Tag Archives: James Cartee

Hit the Road, James, With a Mind-Boggling “Hitchhiker’s Guide”

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Review:  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

By Perry Tannenbaum

Can this really be the end? Citizens of the Universe and its indefatigable intergalactic peacekeeper, James Cartee, are leaving Charlotte, heading for Texas, and only possibly leaving an appendage behind them to carry on their mission. Closing with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at the Unknown Brewing Company, their most lavish production since they adapted The Princess Bride at the now-defunct Breakfast Club in 2011, COTU is going out with a big bang.

Two parallel events trigger the sci-fi comedy as we meet the shambling, stiff-necked Arthur Dent, who never sheds his PJs and bathrobe throughout his mind-boggling travels. On the earthly plane, Arthur is battling to keep his Cottington home from demolition by the county to provide a pulverized right-of-way for a new thruway. He’s ready to lay down his life for his property, and he’s actually lying down in front of his Cottington cottage so that the county bulldozer can’t move further.

Meanwhile, on a more galactic plane, Vogon overlords who are constructing a hyperspace bypass have slated Earth for demolition. Why a perpetually moving planet in a perpetually expanding universe would be slated for demolition is beside the point, do you hear me?

By the most improbable coincidence, Arthur is singled out for rescue by Ford Prefect, an embedded alien who contributes to the Hitchhiker’s Guide as a roving travel writer. Yes, when Douglas Adams first conceived his sci-fi serial for BBC

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Radio in 1978, ebooks were already on his imaginary assembly line. Arthur frequently consults his pocket reader after hitchhiking aboard a new space cruise or during his downtime, but it is Mandy Kendall who brings The Book to life between stints as our narrator.

She’s also, as our costume designer, the person who makes COTU’s valedictory so outré sensational. Arthur may be a humdrum everyman, with Chris Freeman faithfully executing his shambling duties, but Tom Ollis and Billy Whalen, tethered together as two-headed galaxy prez Zaphod Beeblebrox, take us back past the disco ‘70s to the hippy ‘60s with their outfit. Loud colors, a florid headband, with brash tie-dyes clashing unapologetically against paisleys.

Of course, Beeblebrox doesn’t exhaust the weird phenomena Kendall must costume on Arthur’s odyssey. Other cameos range from Ravenous Bugbladder Beast of Traal (Greg Irwin), Marvin the morose robot (David G. Holland), Deep Thought the computer (Martin Barry), a Whale (Kevin Sario) swimming with a Bowl of Petunias, and the two life forms on our planet that are smarter than we are, mice and dolphins.

Freeman maintains a British diffidence that occasionally flares into puzzlement amid his haywire journeying, but Nathan Morris as Ford is the optimistic huckster forever urging Arthur onwards, almost oozing insincerity when the going gets tough. Like the brainy Trillian and the gregarious Book, Ford is occasionally incomprehensible when he uses jargon that is outside the ken of the BBC and the OED.

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Both Ford and Kendall occasionally stumbled on their lines Saturday night when they wandered through this alien corn, less like the terminology of a botany catalogue than the brainchildren of Lewis Carroll. By comparison, Elisha Bryant skates through these lingual brambles effortlessly as the other earthling in our story, not merely assimilating into the galactic hierarchy after being kidnapped by Beeblebrox, but becoming his/its/their right-hand organism.

If you saw Bryant’s work recently in two of the plays at Children’s Theatre’s WonderFest, including the title role in The Commedia Snow White, her excellence at the Unknown Brewing Company will come as no surprise. Every time Bryant appears, it’s in a different costume. Trillian is adequate reason for Arthur to keep on traipsing across the galaxy.

Aside from their helter-skelter production style or their intriguing choices of classics and film adaptations, COTU is best known for pioneering new venues, going where no other theatre company has presented before. Surrounding the players with a wall of wooden casks and an armada of tall stainless steel brewing tanks, the Unknown was surprisingly apt for a sci-fi comedy.

Yes, the sound seal between the brewing room and the bustling taproom wasn’t perfect as the evening ripened, and the makeshift seating wasn’t cushy enough to prevent the onset of butt burnout at the end of the show. But you can settle into the general seating with your brewski in hand, and there was a convenient food truck parked outside last Saturday night on the corner of S. Mint and Lincoln Streets. I can vouch for the blackened salmon sandwich that I took into the theater, but once the lights went down, I couldn’t accurately describe all its green and crunchy contents.

Getting the answer to the meaning of life from Deep Thought is a profound reason for going, so I won’t be a spoiler. But the anthem near the close of Act 2 is such an emblematic goodbye that I can’t resist. After sitting behind the control board for most of the night, cuing projections that I suspect he devised and overseeing the excellent sound, Cartee strode forward to the stage and joined the action – as a dolphin. Somehow in time-honored comic book style, Adams had brought us back to Earth just before the wily dolphins threw off their domesticated disguises and fled the planet.

“So long,” they sang in a joyous, rudimentary production number, “and thanks for all the fish!” Goodbye to you, too, COTU. Thanks for sticking with it so long through so many challenges and hardships.

 

 

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Smokey and the Epic Hero

Theatre Review: O Brother

O Brother

By Perry Tannenbaum

In Greek legend, Odysseus was a man of many ways who sacked the sacred citadels of Troy, traveled widely, struggled valiantly, and suffered greatly. But even if this Homeric catalogue of achievements pales in comparison to the praise lavished upon presidential candidates at our quadrennial conventions, there’s something about the guy that continues to spark admiration – despite the fact that he was once captured and imprisoned.

Latterday tributes from Lord Tennyson and James Joyce to Ulysses (O’s Roman name) gradually humanized the Ithacan warlord and brought him down to life-size. Ethan and Joel Coen decided that wasn’t quite enough indignity to heap upon the mythic hero. The Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou not only presented Ulysses Everett McGill as an escaped jailbird, they made him a Mississippi hayseed. If any role George Clooney plays can be considered a hayseed.

On a ridiculously limited budget, Citizens of the Universe bring Odysseus down the social ladder a few more rungs with O Brother, for the costumes and backdrops by Mandy Kendall aren’t Hollywood. On the other hand, the newly unveiled performance space at NoDa Brewing Company – on North Tryon Street – can’t be accused of being Mississippi.

Trailblazing yet another new venue, COTU embraces an outdoor ambiance that is more picnic theatre than dinner theatre. Beer flows from the interior of the spacious new NoDa tavern, and grub is rustled up from a food truck you can’t miss on your way in from the parking lot. There’s a bluegrass trio at the side of the modest playing area: the Hashbrown Belly Boys, who start up before the odyssey begins. Very relaxed and homespun.

Energy amps up as soon as director Courtney Varnum, perky and pigtailed, steps forward to introduce the show. O Brother is only loosely based on Homer’s epic – and loose only faintly describes its trashy, Southern-fried, slapstick style. These are not realms usually explored by James Cartee and his COTU, but Varnum has been able to round up more than a couple of the usual suspects from past COTU navigations.

Tom Ollis is the one Citizen you would expect to fit in well in this new rusticated universe, playing “Pappy” O’Daniel, the gregariously corrupt Miss’sippi guvnah seeking re-election while hosting a Grand Ole Opry-style radio show on the side. Sort of a cross between Tennessee Williams’ Big Daddy, Huey Long, and Yosemite Sam the way Ollis plays him – mythologically, he’s Menelaus in the scheme of things.

Most surprising is Shane Brayton as our hero Ulysses, after playing opposite Ollis as an arrogant Richard the Lion-Hearted in The Lion in Winter. Down in the Delta, Brayton taps into hillbilly pluck, energy, optimism, and rascality in a way that I’d likely find irresistible if part of the audience weren’t partying and oblivious. Of course, persisting in the face of such loud inattention adds to the pluck factor, but I found the entire cast up to that challenge.

We need to listen all the more attentively because some of the actors’ names are flip-flopped with the names of the folk they play in the playbill. The most obvious of these is “Sheriff Cooley as Stephen West-Rogers.” While he isn’t quite as megalomaniacal as he was in Fight Club or as violently vehement as he was in Trainspotting, West-Rogers is more than sufficiently implacable and clueless as the Sheriff.

Make no mistake, all of these principals are surrounded by sidekicks or underlings that make them look like sages. “Pappy” has Michael Haynes as Junior O’Daniel and Jeremy Bryant as Pap’s political opponent, Homer Stokes, who turns out to have clout in the KKK. Sheriff Cooley has Justin Mulcahy as his standard-issue deputy, and Ulysses is saddled with Michael Anderson as Delmar O’Donnell and Josh Elicker as Pete Hogwallop – Varnum and Charlie Napier extend the deep-down hayseediness of the Hogwallop family.

Not counting the vocal trio of Ulysses’ daughters that doubles as the Sirens, three of the actors zip through multiple roles. Napier stands out as the aforementioned Wash Hogwallop, as a Blind Seer modeled on Teiresias, and as a marauding gangster with a chip on his shoulder, George Nelson, because he’s not the more infamous Babyface. All the great menaces of The Odyssey don’t appear in this hashbrown mashup, but we do get Scotland Gallo as “Big Dan” Teague, certainly Polyphemus with his eyepatch, and Kendall as Penny, Ulysses’ wife.

All of Penelope’s famed suitors coalesce into one Vernon T. Waldrip (Napier again) and, with this Ulysses, Kendall’s infidelity doesn’t play as sluttiness so much as cold pragmatism. A ne’er-do-well jailbird – as opposed to an MIA hero – should cause a sensible wife to make new plans, even in the backwoods. Calypso’s shtick in the journey gets merged into the three singing Sirens – Becca Whitesmith, MoMo Hughes, and Laura M Lee.

As you’ve no doubt divined, Odysseus’ sea voyage and his epic struggle to return home after the Trojan War have been downsized to a comical chase triggered by Ulysses’ jailbreak. Toss in the bluegrass music and it shouldn’t be surprising if O Brother sometimes reminds you of Smokey and the Bandit – without the same Hollywood charisma from the lead rascal. Igniting the chase, Ulysses cons Delmar and Pete into joining him in the escape by enlisting them in a quest for a treasure that he has hidden at the bottom of a valley soon to be flooded to create a dam. Echoes of Deliverance, another bluegrass bromance.

Only here, the music is more deeply woven into the storyline. For along the way, the three escaped white men hook up with Tommy Johnson, a black musician who claims to have gotten his phenomenal skills in a deal with the devil, a la Robert Johnson. On one of their stops before they break up, the quartet cuts a record as the Soggy Bottom Boys. It’s at these key musical moments – and subsequently at his KKK lynching – that we encounter yet one more familiar COTU personality, James Lee Walker II, best remembered for his one-man presentation of Karl Marx.

Walker is a bit humbler this time around. Everybody is. Sifting through the distractions, I’d say that Koly McBride’s O Brother tribute/arrangement of the Coen Brothers’ film is among the very best adaptations COTU has ever done. If the ratio of audience to partyers can be boosted significantly this weekend, the experience will be even better.

James Cartee: The Exit Interview

By Perry Tannenbaum

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With the closing of Citizens of the Universe, there’s a lot more to unpack besides the daring of its founder, James Cartee, the history of his company, and the multiple finales he has planned between now and December. COTU’s end isn’t the same as the flameouts of Charlotte Repertory Theatre and Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST), but it’s symptomatic of the Charlotte theatre scene.

So here’s the full, edited Cartee interview – with more of the drive, the difficulties, and the vision that made COTU go, more lessons and highlights, and the lowdown on why Cartee is leaving.

Perry T: How, when, and where did Citizens of the Universe begin?

James Cartee: COTU got its start back in 2001 in Greenville, SC. I had washed up there after a few years of gallivanting about the planet and discovered some of my fellow university droogs had come ashore there as well. I hadn’t actually been on stage or doing “true theatre work” at the time. I had taken a 3-year break from theatre after a disastrous performance of Complete Works of William Shakespeare (a show where I also worked props) at Centre Stage South Carolina.

Some of my fellow compatriots thought it’d be a gas to lace a snack they gave me with acid before a show. All I care to say about that is: I didn’t care for the joke and I didn’t want to have anything to do with theatre for 3 years. But after three years – you get that itch.

The only problem was that in Greenville at the time there were no parts for a 20-year-old. I teamed up with a college friend of mine, Andrew Bryant, who was also feeling the need for theatre and having the same issues I was – too old for the kid stuff, too young for everything else.

We had run into each other randomly and it always ended the same way – with us bitching about there being a need for diversity in our local theatre. One night – over a bit too much rum – we agreed (more like dared each other) that we would put on a show. I’d been working in sports entertainment and due to an accident at the time, I decided that going back on stage was not in the cards.

Not being really available for the stage – I wanted to direct. I mean, come on! I did that one weird show in a college showcase, why not go for it again! I knew all we really needed was a space. I started looking.

A popular spot had been forced to move to a new location, so I went and pestered them. They had a stage, lights, and some sound so that part of my job would be done. Eventually, I conned this spot – owned and run by Kathy Laughlin, John and Stephen Jeter – into letting us use their new music hall, The Handlebar, for a weekend of one-acts. (http://www.handlebar-online.com)

Was there really a group of founding Citizens, or was it pretty much your one-man universe (with assorted stars and satellites) from the start? Where did the name come from?

Andrew and I buckled down and directed some David Ives one-acts. We decided we would each direct our shows under competing company names for some reason that I have now forgotten. His was Lightbringer Industries, and mine – ‘cause I had actually forgot about this until the day we had to print programs – was from a line in a play I was directing.

In that show, “Sure Thing,” a guy tries to pick up a girl, and each time he fails, there is a bell and the scene restarts. At one point, he stands and declares himself – A CITIZEN OF THE UNIVERSE. A girl I fancied at the time liked it and I needed a name on the fly so we went with that.

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We opened September 13th… 2001. That show was what I would call a success – for what it was. We as a group decided to do another weekend. After that, Andrew and I decided to do another show – Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead – where I would direct and he would star.

Somehow I conned the Handlebar into letting us use their space again. Since I was directing, we did it under the moniker of COTU. We pulled about 250 people per show for three days, mainly due to our connections with the local high schools who were smack dab in the middle of Hamlet studies.

Andrew and I started this, but after R&G, Dan A. R. Kelly, Traysie Amick (both fellow alumni chums) and another theatre local by the name of Jason Bryant (no relation to Andrew) concluded there was a market for our fledging idea. We formed up and became – the Citizens of the Universe. Mainly ‘cause we already had two shows with that name attached to it.

I’ve used the moniker wherever I plop down and do some shows, including with friends down in Orlando. They still run a theatre to this day, not COTU but affiliated.

Did you even start out with an implicit or explicit mission – if so, what?

At first, what we wanted was to provide a place for thespians between the ages of 20 and 40 to have a chance to explore theatre in Greenville, SC. It was to be an outlet for our original work and a test lab to help us learn/relearn/unlearn/hone what we had kinda been taught in college or a chance to have a go at something we didn’t know at all.

Now here, there was no plan. No mission – just go out and do shows. I took on a mission after a time because I’m weird like that, but here in Charlotte we started off doing shows just to do them.

Was there a special niche that your company was intended to fill?

We wanted an alternative to the Harvey, Brigadoons, and 1776’s that played on repeat in Greenville. You had the Warehouse Theatre, which was playing it safe at the time to secure dollars as they transitioned into a more professional theatre.

We wanted to be a dirty, gritty theatre who could perform anywhere at any time. We wanted to be fringe but we were too stupid at the time to consider ourselves that. Greenville didn’t know what to do with us – we actually got a show banned because of Bob Jones – Creation of the World and Other Business by Arthur Miller. The reason they objected to that show was that Jesus was being played by a black man. Meanwhile, across downtown… because we were running two shows at the same time, I was having a guy jack off on another guy dressed as a horse – in a horse stable – while doing Equus. No one said one damn word about it.

My favorite moment from that time was when Doug McCoy of Center Stage waltzed over to our table at the Stax Omega Restaurant – this man trained me in high school, so we were old friends – and told us our little theatre was cute. That he enjoyed our show, but if we really wanted to do theatre to come work for him.

I love that old queen – god rest his soul – but he was one of the reasons why we were doing what we were doing. His theatre was the most “out there theatre” in town, and they were doing Li’l Abner and Company. To be fair, they also did Wit and As Bees in Honey Drown that year.

Here in Charlotte, I wanted to fill the gap of fringe theatre. There wasn’t any here. Some would say there still isn’t. I didn’t set out to mainly do films on stage but that is what brought people – brand new audience members – in. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone walk up to me and say, “This was my first time for going to the theater. This was fantastic! Is all theatre like this?”

I’m not sure how many theatres will squish a toy bird filled with jello on your sir, but sure. All theatre is like this – go see some!

This is something we sorely need more of here. So, I guess you can say I fell into it.

You’ve presented theatre in other places before you came to Charlotte, and you surely have presented theatre in a lot of different places in Charlotte. So what’s with the Gypsy wandering?

The best education in life is travel. If you have the opportunity, go everywhere. I love seeing life and the world… which stands in contrast to the other side of my mask that wants to turn this planet into a new asteroid belt.

I’ve never felt at home anywhere, personally, except behind the wheel of whatever I’m driving across country. That being said, I’ve always been drawn to Charlotte for some damn reason I can’t quite identify. I love the South… I was born here. It’s in my blood. I also love old New York… pre-Giuliani and Buzzard’s Bay in Massachusetts and Amsterdam and Sidney and Denpasar and Biscayne Beach.

I’ve been a part of many circuses as a clown/fool/jester/mascot. Meeting people, drinking, and having fun knowing that you’re gonna move on to a whole new crop of folk is exhilarating to me. I do have to say – this last go round as a Tortuga Twin did throw me for a twist.

I had just really come into my own here in Charlotte and what the fuck did I do? I went on the road for four years with a Ren fest group. It was a crossroads of ideas and I’m still not sure if my personal GPS gave me the best directions on that one.

As far as being a theatre without a home here in Charlotte. I find it makes me and my crews quick on our feet, able to adapt to problems quicker and – quite frankly – better than almost any other artistic group in the city practicing the craft of theatre. I can put on a show anywhere at any time.

That was something I wanted to do way back in 2001 and probably is born out of my commedia roots. Having a space is great, but I’m a poor honkey and poor honkeys don’t tend to keep theatre spaces. The good side of that is I don’t ever have to worry about going through what ATC [Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte] is going through. Or UpStage and those members of the LIT [League of Independent Theatres] who found themselves without a place to put up their works cheaply. Or Off Tryon or Barebones or any other of those many, many theatres out in the graveyard of Charlotte arts.

Not having a space to put up your spectacle is nonsense. You can put on a show in a parking lot. I fear many people here have a very narrow mind when it comes to how you do theatre.

That being said, it has become increasingly hard to do work here as we allow more and more things to be bulldozed to make way for people who may be coming or maybe not. Overall, it makes for a more resilient company in my opinion – one that doesn’t fold ‘cause you don’t know where you are going to hang your lights.

How and why did COTU resurface in Charlotte?

The Rocky Horror Show, drugs, Jim Yost, John Hartness, Chris O’Neill, Barbizon, the Milestone, two women, and you. It’s a complicated formula. The Rocky show I was lucky enough to play Riff Raff in for the Spartanburg Shoestring Players fully awoke the theatre diva in me.

Charlotte was rife with new theatres and great opportunities! I WANTED to be part of theatre, and this community beckoned. Where there was an inter-theatre softball game, tons of small theatres, Artbomb… the MTA and 24 theatre shows. It was a big city without the cost.

For a beleaguered soul like mine at the time, it was something that felt like “home,” so here I plopped. Especially since my girl at time needed some space. So why not move two hours away! It was then where I actually put in some time to begin being part of this community.

Jim Yost and John Hartness gave me my first opportunities. Over and above that, I worked with anyone who needed a hand and doing whatever needed to be done. It allowed me to do something on nearly every stage in town. Then – a lovesick fool – I left Charlotte to follow my heart’s desire to Yellowstone. (I put up a show there ‘cause I was bored.)

When that relationship – predictably – didn’t work out I ended up back in Greenville. Very shortly thereafter, I met a gal at a GWAR show here in Charlotte and it was love at first fake bloodbath. However, when her dealer was decapitated, I said, “I’m moving to Charlotte, wanna join me?”

Once back, I worked with every place I could find – again – while waving as Uncle Sam on the side of the road and giving numbskulls directions for OnStar. By then, the South End Performing Arts center was gone and with it so many of the small theatres that had been one of the main reasons for me being here in the first place. Then O’Neill restarted Shakespeare Carolina and John Hartness directed Hamlet.

During this time, Hartness gave me a tech job at Barbizon – which kept me here. THEN – your review of Hamlet enabled the director in me. When I left for Yellowstone, I had my pick of places to do work. By the time I got back less than a year later… there was virtually nothing. Queen City had not come into its own yet… Collaborative Arts was just starting out. There was OnQ starting to make its first push… Vickie Evans was on the outskirts of my radar…. But. There was no fringe.

Nothing was picking up the vacuum left by Barebones and Epic Arts and Innovative and … I can keep going. I mean, there was CAST… and that meant long rehearsal periods, and while the risk was there, there wasn’ t the excitement of being out in the element. They had no true grit!

Yeah, I just called CAST out for playing it safe. I mean – the worst show I have ever seen was produced at CAST – White Man Dancing. This bothered me – greatly (and not just that show!). The director in me said, “Fuck it – let’s get to work.” I still had all my old files and ideas.

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Before Hamlet closed I had worked out a plan to do Trainspotting – the script I had been hunting for ten years – at the Milestone. A rather cold (it was winter at the Milestone), but monumental success.

Artistic creativity traditionally travels east to west where theatre is concerned, great Broadway comedies and dramas getting turned into movies. Traffic in the other direction usually involves adding musical scores to proven Hollywood hits. So where did you come up with the idea of adapting favorite films to the stage without layering on songs, music, and dance?

I chose Trainspotting because I fucking loved the film. I had read that it was play before it was a movie back in college but could never find a copy of the script. During Hamlet, I made a mission to find this play – not to put it on, just to find it. I did find it – in New Zealand. A limited press of four plays by Harry Gibson. It was an expensive book that I wish I still owned. (I drunkenly gave it away to… Matt Cosper?).

The play was fantastic and by Hamlet’s close, I already moved on putting it on stage. I had an idea to print color programs – and my gal at the time had come across a large set of expanded CD sets, which we stuffed with local band CD’s and songs that played throughout the show. In the aftermath, I “realized” people didn’t come to see the new kids on the block but to see Trainspotting.

So I decided to press the point. My thought was, if I can get people who have never been to see a theatrical show – or haven’t in years – I could trick them into seeing something they know. Hook ‘em! Then pull an Uncle Vanya on them. Open up the viewer pools, right? What I missed was, some of the people seeing Trainspotting were looking for the folks like the ones running Three Bone and Appalachian Creative.

They had no idea what to do with me. So I was alone in the theatre community again, but I was pulling people who didn’t attend Uncle Vanyas. Somehow, I stumbled into a niche. There IS a hungry audience who LOVE live performance, but they want stories they are familiar with.

Now on the song and dance bit. I hate musicals. For every Little Shop, you have 40 The Last Star Fighters. This whole trend of just putting shit out there that had some sort of film source material with a slapdash music behind it ‘cause that’s what people say the masses want – is shite. Utter shite. And it is reflected in what is on stage. Crap music… crappier adapted story. Maybe some good dancing and definitely great lighting, effects, and costumes.

You need those to hide the fact that the work sucks. Not the performances – in most cases – but the way the story is being retold. Take away all those bells and whistles – are you still telling a story or just bouncing from one song to the next? Personally, I feel you get more from the story without the song and dance.

There’s more nuisance to a play and it relates more to your audience. But just in case it doesn’t, sit in their laps while throwing vomit and shit at them. All I know is that I don’t want Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs to do a whole musical number about cutting off a fucking ear. Fuck that. Cut the ear off and let the blood drip.

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What I hope have been able to offer is for the viewer to move past what we can expect from a script we already know in one format and bring to light new aspects of those familiar moments. Eternal Sunshine, for example – I had quite a number of people tell me they hated the film but loved the stage show. It made them want to go back and watch the movie – making them rethink why they remembered the film in the first place.

If you added music to those, I feel it would lose resonance. I mean – I play up the comedy ‘cause I’m a hack, but even then, what I was hearing from a lot of our audiences was that what was on the page leaped out into life and grabbed you by the balls. Much more so than any song and dance or even on the screen.

How do you decide on which movies you want to stage, and what sort of difficulties do you encounter? Have there been instances of false starts, frustrating failures, forbidden rights, or just plain fuck-it’s-I’ve-changed-my-mind?

Trainspotting was a show I wanted to do ‘cause I loved the movie back in college. And the book I read after seeing the movie. After that, I thought to myself, what else is out there? That didn’t go very far because most translations just end up being fucking musicals.

It was like that until I focused on what I thought would be good to translate to stage, coupled with movies I liked or directors I was fond of and crosschecked that with books that had been turned into movies. I found that Fight Club had been done in Seattle and tracked it down. Tarantino [Reservoir Dogs] was another – but there is no book for him, just the movie script. That took a while to get any answers on, but several theatres have mounted that as a play, and I did research through them.

For a while, that was my method – finding out that another theatre had done a show somewhere in the world and pestering the crap out of them to find out how. Sometimes I made decisions by asking the social media world what it wanted to see. Adapting a script meant getting someone from a distribution company, the writer, and production teams to sign off on it.

That always means a mixture of editing and adapting. Some were easy – such as Night of the Living Dead (which is public domain), and others were…complex. Like Eternal. That script still needs another 20 pages chopped off.

There are those you can’t do – I desperately want to bring Nightmare Before Christmas and Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas to stage (both Disney. Anything Disney is off the table.) – and others that are way too much of a burden to bring to life. Like Clue. You have to ask Hasbro for the rights – but they say you need to get the rights from Paramount, who will tell you to talk to Universal… who tells you to talk to Hasbro.

Thing is, once you get Hasbro to sign off, Samuel French comes in and complains about the Cluedo script they have and demand that you pay royalties there as well – making the whole thing rather expensive or another protracted timeline between companies talking to one another.

But it has been done before. In fact- there is such a demand for the Clue script these days that I have been informed that they are attempting to make an official version that will be marketed out by HASBRO proper, removing Samuel French, Universal, and Paramount from the equation altogether.

I suspect as soon as that hits the market Theatre Charlotte will drop a pretty penny on it- unless ATC survives it’s current homelessness. There were some change-my-mind shows, like “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.” Desperately wanted to do that show but backed out of doing it for cost and space on the calendar.

You also encounter scams. I’ve been scammed by a company that didn’t have the proper rights and had to scuttle a show because of it right on the eve of opening. Frustrating as hell and puts a strain on the ole ticker.

Then there’s just bad scripts. Like Clockwork Orange. The official adaptation is terrible. Just plain terrible. That’s one where I was like “Fuck this script.” There are other versions but getting those have proven to be painstakingly hard.

There’s also the rare idea that doesn’t pan with available scripts- like M.A.S.H. and The Land of the People Who Do What They Want (better known as V for Vendetta). The MASH ideas would have involved using the local reserve for equipment, an uncle for a helicopter, and a local high school for a football field. You’d then follow the show in a living 4077 [hospital]. You could follow any character – a la Punchdrunk theatre style entertainment.

With V for Vendetta there was a translation issue – the play was in Norwegian… and my idea would have been a follow-the-show event much like Disturbance. The translating ended up being a bit too much to handle so I scuttled it.

There a few translations to stage out there I’ve heard of but never found except a new one – adapted by Sean Mason out of Manchester. I’ve already contacted him and he and I are talking about how I can bring it to the stage in the future for a US premiere.

Let me finish on one that is a movie but not why we were doing it: The Man in the Iron Mask. I wanted to do a big sword show since Princess Bride. Big swashbuckling scenes… I actually wrote a Pirate script that was awful. The concept was sound, but man – I couldn’t handle the story I was trying to write then.

I may go to work on it again soon – who knows? But when I approached Mandy Kendall with the big sword idea she jumped to her favorite writer – Dumas. I didn’t want a 3 Musketeers play and she suggested Iron Mask. We got to work, and I did most of the adapting of the script from the source material. A thoroughly fun adventure as I had never actually read any of the Musketeers stories.

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What do you look back on as your best productions?

Trainspotting at Story Slam is perhaps the closest that came to the vision I had in my head to make it to the stage. The Milestone version had my widest scope of inclusion, like with local bands and such. Lion in Winter was a fantastic show and for me personally, I believe that is my best work.

As far as overall idea? Big Labowski, Princess Bride, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Which were the most fun to be involved in?

Disturbance in Whitechapel. It was a unique idea – for me at least. And running around setting up bodies, explaining what was going on to cops, getting spaces to let us do what we were doing, and actually researching/writing the damn thing was probably one of the most fun times I’ve ever had on a project. Second time through, I put up stage curtains on all the windows, bought a bunch of wine, and hunkered down in my Ripper cave for 48 hours.

Then again this list: Big Labowski, Princess Bride, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind all make the top as well.

fightclub

Was Fight Club the ultimate nightmare, or was there worse?

Don’t get me wrong – Fight Club was a logistical nightmare. I kept losing spaces and Marlas… and there was that train and the rain…. but that was a cakewalk compared to having to deal with the Chop Shop during Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Jay – the owner – is a wonderful guy, but he just doesn’t get what it takes to do theatre. Or be an audience member.

Often he would come in with someone and talk loudly during the show. He even did that one night at SEEDS during Lion in Winter. We all busted ass to get R&G together, and I broke down in the greenroom on our final night ‘cause he had been telling me about an hour before show that he was shutting us down at a certain time – mainly ‘cause the audiences weren’t that big for R&G.

He was being a dick about it, so I panicked. Tania Kelly, Megan Stegall, and I worked out a way to leapfrog through scenes to bring down the run time. Only problem is, and this is a good problem, the last night was standing room only. We packed the place. The look on his face when he walked in halfway through the first act – and during an entrance from that side – was priceless. We didn’t cut a single line and ran over about 5 minutes.

There have been other headaches. Most of those led to aborted shows, or debacles like the Queen City Fringe. Probably the most troublesome all around was a night when Colby Davis showed up drunk to a night of Eternal Sunshine during its second run. He continued to drink during the show and took some liberties on stage with the actresses that were never rehearsed. I’ve never had such a breakdown in cast trust and the resulting alienation before or since.

To this day, the decision not to replace him for the rest of the run has haunted me. It directly affected the show, the mindset of people working with me afterwards, and many of my personal relationships. It was a rookie directorial mistake and one I should have been more prepped for.

What are the best things that you’ve found about the Charlotte scene since your arrival in 2008 – and what has really pissed you off?

Well, here’s the thing. I’ve been popping in and out of Charlotte since 1995. When I moved here on this current run back in ‘05, I had a pretty rosy attitude about Charlotte and the theatre here. One of the best things about Charlotte is the ability to create and the amount that was being created. There was once a lot of places to put on shows. Not that there isn’t now – but once again, the days are gone when you could pick and choose from what was a healthy community.

Add to that the loss of so many buildings, plus the fact that everyone has become money-starved since around 2012, and that picture isn’t so great anymore. One of the cool things I’ve found out as of late is the hidden African American theatre here. There’s some great work going on there that doesn’t get a lot of press. I guess that’s true all around. Charlotte has an abundance of people who wish and want to create and want to play. That’s one of its best parts.

I don’t think we utilize that base well enough. The theatre community itself is very caring about the idea of theatre, but they have little want to present a united front to show the general public that we do indeed have a theatre community outside of touring shows.

As for what pisses me off? City Council. Toll lanes. Pat McCrory. The statement theatre is dead. The idea that in a city of 800,000 people, we don’t have a professional theatre. Even worse – that no one outside of the community seems to care. That that very same caring community dismisses people like myself when I’m warning of bullshit like what happened to ATC.

I started my own theatre column three years ago and have been bitching a lot on those pages about our inability to save our theatre groups. I’m pissed that our community is so dismissive of each other. That an organization like the LIT that claimed to be inclusive were immediately exclusive. I’m pissed that that mentality runs throughout the community. I dislike cliques even though I’m actually part of that problem myself.

I dislike that newcomers have a hard time getting a foot in the door. Theatre minds here rarely take a chance… and even when they do, it’s the safest option. I’m not saying be dangerous like those assholes at Chicago’s Profiles Theatre. There’s a difference between daring and dangerous.

When we had a chance to gather together to make a comprehensive plan for the theatres in town, we just let it die. I’m referring to the meeting that the A&S Council called at CAST. Had a great turnout. We separated into groups, met a few times and it became readily apparent that some people just didn’t want others to participate. To be a community, you have to be ready to accept everyone out there – mimes and all.

Nothing came of that whole shebang, and look where we are today. No CAST. ATC is not functioning. Most of the fringe groups have withered.

I have to say artistic morale is quite low, and it shouldn’t be. I have met so many wonderful and talented people here, and I want them all to be able to put up the work they want to make. That being said, there’s a lot more to be pissed about right now than happy, unless you’re doing theatre outside of Charlotte.

Do you think you’ve made an impact – and if so, how would you describe it?

Oh, yeah. I think I helped spur the last surge of storefront theatre. I remember going to work at the Children’s Theatre and talking with Matt Cosper about GONZO and Trainspotting. He said, “I want to do that. I wanna do what you do, Cartee.” Now if memory serves – he had been doing that a few years earlier. Actor’s Farm?

At any rate, as Fight Club was going up – Machine Theatre started its engines. Stephen Seay was starting his own group independently. I feel that between the three of us, we jumpstarted the small theatre scene. Seay was pulling in his demographic at Petra’s. Machine was getting a high five from the theatre community, and I was pumping the general public with shows like Reservoir Dogs.

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2 or 3 years running, an actor who got their first Charlotte part by running into COTU auditions ended up becoming Newcomer of the Year. There are a multitude of folks who started at COTU who are now bigger parts of the theatre community. These people may never had joined up due to the mindset of a lot of theatres in the area. Michael Ford got the bug in letting me do GONZO at the Mill… that directly led to UpStage.

I could be vain here – but it seems that where I went, people seemed to follow. I started doing theatre in a space and – lo and behold – others wanted to come and play too. I felt confined in a space and moved to another – suddenly others were there as well. I think – while not the first by a long shot – I did lead the charge for others even if only in terms of space.

Ideas were like that as well – like the Fringe Fest. Not the first attempt at a fringe (despite BOOM saying so), but the idea on the scope is still something I believe Charlotte needs. The aforementioned BOOM it a direct result of that effort. I like to think I’ve grown talent pools and opened Charlottean masses to theatre that is more approachable for them (‘cause not everyone wants to see a Neil Labute, and let’s face it, Uncle Vanya).

I’ve also been up in everyone’s happy little spot telling them everything is not as kosher as it seems. We have major problems, and we have to deal with them – and some of those problems are very much our fault. People don’t like hearing that, but it does make them think. I was only too happy to help.

What made you decide to close up shop in Charlotte?

Charlotte did. One of the reasons I moved here was cost. It was cheap. In the past three years, everything has shot up beyond what I want to pay. That alone didn’t do it. I have great issues with this state politically and even more so locally. The great bulldozing that has gone on has greatly depressed me. Destroying the neighborhoods I enjoyed living in has only made me want to flee this place altogether. Artistically, I feel trapped. I find there is little support for theatre in Charlotte in general.

Living and working in this art is a mite hard anywhere, so to have extra obstacles thrown in your path becomes untenable after a time. Artistically, I need a new canvas. I want to be surrounded by people with some differing thoughts and more accepting. I want to live in an accepting community that seeks to be stronger rather than one who tears itself apart every few years.

I’ve also become a bit of a detriment to my own shows by simply speaking my mind. You piss off enough people and they, in turn, like to poison the well. To be fair – some of that piss and vinegar is warranted. I try not to be a bad guy, but sometimes I just am. Mainly due to lack of funds.

The short and sweet of it is, Charlotte has become untenable for artists like myself to live and work. So: I want to run away to another, more accepting community where I can get better pay and have the work I want to create be better received by my fellow artists and not just the public.

What are your plans after December 10?

I have a position in Austin I’m pursuing that will open up at the beginning of the year. I’m planning on taking a year off from theatre to write. I have several shows I want write, and I’m working on a book. I do plan on being back here in some form next summer with O’Neill’s Shakespeare Carolina. What, I can’t say out loud yet.

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After that, I’m jumping hardcore into theatre there and helping out as much as this miserable flesh will let me. I also plan on starting a COTU branch there.

I’m not moving just to say fuck you Charlotte. There are long term plans – like starting up a COTU circuit. Creating a talent circuit and do short exchanges between cities. My friends are still in Orlando, I have a man in Baltimore, and more than a few Citizens here are threatening to take up the mantle and run shows.

See, here’s the thing about COTU I think people have not truly gotten. COTU – its core concept – is that anyone can do this. And everyone should. Once you do a show with us, you are a Citizen and are absolutely free to go and start your own thing or do your COTU show. You can request any and all resources that may be available or get direction on where to do a show or who may be available for tech, acting, and other such things.

I can be utilized from afar, as was the case when I was in Oklahoma and wrote, did the press, and set up a space for Nick Iammatteo’s production of Sid and Nancy here in Charlotte. There’s a team of ladies who are good candidates for a new core. I encourage it.

As for me – it’s getting close to about time to hit the old dusty trail. But I do have a few more shows first!

COTU firebrand founder James Cartee pulls the plug

Going down in a blaze of glory

We’ve had one professional theatre company in Charlotte that drew the likes of Hilary Swank, Tony Kushner, Beth Henley, Andre De Shields, Emily Skinner and Bonnie Franklin to town. Another company was so prolific that they often had two productions running at the same time in their final days. Scores of fringe companies, held up by dogged determination and duct tape, have sprouted up, wrought miracles on shoestring budgets, and disappeared overnight.

James Cartee in Gonzo: A Brutal Chrysalis. (Photo courtesy of COTU)

  • James Cartee in Gonzo: A Brutal Chrysalis. (Photo courtesy of COTU)

So did the pro company, Charlotte Repertory, and the prolific company, Carolina Actors Studio Theatre — both trashed by rogue boards of directors.

But we’ve never had anything like James Cartee and his Citizens of the Universe. Never bedeviled by meddlesome bean counters, Cartee is closing down his company and leaving Charlotte — with his own special flair. One of his final shows, O’Brother, is up and running at NoDa Brewery as we go to press. Another, Gonzo: A Brutal Chrysalis, opens next week. Four more Citizens productions are in the works before COTU brings down the curtain on its final show on December 10.

The company’s name came from “Sure Thing,” the first short play in David Ives’ All in the Timing, which was the first show COTU co-produced in 2001, over in Greenville, SC. A comic sketch with a multitude of false starts, “Sure Thing” was an apt reference, since COTU popped up afterwards in multiple places, including Orlando and Yellowstone, before taking root here.

Their first Charlotte effort, Trainspotting at the Milestone Club (a frosty success in late January of 2008), was emblematic of what made COTU unique. From the beginning, Cartee’s shows voyaged to places nobody else had considered before: Fight Club in a Central Avenue parking lot, Reservoir Dogs at Studio 1212, Princess Bride at the Breakfast Club, Gonzo: A Brutal Chrysalis at The Graduate, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Chop Shop, Titus Andronicus in the back patio of Snug Harbor, A Disturbance in Whitechapel along multiple streets and venues in NoDa, The Lion in Winter at SEEDS, Nosferatu in the backlot of Salvaged Beauty, and Sid and Nancy at The Mill (before it became UpStage).

Cast of COTU's Fight Club. (Photo courtesy of COTU)

  • Cast of COTU’s Fight Club. (Photo courtesy of COTU)

Cartee considers his company fringe theatre, but his roaming, pioneering spirit as he invaded new territories established COTU as Charlotte’s quintessential guerrilla group. The trailblazing has left lasting marks. Some of these previously unexplored places, most notably UpStage, caught on as performance venues with other companies.

Just as important are Cartee’s colonizing instincts. The third — and likely last — Carolina Arts & Theatre Awards will be staged at Snug Harbor in September, gathering the community’s theatre artists together and celebrating their achievements. More fundamental was the Queen City Fringe Festival of 2013. Cartee’s attempt to set NoDa, Plaza-Midwood and Elizabeth ablaze with live performances didn’t exactly ignite those neighborhoods, but it demonstrated that it could be done — paving a way for other groups and artsy shenanigans, like this year’s successful BOOM Festival.

Yet the idea of taking favorites and cult movies and turning them into live theatre — never adorning them with song and dance — remains Cartee’s exclusive turf. That mission actually evolved from an epic 10-year quest to find the playscript for Trainspotting that Cartee heard about back in his college days. He tracked down a rare book of four plays by Harry Gibson in New Zealand, paid a pretty penny for it, and found it more fabulous than he’d expected.

But it was audience reaction that convinced Cartee that he was on to something. People weren’t coming to see Trainspotting out of curiosity for a new group in town, so much as they were connecting with the movie title.

“There is a hungry audience who love live performance,” says Cartee, “but they want stories they are familiar with. My thought was, if I can get people who have never been to see a theatrical show — or haven’t in years — I could trick them into seeing something they know. Hook ’em! Then pull an Uncle Vanya on them.”

After Reservoir Dogs, COTU actually did produce Uncle Vanya at Story Slam in 2010. That was four months before reviving Trainspotting at the same Central Avenue venue.

Berry Newkirk in COTU's Trainspotting. (Photo courtesy of COTU)

  • Berry Newkirk in COTU’s Trainspotting. (Photo courtesy of COTU)

Trainspotting at Story Slam is perhaps the closest that I came to the vision I had in my head to make it to the stage,” Cartee reminisces. “Lion in Winter was a fantastic show and for me personally, I believe that is my best work. As far as overall idea? Big Lebowski, Princess Bride, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I play up the comedy ’cause I’m a hack, but even then, what I was hearing from a lot of our audiences was that what was on the page leaped out into life and grabbed you by the balls. Much more so than any song and dance or even on the screen.”

A sharp edge is often evident in Cartee’s hacking, for there’s another rich vein that runs COTU’s history, whether it’s favorite movies plopped onstage or classic literature. With titles that include Titus, Reservoir Dogs, Beowulf, and The Disturbance in Whitechapel — chronicling the rampage of Jack the Ripper — COTU’s catalogue is easily the bloodiest in the annals of Charlotte theatre. The one time that he detoured into a musical, Cartee’s COTU presented The Rocky Horror Show.

But musicals are not his thing. “All I know is that I don’t want Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs to do a whole musical number about cutting off a fucking ear. Fuck that. Cut the ear off and let the blood drip.”

Megan York and Colby Davis in COTU’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (Photo courtesy of COTU)

  • Megan York and Colby Davis in COTU’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (Photo courtesy of COTU)

There’s plenty more gore to come. The newest installment of Disturbance, Fear the Ripper, will transplant Jack’s final rampage to Plaza-Midwood — with five new endings — and at the Halloween end of October, Silence will reign. That one comes with the chained convict Hannibal Lecter.

Is there anything left undone? Probably not, since the man who labels himself the Intergalactic Peacekeeper of COTU is letting his imagination fly into outer space in two of his valedictories. After Gonzo: A Brutal Chrysalis, Cartee and COTU will present The Rapture Sampler Platter, a variety of new, short plays based on the word and theme rapture, Sept. 8-10.

The theatre troupe will revisit its final frontier in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, December 1-10. And it should be a blast.

Final Fireworks in the COTU Universe: Cartee discloses details on upcoming COTU shows

The Rapture Sampler Platter, Sept. 8-10 @ Pure Pizza Variety of new, short plays based on the word and/theme Rapture. “I choose to do another Sampler Platter ‘cause I feel that new work is always a must. We need to be churning out work like crazy to exercise our minds… and I choose to do it on a short timeline so that we can maximize actor talent pools. I want to give anyone who has never directed a chance to see what that’s like. So this project is all about bringing new minds together with new work, giving them a deadline and seeing what pops out.”

Disturbance In Whitechapel: Fear the Ripper, Sept. 28-Oct. 3 @ Plaza-Midwood In a city with what seems to have a convention of killers, who is the real Ripper? Why has he returned? And can Abberline finally put an end to this menace? This time we invade the streets of Plaza-Midwood to seek out the fiend. “Disturbance is always a blast. Last year I added a separate storyline which split the audience up at times. Of course five new endings. There was no way I was going to leave without carrying out another slaughter.”

Silence, Oct. 27-30, Nov. 4-6 @ The Roxbury Clarice has her job cut out for her – and maybe literally. She has to match wits with the notorious Hannibal Lecter while she seeks to prevent another murderer from striking again. “Which brings me to the Halloween show. What better than a thriller with a cannibal? Blood…. lots of blood.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dec. 1-4, 7-10 @ Unknown Brewery Possibly the last surviving human, Arthur Dent, is rescued by Ford Prefect by hitchhiking onto a passing spacecraft. Then they set of on a series of misadventures wi th Trillian, a depressed android and the President of the Galaxy. some think this was general a good idea on their part. “The biggest show I could think of that’s been on my plate is Hitchhiker’s Guide. Love those books, TV show, radio show… and I wanted to see a live show. I mean when they did this in Liverpool, it had a hovercraft! I won’t be doing that… but I will be bringing the universe to you.”

Albee’s Fantastic Day at the Beach

Theatre Review: Seascape

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Citizens of the Universe hasn’t announced the full details of its farewell season, but it has begun handsomely at “The Shell,” COTU founder James Cartee’s name for the suite on 2424 N. Davidson St. that CAST occupied in its latter days. The theater spaces where CAST often staged two productions at the same time have both been obliterated, stripped down to the original floors and walls, but the residue proves unexpectedly appropriate as a vast, bleak setting for Edward Albee’s Seascape, directed by S. Wilson Lee.

For awhile, the drama seems to revolve around Nancy and Charlie, a mid-life couple who bicker somewhat lethargically – compared with the titanic battles Albee staged between George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – about what they should do now and in the future. The weak grip this opening had on my attention was further weakened by Kylene T. Edson as Nancy, indistinctly audible when projecting her gripes over across the beach to her husband diagonally downstage. Lee would be advised to either energize Edson during these opening moments or bring her downstage more often.

Luckily, these difficulties evaporate when two ginormous lizards crawl ashore, frightening the humans as they scope them out. Since the sea is upstage, fright not only raises Edson’s energy level, it also drives her naturally toward us where she can be easily heard. Wariness is well-advised, but the lizards, Leslie and Sarah, aren’t foraging for food so much as they are reconnoitering the possibilities of life on land.

Amazingly, Leslie and Sarah speak English, if only the rudimentary kind you would expect from high school freshmen matriculating in Lancaster or Cabarrus County. There’s a lot for Nancy and Charlie to catch the reptiles up on, including the origin of the universe, the primordial soup, evolution, mammals, and the whole concept of emotions, beginning and ending with love. Shuttling between the urge to educate and the impulse to flee in terror, Nancy and Charlie might identify more with teachers in urban school districts.

The spark for this intriguing production comes largely from the extraordinary work Lee elicits from Emmanuel Barbe as Leslie, abetted by the phosphorescent glow of Kenya Davis’s makeup design. I’ve often struggled to penetrate through Barbee’s French accent when he battled against the Bard’s blank verse in Shakespeare Carolina productions. But here he is admirably slowed down by Lee – and often formidably booming. The physicality of him can be menacing enough as he advances toward you, but you really don’t want to broach the possibility that his species might lose their mighty tails during the next billion or so years of evolution. He’s attached to that tail.

By comparison, Brianna Merkel is a cute counterpart for Barbe as Sarah, as adorably clueless when she doesn’t understand concepts – matrimony, pregnancy, the list goes on – as Leslie is frustrated and antagonistic. We see a certain bond forming between Sarah and Nancy, peacemakers trying to calm their mates’ warrior instincts, and it’s here that Edson’s performance begins to blossom.

Brian Amidai is more consistently reliable as Charlie, very adept at the inertia of a husband who doesn’t wish to travel or repeat past adventures. He’s on a beach and just wants to relax, dammit, maybe get lost in a book. But Amidai’s transition between this beach potato and an instinctual protector rings viscerally true, and there’s a faint layer of comedy in the moments when he thinks he’s gone insane or died. Obliquely, I found him cuing my own reactions as this wild, mysterious fantasy unfolded.