Tag Archives: Jennifer Barnette

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

Review: Fallen Angels

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Much of the Ambiance Is Trimmed from “A Time to Kill,” but the Mississippi Murder Trial Still Sizzles

Review:  A Time to Kill

By Perry Tannenbaum

Rupert Holmes has built a distinguished theatre career – and carved out his own special niche – by crafting mysteries for the Broadway stage. His Accomplice won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America when it played on Broadway in 1990, and after his Thumbs premiered successfully in Charlotte, it seemed Broadway-bound in 2001. Holmes’ most unique accomplishments are his two mystery musicals, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, adapted from Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel, and Curtains, a Holmes original. So it’s not at all surprising that Holmes would be the first playwright to adapt a John Grisham bestseller for the stage when he brought A Time to Kill to the Great White Way in 2013. As the current Theatre Charlotte production demonstrates, adapting Grisham’s first novel for the stage was a tall order.

Admitting that film would be a more comfortable medium for this story, director Dave Blamy conspires with set and lighting designer Chis Timmons to wedge in some clips, prefacing the action with evocations of a horrific rape of a 10-year-old girl and, deep in the story, flashing the handiwork of the Ku Klux Klan on the darkened upstage wall. From the outset, you can presume that Timmons’ design for Judge Edwin Noose’s Mississippi courtroom isn’t going anywhere. It is so sturdy and stately that you may be tempted to rise when the judge enters to launch Act 1. But Timmons manages to swivel the entire courtroom 90° during intermission, adding a sidecar to the judge’s bench that serves – somewhat shakily – as a witness box. When we adjourned to the judge’s chamber, other parts of the courthouse, or defense attorney Jake Brigance’s home, there were discreet furniture shifts while the lights were dimmed. They worked well enough.

Unfortunately, Grisham’s canvas is larger. Though we watch Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard confess to the rape and attempted murder of little Tonya in vivid Mississippi detail, we never see her father, Carl Lee Hailey, taking vengeance upon these perverts. Thanks to Christy Edney Lancaster’s sound design, we can hear the chants of protesters outside the courthouse when Carl Lee goes on trial for murder, but we cannot see the mob’s fury. When hostilities break out between black supporters of the defendant and KKK racists, we’re shielded from the riot, and when the National Guard moved in… I wasn’t sure that was even mentioned in the script.

Clocking in at a hefty 2:17, plus a 20-minute intermission, the production won’t seem skimpy at all. Instead of any prolonged attention to the KKK, Holmes takes us more intently into Jake’s defense efforts behind the scenes, bringing extra emphasis to whip-smart legal assistant Ellen Roark, disbarred attorney Lucien Wilbanks, and the pillar of the defense’s case, Dr. W.T. Bass. The psychiatrist is recruited for the purpose of confirming that Carl Lee committed the double murder while suffering from temporary insanity, but it quickly became apparent that Wilbanks had made Bass’s acquaintance in a barroom during one of his frequent sprees. For better and worse, suspense and thrills now rest on the outcome of the trial, not on the survival of Carl and Jake in the face of KKK mob mentality. We’re also called upon to hate district attorney Rufus Buckley a little bit more, for his smarmy courtroom confidence and his undisguised political ambitions.

A slick, relatively bloodless package like this would have worked better if it were performed more slickly. Blamy pushes in that direction, but Grisham’s main characters are defined by their back-stories, and their development is further hampered by the formality that legal proceedings – arraignments, pleadings, motions, and trials – impose on dialogue. All combined, the length, formality, and pervasive legalese of A Time to Kill may account for the fact that actors were stumbling over their lines more frequently on this opening night than at any show I can remember at Theatre Charlotte.

Best at handling it was Jim Greenwood, who managed to add a bumbling element to Judge Noose’s crusty old persona. The opposing attorneys, both superbly cast, didn’t break character when struggling for their next phrases, but I could detect definite cracks. Tasked with sustaining a villainous patina, Conrad Harvey was more afflicted by these lapses as the DA, but all was well when he hopped back onto the rails and he flashed his Trumpian smile to the jury. Wonderfully loathsome. Costume designer Chelsea Retalic probably had Atticus Finch in mind when she drew up Jake’s courtroom attire for Tim Hager and the analogy was often apt when Hager grew simply eloquent. But he’d be better off drawing upon Jake’s fallibility when he falters.

Hager was at his best when Jake in maneuvering behind the scenes. Wheeling and dealing are not his style. Steadfast in his beliefs, Hager seemed to get that Jake wasn’t as comfortable in his skin as those surrounding him. As the brainy, beautiful, and ambitious Roark, Jennifer Barnette knew exactly what the legal assistant wants from her gig with Jake and why she finds him attractive. Both Tom Schrachta as Lucien and Rick Taylor as Dr. Bass projected their dissoluteness without too much exaggeration – but more than enough to merit Jake’s alarm – and both of them get tasty opportunities to sober up. Neither of them missed the comical lagniappe that came with their changes.

With so much of the Mississippi ambiance trimmed away like so much gristle, it was a godsend that the black players were all so right. Ronald Jenkins registered Sheriff Ozzie Walls’ conflicted loyalties beautifully, as committed to protecting Carl Lee and seeing that justice is done as he was to keeping his prisoner in custody. As a vengeful father, thoughtless husband, and a somewhat immature man, Jonathan Caldwell had a lot of different feelings to navigate as Carl Lee, from savage rage to sheepish regret, but he wisely stayed steadfast in his belief that murdering those two bragging racists was the right thing. Yet there was deep understanding in Tracie Frank’s portrayal of Gwen Hailey, Carl’s wife. Carl defies her when he chooses Jake to defend him instead of the NAACP, who are willing to come in and do it without a fee. Frank was out there alone to give Carl Lee’s defiance substantial weight. Without Frank’s steely strength, Jake’s victory – and Carl Lee’s vindication for choosing him – wouldn’t have been as sweet. Her quiet acknowledgement seals the verdict.

Wacky Magrath Sisters Still Deliver Southern-Fried Hilarity

Theater Review: Charlotte’s Theatre Crimes of the Heart

By Perry Tannenbaum

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It’s been a long time – nearly 15 years as far as I can tell – since I’ve spent an evening with Beth Henley’s lovable Mississippi Magrath Sisters. Looking in on them at Theatre Charlotte’s revival of CRIMES OF THE HEART affirms how vividly these deftly differentiated sibs stick in a theatergoer’s memory. First and foremost, you’ll remember kooky Babe, who doubts her own sanity after shooting her husband. Carefree temptress Meg seems to be the enviable paragon, looking down on her sibs as she waltzes back to the home sod with her Left Coast cool, but she’s beginning to doubt her own specialness now that her stab at stardom has come up empty. Lastly, that dear and dutiful doormat, Lenny, with her shriveled ovary and low self-esteem.

If the 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner is beginning to show its age, I couldn’t tell it by the audience reaction at the Queens Road barn. The quirkiness and the comedy still work, but at a distance of 35 years, we can begin to appreciate what made CRIMES OF THE HEART so unique when it burst upon the scene.

Prize-winning plays and novels set in Dixie had invariably been about elegant, decayed, and tragic folk, following the Southern archetypes embraced by William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Harper Lee. Henley showed us once and for all that the eccentricities celebrated in You Can’t Take It With You could play just as well down in Mississippi – even when peppered with dark Arsenic and Old Lace humor.

Yet Henley’s comedy is notably more realistic than Kaufman’s crowdpleaser and both lighter and saner than Arsenic. That’s because the Magrath sisters are quirky rather than balmy – and because no significant antagonist appears onstage. When Cousin Chick drops by to chide or alarm the sisters, she is more of an irritant than an antagonist, her exits usually comical hasty retreats. She’s more like the recurring meanie from a TV sitcom than a force to reckoned with. The only real threat is State Senator Zachery Bottrelle, convalescing offstage somewhere with the bullet hole in his gut that Babe put there.

The Magrath Sisters came equipped with leavening agents that had usually been absent from American comedies: sorrows and regrets. You could easily presume that these were Southern heirlooms from Williams’ iconic dramas, but I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that this quality in Henley’s heroines may have had its roots in the novels of Jane Austen. Like Gentle Jane, Henley doesn’t presume to show us how men speak to each other when ladies aren’t in the room.

Directing for the first time at Theatre Charlotte, Christian Casper isn’t trying to reimagine our leading characters. Nor is set designer Chris Timmons trying to depict the Hazelhurst, Missisippi, home as any more luxurious or squalid than you might expect. We’re in a bland, slightly cheesy smalltown home, and its only discordant element is the dwarf fridge in the kitchen.

One of the ways that Henley binds her comedy together and makes it memorable is with the pair of ceremonies framing the action in celebration of Lenny’s 30th birthday. As you’ll see in the final moments, budgetary constraints are a bit more exposed than strictly necessary – cakewise and candlewise. But if Casper isn’t sufficiently savvy about the technical strategies to make the final scene truly shine, he certainly doesn’t mess up the opening.

Lenny’s clandestine celebrations get us off to a charming start with Meredith Westbrooks Owen as the pitiful birthday girl, repeatedly hunched over her wee little cupcake, singing to herself. Comedy – and the big news about the crime – burst in with Zendyn Duellman feasting on the role of Chick. Catty, gossipy, and fault-finding don’t completely describe Chick, for she’s also vulgar and trashy, richly deserving the Magraths’ scorn. Picking up a pair of pantyhose that Lenny has obligingly bought for her at the store, Chick begins squirming into them before our very eyes.

Henley meant Chick’s struggles to appear “slightly grotesque” in her stage directions, but Casper has Duellman going way beyond that. Like Lenny, we don’t care whether Chick remembers her cousin’s landmark birthday or not, but the same lapses from her younger sisters clearly hurt. Lenny’s clandestine candle-lighting lingers as an subliminal rebuke, underscoring her siblings’ tendency to be insensitive, neglectful, and self-absorbed. Beyond that, they expect Lenny to perform all the family’s mop-up chores, chiefly the onerous task of caring for bedridden Old Granddaddy.

From the moment that Jennifer Barnette enters as Meg, there are conflicting airs about her of regality and rebelliousness, elegance and uncouth. One minute, she’s lighting up a cigarette to vex Chick, the next she’s disconcerting Lenny by cracking pecans with her shoe. What a fascinating character arc for Barnette as she careens from Coca-Cola and stolen candy crèmes to bourbon and birthday cake. But of course, Barnette’s physical comedy – or even Chick’s, for that matter – will pale in comparison to Babe’s prodigies.

Emily Klingman performed them on opening night with a neurotic edge that eventually won me over. She repeatedly convinces us that Babe is the youngest, most immature person onstage, quite capable of obsessing morbidly over why her mom killed the family cat when she committed suicide. And hey, when a kitchen oven and a chandelier are among your props, you will get laughs.

Self-sacrifice is enough to win our affection for Lenny, but Henley calls upon two good men to help in sealing our fondness for her more self-centered sibs. Allen Eby is Doc Porter, surprisingly mellow for a man whom Meg left drenched and limping after a spectacular breakup during Hurricane Camille. On the other hand, Cole Long as dorky Barnette Lloyd, the legal eagle who is trying to keep Babe out of jail, seems uncannily capable of homing in on his client’s ditzy wavelength.