Review: Summer Night, With Unicorn
By Perry Tannenbaum
In a cycle that begins in November, The Levine Jewish Community Center jumped aboard the Jewish Plays Project two years ago as Charlotte became one of 12 cities adjudicating JPP’s annual Jewish Playwriting Contest. Charlotte has already assembled 21 readers for the judging process, tied with Chicago for the most among participating cities, in deciding the three scripts that are publicly presented in the spring at Gorelick Hall. That’s where the Shalom Park audience takes over, choosing the winner and also-rans for our region. From those results, a consensus national winner is chosen – not only for presentation at an annual Jewish play festival up in New York but also for full professional productions in all the cities where the Project has taken root. Last year’s contest was different from those that preceded, pitting all winners from previous contests against each other, so that an all-time winner from 2012 to 2017 would emerge. Decided by an objective points system, the 2018 contest actually produced two winners, Estelle Singerman by David Rush, winner of the 2013 prize, and Belfast Kind by Margot Connolly, the 2015 winner.
Among the co-winners, Charlotte chose Rush’s bittersweet comedy-fantasy. We had been told at the readers’ committee meeting back in January that Rush’s title was in flux. By the time it was presented at The Festival of Jewish Theater in June, Estelle had been renamed Summer Night, With Unicorn. That’s the title that JStage brought to Gorelick, sporting poster and playbill artwork with a Marc Chagall flavor that marvelously reflected the spirit and the magical realism of Rush’s play. The main figures in Kayla Piscatelli’s artwork are a crescent moon over the head and neck of a unicorn. Within that white unicorn, there is a silhouetted cityscape of skyscrapers with space enough above them for the Hebrew letters of the first four words of the traditional mourner’s kaddish. Estelle is a gregarious elderly Jew, not devoutly religious, since we meet her a little after 10pm at a lonely McDonald’s in Chicago. There’s nobody else to pester but Warren Spencer, an obvious Cubs fan busily clogging his arteries with a burger and a large order of fries.
Estelle would like this sullen, downcast, and brooding widower to believe she’s doing him a favor by sharing his fries and perhaps hoping to cheer him up as she invites him on a late-night odyssey. She will take him to a park, the Lake Michigan shore, a Christian Science reading room, a synagogue, and – inevitably – a zoo. Where else would Estelle and Warren converse with Seymour, a reincarnated giraffe? Rush proves to be very ecumenical in his ramblings around Chicago. The depressed and anorexic Hannah Kipper reads tarot cards on her lakeside blanket, the reading room is managed by a kindly Sister Rose, and the dark synagogue is haunted by a rabbi who’s unsure whether he’s alive or dead, a thickly bearded gent with Wandering Jew earmarks who has his visitors wondering who’s dreaming whom. Nor are the characteristics that Hannah and Rush assign to the Unicorn gleaned from the Encyclopedia Judaica, where there is no entry for the mythological beast.
Long before intermission arrives, we realize that Warren is a stubbornly lapsed Jew who is stewing in bitterness over the circumstances surrounding his wife Doris’s death. Estelle is a widow herself, habitually wandering the city at night because she’s afraid to go to sleep, promising Warren the glory of a sunrise over the lake at the end of their journey. We join Warren in wondering what Estelle’s ulterior motive is, getting hints that he isn’t the first to join her on her midnight rambles. As the lights go down for intermission, it becomes suddenly clear that Estelle is looking somebody to say kaddish over her. What we didn’t know was whether Estelle was alive, with a wisp of matrimonial motives triggering her quest, or dead, needing Warren’s prayers to bring an end to her ghostly wanderings. The other big question was whether Warren would ever say kaddish over his own beloved Doris, let alone this strange and mystifying Estelle.
My estimate is that I haven’t reviewed a theatre performance at Gorelick in almost 16 years, during which time the J has sprouted multiple new wings, one of them two stories high, along with a new entrance and dazzling new facilities – all of which make the Gorelick, now shunted from the front to the back of the complex, look old and drab by comparison. The stage and the dusty chairs we sat in could sorely use a refresh, for starters. JStage producer Susan Cherin Gundersheim, the cultural arts director at the Levine JCC (and a theatre professional in her own right), is clearly facing an uphill climb in convincing people to make a serious investment in the J’s theatre program. Gundersheim has managed to bring professional-grade theatre to the site regardless.
To check off all the design and directorial boxes, Gundersheim has brought in Piscatelli and Mark Sutton to don multiple hats, which they do admirably on their shoestring budget. Sutton’s set design, little more than three wooden frames after we exited McD’s, meshed well with his directorial concept, calling upon his audience to mostly imagine the scenes for themselves. Piscatelli’s costumes and lighting were no less complimentary, the raggedy cerements for the ghostly Doris and the gleaming silk cape for the Unicorn contrasting effectively with the garish attire of our earthbound protagonists.
There are plenty of Hebrew and Yiddish expressions studding this script like landmines. Fortunately, Sheila Snow Proctor navigated the treacherous terrain almost perfectly as Estelle, certainly better than Sutton, who allows Devin Clark to mangle his Yiddish mercilessly as the ageless Rabbi. Portraying a lapsed Jew, David Catenazzo probably earned a pass as Warren on his trespasses with the Hebrew blessing for putting on a tallit – I’ve heard worse during torah readings at my Conservative synagogue. Proctor not only clops around like a pensioner, slightly stooped, slightly squinting, she gets the essence of Jewish soul and humor, the impulse of kvetching leavened with a pinch of self-mockery. She even carries her late husband’s tallit bag and tefillin with a touch of reverence. Perhaps Proctor would have had an easier time of it if Catenazzo had similarly leavened his anger and impatience with hints of the Jewish soul that had loved and indulgently persevered with Doris when she wasn’t angelic. To some extent, Warren needed to be charmed by Estelle. Judging this role is a little like living the journey of Ebenezer Scrooge.
With two major cameos, the Rabbi and the giraffe, Clark had the most opportunities to shine among the supporting players. He was especially entertaining as Seymour sparring with Warren, who probed into the question of why he had been demoted to giraffe in his present incarnation. Yet Clark was curiously endearing as the bewildered Rabbi, notwithstanding the butchered vay iz meers. Liora Tal likely sparked some objections for how she delivered Hannah Kipper, a little underpowered and maybe a little too serene for a young fortune teller looking forward to death – but Estelle persisted in feeding her, and I didn’t think we were supposed to believe her, either. I’m afraid that Mariana Bracciale didn’t get much of a chance to shine as Sister Rose, but at least she got to glow in the denouement as the Unicorn, making her entrance and exit from the margins of the audience.
No cameo better encapsulated what Summer Night, With Unicorn was all about than Stephanie DiPaolo’s visit from the beyond as the ghost of Doris. Even more befuddled and uncomprehending than the Rabbi, DiPaolo only flickeringly registered what Warren was asking of her, but although she haltingly spoke, she never responded. That was very much the dynamic in Rush’s magical journey. Multiple possibilities presented themselves to Estelle when she posed the question we all have about what lies ahead, but through the night, there was no clearer answer than that death will surely come. With richer lighting, sound design, and a sprinkle of special effects, DiPaolo’s clarifying moment of confusion might have reached a finer pinnacle. Hopefully, when more people at the Levine JCC appreciate the gems these professionals are creating, they will also realize that the artists and their audience deserve a finer setting.
Theater Reviews: Saturday Night Fever and 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche
By Perry Tannenbaum
(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.
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.
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.
Reviews of The Importance of Being Earnest and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
They were planning to open The Importance of Being Earnest on January 22 at Theatre Charlotte, where Oscar Wilde’s “Trivial Comedy for Serious People” hadn’t played since 2002. But the snow and sleet that were icing the roads hadn’t begun to melt away on the following evening, so opening night was transformed into an opening Sunday matinee. Even if I had been able to scale my icebound driveway, I was already booked for the opera at Belk Theater.
After all the reshuffling on my iCal, my wife Sue and I were finally able to catch up with Wilde’s menagerie of smart alecks at the second Sunday matinee, nine days after the originally scheduled opening. With so many other reshufflers in the crowd, the Queens Road barn was close to capacity. An extra performance has been slated for 2:30 this Saturday to help out other migrants.
The airy sophistication of Joshua Webb’s set design boded well for the blizzard of bon mots to come, but who were these Ernests opening up the action, Lance Beilstein as the roguish Algernon Moncrieff and Jon Ecklund as the deceitful John Worthing? Beilstein had briefly blipped on my radar last year when he was cast in a stage adaptation of Casablanca that didn’t happen. and Ecklund had never performed on a Charlotte stage before nailing his audition as Wilde’s protagonist.
Yet they instantly established a fine rapport, hinting early on that Algy and Ernest — as John calls himself in London — were not only great friends but kindred spirits.
There was a problem, however, even before the divine ladies arrived. Though their chemistry was sparkling, Beilstein’s cue pickup was razor sharp while Ecklund’s was erratic. Not a symptom you would expect from your lead at the end of your second week.
Ecklund’s symptoms became more serious during the scene change between Acts 2 and 3. In fact, he was taken to the hospital, reportedly suffering from dizziness, and didn’t reappear.
Johnny Hohenstein, who plays John’s butler at his country home, bravely substituted for Ecklund during the final 19 minutes, script in hand. That forced the imperious Lady Bracknell to announce herself when she triumphantly reappeared.
The waters were already troubled in Act 1 when Jill Bloede, amply bustled in a floor-length dress, first floated in like a majestic tugboat as Her Ladyship. It was she and she alone who must approve of Ernest as the prospective husband of Algy’s cousin, Miss Gwendolen Fairfax — a grim prospect, since her wicked nephew has already devoured all the cucumber sandwiches.
Lady B attempts to be judicious. Ernest’s income of seven to eight thousand pounds, the equivalent of $1 million annually according to the Norton Edition of the text, actually counts in his favor.
It’s Ernest’s lineage that is an insuperable stumbling block, for he cannot trace his family any further back than a leather handbag! My, how Bloede huffs when she repeats that fatal word, nearly adding an extra syllable to it each time she lingers on the first letter.
Lady Bracknell’s contempt was so hilariously absolute that when she exited, leaving Ernest and Gwendolen’s hopes of marital bliss in shambles, the audience erupted in lusty applause.
By the sort of insane coincidence that Wilde uses to resolve Ernest’s difficulties, Bloede’s name rhymes with Lady. So, after her current triumph, Jill is no more: she will no doubt have to suffer being called Bloede Bracknell for the rest of her days. You may revise my headline accordingly.
Needless to say, Bloede’s arrival calmed any worries that this production, directed by Tonya Bludsworth, would be anything less than a delight. Eleven years after starring in NC Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Gretchen McGinty’s professionalism still gleams with vitality and caprice as Gwendolen, irresistible despite her perverse silliness. She accepts Ernest, but only for the shallowest of reasons — she’s the perfect antithesis of Juliet.
Caprice continues to rule when we arrive at John’s country home for Act 2, where we meet his lovely ward, Cicely Cardew. Her requirements for a prospective husband are not merely similar to Gwen’s.
They are exactly the same, obliging both John and Algy to make christening appointments with the Rev. Canon Chasuble. Under the watchful eyes of Cicely’s governess, Miss Prism, Algernon has snuck into John’s home, pretending to be his fictitious brother Ernest, and swept Miss Cardew off her feet. That’s partly because Miss Prism’s eyes are devotedly affixed to the Reverend.
As we’ll learn in the denouement, it’s not the first time Miss Prism’s attention has wandered.
Further complicating John and Algy’s attempts to live double lives, Gwen follows her would-be fiancé into the country — with her mother barking at her heels. The running joke of Act 2, amid all the confusion of who’s really betrothed to Ernest, is the radical shifts of sisterly love and murderous hatred between Gwen and Cicely.
Mixed in with devout cynicism and decadence, punctiliousness and pomposity squandered over trivialities are the key ingredients of Wilde’s satire, and Bludsworth has her entire cast embracing it with the proper élan.
Emily Klingman is hormone-driven innocence in a lemon chiffon dress as Cicely, assiduously transcribing Algy’s marriage proposal into her teen diary, and Hank West bumbles quite sanctimoniously as Rev. Chasuble when he manages to recall where he is. Scrunched up like a squirrel, Stephanie DiPaolo is the essence of fretful and incompetent spinsterhood as Miss Prism.
Bludsworth also differentiates nicely between the servants. Ron Turek is urbane and dignified as Algy’s man, Lane; while Hohenstein, tasked to distraction by his temperamental superiors, is more apt to let his resentments play over his face as John’s butler, Merriman. Or he was until he was obliged to pick up Ecklund’s script and stand up to Bloede Bracknell.
Photo by Donna Bise
Not at all plagued by postponements, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane opened at ImaginOn last weekend in as polished a production as you’ll ever see from Children’s Theatre. It’s a gem that will no doubt remind longtime subscribers of The Velveteen Rabbit, since the title character is a rabbit doll. Ah, but Edward is fashioned entirely of porcelain, except for his furry ears and tail (he prefers not to think about the origin of his whiskers).
Adapted by Dwayne Hartford from the novel by Kate DiCamillio, Edward’s story begins when he is given to 10-year-old Abilene Tulane on Egypt Street by her mysterious grandmother Pellegrina, the only human who knows his heart.
Unlike the Velveteen, Edward does not aspire to be real or human, but he is frustrated when Abilene doesn’t set him in a place where he can see the outdoors and the stars through her window.
Even before he is severely broken many years later in Memphis, Pellegrina perceives his flaws, and the inference is that he must suffer for them. But Edward’s sufferings and adventures will be epic — beyond human, to tell the truth.
Our protagonist remains the three-foot doll the DiCamillio created, but Mark Sutton is always close by to articulate his thoughts, shouldering and picking a banjo as Edward morphs into Susannahr, Malone, Clyde, and Jangles during his odyssey on land and under the sea.
Margaret Dalton figures most prominently as the bereft Abilene, but she resurfaces on numerous occasions during Edward’s journey, most notably as a frisky dog. Beginning as the semi-exotic Pellegrina, Allison Rhinehart ranges across multiple roles and genders, last seen as Lucius Clark, the sagely doll mender. Devin Clark rounds out the cast, shapeshifting from fisherman to hobo to handyman when he isn’t slyly inserting sound effects. Pure enchantment for 81 minutes.