Tag Archives: Lisa Hugo

The Nerd Who Terrorized New Jersey

toxic-press-5

Theater Reviews:  The Toxic Avenger and Pride and Prejudice

By Perry Tannenbaum

I’m not sure how or when such epithets as “Armpit of the East” or “Scrotum of the Nation” rained down on New Jersey, but they were certainly commonplace before the onset of The Sopranos or Chris Christie. It’s also clear that when Lloyd Kaufman and Joe Ritter cooked up their 1984 screenplay for The Toxic Avenger, they weren’t intending to prettify the Garden State’s battered image. About the only love they showed for Jersey was shooting the film there.

A mere 24 years elapsed before Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, following their successful collaboration on Memphis, hooked up on a Toxic musical adaptation. The record-breaking reception of the show in New Brunswick, before its off-Broadway transfer in 2009, only underscored how highly Jerseyites cherish their notoriety.

DiPietro liberally refashions Kaufman’s original plot, but political corruption, organized crime, unconscionable pollution, and unchecked violence are still among its hallmarks. Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, newly resurrected on Freedom Drive after its recent homelessness, embraces all of these horrors with the merry glee it applied to Evil Dead The Musical seven years ago. Billy Ensley directed that 2009 gorefest on Stonewall Street, but ATC artistic director Chip Decker takes the reins here, reminding us that crass sci-fi musical parodies are at the core of this company’s DNA.

toxic-press-1

Journeying from screen to stage, Melvin Ferd the Third has lost his signature janitorial mop, but he’s still a hopeless nerd and still smitten by the blind Sarah, who is now a librarian. The new Melvin is an environmental crusader from the get-go, and his plunge into an oozing drum of green toxic goo is far more malignant, ordered by corrupt Tromaville mayor Babs Belgoody. Where does Melvin find the goods on Mayor Belgoody’s polluting schemes? At the library, of course, cleverly filed away by Sarah where they are least likely to be found: among the important policy speeches of Michele Bachmann.

toxic-press-7

Something underhanded seems to have occurred here, since Bachmann didn’t achieve her peak infamy until the 2012 election cycle. Suspicion falls on the prankish Decker, who compounds his violations of DiPietro’s script by introducing the image of Donald Trump later in the evening. Hopefully, that glorified groper will be forgotten by the time the Avenger concludes his rampages on November 12.

Yes, if you didn’t already know, what doesn’t kill Melvin makes him Toxie, the avenging mutant monster. This is exactly where Actor’s Theatre upstages the off-Broadway production once again. In 2009, Ensley simply had the luxury of a better pool of actors to choose from for Evil Dead. This year, Decker enjoys no luxuries whatsoever. ATC and City Hall couldn’t dot all the i’s on permits for the new location at 2219 Freedom Drive in time for opening night last Wednesday, so Decker & Co. were obliged to move next door to Center City Church & The Movement Center at 2225 Freedom.

toxic-press-3

On very short notice. So the set designer is listed as Dire Circumstance in the playbill while other members of the design team have vanished altogether. Whether by accident or design, then, Decker doesn’t make the mistake that plagued the off-Broadway show: overproduction. In the New York version, when Melvin emerged from the chemical dumpsite as Toxie, the green carbuncled mask that covered his head was not only horrific, it robbed actor Nick Cordero of all further facial expression.

Jeremy DeCarlos doesn’t have to combat that handicap. As cool, graceful, and intelligent as DeCarlos has always seemed onstage, I expected both the nerdy Melvin and the homicidal Toxie to be difficult stretches for him. Clearly, I had no idea how well DeCarlos could channel the dopey sound and body language of Jerry Lewis as the socially inept earth scientist. When he emerged from the flimsy façade of chemical drums as Toxie, there were some wrappings on his arms to offer a semblance of might, but it was Decker at the soundboard who offered the more telling boost, amping up DeCarlos’ voice and synthesizing his monster roar.

No, the wrappings and the roars don’t close the gap between DeCarlos and fearsomeness – but that’s another reason why his Toxie is so much more hilarious than the more technically polished off-Broadway version, which often forgot it was a spoof. Leslie Giles certainly isn’t forgetting her spoofery as Sarah, helpless ingénue or aggressive vamp as the occasion demands – and her blind stick shtick with the hapless Melvin is a corny gift that keeps on giving. Sarah’s big number, “My Big French Boyfriend,” struck me as the best in the show.

toxic-press-4

Lisa Hugo, who was so precisely calibrated in the complex leading role of Stage Kiss earlier this year, the last ATC production at Stonewall Street, gets to loosen up in multiple roles. When she isn’t the melodramatic, megalomaniacal Mayor, she’s usually Melvin’s disapproving Mom. These two nasty women turn out to be old enemies from their school days, so their “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore” confrontation deep in Act 2 was a manic reminder of a similar duet in the Jekyll & Hyde musical. Ma Ferd also gets an effective “All Men Are Freaks” duet with Sarah.

Ryan Stamey and Dominique Atwater divvy up nearly all the remaining roles, more than I could keep track of, with Matthew Blake Johnson subbing for Atwater on opening night. Somebody needs to terrorize Sarah, toss Melvin into the toxic goo, get their asses kicked by Toxie, scurry around with missing limbs, and represent the hordes of Tromavillians who idolize the grotesque mutant. Stamey and Johnson performed every one of these worthy missions, and more, with the suave sophistication you would expect.

Yes, the middle school auditorium atmospherics of the Movement Center hall are somewhat against the grain of the gorey Toxic Avenger irreverence, but it served better than expected for what turns out to be a unique guerilla theatre project. If you arrive early for one of the remaining performances, you might get a brief tour of the new ATC space next door. What’s going on now on Freedom Drive bodes well for the company and the resourceful artists who make it go.

14657273_1592031430816445_6330787092415780744_n

Jon Jory is best known as the artistic director who brought renown to the Humana Festival and the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville – and widely believed to have penned Keely and Du, Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage, and Anton in Show Business under the penname of Jane Martin. When it comes to adapting Jane Austen, whose Pride and Prejudice is currently on view at Pease Auditorium in a CPCC Theatre production, Jory is no dilettante. He has also adapted Sense and Sensibility and Emma.

Even if all the subtleties aren’t always pointed under Heather Wilson-Bowlby’s poised direction, it becomes obvious that Jory’s adaptation preserves the style and thrust of Austen’s liveliest masterwork. Most of the credit goes to Moriah Thomason as Austen’s prejudging heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, though it’s hard to deny she is amply counterbalanced by the hauteur of Brian Logsdon as Fitzwilliam Darcy. Thomason unveiled her elegance in the ATC production of Stick Fly back in February. Here she adds vivacity and wit, so I couldn’t get enough of her.

14639612_1592031587483096_6752582616922785572_n

We see where Elizabeth gets her wit from in Tony Wright’s slightly jaundiced portrait of her father, and Anne Lambert’s rendition of Mrs. Bennet has more than enough vanity, giddiness, and silliness to distribute among the younger Bennet sibs. My chief disappointment was the hoarseness that afflicted Lexie Simerly as Liz’s elder sister Jane. If only she could have borrowed some extra decibels from Iris DeWitt, whose towering presence made the imperious Lady Catherine De Bourgh a perfect victim of Elizabeth’s punctiliously polite sass.

Advertisements

Making and Faking Love

Theater reviews: Stage Kiss and Charlotte Squawks: 12 Angry Hens

Returning from intermission at the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s production of Stage Kiss, I was strangely disoriented when I saw the set for Act 2 of Sarah Ruhl’s comedy. For most of Act 1, our protagonists were the leading players in a revival of a sentimental drama, The Last Kiss. “She” had been Ada Wilcox, a happily married woman given one month to live, and “He” was Johnny Lowell, the love of her life, reunited with his long-lost love through the generosity of Ada’s husband.

Robert Lee Simmons as “He” and Lisa Hugo as “She” in Stage Kiss. (Photo by George Hendricks Photography)

  • Robert Lee Simmons as “He” and Lisa Hugo as “She” in Stage Kiss. (Photo by George Hendricks Photography)

He and She had also had a youthful romance earlier in their acting careers, before director Adrian Schwalbach had unwittingly united them by casting them as the leads in this sudsy revival. By the end of the play’s brief run, He and She have fallen back in love for real, despite the fact that She now has a for-real husband and teenage daughter. So they skip the closing night cast party, the better to consummate their rekindled romance.

Somehow when I saw the rundown Greenwich Village apartment where the lovers adjourned, I momentarily forgot that He was not Johnny Lowell, the celebrated sculptor who flew in from Sweden to be at Ada’s bedside. No, He’s merely one of the legions of fine actors strewn around Manhattan who have sacrificed the niceties of middle class comfort to pursue their art.

Of course, what Ruhl very much wishes to demonstrate is that, while kissing nine times at each performance eight times a week for four weeks – after additional weeks of rehearsal — She and He have also let themselves forget that they are not Ada and Johnny. Or at least they have allowed themselves to become confused about it.

If you’ve ever immersed yourself in a major stage role for a couple of months, you already know how easy it is to slip away from the role you’re playing in life to the one you play onstage. Shuttling back and forth is an occupational hazard for actors — or a welcome escape.

Watching the rehearsals for The Last Kiss, plus a Schwalbach opus that occupies us in Act 2, we discover additional layers that Ruhl has woven into her comedy. For one, He has richly earned the squalor he lives in, for He is a wretched actor in both of these wretched plays-within-the-play. In The Last Kiss, He is understudied by Kevin, a gay actor who is even more wretched, noticeably uncomfortable with all that hetero kissing.

We can also see that She is not being ensnared by a web of glamor as she endures Kevin’s awkwardness, an injury to her co-star, and eventually an injury of her own. In the final Actor’s Theatre production at their Stonewall Street location, we see the artifice that goes into theatre on a stage that is almost stripped bare of scenery.

But there must be artistry if we’re to believe we’re really watching an incompetent director directing wretched actors in wretched plays and that an able actress, after a long hiatus, can return to the stage and be so seduced by the experience. Our director, Ann Marie Costa, helps us to navigate, deftly calibrating the inadequacy we see from Robert Lee Simmons as He/Johnny and the wild incompetence we see from Chip Decker as Kevin.

Decker gives us more excess than Simmons, who gives plenty, so it’s quite clear that Costa has them both shunning restraint. When it comes to Schwalbach, a director who devoutly avoids prescribing how his actors should act, Costa no doubt found that Ruhl was taunting her into decisiveness. What we get from Dennis Delamar, then, is just a slight winking acknowledgement that directors’ sanctimonious abdication of their directing responsibilities is absolutely absurd, particularly when a script is bad — or you’re also the playwright.

When we first see her, She doesn’t give the best audition for Ada. In fact, She arrives so late that auditions are actually over. From the outset, Schwalbach’s laxity is working in her favor, so Lisa Hugo must constantly be deciding how much or how little of She’s fallibility should be added to all the shoddiness and incompetence surrounding her. I can almost hear Costa telling Hugo, “go with your instincts,” echoing Schwalbach. Otherwise, how would Hugo’s performance come off so naturally without ever seeming to be calculated?

It’s easy enough to track Mark Sutch in this cast, playing both Ada’s and She’s husband, but Emily Ramirez and Katy Shepherd conspire on a flipflop. Ramirez plays Ada’s daughter before returning as He’s bong-puffing girlfriend after the break, while Shepherd goes from Ada’s maid to She’s daughter. Sutch gets to be the first grownup in the room, catching up with the wayward actress, a welcome infusion of sanity. Yet even more welcome, in an undeniably cerebral comedy, is the real emotion that Shepherd brings us as the abandoned child.

Ultimately, those family moments aren’t intended to stick with us. That’s why Ada and Johnny have names but the actors who play them have none at all. What Ruhl has written, masquerading as a comedy, is a meditation on the nature of theatre and playacting.

The anger of Charlotte Squawks: 12 Angry Hens can be difficult to perceive at times. Surveying the foibles of our city, state and nation since last year’s 11th Glower, producer Mike Collins and writer Brian Kahn came up with craft beer, airline bonus miles, Rocket Mortgages, Johnny Manziel and food chains as fresh new objects of satire. Win or lose, the Panthers and the Hornets always get a song parody apiece at Booth Playhouse, so that segment was a black hole in this year’s satirical cavalcade. In the ongoing lampooning of Morris Jenkins and Bobby, their latenight vigils have now blossomed into bromance.

Charlotte Squawks: 12 Angry Hens runs through June 26 at Booth Playhouse. (Photo by LunahZon Photography)

  • Charlotte Squawks: 12 Angry Hens runs through June 26 at Booth Playhouse. (Photo by LunahZon Photography)

So a backhanded thanks must go to the angry hens in Raleigh who hurriedly passed HB2 and to our lame-brained governor who hurriedly signed it. The bathroom hysteria and the nationwide backlash were the sparks that Kahn sorely needed to make Squawks squawk. Patrick Ratchford, who responds to Mr. Jenkins’ overtures so repellently as Bobby, reprises his Governor McCrory impersonation in “This Is So Unfair, Man.” This parody of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” the second of the night, allows McCrory to catalogue the businesses that have voiced disapproval of HB2 and scrapped plans to move here. And “Let ‘Em Pee,” parodying the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” underscores the stupidity of it all.

If anyone stole the show from Ratchford, it was Robbie Jaeger, who took flight as Mr. Jenkins in a weird Dirty Dancing mashup. Weirder yet was his stint as a crazed Charlotte trolley car driver in “Helter Streetcar,” a parody of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.”

It’s a political year, but I can’t say that the pokes at survivors Bernie Sanders, Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump are as pointed as those aimed at the dearly departed Ted Cruz. I had to wonder whether the annual filmed appearances by Pat McCrory could possibly continue.

The answer came early as McCrory began his customary video on the five screens spread around the Booth – and was emphatically stopped almost as soon as he started, with a classy simulation of Gov Pat being flushed down a toilet. One of the best moments ever for Squawks.