Tag Archives: Warehouse Performing Arts Center

Bound and Gagged in a Georgia Cabin

Review: Exit, Pursued by a Bear

By Perry Tannenbaum

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It’s been 28 years since I saw a murderous woman binding a man to a chair onstage, and I haven’t forgotten the spectacle of that near rape-victim turning the tables – and a spool of duct tape – on her would-be rapist. Maybe there were other instances after that stunning UNC Charlotte production of Extremities in 1991, one of the top five dramas I critiqued that year. If so, those action she-roes haven’t seared themselves in my memory the way that William Mastrosimone’s did.

A trail of empty honey bottles greeted us outside the Warehouse Performing Arts Center storefront in Cornelius as we entered upon a similar scene in Exit, Pursued by a Bear, the new Charlotte’s Off-Broadway production directed by Anne Lambert. Once again, three people are deliberating what to do with the captive – Kyle Carter, who has abused his wife Nan for the umpteenth time. Lauren Gunderson’s 2012 play, subtitled “A Southern-Fried Revenge Comedy,” isn’t quite as intent on ratcheting up the tension.

Like Gunderson’s title, derived from Shakespeare, it’s complicated. Often cited as the Bard’s most outré – or hilarious – or expensive – stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear” occurs in Act 3, Scene 3, of The Winter’s Tale. The fleeing nobleman is the otherwise forgettable Antigonus, whose mauling is vividly reported a moment later by the curiously named Clown, a shepherd’s son, while the bear is still devouring its kill offstage.

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Nan isn’t intending to give her husband even that sporting chance at survival. She plans to abandon her secluded cabin in the Georgia woods and leave the doors open for any bear in the vicinity to enter. To hurry the process, Nan and her friends Simon and Sweetheart are adding inducements to make Kyle more aromatic and inviting. Some honey, of course, but here’s some luck: Kyle just killed a deer, so they can cut up some fresh meat and strew that around, too. Cool condiments!

Since Conrad Harvey as Kyle is already bound and gagged as we walk by with our tickets and drinks – hey, go ahead and take selfies with Conrad if you like – Gunderson is taking on two conflicting objectives when the lights come up. She’s painstakingly justifying what Nan is doing to her husband, and she’s striving to preserve the murderous unraveling of the Carters’ marriage in a comedy mold. Nan’s accomplices come in handy for both of these objectives.

Sweetheart is a stripper at a local bar who aspires to be an actress – or at least a movie star – and Kyle is Nan’s lifelong best friend. Since he is a bit of a queen in his Georgia Bulldogs cheerleading outfit, the stripper-transvestite combo is inherently comical as soon as it forms, if you’re not going to be offended by stereotyped affronts to political correctness and feminism. Part of the action, you must remember, is Nan overcoming her submissiveness and moving towards feminism. It’s a liberating leap.

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With Kyle as her literally captive audience, Nan will express the anger, frustration, and humiliation she has kept bottled up inside by playing out the key scenes that have pushed her to this drastic homicidal response. Since Kyle is indisposed – and hasn’t learned his lines – Julia Benfield as Sweetheart will step into the role of Nan’s husband in these flashbacks. Lambert has made a cagey casting choice here. Benfield is not only dwarfed by Harvey, you’ll see that Julie Janorschke Gawle towers over her as well. More built-in comedy.

Benfield is trashy in her cinched flannel shirt impersonating Kyle, and a fair amount of that trashiness appears to come naturally, but the more we get to know her, the more clearly we see that she isn’t a slut or a bimbo. With all the two-handed scenes in the flashbacks, you might worry that Simon is simply superfluous. But he’s more than a cheerleader. When Nan wavers, Simon is there to help shore up her resolve.

Not always the subtlest of performers, Ryan Stamey calibrates and balances his bloodthirsty zeal, his genuine affection for Nan, and his flaming outrageousness in such a precise way that he emerges as genuinely human rather than as a cartoon provocateur. With this kind of quirky support, Gawle can explore the serious depths that Gunderson explores in the Carters’ abusive marriage. Nan’s waverings are based in a pathological dependency that develops between an abused spouse and her abuser, ground into the rubble of crushed self-esteem.

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Gunderson also wants us to be ambivalent about the payback Nan is meting out, no matter how many Hollywood revenge flicks we’ve seen. As if he were on trial rather than passively listening to his sentence, Kyle gets his chances to speak and defend himself. More than that, he gets Nan to allow him a temporary reprieve from his bondage, so that he can re-enact the good times they had together before things went sour.

Harvey doesn’t mitigate the fact that Kyle is a boorish hayseed, but he also doesn’t hold back on the sincerity of “getting it” and his intent to be a better man. We’re apt to be a little torn, as Nan is, on the option of giving Kyle a second chance. Gawle is visibly affected by Harvey’s pleas, his evocations of past Kyles, and perhaps his newfound respect for the doormat who has risen up against him. So with the prospect of Kyle suddenly reverting to violence, there’s not only dramatic tension in the air but also multiple layers of give-and-take between Nan and Kyle, Nan and Simon, between the men and inside Nan’s heart.

Feminists will appreciate how this deadlock is broken.

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Gawle does everything right interacting with the other performers. She even gives herself moments when she ponders the enormity of what she’s planning – and to question whether she’s sufficiently calm to proceed after the suddenness and the adrenaline rush of what she has done and how it has changed her. One thing you might question is whether Gawle is as Southern or as trashy as Gunderson imagined her. Hang in there until Nan’s final scene, and you’ll likely see the rationale for the choice Gawle and Lambert have made in crafting her character.

Along with the cast’s work onstage, costume design by Ramsey Lyric, lighting by Sean Kimbro, and Jarvis Garvin’s fight choreography are all indicative of Charlotte Broadway’s professionalism. The only dodgy aspect of this production are the projections flashed on the upstage wall delivering stage directions when we reach Gunderson’s play-within-a-play segments. The lettering doesn’t exactly pop, and efforts to read them can draw attention away from the action. Maybe freezing the action might help solve the problem. Worth a try.

Otherwise, Exit, Pursued by a Bear is all-pro all the way. Consider yourself lucky if you can pursue and snag a ticket.

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Chicklet Is Back – All Five of Her!!

Preview: Psycho Beach Party @ The Warehouse PAC

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Odd juxtapositions like ketchup and cantaloupe don’t always work on your taste buds. But in comedy, the results can be spectacular. Ranging far beyond the incongruities of The Odd Couple, actor/playwright Charles Busch created a sea of contrasts and hairpin turns for himself, bridging the gap between Gidget and Alfred Hitchcock in Psycho Beach Party.

Combining the sunny surfboard innocence of Gidget with the multiple personalities that marked Marnie, the title character of a Hitchcock thriller, Busch became Chicklet in 1987, tossing flamboyant cross-dressing into the mix. Four years later, Alan Poindexter brought the role to Charlotte at the Pterodactyl Club under the direction of George Brown, a prime reason why the future artistic director of Children’s Theatre took CL’s Actor of the Year honors for 1991.

Fast-forward to 2017 as The Warehouse brings Psycho Beach to Cornelius for a three-week run starting on Friday. The most recent sighting of a Busch lampoon in Charlotte was The Divine Sister in 2013, preceded by Queen City Theatre Company’s Die Mommie Die in 2008. Psycho Beach hasn’t washed ashore anywhere in the Metrolina region since BareBones Theatre Group produced it – for a second consecutive season – in 2005.

Busch pretty much surrendered his enfant terrible status when he crafted a Broadway hit, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, in 2002. In an age when importance is gauged by what’s on people’s tongues and in their tweets, Busch’s trusty Hollywood targets – Gidget, Hitchcock, Psycho, Joan Crawford – have also lost traction.

You have to explain a lot of the once-familiar references to today’s audiences. Same goes for today’s actors. Jesse Pritchard, who takes on the role of Chicklet, admits to a learning curve.

“I was not familiar at all with the play,” he says. “It seemed funny, and so I wanted to try it out. I did have a bit of a brain blast looking into all of the different cultural references that the play portrays, but other than that, it all came over pretty well.”

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Chicklet is your basic beachcombing ingénue, innocent and wholesome, hoping to capture the eye of ace surfboarder Kanaka. Embedded within the demure Chicklet is the personality of dominatrix Ann Bowman, whose desires go far beyond The Great Kanaka, all the way to world dominance.

And there’s far more lurking inside of Chicklet, expanding the diva role.

“I don’t even think I know all her personalities yet,” Pritchard confides. “Tylene is a bit of a stretch, a strong black woman in a loving relationship. She may be the biggest stretch because it’s hard for me to embody her truthfully. Doctor Rose Mayer is like the mom of the group. The accent is a bit much, but I feel like I’ve made headway with her. Steve is also fun, the male model.”

Behind all this pathology? That’s where Joan Crawford gets layered on, channeled into Chicklet’s harpy mother, Mrs. Forrest. Two divas will dominate Warehouse’s diminutive storefront stage, with Mara Rosenberg taking on the Mommie Dearest allusions.

Presiding over the auditions, director Vito Abate liked Pritchard’s stage presence and his ability to capture Chicklet’s girlish innocence. But of course, the comedy needs to go nuclear.

“I was fortunate enough to have Mara and Jesse audition together,” Abate reveals, “and there were instant fireworks and a connection between them. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Mara before, as an actor and director. I knew she would be good fit for the role. She captured the passive-aggressive nature of Mrs. Forrest, and I knew she’d enjoy taking on the different ages and aspects of the character.”

A mainstay at Theatre Charlotte, where he originated the Just Do It series, Abate’s most recent wallow in trashiness came when he directed Sordid Lives at Spirit Square last fall. That production featured Ann Walker as LaVonda, reprising the role she played onscreen and in the TV series.

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Both of those stages dwarf the storefront in Cornelius where Abate will be bringing his Beach. That suits him fine.

“The intimacy of the Warehouse really lends itself to the fluid nature of this show,” Abate insists. “Every time I see a production in this space, I have a sense of being part of something quite special happening between the actors and the audience, and it’s a unique theatre experience. The title of the play strongly suggests a party and that’s exactly what we plan on delivering!”

Abate got a taste of that intimacy as a performer when he appeared in Fuddy Meers three years ago. In the eight-year history of Warehouse Performing Arts Center, Fuddy Meers, along with Wonder of the World and Mr. Marmalade, has been as edgy as it gets. Red, Sylvia, Road to Mecca, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, and An Empty Plate at the Café du Grand Boeuf are the more customary style of wares at 9216-A Westmoreland Road.

Boomer nostalgia and the silly summer season may prove that the time – and the tide – are right for bringing the smuttiness and perversion of Psycho Beach to Cornelius. America has evolved so much in the 30 years since Busch introduced Chicklet & Co. that’s it’s likely politically incorrect to call anything in Psycho Beach smutty or perverted anymore.

“The first group sale [of tickets] was several weeks ago and it was from a senior community in Davidson!” says Abate. “It’s summertime and in my opinion it’s always time to laugh, and this is a perfect show for both. I’m sure many who come will be fans of the movie, some of Charles Busch, and others just out to see a comedy.”

Pritchard’s Charlotte debut back in February, as the Clybourne Park emissary in A Raisin in the Sun, didn’t exactly give him the chance to show off his comedic talents. But he feels like Chicklet is nearer to his wheelhouse than Karl Lindner. Down at Winthrop University, where he earned his Performing Arts degree, Pritchard did some cross-dressing as the sidekick in Leading Ladies, and he logged additional comic turns at Rock Hill Community Theatre, including Hillbilly Hankerin’.

He takes direction well, according to Abate. But there’s a reason for that: “Vito definitely has a vision and a keen eye to detail,” says Pritchard, “and so I’m working to make it just as he sees it.”

Abate has been very satisfied with his cast as opening night approaches, and he’s confident that his dueling divas will shine brighter afterwards. “I expect their chemistry to grow during the course of the run, with a mix of typical teenage mother-daughter relationship stuff with some severe psychological and behavioral problems thrown in.”