Tag Archives: Spirit Square

Viking Queen “Lear” Remains True to the Bard

Review: Lear by Free Reign Theatre Company

By Perry Tannenbaum

P1200512

We’ve had more than a couple of productions of King Lear in the Metrolina area during the new millennium – plus a couple of offshoots like Lear ReLoaded and Lear Unplugged in Boiling Springs and Davidson. So it would be natural for you to suspect that Lear, from the young Free Reign Theatre Company, is some sort of mashup, modernization, or abridgement of William Shakespeare’s towering tragedy.

Not so. The title has been shortened for a different reason: old Lear is now a woman. The production at Spirit Square clocks in at about three hours and 15 minutes, including intermission, fairly consonant with the lengths of King Lear presentations by the Charlotte Shakespeare Festival in 2011 at McGlohon Theatre and the NC Shakespeare Lear of 2008 up in High Point, both starring Graham Smith. Free Reign’s edit actually provides more Lear than the 2006 Classic Theatre of Charlotte production in NoDa, when director Tony Wright performed deft surgery on the script.

You don’t have to twist or contort your expectations to enjoy this Lear. Directed by Heather Bucsh, the Free Reign take on Shakespearean production is conspicuously low-budget, with respect to scenery, compared to the others I’ve mentioned. Yet Bucsh has also designed the Viking costumes – as pointedly as she directs – so we accustom ourselves to watching palace scenes, royal inhospitality, and eye gougings played out with little more than picnic tables.

The play and the players are the thing, beginning with Lisa Essex as Lear. Hitting the right note with this monarch in the Bard’s opening scene is a supreme test, both for a director and an actor tackling the title role for the first time. Questions already lurk in the playscript for them to grapple with. What kind of relationships has Lear established with his daughters? Why is he dividing his kingdom? And perhaps most puzzling of all, after calling upon his daughters to compete for their inherited portions on the basis of how much they love daddy, why does he decide the results of the competition while the daughters are still competing?

Maybe it’s useful, then, that Essex struggles to project the age, the command, and the explosive presence of the eccentric king. It doesn’t help that she is neither big nor tall – nor guarded by the 100, 50, or even 25 riotous knights that Shakespeare tells us are serving His Highness. We can gloss over questions of plausibility quite easily as we try getting used to the concept that this woman is truly master of all the lands she is divvying up.

As Lear diminishes in her worldly power, becomes more isolated and disrespected, finally losing her sanity, Essex steadily grows in dramatic power. By the time Lear is raving mad on the stormy heath, challenging winds and hurricanoes to do their worst, Essex is near her peak. But it’s when the storm is over that we see this Lear’s madness most vividly. Essex and Bucsh don’t pick up on every nuanced life lesson that the humbled queen is learning about “elemental man” from her Fool and Edgar (disguised as a crazed beggar), but I’ve never seen a Lear that’s more out of his mind than Essex looks out of hers.

There is a breathtaking depth to her downfall and disintegration, so when we move from the sin-and-punishment portion of her story to her grace-and-forgiveness reunion with Cordelia, the good daughter he has wronged, it’s as profoundly moving as any Lear I’ve seen.

P1200793

Even in the grand opening, Bucsh and her cast impress me when we look away from the throne. For one thing, we don’t have to look far. Goneril and Regan, along with their husbands, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, are scrunched together at that picnic table. So we quickly get a sense of their evil conspiratorial kinship – with a hint of the mutual enmity and jealousy that will kill them both. It’s there when they speak and when they listen. Kristin Varnell looks mean and barbaric as Goneril, even as she sits closest to her dad at the table, and Rebecca Gossage is the essence of wantonness as Regan, more slyly concealed near the far end of the group.

There’s a more substantial contrast between Albany and Cornwall, where the good-natured cluelessness of Nathan Hall as Albany is markedly different from Mathew Schantz’s scowling distemper as Cornwall. But what impresses me most about Busch’s work is what she does in the parallel plot, where the Earl of Gloucester is as deceived in his valuation of his sons, Edgar and Edmund, as Lear is with her daughters. Here Free Reign’s gender switch actually improves Shakespeare’s fearful symmetry.

Robert Brafford beautifully handles the slimy cunning of the bastard Edmund, a villain who addresses us directly more than any other Shakespeare schemer this side of Iago. He gets a warrior look to his beard’s coiffure that sets him apart from all but Schantz as Cornwall, relishing the competing attentions of Goneril and Regan as much as cozening his father and brother. Russell Rowe mutes the foolishness of Gloucester, not making a banquet out of the Earl’s reliance on astrological portents. That only slightly abbreviates his learning curve when he’s blinded – while his pitifulness remains intact.

What will stand out most for me when I recall this Lear is the beautifully reimagined performance of Katie Bearden as Edgar – the best Edgar that I have seen. Anywhere. Her role unfolds in three stages: hoodwinked Edgar, the fugitive Tom of Bedlam beggar, and champion warrior Edgar. The first stage is unremarkable enough, with Bearden choosing to be naïve and credulous instead of bookish and trusting, the way we see him most often. Magic begins when Bearden transforms into the Bedlam beggar, a howling combination of ‘60s icons Janis Joplin and Tiny Tim that somehow combines savagery with vulnerability.

I won’t begin to describe the look of Bearden as the disguised Edgar who emerges from hiding to challenge brother Edmund to mortal combat, but I’ll say this: revenge in a Shakespearean production has never tasted sweeter to me. As a result, my focus shifted slightly as the multiple denouements played out in Lear. I found myself as invested in Edgar’s revenge upon his brother as I usually am in the vicious Edmund-Goneril-Regan love triangle – notwithstanding Charles Holmes’s mediocre fight choreography when the brother gladiators clashed.

Sadly, Essex’s real-life daughter, Madeleine Essex, didn’t rise to even that level on opening night. Bucsh had her looking sweet and pure compared to her sibs, and the younger Essex took her portrayal in a fine direction, toward modesty and shyness, with perhaps a pinch of trepidation.

If only Lear’s dying description of Cordelia’s voice as “soft, gentle, and low” hadn’t pushed her to the verge of whispering in the opening scene. And perhaps a livelier, more spontaneous “No cause, no cause” would have made my tears flow more freely in the luminous reunion. Yet there were moments – startling moments – when Essex showed us just how loud and emotional Cordelia can be.

P1200769

No such inconsistencies dogged of Courtney Harris’s bluster as Kent, the loyal knight that Lear banishes with Cordelia, though she could register more chastening and enlightenment at the end of her journey. And I’ve been seeing excellent portrayals by women of Lear’s saucy, prickly Fool for so long that Amy Schiede Cheek’s winsome élan in the role comes as no shock, even with her ram’s horns and lyre. The suspense nowadays is whether productions will deal with the Bard’s failure to tell us the Fool’s ultimate fate. Bucsh and Cheek do tackle that matter decisively.

The best portent of the evening happened when I first walked into Duke Energy Theater and found the place nearly sold-out on opening night. Evidently, word-of-mouth about Free Reign has spread, unfazed by Lear in any form. The quality of this work ought to keep them coming, even if the actors come out for their bows at 11:15pm.

Just one point of order: since you’ve changed the gender of all her personal pronouns, could you please stop calling this queen “Sir”? I don’t think either Queen Elizabeth was addressed that way.

Charlotte’s Witness to Genocide

Preview: Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042, a Three Bone Theatre Production

By Perry Tannenbaum

ProtectiveCustody1 

At age 97, Dr. Susan Cernyak-Spatz can look back on a life well-lived – and a life well-told. Neither outcome seemed possible on May 7, 1942, when Cernyak-Spatz and her mom responded to an invitation from the Nazi invaders who had occupied Czechoslovakia. It was an invitation that Jews could not refuse. They assembled at a large public square, where they were marched across the city of Prague in broad daylight, herded to a freight station, loaded onto trains, and transported to the Theresienstadt concentration camps.

Survival was already against the odds. Those odds grew slimmer on January 31, 1943, when Cernyak-Spatz was transported from Theresienstadt, the “showplace” camp built to deceive International Red Cross inspectors, to Birkenau, the belly of the beast in Adolph Hitler’s genocide machine.

Yet Cernyak-Spatz did survive. She survived a transfer deeper into the belly, to Auschwitz, and an attack of typhus fever brought on by the toxic living conditions there. Even after the Russians began “liberating” Eastern Europe, Cernyak-Spatz survived a grueling death march in the custody of her captors.

And oh baby, since arriving in the US nearly three-quarters of a century ago, Cernyak-Spatz has told her story – well and often. New generations have heard it at Jewish Sunday schools and at UNC Charlotte, where she is still a professor emerita in German literature. In classrooms, in lecture halls, and in synagogues across America and Europe – including Germany – she has opened fresh eyes to Nazi atrocities. In books she has authored about her life, the Holocaust, and Theresienstadt, Cernyak-Spatz has chronicled the unthinkable horrors she survived – horrors that millions of other Jews did not survive.

ProtectiveCustody2

The story keeps getting told. At the upcoming Charlotte Jewish Film Festival, filmmaker Ron Small’s documentary biopic, Surviving Birkenau, will be screened on October 26. And next week at Spirit Square, a project initiated by Cernyak-Spatz’s daughter, Jackie Fishman, and notables of the QC’s theatre community comes to fruition. Charles LaBorde’s adaptation of Cernyak-Spatz’s memoirs, Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042, opens on November 1 in a Three Bone Theatre production directed by Dennis Delamar.

The idea for presenting a one-woman show focused on his longtime friend Susan’s life had been moldering in Delamar’s mind since 2005 when he directed the Charlotte premiere of Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning I Am My Own Wife, an adaptation of transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s autobiography.

“That survivor’s story carried us through the Holocaust and also the fall of the Berlin Wall and made me start visualizing something similarly possible about another person’s unique Holocaust story. Someone I actually knew and cared for very much – Susan! Since then, I thought the idea was a really good one, but it stayed in the back of mind, dormant. Cut to eleven years later.”

Pieces began falling into place when Fishman, education coordinator at the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice, brought Delamar and LaBorde to Queens University for a reading of Address Unknown in April 2017, reviving one of multiple Holocaust plays LaBorde had already written. Almost inevitably, Delamar broached his long-gestating idea with Fishman during rehearsals.

“Jackie was immediately ecstatic over the idea,” he recalls, “as if I had said some magic words. ‘Let’s do it! Mom has already written her story down, the book she published in 2005. Have you read it? I’ll get you a copy.’ At that moment, Jackie became a key driving force behind this play getting done, a mission she has continued to energize as a daughter’s gift to her mother.”

Though Fishman had been one of his most valued teachers back when LaBorde was principal of Northwest School of the Arts, he didn’t see a natural transition of Protective Custody from page to stage: “too many people, too complex a story to pare down enough for an audience to follow.” LaBorde was prepared to walk away – until he came face-to-face with Fishman’s enthusiasm for the project. So he gave the book a second look.

With Three Bone Theatre aboard – and Cernyak-Spatz greenlighting the project – Delamar and LaBorde returned to Queens University, where the Greenspon Center hosted an even more exciting event last December than they had the year before. For Cernyak-Spatz was seated in the front row of a packed house at a reading-stage performance of a new LaBorde play, doubly honored at the occasion.

Nor did Cernyak-Spatz sit idly by as the latest incarnation of her life story took shape. She and her daughters, Jackie and Wendy Fishman, have been intensively involved in the process, checking facts, suggesting enhancements, correcting pronunciations, and fine-tuning the voice of the Susan we will see onstage.

“My favorite bit of research,” LaBorde reveals, “was to ask Wendy and Jackie if their mother would say the line I had written early in the play, ‘Somebody fucked up.’ Their reaction was to look at each other and then say simultaneously, ‘Oh, yeah.’”

My own research for this momentous Three Bone premiere took me to Prague last month – and from there to the fortress site of the Theresienstadt camps, the town of Terezín, and the Museum of the Ghetto. In Prague, my wife Sue and I stood in one of the squares where Cernyak-Spatz may have been marched to the transport awaiting her at the freight yards. Our guide told us that we were standing on pavement made from the shattered gravestones from a demolished Jewish cemetery.

At Theresienstadt we saw the barracks where Jews were warehoused in hall-length beds three and four levels high, no toilets provided. We saw a washroom built to hoodwink the Red Cross, lined with sinks where no water has ever flowed. We saw cemeteries near Theresienstadt and Terzín larger than football fields – with marked graves, unmarked graves, and mass graves. We were guided to the Secret Synagogue where I read the most heartbreaking plea to God that I’ve ever seen in a house of worship, written in Hebrew:

“PLEASE RETURN FROM YOUR WRATH.”

And outside Terezín, adjoining one of the burial grounds, we saw the crematoriums, restored by the Luski Family, a name familiar throughout Charlotte’s Jewish community. Maybe the most chilling and revelatory things I saw were the records displayed at the Ghetto Museum of the transports, punctiliously kept by the Nazis: dates, points of origin, and numbers of Protective Custody prisoners brought into Theresienstadt via the transports. Of the hundreds, sometimes thousands who were loaded into the cattle cars, I never saw that even 100 survived any of these horrific transports. More than once, the number was zero.

Clearly, Cernyak-Spatz bucked prodigious odds to arrive at Theresienstadt, to survive her journey to Birkenau, and finally reach Ravensbrueck, the destination of her January 1945 death march. Susan does use the word “miracle” in LaBorde’s script to account for her eluding “the gas.” Once.

ProtectiveCustody4

Benefiting from the guidance of the Fishmans – and the sound of the real Cernyak-Spatz’s voice (yes, there’s a Prisoner 34042 audiobook!) – Leslie Giles takes on the daunting challenge of being Susan at Duke Energy Theater, assisted by Paula Baldwin as The Dresser.

“Oh my gosh, daunting doesn’t even begin to describe how it feels to take on this very special project about this incredible person,” says Giles. “The amount of lines would be enough to scare some actors away, and then to top it off with the very real and gritty details makes it overwhelming at times. That said, it is absolutely worth it, probably the most important piece of work I’ve ever performed in my entire career. It is one thing to read about these events in a book. It is another thing to watch the story coming alive in front of you.”

Reflecting on the wonder of her survival, Cernyak-Spatz scoffs at the notion that she had any special wisdom. “Our entire day was taken up with thinking of survival,” she declares. “We had to be alert like wild animals. Wild animals don’t do much thinking. They survive. We ate anything that wouldn’t eat us. There was no time to dwell on faith or God; you had to give up your expectations of a normal universe. Perhaps my naivete allowed me to take great risks that paid off.”

If it weren’t for the war, Cernyak-Spatz says she would have likely become a dancer or an actress. Indeed, she has occasionally performed onstage here in the QC, most recently when I called her one the “islands in a stream of ineptitude” in my review of Theatre Charlotte’s production of A Little Night Music in 2006. No wonder she treasures the gift of a new drama dedicated to her in her twilight years.

There’s also a twinkle of artistry in the title of her memoirs. The Nazis didn’t simply record your prisoner number in a ledger or stitch it into your prison clothes – it was tattooed into your forearm. They fancied themselves the master race, so they could house Jews and brand Jews and liquidate Jews like cattle. The 34042 that endures in Cernyak-Spatz’s title does not signify their triumph.

“The title serves my purpose of explaining the steps and the de-humanization of a group of human beings. When one is ultimately reduced to no more than a number, the extrapolation is that there’s no worth to this life and it can be easily disposed of. I have outlived the Third Reich, triumphed over them, with a successful and productive life – raised a Jewish family and have told my story all over the world. Anyone who sees the tattooed number on my arm becomes a witness to this history.”

New “Dracula” Sports Female Feline Fangs

Review: Countess Dracula

By:  Perry Tannenbaum

Countess Draucla The Actor's Gym

Yes, playwright Tony Wright has flipped his villain’s gender for his new Halloween confection, Countess Dracula, but the ripest of the fiend’s victims – Mina and Lucy – remain substantially as they were when Bram Stoker published his original novel in 1897. In fact, all of Wright’s players are now women, including the vampire queen’s most implacable enemies, Jane (neé John) Harker and the occultist Professor Van Helsing.

While a mutual attraction that dare not speak its name seems to be simmering between Mina and Jane, no such restraints apply to the Countess, exclusively ravenous for female flesh and blood. Even her obedient slave, Renfield, is a woman – a madwoman with more powers than my credulity could take as this Actor’s Gym melodrama unfolded at Spirit Square.

CD-1 Photo by David Hensley

For some occult reason, perhaps a reluctance to hire a set designer, Wright confines all of his early action to a dance studio, where Mina and Jane are ballet students taught by a newly-minted Carlotta. (Lucy is already undead, gnawing on innocent children out and around London – and out of our sight – when the sun goes down.) It’s rather elegant, then, to see a Dracula knockoff begin with three ballerinas decorously choreographed by Melissa McDaniel dancing to music played on a phonograph, even if Wright’s budget doesn’t allow for an Edison replica that Carlotta could crank up.

This studio set-up works well enough for Dracula’s customary parlor visits and even excuses Mina’s lack of furniture. But we’re deprived of the Countess’s nocturnal invasions of Mina’s bedroom, where she overcomes such puny obstacles as garlic, wolfbane, and perhaps a locked window appreciably above ground. Forced to become a boarder offstage, Mina is a bit tainted by the thrift of the playwright’s concept.

CD-3 Photo by David Hensley

Beyond that, Wright is further strained to engineer Renfield’s scenes at the same studio. Conceived by Stoker as Lucy’s suitor as well as a mental health specialist, Dr. Seward now operates the asylum that adjoins the ballet school – a business model that Seward herself recognizes is absurd. To take her share of the action at the studio, Renfield must repeatedly escape from her nearby cell, employing transformative and wall-clinging powers on loan from her mistress. Despite all the fuming and fretting of her keeper, Wilma, Renfield is always back in lockup before her next appearance.

You would think that Renfield might take advantage of her escapes to lose herself in a nearby meadow or wood, where she could hunt down all the flies and spiders she so desperately craves. What keeps her around, besides Dracula’s awesome power, is sheer contrivance.

Why Wright hamstrings himself with this fixed-set concept is beyond me, especially since the playwright-director is also a very capable lighting designer who could easily transport us to Renfield’s cell and Mina’s bedroom with additional lighting placements and cues. Deep into Act 2, when Dracula’s coffins come into play – the vampire’s homes away from his true Transylvania home – Wright will be forced to change scenes. He should surrender sooner.

Taking on these challenges instead of circumventing them would probably make COUNTESS DRACULA more fun to watch. With Harker and Van Helsing mostly in men’s clothing – and the Countess enrolling for ballet lessons! – fun and frivolity are definitely on our dance card. Tarantella, Smee!

Costume designer Davita Galloway has a merry old time dressing up Corliss Hayes as Van Helsing and Katy Schultz as Harker in dinner party attire – contrasting sharply with the drab togs she devises for Teresa Abernethy as Renfield. The inmate’s insane wildness gets accentuated by impossibly long sleeves designed to convert her top to a straightjacket. Flapping away like a cheap balloon-person outside a carwash, Abernethy pretty much steals the show every time she makes one of her weird, wild-eyed entrances, either from stage right or out of the orchestra.

CD-2 Photo by David Hensley

Only Elisha Bryant as the Countess truly compares with Abernethy’s dominance. She has the lean, slightly skeletal look that the best male Draculas have plus wild red Joker hair almost as flaming as Abernethy’s. She doesn’t stint on the Eastern European accent and, underscoring her catlike menace, we get to see Bryant in a body suit when she prowls her ballet lesson. Hayes at her best matches Bryant’s power and command as Van Helsing, but much of the time last Saturday night, she was reminding herself why she has so ably confined her stage appearances to eccentric cameos over the past decade, stumbling over many of her lines. We can only hope for more consistent performances this week.

Exiled to a dance studio as Dr. Seward, Lillie Oden staunchly sustains the illusion she belongs there all evening long, boiling over spontaneously each time Renfield makes one of her predictable escapes. Of the three ballerinas, only Candice Houser as Carlotta seems to have been chosen primarily for her dancing skills. Olivia DeAmicis as Mina and Katy Schultz as Harker make a wonderful couple, though you might be taken by surprise when you see how Wright treats them.

Schultz is notably starchy, self-effacing, and deferential as Jane, though she wears the pants and gently pushes for a more intimate relationship. As Mina, DeAmicis is as pure, chaste and unattainable as you would expect a storybook ballerina to be. Yet when she falls under Dracula’s spell, Mina emerges from her bedroom with an aggressiveness that clearly shocks Harker. It’s DeAmicis who now exudes catlike grace and menace in predatory pursuit of her would-be lover, and we’re not speaking of a kittycat, either. There are rough edges to Wright’s new Countess Dracula, but on occasion, his creation sprouts some deliciously sharp fangs.

Free Reign’s “Saint Joan” Handsomely Shaves a Shavian Tragedy

Review: George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan

By Perry Tannenbaum

Saint Joan at Duke Energy in Charlott

Didacticism and verbosity are probably the chief reasons why George Bernard Shaw has fallen out of favor, even if those charges are often overblown and undeserved. The Anglo-Irish playwright’s works, faithfully presented each summer in rotation at the Shaw Festival in beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake up in Ontario, can seem musty and intimidating compared to today’s snappy sitcom dialogue or yesteryear’s sleek Oscar Wilde epigrams.

Of course, the more didactic and verbose a GBS play might be, the less a director might feel she or he can reshape it. So there’s often a backstage disinclination to wrestle with Shaw’s once-revered scripts that conspires with the audience fear factor.

Maybe that explains why the last two Shaw productions I’ve seen, nearly five years apart, have both been Saint Joan. My first live encounter with Shaw’s only tragedy was at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre in New York in a lively Bedlam Theatre production. Almost instantly, I could see that this is one play where the playwright has loosened his tight grip on his stage characters. Here the story has a grip on him, and even before I found it confirmed in his humongous preface (more than half the size of the play), it was obvious that he not only deeply researched the exploits of Joan of Arc, but he had also meticulously studied the transcripts of her witchcraft trial.

Saint Joan at Duke Energy in CharlottActor/director Eric Tucker and his Bedlam cast had a field day with the script, divvying up 25 roles among four actors. Shaw’s contention that there was no villain in the Maid of Orleans’ undoing came through vividly in an evening that mixed some fun into the high seriousness – but the evening was three hours long, hardly making a dent in GBS’s notorious loquacity. The new Free Reign Theatre production, currently at Spirit Square, brings Saint Joan more fully into the realm of accessibility. Director David Hensley noticeably shaves the Shavian discourse, and company founder Charles Holmes has free rein to ply his fight directing craft. Multiple episodes of spirited swordplay are sprinkled amid the wordplay.

Hensley deploys four times as many actors on the drama, allowing it to breathe more naturally than Bedlam’s insane reduction, where one of the actors might actually change roles mid-sentence and reply to himself. A more benign form of such absurdity persists with Free Reign, where the same French faces we saw opposing and abetting Joan’s miraculous rise to military leadership suddenly transform into her enemies in the angry and confounded English camp.

In a role that has been mainly populated by the great dames of theatre history rather than precocious teens, Amy Cheek makes an amazing splash the first time I’ve seen her in Charlotte. There were times, over the course of the evening, a relatively svelte 2:15 at Duke Energy Theater, when I felt that her excellence was all that was necessary. There is, as her elders say repeatedly, something about her – an ardent belief that infuses a Peter Pan cocksureness yet never crosses over into presumptuous arrogance.Saint Joan at Duke Energy in Charlotte

At times, the light radiating from within, kindled for Joan by the voices of the warrior archangel Michael and Saints Margaret and Catherine, made me believe Cheek was the ideal age for this role. Predecessors have included the likes of Uta Hagen, Katharine Cornell, Sybil Thorndike, Judi Dench, and the aforementioned Redgrave.

It tickled me that most of the other Free Reign players did so well – and that Hensley decreed that they aren’t all men. Five women flit through this surprisingly nimble evening. Particularly delightful was the idea of having the pert and diminutive Alexandria Creech portraying the timorous Dauphin, the future King Charles VII of France. The holy coronation at Rheims Cathedral can only happen if Joan can prod him into standing up for himself and forcefully claiming his rightful throne. With Russell Rowe thundering as the Archbishop of Rheims, Holmes glowering as military commander-in-chief Monseigneur de la Trémouille, and both of them towering over Creech, chances for an upswell of valor from the Dauphin look slim.

Saint Joan at Duke Energy in CharlottCreech can not only hide behind her courtiers when the Dauphin stages his first audience with Joan, she can nearly disappear. But Cheek also towers over this Dauphin – a little bit – so it’s a nifty tug of war for the future king’s favor. Holmes retains his bellicosity when he briefly appears at the English encampment as the Black Prince, but he becomes slightly more sympathetic at the trial as Peter Cauchon, somewhat doubtful that La Pucelle is a witch but absolutely certain that she is the worst of heretics.

Rowe follows a more interesting arc when he changes into an Englishman, becoming the implacable and somewhat stupid Chaplain John de Stogumber, who believes so rabidly in Joan’s witchery that it’s alarming. At the trial, he appears to be a mashup of the Chaplain and the Canon de Courcelles, who zealously brings over 60 charges against The Maid to the bench. Stogumber seethes mightily when Cauchon trims those charges to a mere 12, violently advocating that Joan be burnt at the stake – until he actually sees her on fire. He was so shaken and chastened by the spectacle that I almost pitied him, a truly wrenching turnaround.Saint Joan at Duke Energy in Charlotte

The Maid attracts believers and followers along the way, of course, and the most impressive of these are the hulking David Hayes as Bertrand de Poulengey, Joan’s first champion, and Robert Brafford as the wily renegade Dunois, who shrewdly sizes up her military acumen. Hayes resurfaces at La Pucelle’s side in the pivotal battle scenes before drawing a fearsome, taciturn role as her Executioner. Brafford sheds his good heartedness but retains his craftiness when he becomes The Earl of Warwick. The coolest of Joan’s enemies, Warwick is willing to offer a bounty to anyone who betrays The Maid – not the most dramatic thrust in Shaw’s script, so I suspect the suave and calculating Brafford was the most victimized by cuts to the script.

Every now and then, as in Boeing Boeing, we get the treat of seeing Emmanuel Barbe in a French role. As Robert de Baudricourt, the first nobleman to be won over by Joan’s eloquence and spunk, Barbe helps to get things off to a flavorful start. By the end of the first scene and its exhilarating little coda – and miracle! – this Free Reign production had already captivated me. As Shaw well knew, Joan’s story has that power.

 

Recapturing Old Hostilities – and the Path to Peace

Preview:  Three Bone Theatre Production of Oslo

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

Oslo_Square

Peace and the Middle East – they just don’t seem to belong in the same sentence, do they? Every week, we hear about a new flareup, a new conflict, a new bombing, and more death. So it’s timely that Oslo, the 2017 Tony Award winner for Best Play by J.T. Rogers, will be opening this week at Spirit Square. The Three Bone Theatre production, a Charlotte area premiere, revisits the back-channel talks that led to the historic handshake between Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.

Simpler, more innocent times – before we were educated (superficially, of course) about Sunnis and Shiites, before Americans discovered we despised Iran as much as Iraq, before Al Qaeda, 9-11, ISIS, beheadings, and chemical warfare. Long ago.

Beginning with a guerilla production of The Vagina Monologues at the WineUp wine loft in NoDa six years ago, Three Bone has grown gradually to the point where artistic director Robin Tynes feels ready for the challenge. Ready or not, Oslo is a substantial stretch for Three Bone.

There are more than 20 roles in Oslo, and most of 15 players covering them are making their company debuts. Actors in both the Israeli and Palestinian delegations need to feel the distrust and animosity of each side toward the other, travel the compressed journey to understanding and agreement in Rogers’ script, and repeat that three-hour odyssey – starting all over again with the same ferocious edge – night after night in performance.

That journey gets rockier if you’re fielding a diverse cast of Jews, Muslims, and Christians who come to the table with their own settled views. Respecting diversity had to go hand-in-hand with respecting the values of each performer’s time.

Negotiations1

“Yes, the rehearsal schedule was quite the challenge,” says director Paige Johnston Thomas, “15 people for 65 scenes! As they say in the theatre: I was told there’d be no math!”

Thomas, a fixture on the local scene for over 20 years, is making her debut with Three Bone. Kat Martin, brought aboard as assistant director and dramaturg, hasn’t worked at any theatre company before in the QC – and she’s drawing “rock star” accolades for her work in her Charlotte debut.

“Although I am not a Middle East expert,” says Martin, “a dramaturg’s job is to become an expert quickly then create points of entry for deepened understanding for creatives as well as community members.”

A dramaturg’s outreach to the community, after briefing directors and performers, often takes the form of explanatory materials in the show’s playbill. Martin’s involvement has been more proactive, involving the Oslo cast during her search for historical contexts. She began by speaking with John Cox, associate professor of Holocaust, genocide & human rights studies at UNC-Charlotte, who encouraged her to create a dramaturgy day where actors could listen and learn from community stakeholders like Palestinian activist Rose Hamid and Rabbi Judy Schindler, director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice.

Israelis1

That solid core was augmented by the participation of former Israeli soldier Stefan Pienkny, a veteran of the 1967 war, and two Palestinian refugees, Wafa Omran and Khalid Hijazi. Rounding out her gathering – and acknowledging the all-important peacemaking perspective of the Norwegians – Martin also invited facilitation expert Candice Langston, managing director of The Lee Institute.

“My biggest challenge was to keep the research real,” Martin emphasizes, “so I wanted to cultivate information for the cast while also making sure they were learning with their gut.” The three-hour crash course she organized for dramaturgy day began with Cox reviewing the historical background and Langston addressing the topic of building community dialogue.

Then there were hourlong small group meetups that paired the Israelis and Palestinians in the cast with the community stakeholders who represent those points of view. At the same time, actors cast as Norwegians lingered with Langston for more info on facilitating high-level negotiations. Climaxing the evening, the whole cast gathered together right after ingesting an hour of diverging partisan viewpoints, plunging into exercises designed to simulate the process of bridging those gaps, understanding the “other,” and finding common ground.

It was intense.

“An evening as an actor I won’t forget,” says Dennis Delamar, who will portray Yair Hircshfeld, one of the back-channel negotiators, and Shimon Peres, the foreign minister who would share the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Arafat after the Accords were signed. “The evening focused on lived experiences, personal stories, facts, and some tears I observed which were quite integral in shaping my mindset. Stakes were definitely raised. I loved every minute of it.”

Norwegians2

Peres doesn’t enter until well after intermission. A political rival of Rabin, he keeps the Oslo talks secret – because he knows the Prime Minister will reject any agreement that isn’t airtight. It must be an offer that cannot be refused. Until the Israelis are close to that, no member of the government can be seen talking to the Palestinians. Needless to say, the Americans engaged in their endless fruitless talks must also be kept in the dark.

So that’s why Delamar is Hirschfeld all through the opening act – an economics professor at the U of Haifa!

“I connect with and enjoy playing Yair’s passion and intellect,” he says, “but also a certain amount of humor J.T. Rogers developed with this character. Sometimes he is out of his depths in the negotiations, but he’s never without a passion for the grave reason he’s there, fully invested in the outcome, proud of his part in the start of it all. I’ve enjoyed making him relatable in an endearing and real way.”

Yes, there are comical moments that leaven the animosities and tensions, but there are thriller elements aplenty. The possibility of ruining Peres’s political fortunes keeps the Israelis on edge, while for Mona Juul and Terje Rød-Larsen, the Norwegians pushing negotiations forward, getting their government to buy into the process – knowing they must keep the Americans in the dark – ratchets up their anxieties.

For the Palestinian delegation, PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurie and PLO liaison Hassan Asfour, secrecy is a matter of life-or-death. Only Arafat knows about these talks and how they’re progressing.

Vic Sayegh will take on the role of Qurie. Although he the mellower, less militant of the two Palestinians, he’s a radical departure for an actor whose QC credits began in 2003 with appearances in Steve Martin’s The Underpants and Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party. There’s no Kanaka shtick here, but there is a certain amount of savoir faire.

And the Palestinian does provide some comedy when he lets his guard down. Before encountering Hirschfeld in London for the first time, he confides to Larsen, his intermediary: “I have never met an Israeli. Face-to-face.”

Palestinians1

Very unique comedy, typical of the tensions Oslo whips up. But the finance minister quickly recovers in Hirschfeld’s presence, informing him that he hasn’t been to his homeland since 1967 when his whole village was forced to flee from “the advancing hordes of Zionism.” Awkwardness turns to polite hostility in a flash.

“Qurie often has an ulterior motive behind his words,” Sayegh notes. “He is very calculated. Like a poker player, he never lets his face give away his hand.”

Poker-faced or not, Sayegh sees Qurie’s motivations as deep and honorable. He’s relating them to his own experiences and heritage.

“As a young man, I remember meeting people who were Palestinian and subsequently looking for Palestine on a map,” Sayegh reminisces. “I would ask myself why they called a place that no longer existed, ‘home.’ Now I understand. Personally, my paternal grandparents were born in Aleppo, Syria. It was once a beautiful region of the world, but many years of conflict have reduced it to rubble. I hope that one day, peace in the entire region will allow me to visit the land of my ancestors.”

While Terje is the visionary who devises a successful model for conflict resolution – with a mixture dogged determination and quixotic optimism to keep it going – it’s the calm, meticulous, and brilliantly resourceful Mona who steers her husband around the political complications that threaten to scuttle his mission. Fresh on the heels of her pivotal role in the world premiere of Steven Dietz’s The Great Beyond, Tonya Bludsworth takes on the role of this unsung hero who buoyed her husband’s confidence while clearing his path.

“Prior to reading Oslo,” says Bludsworth of her journey, “I’m sure I felt like most Americans, that peace in the Middle East is not likely to ever really happen. But I was in tears when I first read the script, not because I was sad, but because I was overwhelmed by this incredible feeling of hope, and I still feel it every night in rehearsal. As Terje says, if we could just get past the politics and see the people, the personal, then there is a way.”

Kinky Catfight in the Catskills

Theatre Review: Casa Valentina

 Casa Valentina

By Perry Tannenbaum

The cool Catskill Mountains have long served as cities of refuge for young and old New Yorkers. Escaping the summer heat, families might settle in for a few weeks at bungalow colonies, letting the kids run wild until dusk. Or parents might breathe easier back in the city, sending their schoolkids off to the many summer camps that dotted the hills. What set the Catskills apart from similar getaway locales was the storied Borscht Belt, where big names such as Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, and Duke Ellington performed at venues that didn’t pretend to be Venice or the Pyramids.

By a quirk of history, Harvey Fierstein’s sad paean to the escapist wickedness of the Catskills, Casa Valentina, opened on Broadway a scant three weeks before the last great bastion of Catskills chic, the Kutcher’s hotel and resort, closed down during the spring of 2014. Even the pugnacious New York Daily News rent its garments, declaring, “It’s time to sit shiva for the old Borscht Belt.” Somewhere among my photo albums, an old shot I took of my parents rubbing elbows with Howard Da Silva at Kutcher’s gained more sentimental value.

The demise of the Borscht Belt during the run of Valentina also intensified the soft showbiz glow Fierstein has sprinkled upon the Chevalier d’Eon, a foundering Catskills enterprise run by Rita and George Vaccaro. Their bungalow colony caters exclusively to male transvestites seeking to escape their wives’ surveillance and release their inner Ethel Mermans.

Business is not as usual as the action begins at Spirit Square in the current Queen City Theatre Company remount directed by Glenn T. Griffin. George returns from the post office, where he was grilled for hours about an intercepted manila envelope, teeming with child pornography, addressed to his establishment. Back at the main house, two newcomers will check in that very day.

The first of these is the subtlest of Fierstein’s artifices, Jonathan, who seems to have little more experience in the art of cross-dressing than stealthily fingering his wife’s wardrobe. There’s little more in his pathetic suitcase than a humdrum dress and a sorrier wig. So George and Rita must introduce all the regular guests to Jonathan, a great convenience for us. More importantly, most of these regulars flutter excitedly around Jonathan, teaching him the fundamentals of femininity, demonstrating their hospitality and humanity.

Perhaps the most formal of Jonathan’s initiation rites is the taking of a woman’s name. He chooses the most Shakespearean name in the gang, Miranda. Of course, it’s George who sports the most flamboyant handle, Valentina. He’s also the most eager to entertain his guests. If he’s going to dress up like a nightclub chanteuse, he’s going to be one. He has no trouble enticing some of the other girls to join him in the merry role-playing. Look out for some sassy lip-syncing.

You’ll find some interesting contrasts between this risqué place and Fierstein’s more famous club, La Cage aux Folles. Although Albin is the celebrated Zaza, his partner Georges out on the Riviera hasn’t given himself a female name. Nor does the threat to the Chevalier d’Eon come from some pompous political ass outside the transvestite culture hoping to ride the wave of a moral crusade. No, the most devastating threats here come from within, so the prevailing tone grows sinister and dramatic rather than lighthearted and farcical.

Our other newcomer comes with an agenda, determined to stir up a ruckus. Charlotte runs a magazine for transvestites and, as publisher of Valentina’s writing, has some leverage as well. He wants Valentina’s circle to organize under a charter, and he wants one of basic tenets to differentiate all members from the beasts, emphatically declaring that transvestites are not homosexuals. It’s the first question he’s always asked on speaking tours, and he wants it to stop.

Talk about a party pooper. Obviously, Zaza never got Charlotte’s memo or he would have turned in his tiara long ago. Charlotte is relying on Valentina to help him overcome whatever resistance his clientele might voice. But George proves to be a more squeamish diva than Albin, unable to declare “I Am What I Am” because he’s not sure what that is. Compounding tensions, the whole crisis has Rita wondering whom she married, George or Valentina?

Casa Valentina

Griffin and his cast must navigate some murky waters here – and they only grow deeper as we move along. Fortunately, our anchors are strong with Berry Newkirk as Jonathan/Miranda wading into the culture for the first time and Barbi Van Schaick as Rita, helping George – and all of us – process the implications of the shifting currents. Newkirk is nervous and delicate, beautifully intimidated by his elders, the final aura that ennobles them. Van Schaick, on the other hand, is downtrodden and despairing in the face of all the weighty life lessons she has learned, determined to stay the course even though it’s unlikely she and her spouse will ever reach the light.

Joe Rux as Isadore/Charlotte and Matthew Corbett as The Judge/Amy generate the most intense hostilities, one more devious and unprincipled than the other. We probably hate Rux far more because of Charlotte’s bullying and homophobia, but Corbett is no less destructive, a massive oil spill of moral and physical weakness, all the more repugnant from a judge.

You may recall Matt Kenyon as the starstruck servant in the excellent Theatre Charlotte production of La Cage last fall. The telltale giggle is still there as Kenyon transitions to the more substantial role of Albert/Bessie, glad to become a bubbly Miss Congeniality in bringing Miranda along. He’s reliably comical purveying Bessie’s flamboyant vanity, yet he doesn’t shrivel when Charlotte shows up. More in the background are Steven Martin as Michael/Gloria and Christopher Jones as Theodore/Terry. Shiny costumes by Jamey Varnadore help them project some of the most formidable style and poise.

The riddle of how to make Kristian Alexander Wedolowski glamorous as Valentina remains unsolved by Varnadore. Wedolowski is a handsome enough man as George, but the bright red wig selected for his Valentina transforms him into a nightmare Little Lulu. But glamor isn’t the point at the heart of all this turmoil. It’s the stresses threatening Valentina’s livelihood, his marriage, and the circle he has drawn around him as his audience and support group. The ultra-neat absurdity of Wedolowski’s appearance, somehow crumbling in both of his gender guises, helps him to project both George and Valentina’s confusion.

Named after a famed and gender-ambiguous French spy of the 18th century, there really was a Chevalier d’Eon up in the Catskills, where New York professionals dolled up in secret, until it became known as Casa Susanna. The owners were Tito Valenti and his wife Marie. They weren’t very different at all from Fierstein’s Vaccaros. Marie did operate a wig store, Tito did write for the daring Transvestia, and the couple prided themselves on schooling neophytes.

Virginia Prince (née Arnold Lowman), Charlotte’s real-life counterpart, closed down Transvestia in 1979, nine years after Susanna’s last column for the magazine. Both Susanna and Virginia eventually made up their minds, finishing their lives as women. “I invented gender,” Virginia boasted to the New York Times in 2006, less than two years before she died at the age of 96.