Tag Archives: Marla Brown

Warehouse PAC’s SWEAT Deploys Stellar Cast on Stellar Script

Review: Sweat at Spirit Square

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Not at all liberal or intellectual, nor with aspirations toward witty stylishness or trendiness, Lynn Nottage’s SWEAT is a brutal and humbling lesson in empathy. Very humbling for clueless liberals and intellectuals who never got why blue collar and union workers jumped out of the pockets of the Democratic Party at the turn of the 21st century – turning our history and politics into a train wreck.

Premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, before opening at The Public Theatre in November 2016 and transferring to Broadway the following March, Nottage’s working-class drama, which won a second Pulitzer Prize for the playwright in 2017, seemed to break out when it would resonate loudest with 2016 presidential politics and issues. By that time, NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), ratified more than two decades earlier in 1993, was swept into a whirlwind of xenophobic issues that included illegal immigrants, Mexican gang rapists, manufacturing jobs shipped overseas, immigration reform, and a border wall.

Nottage mostly takes us back to 2000, when the reality of NAFTA was impacting on steelworkers in Reading, Pennsylvania. The authenticity of her lunch-pail portrayals comes by dint of personal interviews that Nottage conducted in Reading with Kate Whoriskey, who would ultimately direct the Oregon premiere, over a two-year period beginning in 2011. Subjects of these interviews included many factory workers who had been locked out of a steel tubing manufacturing plant for 93 weeks.

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Two such plants figure in Nottage’s portrait of Reading. One of them has previously crushed Brucie and his fellow union members, so he’s already a pitiful druggie when the action begins. Another plant, where his son Chris and his estranged wife Cynthia still work, will soon follow suit, further dividing Brucie’s family and the other regulars who gather at a rundown bar where Stan serves up drinks and downtrodden Oscar mops up.

Directing the Warehouse Performing Arts Center production at Duke Energy Theater in Spirit Square, a month after its debut run in Cornelius, Michael Connor deftly contextualizes the action. Where Nottage’s script calls for “News of the day” sound montages, we’re repeatedly reminded – amid mentions of Allen Iverson, the Philly 76ers, and troublemaking Iraq – that this is the election year of the pivotal Bush-Gore showdown.

Yet Nottage isn’t exclusively focused on the fallout from NAFTA, nor is Brucie the only foreshadowing of how her story will develop. The preamble to the explosive action of 2000 is the opening scene, where Chris and his friend Jason meet separately in 2008 with Evan, their parole officer. As we gradually become aware that the fallout from NAFTA will deal yet another blow to Reading, we also realize that the chums will do something violent to earn their serious prison time.

We also learn in the preamble how different and antagonistic Jason and Chris have become, for Jason sports white supremacist tattoos on his face from his prison years while Chris grasps a bible in his left hand. Jason is the powder keg we keep our eyes on in the unfolding flashback scenes, but it isn’t too long before we realize that his emerging racism is a family hand-me-down from Tracey, his mom.

The rifts between these black and white families develop along separate tracks. When Olstead’s posts a notice that they have an opening for a new supervisor, Tracey’s kneejerk reaction is to spurn the idea of crossing over to management, but Cynthia tells Stan that she intends to apply, feeling that she has earned a promotion by virtue of all the years of hard work she has put on the floor.

Tracey certainly vies with her son Jason as the most toxic person in town. When she loses out to Cynthia on the promotion after she also applies, she attributes her friend’s success to affirmative action and the tax breaks she presumes Olstead’s receives for hiring a minority. She also refuses to help Oscar come on board at the company, viewing him as a foreigner. Of Puerto Rican ancestry but born in Reading, Oscar eventually signs on as a scab when Olstead’s locks Tracey, Jason, Chris, and their union out. They send Cynthia out to post the lockout notice, further roiling tensions around the plant – and at the bar.

So the ills of Reading aren’t confined to corporate greed. Xenophobia and racism are also on the scene, bringing latent Trumpism into bloom. The balance of Nottage’s analysis extends to the depth and pluminess of the parts she doles out. Warehouse artistic director Marla Brown only slightly dilutes Tracey’s toxicity, leaving room for a hint of mid-America wholesomeness and nicely gauging Nottage’s rounded assessment. For the arc of her disintegration starts at a merry, drunken celebration of her 45th birthday in the first flashback scene.

Tanya McClellan, off my radar for far too long, shows everyone what she can do with the opportunity to branch out from comedy roles into drama, for she does more than her share to flavor the friendship – and later, the complex antagonism – between Cynthia and Tracey. Before serving as a barometer for Tracey’s disintegration, there’s a marital confrontation with Brucie where Cynthia fills out our picture of how far he has fallen. McClellan’s mix of vulnerability and dignity is just right in both situations.

Never on an even keel like the other characters here, Brucie is as challenging as Tracey, for he’d flatten to two dimensions in the hands of an actor who couldn’t deliver several levels of desperation. In his scattered scenes, including one with a majestic monologue and another where he proves not to be the sponge we thought he was, Dominic Weaver is so very real and unforgettable.

Matt Webster as Stan and Justin Thomas as Oscar seem equally detached from the main plotlines – until they aren’t. While still on the periphery, both have eloquent moments. Webster excels when Stan describes life in a company as successive generations of the same family toiling at the same plant for successive lifetimes, with no solid hopes of advancement, no real appreciation from management, and instantly disposable. After about an hourlong immersion in that dreary reality, Thomas gets to shock us a little by telling us what it’s like as a Hispanic to live a lifetime as the hydrant of all these self-pitying underdogs, even if you’re born in the US like Oscar.

If you’ve already gathered that there are no weak links in this Warehouse production, you won’t be surprised to learn that I was impressed by both our protagonists, Maxwell Greger as Jason and Drue Allen as Chris, though Nottage shunts her leads to the wings for long stretches while plant politics take center stage. From the black eye we see on Greger in the preamble, augmenting the three tats on the other side of his face, we know quickly that that Jason is always coiled for action. Even when those markers disappear in the flashback scenes, Greger has a chiseled James Dean intentness in the set of his jaw, an unfocused discontent that portends trouble.

Allen, in his portrayal of Chris, underscores what irks Jason and his mom most deeply: like Cynthia, who craves a promotion, Chris wants to better himself by going to college. There’s a relatively calm purposefulness to his demeanor, firm but without rigid righteousness, as he deals with his broken dad and his beggary. And we come to see through Allen’s eyes that when a broken justice system unjustly incarcerates you because of your color, taking up the bible isn’t the worst way to cope.

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As Evan, Ron McClelland has that seen-it-all confidence of a parole officer who knows the ploys and dodges of hardened criminals, yet beneath his tough exterior, this copper seems earnestly engaged with even Jason’s rehabilitation. Becca Worthington rounds out the cast as Jessie, a third musketeer with Cynthia and Tracey at the outset when they’re still chums. Arguably, she serves as a white counterpart to Brucie: no matter how sloshed she gets hanging out at the bar until last call, she cleans up and punctually punches in at the plant at 6:00 or 7:00 the next morning.

The presence of McClelland and Worthington in such minor roles is just another earmark of this high-quality Warehouse PAC production. It also testifies to the attractions of working with such a stellar cast on such a stellar and timely script.

Actor’s Theatre Stages a Superior “Hand to God” – In Hilarious Spurts

Review:  Hand to God

By Perry Tannenbaum

There are certainly instances when a touring version of a Broadway hit comes to Charlotte – or when a local company tackles a Broadway or off-Broadway show I’ve previously reviewed – that I’m tempted to tell people that they missed out by not catching this show up in New York. On the other hand, there are stellar productions like the Actor’s Theatre take on Robert Askins’ Hand to God, currently at the Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus, that make me wish to tell all who saw the Broadway version, “You wuz robbed!”

Elements of what director Chip Decker and his Actor’s Theatre cast deliver just make me wish to exclaim “Wow!” because they’re done so well, while others make me think “Of course!” because the Broadway production missed them. The wows begin with Decker’s set, proving once and for all that the Hadley is more than a make-do location until Actor’s settles into its new facility on Freedom Drive. Next year, we hope.

Seating capacity is in the off-Broadway category, but the height and width of the drab Texas church basement, where we meet Jason and his widowed mom, belies any cramped expectations. It’s high enough so that an unexpected entrance from street level can be fairly epic – and risky. When we adjourn to a nearby playground, a pair of swings can smoothly descend from the fly loft so that Jason’s tentative overtures to Jessica, his puppet class classmate, can go freakily awry.

The chief reason why things go wrong all through this dark 80-minute comedy is Jason’s puppet, whom he calls Tyrone. If what I read about Hand to God productions around the country is indicative, props designer Carrie Cranford has created four Tyrones. And maybe some spares. Each one is bigger, more ornate, and demonic than his predecessor. From what I remember – and what I can pull down on YouTube – Cranford’s latter creations are more fearsome than those that terrorized Broadway.

We see a relatively benign incarnation of Tyrone before the action begins, recounting the story of humanity leading up to the invention of the Devil as a convenient excuse for the evil that we do. But couldn’t this disclaimer be a diversionary tactic from the Devil? Bwa-ha-ha!

Askins, of course, wants to have it both ways. There are numerous reasons for us to conclude that Tyrone’s lewd spewings stem from his troubled past, most notably the death of his father, and his mom Margery’s outré way of coping with her grief. She’s still not a great mom, doesn’t have much control over her sexual cravings, and she’s forcing Jason into this whole church-and-puppetry scene.

Pressured by Pastor Greg to present a puppet show at an upcoming Sunday service, Margery is deaf to her son’s desperate pleas to give up puppeteering. So is Tyrone, who has developed a life – and a voice – of his own.

After similar bullied roles at Actor’s Theatre in Bad Jews and Stupid Fucking Bird, we can rely upon Chester Shepherd to be a frailer Jason than the more imposing Steven Boyer was on Broadway in 2015. But the softer Jason is paired in Shepherd with a more vehement, rabid, and guttural Tyrone than Boyer was at the Booth Theatre – a voice that leaves Cookie Monster in the dust, fully worthy of Cranford’s latter puppets. Shepherd’s manipulation of these puppets is as uncanny as the abrupt and violent shifts in his voice when Jason and Tyrone engage in their fiercest showdowns.

I read that one Jason/Tyrone in a regional production steamed his vocal cords after every performance. Not sure if that would be enough to repair the abuse I saw Shepherd inflict on his larynx. At certain points, I had to worry whether Shepherd had gotten carried away – OK, possessed – by his Tyrone. It’s an extraordinary performance, that’s for sure, but never a slick one: though Jason flaps Tyrone’s toothy yap, Askins doesn’t want the lad to attempt ventriloquism.

Nicely aligned with the diminutive Shepherd, Decker has deglamorized the older generation, offering us better assurance that Margery truly is at loose ends, that Pastor Greg might be desperate for her companionship, and that we’re truly in Cypress, Texas, and not Hollywood. Longtime leading man Mark Kudisch and Geneva Carr were less reassuring on Broadway than Brett Gentile and Marla Brown are at the Hadley.

Brown is more than sufficiently attractive to believably draw the attentions of Pastor Greg and Timothy, the resentful delinquent in her puppet class. But she comes at us frumpier, more frazzled and humdrum domesticated. That works so well for the nasty surprises she has in store for us and for the two teenage boys.

From the first time he performed at Actor’s Theatre in 2004 as a domineering cop in Lobby Hero, Gentile has shown the ability to be the tough guy, capable of truly bodacious bellowing if you set him loose. Yet he can turn around and be meek and pastoral, visibly wounded by Margery’s rejection. Unlike Kudisch, with his John Wayne bulk, when Gentile confronts Timothy or the rabid Tyrone, you can wonder what the outcome will be. These were probably the chief “Of course!” moments for me at the Hadley.

Grant Zavitkovsky isn’t as wiry or urban as his Broadway counterpart, so he doesn’t come across at first with quite the same nastiness and menace as Timothy, but his better looks and substantial size are better reasons for Jason to fear him and envy his success with women. There’s also a slight patina of complacency to Zavitkovsky that works very nicely before those instants when Margery and later Tyrone shock him.

Behind the multiple layers of her costume, Lizzie Medlin remains somewhat inscrutable as Jessica throughout Act 1. She recoils from Tyrone’s first breakouts with an utter spontaneity that compounds Jason’s embarrassment. Yet her later actions partially vindicate Tyrone’s contention that his lewd frankness was the best way to go. Nothing she does prepares us for her action heroics in Act 2.

All I’ve got say about that is to congratulate Medlin, Shepherd, Decker, and Cranford on the most hilarious puppet sex I’ve ever seen – and probably the best puppet therapy. Way better than Broadway, though perhaps the elderly ladies in the front row should have been warned that they were sitting in a splash zone.

Amid this unique brew of the bawdy, the violent, and the diabolical, Askins would have us contemplate the ontology of evil, the devil, and saviors. I could see where you might wish to skip that assignment.

 

Reunited and It Plays So Good

Theater review: Constellations

By Perry Tannenbaum

You might say the stars have aligned. Last week, reviewing Fly by Night at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, I wrote that the writing team of that musical was playing with the idea that everything that has ever happened was pre-ordained from the moment that the Big Bang birthed the star stuff we are made of. Well, now Nick Payne’s Constellations has opened at the Warehouse PAC in Cornelius, and one of its two protagonists is a Cambridge University cosmologist. At one point, she floats that same idea to her beau.

But Payne is playing differently, more elaborately, with Marianne and Roland, leaning on string theory to present their love story with multiple beginnings and middles, concluding with one last U-turn and never really giving us an ending. Or a simple way to understand what we have witnessed. We could be glimpsing multiple outcomes playing out in multiple universes. But despite the fancy quantum theory, every scene bears a kinship with the “Sure Thing” skit from David Ives’s All in the Timing, where another man and woman play out all the things that can go wrong on a first encounter before the couple clicks.

In this 80-minute show, Payne takes us beyond the first meeting to moving in together, possible infidelities, a breakup, reunion and marriage, and a possible cancer diagnosis. You could say they’ve shared a lifetime as their relationship unfolds in echoing and overlapping vignettes. Yet along the way, Marianne sends out the idea that time doesn’t really exist, loosing the possibility that everything happens simultaneously – and dealing hammer blows to the vaunted dating of the Big Bang (and the title of Ives’s potpourri).

Luckily, such nonsense is refuted by the play itself, which starts out with seeming frivolity as Roland repeatedly misfires with Marianne but grows more and more serious as their shared history develops – whatever we might imagine that to be, since each stage has many variants. Credit director Marla Brown’s finely gauged pacing and her stars, Cynthia Farbman Harris and Michael Harris, for making sure this Constellations evolves so gracefully from cute triviality to profundity.

Often over-the-top and old fashioned when he first turned up in Moving Poets and CAST productions – or more recently as the heavy in Arsenic and Old Lace at Theatre Charlotte – Michael proves once again at the Warehouse (where he shone in Stones in His Pockets four years ago) that he can do intimate and natural just as effectively. Here he’s subdued and awkward enough for us to believe he truly is a humble countrified beekeeper, and the midlife aspects that he brings to Roland texturize his romance rather than twisting it askew.

Married offstage as well as on, the Harrises have obviously benefited from the extra rehearsal time that their protracted proximity enables. Not a single line was bobbled last Saturday night as rain pelted the building. Even in radically different takes of the same scene, Michael and Cynthia managed the paradoxical feat of remaining the same people even if they were different from one blackout to the next. No, there weren’t multiple continuities in their multiple universes, but previous versions of the Roland-Marianne romance couldn’t be altogether discarded as we moved along.

The other benefit of the marriage is Michael’s Brit upbringing, obviously rubbing off onto Cynthia with a very convincing accent. Not a stranger to cold, cocksure roles, Cynthia adroitly mixes the intellectual superiority of a Cambridge cosmologist with Marianne’s vulnerabilities, both in her health and sociability. So there’s rich complexity when Marianne fends Roland off, when she yields to him, and when she drifts into dependency.

Individually, I don’t think either of the Harrises has been better onstage. Together, they’re quite special in a fascinating piece.