Tag Archives: Stephen Seay

One-Two Punch of Surprises Powers “Eat the Runt”

Review: Eat the Runt

By Perry Tannenbaum

Even before you set out for the Charlotte Art League, the quest for parking, and the unique Eat the Runt from Donna Scott Productions, you need to remember one key preparation: bring your smartphone. Yes, you’ll be asked to turn off or silence the device when the action is set to begin, but before that, you’ll be asked to join the remainder of the audience in choosing the cast for that evening’s performance.

Eight actors vie for the seven roles listed in your program. The audience goes through the cast list one by one, voting their choice for each role on a group texting setup by punching the number assigned to each actor. Playwright Avery Crozier gives each of the characters at his (or her) second-tier art museum a unisex name, so any member of the ensemble directed by Tonya Bludsworth might play any of the roles on a given night.

To execute all of the possible 40,320 casting permutations, each actor must be prepared to play all of the roles, wear all of the costumes, and pounce on cues from all his or her castmates. That not only multiplies what each character has to memorize and the number of costumes designer Luci Wilson has to create, it also multiplies the amount of time that the ensemble must devote to rehearsal – even though they can’t begin to cover all the possible scene partners they will have during the actual run of Runt performances.

On the Saturday night that I attended, I voted with the audience on four of our choices: Ericka Ross as grantwriter Chris, Stephen Seay as human resources coordinator Jean, Tracie Frank as curator of modern art Hollis, and Kevin Shimko as museum director Pinky. Andrea King won the juiciest – and most demanding – role as Merritt, interviewing for a vacant position at the museum. Kevin Aoussou as director of development Royce and Jenn Grabenstetter as museum trustee Sidney rounded out the cast.

Somehow Stephen West-Rogers’ previous exploits in theatrical versions of Fight Club and Trainspotting had escaped the notice of Donna Scott fans. Nor did his new clean-shaven look bring fresh evocations of his ruggedness. As a result, West-Rogers was the odd man out, sent away to take the night off when Shimko snagged the last remaining role.

After this poignant moment, presided over by Scott, we were asked to give the cast a few minutes to sort things out, a reasonable enough request, I thought. When they returned, it was virtually impossible to find any indication that this wasn’t the fixed cast that had rehearsed Eat the Runt every night. King especially was a delight as Merritt, deftly bringing out the applicant’s uncanny ability to take the ideal approach for each museum official who interviewed her.

Merritt’s chameleonic shifts bespoke either a dangerously unstable personality or a cunning Machiavel – one perhaps gifted with psychic powers. Whether it’s the hemorrhoidal HR coordinator, the horny development director, the coke-addicted curator, or the defensive trustee, Merritt always seems to pounce on the perfect approach without any need for probing. It’s only when she’s spouting Ayn Rand to the museum director that Merritt drops hints of a supernatural gift.

Forget about the gimmickry at the top of the evening, it’s very rare for any playwright to be able to detonate a walloping surprise at the end of Act 1 and at the end of Act 2. Crozier not only achieved that, but the surprise at the end of the evening slickly explains away much of the puzzlement we may experience as the series of job interviews metastasizes and explodes.

A few days later, some of the deception that had been played on me became clearer. By then, I couldn’t regret the fun ride that Eat the Runt had taken me on. It may be radically different for you if your casting choices turn out to be more incongruous, risqué, or preposterous. That may increase the already plentiful comedy.

Written in the Stars

Theater Review: Fly by Night

Jerry Colbert as Narrator and Lisa Smith Bradley as Miriam in Fly by Night. (Photo by George Hendricks Photography)

By Perry Tannenbaum

Is everything pre-ordained by a higher power? Or might everything that happens simply be the inevitable outcome when the algorithms of time and space work upon the star stuff that materialized in the wake of the Big Bang? If not, might a lucky ring or a soothsayer’s gaze into a crystal ball shift the gears of an oncoming fate? These are a few of the notions that Kim Rosenstock was playing with when she conceived Fly by Night, the last musical Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte will ever stage at 650 E. Stonewall Street.

Will Connolly and composer Michael Mitnick joined Rosenstock’s writing team, producing a storyline that revolves around two South Dakota sisters who fall in love with the same New York slacker, Harold McClam, a full-time sandwich maker and songwriter. Daphne and Miriam are as radically different as sisters can be. Daphne is impatient to leave Hill City behind and become a Broadway star, while Miriam is perfectly content to stick around home and pour coffee for the townsfolk at her waitressing job.

But Miriam already is a star in the sense that, listening to her dearly departed dad, she has absorbed the notion, during fondly remembered stargazing sessions, that we all come from that star stuff they were counting in the nighttime sky. Aspirationally, there is a link between Harold and Daphne, who meet first at the clothing shop where she clerks and again across his sandwich counter. Vocationally and temperamentally, Harold has a kinship with Miriam. They spark more instantaneously, more intensely, and more lastingly. Trouble is, they meet at the Brooklyn diner where Miriam works when Harold is already engaged to marry Daphne.

Hovering over the action, as a kind of providential presence with avuncular Our Town overtones, the Narrator frequently shape-shifts into some of the orbiting characters in his tale, including both of the sisters’ parents and the eccentric soothsayer. We actually begin the main story on November 9, 1964, with the funeral of Harold’s mother – exactly one year before his dad’s abortive suicide attempt.

There will be a certain providence in Mr. McClam’s survival, to be sure, but until then, his morose appearances can be somewhat trying and tedious. Each of the three central characters is being tormented by a livelier, more interesting nemesis. Daphne has Joey, a commercially successful playwright who’s getting serious about his craft by writing a play just for her. With plenty of revisions, stretching out the rehearsal process. Harold is bedeviled by the sandwich shop owner, Crabble, a quintessentially cranky New Yorker. The only inkling we get that Crabble has a heart is his chronic hesitation to fire Harold for all his delinquencies and screw-ups.

Miriam has the most important tormentor, that kooky soothsayer who gives her the most improbable set of omens for determining her destined true love, wrapped into a prophecy that promises bliss and catastrophe. All of them begin to recur when Harold walks into her life, sending Miriam scurrying back to South Dakota when the two are on the verge of connecting.

Fleeing fate is no less futile for Miriam than it was for Macbeth or Oedipus. She holds out the hope that her doom isn’t settled until time stands still. That will happen on November 9, 1965 – twice.
Three significant events will happen on that date, only one of them anticipated: the postponed opening of Daphne’s play. Ironically, the only stars shining on Broadway that night will be those that twinkle mockingly in the sky.

With Chip Decker directing and Jerry Colbert narrating, Fly by Night moves along briskly with plenty of verve and heart. Colbert has aged gracefully into the paternal wisdom that the Narrator and Miriam’s dad deliver, yet there is comical extravagance each time he becomes the Brooklyn soothsayer or the South Dakota mom. This Narrator seems to become most personable when he stops the action to guide us into a prefatory flashback, so we appreciate Colbert more and more as these time loops proliferate.

Colbert himself loops back to his heydays, flying by night to some fairly high notes and singing with an ease we haven’t heard from him since, oh, maybe 1997 in the 1940’s Radio Hour. Perhaps he’s inspired or rejuvenated by his co-stars. The sisters, Cassandra Howley Wood as Daphne and Lisa Smith Bradley as Miriam, are aptly cast, already ablaze in their early pair of star songs. Wood repeatedly chants “I’m a star!” with Broadway conviction belting out her anthemic “Daphne’s Dream” as she begins navigating the New York rat race, and there’s a cute Avenue Q silliness to her “More Than Just a Friend” duet with Harold.

Bradley simply torches her calling card, “Stars I Trust,” creating a wider gulf between the sisters than you’ll find on the original cast album, and there’s a greater maturity to her lighter “Breakfast All Day” sequel as she settles into Brooklyn, with less of a shuffling rock beat from the three-piece band directed by Ellen Robison. So easily grooved into a humdrum rut, it’s surprising how unnerved Miriam becomes when the soothsayer sings his “Prophecy” – in two parts – and when her eyes first meet Harold’s. Bradley, Colbert, and Christopher Ryan Stamey make it all work.

Stamey cut his teeth at Actor’s Theatre as their go-to wild man in trashy treasures like Slut and The Great American Trailer Park Musical, so to watch him mellowed into the relatively colorless Harold could be jarring to those who have witnessed his vintage exploits. But he actually nails it as both the nerdy Romeo and the mistake-prone sandwich drone. Best of all, he’s the adult in the room in his ultimate showdown with Miriam, “Me With You,” tapping into who he is and what we all believe must be right in the face of implacable destiny.

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Supporting roles all draw superb performances. Stephen Seay is wonderfully hyper as Joey when he first pursues his muse Daphne in “What You Do to Me” – and still spoiled rotten, revision after revision. James K. Flynn captures the working class vulgarity of Crabble with a poifect accent, combining with Stamey in “The Rut,” a paean to workplace hopelessness and drudgery. Perpetually toting a wee record player and a vinyl recording of La Traviata in his pathological grief, Rob Addison eventually gets to break out of his stonefaced depression as Mr. McClam. Toward the end, he decides to actually go see that opera and later, when someone finally has the time to listen, he pours out his sad, sad love story, “Cecily Smith.” Which just happens to rhyme with one of the best lines of the night: “Who cares what you are listening to? It’s who you’re listening with.”

The design team, Dee Blackburn for the set and Carley Walker for the lights, give us a nice off-Broadway sense of the various locations, efficiently transporting us to Miriam’s yard and front porch in South Dakota, the seedy nightclub where Harold tries out his song, Crabble’s misspelled sandwich shop, and McClam’s bathtub.

When we get to Penn Station and Times Square, however, an SOS goes out to our imaginations. After “At Least I’ll Know I Tried,” a tasty quintet ushering in the eventful denouement, I prophesy you’ll answer that SOS willingly.

Ebony and Odyssey at the Civil War

Theatre Review: Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3)

Father 4[1]

By  Perry Tannenbaum

Sometimes it’s the winner who adds prestige to the prize. Despite its princely $100,000 payout from Columbia University, you probably never heard of the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History. The importance of the prize is likely to grow now that Lin-Manuel Miranda has snagged the fourth annual award for his megahit musical, Hamilton.

Last Monday’s announcement came just a wee bit too late for Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte to bask in the newborn Kennedy afterglow in their pre-publicity for Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3), which opened last Wednesday. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks won the 100 grand for Father last year, before the Kennedy Prize was important enough to be noticed by The New York Times.

As the first African American woman to take the Pulitzer Prize (for Topdog/Underdog), Parks isn’t exactly vaulting from obscurity with her latest win. Nor is she exactly rising from poverty with the cash, though the 2002 Pulitzer chipped in $10,000, also from Columbia. After Parks won the $300,000 Gish Prize last October, the LA Times reported that Parks had banked over $1,000,000 in arts awards during her career, including the genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

So what did Parks bring our way during the waning days of Black History Month? Notwithstanding the trilogy connotations of the title, amply fulfilled by the three-hour running time (including two 10-minute intermissions), Father Comes Home is actually the first installment in a longer nine-part project. Until subsequent installments are unveiled, Wars remains a misnomer, for the only war anyone goes off to — or returns from — is the Civil War.

Although our protagonist, Hero, appears in all three parts, it wasn’t until he returned in Part 3 that I began to feel we were watching something greater than the sum of three one-act plays. It also became clearer that Parks has her own take on deconstructing history.

On the one hand, she formalizes it much in the same way Aeschylus did when he added to the Homeric legends of the Trojan War in the Oresteia 2500 years ago, inaugurating the art of theatre on the Greek stage. Three slaves who work alongside Hero in the opening act of Father Comes Home, as he weighs the pros and cons of squiring his master in the Confederate Army, will disappear by the time he returns a year-and-a-half later. They’re replaced by three Runaways, hiding by day at the slave cabin until they can further their escape under the cover of darkness.

The Runaways talk to the only holdovers at the Confederate Colonel’s plantation, Hero’s wife Penny and Homer, but they also begin talking to us more and more, like members of a Greek chorus. It’s when Hero’s long-lost dog returns from the war that we begin to see the modernistic aspect of Parks’ treatment. When we learn that Hero has changed his name to Ulysses, we realize that Penny is his Penelope — and that the Greek hero is serving as a thin mythic template over Parks’s story, much as he did in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

But Parks also tosses a light sprinkling of absurdist anachronisms into the spectacle. A couple of these appear before intermission as one slave nurses a drink in a Starbuck’s cup and Hero takes off a set of headphones as he makes his decision. Relatively subtle touches that one theatergoer sitting with us in the front row could decry as a mistake.

These time-warp incongruities multiply when we return to Texas. One Runaway sports a doo-rag and twirls a yoyo, another wears a Blank Panther beret and reads Ebony, and the third wears a vinyl vest and totes a peacenik handbag. I’m guessing this is Parks reminding us that when we journey back to yesteryear, we bring today’s eyes to watch what happened.

No fewer than four slaves kick off the evening, speculating on whether Hero will go to war, evidently unaware of the title of the show. Two other slaves, Homer and the Oldest Man, are noncommittal in the general wagering, but both are generous with their input. We might equate Hero’s vacillation with the preening of undecided voters, loving the attention of the media who inflate their importance. But perhaps the thing to perceive here is the fact that any big choice given to a lifelong slave is a breath of freedom.

Homer’s reluctance to counsel Hero is linked to an ancient grudge. When Homer made his run for freedom years ago, it was Hero who ratted him out and delivered the master’s harsh punishment. Such episodes of Uncle-Tom loyalty are a big part of the reason that the Colonel is offering Hero the opportunity to accompany him onto the battlefield — and promising Hero his freedom if he survives.

But what are the chances that Hero will survive or that the Captain will keep his promise? Fear piles upon fear when Hero realizes that he will undoubtedly face the lash if he disappoints his master and refuses to go. Another layer is heaped on when the slaves realize that only a serious injury will serve as a sufficient excuse for Hero’s dereliction, for Hero must now suffer the same indignity he inflicted on Homer.

Father 5[11]It’s at this point in Part 1, when hero has made up his mind in Penny’s favor, where Sidney Horton’s otherwise flawless direction falters. The knife hovers so long and threateningly over Hero that the tension breaks before the episode is really over. My surprise over this lapse only increased during Part 2, in the heat of battle, when the Colonel parleys with a wounded Union soldier that he has captured and locked in a wooden cage. Action here made me wince, leaving no doubt of the Captain’s cruelty.

In a meticulously crafted performance, Jonavan Adams brilliantly fuses the three parts together as Hero. As robust and broad-shouldered as he is, Adams is supremely wishy-washy, so his Ulysses-like cunning and soulfulness can change to arrogance or cravenness in the blink of an eye. Looking up to him with love and yearning in her eyes — and maybe a sliver of seduction — April Jones is aptly coupled with Hero in Part 1. But the worm turns dramatically in Part 3, where it’s Penny’s turn to make a suspenseful choice, and the grit that Jones plants within her comes to the fore.

After making so much of so many mellow and insouciant roles before, it’s refreshing to see how deeply Jeremy DeCarlos sinks his teeth into the waspish resentfulness of Homer, who turns out to be the truest Penelope in the drama after limping around so long. If you’ve had your fill of American courtesy and courtliness between Civil War combatants on stage and screen, you’ll love the fierce in-your-face animosity between Craig Spradley as the Colonel and Stephen Seay as his captive, Smith.

Among the other slaves, Bobby Tyson distinguishes himself when he transforms into Hero’s long-lost dog Odyssey in Part 3, silencing Homer himself as he chronicles Ulysses’ battlefield adventures. The pooch’s life story had only 38 lines in the Homeric epic, but here Parks gives him two lengthy monologues, and Tyson makes a comical meal out of each one. The wooly jacket designed for him by costumer Carrie Cranford clinches his eclat.

Photos Courtesy of George Hendricks Photography