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.
Preview: CPCC Summer Theatre 2017
By Perry Tannenbaum
Entering its 44th season, Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre would be hard-pressed to surpass the lineup of shows they presented last year – Annie, Chicago, Sleuth, and Sister Act. But there are good reasons for the folks on Elizabeth Avenue to be super-confident that 2017 will be even more successful at the box office.
Yes, the family-friendly mix of popular Broadway musicals, adult comedy, and an AM kiddie show will provide the perfect refuge from a slapstick presidency that hasn’t managed to derail our strong economy (yet). And yes, after 10 years of random screeches, thumps, and bumps in the night, technicians were able to exorcise the demons that had previously haunted the Halton Theater sound system. Throughout the 2016 season, CP had its act completely together and gremlin-free.
Three beloved Broadway hits are coming to the Halton to keep the good thing going, beginning with Fiddler on the Roof (June 2-10) and followed by A Chorus Line (June 16-24) before CPCC Summer Theatre makes its exit with the pop ABBA jukeboxer, Mamma Mia! (July 14-22). In between the last two Broadway extravaganzas, the summer’s kiddie musical, James and the Giant Peach (June 28-July 8) takes over the Halton by day while the nighttime action scoots across Elizabeth Avenue to Pease Auditorium with A Comedy of Tenors (June 30-July 9).
Oh yeah, one more reliable predictor of success: “We have had record season ticket sales so far,” says Tom Hollis, the CP Theatre Department chair who runs the show and will direct Fiddler and Mamma Mia!
The process of selecting CP’s summer lineup, says Hollis, is ongoing throughout the year with suggestions from audience, from members of the creative team, and consultation with other theater companies. CP wants the lowdown on what others are programming and how well tickets are selling. Radar is also aimed at what Broadway producers are making freshly available from their inventory.
“There used to be a rule of thumb that said you should wait four or five years before you do a show that had toured through,” Hollis recalls. “But that no longer seems to hold true. Our experience with Les Miz and Phantom showed that proximity to the tours actually increased sales.”
It might be assumed that tours of these perennials and Mamma Mia! – which has touched down in Charlotte no less than six times since 2002 – would spark interest in enthusiasts to see them again. Yet Hollis cites trade publication data indicating that audiences across the country who attend Broadway Lights series like those offered here by Blumenthal Performing Arts don’t ordinarily attend local theatre.
“Maybe they have spent all their money on those tickets and can’t afford to attend more,” Hollis speculates. “What we are seeing is that the combination of our more competitive pricing in comparison with the touring houses and the quality of our product makes it possible for people who love theatre but can’t afford the tour prices to see the show in our theater and bring the entire family when they do it.”
On the other hand, CP allows absence to make their subscribers’ hearts grow fonder of shows they’ve previously presented. Both Fiddler and Chorus Line have been done before on campus but never at the Halton, which became the home for CP’s big musicals in the fall of 2005. Budgetary considerations also go into the lineup formula, so comparatively barebones productions like Chorus Line and Chicago help to rein in the bottom line.
Additional economies are available through casting, when an actor can take on multiple roles, navigating a labyrinth of rehearsals and performances to appear in as many as four of the five shows that CP Summer mounts in an eight-week span. It takes eagerness, enthusiasm, and plenty of stamina to go through such a demanding grind, which is why the Summer acting company always skews so young.
In seasons when CP is planning shows like Annie or Oliver, they’ll hold separate auditions in February for kids on top of the cattle calls for local actors and aspiring high school interns. Then in early March, directors will trek to the Southeastern Theatre Conference for regional auditions, where collegians and recent grads come in search of summer work. CP signed up six budding pros at this year’s auditions in Lexington, KY. Look for some of this new blood in A Chorus Line, where young triple threats belong.
Perhaps the optics of overly youthful casts have grown stale for Hollis and his colleagues as the years roll by, or maybe budgetary purse strings are loosening, but we’re recognizing more veteran locals who are returning annually to the Halton and to Pease for CP’s summer rites.
Jerry Colbert, whose CP credits date back to 1974 and took the Laurence Olivier role in last summer’s Sleuth, returns as one of the over-the-hill candidates who might be the father of the bride-to-be in Mamma Mia! Alongside Colbert, Dan Brunson and Kathryn Stamas will be familiar to more recent subscribers. James K. Flynn, fatherly enough to play Tevye when CP last presented Fiddler, moves into A Comedy of Tenors along with two other familiars, Craig Estep and Caroline Renfro.
For the second successive summer, Susan Cherin Gundersheim is teamed with Beau Stroupe. Last year, she was Daddy Warbucks factotum Grace Farrell in Annie. Now in Fiddler, she gets to variously torment Tevye – or emote to his fake dream – as Golde, the mother of his five daughters.
Stroupe has walked a rocky road to Anatevka and the iconic role of the Scripture-fracturing dairyman. Photos of Stroupe as Daddy Warbucks show him with scarcely less hair than he had when he was finishing chemotherapy in late 2013 – more than a year after a grapefruit-sized malignancy was found in his intestine. A rather hostile divorce compounded his woes, so his role as the predatory Chauvelin in The Scarlet Pimpernel during the next summer seemed to chime with his embattled temperament.
The road from chemo to Anatevka led through Cherry Tree Lane, where Stroupe was George Banks, the starchy and clueless father who was transformed – along with his unruly children – in Mary Poppins through the magical nanny. A role he neither knew nor cared about until he began rehearsing, Banks awakened in Stroupe a new affection for father roles.
Warbucks pointed him in the same direction. “Again, the journey of a seemingly rigid and even detached businessman to one of tender-hearted father figure,” says Stroupe.
“I certainly relate to the journey of a father with my own four children through the difficulty of divorce and the slow healing process. It’s easy to understand the juggling act of breadwinner, patriarch, husband, father and visible member of the community. When Tevye is saying goodbye to Hodel at the train station, it takes very little effort for me to feel what any true father feels when letting his child go to live a life of their own choosing.”
New directions will be running amok when CP opens A Comedy of Tenors, Ken Ludwig’s sequel to Lend Me a Tenor, a CP Summer hit way back in 1996. No matter what its pedigree is, Ludwig’s operatic farce – think three tenors misbehaving in Paris – is the newest show CP has ever done, from farm to fork after its New Jersey world premiere in less than two years. Unheard of, as Tevye would say.
And Renfro, CP’s go-to action heroine in Dial M for Murder and Wait Until Dark, tackles a comedy – with a Russian accent! As sexy diva Tatiana Racon, Renfro will have her sights set on a very married tenor, but her seduction will farcically misfire.
“There will definitely be some good old-fashioned vamping,” Renfro promises. “I am so psyched about doing the accent. And so freaked out about it. At this point in my career, the thing that appeals to me most about a role is doing something I’ve never done before, especially if it scares me.”