Tag Archives: S. Wilson Lee

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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Spanish Gold in a Rat Pack Update

Preview: Life Is a Dream

By Perry Tannenbaum

With a king who tries futilely to outwit fate and a wrongfully imprisoned prince who has time – and fate – on his side, Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s Life Is a Dream hearkens back to a couple of revered Greek tragedies, Oedipus Rex and Prometheus Bound. First produced in 1636, the script also bears earmarks of Shakespeare’s most mature dramas, works like The Tempest and King Lear, where the Bard ponders questions about nature vs. nurture and “elemental man.”

Mixing in a faceoff between free will and predestination, Life Is a Dream stands as one of the two most-anthologized plays from Spain’s Golden Age. Anthologists casually refer to the piece as a drama, but the more thoughtfully considered entry in the Reader’s Encyclopedia of World Drama describes Calderón’s masterwork as “a metaphysical problem play.”

Screw that, says Shakespeare Carolina director S. Wilson Lee. He will tell you – and remind his cast of actors emphatically – that Life Is a Dream is a COMEDY.

Scorning complexity, Lee explains: “My theatre education regarding classic drama planted this nugget into my brain: Drama is divided into two categories, TRAGEDY and COMEDY. The difference? In TRAGEDY, central characters end the show dead; in COMEDY, central characters end the show married! Life Is a Dream ends with marriage.”

If that ending is real.

At a key turning point in this “comedy,” King Basilio of Poland allows his son Prince Segismundo, imprisoned since birth, to come to the royal court. It’s a test of an astrologer’s prediction that Segismundo, if allowed to live and reign, would be the ruin of the kingdom. Brought up as an isolated savage, perpetually in chains and dressed in animal pelts, Segismundo is a fairly sure bet to fail any test of readiness to rule.

Basilio has planned well what he would do if his son misuses the reins of power. He’ll see to it that Segismundo is drugged, transported back to his mountainside dungeon, and assured that his royal misadventures were nothing more than a dream. Whether that’s cruelty or comedy, this whole truth-or-illusion strand that runs through Calderón’s script is very modern.

Lee is taking it further. The “dream-state” aspects of Segismundo’s journey will serve to heighten the comedy. “Living the Dream or Dreaming the Life …whatever” will be more than a mantra for ShakesCar’s production when it opens at Spirit Square on April 19 – it will rule Lee’s design concept. King Basilio will be living the life with a modern flair, crowned with the Rat Pack aura minted a generation ago by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr.

“The look of the piece,” Lee says, “is a kind of ‘Wild Ones Meet the Rat Pack.’ Most of the locale of the production takes place in Basilio’s Place… a happenin’ lounge in Poland, Nevada. Also, the strangers, Rosaura and Clarin, come from Moscow, Pennsylvania. King Basilio is in the process of handing over his rule to the next ‘head of the Family.’ Remember, though, this could all be Segismundo’s dream!”

Lee intends to bring the audience into the dreamy action at Duke Energy Theatre. Cast members will address the audience during the show, and special seating will be available onstage at four lounge tables that will put eight of ShakesCar’s guests – two per table – in the middle of the action.

In this royal tale of turmoil, father and son are both attention-grabbers. Though brought up in a cave with the humblest clothing, Segismundo isn’t exactly a clone of Shakespeare’s Caliban. He has a caretaker, Clotando, who tutors him a bit, and it’s Segismundo’s natural depth and probity that sets him heroically apart. In the first speech he utters, he tells us that mankind’s greatest sin is being born, a line that endeared Calderón to no less of an absurdist playwright than Samuel Beckett himself.

Veering from savagery to such sublime speculation – the prince soon questions whether he was born – Segismundo spans an astonishing range of moods.

“This was easily the hardest role I have ever prepared for,” says David Hayes, a ShakesCar mainstay since 1998. “Segismundo is dancing back and forth across a very fine line between madness and sanity – to the point where my own perception got a little skewed during this process. Stan [the director] has been a key component to reining me in or removing my ‘chains.’”

To a certain extent, Hayes must not only take ownership over the full range of Segismundo, the dreamer, but our experience as well.

“Isn’t that what a dream really is?” Hayes hints. “A chaotic onslaught that blurs the lines of reality. That’s what this is.”

Counterbalancing this Marlon Brando biker persona is King Basilio as Vegas slickster. The closest role Russell Rowe has done with ShakesCar to this cruel Basilio was King Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, who renounces his wife and daughter, but Lee is telling him to think Frank Sinatra here.

Enjoying life at the top and thinking he has outwitted fate, Basilio isn’t ready to let go. Rowe doesn’t see much of a character arc in this swinging king.

“It is more of a slope,” he says, “a descent from an exalted state to a more humbled one. This downfall encompasses both roles as king and father, since the threat to his kingship is coming from his own son. After the descent, of course, there is the brief but powerful upturn at the end, as Basilio learns the difficult lesson that he can only get what he wants by giving up trying to get it.”

Of course, Segismundo doesn’t really know what he wants when we first meet him, because he has no idea yet who he is. The action is kickstarted with the arrival of Rosaura at his secluded prison, a woman who very much knows what she wants – disguised as a man. She is fiercely in pursuit of the man who jilted her, but we soon realize her similarity to Segismundo. Rosaura has also lived a long time without being aware of her true identity.

It’s a twisty plot when we arrive at Basilio’s lounge, with l-o-o-o-n-n-g speeches every step of the way. Lee is confident that the new translation eases the complexity and floweriness of Calderón’s text, helping to pave the path toward his intent of imposing a comedic style on the action. The transgendered translator, Jo Clifford (nee John Clifford), was presumably most enamored with Rosaura, who openly speaks of herself as a man and as a woman in the same speech during the Act 3 climax.

In her disguise, Teresa Abernethy gets to be one of the boys from the outset. But she doesn’t have to arrive on horseback. Nor is her opening line “Dash off, wild hippogriff!” as it was in an older translation.

“I’m still bursting out calling my horse – ride, bike, Hog – a Hippogriff!” Abernethy reveals. “Damn thing gave false promises of forever through rough terrain!”

The roughest ride for Rowe and Abernethy has been reining in the tempestuous temperaments of their characters.

“Rosaura is fueled by passion,” says Abernethy, “which propels her inner conflict. Emotion is a beast that can drag us to all sorts of domains, but for Rosaura, she is ALL IN – willing to die for her honor. My own conflict is not floating away to Rosaura’s coursing elements of shame and still participate in this play that is a comedy.”

Lee is pulling hard to keep it that way. The director wants this Shakespeare Carolina production to engage us in the bigger questions that Calderón plays with – without bogging us down in them.

“I do want the audience to think about long term abandonment and the toll it takes upon one’s psyche and cognitive process. I want the audience to relate to Rosaura’s sense of loss and dishonor. I also want the audience to ponder Basilio’s reasons and explanations regarding his treatment of Segismundo. By all means, do that. However, none of those questions will be pondered if the audience has not had a good time exploring along with the characters. Have fun!!”

 

Midsummer Night’s Catastrophe

Theatre review: Miss Julie

By Perry Tannenbaum

There is danger beneath the summer moon in August Strindberg’s Miss Julie as a spoiled, wanton, and impulsive heiress toys with daddy’s dutiful and ambitious valet. But there are ambiguities about Miss Julie – a fairly wide latitude in how she can be portrayed – and the echoes of Strindberg’s 1889 script reverberate into Oscar Wilde’s Salome and a bunch of Tennessee Williams dramas, further complicating our response.

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Shakespeare Carolina is giving us the opportunity to view Strindberg’s classic up close in a new production at the fine Johnson Hall black box on the Winthrop University campus. Up close, we can easily see that director S. Wilson Lee has skewed his casting a little younger than the 25 prescribed by the playwright for his title character and the 30 advised for Jean, her valet. Caitlin Byrne seems a little more innocent as Julie than Strindberg perhaps intends, a little less stung and desperate because her recent fiancée has broken it off.

Still we can see her kinship with Salome in her awareness of her allure, her earthy wantonness, her expertise at manipulation, and her seething desire to command the men who desire her – leading to Julie’s contempt for all of them. She’s just not as evil and cruel as Wilde’s wicked temptress. Nor does she completely enjoy the upper hand with Jean.

When he’s a few years older, David Hensley will be able to mix more of Jean’s worldliness in with his youthful confidence and ambition. Right now, when the master’s bell startles him, Hensley’s reaction looks inbred where his reflexive response should be at odds with his better judgment. But there’s enough self-assurance in this Jean for us to see that Strindberg considers him to be the Darwinian winner in his on-again-off-again romance with Julie.

If Hensley were a little more commanding, we’d see the parallels between Jean-Julie and Stanley Kowalski-Blanche DuBois more readily, but you’ll likely leave Johnson Hall perceiving the template. You really can’t miss the affinity between Julie and so many toxic women in heat that have proliferated since the days of Strindberg and Wilde.

She comes into the servants’ quarters from a Swedish Midsummer Eve celebration, exhilarated and maybe tipsy. We’ve already heard about the break-up of her engagement, her bold improprieties during the Midsummer revels, and it isn’t long after she arrives that Julie expresses her admiration for Jean’s dance moves. Kristin, the cook who believes Jean’s future domestic bliss will be with her, quickly senses the threat of Julie’s impulsiveness and caprice.

Gayle Taggart has Kristin beautifully measured. She’s prim and proper in her apron, equally alarmed by Jean’s gropings above his station and Julie’s dips below hers. Strindberg actually sets her age five years above Jean’s, in a region where marriage and family have become more urgent for Kristin than for Julie. With Taggart, that biological urgency pretty much disappears, subordinated to her fear of losing Jean. You could imagine her as older than Hensley, but I doubt it. What comes to the fore with Taggart is that Kristin is more of a woman than Julie, an element that spices up the drama.

With her conventional attitudes and pieties, you don’t think Kristin is going to matter, but in the denouement, she does.

Steering Tragedy Towards Mirth

Theater Review: The Winter’s Tale

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Misdeeds in Shakespeare come in dark and light hues: they are prankish and trivial when the Bard smiles, malign and fatal when he glowers. Misunderstandings follow a similar pattern, absurd and accidental when they aren’t horrifying and purposeful. When such complications are resolved at the end of Shakespeare’s earlier plays, all is mended in the comedies and all is lost in the tragedies. But a new curvature enters the Bard’s storylines toward the end of his career, when he begins to concoct the bittersweet confections that became classified as romances. These include The Tempest, Cymbeline, Pericles and – now at Spirit Square in an outstanding Shakespeare Carolina production – The Winter’s Tale.

In these plays, tragedy strikes. But it’s survived, and we veer towards mirth. Keats may not have understood Shakespeare best among the romantic poets, for Coleridge had the finest critical mind among them, but he was best attuned to this mellowed, autumnal Shakespeare when he referred to life as “a vale of soul-making.” The protagonists in these plays reach wisdom and contentment only through great and prolonged suffering.

Before we reach these romances, Shakespeare strives to compress time as much as possible. Factions and countries seem able to raise armies and launch wars overnight in Caesar and Lear. When we reach The Winter’s Tale, Time is not only a prime element in the story, he or she is an actual character. At Duke Energy Theatre, he comes out at the end of Act 3 in the script, dressed very much like Dickens’ last Christmas ghost, to announce the intermission, leaving an hourglass on a stool.

When we come back, Time properly names himself to start Act 4, tells us that 16 years have passed while we were gone and, cued by the Bard’s blank verse, flips the hourglass to launch the continuation in Bohemia. Back in Sicilia, King Leontes has royally messed things up. Outdoing Othello in jealousy, Leontes has decided that his virtuous Queen Hermione is having an affair with his longtime buddy King Polixenes of Bohemia. Flouting all common sense, he is equally certain that Polixenes has fathered the child she is on the verge of delivering.

Stubborn and decisive, Leontes imprisons his wife, orders his most trusted servant to murder Polixenes, and sends his most valued courtier overseas to dispose of his newborn daughter. Now why was he so sure Hermione is an adulteress? When Polixenes refused Leontes’ entreaties in the opening scene to stay an extra week in Sicilia, Leontes asked Hermione to try – and she succeeded.

Polixenes and the servant escape together, and by the time Leontes discovers his folly, he has lost his wife, his son, his best friend, and his newborn daughter. And according to the Delphic oracle, whose declarations he ignored when they vindicated Hermione and Polixenes, he will remain childless and lose his kingdom unless he finds his lost daughter. Instead of tracking the infant’s scent while it is still fresh, Leontes goes to the opposite extreme of his previous bellicosity, cloistering himself with his sufferings and sorrows, mourning the true wife he wronged.

Not only does the wintry action in Sicilia turn to springtime in Bohemia when the hourglass is flipped, a whole new generation seizes the spotlight. The action blows in the opposite direction, on the wings of two young lovers who will be true to one another. Taking advantage of the new time and place, director Tony Wright flips a large portion of the cast into new roles during intermission.

Perhaps the most significant of these changes occurs just before the break when S. Wilson Lee as Antigonus, the Sicilian courtier who brings the king’s unlucky child to Bohemia, makes one of the most famous exits in theatre history, “pursued by a bear.” Lee comes back almost immediately in a new costume as a new character, the Shepherd who hears of the courtier’s grisly mauling and discovers the babe in the basket. Clearly things have turned toward comedy when a rustic illiterate marvels at his clone’s demise.

And it makes eminently good sense for Faith Benton to reverse the gender deployment that was routine in Elizabethan times, when women were barred from acting, playing Leontes’ son Mamillius in the opening act and his lost daughter Perdita after the break. Benton has a nicely understated elegance that works well for a noble who is ignorant of her nobility, and she projects virginal purity at the heart of the Bohemian scenes that artfully parallels Katie Bearden’s maternal and wifely purity at the center of the Sicilia drama.

It’s quite remarkable that Bearden can bring so much freshness to a role that reminds us of so many Desdemonas and the falsely accused Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. But it’s certainly helpful for Russell Rowe to be deceiving himself so powerfully as Leontes, a lion who creates his own dreary winter out of an apparently loving marriage.

Lowe’s overbearing authority makes Bearden’s steadfast truth and devotion all the more poignant, but it also sparks other forms of opposition. Amy Hillard as the vanished Antigonus’ tart-tongued widow is unsparing in her denunciations of the King, granting him her special clemency only when the Delphic oracle’s prophecy is fulfilled. Just as useful in the wide arcs of this storyline is Kevin Sario as Leontes’ trusted servant Camillo, an anti-Iago who saves his King from himself, ultimately engineering his redemption.

Camillo and Polixenes bridge the two halves of this Tale, so it’s interesting to watch the subtle imperfections that Charles Holmes brings to the King of Bohemia. He probably is a little more affectionate toward Hermione than is strictly proper, and when his family hurtles into crisis, his aversion toward hearing out his son Florizel parallels Leontes’ deafness toward Hermione. In this sunny new comedy world, Polixenes’ faults are more fortunate.

With his bushy hair, Cole Pedigo as Florizel strikes me as more rustic than Benton, but they do make an adoring – and adorable – couple. He actually gets to dress down when Florizel and Perdita decide to elope. Or seek asylum? Obliging him gladly is Ted Patterson as the thieving con-artist Autolycus, who will gladly favor us with a song when he’s not swindling the Old Shepherd and his Clown (Michael Anderson). Like other Shakespeare rascals, Autolycus is luckier than he is smart. Until he isn’t.

In the cavalcade of reunions that closes out this romance, the last is by far the most moving because it redeems so much lost time. A bit of a downer throughout the evening, the scenic simplicity of the production becomes most effective in this tenderest of moments, but Robert Jaeger’s costumes also lift us out of visual poverty along the way. Turns out that it has been a novel idea in Charlotte to do a Shakespeare play – rather than a riff on one – to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.

One expects a knowing selection from a company that takes the Bard’s name in vain, and Winter’s Tale, a work that resonates with Shakespeare’s final years, proves to be a very apt choice. With this current crop of newcomers and seasoned veterans, this is the best serious Shakespeare this company has done. Shakespeare Carolina really is a mature Shakespeare company now, knowing what they mean and meaning what they, Both the comedy and the drama come at us with the swagger of assured confidence. If only somebody would give them a few bucks!

Albee’s Fantastic Day at the Beach

Theatre Review: Seascape

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Citizens of the Universe hasn’t announced the full details of its farewell season, but it has begun handsomely at “The Shell,” COTU founder James Cartee’s name for the suite on 2424 N. Davidson St. that CAST occupied in its latter days. The theater spaces where CAST often staged two productions at the same time have both been obliterated, stripped down to the original floors and walls, but the residue proves unexpectedly appropriate as a vast, bleak setting for Edward Albee’s Seascape, directed by S. Wilson Lee.

For awhile, the drama seems to revolve around Nancy and Charlie, a mid-life couple who bicker somewhat lethargically – compared with the titanic battles Albee staged between George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – about what they should do now and in the future. The weak grip this opening had on my attention was further weakened by Kylene T. Edson as Nancy, indistinctly audible when projecting her gripes over across the beach to her husband diagonally downstage. Lee would be advised to either energize Edson during these opening moments or bring her downstage more often.

Luckily, these difficulties evaporate when two ginormous lizards crawl ashore, frightening the humans as they scope them out. Since the sea is upstage, fright not only raises Edson’s energy level, it also drives her naturally toward us where she can be easily heard. Wariness is well-advised, but the lizards, Leslie and Sarah, aren’t foraging for food so much as they are reconnoitering the possibilities of life on land.

Amazingly, Leslie and Sarah speak English, if only the rudimentary kind you would expect from high school freshmen matriculating in Lancaster or Cabarrus County. There’s a lot for Nancy and Charlie to catch the reptiles up on, including the origin of the universe, the primordial soup, evolution, mammals, and the whole concept of emotions, beginning and ending with love. Shuttling between the urge to educate and the impulse to flee in terror, Nancy and Charlie might identify more with teachers in urban school districts.

The spark for this intriguing production comes largely from the extraordinary work Lee elicits from Emmanuel Barbe as Leslie, abetted by the phosphorescent glow of Kenya Davis’s makeup design. I’ve often struggled to penetrate through Barbee’s French accent when he battled against the Bard’s blank verse in Shakespeare Carolina productions. But here he is admirably slowed down by Lee – and often formidably booming. The physicality of him can be menacing enough as he advances toward you, but you really don’t want to broach the possibility that his species might lose their mighty tails during the next billion or so years of evolution. He’s attached to that tail.

By comparison, Brianna Merkel is a cute counterpart for Barbe as Sarah, as adorably clueless when she doesn’t understand concepts – matrimony, pregnancy, the list goes on – as Leslie is frustrated and antagonistic. We see a certain bond forming between Sarah and Nancy, peacemakers trying to calm their mates’ warrior instincts, and it’s here that Edson’s performance begins to blossom.

Brian Amidai is more consistently reliable as Charlie, very adept at the inertia of a husband who doesn’t wish to travel or repeat past adventures. He’s on a beach and just wants to relax, dammit, maybe get lost in a book. But Amidai’s transition between this beach potato and an instinctual protector rings viscerally true, and there’s a faint layer of comedy in the moments when he thinks he’s gone insane or died. Obliquely, I found him cuing my own reactions as this wild, mysterious fantasy unfolded.