Tag Archives: Mark Sutton

“Summer Night, With Unicorn” Plants the Seed for Professional Jewish Theatre at Shalom Park

Review:  Summer Night, With Unicorn

By Perry Tannenbaum

In a cycle that begins in November, The Levine Jewish Community Center jumped aboard the Jewish Plays Project two years ago as Charlotte became one of 12 cities adjudicating JPP’s annual Jewish Playwriting Contest. Charlotte has already assembled 21 readers for the judging process, tied with Chicago for the most among participating cities, in deciding the three scripts that are publicly presented in the spring at Gorelick Hall. That’s where the Shalom Park audience takes over, choosing the winner and also-rans for our region. From those results, a consensus national winner is chosen – not only for presentation at an annual Jewish play festival up in New York but also for full professional productions in all the cities where the Project has taken root. Last year’s contest was different from those that preceded, pitting all winners from previous contests against each other, so that an all-time winner from 2012 to 2017 would emerge. Decided by an objective points system, the 2018 contest actually produced two winners, Estelle Singerman by David Rush, winner of the 2013 prize, and Belfast Kind by Margot Connolly, the 2015 winner.

Among the co-winners, Charlotte chose Rush’s bittersweet comedy-fantasy. We had been told at the readers’ committee meeting back in January that Rush’s title was in flux. By the time it was presented at The Festival of Jewish Theater in June, Estelle had been renamed Summer Night, With Unicorn. That’s the title that JStage brought to Gorelick, sporting poster and playbill artwork with a Marc Chagall flavor that marvelously reflected the spirit and the magical realism of Rush’s play. The main figures in Kayla Piscatelli’s artwork are a crescent moon over the head and neck of a unicorn. Within that white unicorn, there is a silhouetted cityscape of skyscrapers with space enough above them for the Hebrew letters of the first four words of the traditional mourner’s kaddish. Estelle is a gregarious elderly Jew, not devoutly religious, since we meet her a little after 10pm at a lonely McDonald’s in Chicago. There’s nobody else to pester but Warren Spencer, an obvious Cubs fan busily clogging his arteries with a burger and a large order of fries.

Estelle would like this sullen, downcast, and brooding widower to believe she’s doing him a favor by sharing his fries and perhaps hoping to cheer him up as she invites him on a late-night odyssey. She will take him to a park, the Lake Michigan shore, a Christian Science reading room, a synagogue, and – inevitably – a zoo. Where else would Estelle and Warren converse with Seymour, a reincarnated giraffe? Rush proves to be very ecumenical in his ramblings around Chicago. The depressed and anorexic Hannah Kipper reads tarot cards on her lakeside blanket, the reading room is managed by a kindly Sister Rose, and the dark synagogue is haunted by a rabbi who’s unsure whether he’s alive or dead, a thickly bearded gent with Wandering Jew earmarks who has his visitors wondering who’s dreaming whom. Nor are the characteristics that Hannah and Rush assign to the Unicorn gleaned from the Encyclopedia Judaica, where there is no entry for the mythological beast.

Long before intermission arrives, we realize that Warren is a stubbornly lapsed Jew who is stewing in bitterness over the circumstances surrounding his wife Doris’s death. Estelle is a widow herself, habitually wandering the city at night because she’s afraid to go to sleep, promising Warren the glory of a sunrise over the lake at the end of their journey. We join Warren in wondering what Estelle’s ulterior motive is, getting hints that he isn’t the first to join her on her midnight rambles. As the lights go down for intermission, it becomes suddenly clear that Estelle is looking somebody to say kaddish over her. What we didn’t know was whether Estelle was alive, with a wisp of matrimonial motives triggering her quest, or dead, needing Warren’s prayers to bring an end to her ghostly wanderings. The other big question was whether Warren would ever say kaddish over his own beloved Doris, let alone this strange and mystifying Estelle.

My estimate is that I haven’t reviewed a theatre performance at Gorelick in almost 16 years, during which time the J has sprouted multiple new wings, one of them two stories high, along with a new entrance and dazzling new facilities – all of which make the Gorelick, now shunted from the front to the back of the complex, look old and drab by comparison. The stage and the dusty chairs we sat in could sorely use a refresh, for starters. JStage producer Susan Cherin Gundersheim, the cultural arts director at the Levine JCC (and a theatre professional in her own right), is clearly facing an uphill climb in convincing people to make a serious investment in the J’s theatre program. Gundersheim has managed to bring professional-grade theatre to the site regardless.

To check off all the design and directorial boxes, Gundersheim has brought in Piscatelli and Mark Sutton to don multiple hats, which they do admirably on their shoestring budget. Sutton’s set design, little more than three wooden frames after we exited McD’s, meshed well with his directorial concept, calling upon his audience to mostly imagine the scenes for themselves. Piscatelli’s costumes and lighting were no less complimentary, the raggedy cerements for the ghostly Doris and the gleaming silk cape for the Unicorn contrasting effectively with the garish attire of our earthbound protagonists.

There are plenty of Hebrew and Yiddish expressions studding this script like landmines. Fortunately, Sheila Snow Proctor navigated the treacherous terrain almost perfectly as Estelle, certainly better than Sutton, who allows Devin Clark to mangle his Yiddish mercilessly as the ageless Rabbi. Portraying a lapsed Jew, David Catenazzo probably earned a pass as Warren on his trespasses with the Hebrew blessing for putting on a tallit – I’ve heard worse during torah readings at my Conservative synagogue. Proctor not only clops around like a pensioner, slightly stooped, slightly squinting, she gets the essence of Jewish soul and humor, the impulse of kvetching leavened with a pinch of self-mockery. She even carries her late husband’s tallit bag and tefillin with a touch of reverence. Perhaps Proctor would have had an easier time of it if Catenazzo had similarly leavened his anger and impatience with hints of the Jewish soul that had loved and indulgently persevered with Doris when she wasn’t angelic. To some extent, Warren needed to be charmed by Estelle. Judging this role is a little like living the journey of Ebenezer Scrooge.

With two major cameos, the Rabbi and the giraffe, Clark had the most opportunities to shine among the supporting players. He was especially entertaining as Seymour sparring with Warren, who probed into the question of why he had been demoted to giraffe in his present incarnation. Yet Clark was curiously endearing as the bewildered Rabbi, notwithstanding the butchered vay iz meers. Liora Tal likely sparked some objections for how she delivered Hannah Kipper, a little underpowered and maybe a little too serene for a young fortune teller looking forward to death – but Estelle persisted in feeding her, and I didn’t think we were supposed to believe her, either. I’m afraid that Mariana Bracciale didn’t get much of a chance to shine as Sister Rose, but at least she got to glow in the denouement as the Unicorn, making her entrance and exit from the margins of the audience.

No cameo better encapsulated what Summer Night, With Unicorn was all about than Stephanie DiPaolo’s visit from the beyond as the ghost of Doris. Even more befuddled and uncomprehending than the Rabbi, DiPaolo only flickeringly registered what Warren was asking of her, but although she haltingly spoke, she never responded. That was very much the dynamic in Rush’s magical journey. Multiple possibilities presented themselves to Estelle when she posed the question we all have about what lies ahead, but through the night, there was no clearer answer than that death will surely come. With richer lighting, sound design, and a sprinkle of special effects, DiPaolo’s clarifying moment of confusion might have reached a finer pinnacle. Hopefully, when more people at the Levine JCC appreciate the gems these professionals are creating, they will also realize that the artists and their audience deserve a finer setting.

 

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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.

Up, Up and Away After a Poignant Deportation

Theater Review: The Magic Kite

 

Magic Kite (C)DBise  - 018

By Perry Tannenbaum

Papa Roberto dabbles in magic, to the delight of his kids, Tito and Milagro. His most treasured father-and-son moments are spent building and flying kites – until Papa goes off to work and never returns. How Tito reacts to his dad’s sudden deportation to Mexico is the heart of The Magic Kite, now in its world premiere production at ImaginOn. Children’s Theatre of Charlotte commissioned the new work by José Cruz González because artistic director Adam Burke was moved by artist-activist Rosalia Torres-Weiner’s paintings and her Papalote Project here in town.

At the same time that this project gives children of deported parents the opportunity to vent some of their anguish through artistic expression, classmates, teachers and parents become more aware that families fractured by deportation are living right here in Charlotte. Staging this new play at the Wells Fargo Playhouse is a great way to extend that worthy mission to an even wider audience.

González, whose adaptation of Tomás and the Library Lady was staged at the same venue five years ago, seems a bit rushed here when establishing the kite and magic strands of his plot at the beginning and when he ties them together at the end. There’s plenty going on in just over 45 minutes as Burke directs the four members of the Children’s Theatre Resident Touring Company, since each of the performers communicates with us through at least one puppet – and a few sprinklings of Spanish.

Although Mark Sutton’s puppet designs have a nice folksy quality to them, narrowing our attention is a bit challenging with Torres-Weiner’s paintings flanking the stage while we jump back and forth from the magic scenes to the kite scenes. Scott Miller presides over these early scenes warmly and authoritatively as Papa with officious, worried support from Veda Covington as Mama Esperanza. It turns out that it’s really important for Roberto to get his taillight fixed.

When Papa gets picked up and deported, the weight of the story falls upon Tito, and Rahsheem Shabazz moved me in making Tito’s transition from awestruck child to the little man of the house. Leslie Ann Giles seems shortchanged at first, drawing the role of littler Milagro, but she soon gets her hands on a couple of other puppets. The most significant of these is Tito’s school chum Jamal, aggrieved by the loss of his mother, but Giles also gets the choicest cameo as the pet cat.

As often happens in children’s literature, wounds and losses that two kids have in common help in bridging their differences and cementing their friendship. González poignantly employs magical realism when Tito takes his family skyward on his kite, journeying to Mexico where they can be reunited with Papa. But an invisible barrier prevents them from crossing the border, so Tito and his family can see his beloved Papa, but they cannot join him.

At such fantastical moments, puppets can facilitate wonders. It’s just the aftermath that González bungles, loosening his grip on the tiller as we sail toward a consoling affirmation. I’m reminded of my teaching days, when I’d notice the class bell sneaking up on me. I’d rush through – or even skip over – the crucial ending of my lesson to assign the homework before the students rushed out.

Pretty much the same thing happens here as González tells us that more kites fly upwards after Tito’s sadly lands. We just don’t get a satisfying account of how that happens or what it means. The Magic Kite could easily unfold all its potential magic if González could add 10-15 minutes to it. Meanwhile, it was very useful to have Torres-Weiner hanging around after last Sunday’s matinee to answer kids’ questions in the talkback. They asked some really good ones.

Spymaster With a Shopping Cart

By Perry Tannenbaum

I’ve seen over 200 productions by Children’s Theatre of Charlotte since I began covering the local scene in 1987, but only a handful have been as emotionally powerful as Danny, King of the Basement, now at the Wells Fargo Playhouse through Sunday. Grim realities pursue Danny Carter and his mom, Louise, who are fleeing from her latest bad decision when we first see them, an abusive boyfriend. That makes eight moves in the last two years, according to Danny, who keeps a more diligent count than Mom.

Danny’s disintegrating confidence in his mom and the wandering, often homeless nature of his life combine to push him into a world of fantasy – where he’s perpetually undercover as a juvenile spy, always an outsider looking in, always preparing for the next hasty getaway. So much always seems to be hanging by a thin thread in Canadian playwright David S. Craig’s penetrating script. To get their crummy new basement apartment, Louise has lied to the new landlady, pretending to be single and childless.

It’s only by speaking with Penny, the landlady’s daughter, that Danny discovers the deception. We can understand Danny’s wariness about his mom’s landing a job and not foolishly spending the little money that they have, since we’re a bit skeptical ourselves. While Danny remains uncertain about whether his mom will be able to make next month’s rent, his situation becomes more anguished because he’s actually making friends with Penny and another new neighbor, Angelo.

These other kids also have their woes. Angelo can’t seem to please his dad, whose presence is signaled by a lion’s roar that occasionally emanates from behind the entryway to his apartment. Dad might respect Angelo more once he scores his first hockey goal, but where is the confidence needed to score that goal going to come from?

Penny seems to be confident and affluent enough, but her parents are divorced and her dad is delinquent with support payments, spooking the cashflow. When Mom and Dad bicker over money, they do it through Penny, who carries two cell phones to field their calls. At one point, when she has both combatants on the line, Penny wraps the two phones together and drops them in a trashcan so they can duke it out.

Craig finds an even funnier way to defuse the seriousness of Angelo’s problems, as Danny and Penny perform a mock brain surgery that removes the bad thoughts ruining his self-confidence. Danny carries a shopping cart filled with carefully curated junk that becomes an eccentric toy chest that beautifully serves the kids’ pretend games.

The camaraderie cemented by this rollicking surgery unravels when Danny goes to school with his new chums. Instead of dutifully reading when his teacher calls on him, Danny cuts up and improvises his own story, earning himself a swift trip to the principal’s office. The smokescreen may bamboozle the new teacher, but Angelo and Penny see through it instantly – the collateral damage of Danny’s unsettled ramblings is a lingering illiteracy. It will be cataclysmic when Danny’s new chums call him out on it.

Beneath all of his spymaster tale-spinner façade, Danny is deeply ashamed – of his mom and of himself. He prides himself in being able to make friends, even best friends, in the space of a day. Yet Danny has moved around so much that he has never truly realized that the friends he makes can be a support system. That’s the deeply moving aha moment we witness here.

The only parent or teacher we actually see onstage here is Danny’s mom, but she is so flawed, so prone to unwise decisions and failure, that we’re apt to see her as under Danny’s care rather than the other way around. It’s a world of children we’re seeing, with adult intrusions but hardly any adult perspective or authority. With adults portraying all of these roles, there’s a fascinating crossroads of empathy that makes this a special experience, even for the ImaginOn fantasy palace.

Under Mark Sutton’s finely nuanced direction, the cast immerses itself into these kids and their interactions without regressing into them. Even the lighter, sillier moments aren’t tainted with excess mimicry. I was especially impressed with Scott Miller’s rendering of Danny, his guarded slouch persisting even when he resolves to do something remarkably brave. Danny’s vulnerability remains near the surface no matter how merry the moment, so his sudden disintegration comes as no surprise.

As Penny, Veda Covington must change from her kid-on-the-street self to her daughter personality each time one of her cellphones rings. There’s a little of the spoiled brat to the kid, but as the ambassador between her bickering parents, she isn’t always the submissive child. Sometimes she’s the real grownup. With Angelo, the differences are perhaps more subtle for Rahsheem Shabazz. There are different shades of inferiority that he feels toward the affluent Penny and his abusive dad, but it’s wariness rather than superiority that dominates his attitude toward Danny.

Leslie Ann Giles has so often been the grownup in the room during her 10 seasons with the Children’s Theatre touring company, particularly in their various Commedia lampoons. So it’s interesting to see her going against that grain as Louise, the wayward adult who needs to beg for a second and third chance – from her son! Giles obviously revels in the opportunity to be so complicated, wanting to be the good mother and provider but frequently sliding backwards in those uphill battles.

As hard as some parents struggle to maintain the illusion that they’ve got everything under control, I wonder how uncomfortable taking their children to see the Carters might be. Danny could be the perfect medicine for such parents. I know that I felt myself rooting ardently for both Danny and Louise.

Lady Bracknell Weathers Three Storms

Reviews of The Importance of Being Earnest and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Jon Ecklund (John Worthing) and Lance Beilstein (Algernon Moncrieff) in The Importance of Being Earnest.

They were planning to open The Importance of Being Earnest on January 22 at Theatre Charlotte, where Oscar Wilde’s “Trivial Comedy for Serious People” hadn’t played since 2002. But the snow and sleet that were icing the roads hadn’t begun to melt away on the following evening, so opening night was transformed into an opening Sunday matinee. Even if I had been able to scale my icebound driveway, I was already booked for the opera at Belk Theater.

After all the reshuffling on my iCal, my wife Sue and I were finally able to catch up with Wilde’s menagerie of smart alecks at the second Sunday matinee, nine days after the originally scheduled opening. With so many other reshufflers in the crowd, the Queens Road barn was close to capacity. An extra performance has been slated for 2:30 this Saturday to help out other migrants.

The airy sophistication of Joshua Webb’s set design boded well for the blizzard of bon mots to come, but who were these Ernests opening up the action, Lance Beilstein as the roguish Algernon Moncrieff and Jon Ecklund as the deceitful John Worthing? Beilstein had briefly blipped on my radar last year when he was cast in a stage adaptation of Casablanca that didn’t happen. and Ecklund had never performed on a Charlotte stage before nailing his audition as Wilde’s protagonist.

Yet they instantly established a fine rapport, hinting early on that Algy and Ernest — as John calls himself in London — were not only great friends but kindred spirits.

There was a problem, however, even before the divine ladies arrived. Though their chemistry was sparkling, Beilstein’s cue pickup was razor sharp while Ecklund’s was erratic. Not a symptom you would expect from your lead at the end of your second week.

Ecklund’s symptoms became more serious during the scene change between Acts 2 and 3. In fact, he was taken to the hospital, reportedly suffering from dizziness, and didn’t reappear.

Johnny Hohenstein, who plays John’s butler at his country home, bravely substituted for Ecklund during the final 19 minutes, script in hand. That forced the imperious Lady Bracknell to announce herself when she triumphantly reappeared.

The waters were already troubled in Act 1 when Jill Bloede, amply bustled in a floor-length dress, first floated in like a majestic tugboat as Her Ladyship. It was she and she alone who must approve of Ernest as the prospective husband of Algy’s cousin, Miss Gwendolen Fairfax — a grim prospect, since her wicked nephew has already devoured all the cucumber sandwiches.

Lady B attempts to be judicious. Ernest’s income of seven to eight thousand pounds, the equivalent of $1 million annually according to the Norton Edition of the text, actually counts in his favor.

It’s Ernest’s lineage that is an insuperable stumbling block, for he cannot trace his family any further back than a leather handbag! My, how Bloede huffs when she repeats that fatal word, nearly adding an extra syllable to it each time she lingers on the first letter.

Lady Bracknell’s contempt was so hilariously absolute that when she exited, leaving Ernest and Gwendolen’s hopes of marital bliss in shambles, the audience erupted in lusty applause.

By the sort of insane coincidence that Wilde uses to resolve Ernest’s difficulties, Bloede’s name rhymes with Lady. So, after her current triumph, Jill is no more: she will no doubt have to suffer being called Bloede Bracknell for the rest of her days. You may revise my headline accordingly.

Needless to say, Bloede’s arrival calmed any worries that this production, directed by Tonya Bludsworth, would be anything less than a delight. Eleven years after starring in NC Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Gretchen McGinty’s professionalism still gleams with vitality and caprice as Gwendolen, irresistible despite her perverse silliness. She accepts Ernest, but only for the shallowest of reasons — she’s the perfect antithesis of Juliet.

Caprice continues to rule when we arrive at John’s country home for Act 2, where we meet his lovely ward, Cicely Cardew. Her requirements for a prospective husband are not merely similar to Gwen’s.

They are exactly the same, obliging both John and Algy to make christening appointments with the Rev. Canon Chasuble. Under the watchful eyes of Cicely’s governess, Miss Prism, Algernon has snuck into John’s home, pretending to be his fictitious brother Ernest, and swept Miss Cardew off her feet. That’s partly because Miss Prism’s eyes are devotedly affixed to the Reverend.

As we’ll learn in the denouement, it’s not the first time Miss Prism’s attention has wandered.

Further complicating John and Algy’s attempts to live double lives, Gwen follows her would-be fiancé into the country — with her mother barking at her heels. The running joke of Act 2, amid all the confusion of who’s really betrothed to Ernest, is the radical shifts of sisterly love and murderous hatred between Gwen and Cicely.

Mixed in with devout cynicism and decadence, punctiliousness and pomposity squandered over trivialities are the key ingredients of Wilde’s satire, and Bludsworth has her entire cast embracing it with the proper élan.

Emily Klingman is hormone-driven innocence in a lemon chiffon dress as Cicely, assiduously transcribing Algy’s marriage proposal into her teen diary, and Hank West bumbles quite sanctimoniously as Rev. Chasuble when he manages to recall where he is. Scrunched up like a squirrel, Stephanie DiPaolo is the essence of fretful and incompetent spinsterhood as Miss Prism.

Bludsworth also differentiates nicely between the servants. Ron Turek is urbane and dignified as Algy’s man, Lane; while Hohenstein, tasked to distraction by his temperamental superiors, is more apt to let his resentments play over his face as John’s butler, Merriman. Or he was until he was obliged to pick up Ecklund’s script and stand up to Bloede Bracknell.

Edward Tulane(C)Donna Bise 6686

Photo by Donna Bise

Not at all plagued by postponements, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane opened at ImaginOn last weekend in as polished a production as you’ll ever see from Children’s Theatre. It’s a gem that will no doubt remind longtime subscribers of The Velveteen Rabbit, since the title character is a rabbit doll. Ah, but Edward is fashioned entirely of porcelain, except for his furry ears and tail (he prefers not to think about the origin of his whiskers).

Adapted by Dwayne Hartford from the novel by Kate DiCamillio, Edward’s story begins when he is given to 10-year-old Abilene Tulane on Egypt Street by her mysterious grandmother Pellegrina, the only human who knows his heart.

Unlike the Velveteen, Edward does not aspire to be real or human, but he is frustrated when Abilene doesn’t set him in a place where he can see the outdoors and the stars through her window.

Even before he is severely broken many years later in Memphis, Pellegrina perceives his flaws, and the inference is that he must suffer for them. But Edward’s sufferings and adventures will be epic ­— beyond human, to tell the truth.

Our protagonist remains the three-foot doll the DiCamillio created, but Mark Sutton is always close by to articulate his thoughts, shouldering and picking a banjo as Edward morphs into Susannahr, Malone, Clyde, and Jangles during his odyssey on land and under the sea.

Margaret Dalton figures most prominently as the bereft Abilene, but she resurfaces on numerous occasions during Edward’s journey, most notably as a frisky dog. Beginning as the semi-exotic Pellegrina, Allison Rhinehart ranges across multiple roles and genders, last seen as Lucius Clark, the sagely doll mender. Devin Clark rounds out the cast, shapeshifting from fisherman to hobo to handyman when he isn’t slyly inserting sound effects. Pure enchantment for 81 minutes.