Tag Archives: Tonya Bludsworth

Philadelphia Story Bides Its Time Before Detonating

Review:  The Philadelphia Story

By Perry Tannenbaum

One of the wonderful things about Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story is that, yes, it really is about class distinctions and peculiarities, but the playwright remains ambivalent and tolerant of them all. Beneath their upper or lower crust exteriors, all of these Philadelphians – young and old – are recognizably human. You rarely see so many fully-fleshed characters onstage in the course of a single evening. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see a premier professional company repeatedly reviving this witty, effervescent comedy, but it’s absolutely astounding that Theatre Charlotte, our community theatre, has revived Philadelphia Story twice in the new millennium, now and back in 2000.

Both productions showed the pitfalls. The cast needs to be nine deep, alert to the amount of polish and roughness Barry expects of them, and aware of the energies and pacing required at each point of Barry’s intricate plot. The story revolves around “virgin goddess” socialite Tracy Lord – as you might expect, since Katharine Hepburn, the original Tra on Broadway and on celluloid, matched the 25% investment that the playwright plowed into the original production. Tracy is sensibly engaged to the cold and ambitious George Kittredge, impetuously divorced from the dapper C.K. Dexter Haven, and estranged from her father, whose indiscretions have brought the Lords unwanted publicity.

While Tracy is resolving these relationships, her brother is focused on suppressing a magazine exposé that will be published about their wayward father, dangling the prospect of exclusive access to the wedding as an enticing alternative for the publisher. The reporter and the photographer assigned to the Kittredge-Lord nuptials, Mike Conner and Liz Imbrie, bring another level of complications to the scene. She’s been secretly carrying a torch for him for years, but when spirits rise and champagne flows on the night before the wedding, Mike finds that he has fallen – hard – for Tracy, a prelude to their both enjoying an illicit, drunken midnight dip together in the Lords’ swimming pool.

While Barry is at work on how the wedding, the magazine story, and multiple alienated affections – past and present – will ultimately resolve, director Tonya Bludsworth and her cast must deal with all of the reactions and repercussions along the way. Making all of this bubbly complexity even harder for Bludsworth and Theatre Charlotte to achieve is the relative lack of enthusiasm for the project. Turnout for auditions was likely as tepid as audience turnout. Compared with opening night for Peter and the Starcatcher in September, there were conspicuously more empty seats at the back of the house – and a bit less confidence onstage.

Ten of the 14 cast members are new to Theatre Charlotte, including most of the key characters. We started off strong back in 2000 with a Tracy who had the look, the patrician manner, and sometimes even the sound of Hepburn, but that newcomer’s imperial highness never became sufficiently ruffled when the plot thickened. In Bella Belitto, we have another newcomer as Tracy, and on opening night, her serene highness was conspicuously lacking in the early going and – like others onstage – she was often underpowered and inaudible.

Without that serene aura and grace, the splintering of Tracy’s goddess élan isn’t as poignant as it should be in Belitto’s account of her re-education. Yet when she’s assailed by complications, catastrophes, and intensifying adoration, she faces it all very convincingly, her spirits and energies rising. Waking up on the climactic morning after, her decibel level also crescendos spontaneously. We feel that she is learning her lesson and actually benefiting from the indiscretions that brought on her fall – and that the lesson runs deep to her core. Her epiphany detonated effectively for me.

A lot of that depends on Nick de la Canal radiating a rakish upper-crust urbanity as Dexter with enough of that crust trimmed away to make room for tolerance and forgiveness – the two key qualities Tracy needs to acquire. De la Canal’s insouciance also contrasts nicely with the stuffiness that Will Millwood brings to George Kittredge. Barry doesn’t completely hide his disdain for George’s commercial outsider status, so Millwood makes a prudent choice in stressing his judgmental bent.

Dexter also comes off finer than Mike Conner, but by a significantly smaller margin. Here the nuanced class distinctions are no less telling. Christopher Long reminds us that Mike starts out fairly judgmental himself before Tracy bewitches him, but we indulge his pre-judgments more readily in the same spirit that we’re inclined to forgive his boyish, impulsive trespasses. Our best verdict on him vis-à-vis George is much like Barry’s: he’s more deserving, in spite of his depressed finances, of being called a gentleman.

What gives The Philadelphia Story its screwball slant is that everybody up onstage and down in the audience seems to know who the best fit for Tracy is – except for the goddess herself. This includes her mischievous younger sister, Dinah, who attempts some telephone matchmaking. Helena Dryer makes little sis pesky and likable in the right proportions. She’ll be an utter triumph once she makes herself consistently intelligible.

Tracy’s mom isn’t the most pivotal role here, though Margaret does point the way for her daughter in forgiving her husband’s infidelity. What makes Heather Place’s debut so auspicious as Margaret Lord is her clear bubbly delivery and her effortless projection of warmth and class, richly portending her reconciliation with the dashing, slightly over-the-hill Seth Lord. Victor Sayegh is mildly and earnestly supplicating toward Margaret and his disapproving daughter, as befits a Philadelphia patriarch, another cue for Tracy to accept people’s imperfections, including her own.

Sayegh and Place draw two of Chelsea Retalic’s most stylish costume designs in evoking high society elegance, but it’s an uphill battle to project prosperity amid Josh Webb’s drab and dour set design. Two Ionian columns fail to provide uplift, and there’s no longer a visible hint of the swimming pool in the wings. Portraying the eccentric Uncle Willie in a delightful debut, Dan Kirsch gets my nod as the plutocrat most at home in this down-market mansion, lovable for all his pomposity.

Fresh from his crossdressing exploits in Starcatcher, Johnny Hohenstein is mostly responsible, as Tracy’s scheming brother Sandy, for the PR intrigue that lurks beneath the romantic comedy. Good luck following – or caring about – all the Act 2 twists in that sector of the plot. For that reason, Anna Royal as Liz turns out to be more important for me. Ultimately, she’s modeling the patience, forbearance, and forgiveness toward Mike that Tra should have toward Dex. Royal gives Liz just enough edge to update her and elevate above the cliché she must have been in 1939 when THE PHILADELPHIA STORY first hit Broadway.

Here she isn’t just a working-class woman who knows her place, meekly deserving Tracy’s discards. Wielding her Contax camera, she’s Mike’s professional partner, biding her time for a natural upgrade.

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One-Two Punch of Surprises Powers “Eat the Runt”

Review: Eat the Runt

By Perry Tannenbaum

Even before you set out for the Charlotte Art League, the quest for parking, and the unique Eat the Runt from Donna Scott Productions, you need to remember one key preparation: bring your smartphone. Yes, you’ll be asked to turn off or silence the device when the action is set to begin, but before that, you’ll be asked to join the remainder of the audience in choosing the cast for that evening’s performance.

Eight actors vie for the seven roles listed in your program. The audience goes through the cast list one by one, voting their choice for each role on a group texting setup by punching the number assigned to each actor. Playwright Avery Crozier gives each of the characters at his (or her) second-tier art museum a unisex name, so any member of the ensemble directed by Tonya Bludsworth might play any of the roles on a given night.

To execute all of the possible 40,320 casting permutations, each actor must be prepared to play all of the roles, wear all of the costumes, and pounce on cues from all his or her castmates. That not only multiplies what each character has to memorize and the number of costumes designer Luci Wilson has to create, it also multiplies the amount of time that the ensemble must devote to rehearsal – even though they can’t begin to cover all the possible scene partners they will have during the actual run of Runt performances.

On the Saturday night that I attended, I voted with the audience on four of our choices: Ericka Ross as grantwriter Chris, Stephen Seay as human resources coordinator Jean, Tracie Frank as curator of modern art Hollis, and Kevin Shimko as museum director Pinky. Andrea King won the juiciest – and most demanding – role as Merritt, interviewing for a vacant position at the museum. Kevin Aoussou as director of development Royce and Jenn Grabenstetter as museum trustee Sidney rounded out the cast.

Somehow Stephen West-Rogers’ previous exploits in theatrical versions of Fight Club and Trainspotting had escaped the notice of Donna Scott fans. Nor did his new clean-shaven look bring fresh evocations of his ruggedness. As a result, West-Rogers was the odd man out, sent away to take the night off when Shimko snagged the last remaining role.

After this poignant moment, presided over by Scott, we were asked to give the cast a few minutes to sort things out, a reasonable enough request, I thought. When they returned, it was virtually impossible to find any indication that this wasn’t the fixed cast that had rehearsed Eat the Runt every night. King especially was a delight as Merritt, deftly bringing out the applicant’s uncanny ability to take the ideal approach for each museum official who interviewed her.

Merritt’s chameleonic shifts bespoke either a dangerously unstable personality or a cunning Machiavel – one perhaps gifted with psychic powers. Whether it’s the hemorrhoidal HR coordinator, the horny development director, the coke-addicted curator, or the defensive trustee, Merritt always seems to pounce on the perfect approach without any need for probing. It’s only when she’s spouting Ayn Rand to the museum director that Merritt drops hints of a supernatural gift.

Forget about the gimmickry at the top of the evening, it’s very rare for any playwright to be able to detonate a walloping surprise at the end of Act 1 and at the end of Act 2. Crozier not only achieved that, but the surprise at the end of the evening slickly explains away much of the puzzlement we may experience as the series of job interviews metastasizes and explodes.

A few days later, some of the deception that had been played on me became clearer. By then, I couldn’t regret the fun ride that Eat the Runt had taken me on. It may be radically different for you if your casting choices turn out to be more incongruous, risqué, or preposterous. That may increase the already plentiful comedy.

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.

 

Did Somebody Just Kidnap Petruchio?

Theatre Review: The Taming

By Perry Tannenbaum

Should I say the dog ate my homework? No, after returning home from assignment at the Savannah Music Festival, I plum forgot about The Taming amid the bustle of BOOM and Sensoria, and Opera Carolina’s U.S. premiere of Aleko. Even when I caught up with the latest from Donna Scott Productions at the Charlotte Art League this Wednesday, I was less vigilant than I should be.

I came into the funky South End gallery aware that there was a connect between Lauren Gunderson’s wacky political fantasia and Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. But by intermission, I’d completely forgotten about tracking the parallels. That’s because the storylines are so different in this all-female script, and where there are parallels, Gunderson has totally flipped the script.

Katherine is no longer the clawing, curst hellcat who scares away every sensible man in the kingdom except the opportunistic Petruchio. Here she’s charming, brainy, and talented – so charming, brainy, and talented that she’s Miss Georgia, for crying out loud, on a trajectory to become our President and reframe our cherished Constitution. Goodbye, Electoral College!

Nor is she kidnapped after any shotgun wedding. Katherine is in control as she kidnaps Patricia, the brains behind a powerful GOP Senator, and Bianca, a leftwing one-cause blogger and provocateur. This latterday Kate has not only drugged the diametrically opposed politicos, she’s locked them inside of her hotel suite, and – most devastating of all – confiscated their cellphones! If she can get these Red State and Blue State zealots to pull in the same direction with her, Kate reasons, revolution is possible.

Both of these high-energy women remain equally obdurate, but if you pay more attention to their names than I did, you’ll divine that Patricia is our Petruchio. So when Katherine has to drug everybody to calm them the hell down – including, oops, herself – it’s Patricia who wakes up after intermission as James Madison during the original Constitutional Convention of 1787. Bianca is now South Carolina’s Charles Pinckney, the South’s chief proponent of slavery, and Kate is now George Washington, still gushing with charm and still urging compromise.

So yes, mea culpa. By the time the three women had conked out on ether and time-travelled to Philadelphia, birthing constitutional government while switching genders, I had long-forgotten The Taming of the Shrew. When the women returned to present day and Kate triumphed as Miss America, only then did Gunderson conk me over the head: for Patricia, acknowledging Katherine’s superiority, pretty much parrots the scolding that the “tamed” Kate delivers to the other newlyweds in Shakespeare’s Act V.

Now you can go to The Taming without having to backtrack like I did to decode it. Donna Scott makes a wonderfully infuriating Republican as Patricia, and Glynnis O’Donoghue, armed with her righteous pout, is equally apt as the deviously myopic liberal. No surprises there, but Katherine Drew, stunningly slick and sufficiently gorgeous as Kate, is completely new to me. Gunderson drops a couple of lesbian hints into her lines, so it’s a treat to see how excellently Drew personifies this gorgeous George.

All of this frothy comedy would run 79 minutes without the intermission, but director Tonya Bludsworth, who does so much so right, needs to take her foot off the accelerator. Not only did the frantic pace cause the normally infallible Scott and O’Donoghue to bobble lines in the third week of this production, the dialogue zoomed by so fast that I missed stuff. Superfast or not, there are plenty of goodies here, and Gunderson’s crosshairs are trained more on us than on the Bard.

Lady Bracknell Weathers Three Storms

Reviews of The Importance of Being Earnest and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Jon Ecklund (John Worthing) and Lance Beilstein (Algernon Moncrieff) in The Importance of Being Earnest.

They were planning to open The Importance of Being Earnest on January 22 at Theatre Charlotte, where Oscar Wilde’s “Trivial Comedy for Serious People” hadn’t played since 2002. But the snow and sleet that were icing the roads hadn’t begun to melt away on the following evening, so opening night was transformed into an opening Sunday matinee. Even if I had been able to scale my icebound driveway, I was already booked for the opera at Belk Theater.

After all the reshuffling on my iCal, my wife Sue and I were finally able to catch up with Wilde’s menagerie of smart alecks at the second Sunday matinee, nine days after the originally scheduled opening. With so many other reshufflers in the crowd, the Queens Road barn was close to capacity. An extra performance has been slated for 2:30 this Saturday to help out other migrants.

The airy sophistication of Joshua Webb’s set design boded well for the blizzard of bon mots to come, but who were these Ernests opening up the action, Lance Beilstein as the roguish Algernon Moncrieff and Jon Ecklund as the deceitful John Worthing? Beilstein had briefly blipped on my radar last year when he was cast in a stage adaptation of Casablanca that didn’t happen. and Ecklund had never performed on a Charlotte stage before nailing his audition as Wilde’s protagonist.

Yet they instantly established a fine rapport, hinting early on that Algy and Ernest — as John calls himself in London — were not only great friends but kindred spirits.

There was a problem, however, even before the divine ladies arrived. Though their chemistry was sparkling, Beilstein’s cue pickup was razor sharp while Ecklund’s was erratic. Not a symptom you would expect from your lead at the end of your second week.

Ecklund’s symptoms became more serious during the scene change between Acts 2 and 3. In fact, he was taken to the hospital, reportedly suffering from dizziness, and didn’t reappear.

Johnny Hohenstein, who plays John’s butler at his country home, bravely substituted for Ecklund during the final 19 minutes, script in hand. That forced the imperious Lady Bracknell to announce herself when she triumphantly reappeared.

The waters were already troubled in Act 1 when Jill Bloede, amply bustled in a floor-length dress, first floated in like a majestic tugboat as Her Ladyship. It was she and she alone who must approve of Ernest as the prospective husband of Algy’s cousin, Miss Gwendolen Fairfax — a grim prospect, since her wicked nephew has already devoured all the cucumber sandwiches.

Lady B attempts to be judicious. Ernest’s income of seven to eight thousand pounds, the equivalent of $1 million annually according to the Norton Edition of the text, actually counts in his favor.

It’s Ernest’s lineage that is an insuperable stumbling block, for he cannot trace his family any further back than a leather handbag! My, how Bloede huffs when she repeats that fatal word, nearly adding an extra syllable to it each time she lingers on the first letter.

Lady Bracknell’s contempt was so hilariously absolute that when she exited, leaving Ernest and Gwendolen’s hopes of marital bliss in shambles, the audience erupted in lusty applause.

By the sort of insane coincidence that Wilde uses to resolve Ernest’s difficulties, Bloede’s name rhymes with Lady. So, after her current triumph, Jill is no more: she will no doubt have to suffer being called Bloede Bracknell for the rest of her days. You may revise my headline accordingly.

Needless to say, Bloede’s arrival calmed any worries that this production, directed by Tonya Bludsworth, would be anything less than a delight. Eleven years after starring in NC Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Gretchen McGinty’s professionalism still gleams with vitality and caprice as Gwendolen, irresistible despite her perverse silliness. She accepts Ernest, but only for the shallowest of reasons — she’s the perfect antithesis of Juliet.

Caprice continues to rule when we arrive at John’s country home for Act 2, where we meet his lovely ward, Cicely Cardew. Her requirements for a prospective husband are not merely similar to Gwen’s.

They are exactly the same, obliging both John and Algy to make christening appointments with the Rev. Canon Chasuble. Under the watchful eyes of Cicely’s governess, Miss Prism, Algernon has snuck into John’s home, pretending to be his fictitious brother Ernest, and swept Miss Cardew off her feet. That’s partly because Miss Prism’s eyes are devotedly affixed to the Reverend.

As we’ll learn in the denouement, it’s not the first time Miss Prism’s attention has wandered.

Further complicating John and Algy’s attempts to live double lives, Gwen follows her would-be fiancé into the country — with her mother barking at her heels. The running joke of Act 2, amid all the confusion of who’s really betrothed to Ernest, is the radical shifts of sisterly love and murderous hatred between Gwen and Cicely.

Mixed in with devout cynicism and decadence, punctiliousness and pomposity squandered over trivialities are the key ingredients of Wilde’s satire, and Bludsworth has her entire cast embracing it with the proper élan.

Emily Klingman is hormone-driven innocence in a lemon chiffon dress as Cicely, assiduously transcribing Algy’s marriage proposal into her teen diary, and Hank West bumbles quite sanctimoniously as Rev. Chasuble when he manages to recall where he is. Scrunched up like a squirrel, Stephanie DiPaolo is the essence of fretful and incompetent spinsterhood as Miss Prism.

Bludsworth also differentiates nicely between the servants. Ron Turek is urbane and dignified as Algy’s man, Lane; while Hohenstein, tasked to distraction by his temperamental superiors, is more apt to let his resentments play over his face as John’s butler, Merriman. Or he was until he was obliged to pick up Ecklund’s script and stand up to Bloede Bracknell.

Edward Tulane(C)Donna Bise 6686

Photo by Donna Bise

Not at all plagued by postponements, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane opened at ImaginOn last weekend in as polished a production as you’ll ever see from Children’s Theatre. It’s a gem that will no doubt remind longtime subscribers of The Velveteen Rabbit, since the title character is a rabbit doll. Ah, but Edward is fashioned entirely of porcelain, except for his furry ears and tail (he prefers not to think about the origin of his whiskers).

Adapted by Dwayne Hartford from the novel by Kate DiCamillio, Edward’s story begins when he is given to 10-year-old Abilene Tulane on Egypt Street by her mysterious grandmother Pellegrina, the only human who knows his heart.

Unlike the Velveteen, Edward does not aspire to be real or human, but he is frustrated when Abilene doesn’t set him in a place where he can see the outdoors and the stars through her window.

Even before he is severely broken many years later in Memphis, Pellegrina perceives his flaws, and the inference is that he must suffer for them. But Edward’s sufferings and adventures will be epic ­— beyond human, to tell the truth.

Our protagonist remains the three-foot doll the DiCamillio created, but Mark Sutton is always close by to articulate his thoughts, shouldering and picking a banjo as Edward morphs into Susannahr, Malone, Clyde, and Jangles during his odyssey on land and under the sea.

Margaret Dalton figures most prominently as the bereft Abilene, but she resurfaces on numerous occasions during Edward’s journey, most notably as a frisky dog. Beginning as the semi-exotic Pellegrina, Allison Rhinehart ranges across multiple roles and genders, last seen as Lucius Clark, the sagely doll mender. Devin Clark rounds out the cast, shapeshifting from fisherman to hobo to handyman when he isn’t slyly inserting sound effects. Pure enchantment for 81 minutes.