Tag Archives: Three Bone Theatre

Paige Johnston Thomas (1968-2020)

Paige Johnston Thomas – Dynamic actor, director, casting agent, board member, and fundraiser

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When Paige Johnston made her Charlotte Rep debut in 1995, she was 26 years old, exactly the same age as the character she portrayed in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Can you imagine the thrill? The other two tall ladies were Lucille Patton, reprising the role I’d seen her play on Broadway the previous November, and Mary Lucy Bivins, at the start of her two-year reign as Creative Loafing Actress of the Year.

Paige held her own – and went on to carve a special place in Charlotte’s theatre scene as an actor, director, casting agent, and as a board member. CAST’s most successful fundraiser, from what I heard. After marrying ace videographer Jay Thomas 13 years ago, Paige Johnston Thomas almost made it to the same age Bivins was supposed to be, dying early last week of a rare form of cancer, compounded by liver disease, at the age 0f 51.

It wasn’t a one-sided battle. Less than a year ago, Thomas was being hailed for conquering cancer as she directed the local premiere of J.T. Rogers’ Oslo, winner of the 2017 Tony Award for Best New Play. Deploying a large cast on a key episode in the endless conflicts in the Middle East – when peace blazed as a real possibility – in Norway, of all places! – the poignancy and hope of Oslo certainly wasn’t a low-energy project. Directing it wasn’t for beginners.IMG_7076

The career highlights on the road to Oslo with Three Bone Theatre included her devastating turn as Elvira in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit (2003) at Theatre Charlotte. As a director at CAST, Thomas is most fondly remembered for dark play (2008) and No Exit (2009). Steel Magnolias (2010), the female Odd Couple (2012), and The Miracle Worker (2016) were probably her most resounding Theatre Charlotte hits. The local premiere of Three Days of Rain (2017) with Charlotte’s Off-Broadway was a handsome calling card prior to Thomas’s Oslo gig.

Yeah, the sun was shining a year ago – seemingly on an unclouded future – as Johnston was in rehearsals for Oslo. Here is the interview we did, along with excerpts from Q&A’s that I did with a few cast members.

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Queen City Nerve: How did you become involved in directing Oslo for Three Bone Theatre? Were you familiar with the script before you were asked to come aboard?

Paige Johnston Thomas: About a year and a half ago, I received a call from Robin [Tynes-Miller] about helming this project. I had been very aware of Three Bone and the success that Robin and Becky [Schultz] had been enjoying. I also loved that they teamed up with a community partner for each show, which I found made their company really unique in the world of theatre. Also, the fact that their tag line was “To succeed in life you need three things – a wishbone, a backbone, and a funny bone” – always cracked me up, yet resonated strongly with me! I was familiar with Oslo and its successful run on Broadway, but I had not read the script or seen the play when they reached out to me.

Not ignoring the logistical problems of coordinating rehearsals for a cast of 15, what are the special challenges of directing Oslo?

Thomas: Yes, the rehearsal schedule for 15 cast members was quite the challenge. But so was planning rehearsals for 15 people for 65 scenes! As they say in the theatre, “I was told there’d be no math!” Many of the scenes are short, moving the story along briskly, but working on the rehearsal schedule was intense. Even before undertaking the schedule, one of my first challenges was the subject matter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It seemed such an onerous undertaking, and I had two main concerns: I worried if my knowledge and comprehension of the conflict were up to the task, and was this process going to be arduous and depressing because of the subject matter.

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But both those concerns quickly dissipated once I delved in to the script. Yes, as a director I was going to need to know the details of the conflict, and by starting my research early, I felt confident I could arrive to rehearsals prepared. But the beauty of the script is that it naturally reveals the necessary history and details needed to follow the story. One doesn’t need to know much, if anything, about the dissension between the two parties. And my concern about it being arduous and depressing were quelled once I realized that this is a story of hope, a story of success, and a story of the human spirit persevering through adversity. And thankfully, playwright J.T. Rogers has weaved in humor and witty badinage to keep the audience entertained and connected.

Are you thinking that the tortuous path to conflict resolution that happened in Oslo is in any way analogous/applicable to the polarization in American politics today – can we carry away any optimism after watching Oslo, or will seeing it deepen our sense of urgency and despair?

Thomas: Oslo is ultimately an optimistic play. It is filled with moments of solidarity, connection, and understanding; all the while underscored with the backdrop of hatred and distrust. Even more than when it opened on Broadway, I feel this play is extremely relevant and crucial in today’s political climate. How did two warring factions come together to forge an understanding? The play deals specifically with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which is still rearing its ugly head daily, but it is also dealing with the idea of peace, with the possibility of peace, and the hope for peace. Those themes are broader and relate to our American political parties, our foreign policies, and even to our smaller, but not less important, personal interactions. I hope our audience members leave the theatre with a sense of action and insight and see, like the characters in the play, that there is the possibility of peace and understanding even in the face of formidable obstacles.

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QC Nerve: How do you see Mona as a person? She seems both exciting and enigmatic on the page to me, frustratingly cautious one minute, brilliantly resourceful the next, with no obvious partialities either way in the Middle East conflict. Did you need to research her to see what made her tick, or did you simply rely on the script and/or Kat Martin’s dramaturgy instead?

Tonya Bludsworth (Mona Juul in Oslo): Mona is certainly all those things and she has been so much fun to figure out as a character. I did some research about her on my own, but Kat Martin was definitely an invaluable resource. Kat is a rock star in my book. Her dramaturgy packet was so detailed and chock full of information on the history of the conflict and the people involved. That information gave all of us a solid foundation on which to build our characters and the show. That said, I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t just imitating Mona and our director, Paige Thomas, has been so great to work with in that regard. We wanted to make sure that Mona was not just a narrator or stern politician. She carries a lot of emotional weight and even though she is adamant about neutrality she also feels the importance of the situation and the opportunity, and she genuinely hopes that this “process” will make a difference for all sides.

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QC Nerve: What impacts have the J.T. Rogers script, Paige Johnston Thomas’ directing, and Kat Martin’s dramaturgy had in developing your performance?

Victor Sayegh (Ahmed Qurie in Oslo): Rogers’ script is a beautiful tapestry of conflict, personal relationships, mistrust and humor. It is important to remember that, although the people portrayed in this play are real people, the words they speak are entirely the playwright’s. And he has done a beautiful job of portraying their roles in the story and their humanity without watering down their resolve. Qurie in particular is almost poetic in his language and there are lines he/I speak that touch my heart as the words leave my lips. Working under Paige’s direction also played into my interest in this project, and it has been a wonderful experience. She provides the perfect balance of direction and the freedom to make our own choices for our characters. Like the peace process itself, it has been an intense collaboration. Kat’s dramaturgy has allowed all of us to be immersed in the history of this conflict. She consistently reminds us all of the historical background that shaped each of our characters.

Going through the rehearsal process and Ahmed’s character arc night after night, does it get increasingly difficult each night to start out with the same degree of hatred and distrust every night towards characters/actors you’ve become accustomed to? What’s the secret to keeping your edge fresh?

Sayegh: This has been a challenge for me. Not only because of the many emotional ups and downs of the script, but also because Qurie often has an ulterior motive behind his words. He is very calculated. Like a poker player, he never lets his face give away his hand. Paige’s rehearsal process is very specific and organized. She has broken down the entire play into 67 scenes. Each night we know what scene or scenes we will be rehearsing. Therefore, I prepare myself each night by reliving what happened prior to that scene (the cards in my hand) as well as what I want to portray (my poker face).

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QC Nerve: Are you tackling the singular Israeli accent in your portrayals, or is the cast steering clear of such minefields?

Dennis Delamar (Shimon Peres and Yair Hirschfield in Oslo): I enjoy trying to fine-tune an accent, and I was up for the Peres/Hirschfeld challenge, but Paige made the directorial decision for us not to use accents, to “steer clear of such minefields,” which I understand and respect. There are a few times accents are used because they are necessary for the humor in a scene (usually Norwegian), but for the most part, we are all using straightforward standard English dialect. However, there are places in the script where the playwright has us actually speaking a line or two in Arabic, Hebrew or Norwegian for a desired effect, which I find enjoyable. I am very proud of my one line of Hebrew I hopefully mastered, which I speak to Anne Lambert as Toril, the Norwegian chef who serves all us men her specialty, waffles from her mother’s recipe. Paige was able to get dialectician Fiona Jones to provide us with translations and pronunciations of names and cities, quite a help.

In a diverse cast working on a taut, dramatic script, were there any outbreaks of arguments or hostilities between members of the cast during the heat of rehearsals – or were these subsumed by politeness and professionalism?

Delamar: I have not observed any outbreaks of hostility between members of the cast during rehearsals. Professional, polite, committed to finding the truth in the scene and the point of view of the character we were each playing have seemed to be our standards and primary goals. I’ve really appreciated the way Paige approached each scene from the outset with reinforcement from Kat the dramaturg at the table with the facts and the reminder to us, only speak for yourself, not anyone else’s character. We were encouraged to respect and try to understand other characters’ differences, as we analyzed how our characters were feeling and why. The honesty we have developed in our dramatic scenes have been informed intelligently by dialogue at the table before we have put each scene on its feet. There was a delicate and respectful dance preceding the often-explosive interchanges, helping with the ease and success of these scenes.

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How much work was it to see how incredible the Oslo process was from an Israeli point of view? How did the J.T. Rogers script, Paige’s direction, and Kat Martin’s dramaturgy contribute to properly shaping your mindset?

Delamar: I knew I was in for something special when this large cast of talent, many new faces to the Charlotte scene, showed up for the first read-through. My task, to find and appreciate the Israeli point of view was helped considerably by Paige’s guidance and the in-depth research provided by Kat Martin, our dramaturg. First, she provided articles and history on each of our characters, also the history of this part of the world, the Palestinians, the Israelis and the sequence of events before and after the Peace Accord. All helpful in understanding the Israeli point of view.

Links to documentaries and footage of interviews were also beneficial, although I got to a point I couldn’t watch them all. As I mentioned earlier, the playwright’s text also took me to that “point of view” awareness with some thoughtful analysis and good table discussion with the team. I found myself reading everything I could on Hirschfeld and Peres, of course, the two Israeli officials I am entrusted with playing. Such respect developed for their lifetime commitment to their cause and the State of Israel. When you play real human beings, there is a responsibility to bring life to their portrayals. Not a “spot on” impersonation, but achieving some sort of essence and dignity in their words and actions have been my goals.

Photos by Jay Thomas and courtesy of Theatre Charlotte

 

Grit and Endurance at Birkenau – and Urgency Today

Review: Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042

By Perry Tannenbaum

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For those of us who didn’t endure or survive it, talking about the Holocaust can be awkward, uncomfortable, and disturbing. I should know: Invited to a 1991 production of I Never Saw Another Butterfly by Children’s Theatre, my own uncle – brought to Charlotte as a pre-eminent authority on gifted children – turned down the opportunity to see a fine Teen Ensemble in action. Very likely, the I in the title was the biggest red flag for Uncle Abe – the threat of hearing a first-hand account of the horrors, the inhumanity, and the suffering. Even from teens.

Ah, but what if you weren’t the child of Jewish American immigrants, safe from the Nazi killing machine and the misfortunes of growing up Jewish inside the Third Reich? If you had grown up Jewish in Berlin and Vienna, if you had seen the belly of the beast as a concentration camp prisoner at Auschwitz and Birkenau, smelled the smoke of the crematorium from the moment you arrived, dreaded every morning roll call, and reverted to your animal instincts just to survive – even then, after surviving this unfathomable ordeal, you’re unlikely to feel comfortable talking about it.

Come to Duke Energy Theater and you’ll see why.

The screening of Surviving Birkenau at the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival late last month was a preliminary reminder. Like Three Bone Theatre’s world premiere of Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042, now at Spirit Square through Sunday, Ron Small’s documentary was all about the early life of Dr. Susan Cerynak-Spatz and how she managed to outlast her brutal captors – ultimately escaping Adolph Hitler’s infamous “final solution.”

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After the film, there was a panel discussion and time set aside for audience questions. Among those on the panel were Three Bone Theatre artistic director Robin Tynes-Miller, Charles LaBorde, the actor-playwright-educator who adapted Cernyak-Spatz’s memoir, and Dennis Delamar, who is directing it. Joining the panel was Jackie Fishman, Cernyak-Spatz’s daughter, who had appeared briefly during the film and was instrumental in greenlighting the new play.

It was Fishman who inadvertently delineated the key difference between the Cernyak-Spatz we had just seen onscreen at the Levine Jewish Community Center and the one who I would see portrayed at Duke Energy the following week. Asked about how her mom had discussed the Holocaust in their home while she was growing up, Fishman recalled that the subject was rarely mentioned. Avoided.

We had just watched a woman who, already well into her 90’s when Surviving Birkenau was filmed, had spoken – and as a UNC Charlotte professor, lectured – all over the US and around the world for decades about her Holocaust experiences and studies. She hadn’t been at all uncomfortable about doing so once again for the cameras. The woman that LaBorde would have us meet, Leslie Giles playing the role, is 40-something according to the script, about the same age Cernyak-Spatz was when she and Fishman attended the same Midwest college together.

[Getting an actress who could replicate the 97-year-old today is borderline impossible. Recently felled by a stroke, Cernyak-Spatz willed herself out of her sickbed and attended last Sunday evening’s performance. Brava, Susan!]

What LaBorde has done, taking the author who published her memoir in 2005 and making her some 40 years younger, isn’t exactly unusual for adaptations we see onstage, in movies, or in opera. But when you’re dealing with Holocaust material, the discomfort factor needs to be part of your calculus.

For LaBorde, audience discomfort is definitely a consideration. You can see it and hear it as the play begins. But what LaBorde, Giles, and Delamar didn’t calibrate – or consider – was Susan’s discomfort four decades earlier.

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Instead of immediately plunging us into the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938 and all that she and millions of other Jews experienced after that, in a gradual crescendo of horrific inhumanity, Susan introduces us to a rack of clothes that – with a Dresser, portrayed by Paula Baldwin – will help her to guide us through all the major transformations that befell her from the days of her relatively idyllic childhood in Vienna onwards. It was during the lighter pleasantries opening the show that Giles faced what nobody had anticipated.

Whether it was because so many theatrefolk were in the audience on opening night or because of the grim subject, this wasn’t the kind of crowd that shouted back a greeting if you started off with a “Good evening!” or a hearty hello, Nothing came out of us in response to Susan’s welcome. Not even enough for Giles to come back with the obligatory, “Aw, you can do better than that!”

It was an awkward moment – but also a momentary glimpse of what we would see if we were being addressed by a Susan who had real trepidations about broaching a story that might be uncomfortable or disturbing for us to hear. Or for her to relive. Giles proceeded to tell Susan’s story with all the confidence that’s on the pages of the original Protective Custody memoir, in a voice that, benefiting from fruitful time spent with Cernyak-Spatz’s audiobook, occasionally replicated Susan’s with chilling accuracy.

And what a story it was, a powerful no-bull account of what life was like in the showcase Theresienstadt camp and the more harrowing living conditions at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Nor was there any sugarcoating of what it took from Susan to survive. Actually, the show is pretty amazing when you consider that Three Bone Theatre skipped the preliminary processes of a full staged reading or an intermediate workshop version. The entire production team was learning for the first time how an audience would react to the full script.

All that I saw on opening night was at a surprisingly advanced state of development. LaBorde, Giles, and Delamar have delivered far more than a mere chronology of a descent into hell. There are a couple of times when the highly detailed narrative is paused. One happens when Susan ponders how a bad decision by her mom changed the course of both their lives – and poisoned Susan’s attitude towards her to this day. Another recounts how Susan lost her faith in God.

Giles makes these into moments that challenge us – and LaBorde gives her another at the end of the evening when Susan turns her unflinching gaze on today’s world and the question of whether we have learned anything from the history she has devoted her life to preserving. She frames the Never again question in a way calculated to make us uncomfortable one last time.

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More moments such as these, with Susan speaking her heart, voicing her sense of urgency, or simply engaging us directly would help in fleshing out Prisoner 34042, which now has a somewhat boney 80-minute runtime. I’ll be surer of whether LaBorde has mined all the details from the memoir to give his drama maximum power when I finish the ebook, but what I’ve already read convinces me that the task of distilling the book was as daunting as he has said.

Paying more attention to the drama inherent in becoming comfortable with the Holocaust conversation – or at least usefully informed by it – might also turn up the temperature, but there were also times that I felt more dialogue between the two women onstage could spark more tension, light and warmth. Even though she rarely spoke, Baldwin brought me some of the most touching drama of the evening. Curiously enough, her most affecting moments came at the end, when she ditched her Euro accents and became a couple of Americans who welcomed Susan to freedom. Choked me up.

Of course, we can credit much of Baldwin’s liberating impact to the vivid narrative Cernyak-Spatz had written, LaBorde had adapted, and Giles had so deeply immersed herself in, taking her audience along with her on her journey. Already portraying Susan’s mom and various Nazi jackboots, Baldwin could be helping to make Giles’ journey even more intense along the way. But I won’t disagree with anyone who emerges from Spirit Square feeling that Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042 is informative, intense, and impactful enough as it stands.

Disturbing? I hope so.

Recapturing Old Hostilities – and the Path to Peace

Preview:  Three Bone Theatre Production of Oslo

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Peace and the Middle East – they just don’t seem to belong in the same sentence, do they? Every week, we hear about a new flareup, a new conflict, a new bombing, and more death. So it’s timely that Oslo, the 2017 Tony Award winner for Best Play by J.T. Rogers, will be opening this week at Spirit Square. The Three Bone Theatre production, a Charlotte area premiere, revisits the back-channel talks that led to the historic handshake between Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.

Simpler, more innocent times – before we were educated (superficially, of course) about Sunnis and Shiites, before Americans discovered we despised Iran as much as Iraq, before Al Qaeda, 9-11, ISIS, beheadings, and chemical warfare. Long ago.

Beginning with a guerilla production of The Vagina Monologues at the WineUp wine loft in NoDa six years ago, Three Bone has grown gradually to the point where artistic director Robin Tynes feels ready for the challenge. Ready or not, Oslo is a substantial stretch for Three Bone.

There are more than 20 roles in Oslo, and most of 15 players covering them are making their company debuts. Actors in both the Israeli and Palestinian delegations need to feel the distrust and animosity of each side toward the other, travel the compressed journey to understanding and agreement in Rogers’ script, and repeat that three-hour odyssey – starting all over again with the same ferocious edge – night after night in performance.

That journey gets rockier if you’re fielding a diverse cast of Jews, Muslims, and Christians who come to the table with their own settled views. Respecting diversity had to go hand-in-hand with respecting the values of each performer’s time.

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“Yes, the rehearsal schedule was quite the challenge,” says director Paige Johnston Thomas, “15 people for 65 scenes! As they say in the theatre: I was told there’d be no math!”

Thomas, a fixture on the local scene for over 20 years, is making her debut with Three Bone. Kat Martin, brought aboard as assistant director and dramaturg, hasn’t worked at any theatre company before in the QC – and she’s drawing “rock star” accolades for her work in her Charlotte debut.

“Although I am not a Middle East expert,” says Martin, “a dramaturg’s job is to become an expert quickly then create points of entry for deepened understanding for creatives as well as community members.”

A dramaturg’s outreach to the community, after briefing directors and performers, often takes the form of explanatory materials in the show’s playbill. Martin’s involvement has been more proactive, involving the Oslo cast during her search for historical contexts. She began by speaking with John Cox, associate professor of Holocaust, genocide & human rights studies at UNC-Charlotte, who encouraged her to create a dramaturgy day where actors could listen and learn from community stakeholders like Palestinian activist Rose Hamid and Rabbi Judy Schindler, director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice.

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That solid core was augmented by the participation of former Israeli soldier Stefan Pienkny, a veteran of the 1967 war, and two Palestinian refugees, Wafa Omran and Khalid Hijazi. Rounding out her gathering – and acknowledging the all-important peacemaking perspective of the Norwegians – Martin also invited facilitation expert Candice Langston, managing director of The Lee Institute.

“My biggest challenge was to keep the research real,” Martin emphasizes, “so I wanted to cultivate information for the cast while also making sure they were learning with their gut.” The three-hour crash course she organized for dramaturgy day began with Cox reviewing the historical background and Langston addressing the topic of building community dialogue.

Then there were hourlong small group meetups that paired the Israelis and Palestinians in the cast with the community stakeholders who represent those points of view. At the same time, actors cast as Norwegians lingered with Langston for more info on facilitating high-level negotiations. Climaxing the evening, the whole cast gathered together right after ingesting an hour of diverging partisan viewpoints, plunging into exercises designed to simulate the process of bridging those gaps, understanding the “other,” and finding common ground.

It was intense.

“An evening as an actor I won’t forget,” says Dennis Delamar, who will portray Yair Hircshfeld, one of the back-channel negotiators, and Shimon Peres, the foreign minister who would share the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Arafat after the Accords were signed. “The evening focused on lived experiences, personal stories, facts, and some tears I observed which were quite integral in shaping my mindset. Stakes were definitely raised. I loved every minute of it.”

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Peres doesn’t enter until well after intermission. A political rival of Rabin, he keeps the Oslo talks secret – because he knows the Prime Minister will reject any agreement that isn’t airtight. It must be an offer that cannot be refused. Until the Israelis are close to that, no member of the government can be seen talking to the Palestinians. Needless to say, the Americans engaged in their endless fruitless talks must also be kept in the dark.

So that’s why Delamar is Hirschfeld all through the opening act – an economics professor at the U of Haifa!

“I connect with and enjoy playing Yair’s passion and intellect,” he says, “but also a certain amount of humor J.T. Rogers developed with this character. Sometimes he is out of his depths in the negotiations, but he’s never without a passion for the grave reason he’s there, fully invested in the outcome, proud of his part in the start of it all. I’ve enjoyed making him relatable in an endearing and real way.”

Yes, there are comical moments that leaven the animosities and tensions, but there are thriller elements aplenty. The possibility of ruining Peres’s political fortunes keeps the Israelis on edge, while for Mona Juul and Terje Rød-Larsen, the Norwegians pushing negotiations forward, getting their government to buy into the process – knowing they must keep the Americans in the dark – ratchets up their anxieties.

For the Palestinian delegation, PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurie and PLO liaison Hassan Asfour, secrecy is a matter of life-or-death. Only Arafat knows about these talks and how they’re progressing.

Vic Sayegh will take on the role of Qurie. Although he the mellower, less militant of the two Palestinians, he’s a radical departure for an actor whose QC credits began in 2003 with appearances in Steve Martin’s The Underpants and Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party. There’s no Kanaka shtick here, but there is a certain amount of savoir faire.

And the Palestinian does provide some comedy when he lets his guard down. Before encountering Hirschfeld in London for the first time, he confides to Larsen, his intermediary: “I have never met an Israeli. Face-to-face.”

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Very unique comedy, typical of the tensions Oslo whips up. But the finance minister quickly recovers in Hirschfeld’s presence, informing him that he hasn’t been to his homeland since 1967 when his whole village was forced to flee from “the advancing hordes of Zionism.” Awkwardness turns to polite hostility in a flash.

“Qurie often has an ulterior motive behind his words,” Sayegh notes. “He is very calculated. Like a poker player, he never lets his face give away his hand.”

Poker-faced or not, Sayegh sees Qurie’s motivations as deep and honorable. He’s relating them to his own experiences and heritage.

“As a young man, I remember meeting people who were Palestinian and subsequently looking for Palestine on a map,” Sayegh reminisces. “I would ask myself why they called a place that no longer existed, ‘home.’ Now I understand. Personally, my paternal grandparents were born in Aleppo, Syria. It was once a beautiful region of the world, but many years of conflict have reduced it to rubble. I hope that one day, peace in the entire region will allow me to visit the land of my ancestors.”

While Terje is the visionary who devises a successful model for conflict resolution – with a mixture dogged determination and quixotic optimism to keep it going – it’s the calm, meticulous, and brilliantly resourceful Mona who steers her husband around the political complications that threaten to scuttle his mission. Fresh on the heels of her pivotal role in the world premiere of Steven Dietz’s The Great Beyond, Tonya Bludsworth takes on the role of this unsung hero who buoyed her husband’s confidence while clearing his path.

“Prior to reading Oslo,” says Bludsworth of her journey, “I’m sure I felt like most Americans, that peace in the Middle East is not likely to ever really happen. But I was in tears when I first read the script, not because I was sad, but because I was overwhelmed by this incredible feeling of hope, and I still feel it every night in rehearsal. As Terje says, if we could just get past the politics and see the people, the personal, then there is a way.”

Subversive Energy Still Ignites “Fahrenheit 451”

Review:  Fahrenheit 451

By Perry Tannenbaum

Each time Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 returns to Charlotte, it seems like a telltale barometer: how much closer have we come to fulfilling its grim dystopian vision – or how much further have we mercifully drifted away? Book burning and other assaults on culture may have been more virulent when the sci-fi classic was last served up at Children’s Theatre in 2005, when Taliban desecrations flamed our anger, or as recently as 2015, when ISIS insanity ruled Mosul and Palmyra.

With Kindle and Google Books, the concern nowadays seems more centered on physical books and booksellers, for notwithstanding the proud illiteracy of the toxic Agent Orange 45 – who still knows words, mind you – reading and literature appear safe for now. The battlefront seems to have shifted to information, reporting, and science. In Charlotte, the culture wars played out at local theatres back in the 90s have been upstaged by anti-LGBT initiatives in the state legislature and racial profiling on the streets.

Because of the complex crisscrossing of events in Charlotte and Charlottesville in the past few months, it gets pretty murky when we attempt to draw a sharp parallel between the firefighters that Bradbury’s hero, Guy Montag, breaks away from and the police of today. It was the protestors, after all, who carried the intimidating torches up in Virginia while police meekly looked on.

Forget the Charlottesville hullabaloo, then, if you go to see the Bradbury combustion up at Spirit Square in a crackling Three Bone Theatre production, for the company surely programmed 451 at Duke Energy Theatre between the Charlotte and Charlottesville riots.

Of course, while times inevitably have changed, productions will add another layer of difference, depending on the company and the director. Compared to the Children’s Theatre productions of 1993 and 2005, we get the full Bradbury stage adaptation now. Three Bone’s adds over 40 minutes, clocking in at 2:21, including intermission. The other big changes are the leading men that director Charles LaBorde has chosen.

With Harry Jones Jr. as Montag facing off against Thom Tonetti as Chief Beatty, we have a clash of physical titans that we haven’t seen before, both firefighters looking more like hard-working enforcers. Greater contrasts are also drawn between youth and age, innocence and experience, ignorance and knowledge. Mark Sutton could do many things onstage as Montag, but looming before us as physically – or vocally – intimidating wasn’t one of them. His early ignorance looked comparatively slack-jawed or nebbishy, slightly endearing.

Now we can see Montag as not only ignorant but also devolved and brutish. When Beatty warns that any influx of knowledge or enlightenment gained from reading will instantly register on Jones’s face, we believe it. He and the mass of mankind have evidently regressed so far that taking the first bite of the contents of a book is like beginning all over again – in a biblical or Darwinian sense.

Tonetti can roar nearly as loudly as Jones, and if he certainly isn’t any more rugged as Beatty than Scott Helm was in 2005, he has the advantage of more years to make him seem more experienced, scruffier, more cynical, and more embittered. Helm’s version of the fire chief was cooler, more inscrutable, while Tonetti is a hot boiling mess. He is erudite, filled with forbidden knowledge, and like God in Eden, able to smell the onset of intellect. But ambivalence rages within Beatty, set in his commitment to firefighting yet never able to fully vanquish the notion that he has made the wrong choice.

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Written in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 isn’t prescient about women’s advances in the future, but Bradbury was writing about a dystopian America, so we’re likely to give him a pass. LaBorde plants some women among the firefighters, and Bradbury’s main women, though not in the workforce, are interesting and varied. Mildred Montag, Guy’s wife, is the most conventional, unquestioning in her devotion to pills and brainless TV pap. Lisa Hatt as Mildred is mindless and sedated enough to be a likely source of Guy’s smoldering discontent.

Interestingly, there is a lax acceptance by Mildred and her neighbors of Montag’s predilection toward books. They’ll let it slide until Montag rocks the boat.

Near the Montags, a neighbor lady is found to have a vast home library that must be incinerated. Angie Cee gets a fine cameo as Mrs. Hudson, the library lady willing to burn with her beloved books, playing her with a memorable wild-eyed zeal – and just a trace of motherly love. Her martyrdom certainly gives Montag the inescapable notion that there might be something in books worth dying for.

Montag’s discontents at home and on the job make him vulnerable to the probing and teasing of his rebellious misfit neighbor, Clarisse. It’s a role that works well with the raffish delicacy that Stefani Cronley brings to it. Cronley becomes a dear and lively enough mentor to Montag for us to feel some of the same emptiness he feels when she disappears.

Perhaps the finest character Bradbury created in Fahrenheit 451 was the crazed fugitive outlaw, Faber. Somebody needs to register the horror of what has happened in America, and somebody needs to have an inkling about what can still be done. Bill Reilly brings a wild unkempt fervor to Faber, a catlike cunning wrapped into his cowardice and a divine spark twinkling in his despair. Mankind’s survival hangs on a slender thread, and he’s it – unless Montag and others like him can work out as recruits.

Like the Johann Stegmeir design concept for the 2005 Fahrenheit, Ryan Maloney’s set design and Ramsey Lyric’s costumes for Three Bone are not averse to the idea that we have entered a nuclear winter as well as an intellectual one. Other novelists have played with the idea that nuclear catastrophe might bring about reactionary rejection of science and culture. In Bradbury’s futureworld, nobody seems to know what exactly brought us to this, and that’s part of what makes it so sad.

Selling Elegance, Spirit, and History for Just a Song

Theatre Reviews: I Love a Piano: The Music of Irving Berlin and The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence

CPCCILoveAPiano6[7]

After its most lavish and extravagant production ever, last November’s The Phantom of the Opera, what was CPCC Theatre going to do to follow up? Well, since the laws of mathematics and the logic of budgets still apply on Elizabeth Avenue, the answer was simple: economize! Rolling into the parking garage, where the second story was unusually unoccupied, I was worried the audience for I Love a Piano: The Music of Irving Berlin would be as drastically reduced as CP’s expenditures.

Not to worry, I didn’t find that many more empty seats at Halton Theater last Saturday night than I saw at last February’s How to Succeed. More importantly, considering the relative merits of Berlin and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the show attracted a competitive enough turnout at auditions to yield a cast that is worthy of the music — including holdover Ryan Deal, who you may recall in the title role of The Phantom.

Like the audience, the orchestra isn’t reduced quite as much as the funding, a quintet led by music director Ellen Robison from the keyboard. They’re a busy bunch, accompanying the cast — all six of them triple threats to various degrees — through a songbook that includes 53 different titles. A few of these songs are reprised, and at one point, when Andy Faulkenberry’s “The Girl That I Marry” is juxtaposed with Corinne Littlefield’s “Old Fashioned Wedding” — while J. Michael Beech and Megan Postle are teaming up on the counterpoint of “You’re Just in Love” — there are four different vocalists onstage singing four different melodies simultaneously.

Conceived by Ray Roderick and arranger Michael Berkeley, Love a Piano never says Berlin’s name out loud. But the 11 scenes, beginning with Tin Pan Alley in 1910 and ending in a summer stock revival of Annie Get Your Gun in the late 1950’s, take us chronologically through the composer’s career. Or roughly so: “Old Fashioned Wedding” was written for the 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun, and you can bet the anachronisms don’t stop there.

With a generous portion of poetic license, the show sketches a musical portrait of a composer who was consistently able to mirror his times. The title tune, “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” take us back to a sepia-tinted era when rags roamed alongside sentimentality. As we cut from band shell to speakeasy, “Pack Up Your Sings and Go to the Devil” and “Everybody’s Doing It” evoke the wicked carefree spirit of the Roaring ’20s during Prohibition.

Two scenes are devoted to the ’30s, “Blue Skies” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” offering consolation during the onset of the Great Depression. Then a suite of dance tunes, including “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” and “Cheek to Cheek,” evokes the elegance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Thanks to Mel Brooks, the audience failed to take “Puttin’ on the Ritz” altogether seriously.

For some reason, Roderick — or perhaps CP’s director and choreographer, Ron Chisholm — bounced the heyday of dance marathons from the 1930s to the 1940s, sketching that lugubrious phenomenon with “Say It Isn’t So” and “How Deep Is the Ocean.” When we authentically reached the World War II era, it was quite obvious that Berlin more than reflected the hopes, the pride, and the humor of the times. He simply was these things, with a flowering of songs that included “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “This Is the Army,” “Any Bonds Today,” and “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.”

Even those left plenty of room to bring down the first-act curtain with two of Berlin’s most enduring songs, “White Christmas” and “God Bless America.” A more judicious dividing line would have been the beginning of WW2 toward the end of the ’30s. As it stands, Roderick drops a bunch of CARE packages on the 1950s, including “Easter Parade” from 1933 and everything attached to Berlin’s sharpshooting homage to Annie Oakley, which premiered in 1946.

I Love A Piano

Photos by Chris Record

James Duke’s scenic and lighting design, relying heavily on period slides and Berlin show posters projected onto three screens, move us gracefully from era to era. But it’s Debbie Scheu who most colorfully clinches the deal with her cavalcade of costume designs. Chisholm’s choreographic demands certainly tax his cast, with Littlefield and Faulkenberry negotiating their steps with the most apparent ease. On the other hand, while Postle and Beech looked like they might not be up to their challenges, both of them surprised me with their hoofing.

Deal and Kayla Ferguson were the remaining couple, most memorable in their “Blue Skies” duet. All six of the singers proved to be quite capable, not at all fazed by the spotlight, but Deal and Littlefield were my favorite soloists. The ensembles were often very lively and charming, but a special pinch of conflict was added in the summer stock tableau when Ferguson, Littlefield, and Postle all auditioned to be Annie opposite Faulkenberry’s Frank Butler.

“Anything You Can Do,” usually a comical face-off between Frank and Annie, is set up as an audition piece. So the comedy is reborn — as a rollicking showdown between three aspiring Annies.

Eliza and Watson 3

Time and reality bend in curious ways in The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, now at UpStage in NoDa through February 21. But so does playwright Madeleine George’s title, so what else would you expect?

Three rather curious Watsons that we’ve already heard of are trotted out and shuffled in Three Bone Theatre’s production, directed by Robin Tynes. The first of these is a relative, shall we say, of the Watson computer that defeated its human opponents on Jeopardy in 2011. Eliza, who collaborated with IBM on the victorious Watson, is now in her living room, working independently on a new android that sports a far more human body.

We travel back to the 19th century for the other two Watsons that we know. The first of these is the Watson summoned to Alexander Graham Bell’s side when Pa Bell invented the telephone, his assistant Thomas A. Watson. But we don’t really see him, either, on that historic day in 1876. Instead, it’s Alex repeatedly calling for him in brief blackout vignettes between other scenes. No, we must wait until 1931, when Watson goes on record at Bell Labs, insisting that what his boss really said was, “Mr. Watson — come here — I want you.”

The third or fourth Watson, depending on how you tally the computer chips, is more in control of his narrative, for this is the Dr. John H. Watson who ostensibly chronicles nearly all of the Conan Doyle adventures of Sherlock Holmes. You’ll find that Watson Intelligence is all about connections Ð personal and electrical — and vague connections between the android and Sherlock’s sidekick are established by a fifth Watson, a tech dweeb hired by Eliza’s ex-husband to spy on her.

Compounding the absurdities, Tynes has chosen a black actor, Devin Clark, to play the whitest sidekick in the history of literature. What’s more, Clark is perfection as all the Watsons, human and robotic, plus a special set of scenes where he dons Sherlock’s deerstalker cap. Chesson Kusterer-Seagroves crystallizes Watson’s role as the archetypal listener, pouring out her heart to the robot and the tech dweeb in modern times and bringing an intriguing mystery to Watson at Baker Street in Sherlock’s absence.

Ken Mitten rounds out the cast as Bell and the two Merricks who cause their Elizas so much distress. He’s a powerful stage presence, but I’m sure he’ll be even better when he’s more secure with his lines and cues.