Tag Archives: Mary Louise Geiger

“Until the Flood” Overflows With Inner City Insights

Review: Until the Flood at Spoleto Festival USA

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Conceived and acted by Dael Orlandersmith, UNTIL THE FLOOD is an amazing, transformative theatre experience, briefly at Spoleto Festival USA through June 6. You quickly got the feeling that it was even more transformative for the playwright while she was interviewing the people she portrays – and likely transformative for the actress inhabiting those people before you. Commissioned by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2016, Orlandersmith was tasked with crafting a response to the shooting of Michael Brown by policeman Darren Wilson in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, on the night of August 9, 2014.

In carrying out her mission, Orlandersmith’s inquiry was an examination and a diagnosis of the effects of Brown’s shooting – not an investigation of the fatal event seeking to determine culpability. Her fundamental, open-ended question to many Ferguson and St. Louis residents, Orlandersmith told us in a public conversation at Spoleto during her run, was How did this event affect you?2022~Spoleto-161

Out of the answers she received – some of them stunning, no doubt – Orlandersmith forged eight composites, each of whom delivers a monologue until we circle back to retired English teacher Louisa Hemphill in completing our 75-minute visit to Ferguson. Set designer Takeshi Kata is sharply focused on making us feel like we are truly in Ferguson, with nearly antique objects such as a lamppost, an easy chair, a floor lamp, a coat stand, and a barber’s chair strategically strewn across the Festival Hall stage. This simple layout was surrounded by the sort of grassroots memorial that always seems to sprout up at the site of heart-rending American murders, a profusion of flowers, candles, cuddly stuffed animals, scribbled cards and messages, framed photos, and liquor bottles.2022~Spoleto-176

Kaye Voyce’s costume designs, all that Orlandersmith really needed to quickly change character, echoed the inner-city decrepitude. A couple of shawls and a few jackets – including a camo hoodie and a St. Louis Cardinals warmup – partially signaled the changes, while Nicholas Hussong’s video designs darkly completed the settings for the monologues. Helpfully, they were impressionistic depictions of building exteriors rather than realistic indoor depictions, so we knew we were at a steak house for retired policemen Rusty Harden, a wine bar for high school teacher Connie, and Reuben Little’s barbershop. The scene only brightened a little when minister Edna Lewis draped herself in a clerical shawl and we saw a rather photographic representation of her church.

So all of these Orlandersmith composites are rather specific and sharply drawn, usually memorable for at least one vivid anecdote in each monologue. We get to know the backgrounds of Hassan, the fluid rapper, racist electrician Dougray Smith, and aspiring high school student Paul, for in delving into how these people became who they are, the playwright was exploring how we became who we are.2022~Spoleto-171

Orlandersmith sought to be objective in order to be revelatory. She is keenly selective in what she relays to us and artful in how she orders her materials and lifts her respondents’ words imaginatively into the hallowed realm of theatre. Resisting the urge to layer on subsequent racial and political episodes as she continues traveling with her show, she has let UNTIL THE FLOOD accrue an aura of authoritative prophecy with the passage of time. The flood has only deepened since 2016.

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Even though Orlandersmith steps out of character to offer a brief coda at the end, she never tips off her point of view. But we can detect patterns. The three women are cordial and rational while, with the exception of the soft-spoken Paul, toxic masculinity runs riot among the five men. Reuben and Rusty are the most workaday specimens while Hassan and Dougray are the most dangerous and explosive. Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting is darkest and bleakest when these menacing men are before us.

About the only time I found Orlandersmith gently manipulating her monologues, so that we saw what she saw in Ferguson, was in the sequence of confessionals from the retired cop and the rapper who followed immediately afterwards. Rusty, the retired white cop, still remembers the wild look of in the eyes of Black youths, approaching him or at close quarters, seeming to be daring him to fire his gun – sometimes wanting him to. Working himself into a fury, the cool fluid rapper Hassan loudly proclaims that he had such feelings. Yes, that exact death wish that had just astonished me when the cop spoke of it.2022~Spoleto-163

Could there really be such desperation rampaging through our cities and ghettos? Orlandersmith confirmed her viewpoint the following afternoon in her conversation Martha Teichner, casually turning to the audience during the Q&A and asking us, “Have you ever heard of suicide by cop?”

I had not – which capsulizes why it was so vital for me to hear and heed UNTIL THE FLOOD.

Charlotte Ballet’s New $1 Million Nut Is Everything It Was Cracked Up to Be

Dance Review :  Nutcracker

By Perry Tannenbaum

Many of the people who jammed into Belk Theater on Saturday afternoon, nearly filling the top balcony to the rafters, were wondering the same thing as I was. Just how much can $1 million do to improve Charlotte Ballet’s already stellar production of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker? There weren’t any gaping holes that needed to be filled in when it came to the live music. Charlotte Symphony has played the ballet score beautifully ever since Salvatore Aiello transplanted the dance troupe, originally known as North Carolina Dance Theatre, from Winston-Salem in 1990.

Many of the musicians – and many of the orchestra’s principals – who accompanied Aiello’s setting for Nutcracker in the early years have played on through the many iterations of Jean-Pierre Boonefoux’s choreography, which premiered in 2006. Every one of the players works up the same zest for the music as the year before. Nor can money buy a much finer array of dancers to fill the stage with agility and grace. Calling the dancers in Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II – not to mention the various levels of apprentices, trainees, and students from the company’s Academy – the best in North Carolina may actually be an understatement.

Of course, the unprecedented gift had garnered plenty of positive publicity for the donors, the McColl family of Bank of America fame, and the worthy recipients. Unless you had completely ignored the Charlotte Observer for the past three months, you already knew that the McColl makeover would bring new Nutcracker costumes and new scenery to the Belk stage – and to lavishly renovated Gaillard Center in Charleston, where the Christmas classic will sojourn on December 10 and 11 before returning to Charlotte on December 13-23 for an additional 13 performances. I probably wasn’t alone in bringing a show-me attitude to the unusual matinee premiere, for the costumes, the scenery, and the spectacle of Bonnefoux’s Nutcracker, incrementally upgraded in its early years, had already proven to be quite formidable in their elegance and wit.

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Holly Hynes’s new set of costume designs gobbled up most of the prepublicity. Taking her inspiration from the Belle Epoque (1871-1914), Hynes and a team of 300 dressmakers in 15 states created 208 new costumes, each one costing as much as $6000. As she confessed in one of the two infomercials I’ve seen, Hynes often had to rely on a bunch of polyester to offset the extravagance of the dancers’ silks. The new scenery by Alain Vaës obviously took its inspiration from Bonnefoux’s traditional Nutcracker scenario and Steven Rubin’s set designs, seeming to depart more radically from Rubin’s concepts as the story moved from the Stahlbaums’ Christmas party to Clara’s dreamy fantasies, developing a whole new motif of whimsy – lifesize cutouts! – along the way.

Vaës wasn’t working with a paltry budget, either. A whole new trim, teeming with red, covered the entire arc of the proscenium. The backlit scrim of the Staulbaums’ town, more brightly lit by the lamplight gleaming through the windows of the homes than by the moonlight, greeted us like the frontispiece of a storybook.

In its nocturnal grayness, the first exterior view of the Staulbaum home was very similar to Rubin’s, but we were looking from a greater distance, seeing all that can be seen instead of merely the front façade. There was a little more humor in the gradual reveal of the magnificent interior, for the first of the new cutouts, a housemaid, was wheeled out to centerstage to greet the guests. Onto its outstretched arms, the parade of guests flung coats, stoles, and scarves until this cunning portable closet was rolled away.

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Imagery in the new Vaës scenic designs is bolder, more calculated to appear colossal, and the designer’s drawings evoked for me two of the great masterworks of the Belle Epoque, War and Peace and Alice in Wonderland. Probably by sheer accident, the bold muscularity and the florid curves in some of the scenery reminded me of Fritz Eichenberg’s memorable illustrations for the Heritage edition of Tolstoy’s epic. But the evocation of Alice was quite intentional. After the party, when Clara nodded off, the Mouse King entered the scene on a broken teacup for his royal battle with the Nutcracker. Once Clara assisted her champion in his victory, the set changed briefly to a surreal and magical toyland, where the head of Clara’s doll was as large as the castle. Very Alice.

The new scenery also brings fresh emphasis to numerous arrivals. Drosselmeyer’s amazing gifts, Clara’s Toy Doll and her brother Fritz’s Toy Soldier, arrive on carts where each of them is flanked by two lifesize cutouts of the same toy. Instead of lifting her massive skirts to reveal her periwigged Marzipan brood, Mother Ginger arrived on the second floor of her own gingerbread house, opening the front doors to let them out. But aside from the Mouse King’s teacup and the flying balloon-boat that carries Clara off to the Land of Sweets – a galleon now large enough to transport two honeymooning couples – the most significant entrance was created for Herr Drosselmeyer. He arrived at the Stahlbaum soirée in his own clock tower!

Mark Diamond may hold onto his annual stint as Drosselmeyer even after he’s forced to arrive clutching a walker, for he still revels in reminding us with his comical antics that he himself is program director of Charlotte Ballet II and, more importantly, one of the company’s potent line of resident choreographers. The Drosselmeyer shtick always looks like Diamond is doing his own thing, altering the routine every year – maybe every performance.

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The new clock draws the spotlight in Mary Louise Geiger’s new lighting design when Tchaikovsky’s score tolls the midnight hour chez Stahlbaum. Using his new cutouts, Bonnefoux completely alters this segment in his choreography. In past years, spotlights flashed on a different costumed kid each time the bell tolled, unpredictably scanning the full width of the stage. Now there was simply a single-file parade of various cutouts, their manipulators hidden behind them. As we approached the final chiming, we had our first glimpse of the lifesize girl doll that would enlarge to supernatural Alice-size in the yet-unseen scenery.

Geiger also teamed up with Hynes on some of the new magic. Like the opening cityscape, Vaës’s new Land of Sweets builds on Rubin’s previous concept of candy canes and gumdrops by putting us at a greater distance and increasing its scale. We could now see a huge skylight window in the rooftop dome opening up on a starry evening sky. At floor level below, the view also opens up to the outdoors, directing our gaze toward the horizon. Initially, there was a marked difference between the two views: it was still twilight on the horizon while it was already evening above.

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In this unflattering light, we had our first glimpse of the newly minted backup dancers for the Coffee segment. Their bright red skirts, contrasting sharply with their dark blouses, seemed garish under the bright light between the little Marzipan and Candy Cane groups. But Geiger would dramatically lower the lights for Raven Barkley and Ben Ingel, so it was now (briefly) nighttime both on the horizon and above when they performed their sinuous Coffee pas de deux – and the perfection of the six backup dancers’ glowing red skirts in this dimmed light redeemed them from the first impressions they had made. Their pink capes also made a difference.

In little ways and in big ways, Bonnefoux and his design team have heightened the wow factor in staging their spectacle. Just for the Tea segment in Act 2, a Chinese dragon drops down from the flyloft for a visit, and the Stahlbaums’ Christmas tree no longer stops it miraculous growth when its piney peak hits the ceiling. Now when Drosselmeyer cast his spell, that growth continued on the upstage backdrop until the entire upstage wall was filled with what we imagined was a wee portion of the fabulously gigantic tree. You need not worry that such awesome stagecraft at all diminishes the exploits of the dancers. Aided by their revamped costumes, Charlotte Ballet still measured up to the superabundance surrounding them.

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Rosie Morrison as Clara and Clay Houston as Fritz may be the most personable Stahlbaum kids I’ve seen. The precision and perfection of Sarah Hayes Harkins as the Sugar Plum Fairy will surely inspire little ballerinas who see Nutcracker for the first time. Harkins hits every beat with her elegant movements exactly on the nose, and her new partner, Drew Grant, is the picture of chivalry as her Cavalier, though the rookie needs to loosen up a bit. Chelsea Dumas and Ben Ingel were a similarly ideal couple at the premiere as the Snow Queen and King, and Alessandra Ball James was luminous in her musicality as Rose in the “Waltz of the Flowers.” Below tea green tops, Rose’s dozen dancing flowers sported frilly three-tiered skirts, each tier a different tint of pink or fuchsia. Even a child could recognize the stems and petals of the flowers for what they were.

Except for Fritz, who is merely doublecast, there’s a dizzying rotation of four dancers for each of the major roles I just named. It would take an astronomer to predict when, where, and if this exact alignment will occur again, so let me merely add the names of the other dancers who will figure in the dizzying mix: Jamie Dee Clifton, Elizabeth Truell, and Sarah Lapointe among the ladies, James Kopecky and Juwan Alston among the gentlemen.

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The athleticism of the Charlotte Ballet men did shine through during the Act 2 procession of divertissements, counterbalancing the dominance of the ballerinas. Newcomer Peter Mazurowski sparkled in the Gopak section and, under that dragon, Humberto Ramazzina from the II troupe served charmingly – and deferentially – in Tea. Both of these men are in a rotation of three men who will dance their roles. So will Ryo Suzuki, whom I wasn’t seeing for the first time as Candy Cane. I don’t think I’ve seen Ryo’s match in performing Candy’s joyously asymmetrical leaps, but I’m sure parents and children of all ages will be satisfied when Suzuki rotates to Tea and Gopak.