Tag Archives: Lydia Williamson

“Amos McGee” Takes Us Into Uncharted Pre-K Territory

Review: A Sick Day for Amos McGee at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When you watch the new Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production of A Sick Day for Amos McGee, you and your child might not realize that Amos is employed as a zookeeper. You won’t see Amos swabbing down or feeding the animals that he visits – an elephant, a tortoise, a penguin, a rhino, and an owl – nor will you see him sweeping any cages or disposing of any droppings.

The time Amos spends with the zoo animals, to be honest, never looks like work. Thanks to the text by Philip C. Stead, adapted for the stage by Nicole B. Adkins, what Amos does looks exactly like friendship. He sits down to a game of chess with the elephant, races – and discreetly loses to – the tortoise, sits quietly and patiently with the shy penguin, and wipes the allergy-prone rhino’s nose. Time has truly flown by when dusk comes and Amos reads the owl a bedtime story.

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What struck me more forcefully than Amos’s vocation in Scottie Rowell’s puppet design, excellently derived from Erin Stead’s illustration, was his age. He’s elderly. You don’t need much youthfulness or foot speed to play chess, lose a race to a tortoise, extract a hankie from your pocket, or read a book.

So if you come to Wells Fargo Playhouse, you’ll find that Children’s Theatre is carving out a new niche with this leisurely-paced production sensitively directed by Melissa Ohlman-Roberge. It’s theatre for pre-K, and kids that I saw at the opening performance last Thursday seemed to find the pacing perfect. Oldsters and anklebiters are a natural combo, like peanut butter and jelly.

I did begin to wonder whether all the unhurried quality time Amos was spending with his zoo friends was the “sick day” of the title, for it takes up a larger proportion of our time at the theater than it does in the book. And I also began to suspect that Amos McGee wasn’t as fit for Children’s Theatre’s vaunted Kindness Project as it might be for a Friendship Initiative.

All that was neatly sorted out after Amos returned home and his new day began the next morning – a sick day when he just didn’t want to get out of bed. Consternation breaks out at the zoo. Elephant is missing his chess rival, tortoise is raring to race, and rhino is a mess. More than ever, we see that the animals don’t regard Amos as a zookeeper. When he doesn’t appear on schedule, we see that they regard him as a friend and as an integral part of their day. Their healthy day.

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When it becomes obvious to Amos’s friends that something is wrong, the kindness breaks out. Apparently, the animals recognize the city bus that Amos arrives on each day, so they resolve to take it to his house and pay him a visit. I’m assuming that animals who play chess and understand stories can devise ways to take leave of the zoo, pay their bus fares, and squeeze through the entrance to their friend’s apartment. But how do they find Amos’s place? If I figure anything out, I’ll let you know.

What matters, of course, is that Amos is modeling behavior that the animals appreciate, count on, and reciprocate. As the tortoise plays hide-and-seek with Amos, penguin sits quietly with his friend, and owl initiates story time, we’re likely to realize something that probably should have hit us when Amos was well: he gets as much from his friends as he gives.

The three actors who serve as our puppeteers and take turns narrating gravitate toward a middle ground between ninja invisibility and emcee assertiveness, earnestly directing their attention – and ours – toward the puppets most of the time and calmly genial, never loud, in addressing us. Kids are likely to have a lively debate over which of Rowell’s puppet stars we should like best, elephant and tortoise perhaps leading the pack, but a call to express a preference among the puppeteers – Ron Lee McGill, Kevin Sarlo, or Lydia Williamson – will likely be met with blank stares.

All three puppeteers efface themselves sufficiently to allow Amos and the animals to be the stars. They’re like good parents for kids in this pre-K age group, encouraging their children to discover and play without going too far in voicing their views or imposing their structure. Yes, this is fertile new ground for theatre, worthy of further exploration.

 

Little Discoveries Yield Big Laughs in “The Snowy Day”

Review:  The Snowy Day

By Perry Tannenbaum

Faced with the problem of turning Ezra Jack Keats’ children’s classic, The Snowy Day, into an hour-long stage production, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and adaptor Jerome Hairston have resisted the temptations of bloating the story with needless pabulum or stretching it with irrelevant songs. Instead, they’ve balled up the original story Keats wrote about Peter with subsequent titles he wrote about his urban hero – including Whistle for Willie, Goggles! and A Letter to Amy – into a sizable snowball.

The mighty tetralogy ran a lordly 44 minutes at the performance I attended. Gauging by the delighted reception I saw last Saturday afternoon, I’d say both the length and the treatment were ideal.

Both the scenic and costume design, by Alessia Carpaca and Ketti Shum Mcrae respectively, seem eye-poppingly close to the original Keats illustrations, especially the iconic red snowsuit. Stage director Mark Sutton seems to have horded all the latitude – and fun – to himself before generously divvying it up among his cast.

All of them seem to having a great time at the Wells Fargo Playhouse in ImaginOn. Lydia Williamson not only gets to regress into childhood, she also swaps genders to play Peter in all four stories. Crunching the freshly fallen snow, puffing up agonizingly in attempts to whistle, sporting new goggles Peter is lucky enough to find, and stressing over his birthday invitation to Amy are all prodigious romps for Williamson to feast on.

Abigail Aukerman has the most chameleonic outing, appearing as Mom from time to time when she isn’t branching out into neighbor kid Archie and first crush Amy. Ron Lee McGill remains Dad in an oddball straw hat, hardly changing at all when he’s propelling Peter’s dopey dog, Willie. McGill also gets to chip in some narration – and assorted stagehand work while Peter’s adventures are in progress.

Much of the comedy works because we view it from an older, wiser perspective. We know what will happen when Peter stomps into the snow, though Sarah Tundermann’s projections are a nifty confirmation. And we can anticipate Peter’s heartbreak when he wakes up in the middle of the night and discovers that the snowball he stowed away in the pocket of his snowsuit that afternoon has vanished. How does that happen?

So it’s nice to find that nobody in The Snowy Day And Other Stories is cajoling us to participate or react. We take it all in privately, frequently laughing or marveling at what we see. That’s exactly what Peter is doing, except for those delicious moments when we’re a couple of steps ahead of him.

Gunderson’s “Revolutionists” Reminds Us That 1793 Wasn’t a Very Good Year

Review : The Revolutionists

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s easier to enjoy Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists, a finely polished comedy gem from PaperHouse Theatre, than it is to find it. My GPS app resisted the 1776 Statesville Avenue address that was on my smartphone calendar, forcing me to choose between a Camp North End and a Goodyear Arts destination nearly 100 address numbers apart. Choosing the 1824 Statesville address got me to the Camp North End gate well enough after dark, and there was a PaperHouse emissary at the gate to tell us how to proceed. But as we navigated through a desolate concrete-and-asphalt landscape of vast warehouses, it was definitely an uh-oh episode for Milady GPS, who spun around from “Recalculating” to “Turn Right” in her instructions like a dog chasing its tail.

Following traffic wasn’t a reliable remedy, and I apologize to anyone who followed our lead on opening night and wound up parking a wilderness away from the PaperHouse performing space. Within sight of what looked like the building entrance – and another PaperHouse emissary – I still probably walked nearly a quarter of a mile after thinking I had sufficiently improved my parking spot. You walk through that building to another one.

Fortunately, PaperHouse is much better at producing plays than at getting you to them. (They will deploy more guides for future performances, I was assured.) Once you do arrive a the site of the action, with scenery by Jordan Ellis that strikes us as much with its simulated blood-spattered walls upstage as it does with the ascending scaffold in front of them, you can start to believe you’ve really reached the French Revolution during the Reign of Terror. You’re a bit of a pioneering revolutionary yourself if you’ve persevered and reached this secluded spot.

In the meta-world of her own – and history’s – making, The Revolutionists is Gunderson’s play, and it isn’t. We seem to be watching French feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges battling an onset of writer’s block as she ponders her next response to the rampaging Reign of Terror in the seclusion of her study. She is much in demand, for while Olympe is thrashing around, trying to settle on her message and her medium – shall it be another play? or perhaps a pamphlet? or a manifesto? – in walks Charlotte Corday, pressing the writer to compose a memorable line she can declaim when she assassinates the rabid revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub.

Olympe isn’t in advertising, so one-liners and slogans aren’t her forte. She hopes to come up with the right zinger during the course of composing a longer work, a plan that doesn’t jibe well with Charlotte’s mad impatience. Just when you think that the comedy will crest with the standoff between Charlotte’s insane homicidal urgency and Olympe’s many artistic hesitancies, in walks Marie Antoinette, dressed to the 17’s by costume designer Barbi Van Schaick. Her Highness wants a rewrite, a play by Olympe that will rebrand her tarnished reputation.

Everything seems to become absurd and almost surreal at this point – and likely stays that way with Marie’s queenly vanities and Olympe’s nervous vacillations. But if you go home and Google, you find that Olympe de Gouges really did embark on writing a play to rehab Marie Antoinette’s reputation, and that the playwright really did put herself in that work as an enlightened agent who reconciles the queen with the revolutionaries. If that weren’t enough, it’s also true that de Gouges wrote the courageously feminist Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, thereby punching her ticket to the guillotine.

In the play, Olympe writes her manifesto in response to some principled prodding from Marianne Angelle, a Haitian revolutionary seeking independence from France, the one fictitious character in Gunderson’s script. In the real world, de Gouges seems to have had no problem standing up for herself – and against the Revolution’s bloodthirsty zealots.

So you might take the layered-on comedy a couple of ways. Gunderson may be telling us that she prefers her feminist heroes to be more fallible and true-to-life rather than impossibly glorified. Or she might be substituting herself for Olympe and showing us how far short of the French revolutionary’s greatness she falls.

Gunderson nudges us to that second, self-effacing hypothesis with little anachronisms that she occasionally drops into the dialogue, like Marie’s rebranding and rewrite ideas. PaperHouse artistic director Nicia Carla takes the anachronisms beyond what Gunderson specifies in her stage directions, and she doesn’t waste any time about it. Lydia Williamson makes her first entrance as Marianne carrying a garish, polka-dotted plastic suitcase, and when Shawna Pledger as Olympe begins writing at her escritoire, she quickly switches from a quill to a BIC ballpoint.

So Pledger is only superficially presiding over a play that Olympe has written for her queen with a plum role for herself. She is actually channeling Gunderson writing a dark comedy about herself, and if you saw Pledger last season as the fretful Sister Shelley who runs the soup kitchen in Grand Concourse, you already know that she excels at stressed-out indecisive women who are so eager to please. Surrounded by this madhouse, Williamson as Marianne doesn’t get as many comedy opportunities as the true historical figures, but she does loosen up from time to time, on temporary leave from her hectoring. Cumulatively, she leaves us with the impression that the French, whatever their politics, have no special call for commanding an empire.

Au contraire.

Sarah Woldum has now haunted PaperHouse productions for two consecutive Octobers, last year as Sheridan LeFanu’s vampire Carmilla and this year as the notorious Corday. This time, she can milk a laugh or two from the assassin’s irrational zeal and her PR impulses, but she’s unmistakably insane. I’m not sure she ever blinked.

As for Caroline Bower, she does enter as an overdressed Barbi doll with some truly vain, insensitive, and bubbleheaded lines to delight us with. But Marie Antoinette’s grand gown, the ribbons she loves so frivolously, and the ridiculous piled-high wig and feathers all do come off as the Reign of Terror sweeps its scythe through our women, and its Bower’s humbling – still cohering with the incredibly spoiled brat we first saw – that brings home how monstrous the French Revolution turned out to be.

In the end, we might realize that our man’s world of today is hardly less bloody than it was in the fatal year of 1793 – and that Gunderson isn’t entirely playful or self-critical when hinting that she trembles in the face of such brutality.

 

Sizzling Satire and Seething Inner Turmoil

Review:  Bootycandy

By Perry Tannenbaum

Weird black mothers roam the Mint Museum stage at the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s latest migratory production. One mamma refers to her son’s genitalia as bootycandy, while another mamma actually names her daughter Genitalia. The weirdness of Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy only begins there, for I don’t think either of these mothers – or their children – ever meet, though the bootycandy boy emerges as our antihero, Sutter. Presumably, this mildly sadistic gay man was messed up by his mom.

Perhaps all of the above have fallen under the influence under the flamboyant influence of Reverend Benson who strides to his pulpit in priestly black robes and exits in a flaming red formal dress and white high-heeled shoes. Or perhaps none of the others knows him, because Rev. Benson preaches directly to us, not at all happy about the intolerance and homophobia we’re spreading around the neighborhood.

Late in Act 1, we get a delightfully specious explanation for all this disconnection. The only white person in the cast seats himself on a chair upstage, seemingly prepared to lead a group therapy session. No, he is actually moderating a symposium where three of the four black cast members have gathered – excluding Sutter. After their previous trashy or swishy turns, they are now the three different playwrights who have written all the action we’ve seen so far. Sophisticated, intellectual, and artsy, they give the Moderator a really hard time.

That veiled hostility toward white people is the underbelly of what mostly seems to be a sharply satirical look at black folk. Mostly we’re looking at hilarious set pieces. Friends try to dissuade Genitalia’s expectant mom from committing her folly while gossiping lustily about it. Or years later, we see Sutter’s mom absolutely putting her foot down on his participation in a sissy high school musical, insisting that he take up a sport while his disengaged stepdad mostly buries himself behind a newspaper.

And of course, the remedy for somebody repeatedly stalking Sutter on the way home from the library isn’t to call the cops – it’s to stop reading those damn Jackie Collins books. The Michael Jackson Thriller jacket continues to fly under Mom’s radar.

More bizarre and surreal is the grownup Genitalia, in a white bridal gown, un- or dis-marrying Intifada in a formal ceremony, complete with increasingly antagonistic vows, ending with bitch slaps from both lesbians. So when Sutter and his boyfriend Larry agree on an assignation with a lonely white guy, what could go wrong?

Kevin Aoussou, who has played a variety of dark roles for Shakespeare Carolina, including Dorian Gray a couple of years ago, mixes it up a little bit more for us here as Sutter. He’s in much lighter scenes now as the younger Sutter, subjected to the bootycandy and compulsory sports indignities inflicted upon him by his mom, more vulnerable and less arrogant. He’s also capable of insight and regret here, delivering a more fully rounded portrayal here than we’ve seen from him before.

Yet the show largely belongs to Jeremy DeCarlos from the moment he tosses off Reverend Benson’s black robes and applies his lipstick. Equally satisfying after his low-key and sympathetic episodes as Step Dad and Larry (the boyfriend), he reappears as Old Granny at an old age home, where she serves up solace to Sutter (and flashbacks for us) when he visits her. All this wisdom and warm reminiscence are bartered for contraband edible eats.

Lydia Williamson and Ericka Ross sinuously intertwine throughout the two-hour evening as mothers, daughters, and playwrights. As the immature mom insisting on naming her daughter Genitalia and later as the more butch daughter Intifada, Williamson certainly lays down a credible case for being the more incorrigible of the two. But while Ross is purposely overmatched as Genitalia, her insensitivity and homophobia as Sutter’s mom are as chilling as they are hilarious.

Directing the show, Martin Damien Wilkins gives all his black performers license to take it far enough over-the-top to remind us occasionally of The Colored Museum, George C. Wolfe’s hilarious 1986 subversion of honored black theatre traditions. Relying primarily on projections, set designer Chip Decker comes fairly close to convincing us that The Mint is Actor’s Theatre’s permanent home. Certainly the acoustics here are far more hospitable than the disastrous holiday sojourn at Charlotte Ballet’s McBride-Bonnefoux studio for The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical.

Maybe the niftiest touch from Wilkins, restoring some of the distance between Colored Museum and this 2011 satire, is the consistently natural work he calls forth from Chaz Pofahl in five different roles. Except as the fulsome officiator at the Genitalia-Intifada breakup, Pofahl is consistently life-sized and somewhat pitiful as our white guy – even when he turns up as the pervert stalking the teen-aged Sutter from the library. Instead of shocking me as Sutter and Larry’s victim later on, when he came out to the hallway outside his hotel room completely naked, he broke my heart a little bit.

Arguably, he’s the only player who bares body or soul all evening long.

Wild as it is, Bootycandy is an autobiographical piece by a black gay playwright with an incongruously Irish name. A portion of O’Hara’s animus is directed intellectually toward his own black community, and another more visceral portion is directed reflexively toward white people. Most poignant of all is the remaining scrutiny that O’Hara directs toward himself and his own shortcomings.