Tag Archives: Steven Dietz

Facing Your Fears in a Haunted Basement

Review: The Ghost of Splinter Cove

By  Perry Tannenbaum

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There’s a glint of magic as the adventure begins in Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s production of The Ghost of Splinter Cove that you’ll only appreciate if you’ve already seen playwright Steven Dietz’s companion piece, The Great Beyond, in the world premiere Actor’s Theatre production at Queens University. What’s going down? Make that who, for Nate Banks and his sister Cora, on their first night at their late grandfather’s house, have been sent downstairs into the basement to spend the night.

Yet their parents are far from callous. With the camping gear that their dad bought Nate for his birthday, they will break in his new tent – with a dome! – while their parents get their “adult time” upstairs. Nor has Rex, their dad, been lazy. To liven up their adventure, and to make up for canceling an outdoor expedition, Dad has downloaded a nifty smartphone app that will help simulate a true wilderness experience. Rex has troubled to hook the app up to loudspeakers, lights, and even a fan, so a starry night and stormy weather are both on the horizon after sundown.

But wait, there’s a holdup during the setup. Sydney, the daughter of Aunt Emily’s partner, Rene, asks Nate if he has chosen the destination for their wilderness adventure. Nate is dumbfounded until Sydney explains that she has the latest version of the same wilderness-simulating app, and it offers that cool option. Nate will need to take the time to download the update.

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Now here’s where the magic happens. Once the Sim-Camp app is downloaded to Sydney’s phone and all the necessary Bluetooth connections are made, the most advanced Deep Wilderness option it presents – past the “Peppermint” and “Sunset Trail” baby options – is Splinter Cove. None of the kids has ever heard of the place, but if you’ve already seen what unfolds upstairs in Great Beyond, you will not have forgotten how important Splinter Cove is in the family history. It’s the place where Dad wants to bury Granddad’s ashes, for one thing.

Pure coincidence? “Hey, it’s selected already,” Nate observes as soon as he sees the most advanced options. When we hear him saying “Splinter Cove” for the first time, it triggers the loudspeakers.

Long before this, however, a foreboding sense of dread hovers over the overnight adventure. There’s a fourth person in the basement, J, that both Nate and Cora imagine they can see. This imaginary friend doesn’t look anything like what the siblings imagine, he’s always in a different spot from where they point, and he’d rather talk to us than either of them.

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There’s a comical aspect to the kids’ misperceptions, of course, but J is not the clownish comedian that Nate imagines. So who and what is he? Why has he been in the kids’ lives for as long as they can remember, and what are his intentions now?

Finding out will be part of the adventure, to be sure, and you can bet that Dietz has built plenty of suspense into the action leading up to that revelation. Among the works I’ve seen over the past 32 years of covering Children’s Theatre productions, only The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were scarier, which makes Splinter Cove the scariest original children’s play I’ve ever read or seen.

It could be scarier at the Wells Fargo Playhouse if director Courtney Sale had put the pedal to the metal on all the jolts of surprise and terror that Dietz has sprinkled into his exemplary script. And it could be more spectacular if all the technical capabilities of ImaginOn’s larger theater, the McColl Family Theater, were marshaled to the cause.

While I felt Sale had been too cautious about crossing the fright threshold, my mom wondered if this show might be too intense for 8-year-olds after viewing Cove with me. So this is far from a punchless production, though our friend Carol opined that she also was disappointed in the fright factor after seeing Great Beyond earlier in the week.

Dietz’s craftsmanship certainly shines through, all the more brightly if you see both plays in this unprecedented Second Story Project. You don’t simply have adults upstairs and kids downstairs. Dietz makes sure we see a family at both ends of the staircase, with traits that align across the generations.

Like her mom, who resists the idea of holding a séance upstairs, Cora is anything but gung-ho about the camping trip, letting out a stream of sarcasm that parallels Mom’s resistance. Nate not only embraces his dad’s camping idea, he expands upon his resourcefulness, adding a campfire and a moon to the experience.

You’ll readily recognize moments that must occur in both plays, when Rex calls down from the top of the stairs and the kids respond, but I’ve discovered another one that isn’t so obvious. When Sydney asks the time, Nate responds, “Dad would say: ‘Straight-up six o’clock’” – while Dad is saying those exact words to Aunt Emily.

There are amusing misalignments as well. Cora is contemptuous of the prospect of joining hands and saying something enthusiastic before embarking on their wilderness adventure, yet her mom, Monica, does a little pinky-square ceremony with Rene, Sydney’s mom, shortly after they meet for the first time. Upstairs, with Rene presiding, they will dim the lights and light candles for a spooky séance, so it’s apt – if not particularly healthy – that her daughter is afraid of the dark.

Telling you what happens on the Splinter Cove camping adventure would be spewing spoilers for two Dietz dramas at once. It’s more prudent to point out that the playwright follows a tried-and-true storytelling formula by having Sydney face and overcome her fear in the heat of her adventure. Following the Wizard of Oz template, Dietz does this in triplicate, for Nate is afraid of deep water despite his swimming lessons and, again like her mom, Cora has serious trust issues.

Sale’s all-adult cast is marvelous, even if she doesn’t allow them to be as frightening as they could be. Chester Shepherd, whose electrifying high-strung performance in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will be long remembered, is hamstrung as Nate by Sale’s trepidations, scurrying around in terror as if he were doing one of the comical minor roles in Disney’s The Lion King. Notwithstanding how excellently it is done, that shtick dampens a moment when the fear factor should be dialed way up. You always believe Shepherd is a child, though, and his eagerness for the adventure fuels momentum from the start. Thrown by the adventure into the deep water, his terror is more human but still homogenized.

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Carman Myrick seems to enjoy freer rein conveying Cora’s doubts and fears, for Dietz is demonstrating in both of his plays how much more readily we believe when our heroes face strong and nasty skepticism. Cora is the heavy, no doubt, but only intermittently like her mom, and I loved how thoroughly the magic of “Splinter Cove” worked on Myrick from the first time it was said out loud. On a relatively spare Anita Tripathi set design, Myrick makes her climactic climb and discovery compelling, and her achievement of trust becomes a dramatic watershed moment in more ways than one.

Coming off her stint, just last month at ImaginOn, as the pesky would-be girlfriend in Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, Kayla Simone Ferguson doesn’t get to be cute or obnoxious this time around. The physical resemblance between Ferguson and Tania Kelly, the actor playing Sydney’s mom, is pronounced, but the personality parallels aren’t as obvious as the Banks kids’ with their parents. You could say that Rene is the spiritual guide and her daughter is the phone app guru, but the more lasting kinship is their calm and impartiality reacting to the sibling squabbles going on upstairs and downstairs.

Ferguson understands that she’s to be the sounding board for Nate and Cora to tell her (and us) all the important things they already know about each other. Meeting strangers in a strange house – “Wait – I’m spending the night?” – gives her license to be a little forlorn and pathetic. Most importantly perhaps, in confessing her fear of the dark, Sydney brings the squabbling sibs together in sympathy and starts the conversation going about each one’s greatest fear. Facing and overcoming these are the core of the adventure from a classic theatre-for-young-audiences perspective.

Bemused detachment typifies J as he slinks unseen among the children, along with a light sprinkling of menace – a bit heavier when he steals a smartphone from one of the kids’ backpacks. Sooooo shrewd of Sale to cast Arjun Pande in this intriguing role. He doesn’t immediately tell us he’s an adult, but with his low voice, he contrasts with Shepherd, whose sound and energy mark him as a kid. Pande also towers over all his castmates, so even those 8-year-olds in the audience who are braving this thriller will likely realize he’s the adult in the basement before he actually lets on.

If Pande isn’t quite as sardonic as he could be ridiculing the siblings’ basic misperceptions, he has the strong quiet confidence of an enigma waiting to be discovered, presciently knowing that this is the night when he will be. It’s a magical, magisterial role that Pande inhabits almost nonchalantly. Quiet confidence is more than justified, for even after everyone has vanished, J will remain a dizzying enigma.

One last wonder is how Dietz packs so much into the 53 minutes of Splinter Cove, only slightly slowed down by the two mind-blowing set changes. For that matter, what Dietz packs into less than 80 minutes in The Great Beyond is an equal marvel. Perhaps one day, a single theatre company will produce both Beyond and Cove on the same stage on the same night, and perhaps that’s what Dietz had in mind when he put the finishing touches on his Second Story Project.

Maybe then Dietz will decide which play should be seen first! He wrote Splinter Cove first, but my vote goes to seeing it last. And last it definitely will.

A Séance With 200% Certainty

Review: The Great Beyond

By:  Perry Tannenbaum

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When you walk into Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus for the world premiere of Steven Dietz’s The Great Beyond, you’ll be treated to a rare “don’t-think-about-elephants” experience. Even if you haven’t read the prepublicity around town, seen the spots on local TV and the web, or thoroughly perused your playbill, your emissary from Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, artistic director Chip Decker, will call your attention to the elephant in the hall. While Dietz’s spooky new drama can stand on its own, it was written with an interconnected companion piece, The Ghost of Splinter Cove, that is now premiering at ImaginOn in a taut 53-minute Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

So once you’ve heard that, can you really be satisfied seeing The Great Beyond without going to see Dietz’s companion piece? Probably not.

If you’ve somehow failed to pay attention to the prepublicity, the playbill, and the curtain speech, all of them telling you that the action of Splinter Cove is happening downstairs in the basement of the same house at the same time in the same family as the action we’re seeing upstairs, the parents upstairs will remind you frequently enough of the strange adventure their kids are having below.

More than that, thanks to Evan Kinsley’s scenic design, which offers us a smidge of the home’s exterior, we get glimpses of the basement action through translucent windows that peep above ground. So it isn’t just a matter of Rex, the dad, opening the door to the basement and checking up on how his kids are doing – with prerecorded replies. No, no, no. Beginning with camping gear that he bought for his son Nate’s birthday, Rex has sent them on a wilderness adventure, with a smartphone app hooked up to the home’s electronics simulating the sounds, the natural lights, and the weather of the great outdoors.

At unexpected moments, then, the handiwork of lighting designer Hallie Gray and sound designer Rob Witmer captures our attention – and whets the curiosity of the three women who have gathered with Rex for an adventure of their own. The historic collaboration between two theatre companies is called “The Second Story Project,” but it’s at Queens U that we see why.

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Dietz has said that The Great Beyond is a reunion play, and it certainly follows a template we’ve seen before, bringing far-flung and estranged kinfolk together, comically or dramatically uncomfortable with each other, after a death in the family. Here Rex has brought his two kids to the home of his former father-in-law, where his distraught ex, Monica, served as caretaker during Tobias’ last difficult days. Relations between Rex and Monica seem cordial enough, though she isn’t a big fan of his elaborate camping scheme for their children – since it brings unpleasant family history to mind.

It’s also obvious that Rex retains a genuine affection for Tobias, whom he calls The Captain like everybody else in the family. The real family strife will rev up when Monica’s wayward younger sister Emily arrives. Or actually, it begins before, because the rigid and judgmental Monica has labelled Emily as a chronic latecomer – on the basis of one past incident – so hostilities can begin as soon as Emily arrives. On time, of course.

Not that Emily is flawless. A recovering alcoholic who now limits herself to one full glass of wine at the same time every day, Emily has made Dad’s home the last stop on an epic apology tour, launched five years ago when she achieved sobriety, spanning 23 states and two foreign countries. A straight arrow and a black sheep, the bread-and-butter combatants of countless theatre clashes are poised to have it out! But unlike Sordid Lives or Appropriate, two of the funeral-triggered plays we’ve seen before in Charlotte, the dead Tobias will also be invited to the reunion.

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You see, Emily is bringing her bisexual partner Rene to this sad reunion, hoping to summon up the spirit of Tobias at a séance later in the evening. It’s Tobias, not Monica, that Emily has really earmarked for receiving her last apology, and she thinks that Rene, a spiritual medium, can make contact and make it happen.

As if the friction between Monica and Emily weren’t torrid enough already! Now they need the scornful, skeptical, and sarcastic Monica to complete the circle around the séance table. Outnumbered three to one in this tussle – and somewhat pre-empted by Dietz’s two play titles – you can guess how Monica’s opposition to the séance turns out. As for whether Tobias shows up, I can safely defer to Dietz himself, who was present at the post-performance powwow on opening night. He told us that one of chief pleasures he found in telling this story came in conveying his 100% positive conviction that the supernatural visitations at séances are absolutely bogus and his 100% certainty that those visitations are absolutely real.

Whatever you may think of the action around the table, you can’t deny that Dietz has made intensive efforts to sustain our ambivalence, giving us numerous reasons to believe that the house Tobias built with his own hands is in the grip of the supernatural – countered by an equal number of escape routes to disbelief. But to his credit, Dietz leaves us with a giddy sense of confusion rather than a rational set of alternatives as we attempt to arrive at the truth now – and the truth about the tragedy that has haunted the family for nearly 40 years – teasing us out of thought.

That giddy confusion will be compounded when you factor the climax of Splinter Cove into your calculations. If you go to Hadley with somebody – whether an adult or a child – you can expect that conversation on your way home will be peppered with lively clarifications and disputes.

Decker certainly holds up his end of Actor’s Theatre’s historic collaboration with Children’s Theatre. Rather than missing core elements of the script that I’d seen when I read it (a fundamental reason I customarily avoid reading scripts I’m scheduled to review unless I’m planning to interview a playwright before seeing the production), Decker and his superb cast managed to bring Dietz’s drama more intensely to life and reveal the power – and comedy – of a couple of moments that I’d overlooked. Didn’t hurt that Dietz was here in Charlotte, tweaking both of his scripts during the process.

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All of these roles are beautifully rounded, so it wasn’t surprising to see the keen relish that the players took in them. It would be hard to overpraise Tonya Bludsworth’s work as Monica, the meanie who has worked so devotedly and so selfishly to be The Captain’s favorite. Bludsworth brings out the humor and the sharpness of Monica’s mocking sarcasm, turns it off when she realizes she’s wrong, has moments of self-awareness, and is delightful in so many different ways during the séance she has so grudgingly agreed to. There’s a bit of swagger to her, for all of her starchiness.

Robin Tynes-Miller mixes Emily’s feelings of resentment and remorse to perfection and turns them up high. Her wrenching efforts toward reformation make Bludsworth’s cynicism and rejection all the meaner. Tynes also hones in on just how thin-skinned and childish Emily remains as the younger sib, allowing Bludsworth the delight of intentionally provoking her, elevating Monica’s wickedness at times to villainy. For all her weakness, it is Emily who powers the story forward when her determination is steeled, yet Tynes makes her lapses likable, so we’re still rooting for her when Rene and Rex must rally behind her cause.

Dietz has Rene doing a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to coaxing Monica to the table – and an even greater share of the calming and reassuring that Emily needs when her frustrations with her recalcitrant sister get the better of her. Tania Kelly does it all with a confident authority, belying Monica’s presumptions of what a medium should be. Not a dreamcatcher earring in sight, and no Whoopi Goldberg kookiness.

As patient and sure as she is at the séance table, unruffled by Monica’s taunts, Rene also takes it upon herself – without any desperate urgency – to rectify Monica’s obsolete assessment of Emily’s character. Rene is the mother of Sydney, the third child downstairs at play with Nate and Cora, and Kelly dials in the right amount of parental concern and trust in Rex. Most of all, when the doors and windows are unlocked, the candles lit, and the incantations begin, Kelly makes us believe that Rene is in earnest and something amazing could happen.

Rex is the glue that binds Dietz’s plays most firmly together, and Scott Tynes-Miller beautifully captures his strength, his self-deprecation, and his insouciance. For the most part, Rex’s role is as a peacemaker in the siblings’ brawls, the steadying force that Monica realizes she was foolish to discard. Miller not only gets the last of the play’s four monologues, addressed directly to us, he also demonstrates to closest bond to Tobias, briefly recalling how The Captain taught him to be a man. Turns out to be a surprisingly important plot point. There’s a nice through-line that Miller finds in Rex, for he has a firm and quiet purposefulness, and like Emily, arrives with a mission. That turns out to be yet another way that he binds Dietz’s magical plays together.

There’s much more to the story of The Great Beyond than I’ve disclosed here – with surprises stirred in that are calculated to startle and astound. Much of this story is expanded upon and illuminated in The Ghost of Splinter Cove. So your intuition to see the companion piece will not lead you astray.

Upstairs/Downstairs in a Haunted House

Previews: The Great Beyond and The Ghost of Splinter Cove

By Perry Tannenbaum

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An old living room card table shaking uncontrollably during a candlelit séance… an unidentified ghost – or two – lurking in the dark basement, where kids are at play… and an 8-year-old child who has been missing for nearly 40 years.

These are some of the chilling elements in two new nail-biting plays hitting the QC. Upstairs with the adults at the séance, the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production of The Great Beyond begins previews this Thursday on the Queens University campus, officially premiering next Wednesday. Next Friday at ImaginOn, The Ghost of Splinter Cove takes us downstairs into the basement with three imperiled kids in a world premiere Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

Both spooktaculars are by renowned playwright Steven Dietz, who splits most of his time between Seattle and Austin, where he teaches his craft at the U of Texas. Dietz has written and adapted more than 40 plays, and a slew of them have been performed in various theaters across town, including God’s Country, Lonely Planet, Yankee Tavern, and Becky’s New Car (a “Show of the Year” winner in 2010).

But these two newbies would never have been written if Dietz hadn’t gotten on a plane and met with Adam Burke and Chip Decker here in Charlotte.

Burke, the artistic director at Children’s Theatre, and Decker, his counterpart at Actor’s Theatre, had cooked up their concept during a 2015 meetup. Cooperating was feasible between their two companies, but what kind of project would bring audiences together to see the kinship between Decker’s adult theatre and TYA – Burke’s theatre for young audiences?

Decker and Burke both have considerable experience in bringing new plays to their theaters, so it was obvious that their joint project would be a new script. But what if they commissioned two scripts, each one designed to funnel audience from their theater to the other theater while both shows were in production?!

Somehow the two plays and their stories would have to interlock. Yet to encourage rather than force audiences at one company’s theater to also see the other company’s play, each of the two plays would have to stand independently on its own. The concept that would be named The Second Story Project was born – in excited brainstorming interspersed with copious cups of coffee.

When Burke and Decker decided to move forward, there were no funds earmarked for the project, no playwright commissioned to create the scripts, and no parameters detailing how the two stories would interconnect. There was just one dynamite concept that had never been tried before.

“It’s always a leap of faith to do anything, especially something new,” Decker observes. “We just both hit on it, felt it was a good solid idea, and when you feel that way, you have to jump in with both feet and hope there’s a safety net at the bottom.”

Looking back on it, Dietz was a super-obvious choice. Multiple productions of his plays had been presented at Actor’s and Children’s, but Decker and Burke were thinking about advertising in trade publications or soliciting proposals – until the successful run of Dietz’s adaptation of Jackie and Me at ImaginOn turned on the lightbulb in Decker’s skull.

He sums up his realization: “We’re looking for a playwright who has a great voice for theatre for younger audiences and a playwright who has an experienced track record with adult audiences, we’ve both produced Steven Dietz plays, why should we look any further – especially the first time out?”

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Burke had sort of blocked out the idea of looking to an established adult playwright, calculating that the TYA piece would be the higher hurdle.

“I am more confident that someone who can write a great play for young people can write a great play for adults than I am of the reverse,” Burke explains. “So when Chip suggested Steven, I’m like, ‘Ah, yes, of course!’ There are only a handful of people that are moving between the two worlds successfully.”

Dietz was a little wary, wanting to make sure that there wasn’t some special issue or theme that his scripts were expected to address. Getting reassurances of his complete freedom, he warmed to the prospect of such an unprecedented challenge.

“What was so beautiful about the idea was that it was so simple,” Dietz recalls. “The core of the pitch to me was something shared. A shared story, a shared theme – something shared. And in one theater piece, we see it through young people’s eyes, and in the other, we see it through grownups’ eyes. That’s just like Post-it Note simple!”

The playwright was also on Burke’s wavelength with respect to the primacy of the TYA piece. It would be the more difficult piece to write and take more time. So it needed to be written first. Unlike other commissions that Dietz has fulfilled, neither The Ghost of Splinter Cove nor The Great Beyond turned out to be a play he would have written anyway. No barely-started scripts or scribbled scenarios were on his studio shelves waiting for these unique commissions.

Dietz suspected that he would make many false starts on his youth play – and he did. The upstairs/downstairs idea didn’t occur to him immediately, but when it did, it seemed like an elegantly simple way to make his plays interlock. But what kind of full-length play can be staged in a basement?

“I had this little tiny notion,” Dietz reveals. “I had a friend who had his kids try out his camping equipment in their basement once. And of course, that is what’s beautiful about writing for young people: where they go on that camping trip in their imagination is much more dynamic than getting out even on the San Juan Islands, which is near my house. Because it’s in their imaginations, so it can be anywhere.”

Especially when your brand-new camping gear is a birthday gift, you’re in a strange haunted house for the first time in your life… and there’s a smartphone app your dad bought you that makes your whole camping adventure come alive!

So that’s the downstairs core of the Second Story Project. From time to time, Dad calls down from upstairs, making sure the kids are settled in and sending down snacks. The two plays interconnect with those conversations – we only see Dad in The Great Beyond – and there are key props that will be common to both of Dietz’s eerie dramas.

Upstairs, where the séance happens, the parents are having a dinner reunion after a great family loss, and we learn why the kids have never visited this house before. For Dietz, there was a unique benefit in crafting his two new plays as a matched set.

“Writing [Splinter Cove] taught me about those kids’ parents,” Dietz remarks. “In any other play I’ve ever written, they would just be offstage characters. This process doesn’t have offstage characters, really. They have characters onstage at the other theater.”

And they’re not necessarily alive. Bwa-ha-ha!