Tag Archives: Marla Brown

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.

 

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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.