Tag Archives: Sarah Provencal

“Open” Needs More Space and Time

Review: Open from Three Bone Theatre @ The Arts Factory

By Perry Tannenbaum

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We’ve had two new presidents and three elections since the last time I saw a show at The Arts Factory in September 2012. One of those presidents and one of those elections lit the spark that became Crystal Skillman’s Open in 2019. Now that Spirit Square is shuttered for redevelopment, Open is the first of what figures to be a steady migration of local theatre productions from Uptown at 7th Street to the nifty black box on the other side of I-77 at 1545 West Trade.

Directed for Three Bone Theatre by Sarah Provencal, Open is a one-woman show featuring Danielle Banks in her Charlotte debut.

We can actually trace the hour when Open began germinating on the surreal “morning after” of November 9, 2016.

“Once He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named was elected,” Skillman said in a subsequent interview, “the intolerant times in which we lived have increased. The day after he was elected at six AM, two men in a car driving past me shouted ‘Hilary lost, bitch!’” Out of her anger and pain came a need to escape the world of intolerance and hate she suddenly found herself in.

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Skillman decided that she needed magic, and her script propounds the idea that we all need magic – and we all can believe in it if we choose. The woman who addresses us, Kristen, is a magician. The Magician.

Except that she isn’t. Kristen is actually a freelance writer, a soon-to-be electronically published author of her first young adult novel, who has extensively researched magic. She will rely on us, her audience, to believe in her magic and to imagine the balls she isn’t juggling, the metal rings she isn’t interlocking and pulling apart, the rope she isn’t cutting and magically restoring, and the deck of playing cards she isn’t shuffling or spreading or offering to an audience member to pick from.

Circuitously, we learn why Kristen needs this magic as she spins her love story. Each of three acts is delineated: first love, commitment, and sacrifice. Yeah, you’ll need to head to the other side of town for The Rocky Horror Show if you’re looking for something silly or frivolous.

While telling us how she has been coaxed out of the closet into a deepening relationship with Jenny, a Kinko’s worker who has helped her with her manuscript, Kristen clues us into why she resists coming out and commitment. Before leaving home for good, Kristen’s dad had encouraged her to be who she truly was – but never to tell Mom because it would kill her.

Kristen’s fondness for misdirection may explain her drift into magic, and her fear of commitment leads to Jenny’s horrendous misfortune, which is much worse than being taunted by a couple of MAGA maniacs. The assault on Jenny by a gang of homophobes has left her in the hospital with a tenuous grip on life. Compounding Kristen’s shock and guilt, Jenny’s parents don’t want her anywhere near their precious daughter.

Now Kristen must not only believe in magic. She must start believing in herself.

Watching my first live Three Bone production in over 20 months, I couldn’t help thinking every so often how ideal Open could have been as an online webcast during the long pandemic lockdown. Scenery, casting, costuming, and playing time are more limited than Prisoner 34042, the distinguished new two-hander that Three Bone premiered in 2019 and reprised online back in April. Already condensed.

The colorful lighting design by Christy Lancaster and Gordon Olson helps Banks in delineating the various segments of her narrative within her three acts and in framing her magic, but Provencal’s sound design is more noticeable and necessary, helping us get our bearings – and adding charm to the magic. Otherwise, the hurried and constricted presentation of Kristen’s story occasionally robbed it of sticking power.

Open lacked the tension of dialogue that frequently punctuated the narrative of 34042, when one of the actresses played multiple roles opposite our heroine. In an online presentation, the absence of additional actors in Open would merely be one more frill we were giving up for COVID-19, starting with not being in a real theater with a real audience in front of artfully fabricated scenery.

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Seeing Open in an actual theater space obliges Banks to be more active and dramatic than if she were confined to a TV or computer monitor. And she really is wonderful as Kristen and The Magician, engaging with the audience with a youthful, bubbly vivacity that is only faintly tinged with shyness and hesitance. Banks is genuine in these roles, seemingly herself. We feel ourselves empathetically reaching out to her.

Unfortunately, Banks stays true to those two roles when she’s replicating key dialogues she has had with her beloved Jenny. Here, presumably with Provencal’s approval, the amateur magician becomes an amateur ventriloquist. Banks makes Jenny sound more timorous and shyer instead of the more mature and assertive human who urged Kristen to come out and pushed for lasting commitment.

Having issued so many indulgences and suspended so much disbelief, couldn’t we be asked to go a little further and accept the premise that the bubbly, slightly shy and awkward novelist/magician could miraculously, on cue, become an accomplished actress who can believably channel the Jenny she is so attached to and guilt-ridden about? Sign me up.

 

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Without a substantial Jenny and without the two sets of parents present before us, elements of Kristen’s story begin to deflate and impact less forcefully. It’s not like Skillman didn’t have plenty of time and space to fill in these absences and give Open more heft.

Symptomatic of her crippling haste, Skillman tacks on an unnamed fourth act or epilogue that could be titled “Reconciliation.” Within the space of a single phone call, Kristen’s grief is dispelled – along with maybe her horror, guilt, and regret. On our drive home, I asked my wife Sue and our friend Carol whether this had all happened before or after Kristen had left the hospital for the last time.

None of us could say for sure.

Inside a She-Wolfpack

Review: The Wolves by Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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A couple of new productions drew my attention over the weekend, both sporting a cast of at least eight players. Yet at the two dramas, the new Countess Dracula from The Actor’s Gym and the local premiere of The Wolves by Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, there wasn’t a single male performer among the 18 that I saw. Even more surprising, it was the older, more established company that was fielding more new faces.

There aren’t any particularly sharp canine teeth on display in The Wolves, for the title pack is a women’s soccer team, but director Sarah Provencal and her design team are making a point of fielding this high-school-aged club. ATC has turned Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus into a soccer practice field, a somewhat jarring experience after you park your car, since there’s a real practice field adjacent to the lot and the school building that houses the Hadley.

In Evan Kinsley’s set design, the field and a scoreboard bisect the theater, and ticketholders can choose to sit on either side for a nicely simulated grandstand – and soccer mom – experience. The playing space was so large that ATC executive director barely made himself heard in his inimitable pre-show welcome, feeding my concern that the newcomers we were about to see would fare even worse.

Sarah DeLappe’s script and Provencal’s direction weren’t designed to allay such fears. Other than winning their next games and making it to the national tournament, the nine Wolves aren’t consumed by a single storyline as they gather for practices, and there can be multiple conversations vying for our attention at the same time, all equally tangential. Reminding me a bit of Annie Baker’s The Flick in its verité style, DeLappe develops her characters casually and obliquely as her teens’ conversations leap unexpectedly from immigration policy to Harry Potter to soccer strategy to coach’s hangover to the Khmer Rouge – and of course, juicy gossip about absent teammates.

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Compounding our difficulties – and her actors’ – Provencal conspires with soccer trainer Kirsten Allen to keep the Wolves engaged in an ongoing cavalcade of stretching exercises and soccer drills while all these scattershot conversations are popping at us from all points of the field. There’s plenty for us to see as we sift through the trivialities for telling info, and there’s plenty for the never-further-identified #25, #13, #46, #2, #7, #14, #8, and #00 (the goalie) to do, prompted by #11, the movement captain.

Along the way, we learn that we are somewhere in Middle America, that the mysterious newcomer lives in a yurt, and that another’s dad works with immigrants. There are little markers that attach to most of the others: #00 darts off the field repeatedly to vomit, the slender #2 may be anorexic, #14 is Armenian, and the movement captain, while aching to attract the notice of a college scout, takes on the responsibility of making her teammates winners. She’ll take the silliest of them aside, #8, and chastise her for making hurtful remarks to another player.

As with The Flick, another darling of Pulitzer Prize committees in recent years, you’re likely to conclude that, behind the outward aimlessness of The Wolves, an inner aimlessness lurks as well. At times, I felt like The Wolves might be a first draft of a script that could become a TV pilot for a series that HBO or Lifetime would reject as too nebulous or punchless. There are definitely players here who pique our curiosity and promise to reward deeper exploration.

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This ATC production reaches that limbo level because Provencal’s cast is so credible – both in inhabiting their roles and their soccer uniforms. I was most impressed by El Osborn as #7, the iconoclastic striker who is unexpectedly replaced by the socially awkward newcomer, Maevis Pair as an equally impressive #46. Osborn does a fine job with the glints of vulnerability that creep into #7’s haughty front after #46’s exploits on the pitch, revealing her longing for belonging when her stardom is broken. Pair evolves from her initial trepidations – counseling would likely be helpful for #46 – but she remains respectful toward #7 and a long distance from arrogance.

Maybe the fullest character on the team is Harley Winzenreid as #11, whose world is totally upended when she is no longer the hot college prospect but still the team leader. To be sure, DeLappe and Provencal provide Winzenreid with means to register the shifting landscape she copes with – and the cataclysms that befall the whole team collectively – but she’s interesting to watch as she effortlessly maintains leadership. Aside from the always disgruntled #7, who’s there to challenge her?

Not the two neurotic pups, Annarah Shephard as the nervous goalie, nor Hannah Kevitt as the inward and secretive #2, possibly anorexic. Entertaining as she may be as the ignorant and insensitive #8, Ahzjai Culbreth is well aware that she isn’t leader-of-the-pack material. What all of the teammates achieve, even as they expend so much athletic energy going through their pre-game paces, is a naturalness that I didn’t adequately appreciate until it was paused.

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That’s when the one adult in the cast, Jennifer Poarch as Soccer Mom, makes a dramatic entrance and delivers a fairly lengthy monologue. Compared to haphazardness that precedes her, Soccer Mom seems stagey, and I found myself accusing Poarch of acting. What comes across, aside from a distinct impression that Soccer Mom isn’t sure why she’s there, is that she exits without deepening her connection with her daughter or the other Wolves. After spending 90 minutes with them, I found that I had only barely begun.

“Appropriate” Sports Multiple Meanings and Graveyards

Review:  Three Bone Theatre’s Appropriate

By Perry Tannnenbaum

Two graveyards flank the Lafayette home in southeast Arkansas, dating back to its antebellum plantation days. One of these cemeteries preserves the remains of the former owners’ family and the other, receiving less upkeep perhaps, the bones of their slaves. Yet it seems, as we become more and more familiar with the Lafayette siblings in Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ Appropriate, that there are also – figuratively, anyway – at least two more graveyards inside the home. And a malevolent ghost.

As the sibs gather at the old homestead, poring over their dad’s possessions a few months after the funeral, prepping the place for a scheduled auction and liquidation, it’s obvious that the home is a graveyard for blurred childhood memories that don’t align with each other. Old grudges and animosities rise freshly out of their tombs. Just as dramatically, there are damning objects buried among Dad’s salable possessions.

He could have been a virulent segregationist, a KKK member, or even part of organized lynch mobs. Or he could have merely been a collector of such grisly artifacts. Or they may have simply come down unnoticed from the original plantation owners.

Ambiguities abound, and in the Three Bone Theatre production now at Spirit Square, they aren’t shying away from the confusion. If anything, these tantalizing uncertainties are sharpened by director Sarah Provencal and her cast. On the title page of the playbill, definitions for “ap•pro•pri•ate” are offered for both the adjective and the verb, inviting us to be unsure about even how to pronounce the name of what we’re watching.

Thanks largely to Rachael, “Bo” Lafayette’s annoying and judgmental Yankee wife, and Franz his black sheep younger brother, we’re scrutinizing the inheriting generation as much as the deceased. Is the elder sister, Toni, showing her racist colors when she denies knowing of any evidence of Daddy’s bigotry? Or how about when she presumes that River, Franz’s fiancée, is Native American on the basis of her braided hair? Does it count as denial that Bo has been oblivious to the second cemetery outside?

Thanks again to Rachael’s stridency, we also occasionally wonder, as we sit watching this venal spectacle, whether we ourselves are too quick to judge, victims of our own prejudices. Certainly that is a strong component of Jacob-Jenkins’ intent. After we reach preliminary conclusions, we may have to recalibrate when we discover that more than a couple of these people are capable of keen reflection and insight.

What fascinated me even more was what none of the lively folks onstage perceived, for amid the squabbles, the stressing, the venting, the scheming, and the violence, Jacob-Jenkins is exploring what makes families tick or malfunction. The easiest part of all this to convey is the diverging narratives we build from different perspectives – as basic as I-was-there-and-you-weren’t in some cases – and from simple misperceptions, sometimes as simple as taking our eyes off the ball. Or a photo album.

These differences can explode. But more subtly, we can fail to communicate – or screw up when we try.

That’s why it’s tough for me to choose among the three most stellar – and introspective – performances currently on view at Duke Energy Playhouse. For sheer octane and horsepower, nobody surpasses Becca Worthington as Toni for keeping hostilities blazing hot. Toni hates everybody for leaving all the caretaking and dirty work to her (a staple gripe in family sagas like these), but despite all the venom she spews at everyone in sight, she’d like somebody to love her. Quite funny if you think about it, because Toni doesn’t come off as anybody’s doormat.

On the other hand, Leslie Giles actually seems to believe she’s in a comedy as Rachael, jarringly shrill in her perpetual alarm, taking offense so readily that she eventually earns it, and parenting as if every moment were a dire emergency. Things don’t go well between the chronically caustic Toni and the high-strung Rachael. You’ll strain to determine who’s more in the wrong – or more sincere in her self-loathing.

Of the two brothers, I find Franz far more significant, textured, and engaging than Bo. Yet you’ll see that Dan Grogan has plenty to chew on as Bo, trying to fix his siblings’ messes and get the maximum return on the family estate while maintaining peace with his virago wife. He treads fine lines with his steamrolling missus, who feels she has been targeted for anti-Semitic bias by Toni’s precious dad. Bo strives to prevent the inevitable explosions when Rachael pushes her sister-in-law’s limited patience too far. We probably dislike Grogan most for seeming so pragmatic, grounded, and occasionally spineless.

Home after many years of being on the road and out of touch, showing up months after Dad’s funeral just in time for the auction – with a youthful New Age fiancée on his arm who adores him – Franz is the object of suspicion, resentment, and envy. So why did I find myself liking him in spite of his past as a sexual predator? I guess I was as captivated as River was by his mellow, slightly dopey earnestness.

What drills down to the essence of Jacob-Jenkins’ dissection of family life are Franz’s repeated efforts at meaningful communication. Ignoring his sibs’ suspicions, Franz tells the family that he has come home to apologize to them, not completely sure he believes it himself. But he makes a big deal out it, clumsily reading a handwritten apology that is more than a cursory couple of sentences. Tim Hager gets the awkwardness of this man down to the bone, trying to believe he has finally turned the corner to personal redemption. Even more pathetic are Franz’s incoherent efforts to mentor his nephew Rhys – at a vulnerable moment when it might be more prudent to just leave the embarrassed teen alone.

Maybe well-meaning inarticulateness is Franz’s true inheritance from his father and the true reason why his life has so frequently jumped the rails. Very American, this Franz. We’ve had a couple of inarticulate presidents during this blundering century, one of them fairly likable. Hasn’t worked out so well.

The younger Appropriate generation does seem to include River, and all four of them seem to offer us rays of hope. Despite her hippy-dippy spiritualism, Joy White doesn’t gloss over River’s inclination to look after Franz’s financial interests, becoming a rounder, savvier adventuress than we first surmise. There’s a modicum of chemistry between Sean Riehm as Rhys and Siri Patterson as his cousin Cassie, Rachael’s daughter. Clearly, the teens’ parents worry about them more than is necessary. Jamey Helm completes the cast as Cassie’s younger brother, not so much bratty as speedy. His darting sprints from one end of the stage to the other heighten the overall sense of turmoil, clutter, and chaos.

You may be troubled by this Three Bone production, but you won’t be bored. Special perk: Jacob-Jenkins devises a stunning way to end a family brawl.

The Bee Gees Lose Their Falsettos

Theater Reviews: Saturday Night Fever and 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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(Photo by Chris Timmons)

John Travolta at his peak: has there ever been anyone like him? The ruggedness, the grace, the strut, the conceit, and the boyish charisma — all of these studmuffin assets uniquely tinged with a robust Brooklynese vulgarity that took America by storm from the moment Welcome Back, Kotter hit the airwaves in 1975. But the full bloom of Travolta-mania didn’t happen until 1977, when Saturday Night Fever hit the big screen.

Surely the music of the Bee Gees was a prime component in the mystique of that breakthrough film. Yet the Bee Gees’ film score underpinning Travolta’s disco exploits was exquisitely subordinated to the heart of Tony Manero’s halting, confusing, and sometimes comical progress toward manhood in Norman Wexler’s screenplay. Bring the song hits more to the fore, as the Broadway musical version of 1999 attempted to do, and the narrow emotional range of disco is cruelly exposed.

“More Than a Woman” is unquestionably less than a woman to me, “Tragedy” is barely morose, and the answer to “How Deep Is Your Love?” is not very deep at all. I’d say that the Gibbs Brothers chose wisely in never attempting to write music for the Broadway stage.

We can only guess why director Ron Law, kicking off Theatre Charlotte’s 89th season, passed on the original Broadway adaptation by Nan Knighton in favor of a newer 2015 adaptation by Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti that has never been on Broadway — or even a national tour. Either way, Law faced an uphill battle with his core of teenage performers.

After playing the somewhat delicate boy protagonist in Caroline, or Change earlier this year in the Theatre Charlotte lobby, Rixey Terry attempts a huge leap forward from that concert production in tackling the iconic Travolta role of Tony. While the welter of tunes launched at us — the worst are those newly penned by Abbinanti — dilute the impact of the drama, they don’t obscure the complexity of Tony’s character or his double lives.

By day, Tony works a dead-end job at a Brooklyn paint store, coming home to parents who adulate his older brother Frank, a priest, while belittling his talents. A huge chunk of Tony’s paint store paycheck — and some elaborate rehearsals and primping rituals — go into Saturday nights, when he reigns as king of the dance floor at the 2001 Odyssey club. Local girls long to be his partner, thrilling to the privilege of even mopping his brow after a dance.

So at work and at home, Tony is meek, querulous, and downtrodden, but out on the street or at the club among his friends and admirers, he’s self-absorbed, arrogant, and cruel. He ignores and snaps at his good friend Bobby, who leans on him for advice, and he forcefully rejects all advances from Annette, the best dancing partner in the neighborhood.

From the moment he first sees Stephanie Mangano at the club, Tony’s world turns upside-down. Classically trained, Stephanie’s moves are easily a match for Tony’s — and her savoir-faire is miles ahead. She has a job in Manhattan! Suddenly, Tony is the supplicant and the pursuer, hoping Stephanie will be his partner for an upcoming prize competition. Yeah, the story has been slightly altered.

Terry wraps his arms around the meek, downtrodden, and needy aspects of Tony a lot more readily than his imperial arrogance. Terry’s ordinariness carries over to Tony’s first few turns on the dance floor, where he just doesn’t look masterful. So the true turning point on opening night last week came when we reached Terry’s solo on “You Should Be Dancing” at the end of Act 1. Adding acrobatic break dancing moves never seen in the iconic film, choreographer Lisa Blanton unleashed the beast in Terry.

In less than a minute, Rixey proved that, even among triple-threats, he possesses unique gifts.

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Whether or not Stephanie is intended to have more confidence and dancing polish than Tony, Susannah Upchurch definitely brings it. The way things are between Tony and his groupies doesn’t always come off precisely as they should, but when Upchurch is around, Tony’s shortcomings and vulnerabilities snap sharply into focus. Her Stephanie is almost unattainable, not quite.

Meanwhile Ava Smith is acting up a frenetic whirlwind as Annette, almost convincing us that Tony is the dreamboat we never quite see. Vic Sayegh and Mara Rosenberg make Tony’s parents a rather squalid couple, contributing mightily to the Brooklyn ambiance, and Jay Masanotti brings out all of the older brother’s cryptic contradictions.

The fabled three-piece suit from the film isn’t quite equaled by costume designer Jamey Varnadore, whose budget was likely too strict for all the clotheshorses and wannabes he’s called upon to outfit. Zachary Tarlton leads a tight five-piece band, but the real heat is mostly generated by Blanton’s choreography — and Dani Burke’s solos as Candy, the 2001 chanteuse. Burke’s “Dance Inferno,” not a Bee Gees song, is the chief showstopper among the vocals. With so many three-part harmonies discarded, it’s hard to pick a lowlight among the songs that the Gibbs Brothers made famous. Not one falsetto all evening long!

I’ll go with “Stayin’ Alive” as the nadir. For decades, I’ve despaired of explaining how tone-deaf most renditions of “If I Were a Rich Man” sound to Yiddish-speaking Jews when Christian singers navigate the vocalise, non-verbal sections of the lyrics. Now I can finally point to an equivalent.

 

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At first, I could hardly believe how over-the-top director Sarah Provencal was wanting her cast to act in 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, currently at the Warehouse Performing Arts Center in Cornelius. This was the customarily sophisticated Lane Morris as Wren, one of our five quiche bake-off hostesses? The effusive audience interaction, from the time we enter the Westmoreland Road storefront, makes Pump Boys and Dinettes seem funereal by comparison.

But after a while we realize just how strange this script by Evan Linder and Andrew Hobgood truly is. For this egg-worshipping black comedy takes us back to a 1950s dystopia in an alternate universe. Only the desperation of our hostesses’ plight can prod them into coming proudly out of the closet, a delicious juxtaposition with their ’50s primness.

Actually, Morris with her “victory curls” looks more like a throwback to the ’40s and the Andrews Sisters (yes, these Daughters of Susan B. Anthony and Gertrude Stein have a club song). It’s Joanna Gerdy as Vern who’s the outright lesbian of this quiche quintet from the start, flinging away her customary sophistication even further from the norm in a comedy performance to relish.

Ginny, played by Stephanie DiPaolo, is a diffident Brit who almost seems catatonic at times. Vying with her for the distinction of being the most repressed in the house is Nikki Stepanek as Dale, who hasn’t spoken to a man since the age of three. She’s definitely the youngest, which is why she becomes the chosen vessel — for a while, anyway — to save mankind.

Every one of us in the audience must come out and admit that, yes, we are also lesbians, a quite unique moment in the annals of theatre. The only remaining holdout is Pam Coble Coffman as club president Lulie, a veritable Betty Crocker of propriety and discipline. Lulie hits us with the startling revelation that sends this 73-minute production into its unnecessary break. My wife Sue balked at this intermission, but the folks taking hits from the boxes of wine on the buffet seemed to be okay with it.

So real men and real women don’t eat quiche? Please forget I said that.