Tag Archives: Tom Ollis

Miller’s “Crucible” Roars Its Power at CP

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

Review: The Crucible

By Perry Tannenbaum

Powerful men abound in the annals of drama, but few can vie with the formidability of Deputy-Governor Danforth in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Reminding the petitioning Francis Nurse just exactly whom he’s dealing with, he can honestly claim to have jailed nearly 400 people in various towns across Massachusetts with his signature – and sent 72 to the gallows with that many strokes of his pen.

“We burn a hot fire here,” he warns soon-to-be martyred John Proctor. “It melts down all concealment.”

If those declarations sound to you like they should be spoken softly, you are not reading them the way stage director Tom Hollis did for the current CPCC Theatre production at Pease Auditorium. Panoramic Pease is a challenging place acoustically, often frustrating audience members, especially the elderly, who chance to be seated in one of the side sections, trying to hear what actors are saying at the other end of the stage.

Anybody who has been reluctant to go to Pease, or stayed away because of that frustration is now encouraged to come back. There has never been such a roaring production at Pease – or anywhere else on the CPCC campus. It would be misleading to say that it begins with Tim Huffman, who gives a fearsome account of the Dep Governor in the climactic scene at the Salem Meeting House, ground zero of the infamous Salem Witch Trials. He doesn’t appear in the drama until the second scene after intermission, or Act 3 in the original script.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

We don’t hear anything about the full extent of Danforth’s rampage until he announces it himself, but the steady roar of the panicked citizens of Salem – and the shrieks of the pubescent girls who incredibly become their accusers – testify to the hysteria that has gripped the whole colony. Reverend Samuel Parris intrudes upon his servant Tituba leading a pagan moonlight ritual, with his daughter Betty and his niece Abigail Williams among her acolytes, in a marvelously creepy scene that Miller added to his 1953 script for his 1996 screenplay.

The secret of how that cinematic lagniappe was converted to stage may be locked in a local recipe, since the brief prologue isn’t referenced in the playbill’s rundown of the scenes. When we cut to the original opening scene in an upstairs bedroom of the Reverend’s home, Parris is huddled over the seemingly comatose Betty who will not waken since returning from her midnight revels. As great as Parris’s fears may be for his daughter’s life, his greatest fear is that the word “witchcraft” might be whispered around town about members of his family. His career is at stake.

The fear flips Reverend Parris from his initial condemnation of Betty and Abigail to becoming their staunchest supporter no matter how outrageously they overreach in their reign of terror. Cole Long may be giving us the most chilling performance here as Parris for he is never in the least soft-spoken. This rabid weasel speaks in a passionate, panicky squeal that threatens to shatter glass, most heinously in his waspish attacks upon John Proctor. Long’s high-voltage intemperance makes it easy for Huffman to become mightily annoyed with his zeal.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

Hollis also finds strong – yet sweet – voices for the two most important accusers: Sarah Clifford is the implacably wicked and wanton Abigail, and Ashley Gildersleeve is the ambivalent Mary Warren, the witness Proctor enlists to debunk Abigail’s masquerade. Interestingly, Mary is Abigail’s successor in the Proctor household, hired after Abigail was told to hit the road when she had committed adultery with a now-penitent John.

Clifford gives us a shameless and forceful Abigail. Hollis is wise to include the nocturnal confrontation between Abigail and Proctor, written by Miller for the stage shortly after the original Broadway production, for it reveals Clifford’s full range. Switches between Abigail’s vamping, seductive mode to her imperious affirmations of divine judicial authority can be played so abruptly that the wench can seem to have an insanely split personality. But Hollis and Clifford find the bridge between the two Aby’s in her arrogant self-confidence – she obviously has no doubt that John will ultimately succumb to her charms.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

Gildersleeve proves to us that Mary is also quite a powerful role, pulled ferociously hard in opposite directions by John and Abigail, pivotal in the outcome of the climactic court scene. Hollis is going against the usual impulse to cast Mary as a diminutive mouse who will cower in the proximity of the domineering Abigail. Making her more substantial magnifies the power of both adversaries who tug at her, and Hollis – not withstanding today’s political correctness – does not gloss over John’s abusiveness toward his servant.

The biggest payoff with Gildersleeve is how taut the tension can become before Mary makes her fatal choice. We can see that she isn’t going to break easily. When inevitability sets in, the chaos that breaks out in Danforth’s court is as alarming as you’ll ever see, like a vast cauldron coming to a boil and overflowing.

Nothing less can bring Josh Logsdon down in his hulking, near-Promethean performance as Proctor. There are few mild-mannered moments in his tragic odyssey toward the gallows. If, as he claims, he has walked tiptoe around his own home since his great sin, Logsdon certainly turns the corner when John confronts Elizabeth, raging and roaring at her like a tyrant before her unexpected arrest. Then he turns on the gendarmes with leonine fury as they take her into custody. Then on the quailing Mary, who has brought the incriminating poppet to his house from Salem.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

Torn between taking advantage of Abigail’s affection and risking her fury, Logsdon is comparatively becalmed in their forest scene, but he’s only truly temperate in the presence of the Dep Governor when Elizabeth’s fate hangs in the balance. Even then, we see him as a powder keg, ready to explode in a heartbeat.

The Gothic aspects of such sulfurous action are somewhat muted by the raked and abstract set design by Beth Aderhold and costume designer Jason Estrada’s execution of what could have been Hollis’s most daring concept – transporting the 1692 atrocities to the McCarthy Era 1950s when Miller’s tragedy premiered. But the concept gathers little further momentum. We find no TV in the Proctor home that could be tuned to the HUA or Army-McCarthy hearings, and no projections on the blank upstage wall from contemporary newspapers heralding the anti-Commie hysteria that Miller was obliquely targeting.

It’s Caryn Crye who unexpectedly brought me the strongest flashback to the 50s as Elizabeth. Again and again, Crye’s quietly assertive and judgmental portrayal evoked the Emmy Award-winning Audrey Meadows in her iconic role as Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners (1952-57). This is a cold and grudging Elizabeth who knows a woman’s place yet never backs down. She comes to see her own failings and their causes in the poignant final dialogue with John. Yet when we hear her last words, it’s hard to discard the notion that nothing less John’s march to the gallows could convince her of his complete atonement for his infidelity.

The depth and power of the CP cast helps to shine new light on Miller’s lesser characters. Giles Corey usually comes off as a contentious, litigious, and ultimately harmless old fool, but Tom Ollis – among the loudest actors we have – bellows him to a different place, now fully consistent with the defiant eulogy Elizabeth gives him. Reverend John Hale is also prone to trivializing, apt to be portrayed as a naïve student who needs the books he carries to substantiate his witch-sleuthing credentials.

Tony Wright plops those books down in the Parris bedroom as if he has read and absorbed very word, needing them merely to double-check his vast erudition and point out chapter and verse to the common folk who have hired him. Most Hales seem to be windblown by the dizzying events in Salem, but Wright’s is open-minded and discerning, ultimately bewildered by the insanity that surrounds him, still grasping and feeling the tragedy as deeply anyone.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

My only disappointment was Corlis Hayes, who starts off so spectacularly in her second pass at Tituba at CP, where she also excelled in 2001. Abetted by James Duke’s lighting design and Marilyn Carter’s movement coaching, she’s an object of terror in the opening blood ritual. She “lays low” obsequiously enough, if I might be permitted an Uncle Remus allusion, as cries of witchcraft pursue her like the Eumenides. Hayes breaks so pitifully under the merest pressure that it’s almost comical.

Ah, but when she reaches the prison – the first to be branded a witch – Hayes mangles the words of Rev. Parris’s hapless servant so badly that they are unintelligible. That’s a shame, because Tituba has the freshest, wittiest, big-picture perspective on the whole Puritan catastrophe.

“Devil, him be pleasure-man in Barbados, him be singin’ and dancin’ in Barbados. It’s you folks – you riles him up ‘round here; it be too cold ‘round here for that Old Boy.”

Those who profess to fear and loathe Satan come to rule in 1692 Salem – zealots, scoundrels, and a pack of screaming she-wolves led by a vengeful, slatternly she-devil – wreaking havoc that even Satan might marvel at. Miller wrote The Crucible in 1952 to show postwar Americans that history can repeat itself, destroying us from within. Miller’s message still resonates in post-2016 America, and CP is serving it up scorching hot at maximum volume.

ShakesCar Puts Women Behind “The Iron Mask”

Review:  The Man in the Iron Mask

By:  Perry Tannenbaum

Hand it to Shakespeare Carolina and Amy Schiede. Producing their own adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s The Man in the Iron Mask outdoors at the Winthrop University Amphitheatre, they haven’t stinted on the swordplay or the fighting. Even though two of the major swashbuckling roles – identical twins who take turns ruling France as Louis XIV – have been handed over to women (including Schiede herself), the hostile action sustains a high standard.

Better yet, in choosing the final installment of the epic Three Musketeers saga, they’ve also maximized the drama and the suspense. Some of our heroes didn’t survive when Dumas closed the book on Aramis, Porthos, Athos, and D’Artagnan. Like the film and TV series before it, Schiede’s adaptation takes a free-range approach in incorporating plot points, assigning actions to various characters, and determining their fates. Perhaps the most suspenseful element is Schiede’s choice of which identical twin, Louis or Phillipe, ultimately sits on the throne.

The 1937 Hollywood version had it differently than the novel, serialized between 1847 and 1850.

There’s no hurry in unveiling Aramis’s plot to unseat King Louis as he brings Athos to a tailor to be measured for evening attire worthy of a reception that superintendent of finances Fouquet is hosting at his home for the conceited monarch. Aramis will need both Athos and Porthos to help free Phillipe from the Bastille, where he has been imprisoned since birth, unaware of his own royal origins. But we won’t learn the motives for Aramis’s machinations until much later. Needless to say, only lofty ambitions would justify such risk.

Fellow musketeers, Athos and Porthos don’t question Aramis closely at the outset, After all, didn’t they originate the famous gung-ho “All for one, and one for all!” slogan? But Aramis is sly enough not to divulge his scheme to D’Artagnan, who is fiercely loyal to the king despite reservations about Louis’s character. So with finance minister Colbert intriguing against Fouquet, D’Artagnan protecting Louis, and Phillipe totally ignorant about all that reigning as the king of France entails, there is plenty of suspense surrounding the success of the three musketeers’ plot.

Obviously, the perils won’t be over if Phillipe is secreted onto the throne.

With straight-arrow D’Artagnan on the royalist side of the conflict, you might experience some ambivalence about whom to root for as the moon rises over this production. David Hensley is rather starchy and subdued as D’Artagnan at the outset, making it easier for us to lean toward Aramis and Philippe, but Hensley does perk up when his king imperils his pals.

Tom Ollis makes sure that we see Aramis as more rascally and duplicitous than noble, but Schiede epitomizes naïveté and nonchalant regality as Philippe. She is surely the more righteous and beneficent claimant to the throne, especially since Katie Bearden revels in Louis’s arrogance, even when the monarch is cast into the Bastille and encased in the iron mask.

Charles Holmes directs at a near-galloping pace, which accounted for some bobbled lines on opening night and some audibility dropouts, particularly from a couple of the women. Nobody will find Holmes’s set designs particularly lavish when Louis holds court, nor do we descend into dim dreariness when we shift to the Bastille. Yet I liked the overall concept, placing the kings’ dungeon up a flight of stairs and above the action rather than below or in a dingy corner. Homage is paid to the idea that royals are imprisoned in towers awaiting their fates – and angelic Phillipe’s early monologue about being content with the daily sight of the skies plays better there.

Holmes also lurks onstage as Athos, sufficiently lighthearted to be carried along in the perilous drift of the musketeers’ plot, yet tender enough to be broken by the death of his son. David Hayes is even more rightfully cast as Porthos, the Ajax among the musketeers. Unfortunately, the prop fashioned for him at a climactic moment – the barrel of dynamite that he hurls into a tunnel – doesn’t sufficiently emphasize his preternatural strength.

A richer script from Schiede would have given Chris O’Neill more to work with in evoking Fouquet’s corrupt tendencies, but that opens the door for Gina Belmont to come off all the more wicked as his rival, Colbert. More detail might have helped us determine whether Anne, the queen mother, was duped by Colbert or strategically taking his side. Amy Hillard is so icily imperious as Anne that she’s also mysterious. Watch her faint when she sees the two twins standing in front of her for the first time. You’ll never know whether she’s shocked to learn she has two sons – or shocked to find that her evil plot against one of them has failed.

Hit the Road, James, With a Mind-Boggling “Hitchhiker’s Guide”

trillbeer

Review:  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

By Perry Tannenbaum

Can this really be the end? Citizens of the Universe and its indefatigable intergalactic peacekeeper, James Cartee, are leaving Charlotte, heading for Texas, and only possibly leaving an appendage behind them to carry on their mission. Closing with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at the Unknown Brewing Company, their most lavish production since they adapted The Princess Bride at the now-defunct Breakfast Club in 2011, COTU is going out with a big bang.

Two parallel events trigger the sci-fi comedy as we meet the shambling, stiff-necked Arthur Dent, who never sheds his PJs and bathrobe throughout his mind-boggling travels. On the earthly plane, Arthur is battling to keep his Cottington home from demolition by the county to provide a pulverized right-of-way for a new thruway. He’s ready to lay down his life for his property, and he’s actually lying down in front of his Cottington cottage so that the county bulldozer can’t move further.

Meanwhile, on a more galactic plane, Vogon overlords who are constructing a hyperspace bypass have slated Earth for demolition. Why a perpetually moving planet in a perpetually expanding universe would be slated for demolition is beside the point, do you hear me?

By the most improbable coincidence, Arthur is singled out for rescue by Ford Prefect, an embedded alien who contributes to the Hitchhiker’s Guide as a roving travel writer. Yes, when Douglas Adams first conceived his sci-fi serial for BBC

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Radio in 1978, ebooks were already on his imaginary assembly line. Arthur frequently consults his pocket reader after hitchhiking aboard a new space cruise or during his downtime, but it is Mandy Kendall who brings The Book to life between stints as our narrator.

She’s also, as our costume designer, the person who makes COTU’s valedictory so outré sensational. Arthur may be a humdrum everyman, with Chris Freeman faithfully executing his shambling duties, but Tom Ollis and Billy Whalen, tethered together as two-headed galaxy prez Zaphod Beeblebrox, take us back past the disco ‘70s to the hippy ‘60s with their outfit. Loud colors, a florid headband, with brash tie-dyes clashing unapologetically against paisleys.

Of course, Beeblebrox doesn’t exhaust the weird phenomena Kendall must costume on Arthur’s odyssey. Other cameos range from Ravenous Bugbladder Beast of Traal (Greg Irwin), Marvin the morose robot (David G. Holland), Deep Thought the computer (Martin Barry), a Whale (Kevin Sario) swimming with a Bowl of Petunias, and the two life forms on our planet that are smarter than we are, mice and dolphins.

Freeman maintains a British diffidence that occasionally flares into puzzlement amid his haywire journeying, but Nathan Morris as Ford is the optimistic huckster forever urging Arthur onwards, almost oozing insincerity when the going gets tough. Like the brainy Trillian and the gregarious Book, Ford is occasionally incomprehensible when he uses jargon that is outside the ken of the BBC and the OED.

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Both Ford and Kendall occasionally stumbled on their lines Saturday night when they wandered through this alien corn, less like the terminology of a botany catalogue than the brainchildren of Lewis Carroll. By comparison, Elisha Bryant skates through these lingual brambles effortlessly as the other earthling in our story, not merely assimilating into the galactic hierarchy after being kidnapped by Beeblebrox, but becoming his/its/their right-hand organism.

If you saw Bryant’s work recently in two of the plays at Children’s Theatre’s WonderFest, including the title role in The Commedia Snow White, her excellence at the Unknown Brewing Company will come as no surprise. Every time Bryant appears, it’s in a different costume. Trillian is adequate reason for Arthur to keep on traipsing across the galaxy.

Aside from their helter-skelter production style or their intriguing choices of classics and film adaptations, COTU is best known for pioneering new venues, going where no other theatre company has presented before. Surrounding the players with a wall of wooden casks and an armada of tall stainless steel brewing tanks, the Unknown was surprisingly apt for a sci-fi comedy.

Yes, the sound seal between the brewing room and the bustling taproom wasn’t perfect as the evening ripened, and the makeshift seating wasn’t cushy enough to prevent the onset of butt burnout at the end of the show. But you can settle into the general seating with your brewski in hand, and there was a convenient food truck parked outside last Saturday night on the corner of S. Mint and Lincoln Streets. I can vouch for the blackened salmon sandwich that I took into the theater, but once the lights went down, I couldn’t accurately describe all its green and crunchy contents.

Getting the answer to the meaning of life from Deep Thought is a profound reason for going, so I won’t be a spoiler. But the anthem near the close of Act 2 is such an emblematic goodbye that I can’t resist. After sitting behind the control board for most of the night, cuing projections that I suspect he devised and overseeing the excellent sound, Cartee strode forward to the stage and joined the action – as a dolphin. Somehow in time-honored comic book style, Adams had brought us back to Earth just before the wily dolphins threw off their domesticated disguises and fled the planet.

“So long,” they sang in a joyous, rudimentary production number, “and thanks for all the fish!” Goodbye to you, too, COTU. Thanks for sticking with it so long through so many challenges and hardships.

 

 

Smokey and the Epic Hero

Theatre Review: O Brother

O Brother

By Perry Tannenbaum

In Greek legend, Odysseus was a man of many ways who sacked the sacred citadels of Troy, traveled widely, struggled valiantly, and suffered greatly. But even if this Homeric catalogue of achievements pales in comparison to the praise lavished upon presidential candidates at our quadrennial conventions, there’s something about the guy that continues to spark admiration – despite the fact that he was once captured and imprisoned.

Latterday tributes from Lord Tennyson and James Joyce to Ulysses (O’s Roman name) gradually humanized the Ithacan warlord and brought him down to life-size. Ethan and Joel Coen decided that wasn’t quite enough indignity to heap upon the mythic hero. The Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou not only presented Ulysses Everett McGill as an escaped jailbird, they made him a Mississippi hayseed. If any role George Clooney plays can be considered a hayseed.

On a ridiculously limited budget, Citizens of the Universe bring Odysseus down the social ladder a few more rungs with O Brother, for the costumes and backdrops by Mandy Kendall aren’t Hollywood. On the other hand, the newly unveiled performance space at NoDa Brewing Company – on North Tryon Street – can’t be accused of being Mississippi.

Trailblazing yet another new venue, COTU embraces an outdoor ambiance that is more picnic theatre than dinner theatre. Beer flows from the interior of the spacious new NoDa tavern, and grub is rustled up from a food truck you can’t miss on your way in from the parking lot. There’s a bluegrass trio at the side of the modest playing area: the Hashbrown Belly Boys, who start up before the odyssey begins. Very relaxed and homespun.

Energy amps up as soon as director Courtney Varnum, perky and pigtailed, steps forward to introduce the show. O Brother is only loosely based on Homer’s epic – and loose only faintly describes its trashy, Southern-fried, slapstick style. These are not realms usually explored by James Cartee and his COTU, but Varnum has been able to round up more than a couple of the usual suspects from past COTU navigations.

Tom Ollis is the one Citizen you would expect to fit in well in this new rusticated universe, playing “Pappy” O’Daniel, the gregariously corrupt Miss’sippi guvnah seeking re-election while hosting a Grand Ole Opry-style radio show on the side. Sort of a cross between Tennessee Williams’ Big Daddy, Huey Long, and Yosemite Sam the way Ollis plays him – mythologically, he’s Menelaus in the scheme of things.

Most surprising is Shane Brayton as our hero Ulysses, after playing opposite Ollis as an arrogant Richard the Lion-Hearted in The Lion in Winter. Down in the Delta, Brayton taps into hillbilly pluck, energy, optimism, and rascality in a way that I’d likely find irresistible if part of the audience weren’t partying and oblivious. Of course, persisting in the face of such loud inattention adds to the pluck factor, but I found the entire cast up to that challenge.

We need to listen all the more attentively because some of the actors’ names are flip-flopped with the names of the folk they play in the playbill. The most obvious of these is “Sheriff Cooley as Stephen West-Rogers.” While he isn’t quite as megalomaniacal as he was in Fight Club or as violently vehement as he was in Trainspotting, West-Rogers is more than sufficiently implacable and clueless as the Sheriff.

Make no mistake, all of these principals are surrounded by sidekicks or underlings that make them look like sages. “Pappy” has Michael Haynes as Junior O’Daniel and Jeremy Bryant as Pap’s political opponent, Homer Stokes, who turns out to have clout in the KKK. Sheriff Cooley has Justin Mulcahy as his standard-issue deputy, and Ulysses is saddled with Michael Anderson as Delmar O’Donnell and Josh Elicker as Pete Hogwallop – Varnum and Charlie Napier extend the deep-down hayseediness of the Hogwallop family.

Not counting the vocal trio of Ulysses’ daughters that doubles as the Sirens, three of the actors zip through multiple roles. Napier stands out as the aforementioned Wash Hogwallop, as a Blind Seer modeled on Teiresias, and as a marauding gangster with a chip on his shoulder, George Nelson, because he’s not the more infamous Babyface. All the great menaces of The Odyssey don’t appear in this hashbrown mashup, but we do get Scotland Gallo as “Big Dan” Teague, certainly Polyphemus with his eyepatch, and Kendall as Penny, Ulysses’ wife.

All of Penelope’s famed suitors coalesce into one Vernon T. Waldrip (Napier again) and, with this Ulysses, Kendall’s infidelity doesn’t play as sluttiness so much as cold pragmatism. A ne’er-do-well jailbird – as opposed to an MIA hero – should cause a sensible wife to make new plans, even in the backwoods. Calypso’s shtick in the journey gets merged into the three singing Sirens – Becca Whitesmith, MoMo Hughes, and Laura M Lee.

As you’ve no doubt divined, Odysseus’ sea voyage and his epic struggle to return home after the Trojan War have been downsized to a comical chase triggered by Ulysses’ jailbreak. Toss in the bluegrass music and it shouldn’t be surprising if O Brother sometimes reminds you of Smokey and the Bandit – without the same Hollywood charisma from the lead rascal. Igniting the chase, Ulysses cons Delmar and Pete into joining him in the escape by enlisting them in a quest for a treasure that he has hidden at the bottom of a valley soon to be flooded to create a dam. Echoes of Deliverance, another bluegrass bromance.

Only here, the music is more deeply woven into the storyline. For along the way, the three escaped white men hook up with Tommy Johnson, a black musician who claims to have gotten his phenomenal skills in a deal with the devil, a la Robert Johnson. On one of their stops before they break up, the quartet cuts a record as the Soggy Bottom Boys. It’s at these key musical moments – and subsequently at his KKK lynching – that we encounter yet one more familiar COTU personality, James Lee Walker II, best remembered for his one-man presentation of Karl Marx.

Walker is a bit humbler this time around. Everybody is. Sifting through the distractions, I’d say that Koly McBride’s O Brother tribute/arrangement of the Coen Brothers’ film is among the very best adaptations COTU has ever done. If the ratio of audience to partyers can be boosted significantly this weekend, the experience will be even better.