Tag Archives: Stephen West-Rogers

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.

Smokey and the Epic Hero

Theatre Review: O Brother

O Brother

By Perry Tannenbaum

In Greek legend, Odysseus was a man of many ways who sacked the sacred citadels of Troy, traveled widely, struggled valiantly, and suffered greatly. But even if this Homeric catalogue of achievements pales in comparison to the praise lavished upon presidential candidates at our quadrennial conventions, there’s something about the guy that continues to spark admiration – despite the fact that he was once captured and imprisoned.

Latterday tributes from Lord Tennyson and James Joyce to Ulysses (O’s Roman name) gradually humanized the Ithacan warlord and brought him down to life-size. Ethan and Joel Coen decided that wasn’t quite enough indignity to heap upon the mythic hero. The Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou not only presented Ulysses Everett McGill as an escaped jailbird, they made him a Mississippi hayseed. If any role George Clooney plays can be considered a hayseed.

On a ridiculously limited budget, Citizens of the Universe bring Odysseus down the social ladder a few more rungs with O Brother, for the costumes and backdrops by Mandy Kendall aren’t Hollywood. On the other hand, the newly unveiled performance space at NoDa Brewing Company – on North Tryon Street – can’t be accused of being Mississippi.

Trailblazing yet another new venue, COTU embraces an outdoor ambiance that is more picnic theatre than dinner theatre. Beer flows from the interior of the spacious new NoDa tavern, and grub is rustled up from a food truck you can’t miss on your way in from the parking lot. There’s a bluegrass trio at the side of the modest playing area: the Hashbrown Belly Boys, who start up before the odyssey begins. Very relaxed and homespun.

Energy amps up as soon as director Courtney Varnum, perky and pigtailed, steps forward to introduce the show. O Brother is only loosely based on Homer’s epic – and loose only faintly describes its trashy, Southern-fried, slapstick style. These are not realms usually explored by James Cartee and his COTU, but Varnum has been able to round up more than a couple of the usual suspects from past COTU navigations.

Tom Ollis is the one Citizen you would expect to fit in well in this new rusticated universe, playing “Pappy” O’Daniel, the gregariously corrupt Miss’sippi guvnah seeking re-election while hosting a Grand Ole Opry-style radio show on the side. Sort of a cross between Tennessee Williams’ Big Daddy, Huey Long, and Yosemite Sam the way Ollis plays him – mythologically, he’s Menelaus in the scheme of things.

Most surprising is Shane Brayton as our hero Ulysses, after playing opposite Ollis as an arrogant Richard the Lion-Hearted in The Lion in Winter. Down in the Delta, Brayton taps into hillbilly pluck, energy, optimism, and rascality in a way that I’d likely find irresistible if part of the audience weren’t partying and oblivious. Of course, persisting in the face of such loud inattention adds to the pluck factor, but I found the entire cast up to that challenge.

We need to listen all the more attentively because some of the actors’ names are flip-flopped with the names of the folk they play in the playbill. The most obvious of these is “Sheriff Cooley as Stephen West-Rogers.” While he isn’t quite as megalomaniacal as he was in Fight Club or as violently vehement as he was in Trainspotting, West-Rogers is more than sufficiently implacable and clueless as the Sheriff.

Make no mistake, all of these principals are surrounded by sidekicks or underlings that make them look like sages. “Pappy” has Michael Haynes as Junior O’Daniel and Jeremy Bryant as Pap’s political opponent, Homer Stokes, who turns out to have clout in the KKK. Sheriff Cooley has Justin Mulcahy as his standard-issue deputy, and Ulysses is saddled with Michael Anderson as Delmar O’Donnell and Josh Elicker as Pete Hogwallop – Varnum and Charlie Napier extend the deep-down hayseediness of the Hogwallop family.

Not counting the vocal trio of Ulysses’ daughters that doubles as the Sirens, three of the actors zip through multiple roles. Napier stands out as the aforementioned Wash Hogwallop, as a Blind Seer modeled on Teiresias, and as a marauding gangster with a chip on his shoulder, George Nelson, because he’s not the more infamous Babyface. All the great menaces of The Odyssey don’t appear in this hashbrown mashup, but we do get Scotland Gallo as “Big Dan” Teague, certainly Polyphemus with his eyepatch, and Kendall as Penny, Ulysses’ wife.

All of Penelope’s famed suitors coalesce into one Vernon T. Waldrip (Napier again) and, with this Ulysses, Kendall’s infidelity doesn’t play as sluttiness so much as cold pragmatism. A ne’er-do-well jailbird – as opposed to an MIA hero – should cause a sensible wife to make new plans, even in the backwoods. Calypso’s shtick in the journey gets merged into the three singing Sirens – Becca Whitesmith, MoMo Hughes, and Laura M Lee.

As you’ve no doubt divined, Odysseus’ sea voyage and his epic struggle to return home after the Trojan War have been downsized to a comical chase triggered by Ulysses’ jailbreak. Toss in the bluegrass music and it shouldn’t be surprising if O Brother sometimes reminds you of Smokey and the Bandit – without the same Hollywood charisma from the lead rascal. Igniting the chase, Ulysses cons Delmar and Pete into joining him in the escape by enlisting them in a quest for a treasure that he has hidden at the bottom of a valley soon to be flooded to create a dam. Echoes of Deliverance, another bluegrass bromance.

Only here, the music is more deeply woven into the storyline. For along the way, the three escaped white men hook up with Tommy Johnson, a black musician who claims to have gotten his phenomenal skills in a deal with the devil, a la Robert Johnson. On one of their stops before they break up, the quartet cuts a record as the Soggy Bottom Boys. It’s at these key musical moments – and subsequently at his KKK lynching – that we encounter yet one more familiar COTU personality, James Lee Walker II, best remembered for his one-man presentation of Karl Marx.

Walker is a bit humbler this time around. Everybody is. Sifting through the distractions, I’d say that Koly McBride’s O Brother tribute/arrangement of the Coen Brothers’ film is among the very best adaptations COTU has ever done. If the ratio of audience to partyers can be boosted significantly this weekend, the experience will be even better.