Tag Archives: Oscar Wilde

Classics Collide at Spoleto

Reviews: Porgy and Bess and The Importance of Being Earnest

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By Perry Tannenbaum

They’re not just reviving Porgy and Bess at Spoleto Festival USA. They’ve designated “Porgy Houses” in Historic Charleston, set up Porgy tours to better acquaint you with the opera’s characters and Charleston landmarks – as well as the story’s author, Charlestonian DuBose Heyward – and there are Porgy exhibits at the libraries, museums, and galleries around town.

And they’re not merely celebrating Charleston and its indigenous black and Gullah cultures in this Porgy and Bess revival – with vibrant stage scenery and costumes by Charleston visual artist Jonathan Green. They’re celebrating the rebirth of Gaillard Center, the preeminent performance site at Spoleto, and they’re celebrating the festival’s 40th anniversary.

If the combination of Spoleto Festival artistry, authentic Charleston flavor, and an impressive new performing arts palace sounds like the perfect recipe for an incomparable Porgy and Bess, it almost is. The big letdown on opening night probably resulted from director David Herskovits, conductor Stefan Asbury, and the principal players not spending sufficient rehearsal time in the new hall – or with the Gaillard’s sound crew and engineer.

My first full week listening to Spoleto performances at the Gaillard convinced me that the hall’s acoustics aren’t weak. With new speaker towers flanking the stage, performances by jazz diva René Marie on the first Sunday of Spoleto and by the Randy Weston African Rhythms Sextet on the following Thursday were as sonically rich as they were artistically satisfying. But the size of the hall took its toll on the unamplified voices of the solo vocalists on opera night.

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This was the most beautifully sung Porgy that I’ve heard in live performance – but the least intelligible. You get all the great music from Lester Lynch as Porgy, Alyson Cambridge as Bess, Courtney Johnson as Clara, Sidney Outlaw as Jake, Victor Ryan Robertson as Sportin’ Life, Indra Thomas as Serena, and Eric Greene as Crown. Ah, but when we cross over to the lyrics and dialogue, we might call this production Porgy and Crown, for Lynch and Greene bring the most fully arresting portrayals onstage.

Lynch as Porgy is the best I’ve heard live or on recordings, overturning the notion that the hero of this drama is a weak pathetic cripple. Here Porgy returns from his police examination on the humble sledge we often associate with him, but in this production, we have long since become accustomed to seeing him with a cane or in a quite respectable wheelchair. A couple of those wheelchairs, including the one that’s outfitted for his trip to New York at the triumphant conclusion, are fit for a tribal king.

Green’s scenic and costume designs similarly overturn the perception that the people of Catfish Row are poor, oppressed, ignorant, and uncultured. Green and Herskovits have both asserted that African-American culture is the soul of Charleston – and that it has been for nearly 400 years. Part of Porgy’s strength and confidence becomes manifest, Herskovits has noted, when he allows Bess to join the townspeople at the fateful excursion to Kittiwah Island.

The other parts are evident in Lynch’s voice. Not a word is changed here, but we gradually realize that the pity we have felt for Porgy in the past has been fashioned by actors who have portrayed him, by their pitying co-stars and directors, and by our conditioned responses. A descendant of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Heyward discreetly hid a withered arm throughout his life, so his sympathies – as well as the original title of his novel – are definitely with Porgy.

Torn between three men, Bess’s apparent strength gradually vanishes in a haze of submissiveness, fatalism, and happy dust. While Cambridge fully captures Bess’s inner turmoil and anguish in her voice, her vowels migrate into Sopranoland, where the love of her life is transformed into “Pogah” and she neither talks the talk nor walks the walk. I’m really not sure Cambridge had a clue what was going on when she tossed Crown her “look at what arms you got” line. But when she pleads with Porgy that “it’s gonna feel like dyin’” if Crown takes her away, the urgency is primal.

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What still comes through in the end, vividly and freshly, is that Bess needs Porgy at least as much as he needs her. This impression is actually enhanced by the colorful portraits that we see of Crown and Sportin’ Life. Bringing chaos and bloodshed to a dice game or singing “A Red Headed Woman,” Greene is far more dangerous as Crown than ribald or desirable. Bess’s other stalker doesn’t amount to much, either. Tempting Bess with his happy dust, Robertson is the sly city slickster version of Sportin’ Life, cracking wise rather than satirically in his signature “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” where I grieved for the missing Methuselah stanza.

Designing costumes for Serena and Jake, Green brings out their special characteristics, Serena’s upright dignity and Jake’s wholesome determination. Thomas pours out Serena’s grief in “My Man’s Gone Now,” and Outlaw struts Jake’s infectious energy in “It Takes a Long Pull.” The Johnson C. Smith University Choir, decked out in a wonderful array of colors and styles, makes a bustling community out of Catfish Row and reminds us of the beauties that Gershwin packed into the ensembles.

The cherry on top of it all is the luxuriant presentation of the street vendors’ cries: Shanta L. Johnson as the Strawberry Woman, Tamar Green as the Crabman, and Walter J. Jackson as Peter the Honeyman. All in all, squalor is nearly banished from this reimagined Catfish Row. What remains is truly honey in the comb.

If you’re going to serve up something as popular and inviting as Porgy and Bess as the centerpiece of your festival, it makes sense to keep people around town with a companion theatre piece that is equally welcoming. So they’ve not only brought in their most frequent theatrical visitors, Gate Theatre from Dublin, they have them presenting the most popular and familiar comedy they’ve ever exported to Charleston in all of their 11 appearances, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

Now I admit that this struck me as pandering to the masses until intermission, when my wife Sue and I listened to the couple behind us desperately wrestling with the complications of Wilde’s plot as if they were rocket science. My guess is that the fog lifted after intermission, when the action moved from Algernon Moncrief’s London apartment to Jack Worthing’s country manor.

Surprise follows surprise, unexpected intrusion follows unexpected intrusion as the men’s fiancées, daffy Gwendolen Fairfax from the city and peculiarly naïve Cecily Cardew on the manor, unravel both their beaus’ double lives – with nifty misunderstandings and reversals along the way. It’s an elegantly crafted comedy machine with a steady stream of wickedly witty dialogue along the way.

My only worry, after recent Gate efforts at the Dock Street Theatre, was whether the Dubliners would bring enough energy – and decibels – to their task to bring out Wilde’s brilliance. Underpowered Alex Felton as Algy and Aoibhin Garrihy as Gwen in Act 1 didn’t exactly soothe my fears. But when Michael Ford-Fitzgerald as Ernest/Jack came wooing Gwen, there was comfort, and when Deidre Donnelly sailed in as Lady Bracknell to forbid the union, there was hilarity.

As it turns out after intermission, in Acts 2 and 3, it’s Wilde’s energy that kindles the Dubliners’ energies as all four lovebirds are increasingly surprised and distressed. Thwarted in the city, Ford-FitzGerald becomes more animated, physical, and funny as Uncle Jack when Algy suddenly appears, pretending to be Jack’s fictional brother Ernest – whom Jack fictionally killed off just moments earlier. Algy has been drawn into the country by the prospect of meeting Jack’s ward, Cecily Cardew, and falls for her at first sight.

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Not to be outdone, Cecily has already fallen in love with her fictional uncle Ernest, with fanciful diary entries and love notes from the rascal vouching for their burning romance. Making all of this up out of whole cloth doesn’t faze Cecily at all, and Lorna Quinn blesses her with the most insouciant caprice. Most of all, she’s enchanted by Ernest’s name. If you didn’t know, there’s a lot of that going around.

All of this nonsensical fantasy, compounded by Jack’s opposition and Algy’s raging hormones, help to boost Felton’s energies to the point where we can hear him. Similarly, when Gwen discovers – or misunderstands – that both she and Cecily are engaged to Ernest, there’s enough spontaneous indignation for Garrihy to parlay into audibility. When Lady Bracknell suddenly appears, implacably pursuing her disobedient ward, we get a seemingly insoluble stalemate of guardians’ matrimonial prohibitions.

This is where director Patrick Mason’s concept shines brightest, for he and Ford-FitzGerald whip Jack up to a frenzy of desperation that I’d never suspected lurked in this script – while Donnelly as Lady Bracknell retains her signature sangfroid. They all somehow become one big magically dysfunctional family at the end, and we couldn’t be happier for them. Even if you’ve seen this classic over and over, this Earnest is worth seeing again.

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Lady Bracknell Weathers Three Storms

Reviews of The Importance of Being Earnest and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Jon Ecklund (John Worthing) and Lance Beilstein (Algernon Moncrieff) in The Importance of Being Earnest.

They were planning to open The Importance of Being Earnest on January 22 at Theatre Charlotte, where Oscar Wilde’s “Trivial Comedy for Serious People” hadn’t played since 2002. But the snow and sleet that were icing the roads hadn’t begun to melt away on the following evening, so opening night was transformed into an opening Sunday matinee. Even if I had been able to scale my icebound driveway, I was already booked for the opera at Belk Theater.

After all the reshuffling on my iCal, my wife Sue and I were finally able to catch up with Wilde’s menagerie of smart alecks at the second Sunday matinee, nine days after the originally scheduled opening. With so many other reshufflers in the crowd, the Queens Road barn was close to capacity. An extra performance has been slated for 2:30 this Saturday to help out other migrants.

The airy sophistication of Joshua Webb’s set design boded well for the blizzard of bon mots to come, but who were these Ernests opening up the action, Lance Beilstein as the roguish Algernon Moncrieff and Jon Ecklund as the deceitful John Worthing? Beilstein had briefly blipped on my radar last year when he was cast in a stage adaptation of Casablanca that didn’t happen. and Ecklund had never performed on a Charlotte stage before nailing his audition as Wilde’s protagonist.

Yet they instantly established a fine rapport, hinting early on that Algy and Ernest — as John calls himself in London — were not only great friends but kindred spirits.

There was a problem, however, even before the divine ladies arrived. Though their chemistry was sparkling, Beilstein’s cue pickup was razor sharp while Ecklund’s was erratic. Not a symptom you would expect from your lead at the end of your second week.

Ecklund’s symptoms became more serious during the scene change between Acts 2 and 3. In fact, he was taken to the hospital, reportedly suffering from dizziness, and didn’t reappear.

Johnny Hohenstein, who plays John’s butler at his country home, bravely substituted for Ecklund during the final 19 minutes, script in hand. That forced the imperious Lady Bracknell to announce herself when she triumphantly reappeared.

The waters were already troubled in Act 1 when Jill Bloede, amply bustled in a floor-length dress, first floated in like a majestic tugboat as Her Ladyship. It was she and she alone who must approve of Ernest as the prospective husband of Algy’s cousin, Miss Gwendolen Fairfax — a grim prospect, since her wicked nephew has already devoured all the cucumber sandwiches.

Lady B attempts to be judicious. Ernest’s income of seven to eight thousand pounds, the equivalent of $1 million annually according to the Norton Edition of the text, actually counts in his favor.

It’s Ernest’s lineage that is an insuperable stumbling block, for he cannot trace his family any further back than a leather handbag! My, how Bloede huffs when she repeats that fatal word, nearly adding an extra syllable to it each time she lingers on the first letter.

Lady Bracknell’s contempt was so hilariously absolute that when she exited, leaving Ernest and Gwendolen’s hopes of marital bliss in shambles, the audience erupted in lusty applause.

By the sort of insane coincidence that Wilde uses to resolve Ernest’s difficulties, Bloede’s name rhymes with Lady. So, after her current triumph, Jill is no more: she will no doubt have to suffer being called Bloede Bracknell for the rest of her days. You may revise my headline accordingly.

Needless to say, Bloede’s arrival calmed any worries that this production, directed by Tonya Bludsworth, would be anything less than a delight. Eleven years after starring in NC Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Gretchen McGinty’s professionalism still gleams with vitality and caprice as Gwendolen, irresistible despite her perverse silliness. She accepts Ernest, but only for the shallowest of reasons — she’s the perfect antithesis of Juliet.

Caprice continues to rule when we arrive at John’s country home for Act 2, where we meet his lovely ward, Cicely Cardew. Her requirements for a prospective husband are not merely similar to Gwen’s.

They are exactly the same, obliging both John and Algy to make christening appointments with the Rev. Canon Chasuble. Under the watchful eyes of Cicely’s governess, Miss Prism, Algernon has snuck into John’s home, pretending to be his fictitious brother Ernest, and swept Miss Cardew off her feet. That’s partly because Miss Prism’s eyes are devotedly affixed to the Reverend.

As we’ll learn in the denouement, it’s not the first time Miss Prism’s attention has wandered.

Further complicating John and Algy’s attempts to live double lives, Gwen follows her would-be fiancé into the country — with her mother barking at her heels. The running joke of Act 2, amid all the confusion of who’s really betrothed to Ernest, is the radical shifts of sisterly love and murderous hatred between Gwen and Cicely.

Mixed in with devout cynicism and decadence, punctiliousness and pomposity squandered over trivialities are the key ingredients of Wilde’s satire, and Bludsworth has her entire cast embracing it with the proper élan.

Emily Klingman is hormone-driven innocence in a lemon chiffon dress as Cicely, assiduously transcribing Algy’s marriage proposal into her teen diary, and Hank West bumbles quite sanctimoniously as Rev. Chasuble when he manages to recall where he is. Scrunched up like a squirrel, Stephanie DiPaolo is the essence of fretful and incompetent spinsterhood as Miss Prism.

Bludsworth also differentiates nicely between the servants. Ron Turek is urbane and dignified as Algy’s man, Lane; while Hohenstein, tasked to distraction by his temperamental superiors, is more apt to let his resentments play over his face as John’s butler, Merriman. Or he was until he was obliged to pick up Ecklund’s script and stand up to Bloede Bracknell.

Edward Tulane(C)Donna Bise 6686

Photo by Donna Bise

Not at all plagued by postponements, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane opened at ImaginOn last weekend in as polished a production as you’ll ever see from Children’s Theatre. It’s a gem that will no doubt remind longtime subscribers of The Velveteen Rabbit, since the title character is a rabbit doll. Ah, but Edward is fashioned entirely of porcelain, except for his furry ears and tail (he prefers not to think about the origin of his whiskers).

Adapted by Dwayne Hartford from the novel by Kate DiCamillio, Edward’s story begins when he is given to 10-year-old Abilene Tulane on Egypt Street by her mysterious grandmother Pellegrina, the only human who knows his heart.

Unlike the Velveteen, Edward does not aspire to be real or human, but he is frustrated when Abilene doesn’t set him in a place where he can see the outdoors and the stars through her window.

Even before he is severely broken many years later in Memphis, Pellegrina perceives his flaws, and the inference is that he must suffer for them. But Edward’s sufferings and adventures will be epic ­— beyond human, to tell the truth.

Our protagonist remains the three-foot doll the DiCamillio created, but Mark Sutton is always close by to articulate his thoughts, shouldering and picking a banjo as Edward morphs into Susannahr, Malone, Clyde, and Jangles during his odyssey on land and under the sea.

Margaret Dalton figures most prominently as the bereft Abilene, but she resurfaces on numerous occasions during Edward’s journey, most notably as a frisky dog. Beginning as the semi-exotic Pellegrina, Allison Rhinehart ranges across multiple roles and genders, last seen as Lucius Clark, the sagely doll mender. Devin Clark rounds out the cast, shapeshifting from fisherman to hobo to handyman when he isn’t slyly inserting sound effects. Pure enchantment for 81 minutes.