Tag Archives: Nicia Carla

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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Gunderson’s “Revolutionists” Reminds Us That 1793 Wasn’t a Very Good Year

Review : The Revolutionists

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s easier to enjoy Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists, a finely polished comedy gem from PaperHouse Theatre, than it is to find it. My GPS app resisted the 1776 Statesville Avenue address that was on my smartphone calendar, forcing me to choose between a Camp North End and a Goodyear Arts destination nearly 100 address numbers apart. Choosing the 1824 Statesville address got me to the Camp North End gate well enough after dark, and there was a PaperHouse emissary at the gate to tell us how to proceed. But as we navigated through a desolate concrete-and-asphalt landscape of vast warehouses, it was definitely an uh-oh episode for Milady GPS, who spun around from “Recalculating” to “Turn Right” in her instructions like a dog chasing its tail.

Following traffic wasn’t a reliable remedy, and I apologize to anyone who followed our lead on opening night and wound up parking a wilderness away from the PaperHouse performing space. Within sight of what looked like the building entrance – and another PaperHouse emissary – I still probably walked nearly a quarter of a mile after thinking I had sufficiently improved my parking spot. You walk through that building to another one.

Fortunately, PaperHouse is much better at producing plays than at getting you to them. (They will deploy more guides for future performances, I was assured.) Once you do arrive a the site of the action, with scenery by Jordan Ellis that strikes us as much with its simulated blood-spattered walls upstage as it does with the ascending scaffold in front of them, you can start to believe you’ve really reached the French Revolution during the Reign of Terror. You’re a bit of a pioneering revolutionary yourself if you’ve persevered and reached this secluded spot.

In the meta-world of her own – and history’s – making, The Revolutionists is Gunderson’s play, and it isn’t. We seem to be watching French feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges battling an onset of writer’s block as she ponders her next response to the rampaging Reign of Terror in the seclusion of her study. She is much in demand, for while Olympe is thrashing around, trying to settle on her message and her medium – shall it be another play? or perhaps a pamphlet? or a manifesto? – in walks Charlotte Corday, pressing the writer to compose a memorable line she can declaim when she assassinates the rabid revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub.

Olympe isn’t in advertising, so one-liners and slogans aren’t her forte. She hopes to come up with the right zinger during the course of composing a longer work, a plan that doesn’t jibe well with Charlotte’s mad impatience. Just when you think that the comedy will crest with the standoff between Charlotte’s insane homicidal urgency and Olympe’s many artistic hesitancies, in walks Marie Antoinette, dressed to the 17’s by costume designer Barbi Van Schaick. Her Highness wants a rewrite, a play by Olympe that will rebrand her tarnished reputation.

Everything seems to become absurd and almost surreal at this point – and likely stays that way with Marie’s queenly vanities and Olympe’s nervous vacillations. But if you go home and Google, you find that Olympe de Gouges really did embark on writing a play to rehab Marie Antoinette’s reputation, and that the playwright really did put herself in that work as an enlightened agent who reconciles the queen with the revolutionaries. If that weren’t enough, it’s also true that de Gouges wrote the courageously feminist Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, thereby punching her ticket to the guillotine.

In the play, Olympe writes her manifesto in response to some principled prodding from Marianne Angelle, a Haitian revolutionary seeking independence from France, the one fictitious character in Gunderson’s script. In the real world, de Gouges seems to have had no problem standing up for herself – and against the Revolution’s bloodthirsty zealots.

So you might take the layered-on comedy a couple of ways. Gunderson may be telling us that she prefers her feminist heroes to be more fallible and true-to-life rather than impossibly glorified. Or she might be substituting herself for Olympe and showing us how far short of the French revolutionary’s greatness she falls.

Gunderson nudges us to that second, self-effacing hypothesis with little anachronisms that she occasionally drops into the dialogue, like Marie’s rebranding and rewrite ideas. PaperHouse artistic director Nicia Carla takes the anachronisms beyond what Gunderson specifies in her stage directions, and she doesn’t waste any time about it. Lydia Williamson makes her first entrance as Marianne carrying a garish, polka-dotted plastic suitcase, and when Shawna Pledger as Olympe begins writing at her escritoire, she quickly switches from a quill to a BIC ballpoint.

So Pledger is only superficially presiding over a play that Olympe has written for her queen with a plum role for herself. She is actually channeling Gunderson writing a dark comedy about herself, and if you saw Pledger last season as the fretful Sister Shelley who runs the soup kitchen in Grand Concourse, you already know that she excels at stressed-out indecisive women who are so eager to please. Surrounded by this madhouse, Williamson as Marianne doesn’t get as many comedy opportunities as the true historical figures, but she does loosen up from time to time, on temporary leave from her hectoring. Cumulatively, she leaves us with the impression that the French, whatever their politics, have no special call for commanding an empire.

Au contraire.

Sarah Woldum has now haunted PaperHouse productions for two consecutive Octobers, last year as Sheridan LeFanu’s vampire Carmilla and this year as the notorious Corday. This time, she can milk a laugh or two from the assassin’s irrational zeal and her PR impulses, but she’s unmistakably insane. I’m not sure she ever blinked.

As for Caroline Bower, she does enter as an overdressed Barbi doll with some truly vain, insensitive, and bubbleheaded lines to delight us with. But Marie Antoinette’s grand gown, the ribbons she loves so frivolously, and the ridiculous piled-high wig and feathers all do come off as the Reign of Terror sweeps its scythe through our women, and its Bower’s humbling – still cohering with the incredibly spoiled brat we first saw – that brings home how monstrous the French Revolution turned out to be.

In the end, we might realize that our man’s world of today is hardly less bloody than it was in the fatal year of 1793 – and that Gunderson isn’t entirely playful or self-critical when hinting that she trembles in the face of such brutality.

 

Not Your Same Old Vampire

Reviews: She Who Watches and Charlotte Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

Performances of She Who Watches run through Oct. 30 at Frock Shop.

 

When J. Sheridan Le Fanu serialized Carmilla in 1871-72, Count Dracula wasn’t even a gleam in Bram Stoker’s eye. Yet a quarter of a century later, when Dracula became the paradigm for modern vampire literature, Stoker himself acknowledged that Le Fanu’s most famous novella was a part of that gleam. So after a steady sprinkling of October visitations from the undead lord of Transylvania — no less than seven Metrolina Dracula productions since 2002 — it’s nice to see a change of pace in the form of a new PaperHouse Theatre adaptation of Le Fanu’s spellbinding horror classic.

Eerie echoes are a key motif in the storytelling, which co-directors Nicia Carla and Chester Shepherd have retitled She Who Watches in their adaptation. The narrator of the story, Laura, is haunted by a nightmarish experience from her childhood, when she awoke to find a teen-aged girl in her bedroom. That girl seemed to fall into a slumber on Laura’s chest, but when she awoke the second time, what the girl was doing made her shriek in terror. And then, before her governess could come to the rescue, the girl vanished into thin air!

It would be cruel to divulge much of what happens 12 years after this creepy prologue, but you’re correct in assuming that the beautiful face indelibly etched in Laura’s memory is Carmilla. How Carmilla returns to Laura’s home — and ultimately, her bed — took just under 69 minutes to deliciously unfold on opening night, with neat surprises and more eerie echoes along the way. That’s about the same amount of time you might spend in your family car getting from the I-277 overpass to the dubious thrills of Scarowinds.

It’s a shorter, more enjoyable evening at PaperHouse’s customary haunt, The Frock Shop. Le Fanu’s story placed the action at a lonely Austrian castle in a place called Styria, but the parlor of the Frock Shop cottage on Central Avenue seems to suit Carla and Shepherd quite dandily. The antique atmosphere is built in, augmented by a gallery of starchy, frilly, diaphanous, and full-length costumes designed by Magda Guichard.

Lighting designer Chaz Pofahl, strategically potting the illumination levels, is certainly a part of the spooky conspiracy, but our stage directors also utilize the windows lining two of the parlor’s walls to pique the suspense and ambiance. Perhaps emboldened by the numerous film, stage and TV adaptations of Carmilla that have come before, Carla and Sheperd have done some character shuffling as well. Instead of a kindly father, Laura’s lone parent is a coolish mom, and instead of a distressed friend of her father, General Spielsdorf, we get a more down-to-earth and frazzled Aunt Jean.

The core protagonists remain the same, and we’re very fortunate there. After two strong outings in Theatre Charlotte’s Miracle Worker and PaperHouse’s Much Ado About Nothing, Sarah Woldum is probably the busiest actress in town this year, taking on the role of Carmilla. She seems to revel in the menace of this role, seething with a mysterious intensity when she isn’t softening her prey with endearments. The whole chemistry of her is different from Dracula’s, seemingly resistant to daylight, but you wonder whether her episodes of weakness are symptoms of a gnawing blood hunger or simply playacting to draw sympathy. When Woldum becomes the predator, Carmilla’s rapacity is as much sexual as it is animal.

Racquel Nadhiri spoke too softly at the outset, compounding my difficulties with her Jamaican accent, so I won’t give her top marks as our Narrator. But Nadhiri beautifully captures the mixture of attraction and repulsion that is the essence of Laura’s reaction to Carmilla. Our empathy for Laura’s victimhood is that much stronger because it stems from her sunny heroism.

The ending that Carla and Shepherd have devised for her — distinctly different from Le Fanu’s — fits Nadhiri like a glove, and you might say that the word “bloodcurdling” was specially cooked up to describe her screams.

Two interludes punctuate the action, so you can get refills on the beverages that were served on the front lawn as you first entered, or you might nosh on cream puffs and sausage balls. When we reached the denouement, the audience was split in two, half of us ascending the staircase to witness the climactic encounter between Laura and Carmilla in the bedroom, half of us remaining downstairs to hear the disclosures that Laura’s mom receives from Aunt Jean.

You’ll have a better appreciation of the synchronicity of the two scenes from the downstairs vantage point, but everyone gets the chance to see both scenes — because, we realize, they actually occur simultaneously.

As I’ve already hinted, the cold and clueless Mother isn’t the plum role here, so you won’t be seeing Andrea King at her best, though she’s very good, of course. Most of the scene stealing comes from Rebecca Costas, busily changing costumes and characters throughout the show. Maybe her most comical turn is as the Doctor who says she’ll return so nervously that you can be absolutely sure she won’t, but she’s also pretty funny as Hunch-Hag, dispensing some fairly toxic marital insight to audience members.

Costas also gets a couple of serious cameos, first as the mysterious and malevolent Countess, Carmilla’s aunt. More urgent — and earnest — is Aunt Jean as the action comes to a boil.

Since her stint as she-devil Abigail Williams in CPCC Theatre’s 2001 production of The Crucible, Costas has only emerged briefly and intermittently on the local scene. It’s a kick to see her shining 15 years later in such a versatile performance, her devilish fire not only intact but several degrees hotter.

Charlotte Symphony’s 85th season is off to an exciting start, and Mary A. Deissler, the new president and CEO, is already making her impact. She has things to say, both onstage at Belk Theater when the orchestra plays and in the CSO program booklet, which isn’t as staid and stagnant as it used to be. Sitting down to last week’s Beethoven Symphony No. 2 concert, I found new artwork, festooned with pumpkins, on the cover.

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The two artworks I’ve seen on the booklet covers, through two 2016-17 Classics concerts, already doubles the number I’ve seen in previous seasons. More importantly, Deissler has kept an inside page, opposite the page where you find tonight’s composers and compositions listed, reserved for herself. So instead of some generic remarks designed to linger more or more inanely as the season wore on, Deissler did a reset on page 17A.

The Welcome Page addressed the divisiveness that has fractured our community in recent weeks, the unifying power of music, and Deissler’s gratitude that we were back at a time when healing is needed. Rang true.

Switching from music director Christopher Warren-Green to guest conductor Michael Christie, the Beethoven offerings were more varied and adventurous than the All-Tchaikovsky season opener, veering off into Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and his Totentanz before we jackknifed into György Ligeti’s folksier and funkier Concert Românesc.

Guest soloist Benedetto Lupo and the CSO brass were a bit overeager and brutish in the opening section of the concerto, but after the pianist navigated through his first softer, lyrical passages, everyone seemed to settle into a more relaxed groove. A fresh production wrinkle further enlivened the concert: a projection screen descended over the Belk stage so an overhead camera could transmit a bird’s eye view of the hurtin’ that Lupo was delivering to a defenseless Steinway Model D.

Van Cliburn himself might have winced.

A Mad Tea Party at the Frock Shop

Theatre Review: Much Ado About Nothing

By Perry Tannenbaum

Much Ado1For a second straight spring, PaperHouse Theatre is using the Frock Shop on Central Avenue as a backdrop for an English comedy, but you can be sure that this year’s Much Ado About Nothing is far more freewheeling and lighthearted than last year’s A Woman of No Importance. Oscar Wilde’s work was about class, privilege, loyalty, and ideals, while Shakespeare’s is very much about misconceptions and manipulation.

Last June, the prissiness of Frock Shop and its charming hominess were upheld in the Victorian finery worn by the cast. Now as we arrive at June 2016, we can observe that formality has been largely relaxed, the better for all the cast to not only change costumes but also to change characters. Even the saltiest and wittiest of the lovebirds, Beatrice and Benedick, get to moonlight as buffoons. Hero and Claudio, the more ardent and tedious couple, also get in their comic licks, Hero working for her own destruction as Borachio, a sleazy stoner, and Claudio crossdressing as Ursula, Hero’s maidservant.

Nicia Carla adds deftly to the lightheartedness of the comedy in her first attempt at directing a Shakespearean script. Both the cuts she has applied to the script and the clarity that survives despite those hefty splices testify that she’s quite good at it. Several of the players on hand have experience with the Bard, and it shows.

The barbs Beatrice and Benedick exchange in Much Ado hearken back to the strife between Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, while the malicious scheming against Claudio prefigures the work of Iago in Othello and Edmund, the bastard noble in King Lear. So when Carla lightens the comedy, there’s a risk of diluting the drama. Yet the church scene where the wedding goes awry is one of the best of the evening.

Whether benign or virulent, manipulation is hard to pull off perfectly. In Much Ado, both plots are unmasked, but there are provocative contrasts in how each is resolved. Order is restored as the plot against Beatrice and Benedick exposes the love that both were hiding deep within – lingering from a liaison that had been broken off before the action begins, before Benedick marched off into battle. But the haze of the catastrophe that could have been hovers over the happy resolution of the deception practiced upon Claudio.

In the PaperHouse production, that darkness adds poignancy to the ultimate happiness Claudio and Hero achieve. After bringing so much youth and vitality to Annie Sullivan at Theatre Charlotte back in March, Sarah Woldum is softer and shyer as Hero with the same lurking buoyancy of youth, and it’s hard to believe that Deven Ginyard is a college freshman playing Claudio – unless we assume he has taken about seven gap years after high school.

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Chester Shepherd was at the heart of the success of last year’s Woman of No Importance when he was paired with Katy Shepherd. Now Shepherd is fencing with Alexandria White, whom I previously encountered last June as a glamorous gallery of discards in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Yet I can’t say these Shakespearean lovebirds are noticeably less wholesome than the romantic fledglings we followed around The Frock Shop last June when PaperHouse also tackled Wilde.

Curiously, the jousting lovers’ lack of sharpness doesn’t throw this Much Ado off-kilter because of all the zaniness that Carla strews around them. Andrea King and Shawna Pledger are the chief perpetrators of the low comedy, King as a Dogberry who’ll remind you of a backwoods highway trooper and Pledger in a trio of crossdressing roles, recycling the same crappy hair scrap as The Friar’s eyebrows and Don John’s mustache. Or vice versa? The thing just hangs like a sorry backwards necklace when not in use.

As I’ve mentioned, the lovers also moonlight as lowlifes. Woldum gets the juiciest opportunities when she crossdresses as Borachio, but Ginyard’s matronly bustle as Ursula is also a hoot. King upstages them all when she must appear simultaneously as both her characters, Hero’s father Leonato and the bumbling Dogberry. On these occasions, King produces a Dogberry puppet and converses with herself. Not great puppetry, but it is great fun.

Adding to the merriment, PaperHouse serves up tea, hot and soft beverages, and finger foods at various intervals before and during the show. A Pavlovian bell signals those times when you’ll move among the downstairs rooms during the production as well as the front porch, lawn, and rear parking lot. All in all, a pretty mad tea party.

 

Wizards of Winging It

Theatre Review: Journey to Oz

By Perry Tannenbaum

DONNA BISE

I’m not sure what the guidelines are on picture-taking at the new Children’s Theatre production of Journey to Oz, written and directed by Christopher Parks. Three or four kids in the audience read the pre-show announcements, and I must confess that I was so focused on how well they managed to talk into the microphones planted on the ears of various adult cast members that I didn’t pay much attention to what they were saying.

Whether or not photos are actually banned, I can report that, at last Saturday afternoon’s performance, there was a photo- and movie-taking orgy as the 75-minute fantasy unfolded. And I can’t say that I heard even one discouraging word from the staffers who were ushering. Children and parents were invited onstage to play a wide assortment of characters from L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz: the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and even the Mayor of Munchkinland.

And of course, multiple adorable Dorothys paraded down the aisles of the McColl Family Theatre. Considering that the contours of Tom Burch’s scenic design are the book stacks we might find at a public library – not Baum’s Kansas plains or his rainbow realm of Oz – I’d say that the iPhones gleefully chronicling the misadventures of children, husbands, and moms onstage added to the giddy mix of make-believe.

Oz erudition isn’t what it once was when Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow” every year on TV without ever aging. So the kids and parents fetched from the audience are far more likely to wander off script than they would have a couple of decades ago. Cast members eschew the subtle discrimination of asking for volunteers, so shyness and stage fright can also come into play.

Parks has his five-member cast primed for the unexpected, that’s for sure. A kid in the first row was called on to emulate Toto, but he repeatedly emitted a bark that was no louder than a purr. The dad chosen as Mayor couldn’t bother to try a high Munchkin voice or to offer any testimony at Dorothy’s criminal trial at the Witch’s castle. Cast members didn’t skip over these difficulties, persisted in efforts to get things right, but they never mocked the amateurs. We moved right along at just the right moment.

Opportunities for us to participate helped to sustain our goodwill. When the cyclone touched down in Kansas, we were the wind. When Dorothy landed in Oz, we were the Munchkins who welcomed her. And when the hapless Scarecrow was besieged by crows, we were rallied to be their caws. Perhaps the most magical participatory moment was when we arrived in the Emerald City and a mini-battalion of kids converged upon them from the wings, surreptitiously recruited to portray the Ozians.

Journey to Oz isn’t myopically focused on the foundational Wizard narrative. Over and over, the players insert little vignettes about Baum, newspaper reactions to his books, personal anecdotes, and tidbits on his times. It’s a little like an annotated edition. We also get a sense of the breadth of Baum’s Oz series, which Parks deftly keeps unobtrusive. Our only lengthy digression into the greater Oz opus comes when the players point out to us that the adventures invariably begin with a dramatic act-of-God cataclysm. The cyclone of The Wizard gave way to an earthquake to trigger one of the many Oz sequels, then an avalanche, and – weirdest of all – a “hurricane drizzle.”

When we got down to business, the upstage library shelves parted to simulate the prairie and subsequently, our arrivals in Muchkinland and the Emerald City. The bookshelves lining the wings never disappeared, forming the backdrop for the first encounter with the Scarecrow and the witness box for the trial. The Wicked Witch of the West actually entered through a bookcase, framed in appropriately spooky light and smoke, and a few paper-cut props – a beard, a lion’s mane, and Toto – fancifully originated from a large book spread out on a lectern.

The magic is resolutely low–tech here, and the classy costumes by Jennifer Matthews aim in a totally different direction from the last Wizard of Oz produced by Children’s Theatre, when the late Alan Poindexter directed and portrayed a singularly frightful Wicked Witch. This time, the hat worn by Nicia Carla in the same role looks like it was snatched from the Cat in the Hat’s closet.

Carla is spared from extensive emceeing chores, but she does confront a Dorothy or two during the drama, proving quite adept at modulating her menace. Tiffany Bear is vaguely dressed like Dorothy and wields the Toto wicker basket and puppet, but she’s more explicitly Glinda when she’s chaperoning the anklebiter Dorothys onto the stage, a very engaging emcee.

Of the three guys in the cast, Tommy Foster and Dan Brunson pitch in most often on the hosting chores. Chaz Pofahl aligns himself with Carla at the beginning and end of the show, starting out as Uncle Henry opposite her Auntie Em, and ending as her servile Flying Monkey Lawyer at Dorothy’s trial. In between, Pofahl has a nice stint as Scarecrow.

Foster is the most gregarious of the three guys, doing more of the audience interaction and morphing into the Cowardly Lion. Brunson’s fine physical work as the Tin Woodsman steals far more of the show than you usually see. His robotic shtick before and during his therapeutic lube job vies in hilarity with Carla’s melting – under a barrage of confetti water.