Tag Archives: Michelle Long

Homespun “Barbecue Apocalypse” Improves With Age

Reviews: Barbecue Apocalypse, The Sherlock Project, Life Is a Dream, and Madagascar

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In a year that included Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society and Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale among the top contenders, I could only give Matt Lyle’s Barbecue Apocalypse a lukewarm endorsement for best new play of 2015, ranking it #13 among 27 eligibles that I read for that year’s Steinberg Awards. Nor did colleagues from the American Theatre Critics Association strongly disagree with my verdict, since Lyle’s dystopian comedy didn’t make the cut for the second ballot, when we considered our consensus top 10.

But before Charlotte’s Off-Broadway decided to stage this show at The Warehouse PAC up in Cornelius, they did some reading and balloting of their own. From January through March, the company offered monthly “Page to Stage” readings presenting two different plays on each occasion. Then they asked ticketholders to vote on which of the six plays they would like to see in a fully staged production. Less than two months after the votes were counted, Barbecue is back for my reconsideration as the audience favorite.

And on further consideration, I must credit director Anne Lambert and her professional cast for convincing me that Barbecue Apocalypse is even better than I thought it would be – far more to my liking than real barbecue.

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Lyle would probably concur, since his patio hosts, Deb and Mike, are only grilling and basting because they want to avoid the embarrassment of having their friends – who are more trendy, stylish, and successful – see the interior of their home, decorated with lame movie posters. Deb succinctly describes her strategy as lowering expectations for the cuisine and the ambiance. Outdoors, she can point with pride to the fact that Mike has built the rear deck himself. Yet the barbecue event has obligated Mike to buy a propane grill off Craig’s List, and he’s afraid to light it.

He would also like Deb not to mention that he’s a professional writer, for his career earnings, after one published short story, now total 50 bucks.

All four of the guests feed the hosts’ sense of inadequacy. Deb is a decorator, foodie, and gourmet cook who makes sure to bring her own organic meat, and her husband Ash is a gadget freak, armed with the best new smartphone equipped with the most awesome apps. Win pretty much embodies his name, a former high school QB, now a successful businessman with Republican views. He lives to put Mike down and can seemingly get any woman he wants. Even his bimbo of choice, Glory with her Astrodome boobs, can claim formidable accomplishments, arriving late to the barbecue after nailing her Rockette audition.

What ultimately happens to this insulated suburban group reminds me of The Admirable Crichton, the excellent James M. Barrie tragicomedy I came across a couple of times during TV’s golden age, when colleges had core curriculums. A perfect butler to the Earl of Loam in Mayfair, London, Crichton and his betters were shipwrecked on a desert island in the Pacific, where his natural superiority emerged.

There are two basic differences between Barrie’s back-to-nature tale and Lyle’s. The shipwreck situation was reversible with rescue. Apocalypse isn’t. More to the point, Barrie was clearly targeting the blind rigidity of class distinctions. Here if we consider the implications of Barbecue Apocalypse, Lyle seems to have modernity in his crosshairs – how our world warps our aspirations and our self-worth, how it channels us into modes of living that are far from our authentic selves.

In the cramped storefront confines of the Warehouse, Lambert doesn’t attempt to design a deck that lives up to Mike’s pretensions, and Donavynn Sandusky’s costume designs are similarly déclassé, especially for the nerdy Ash. This robs Lyle’s concept of much of its slickness, which for me turned out to be a good thing. Aside from the Craig’s List mention, Lambert also dropped in a couple of local references that added to the overall homespun flavor.IMG_6440

Becca Worthington and Conrad Harvey were nearly ideal as our hosts, keenly aware of each other’s limitations and their own, yet visibly crazy for one another. Worthington with her status-conscious rigidity and stressing was clearly the closest actor onstage to Lyle’s vision, beautifully flipping her “We suck” persona after intermission and the apocalypse, when a full year of roughing it has elapsed. Harvey was more than sufficiently cuddly and self-deprecating – but credulity is stretched when a man of such size and stature is repeatedly dominated by his adversaries.

If you can accept that Greg Paroff was ever on a football field, let alone as a QB, you’ll be quite pleased with how he handles Win’s asshole antics. He is confident, he is arrogant, and if he’s possibly past 40, that only increases the disconnect between Win and his limber Rockette. Julia Benfield is absolutely adorable as Glory, and I absolutely adore how she’s still mincing around in high heels when she makes her disheveled entrance in Act 2. We totally believe that her familiarity with Tom Wopat doesn’t extend to The Dukes of Hazard in the ‘80s.

Probably not the best moment for Lambert when she cast Cole Pedigo and Jenn Grabenstetter as Ash and Lulu. They should remember the ‘80s, but I needed to stifle my doubts. Wardrobe and just the way he’s absorbed in his iPhone might help Pedigo out – and make him less wholesome, winsome, and juvenile before the apocalypse. Grabenstetter overcomes all objections when free-range Lulu gets snockered on generic canned beer, and both Pedigo and his scene partner truly click when adversity brings Ash and Lulu to a new lease on life in Act 2. I believe that’s an antler dance.

I won’t disclose what happens when Maxwell Greger walks on for his cameo deep in Act 2, but I do respect how Lyle makes him earn his paycheck with a sizable monologue. Greger does the denouement with a slight manic edge, and the technical aspects of his departure are impressively handled.

So it’s fair to say that apologies are in order for rating Barbecue Apocalypse in the middle of the pack when I first read it. Or excuses, since a rational man resided at the White House in 2015, and apocalypse seemed so fantastical.

But hold on. Charlotte’s Off-Broadway has already programmed two other plays from their “Page to Stage” readings for two fully-staged productions in the near future, Susan Lambert Hatem’s Confidence (and The Speech) for September and Lauren Gunderson’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear for next February. Maybe when these runner-ups get fleshed out, supporters of Lyle’s winning script might reconsider their votes!

A Catch-All Catch-Up

Our recent travels to Greece, Israel, and Jordan compelled us to miss a bunch of high-profile openings after we reviewed the reinvented Rite of Spring at Knight Theatre on April 6 and CP’s On Golden Pond the following evening. Even before we left, we had to pass on the Charlotte Dance Festival and CP’s Elixir of Love so we could adequately prepare for our trip. To see the birthplace of theatre, the Holy Land, and Petra, we had to miss out on the BOOM Festival, the reprise of Beautiful: The Carol King Musical, and the opportunity to host a pre-show preview of The Marriage of Figaro for Opera Carolina.

New openings when we returned were a must, so we hit the ground running with Charlotte Ballet’s Spring Works and Symphony’s Brahms-and-Bartok program. But our need to catch up with Carolina Shakespeare’s Life Is a Dream made us put off seeing PaperHouse Theatre’s Sherlock Project until it second week. It gets complicated. But I’ve tried to get up to speed while working on more reviews and features. File these under gone but not forgotten:

The Sherlock Project So a dozen actors and writers collaborated on PaperHouse Theatre’s mash-up of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story gems, producing a script that follows three guiding principles: keep it funny, keep it moving, and don’t, don’t, don’t ever explain how the great Sherlock Holmes arrives at his incredible deductions. Going back to their roots at the Frock Shop on Central Avenue, PaperHouse and director Nicia Carla found a frilly complement to the Victorian chronicles of Dr. John Watson.

But the frame of the story was wholly new, telling us that the deadeye detective in the deerstalker cap is a woman. Watson protects the woman who should be credited with all the purported exploits of Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade because he knows that Sherlock is right: The general public is even less prepared to believe a female is capable of such brilliancies than Watson is.

Besides all of the Sherlockian brilliance and nonchalant arrogance, Andrea King reveled in all of the detective’s eccentricities, whether it was shooting up a 7% solution of cocaine, tuning up a violin, or lighting up a calabash pipe. Opposite King’s insouciant self-confidence, Chaz Pofahl wrung maximum comedy from Watson’s wonder and timidity – a phenomenon compounded by the gender factor as Pofahl switched from paternal protectiveness to awe or terror while King wryly twinkled and smiled.

The two main supporting players slipped into multiple roles, Angie C as a cavalcade of damsels in distress and Berry Newkirk in the plumiest cameos, ranging from the dull-witted Lestrade to the razor-sharp Professor Moriarty, mythically uncatchable. Apart from directing behind the scenes, Carla conspired in the action as Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’s discreet housemaid. Carla not only ushered in Sherlock’s distraught clientele or evil adversaries, she also presided over scene changes, when audience members had to exit the Frock Shop’s parlor to a murder scene in the adjoining room or out on the porch when Sherlock was pursuing… something. Had to do with fire.

Or when it was intermission, time for little cucumber sandwiches.

The whole show was a wonderful diversion. PaperHouse had to add another performance to their run, which we caught last Wednesday, and the remaining nights were already sold out. Like the PaperHouse faithful, I couldn’t get enough of The Sherlock Project. I wanted lots more – beginning with how did Sherlock deduce that Watson had just come from Afghanistan when they first met?

Life Is a Dream – Convinced it was a comedy rather than a political melodrama, Shakespeare Carolina and director S. Wilson Lee kidnapped Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s classic, written during Spain’s Golden Age, and transported it more than three centuries forward from a mythical Poland to a mythical Las Vegas. There in a seedy club on the strip, the two factions with their eyes on the throne were Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack and Marlon Brando’s Wild Bunch.

Lee’s wild conceit didn’t do nearly as much harm as I thought it would, mainly because ShakesCar didn’t have the budget to carry it too far at Duke Energy Theatre, and the strong cast mostly played their roles as the text, sensibly adapted by Jo Clifford, said they should. So much depended on the broad shoulders of David Hayes as Segismundo. Heir to the throne of Poland, Segismundo has been locked away Prometheus-like in a mountain dungeon for his whole life by his father, King Basilio, who is foolishly trying to ward off the dire destiny predicted by an astrologer.

A boiling rage seethes inside of Segismundo, and a less mightily built actor than Hayes might need to strain himself to encompass it. Hayes projected the mighty rage rather naturally, which made it easier for him to flow convincingly into Segismundo’s softer emotions when – before he has even suspected his royal lineage – he is handed the Polish throne and the power to act on his newly awakened sexual urges as he sees fit.

Called upon to give a far more nuanced performance as Basilio, Russell Rowe delivered. Yes, he was cruel, but also conflicted, with a lifelong dread deftly mixed into his forcefulness. Though I feared the convoluted plot might be abridged or simplified, the intrigue, the complexity, and the epic monologues were almost entirely intact. As the vengeful Rosaura, Teresa Abernethy brought forth the masculine-feminine blend that the transgendered Clifford was aiming for in her translation, and James Cartee, an actor who often keeps nothing in reserve, showed unusual probity and maturity as Clotaldo, even as he tried to figure out his long-lost child’s gender.

Nobody was more suavely dressed by costume designer Mandy Kendall than James Lee Walker II as Astolfo, the successor that Basilio wanted if the true heir didn’t pass his test. But if anybody was victimized by Lee’s Rat Pack concept, it was Walker. I have no idea why he persisted in speaking so rapidly and unintelligibly, unlike any work I’d seen from him before. Was he attempting a Sammy Davis Jr. imitation? Couldn’t figure out what accounted for this curious outing.

Betrothed to this strange hipster, Maggie Monahan beautifully brought out the agonies of queen-to-be Estrella. Maybe the most Shakespearean role in this ShakesCar production was Ted Patterson as Clarin, who tags after the disguised Rosaura from the opening scene, as either her companion or servant – but definitely our clown.

On the strength of this effort, theatergoers can be excited about ShakesCar’s next invasion of Spirit Square, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus at Duke Energy from June 28 to July 7.

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Madagascar – Okay, so I’ll grant that the musical adaptation of the 2005 Dreamworks film didn’t have the gravitas of the greatest Children’s Theatre of Charlotte extravaganzas of the past like their Boundless Grace and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – or the bite of Ramona Quimby and Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing. But this confection was nearly perfection. Under the direction of Michelle Long, Madagascar hit a family-friendly sweet spot, straddling the realms of cartoon silliness, cinematic adventure, and theatrical slapstick and dance. I just didn’t like the deejay, everybody-get-up-and-act-stupid thing.

Scenic design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec never lost its freshness thanks to a slick stage crew and the eye-popping lighting by Gordon W. Olson, while the animal costumes by Magda Guichard probably made the strongest case for live theatre against multiplex animation. Choreography by Tod A. Kubo chimed well with Long’s direction, which used areas of McColl Family Theatre that rarely come into play.

Centering around four animals that break out of Central Park Zoo, Madagascar introduced us to Marty the zebra and his wanderlust. We moved swiftly from there. Following the lead of four penguins bound for Antarctica, Marty escaped the zoo, seeking a weekend in Connecticut. Not only are police, animal control, and TV bulletins on his trail, so were his pals Gloria the hippo, Alex the lion, and Melman the giraffe. Embarking underground in the Manhattan subway, Marty hardly stretched credulity much further by winding up off Africa.

Deon Releford-Lee was a spectacular triple-threat as Marty, but what dazzled most was the multitude of gems in this supporting cast, beginning with an intimidating Alex from leonine Traven Harrington and – on stilts, of course – a timorous Melman from Caleb Sigmon. Dominique Atwater disappointed me as Gloria, but only because we didn’t get enough of our hippo after her first big splash. Olivia Edge, Allison Snow-Rhinehart, and Rahsheem Shabazz fared better, drawing multiple roles.

While the book by Kevin Del Aguila shone more brightly than the musical score by George Noriega and Joel Someillan, I was amazed that so much story and song could be squeezed into barely more than 60 minutes. Combined with last October’s Mary Poppins, the exploits of Madagascar prove that musical production is an enduring strength at Children’s Theatre. I can’t think of a season at ImaginOn that had sturdier bookends than these musicals that began and concluded 2017-18. The crowd that turned out for the final performance affirmed that the 7th Street fantasy palace has perfected the craft of producing family fare.

Not only that, it showed me that Charlotte families have spread the word.

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The Electoral College in Elementary School

Reviews of Grace for President and Fall Works

By Perry Tannenbaum

We’ve been favored with a couple of Grace shows from Children’s Theatre over the years. There were two productions of Amazing Grace, a charming but trifling little piece, in 1999 and 2005. Before the encore, there was the incomparably richer Boundless Grace, deeply infused with African rhythms and culture, that won Creative Loafing’s Show of the Year laurels in 2000.

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So for those of you who recall those pre-ImaginOn productions, it may be important to emphasize that there’s no kinship between them and the current world premiere of Grace for President through November 6. Mary Hoffman created the previous Grace, of Gambian descent, in a series of books that depicted her heroine with playacting impulses rather than political ambitions. Grace Campbell is a more recent brainchild by Kelly DiPucchio, slightly browner in LeUyen Pham’s illustrations than her Woodrow Wilson Elementary teacher, Mrs. Barrington, but never assigned to an ethnic group.

From the first page on, DiPucchio’s Grace is more about feminism than racial pride. Mrs. Barrington brings a poster to class at the start of the school year with all the US presidents on it, and Grace asks, “Where are the GIRLS?” After getting the lowdown, Grace stews at her desk momentarily before announcing that she would like to be president. Despite the snickers from several of Grace’s classmates, Mrs. Barrington deems this impromptu ambition to be a “star-spangled idea” – clear proof that DiPucchio intended her story as a musical all along.

Clocking in at 57 minutes, Joan Cushing’s adaptation actually expands upon DiPucchio’s slender volume, with a robust – and resourceful – song list. When Grace starts campaigning against Thomas Cobb, the nominee from Mr. Waller’s class, Grace and Thomas sing in debate-like counterpoint, not harmony, each candidate spouting a separate line. And while it’s doubly lamentable that a two-party system is axiomatic in this story and that genders represent the party lines, when the guys sing “Boys Boys Boys,” it rings like a barbershop quartet.

Cushing does churn out some pabulum along the way in explaining what elections are, but she bravely follows in DiPucchio’s footsteps in trying to explicate that grim Founding Fathers albatross, the Electoral College. We skim over some fairly muddy waters when Barrington and Waller establish a system where each of their students represents one of the states, unevenly weighting their votes.

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The outcome partly redresses the inequity. Cobb seems to have a lock on the election because the boys hold the majority of the electoral votes. Our intrepid heroine therefore comes up with a platform designed to change some minds, listening to her classmates while Cobb mainly coasts. Party lines have held fast when we reach the end of the roll call of states, so the election is still up for grabs as Sam, representing Wyoming, gets set to cast his measly three electoral votes.

“My vote counts!” Sam sings out, an epiphany yet to be reached by millions of unlikely American voters.

I won’t tip the results of this suspenseful election, but I’ll credit set designer Anita J. Tripathi with heightening the tension by dropping down an electronic scoreboard over her gallery of presidents to give us a running total of electoral votes until the confetti moment when the shunned wallflower Sam makes his decision. We’re supposed to greet the result with jubilation, but overall, the students of Woodrow Wilson Elementary are even more set in their voting patterns than adult Americans.

Although director Michelle Long pilots the most polished production I can remember at Wells Fargo Playhouse (the smaller ImaginOn theater), I found myself fighting the notion that this wasn’t really a Charlotte production. Most of the seven-member cast is new to the Charlotte scene, all except one are making their first 2016 appearance, and all the designers seem to be making their Uptown debuts.

Youngsters shouldn’t have any problem warming up to Talia Robinson as Grace. Her sunny optimism in launching her campaign is only slightly clouded by the prospect of opposition, and Robinson’s attitude toward her classmates usefully blends the callings of public service and leadership. After starring last December in the title role of another Cushing world premiere, Ella’s Big Chance,  Margaret Dalton as Mrs. Barrington is the most familiar face we encounter. She gives us that ideal teacher we never had, not only radiating energy and encouragement but also drawing inspiration from her pupils’ ideas.

The other Ella alum in the cast, Sean Powell, infuses Thomas Cobb with a patrician smugness as he initially intimidates Grace, singing his own praises in “My Accomplishments.” Until the denouement, Powell keeps the concept of doing for others totally alien to Thomas. Shivam Patel’s debut as the outcast Sam is as impressive as Robinson’s, for suffering often has deeper roots than righteous indignation. While Grace is affirming that girls can now win as never before, Patel makes Sam’s discovery that he matters just as heartfelt and liberating.

While the script is intended to remain serviceable for election years to come, there was one aspect of this world premiere bears the fresh fingerprint of 2016. A couple of errors that were noted in the Observer review on Friday morning had been expunged from the script by the time I attended the Saturday afternoon performance. Politicians may resent fact-checking during their hotly contested 2016 races, but playwrights and theatre directors evidently don’t.

 

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As Charlotte Ballet launched its 2016-17 season, the final season for Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux as president and artistic director, one thing became very evident during the Fall Works program: Bonnefoux’s successor won’t need to do any rebuilding. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so much energy expended by so many dancers so brilliantly. Five of the 18 dancers we saw are new to the troupe this year, and one – a soloist! – was recruited from Charlotte Ballet II, the company’s apprentice ensemble.

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When we first saw Dwight Rhoden’s rousing paean to 80s club culture, The Groove, kicking off the 2012-13 season at Knight Theater, it was almost exhausting to watch at the end of that program. This year, it led off the evening in the you-ain’t-seen-nothin’-yet slot, no less astonishing in its unflagging exuberance than it was before. Surely newcomers to Charlotte Ballet performances must have been wondering how they could follow such a barrage of fast-paced bravura.

Those of us who had seen Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16 at Spoleto Festival USA had no such worries. Part of the wildly varied suite came to Charleston when Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company made its Spoleto debut in 2007. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater brought the full suite to Spoleto in 2012 – shortly after their stopover at Knight Theater!

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The spectacular core of the work is Naharin’s setting for the traditional Passover seder song, “Echad Mi Yode’a,” in a frenzied recording by The Tractor’s Revenge. It’s a song that cycles to 13 in much the same way that stanzas to “The 12 Days of Christmas” expand. Instead of ending with a “partridge in a pear tree,” each of the Hebrew stanzas concludes with “our One God in the heavens and the earth.”

Naharin sits 18 dancers in semi-circle before us, all of them clad in black suits, white shirts, and black fedoras, emblematic of Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jews. Each time we reach the end of a stanza, 17 of the dancers rise to their feet in a prayerful wave that sweeps the group from left to right. The eighteenth dancer catapults himself to the floor in an epic flop, as if shot from a cannon – or flung from the explosion of a terrorist bomb.

Each number draws a new signature movement from Naharin as the stanzas grow longer. Each stanza ends with the same wave and explosion as we proceed toward 13, all the dancers returning to their chairs to start each stanza. What I called the “regimented hysteria” of Naharin’s choreography is compounded as we draw closer toward the end, for the “black hat” Hasidim do the unthinkable: they begin throwing more and more of their clothing into the air until all their outer garments – from hats to shoes – lie in a chaotic pile in front of them. Unforgettable.

One of my grandfathers was a Hasid. I’m certain that if I’d seen him in his underwear, I would have been cast straight down into Gehenna.

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Yet the suite began innocuously – and comically – with Maurice Mouzon Jr. from Ballet II standing in front of the stage at intermission, morphing from motionlessness to tentative dancing to bodacious acrobatics before the ensemble’s prelude to the core ritual. Things lightened up immediately after the mass rending of garments, with a bouquet of Harold Arlen songs and some truly hilarious – and spontaneous – hijinks with Dean Martin’s “Sway” as the prime backdrop.

All of the troupe came out into the audience and chose partners whom they led onto the Knight stage. A block party broke out with a cornucopia of delights: sensuousness, grace, shyness, awkwardness, and hambone scene-stealing were all abundantly on display. Nor was the fun finished when patrons were sent back to their seats and the dancers took their bows. The crimson curtain kept rising and falling, each blackout hatching a new zany tableau.

Not all of the hambone came from the amateurs, that’s for sure.