Tag Archives: Evan Kinsley

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.

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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.