Tag Archives: Steven Levine

ATC’s Outdoor “Midsummer” Is Electrifying Fun

Review: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Aside from sporadic Chickspeare ventures in the NoDa Brewing parking lot and a tentative CPCC Shakespeare on the Green production up at their Cato campus two summers ago, we haven’t seen anybody commit to an annual series of outdoor Bard since the Queen City’s second Charlotte Shakespeare bit the dust in 2014. If you’ve been hankering for some good Shakespearean comedy under the moon, with a refreshing beverage in your beach chair’s cup holder and a trusty cooler at your side, the long drought is over.

Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has made good on their promise, announced at the dawn of their new residency relationship with Queens University, that they would launch an annual Midsummer Nights @ Queens series, starting with the most logical choice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now Shakespeare hasn’t exactly been in Actor’s Theatre’s wheelhouse during its first 30 years. Nor has any classic playwright dating further back than Edward Albee. Perhaps for that reason, ATC executive director Chip Decker tamped down expectations when he first unveiled his plans, saying this would likely be a cooperative effort featuring students in the Queens U theatre program.

2019~Midsummer @ Queens U-21

He lied. Directed by Chester Shepherd, this Midsummer is as professional as any homegrown Shakespeare production we’ve seen in the Metrolina area since the first Charlotte Shakespeare folded in the early ‘90s. Even though admission is free, production values are not at all cheap. Costume designs and props by Carrie Cranford are literally electrifying in a few instances and, while there isn’t any scenic design, Shepherd leads his players up and down, up and down, taking advantage of a bush here and a tree there, borrowing the stone stairway and entrance to campus building for the Athens scenes and kidnapping a toddler from the audience when we adjourn to the forest and the fairies.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some serious economies, but they don’t include forswearing playbills, which are handed out to audience members by wingèd ushers. Although the roles of Athens royals Theseus and Hippolita are often doubled with those of Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen, here we’re confronted with an orgy of doubling – nine actors in 18 roles. Except for Peter Finnegan as Bottom, all the mechanicals are moonlighting as Athenian nobles.

2019~Midsummer @ Queens U-12

So the looney lovers who are confounded and enchanted in the woods by the fairies cannot mock the mechanicals when they present their “Tragical History of Pyramus and Thisbe” – they’re performing it, you see. Their lines disappear with them, part of a shrinking process that yields a playing time of less than 100 minutes. That’s another economy. Anybody who has memorized the lines uttered by Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed will notice that these fairies have also been vaporized – or compressed into the generic Fairy played by Kerstin VanHuss.

Steven Levine is certainly manly and commanding as Theseus and Oberon, but he is upstaged by the antics of Sarah Molloy as Puck and the misplaced amorousness of Nonye Obichere as Titania – not to mention their outré costumes. Obichere has only to swish her illuminated blue cape to dazzle us, and Molloy’s outfit is even wilder than Bottom’s. Of course, Finnegan’s hambone bravura must begin before Puck mischievously transforms Bottom into an ass, and we benefit from the minimalist design decision not to obscure the actor’s face when Titania plies her charms.

Finnegan really takes over when he stars as Pyramus for Theseus and Hippolita. More than one actor has made the death of Pyramus into a full meal. Finnegan aims for a banquet.

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Among the befuddled lovers, the women get the most comical opportunities. Iesha Nyree as Hermia and Anna Royal as Helena both make good on their mightily distressed episodes, and Shepherd hasn’t erred in stressing the height differential between them in his casting. With so much thunder stolen from their benighted partners, it’s actually fortunate that Adam Griffin and Jonathan Ford, Demetrius and Lysander respectively, get to moonlight as mechanicals, Griffin as Snout and Ford as Flute.

The caution that free insect repellent was available at the theater site proved to be unnecessary on Saturday night, but in the early part of the evening, I found it welcome to have some cold liquid at hand. Microphones consistently operated well, so you can expect audibility to be less of a challenge than Elizabethan English. The plenitude of physical comedy supplies ample translation.

A couple of real concerns: handicapped access begins on Selwyn Avenue, to the left of the Queens U traffic circle, not in the traffic circle itself. And counterintuitively, the worst seating is in the middle of the greensward facing the stage. The further you sit toward either side, the more easily you’ll see past obstacles in the center, namely a table, a slatted bench, a soundboard, and the technician standing over them.

Get there early, select a good sightline, and your Midsummer Night @ Queens should be quite dreamy.

Stirring the Pot in a Bronx Soup Kitchen

Theater review: Three Bone Theatre’s Grand Concourse

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Most people, particularly the homeless and the poor, don’t need to be told that soup kitchens are all about feeding the hungry who are beaten down – temporarily or permanently – by the harsh realities of our teeming cities. But to an unexpected degree, Heidi Schreck’s Grand Concourse, set in one of these missions of mercy at a Bronx church, struck me as a play about soup.

Not to worry, the current Three Bone Theatre production, at Spirit Square through Saturday, occasionally delves into the question of how to best serve the poor. Yet we aren’t out there among the hungry who are gratefully lapping up their free lunches. Instead, we’re behind the scenes – in the actual kitchen of the soup kitchen – so we’re mostly involved with the providers of the meals, not the recipients.

Sister Shelley runs the kitchen, a nun who has chosen to discard the traditional costume and struggles to sustain another habit: prayer. Setting the kitchen timer on her microwave to one minute, she can’t nearly fill it with 60 seconds of earnest supplications. A new volunteer, Emma, enters in the next scene, and it’s really her time at the kitchen – first as a volunteer and then as a salaried worker – that shapes the arc of our story.

About two-thirds through the action, which clocks in at 95 minutes, I had the feeling – can I admit it was a worry? – that we were watching one of those incubator stories about a flawed, wounded, immature young person who experiences growth and healing via the subtle balms of acceptance and friendship. We’ve seen a few of these, haven’t we?

Lovely Emma turns out to be a different kind of apprentice, partly warm-hearted and enterprising but also partly toxic. The two men in this tragicomedy, Oscar and Frog, help in sharply defining the best and worst of Emma. Among her initiatives, the boldest is to expand the mission of the soup kitchen into helping the regulars get on their feet and find jobs. Appropriately, the first beneficiary of these attentions is Frog, who has long disregarded the taboos against camping out by the church and fraternizing with the kitchen folk.

Her effect isn’t so benign in her various interactions with Oscar, the maintenance/muscle guy who regularly drops by for sandwiches kept in the fridge, usually lingering to lend the women a helping hand. Emma works on Oscar’s eyes with her good looks, then on his sympathies with her big lies. Everyone around Emma is hoodwinked as she spins plausible yarns to her mother, about her mother, and about herself.

There is more complexity with Sister Shelley, who is dealing with her crisis in faith and the oncoming death of her dad. Unlike most volunteers, Emma returns for a second day, becoming a standout simply by persevering. Continuing to volunteer, Emma introduces new variations to the daily soup – a whole eggplant one day, maybe a few pinches of fennel the next. But she’s stirring the pot at a deeper level when she starts helping Frog to hop out of hopelessness. Why haven’t the sisters thought of doing that before? It starts Shelley to wondering.

It also starts to make it obvious that Schreck isn’t primarily concerned about Emma’s apprenticeship. This playwright’s eyes are trained most diligently on how all the characters are affecting one another. What’s simmering up in the Bronx, workday after workday, is a human soup of interaction and influence – and this humble little soup kitchen is a microcosm for the Grand Concourse that is humanity. It’s a volatile stew without any pat or easy endings. It keeps on boiling along.

There are plenty of energies distributed among this unpredictable foursome, and director Robin Tynes does a fine job in making sure we see how different – and how unevenly distributed – these energies are. Shawna Pledger hasn’t been this wired onstage since she made her first Charlotte splash in the title role of Sylvia four years ago at CP. Here she’s rechanneling that restless energy into Shelley, a neurotic and indecisive nun whose ultimate crucible will be forgiveness when young Emma pushes her to her limits. Pledger’s is an intense energy pent up in a pressure cooker of religious tolerance and discipline. Even when she stumbled on a line on opening night, it came out like part of Sister’s high-strung struggles.

Emma’s confusions are on a more elemental, hormonal level than Shelley’s, and Callie Richards gives her a variety of erratic, moody, and sensitive shadings. Nothing about Richards’ demeanor suggests that Emma is a temptress. Nor are Jason Estrada’s costume designs spurring her in that direction. She’s sneaky, deceptive, and her conquest of Oscar is like a raccoon invading your attic in the middle of the night. Suddenly, she’s just there.

Watching things unravel, we don’t know exactly how to analyze Emma’s ultimate violence. It’s passive-aggressive, to be sure, and its effect is irreversible, but Richards is careful not to give away how intentional it may have been. Life is often messy precisely because we encounter chaotic, messed-up people like Emma behaving irresponsibly.

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As portrayed by Nicholas Enrique Pardo, it’s easy to come away thinking of Oscar as a genial sacrificial lamb, pounced upon by both Emma and Frog. But his victimhood is more complex and unique than that, for he had trained to be a dentist in the Dominican Republic before the process of immigrating to the US effectively stripped him of his credentials. Now he holds down a day job to survive and attends a community college to improve his employment prospects. Pardo just struck me as too young to have all that mileage and dentistry in his rearview mirror – but I didn’t detect much in Schreck’s script that exposed this shortfall.

Likewise, Bill Reilly may be a wee bit young to comfortably fit the aging hippy profile sketched for Frog, but he turns in such a compelling performance as this eccentric loose cannon that all incongruities quickly cease to matter. Reilly’s entrance at the dawning of his reclamation is delightful, largely because he himself seems shocked and disoriented by his new attire. The whole outing would have been even more extraordinary if Steven Levine’s fight choreography had been more meticulous.

Notably more shabby – and less clinical – than the Playwrights Horizons’ off-Broadway production, Ryan Maloney’s set design jibes better with the way most out-of-towners think of the Bronx. This kitchen is more welcoming and, with Jackie and Peter Hohenstein’s prop designs, still richly detailed.

The carefully crafted clutter and slovenliness of the kitchen also accords with the episodic manner that Schreck relies on in telling her story. Watching the jagged sequence of scenes unfold, it seemed that the playwright may have pieced them together like journal entries, maybe shuffling the order, discarding numerous scenes, and cutting out minor characters – the mother, the head nun, and a pesky teen delinquent – along the way.

We sift through a cunningly calculated slovenliness to get at Schreck’s takeaway, with a few loose ends purposely left dangling. You won’t be as sure of what to make of Grand Concourse as the many tidier comedies and dramas you’ve seen before, but you’ll likely be more convinced of its authenticity.

Writing Tips and Serial Seductions

Theater Review: Seminar @ Spirit Square

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By Perry Tannenbaum

We all know that politics, connections, and strategic socializing often figure into securing Hollywood production budgets and achieving Hollywood stardom. We’re apt to think of the proverbial casting couch as Tinseltown’s exclusive domain. But can the same tools also work in the literary world, where writers aspire to lucrative publication and enduring prestige?

 

You better believe it, playwright Theresa Rebeck tells us in Seminar, a surprisingly steamy — and sometimes dark — comedy that brings Three Bone Theatre to Spirit Square for the first time. The veneers of artistry, aesthetics, and collegiality rapidly disintegrate in successive encounters with a famed writer and his very exclusive fiction-writing class. Izzy, Douglas, Martin, and Kate all scrape together $5,000 apiece for the privilege of being praised, critiqued, berated, and mentored by Leonard in weekly sessions at Kate’s posh Upper West Side apartment.

Kate has been honing her story about a narrator obsessed with Jane Austen for so long that cleverness and craft are all that remain. Izzy’s writing, on the other hand, is so laced with sensuousness and sexuality that it rouses mighty urges in every man in the room — and she knows exactly what she’s doing. Douglas arrives with a fine literary pedigree, key connections, and a manuscript that is already under consideration by The New Yorker.

Martin has had the toughest time scraping up the necessary cash for tuition, so tough that he has been evicted from his apartment. He wouldn’t need to pay any rent if he could crash in one of Kate’s many extra bedrooms, but he’s oblivious to the possibility that Good Samaritan impulses might not be the primary reason why Kate says yes. There are more than a couple of things that Martin is oblivious to, and he’s very guarded about showing his writing to anyone, so he’s a useful person for Rebeck to have around for expositional purposes. So much must be explained to him until he becomes central to the story.

Meanwhile, it’s Izzy and her serial seductions that stir the pot and drive the plot. There’s actually an admirable amount of balance in Rebeck’s script, but in the Broadway production directed by Sam Gold, the important character seemed to be movie star Alan Rickman as Leonard, while the students often seemed to be mundane minnows swimming in his orbit.

Leonard is a revered writer who is still globetrotting on reporting assignments despite his literary decline, so Rickman’s aging celebrity was not amiss. And Rebeck delves so deeply into the mysteries of teaching and mentoring writers that our fluctuating assessment of Leonard’s efficacy emerges as more important than any other subject Seminar tackles. But Rickman’s aura, for better or worse, made Leonard appear above the politics, the exploitation, and the literary logrolling.

With Michael Harris in the role (and probably in the best form of his life), the fault lines in Leonard’s character — and his redeeming humanity — are more readily evident. Three Bone director Steven Levine doesn’t have the luxury of imposing a huge gulf between Leonard and his students from a celebrity standpoint, so we also discover who Leonard’s costar is a bit earlier in the game. Rickman’s fame — and stage presence — really didn’t allow for an equal in the Broadway production.

A subtler aspect of Rickman’s magisterial stature on Broadway was the stylish domain where Leonard held court. Ryan Maloney’s set design for Kate’s living room, flowing silk sheets for walls and simple furnishings, has an unmistakable elegance, not a word I’d apply to any of Three Bone’s previous efforts in NoDa over the past four years. But it’s Maloney’s evocation of a ratty artist’s apartment later in the action, complete with its telltale writer’s clutter, that had me flashing back to the Broadway production.

Outside of ivied university walls and politically correct quads, taboos against student-teacher hookups obviously don’t apply, but with Three Bone’s comparatively leveled playing field, it’s easier to see that Izzy is playing the guys to her advantage — and actually less apparent that Leonard is playing her. Karina Caparino augments the difference by emphasizing Izzy’s wantonness and her frolicsome spirit. The Asian who played Izzy on Broadway was a little brainier, cosmopolitan. This Izzy is Bohemian with more raw and exposed emotions.

That chimes well with Harris’s more vulnerable approach to Leonard. I found myself paying far closer attention to Leonard’s big monologue, where he addresses his past disgrace. For me, it was less of a rueful confession and more of a bitter outcry of victimhood this time around, accentuated by some deft lighting cues by designer Carley Walker. Unexpectedly, it’s the previously meek Martin who pushes the esteemed writer to open up.

Michael Harris and Scott Miller in Seminar.

So yes, I can declare that Martin, in his painful — at times, infuriating — evolution demands a performance on a par with Leonard’s, and Scott A. Miller certainly delivers. I’m sure it isn’t a coincidence that Levine elicits an outing from Miller that’s as extraordinary as what we see from Harris, arguably eclipsing Miller’s stellar work earlier this year at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte in the title role of Danny, King of the Basement.

I’m only wondering how Levine did it. It’s easy to suppose that Levine enabled Miller and Harris to look inside themselves and find things they had never discovered before. That’s a typical mythology applied to directors. But here I suspect that Levine opened up new depths in Rebeck’s text, for I must admit that I thought it was a far slicker piece when I left John Golden Theatre in 2012 than I did at last Thursday night’s opening.

Beth Killion’s costume designs for Douglas aren’t as loud as those I saw on Broadway, making the well-connected student less of an object of derision. I found that new twist as enjoyable as the others, but with three of Charlotte’s best actors bringing their A games to this local premiere, Paul Gibson’s shortcomings as Douglas were more glaring than they might be otherwise. To mesh better with this ace cast, Gibson’s cue pickup needs to be swifter and his delivery surer. When he settled down — conquered his opening night jitters? — Gibson offered us a nuanced rendering of Douglas’s sense of entitlement and his nonchalant insider’s knowledge, not cartoonish at all. But his difficulties had come when he needed to dominate.

Our hostess Kate has more complexities than Izzy, and she can be even more irritating than Martin with her stubbornness and preciousness. Becca Worthington is better at Kate’s priggishness than she is at projecting the embarrassment of her privileged wealth, but there are hidden dimensions to this Kerouac hater that go undetected by Martin until the scene changes — and Worthington is marvelously attuned to those devastating surprises.