Tag Archives: Tania Kelly

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.

Charlotte’s Ace Comedienne Takes on a Touchy-Feely Challenge

Preview:  Every Brilliant Thing

By Perry Tannenbaum

Written by two Brits, Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe, Every Brilliant Thing began life in 2013 in a little English town and didn’t achieve any kind of renown until Donahoe brought the one-man show across the pond in an off-Broadway production the following year. An HBO movie in 2016, a coveted engagement at Spoleto Festival USA last season, and numerous productions across the country have spread the word.

To an uncommon degree, this one-man show relies on audience participation to tell the story. When a vet comes by to put down the young narrator’s dog, Sherlock Bones, a person from the audience is picked to play the vet. When Mum is taken “to hospital,” an audience member helps deliver the scene where Dad explains that the boy’s mother has made her first suicide attempt.

And when the boy draws up his list of “everything brilliant in the world. Everything worth living for,” in a lifelong effort to cheer Mum up and keep her alive, audience members who are given hand-written scraps of paper before the show call out items on the epic list. #1, Ice cream, #2, Water fights, and so on.

But Every Brilliant Thing doesn’t have to be a one-man show. Or British. At Spirit Square, where the Three Bone Theatre production opens next week, it won’t be.

“One of the exciting things about the script is that the playwright has specified that this story can be told by any actor, any gender identity, any race, any age,” says Three Bone artistic director Robin Tynes.

Rehearsals started back in December. There were no auditions. With so much emceeing, audience interaction, and stand-up comedy skill required, your garden-variety audition wouldn’t help a director to make her choice. Tynes just handed the script to Tania Kelly.

Tynes needed someone who could draw an audience to Duke Energy Theater, somebody with proven improv chops. “Tania was an obvious choice to me. She has extensive emcee experience, comedy experience through Robot Johnson and other shows, and people love watching her on stage. We worked with Tania in our production of Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, so I knew she had the dramatic chops for the piece. I think she’s an excellent actress who often times gets pigeonholed into solely comedic roles.”

Kelly offers a slightly different account of getting the script from Tynes. “I read it,” she recalls, “and then immediately sent her a message that said, ‘WHAT DO I NEED TO DO TO BE IN THIS?’ We had a meeting and then I got to do the best thing ever. I wanted to do this show so bad because I immediately related to the story. But then on top of that, the writer also gave a lot of freedom in the casting of the Narrator with all those really interesting footnotes. So, I don’t think anything super drastic needed to be changed.”

Recently named the recipient of A Seat at the Table’s inaugural “She Is Dope” Award, Kelly is best known for how smart, brainy, snarky, and caustic her performances have been. She was the worst psychiatrist ever in Beyond Therapy in 2011 and a prodigiously misinformed humanities professor last year in Women Playing Hamlet. But Kelly’s dopiest exploit remains her stint as both Dromios in the 2016 Chickspeare presentation of The Comedy of Errors.

Tynes plans to give Kelly a more intimate and clubby atmosphere to work in at Duke Energy Theater, reducing seating capacity to around 100 people and putting her star to work before the action begins, working and engaging the crowd. Kelly agrees that her unique résumé has been invaluable.

“Robot Johnson has definitely been a master class in ‘Just roll with it, trust your friends, and man these drunks are loud,’” Kelly quips. “Also I was a DJ/Emcee for tweens for Radio Disney for like five years, and I feel like that skill has really helped lately. But also yes, this is still, for real, absolutely terrifying.”

With all the unpredictable audience participation that Kelly is called upon to cope with, the rehearsal process had to be re-engineered. It wasn’t altogether private, one-on-one, or hush-hush.

“Danielle Melendez, our stage manager, and Robin have worked really hard to organize a series of test audiences for me to interact with for just those scenes. Which has made this such a fun and unique process for all of us. We’ve been essentially running a series of experiments. It’s been pretty cool.”

Kelly doesn’t mention that a recent performance at Catawba College earned her a standing ovation, but Tynes does. There’s still some polishing going on behind the scenes as opening night approaches. Yet the object has never been to make the Three Bone version anything like the off-Broadway production that won Every Brilliant Thing its acclaim. Tynes has devoutly avoided watching any other version of the show, including the HBO special.

“It was also thrilling for us,” says Tynes, “to interpret and mold this script that was crafted by a white British man to fit an African-American woman. While casting Tania was not intentionally political – she was hands-down the best person for the job – it has inherently changed how I view the script. We’re discussing and diving into mental health, and the demographic in the United States with the least access to mental health care is women of color. I love that by having Tania play this role, a woman of color is at the forefront of this discussion about mental health care and support systems.”

Davidson’s pudgy cuddliness will vanish when Kelly takes over his role, but the heavy moments – and the touchy-feely ones – will be part of the challenge that she’s embracing. Kelly dismisses any talk of the larger significance of the event. “This is a really funny show about depression,” she insists. “I’m just telling a really gorgeously written story.”

Fair warning: you might feel otherwise. With all its shtick and spontaneity, Every Brilliant Thing becomes something of a ritual when different audience voices chime in, a ritual of empathy, celebration, and healing.

“Actually, we are all telling this story together,” Kelly agrees. “The audience is creating this with me every night. I have never done anything like this before. I can’t wait for y’all to see it!”

Oh, and don’t be surprised if Sherlock Bones is renamed Chuck Barkley. He’s Kelly’s dog now, and it’s Kelly’s show.

 

Best of Charlotte, 2017

Best of Charlotte, 2017

By Perry Tannenbaum

                                           Best ActorJeremy DeCarlos

 

Among local performers, there are strong candidacies from Brian Logsdon (Pride and Prejudice and Ragtime), Jonavan Adams (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and The Christians), Scott A. Miller (Stupid F@#%ing Bird and The Submission), Jermaine Gamble (A Raisin in the Sun and Jitney) and Tyler Smith (Ragtime and Memphis). All of them sparkled on multiple occasions. But the runaway victory goes to Jeremy DeCarlos, who laps the field – in range and productivity – with four scintillating outings. Draped in a braided Hussar jacket, DeCarlos just finished channeling his inner Jimi Hendrix as the devilish St. Jimmy in American Idiot. That was the last of his Actor’s Theatre gems over the past year, including some cross-dressing preaching in Bootycandy, his insouciant devotion in Stupid F@#%ing Bird, and his amazing transformation – from Jerry Lewis nerd to Incredible Hulk-ish monster – in The Toxic Avenger.

Best Actress – Shar Marlin

The field of contenders is larger among the ladies, but the roles were more thinly distributed, eliminating productivity as a decisive criterion. But which other benchmark should override all others? If it’s flesh-crawling menace, Sarah Woldum gets the edge, bringing Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla to life in She Who Watches. Leslie Giles was the funniest as the blind librarian in The Toxic Avenger, Lucia Stetson the most revelatory as Mother in Ragtime, and Allison Snow Rhinehart was better than her Broadway counterpart as Mama in Memphis. And how can I forget the sizzling dominatrix arrogance of Nonye Obichere as Whatsername in American Idiot? I’m turning instead to Shar Marlin for her sheer power and imperial dominance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a dramatic stunner that also showed Shar’s blues singing chops. Dignity in the face of exploitation and discrimination. Diva!

Best Comedy – Women Playing Hamlet

 

Theatre Charlotte’s You Can’t Take It With You and the Citizens of the Universe farewell, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, were arguably the zaniest productions of the 2016-17, while the Chekhov knockoff from Actor’s Theatre, Stupid F@#%ing Bird, was surely the most poignant. And what about OnQ Productions’ A Brown Tale from James T. Alfred, maybe the funniest one-man show I’ve ever seen? All were worthy candidates, but I’m going to let Chickspeare split this prize with Donna Scott Productions for their joint production of Women Playing Hamlet. Glynnis O’Donoghue starred as the soap queen saddled with the lead role in the Mona Lisa of tragedies, and the galaxy of comediennes – all in multiple roles – offering her questionable advice included Tania Kelly, Andrea King, Vivian T Howell, and Sheila Snow Proctor.

Best Musical – Ragtime

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Folks who confine their diet of musicals in Charlotte to touring productions at the PAC are missing out bigtime on the locally-produced blockbusters playing out at smaller venues around town. Actor’s Theatre scrambled to produce a marvelous Toxic Avenger at a storefront church because this city doesn’t have the vision to see the arts flourish on Freedom Drive without a needless morass of red tape. Still in exile, they just brought the noise of American Idiot to Queens University for a face-melting month. After reminding us how finely they can produce A Year With Frog and Toad, Children’s Theatre astonished with the world premiere of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical. With more than one Broadway-level performance, Theatre showed us their mettle with Memphis, and CPCC re-emphasized that their musical excellence isn’t confined to summer anymore. Maybe it was sheer luck, but CP’s wintertime production of Ragtime was the most timely of the year, underscoring the sad fact that institutional racism, police brutality, and prejudice against immigrants aren’t quaint relics of the Jazz Age. As the martyred Coalhouse Walker, Tyler Smith’s impassioned “We are all Coalhouse!” reverberated through a city in turmoil.

Best Drama – Jitney

Early last season, PaperHouse Theatre proved that The Frock Shop on Central Avenue was the perfect site for a creepshow with a dazzling She Who Watches, and early this season, a legend made a comeback when Steve Umberger and his Playworks Group brought a sterling production of The Christians to Booth Playhouse. In between, as Charlotte was fully wakening to how badly we have neglected and mistreated our underclass, theatergoers may have finally been zonked by the realization that our city is exceptionally rife with African American acting and directing talent. Kim Parati made an auspicious directorial debut at Theatre Charlotte with a freshened-up Raisin in the Sun, but this was a vintage year for August Wilson – in two dramas directed by Corlis Hayes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at CPCC and Brand New Sheriff’s Jitney at Spirit Square. Hayes brought out the best in John W. Price and Jermaine Gamble as the father-son antagonists in Jitney, with Gerard Hazelton adding a mix of comedy and poignancy as the gypsy cab company’s resident lush. Move over OnQ Productions, there really is a brand new black company in town – our second! – producing professional-grade work.

Best Night @ Symphony – Mahler’s “Resurrection”

While a well-played Beethoven symphony, a Rossini overture, a Strauss tone poem, or a Mozart concerto might be the secret sauce to get newcomers to become Charlotte Symphony subscribers, longtime concertgoers like me wish to dismount the warhorses and hear something off the beaten trail. There’s plenty out there that will please both camps: big, unfamiliar orchestral works that will instantly grab you by the lapels even if Symphony hasn’t reprised them within the last decade. Armed with an audacious orchestra and choir, plus two soloists who have sung with Opera Carolina, Davidson College showed the way with a rousing performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, set to poetry by Walt Whitman. That’s the sort of daring we hope for from Charlotte Symphony’s British maestro, Christopher Warren-Green. We did get a British Isles-themed evening when pieces by Edward Elgar and Peter Maxwell Davies, spiced up with a bagpiper, were served with Mendelssohn’s “Scottish.” Utilizing the Symphony Chorus and distinguished guest vocalists, Warren-Green turned up the power with a pair of Bruckner chorales last November and Mendelssohn’s Elijah last March. If you wanted to sample the full capabilities of Symphony, their chorus, and the guest vocalists Warren-Green can summon to Belk Theater, you had to hear them introducing the wonders of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 to an astounded audience.

Best Night @ the Opera – The Girl of the West

Under maestro James Meena, Opera Carolina does the oldies better than ever, as their uproarious Barber of Seville and their vivacious, ultimately anguished La Traviata amply proved. There was even some audacity in the 2016-17 programming as OpCar partnered with Warehouse Performing Arts Center and the D9 Brewing Company to produce an evening of three short operas – including the world premiere of Scott Joiner’s “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera)” – at the brewery in Cornelius. Yes, a world premiere on Treynorth Drive! But most exciting was the Charlotte premiere of Puccini’s The Girl of the West, as Meena collaborated with six other international companies, including New York City Opera and Teatro del Giglio in Lucca, Puccini’s hometown. Singing was exemplary, persuading me that this second-tier Puccini opera was actually a first-rate work, and staging was anything but stodgy or conservative: much of the scenery was animated and bold, with authentic relics evoking the Wild West supplied by our own dearly beloved Wells Fargo. An appreciable, if infinitesimal, atonement for all the bank’s Wild West chicanery.

 

The Ghost of “(I Hate) Hamlet” Returns – With a Vengeance

Review: Women Playing Hamlet

By Perry Tannenbaum

Written and premiered in an era when only men could perform on stage, Hamlet has been performed many times with the finest actresses of their day in the title role. Poetic justice, playwright William Missouri Downs will tell you in his Women Playing Hamlet, since Shakespeare’s magnum opus is a revenge tragedy. Compounding this revenge – and attracting the notice of Charlotte’s Chickspeare banditas and Donna Scott Productions – Downs has decreed that all roles in his comedy, regardless of gender, shall be played by women.

Braininess and silliness play well together at Charlotte Art League, where Donna Scott Productions previously mustered the oddball Civil War re-enactors of Shiloh Rules and the eccentric Amish of The Book of Liz. Most of the cast gathered by director Tonya Bludsworth have performed with both Donna Scott and the Chix before.

Oddballs abound here as well. The most stressed, conflicted, and self-doubting of these is Jessica Ostergaard, who has had the awesome role of Hamlet unexpectedly thrust upon her – despite a résumé that includes a killed-off character in the Young and the Restless and a flicker of a cameo in a Tarantino film (also dying). Everyone in New York who advises Jessica on this prodigious undertaking, whether the advice is solicited or not, tells her that she is too young to play Hamlet. And every one of these opinions has a certain amount of credibility, since everyone on Manhattan Island has an MFA in Acting, from your lowly Starbucks barkeep on up to your legendary acting guru.

Glynnis O’Donoghue has always had a look that mixes determined pluckiness and confused vulnerability, so she is always as perfect a Jessica as director Bludsworth could hope for. She soaks up the pithy pointers with the eagerness of a puppy and absorbs discouraging words with the most endearing and pathetic pout, one that still retains a glint of chin-up determination.

Downs layers on interesting reasons why Jessica should identify with the brooding Danish Prince. At her father’s funeral, we learn that Jessica’s mom announced her intent to marry her uncle. Somehow that doesn’t sound quite so sinister when the announcement is made in a folksy Minnesota accent, don’t-you-know.

That tawdry revelation allows Sheila Snow Proctor, as Minnesota Mother, to steal one scene from O’Donoghue in a flashback. More often, Proctor regally sports a turban, à la Norma Desmond, as Jessica’s acting guru. This imperious Gwen terrifies Jessica with her frank appraisals and such rigid dogmas as “Hamlet is the ‘Mona Lisa’ of plays.” If this formula reminds you of the TV actor haunted by John Barrymore in Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet, a very popular comedy in the early 1990’s, then you have the gist.

Nonetheless, Snow gets maximum mileage out of her scenes with the cringing O’Donoghue, because she maintains a stony hauteur that defies contradiction. And she is far from Jessica’s only tormentor. Tania Kelly, Vivian T Howell, and Andrea King all play five different roles along Jessica’s bumbling odyssey – with at least two apiece that are standouts. Howell is best as the Starbucks know-it-all and as Gwen’s other student, a ditzy model content to be patronized.

King and Kelly draw more eccentric assignments. As Jessica’s young niece Emily, a very immature Pippi Longstocking-ish Minnesotan, King unwillingly accompanies Jessica to the theater and gets the aspiring actress in trouble with Patrick Stewart during the movie star’s attempt at Hamlet. After disrupting the performance, damage control doesn’t go so well for Jessica at first, compounding Stewart’s rage against texting and tweeting. King’s other triumph is Lord Derby, a renowned Shakespearean scholar in his dotage.

Kelly hardly needs to do more than walk onstage to draw laughs, but she is especially memorable as a more shambling and déclassé academic, Jessica’s Humanities Professor, a veritable fount of dubious information. But Kelly surpasses herself as the Gravedigger, a scene where Downs gives us glints of Shakespearean depth. For a brief moment, we’re outside the hustle and bustle of Broadway and the ephemera of actors’ pretensions.

Chuck Bludworth’s projection slides underscore the web-based slickness and superficiality of the city. With no lack of self-esteem whatsoever, Gwen and the two academics manage to amuse us while educating us about the melancholy Dane and the women who have played him. But the dimly lit graveyard scene is something different. In this wilderness, Downs’s comedy and Shakespeare’s tragedy intermingle, for the two gravediggers in the Bard’s script were actually called Clowns in the dramatis personae. Somehow, Kelly’s portrayal makes me wish to see her tossing Yorick’s skull one day.

 

Shakespeare Pens a Sitcom

Theater Review: The Comedy of Errors

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Up on North Tryon Street at NoDa Brewing Company, Chickspeare is flipping the script again.

Founded upon the principle that Shakespeare’s works, originally performed by all-male companies in Merrie Olde England, can also be performed by all-female companies in Modern America, Chickspeare now propounds a new heresy. Although the Bard’s first great work, The Comedy of Errors, has its roots in Ancient Rome, why can’t we equate this trusty old farce with our own dopey TV sitcoms?

Executing this audacious concept, Chickspeare director Andrea King decrees a modicum of pruning and reshaping upon the script, along with hefty helpings of mugging, styling, and profiling from her hambone cast. If that weren’t enough to win us over — and it definitely was last Saturday night — then there’s the prepaid cupful of NoDa Brewing’s draft beer to further lubricate our receptivity. Four different brews were flowing from the kegs.

As the old story unfolds in modern dress, linkage to American sitcoms comes largely through familiar theme songs. When the luckless Egeon tells how his twin sons, both named Antipholus, were separated during infancy along with their parents, the fateful sea voyage is evoked by the familiar shipwreck of The Minnow immortalized in the ballad of Gilligan’s Island — plus an extremely cheesy scene change. Later when Antipholus of Syracuse marvels at the fact that everyone recognizes him in Ephesus, where he has never been before, his astonishment is punctuated by the theme song from Cheers, that Boston pub where everybody knows your name.

Action comes fast and quick in this Shakespeare in the Park(ing Lot) production, so I didn’t keep track of all the sitcom and game-show themes that zoomed by, or whether references to The Jeffersons, Mission Impossible, Laverne and Shirley, and The Beverly Hillbillies were linked quite as cunningly to the text. These “Chicksbeer” shows are all outdoors, with a nearby food truck supplementing the brewery offerings, but the evening performances beginning at 7 p.m. make some extra buffoonery possible as the Ephesian nitwits take multiple stabs at pointing to the setting sun.

Two sets of identical twins scurry about during this carnival of confusion, for the two Antipholuses are served by two Dromios who were also separated during infancy. Their befuddlement can only be sustained if they don’t meet, so it isn’t until deep in act five that all four of our protagonists must appear simultaneously before us. Historically, directors have relied upon actors’ height, costumes, and grooming to bridge the inevitable gap in physical appearances. Only recently have I seen or heard of directors who explore the comic possibilities of radically mismatching the identical twins.

King adopts yet another strategy. Perhaps inspired by her own recent experience in PaperHouse Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing, where she was briefly Dogberry and Leonato simultaneously, King has cast Caroline Renfro as both Antipholuses and Tania Kelly as both Dromios. Talk about flipping the script! In most productions of Comedy of Errors, we’re challenged to perceive the twins as identical in spite of their obvious physical differences. At the NoDa Brewing Company parking lot, we’re challenged to keep track of which identical twin is which.

A couple of visual aids are helpful. When Kelly is the Dromio who dwells in Ephesus, she dons a dopey floppy hat, and when Renfro appears as the Syracusan Antipholus, she flips out a Clark Kent set of eyeglass frames. As you’ll see in the zany staging of her nativity, this Antipholus was actually born with eyeglasses. Additionally, the philandering Antipholus of Ephesus seems to be tipsy for nearly the whole evening.

Chickspeare (Photo by Weldon Weaver)

That extra degree of differentiation for Renfro seems justified. With all the thankless errands, unjust castigations, and slapstick beatings that Kelly absorbs as the two Dromios, it eventually ceases to matter which whipping boy is drawing the belly laughs. Except when Dromio of Syracuse is pursued by the amply padded Carmen Bartlett as Nell, Antipholus of Ephesus’ kitchen maid — and his manservant’s massive wife.

Kelly works up a delightful lather as she gets most of the shtick, but Renfro generates her share of zaniness, perhaps most memorably when she picks up a mic-like prop and hosts an impromptu segment of … let’s call it The Dating Game. Antipholus of Syracuse is less hotly pursued by his twin’s wife, but the scantily clad Alexandria White definitively stamps herself as the hottie of the house as Adriana, spurned though she might be by the look-alike Antipholus while her real husband is cheating on her.

Theme music from Bewitched may have been cued up when the alluring Adriana invited her Syracuse brother-in-law to her home for dinner. Not only can’t Antipholus believe his good fortune, he is smitten by Adriana’s sister, Luciana. Some of the juice seems to be drained from this faux love triangle to trim this production to its desired running time, so we miss some of the sisters’ consternation when the Syracusan obeys his instincts and speaks his heart. Likewise, Dromio of Syracuse’s eventual relief seemed to overshadow his master’s delight in the denouement.

So Kacy Southerland didn’t get the fullest opportunity to explore the virtues of Luciana — or their ultimate reward. But she moonlights as Amelia, the local abbess, so she can lavish additional virtue on Egeon’s long-lost wife and gush forth the bliss of her reunion with her children and her husband.

Arrested in the opening scene for being a Syracusan on Ephesian soil, Amanda Liles isn’t seen much as Egeon after narrating the hilarious sea saga that sets up the plot. Not to fear, she resurfaces as the frustrated goldsmith, Angelo, who can’t get paid for the necklace he fashions for the philandering Antipholus — and as the courtesan he’s two-timing with. Of course, Egeon must be there for the sentimental reunions, so Liles has her schizoid moment, splitting into Angelo as all is settled.

Cara Wood is the Duke of Ephesus, who — mercifully? — grants Egeon 24 hours to raise the ransom money that will enable him to avoid execution for his trespass. We need more Duke at the end when the terrified Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio take refuge at the Abbey and the implacable Adriana wants her husband back. Wood tosses off the Duke — and an arresting officer in the necklace affair — with far more distinction than we usually see, never detracting from the merry mood.

Chickspeare has a knack for broadly entertaining while duly honoring the Bard, making the texts accessible to common folk four centuries after they played to the groundlings.

Symptomatic of the troupe’s sure touch here is how they treat the often intimidating soliloquies. Instead of making them occasions for declamatory orations, they’re prerecorded and presented as interior monologues, brought down to the level of cartoonish thought bubbles that pop with crass and delicious effervescence.

Yeah, the Chix banditas understand what contemporary audiences crave, and their Chicksbeer series deftly taps in.