Monica to complete the circle around the séance table. Outnumbered three to one in this tussle – and somewhat pre-empted by Dietz’s two play titles – you can guess how Monica’s opposition to the séance turns out. As for whether Tobias shows up, I can safely defer to Dietz himself, who was present at the post-performance powwow on opening night. He told us that one of chief pleasures he found in telling this story came in conveying his 100% positive conviction that the supernatural visitations at séances are absolutely bogus and his 100% certainty that those visitations are absolutely real.

Whatever you may think of the action around the table, you can’t deny that Dietz has made intensive efforts to sustain our ambivalence, giving us numerous reasons to believe that the house Tobias built with his own hands is in the grip of the supernatural – countered by an equal number of escape routes to disbelief. But to his credit, Dietz leaves us with a giddy sense of confusion rather than a rational set of alternatives as we attempt to arrive at the truth now – and the truth about the tragedy that has haunted the family for nearly 40 years – teasing us out of thought.

That giddy confusion will be compounded when you factor the climax of Splinter Cove into your calculations. If you go to Hadley with somebody – whether an adult or a child – you can expect that conversation on your way home will be peppered with lively clarifications and disputes.

Decker certainly holds up his end of Actor’s Theatre’s historic collaboration with Children’s Theatre. Rather than missing core elements of the script that I’d seen when I read it (a fundamental reason I customarily avoid reading scripts I’m scheduled to review unless I’m planning to interview a playwright before seeing the production), Decker and his superb cast managed to bring Dietz’s drama more intensely to life and reveal the power – and comedy – of a couple of moments that I’d overlooked. Didn’t hurt that Dietz was here in Charlotte, tweaking both of his scripts during the process.

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All of these roles are beautifully rounded, so it wasn’t surprising to see the keen relish that the players took in them. It would be hard to overpraise Tonya Bludsworth’s work as Monica, the meanie who has worked so devotedly and so selfishly to be The Captain’s favorite. Bludsworth brings out the humor and the sharpness of Monica’s mocking sarcasm, turns it off when she realizes she’s wrong, has moments of self-awareness, and is delightful in so many different ways during the séance she has so grudgingly agreed to. There’s a bit of swagger to her, for all of her starchiness.

Robin Tynes-Miller mixes Emily’s feelings of resentment and remorse to perfection and turns them up high. Her wrenching efforts toward reformation make Bludsworth’s cynicism and rejection all the meaner. Tynes also hones in on just how thin-skinned and childish Emily remains as the younger sib, allowing Bludsworth the delight of intentionally provoking her, elevating Monica’s wickedness at times to villainy. For all her weakness, it is Emily who powers the story forward when her determination is steeled, yet Tynes makes her lapses likable, so we’re still rooting for her when Rene and Rex must rally behind her cause.

Dietz has Rene doing a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to coaxing Monica to the table – and an even greater share of the calming and reassuring that Emily needs when her frustrations with her recalcitrant sister get the better of her. Tania Kelly does it all with a confident authority, belying Monica’s presumptions of what a medium should be. Not a dreamcatcher earring in sight, and no Whoopi Goldberg kookiness.

As patient and sure as she is at the séance table, unruffled by Monica’s taunts, Rene also takes it upon herself – without any desperate urgency – to rectify Monica’s obsolete assessment of Emily’s character. Rene is the mother of Sydney, the third child downstairs at play with Nate and Cora, and Kelly dials in the right amount of parental concern and trust in Rex. Most of all, when the doors and windows are unlocked, the candles lit, and the incantations begin, Kelly makes us believe that Rene is in earnest and something amazing could happen.

Rex is the glue that binds Dietz’s plays most firmly together, and Scott Tynes-Miller beautifully captures his strength, his self-deprecation, and his insouciance. For the most part, Rex’s role is as a peacemaker in the siblings’ brawls, the steadying force that Monica realizes she was foolish to discard. Miller not only gets the last of the play’s four monologues, addressed directly to us, he also demonstrates to closest bond to Tobias, briefly recalling how The Captain taught him to be a man. Turns out to be a surprisingly important plot point. There’s a nice through-line that Miller finds in Rex, for he has a firm and quiet purposefulness, and like Emily, arrives with a mission. That turns out to be yet another way that he binds Dietz’s magical plays together.

There’s much more to the story of The Great Beyond than I’ve disclosed here – with surprises stirred in that are calculated to startle and astound. Much of this story is expanded upon and illuminated in The Ghost of Splinter Cove. So your intuition to see the companion piece will not lead you astray.

Spirit of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever Peeps Through at Matthews Playhouse

Theater Review: Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

By Perry Tannenbaum

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A week after reviewing the world premiere of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical, commissioned by Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and staged at ImaginOn, I found it easy to imagine that the Barbara Robinson stage play it was based upon could be headed toward oblivion. Driving along I-485 toward opening night of the current Matthews Playhouse production of the non-musical, I had a poignant realization that this could be the last time I’d see the infamous Herdman siblings – “the worst kids in the whole history of the world” – without the new music by Jahnna Beecham and Malcolm Hillgartner that accompanies their superb adaptation.

Directed by June Bayless with a cast of over 40 children and adults, the Matthews production mightily reinforced my impression that the Beecham/Hillgartner musical boasts more vivid storytelling than the 1982 playscript, adapted by Robinson from her own 1971 young adult novel. Not always embracing the challenges – and rewards – of dramatization, Robinson often delivers her story to us second-hand through her narrator, Beth Bradley, a young girl who has a great vantage point for the unfolding events but doesn’t play a key role.

Instead of seeing her younger brother, Charlie, getting in trouble for saying that the best thing about Sunday school is its welcome refuge from the Herdmans, Robinson is content to have Beth telling us about it. Where Beecham and Hillgartner show us how the six Herdmans terrorize Charlie and his schoolmates in the lunchroom – with a dynamically choreographed, hard-rocking “Take My Lunch” production number – Robinson carries out that chore by having Beth confide in us or by Charlie whining about it to his dad.

A huge turning point in the plot, triggering the complication of the marauders invading the church pageant, comes when Charlie claims not to care about surrendering his lunch to a bullying Herdman, because even more enticing goodies are doled out to him after Sunday school. In the musical, this happens in the midst of total lunchroom pandemonium. In the play, it’s merely a dialogue that Bayless can stage in front of the curtain to mask a scene change. Time after time, watching the Robinson version just five days after the new musical demonstrated how deftly upsized the new version is and how static the old one was.

The disparity was magnified, of course, by the intrinsic differences between a generously budgeted professional effort and a more modestly funded community theatre production. But watching less polished performers at a more rudimentary facility also offers insight into why this clunky script is so beloved, mounted at least a dozen times over the past 14 holiday seasons in the Charlotte metro region. Rambunctious and rowdy as they are, the Herdmans are hard roles to mess up. Even when the savagery of the roles goes visibly against the grain of the young actors, the result remains very entertaining. The climactic Christmas pageant, dominated by the kids, is even more foolproof. At a church or school play, stiffness and self-consciousness are the norm, so any glints of talent and naturalness are gravy.

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I wasn’t always sure that Bayless really wanted to transcend the awkwardness of school theatricals. Every actor and actress under the age of 21 faced the audience directly at an angle of zero degrees throughout the 68-minute performance, assuring the same degree of spontaneity for much of the dialogue. When we reached the most chaotic scene, in fact, as firemen ran through the audience in response to an alarmist distress call, panicky children were herded into a circular cluster – and every single child was facing in the same direction, toward us!

The imaginativeness of the staging can be gauged by the beginnings of the two pageant rehearsal scenes. In the first, the kids were curiously quiet and inert before Grace Bradley arrived, but in the second, there were all kinds of noise and commotion. Why the difference? Very logical: in the second scene, the script calls for Mrs. Bradley to demand that the kids quiet down.

No doubt, this style of staging can be adorable. In the actual pageant, all of the heavenly angels came downstage and filled the space from wing to wing as they sang, the littlest angels on the outside flanking a perfectly symmetrical phalanx, with the tallest at the center – like a snowcapped mountaintop crowned with glittering haloes. Trouble was, this angelic row almost completely blocked our view of the Herdmans behind them, getting miraculously wrapped up in the spirit of the Nativity scene they were acting out.

Somehow the impulse to gratify parents and relatives in the audience – those whose kids were in the choir – took precedence over giving the story its maximum impact when it mattered most. The artistry of Evan Kinsley’s lighting design, isolated the Herdmans from the surrounding shepherds, villagers, and wise men, was largely wasted here, for the transformed kids emitting this unexpected glow were almost totally obscured from view. The three busybody gossips, Grace’s implacable detractors, entertainingly sat themselves among us to watch the pageant. They could pretend to have been amazed at the Herdmans when the holiest moment arrived, but I was frustrated by it.

Not having seen such a large cast of unpolished actors in a long while, I found myself tickled at the rich variety of shy, stiff, and promising performances, some of which were brimful of oddly channeled energy. It’s best to dwell on the standouts, I think. While there was a nice shambling quality to Michael Smith as Mr. Bradley, who would rather not see the pageant even if his wife and kids were going to be in it, Nicole Cardamone Cannon as Grace was easily the best of the adults, almost radiant in her forbearance as she dealt with the Herdmans and reassured their victims.

JJ Twer as Beth had a winsome personality as our narrator – and her mom’s prime defender – but Thomas Mink as little brother Charlie pleased me a little more, high-spirited despite all his grievances and more consistently intelligible. Among the Herdmans, the girls have the plumiest roles, and Bayless has cast well here. Ella Osborn as Imogene is a snarling wildcat until the role of the Virgin Mary domesticates her, and Grace Ivey remains implacably exuberant as Gladys, even after landing the role as the Herald Angel. A day after the show, Ivey’s “Shazzam!” is still ringing in my head.