REVIEW: Jon Tuttle's Boy About Ten at Trustus Theatre

A talent for drama is not a talent for writing, but is an ability to articulate human relationships.” 

-Gore Vidal

Boy about ten.jpg

John Tuttle is, by any standard, a man with a talent for writing, but after seeing the world premiere of his play, Boy About Ten, I can affirm that he is also quite adept at articulating human relationships. Indeed, the oft-troubled intertwining of Boy About Ten’s dysfunctional, but (somewhat) connected nuclear family of four, drives the plot of Tuttle’s work, taking a well-written piece to the level of a performance bristling with all the sharp edges relationships can provide. This is not to suggest that the production currently running at Trustus is without laughter or light-hearted moments. It may be a tragicomedy, but Boy About Ten doesn’t hesitate to let the tragic cede the stage to the comedic in a legitimate, story-faithful way. In his program notes, Trustus Artistic Director, Chad Henderson, comments that “this play has undergone a more involved development process than our previous Playwrights Festival winners or commissions,” which no doubt contributed to the feeling of polish and streamlining found in the script. I managed to make notes on some of the truly standout lines, but by no means is my list comprehensive.

 

The play opens with D’Loris (Lonetta Thompson), a kindhearted but world-weary social worker, dealing with what is clearly a family in distress. She is trying to prepare Todd (Tommy Wiggins), the elder son, to go to his mothers’ house for a week. Todd is obviously troubled in multiple ways, but is largely nonverbal, using a set of oversized headphones to drown out the conflict which surrounds him, while hiding his face behind his chin-length bangs.  As usual, Thompson creates a fully-realized, textured character, who has flaws as well as sincerely caring nature. I never tire of seeing Thompson onstage, as she is always completely immersed in and committed to her character and the moment. It would have been the easy way out to depict D’Loris as either a hyper-idealistic Wonder Woman, or as a “honey, I’ve seen it all,” world-weary cynic, but Thompson chose to create someone in-between, and in the process, gave the audience a layered, complex, and realistic performance. Kudos also to Wiggins, a former Trustus Apprentice Company member, making his mainstage debut. Though Todd doesn’t speak much, especially in the early scenes, his body language, movement style, and a sort of self-embrace clearly establish him as a damaged human being, doing his best to avoid his psychic pain. When it is revealed that he is a self-cutter/burner, it is a bit of a shock, but totally believable for the character he has, by that point, made three-dimensional. I suspect we’ll be seeing much more of Wiggins on the Trustus stage in seasons to come, and I look forward to watching his development as an actor.

 

The arrival of Tammy (Jennifer Hill), lightens the mood by, ironically, introducing the least likeable of the five characters. Hill’s Tammy is brash, flashy, loud, and obnoxious, fancying herself far above the rest of the family. She dresses herself in designer clothing, while a couple of mentions are made of the kids’ clothes coming from Goodwill, and she personifies the cliche of the “helicopter parent,” dispensing screechy advice and criticism thinly veiled as “encouragement.” Hill’s comedic timing is absolutely spot-on, and she brought Friday night’s house down with such well-penned verbal spewings as “I was once a Sweet Potato Queen, now I’m a Cyclops!” (It seems that Tammy has a glass eye, which is broken, requiring her to wear an eye patch.) Clearly proud of her somewhat meager accomplishments, she touts having played Yum-Yum in a community college production of The Mikado, along with a few other small successes, in an attempt to impress D’Loris, who is eventually prompted to ask “what the hell is wrong with you people?” The moments of conflict between Tammy and D’Loris establish a curious dynamic. Tammy, in her own twisted, control-freak way, wants the best for her children, while D’Loris tries to help establish exactly that, which eludes the self-centered Tammy.

One gathers fairly quickly that Tammy is at her ex-husband’s house to swap out the younger son, Timmy, (Daniel Rabinovich), who is a straight-A, rule-abiding, do-gooder, complete with Webelos Scout uniform, and practically a stranger to Todd, and the two react somewhat cautiously to each other. (I may have missed an important line or mention of the situation, but it is clear that the brothers have not spent much time together.) Rabinovich demonstrates an actor’s sensitivities quite impressively, especially for a young actor. His character arc may well be the most dramatic in terms of growth and change, and he handles it like a true pro. As with Wiggins, this is a young man to watch.

Once all is settled, Timmy is left alone with his father, Terry. Played by Trustus mainstay, Paul Kaufmann, Terry is an affable, childlike n’ere-do-well, whose love for his sons manifests in an “at my house, there are no rules” dynamic. (When asked by Timmy if they can attend an Imax film or visit the Planetarium, Terry immediately scoffs at the thought of an educational outing, at least in the traditional sense.) Kaufmann, without ever breaking the established reality of the play, or mugging to the audience, brought to life an enchanting man-child, reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Big, with a dash of Bertie Wooster and Falstaff tossed in. To Timmy’s growing amusement, the two of them chug Cheerwine (no sodas allowed at Tammy’s house), fight ludicrous pretend war games against “Vagicilla, Dark Queen of the Nether Regions” (inspired, no doubt, by Tammy), and Timmy frequently receives his father’s military decorations, which may or may not be legit. It was at this point that I began to wonder about the show’s eponymous title. Was Timmy the Boy About Ten, or was his father? Had the parent/child dynamic between them already shifted before the action of the play began? Kaufmann, incidentally, scores one of the biggest laughs in the show while telling Timmy about his days in an ersatz KISS cover band. “You can always tell when chicks dig you. They chew their gum at you…like meat!”

 

A brief in-one scene gives us our sole glimpse of life at Tammy’s house, when the focus is, both literally and figuratively, on Todd, who is passively receiving an unwanted haircut from his mother. A special tip of the hat to Lighting Designer Laura Anthony, for transforming a simple floor lamp into a “where were you on the night of the robbery?” beacon. This is an occasion upon which the lighting truly made the scene for me. We, the audience, are semi-blinded by the intensity of the same light shining into Todd’s eyes, and subject to the same jabber from Tammy. Like a police officer in a bad, made-for-TV crime drama, she prattles on and on about how Todd should want to be “normal” and make friends “like all the other boys,” painting a Leave It To Beaver lifestyle, which will supposedly emerge with a haircut and a suit from Goodwill. Interrogation/indoctrination and “tough love” establish an uneasy coexistence at Tammy’s house, and the two children she raised reflect that. Timmy’s unblinking obedience earns him praise, so he obeys. Todd, whom I assumed to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, is unable to deal with what his senses perceive as blinding light and a barrage of impossible commands. Though short, this scene impacted me. I began to wonder through whose eyes we were seeing any given situation, and then viewing each scene from each character’s angle. Thank you, Jon Tuttle, for this (I’m guessing) three-page scene, which widened the lens through which I saw the rest of the play. Though she was the antagonist of the scene, it allowed a glimpse into Tammy’s desperate desire for a “normal, happy, family,” and humanized her for me.

 

I won’t go into too much detail about the second act, as it is, essentially, a minefield of spoilers, and much of what happens requires the elements of shock and surprise to work. While not without laughs, the second act takes a somewhat darker turn, with a grim family story, involving animal abuse, being revealed. (*While no violence is depicted onstage, a gruesome monologue could be mildly to moderately triggering for some.*) Terry childishly endangers his and Timmy’s lives at the end of act one, the aftermath of which, we see in act two. Todd returns, neatly trimmed and besuited, but still distant, albeit with the occasional smile of hope. Toward the end of the play, we discover that Terry suffered physical wounds far worse than Timmy’s while saving the boy from the dangerous results of his (Terry’s) recklessness. Romantic impossibilities are pondered and argued, D’Loris loses another crumb of her idealism, but hangs on to hope, Timmy takes his first step toward adult cynicism, Tammy reveals some game-changing information, and the family is left as we found them; bruised and battered, but oddly okay. The playwright leaves us with the idea that life will simply go on, and with the insanity and bizarre love in this family, who can even speculate on the eventual outcome?

 

Director Patrick Michael Kelly has taken an artfully written play, refined by much workshopping, and brought to the stage a world of slightly-heightened reality, never losing sight of the connecting themes of family and what it truly means to care for someone.

 

So, who is the Boy About Ten? I have my suspicions that each character, with the exception of D’Loris (who serves as the impartial observer and voice of reason) is that boy. Perhaps that answers my earlier question, and tips us off that the show is seen from D’Loris’ perspective.

Boy About Ten is an engaging, thought-provoking, and most enjoyable play, and a worthy addition to the Tuttle ouvre. Only four performances remain, so get your tickets now!

-- Frank Thompson

~~0~~

Tickets can be purchased online at Trustus.org , or by calling the Trustus Theatre box office on 803.254.9732
 
Remaining performance dates are:
Wednesday, August 22 – 7:30pm
Thursday, August 23 – 7:30pm
Friday, August 24 – 8:00pm
Saturday, August 25 – 8:00pm
 
Frank Thompson is the theatre editor for Jasper Magazine - contact him at flt31230@yahoo.com
~~0~~

JOIN THE JASPER GUILD TODAY AND SEE YOUR NAME IN THE NEXT ISSUE OF JASPER MAGAZINE

RELEASING FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 21 AT THE NEW STORMWATER STUDIOS

The Jasper Project is a non-profit all-volunteer organization that provides collaborative arts engineering for all disciplines of arts and artists in the South Carolina Midlands and throughout the state. Please help us continue to meet our mission of validating the cultural contributions of all artists and growing community within the arts by becoming a member of the Jasper Guild .  We'll print your name in the magazine, thank you on social media, and love you forever!

www.JasperProject.org

 

Memorable Theatre Moments from 2012 - August Krickel's picks

This time last year, on a lark, I put together a stream-of-consciousness recollection of some things I had enjoyed on stage over the preceding year.  Would you believe - we set a new record for site visits with that blog post!  Sure, sure, the site and blog were still young, and most of it was folks logging in to see if they were mentioned or not, but still, it showed everyone involved that there is significant interest in theatre among the greater Columbia arts community.  As I wrote at the time, "theatre for me is sometimes not about the final product, but rather individual moments that move me, make me smile, or stay with me long after the show is done."  This year I have been fortunate to see most of the shows at the main theatres in downtown Columbia:  7 of 8 done on the Thigpen Mainstage (plus a late-night show) at Trustus, 3 of the 5 done at the Trustus Side Door, 5 of 6 at both Town and Workshop, plus a couple at Columbia Children's Theatre.  That's 23 freakin' shows, which sadly means that I didn't have time to see any at the many excellent theatres and venues on campuses and in the suburbs.  So with that disclaimer, I give you the best, funniest, and most memorable theatre moments for me from 2012: - the opening image as the curtain rose in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at Town Theatre, with dancers frozen in exotic poses. In particular, Haley Sprankle, Grace Fanning and Becky Combs were draped over their partners with extension that went from here to the moon, and it perfectly captured the look and feel of the carefree and free-spirited Riviera setting.

- Doug Gleason in Scoundrels, goofing and camping it up shamelessly, then breaking into song with the voice of an angel, not a buffoon.  In my review, I wrote that he reminded me of the young Bill Canaday, a gifted comic actor now happily retired from the state and (at least temporarily) the stage. Several people mentioned to the real Bill that they saw his name in a theatre review, and he laughed and later told me that this was like the actor's nightmare - was he supposed to have been in a show somewhere?  Did he miss his entrance?

- Elizabeth Stepp as a huffy, haughty insect, miffed over being shooed away in Pinkalicious at Columbia Children's Theatre.  Lindsay Brasington, vamping and cooing for the press as she imagined being the first doctor to diagnose acute "pinkititis." George Dinsmore, dramatically confessing to his wife after all these years, his dark secret that he too secretly had a fondness...for the color ....pink.  (At which point Sumner Bender leaned over and whispered to me "But they named their daughter ... Pinkalicious?"

- Shelby Sessler's tour-de-force as three separate and distinct characters in Alfred

Hitchcock’s 39 Steps at Town.  Only a couple of weeks after portraying the titular tyke in Pinkalicious above,  she played a va-va-voomish German femme fatale,  a forlorn Scottish farm wife, and a proper yet spunky yet romantic British lady. As the German she somehow managed to not only play dead, but to feign rigor mortis, stretched out over an armchair... I still don't know how she managed it.  As the lady, she and her castmates mimed all the effects to convey a train speeding down the tracks.... and if you looked down, very subtly her hand was fanning the hem of her skirt back and forth to add the effect of wind.  Not surprisingly, she was one of three finalists for Jasper Theatre Artist of the Year, and organized the entertainment for the November issue release party at City Art.

 

 

- Avery Bateman and Kanika Moore playing multiple roles in Passing Strange at Trustus.  Bateman cracked me up as a materialistic princess-type whose life with hero Mario McClean was pre-planned within about 5 seconds; then she and Moore turn up as Dutch girls, then Germans. "Have a conversation vit' ze hand," Moore declares, almost getting American slang right. Even music director Tom Beard got a line in on stage, rising in outrage, when the cynical German nihilist characters dismiss the punk movement as commercialism, to protest "What about The Clash, man???"    Also loved the vivid colors that symbolized the free-spirited European setting of Passing Strange, provided via original paintings from ten local artists, and director Chad Henderson's always-moving, never-a-dull-moment, no-one-wasted-on-stage  blocking.  (And sure enough, Henderson was voted Theatre Artist of the Year by Jasper readers!)

- Randy Strange's lush, opulent, plantation-interior set for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Workshop Theatre. There was something to take everyone's breath away in this classic show, from Jason Stokes in a towel, to E.G. Heard (and on alternating nights, Samantha Elkins) in a negligee. Ironically, the beautiful and talented Heard teaches theatre at my old high school, while the equally lovely and gifted Elkins teaches drama at the one I was zoned for. I seem to recall my old theatre teacher was nicknamed "Sasquatch" - my how times have changed!

- G. Scott Wild utilizing the teeny Side Door Theatre space at Trustus more efficiently and realistically than I had ever seen before, with his set design for A Behanding in Spokane. The entire show takes place in a hotel room, and Wild wisely used every single

inch of available space, including the main entrance into the theatre as the room's only door, complete with deadbolt and peephole.  And Wild himself, perfectly capturing a world-weary, frustrated (possible) serial killer, then seamlessly segueing into the character's actual nature: a world-weary, frustrated, hen-pecked nebbish.  When you meet him, you realize Wild is quite young, but with little make-up and primarily mannerisms, he effectively embodied a character 20+ years older than he. Christopher Walken played this role in New York, but I somehow suspect that Walken played Walken, while Wild embodied and fleshed out the character.

- Also, in Spokane, Elisabeth Smith Baker embraced a challenging character role.   In my review, I wrote that she somehow managed "to be pathetic and sympathetic, winsome and adorable in a skanky sort of way, vulnerable, crafty and resourceful, yet sometimes just dumb as a post. She has some nice moments of physical comedy that would make Lucille Ball proud.   At one point she makes a quite logical decision to try to charm her way out of a life and death situation, yet her effort is so obviously contrived that only an idiot would fall for it... and of course, one does."

- Sumner Bender and Ellen Rodillo-Fowler, both getting a chance to sink their teeth substantial roles in In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play at Trustus.  Color-blind casting is always a tricky challenge, and Bender and her infant's wet nurse need to be white and black respectively, because of specifics in the script, but Rodillo-Fowler played another society lady, and peer to Bender.  Was she perhaps the mixed-heritage daughter of a prominent admiral or missionary? Could she have simply been adopted, and raised in starchy whitebread Victorian society?  Or was she (as my spirit-guide Dr. Moreau suggested) a Native American? Most importantly, it didn't matter.

- Vibrator also featured the return of Steve Harley, not seen enough on local stages in recent years. I got some mileage out of this line of his:  "Hysteria is very rare in men, but then he is an artist.” The artist referenced was played by Daniel Gainey, one of a number of gifted young actors who seemingly came out of nowhere to captivate local audiences. (See Wild and Gleeson above, and Andy Bell below; with Gainey, "nowhere" was actually many roles in opera and operatic musical theatre.)

- Speaking of Gleeson, he played a vastly different type in Andrew Lippa's Wild Party at Workshop, still a clown, but a scary one. The extreme physicality of some of the choreography was impressive, as were his scenes with Giulia Marie Dalbec (his leading lady in Scoundrels above, but more on her in a moment.) Also in the cast as part of the ensemble was Grace Fanning, as an underage party girl in the Roaring 20's. At one point the lyrics describe each "type" as they enter: a dancer, a producer, a madam, a boxer, and.... as Fanning sashays in, anticipating something like "a flapper," "a beauty," "a vamp" .... all she gets is: "a minor." The look of shock and outrage on her face was priceless, a combo of "I'm busted!" and "Is that all I get?"

- the strong supporting cast in Grease at Town, finally getting to sing all their best songs. The film version cut out a lot of the 50's do-wop homages, and focused on Sandy and Danny.  Here, Sirena Dib got to break hearts with "Freddy My Lo-ove," and Patrick

Dodds (still sporting his high hair from Spring Awakening) not only got a chance to smile on stage, but rocked out with "Those Magic Changes," two of my favorite songs of all time. Hunter Bolton reclaimed Kenickie's "Greased Lightning" (complete with the original lyrics describing exactly what sort of wagon it is) while Jenny Morse and Mark Zeigler beautifully harmonized in "Mooning," a song I had forgotten entirely. Leandra Ellis-Gaston got to drop the (Italian) F-bomb on Town Theatre's stage (it's just the seemingly meaningless "fangu," but it means the same thing) and was another example of how color-blind casting rarely hurts

anything.  Sure, the script calls for Rizzo to be Italian, but who's to say her dad wasn't progressive, and married an African-American?  Dodds also got some incredible moments of physical comedy with Haley Sprankle, as he tries to match her, move for move, at the prom.

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth Stepp, a gifted comedienne, literally throwing herself into each scene with abandon, as a beautiful Cinderella (at Columbia Children's Theatre) who still managed to get plenty of laughs.

 

 

 

 

- Gerald Floyd's increasing frustration with life after death in Almost An Evening (at the Trustus Side Door) navigating obstacles that ran from a maddeningly matter-of-fact receptionist (Vicky Saye Henderson, another Theatre Artist of the Year finalist) to a smooth-talking, winking bureaucrat (Jason Stokes.) Followed by his sympathetic portrayal of a grieving Texas father, in his scene with Kendrick Marion, playing against type as a stuffy, repressed government operative.

- the graphic puppet sex and nudity in Avenue Q at Trustus. And Kevin Bush hastily inventing his girlfriend Alberta...from ...um... Vancouver...in Canada.  And Katie Leitner voicing and manipulating two very different-sounding characters, Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut, with the aid of Elisabeth Smith Baker, who voiced plenty of others too, including one of the Bad Idea Bears. "Important day at work tomorrow?  Let's do some shots!"

 

- the commitment by director Shannon Willis Scruggs and costumer Lori Stepp to go all the way into the absurd in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Town.  The musical numbers are pastiches of various styles (country, rockabilly, calypso, etc.) and here, almost like a live cartoon, the cast morphed quickly into Frenchmen with berets, cheerleaders with pom-poms, you name it. Frank Thompson as the King, baby, i.e. an Elvis-style Pharaoh, was particularly amusing.  James Harley noted in his review that "some of the show’s best energy comes from deep within the ensemble, Charlie Goodrich leading the way with 100% commitment to every movement he makes on stage."  There were dozens of people on stage at any given time, so I made a point to look for Goodrich within each number, and sure enough, whether or not he had any lines, he was always the best at reacting appropriately to whatever was going on.  And conceiving the "hairy Midianites" as members of ZZ Top was just inspired.

- Katie Foshee, who has enlivened the ensembles of about a hundred musicals in recent years, stepping into (and owning) the lead role in Camp Rock - The Musical at Workshop.  Avery Herndon and Alex Webster too were adorable as they as they succumbed to puppy-love-at-first sight, and Kathryn Reddic made a great mean girl.  From her bio, Reddic would have had Linda Khoury for drama in high school, meaning that she is well-versed in Shakespeare, and as a current English major at Vanderbilt she is surely immersed in Shelley and Keats, Joyce and Yeats, Chekhov and Strindberg, yet she rocked out like Beyonce in some complex hip-hop dance numbers.  Commodore girls represent, y'all.

- James Harley back on stage in Palace of the Moorish Kings at Trustus, under-playing a complex character who wasn't given a lot of lines or movement. Silence can sometimes speak volumes, and Harley had some great moments where he started to say something... then words failed him, and the point was nevertheless made.  But he did get a few memorable lines as a member of the "greatest generation," who never felt entirely comfortable as being seen as a hero, since he never killed anyone, never did anything heroic, and only served after being drafted.

- Elisabeth Smith Baker (yet again!) so sweet and natural in Next to Normal at Trustus.  And the show's big "reveal," which fooled me entirely, even though I more or less was familiar with the plot.  Andy Bell made a great transition from musician to actor/singer on stage, and the entire cast distinguished themselves as professionally as if they were the original cast on Broadway. The set too (by Danny Harrington, with input from Chad Henderson) showed how even the big-name New York shows are going for simple, stylized, low-cost sets these days, which often work better than trying to achieve realism.

- Giulia Marie Dalbec dominating the year with not one but four bravura performances.  While she has played countless roles as vixens, ingénues, or someone'sgirlfriend or daughter, Dalbec made her mark as a name-brand lead in Scoundrels and Wild Party (above) and as Elle in Legally Blonde at Workshop. The word that immediately comes to mind to describe her on stage now is "confident" - and with that confidence, she bravely took on the role of the meek Honey in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (also at Workshop) and nailed that one too.  Half the time Honey was drunk, or passed out, or ignored by everyone else, but Dalbec was always engaged in believable action and movements, however subtle.

 

- Robert Michalski's swaggering cameo as a UPS delivery guy in Blonde; I don't think I've ever seen a performer simply walk across a stage and then through the audience and get such a big laugh.  As I wrote at the time, he definitely had a package, and was determined to deliver it.

- Elena Martinez-Vidal's characterization (complete with New England accent) of Martha (in Virginia Woolf) as an aging Snookie, the college president's scandalous daughter who bluffs her way through academia via booze, sex, humor and bravado.

- Paul Kaufmann playing 35 different characters in I Am My Own Wife at the Trustus Side Door. Clad for most of the time in a dress!  The main figure was an East German "tranny granny" who may or may not have been a pioneering cultural historian, a murderer, an informer for the secret police, and/or a courageous activist and supporter of the oppressed gay community in Berlin.  After a while you got used to most of the various German and American "voices" ...and out of the blue, he's also a crisp Anglo-Indian reporter called Pradeep Gupta, with the perfect, smooth, musical lilt to his voice that you'd expect.  And this was a week after playing the male lead in Next to Normal !

 

 

- the striking, sunset-hued panels that comprised most of the set for Next Fall at Trustus. And the banter between G. Scott Wild and Jason Stokes (both yet again!) as mismatched lovebirds who just happen to be guys.  And the odd (but probably fairly common) paradox of fundamentalist Christian characters as they try to rationalize their own "sinful" lifestyle, especially as detailed by Bobby Bloom.

- Abigail Smith Ludwig, conveying the flowing, soft, lyrical beauty of German syllables and consonants in a  disgruntled rendition of "O Tannenbaum" in Winter Wonderettes at Town. And Alexa Cotran, yet another remarkable discovery, a very young performer who matched her older castmates note for note, scene for scene. Cotran bears a striking resemblance to my first grade teacher, who had that exact same huge 1960's hairdo, perfectly coiffed here by Cherelle Guyton, who was responsible for most of the good-looking hair in the shows mentioned above.

- the wonderful cast of [title of show] at Trustus in just about every moment on stage. Laurel Posey recounting her recurring lead role as "corporate whore," and Robin Gottlieb segueing from a cute number on secondary characters into Aerosmith were especially funny, but somehow the genuine moments in this little show touched me as few usually do.  "Who says four chairs and a keyboard can’t make a musical?  We’re enough with only that keyboard - we’re okay with only four chairs. We’ll be fine with only four chairs - we’ll rock hard with only four chairs!"  That sort of do-it-yourself mentality and optimism can be applied to so many things in life, as can their conclusion that it's better to be "nine people's favorite thing, than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing."  Score one vote for the rice crispy treats, as this was far and away my favorite show of the year.

- the actual do-it-yourself production of Plan 9 from Outer Space - Live and Undead 2.0 presented at Trustus, but essentially cobbled together on a shoe-string six months earlier at Tapp's Art Center.  Thanks to enlisting the aid of some of Columbia's finest actors, the show almost became a real play, even though the basic idea was to do a tongue-in-cheek spoof of what many feel is the worst movie ever made. So many of the cast were inspired in their campy re-imagining of the film's original dialogue, including Jennifer Mae Hill as a sexy stewardess (Hill was a gifted actress at Trustus, Chapin, and elsewhere long before she got into doll-making) and Chad Forrister as the stolid hero. Forrister was also the hero of 39 Steps above, and has perfected the mock-heroic, ever-so-slightly-exaggerated tone required by these spoofs.  Victoria Wilson was beautiful as an evil alien, but used a

rich, serious, Shakespearean voice that reminded you of Judith Anderson or Maggie Smith. Some of Forrister's best moments came with Catherine Hunsinger, playing the soon-to-be-abducted heroine.  There's an exercise in acting classes called "give and take," where two actors alternate allowing each other to take focus and dominate a scene. Hunsinger could have gotten some laughs as a stereotypical 1950's housewife, and given some to Forrister; instead, she wisely chose to downplay her performance, setting him up for vastly bigger laughs than either would have gotten separately.  As I wrote in the review, "Another example of her generosity on stage comes when the zombie-fied Scott Means attacks her; she swoons melodramatically...but at the same time, falls over the actor's shoulder in a perfectly-timed movement, allowing him to lift her easily, with as much grace as two ballet dancers.  Well, or pro wrestlers."

Hunsinger is a fearless performer, taking an emotionally demanding role in Spring Awakening the year before as the (semi-compliant) victim of a disturbing rape/seduction by the show's protagonist, yet somehow she managed to allow him to still seem deserving of the audience's sympathy. And then she tackled the Olivia Newton-John role in Grease (above) which is surely a daunting vocal challenge for the most talented of singers, but she filled Sandy's saddle oxfords with ease.  That incredible voice had its biggest test in Plan 9, as Hunsinger's character was pursued across stage and into the house by zombies.  The

original villains' make-up from the film was absurd enough, and here it was made even campier, yet Hunsinger chose to play the entire scene straight. As Chris Bickel cued some vintage movie chase-scene music and Hunsinger gamely screamed her head off, just for a moment I was no longer at Trustus.  Just for a moment I was a 13-year-old watching the Mummy or the Wolfman or the Creature abduct some forgotten heroine on the Universal or Hammer Studios back lot. Just for a few seconds there was a genuine chill down my back, as a brave young actress fully committed to being a terrified damsel in distress, running for her life from unspeakable horror.   Theatre is supposed to transport you, to take you out of yourself, and so this was for me, however briefly, the most memorable moment on stage in 2012.

So there are some of the things I enjoyed in the last year.  How about you?  That "comments" section below is there for a reason. What did you enjoy on stage in 2012?

~ August Krickel

 

"I Am My Own Wife" at the Trustus Side Door Theatre - a review

I Am My Own Wife, currently running in the Trustus Side Door Theatre, is simultaneously a candid, personal portrait of one unusual individual, and an almost epic overview, told in some 35 voices, of a half-century of societal changes in East Germany. Along the way, the play comments on the importance of preserving the artifacts of our shared cultural experiences,  and uses theatre as both a tool and a metaphor for the nature of history and memory as we perceive them.  Amazingly, one actor, Paul Kaufmann, accomplishes all of this by himself, alone on stage for nearly two hours, in an intimate 50-seat venue.

The title character calls herself Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, but Mahlsdorf is actually the suburb of East Berlin where she was born Lothar Berfelde, a man who lived and dressed as a woman through the Nazi and Communist regimes; for clarity, let's refer to Charlotte uniformly as "she."  Decades before gender-reassignment existed, Charlotte is no flamboyant cabaret performer, just a rather dowdy, soft-spoken, crazy-cat-lady sort of woman, working as an antiques dealer, then as curator and proprietor of her house-museum of vintage furniture and other domestic furnishings.  Post-reunification of Germany, playwright Doug Wright (inserting himself as a character into his own play) records Charlotte's oral history, seeing her tale of struggle and survival as inspirational and redemptive. But as Charlotte becomes a national cult celebrity, questions arise as to how much of her amazing story may have been exaggerated, how much may have been glossed over, and how much is self-serving.  Wright struggles both as character and author to reconcile his personal, emotional need to believe Charlotte, and his desire to reflect the actual truth.  Yet in a brilliant (and for me, entirely unexpected, although I should have seen it coming a mile away) resolution, Charlotte's own beliefs on the value of historic conservation transfer to the stage and provide an answer: history, written or spoken, is invariably told by someone, while an artifact speaks for itself, allowing each of us our own interpretation. As Wright realizes early on, Charlotte is her own most valuable cultural artifact.  Esoteric, philosophical questions like this alternate with vivid, first-person accounts of the war and its aftermath, and the extraordinary dangers faced by the gay community in a repressive society; not surprisingly, Wright's script won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Drama.

The play was not at all what I had expected. While kicking off the Side Door Theatre's "Sexploration" series (of shows exploring issues of sexuality) there really isn't much sex. In many ways it more closely resembles a live recreation of a detailed PBS documentary on Nazi-era Germany and its Cold War aftermath, incorporating narratives from survivors.  Charlotte's cross-dressing and gay lifestyle seem not all that different from experiences of Jews or devout Catholics, likewise determined to live life on their own terms, whatever the risk.  For me the most poignant moment was Charlotte's account of her own sort of rebel underground: risking her freedom and indeed life by providing a gathering spot for the gay community, once their club is closed down by the state.  In a truth-is-stranger-than fiction moment, Charlotte the obsessive collector and antiquarian salvages most of the original fixtures and furniture from the bar, recreating it in her basement.

Heather Abraham's set design is naturally limited by the tiny space, but the basics of what we need are there, i.e. the suggestion of a house/museum full of dusty, domestic relics. Lighting by Barry Sparks and sound by James A. Watts help establish particular moods and tones at just the right moment.   With a one-actor play, it's impossible to know where to give praise, to the performer or the director, so I'll credit both Kaufmann and director Ellen Douglas Schlaefer (who first collaborated on this show at Workshop five years ago) equally.  The majority of the dialogue is Charlotte telling her own story to the audience, but occasionally slipping into other characters from her life.  Most of these only have a few lines, but Kaufmann has a separate, unique voice for each.  The subtleties are impressive - Charlotte has the heaviest accent, so that we always remember where and when the action is taking place.  Occasionally this means Kaufmann is having a conversation with himself, but he does it almost all vocally, i.e. he retains the body language of Charlotte, simply altering his tone, pitch, and perhaps expression, rather than attempting to make a more definitive movement, or don some different costume or wig.  His voice as Charlotte is gentle and fairly high, although no different from many soft-spoken men. Only once does he convincingly affect the voice of a young woman, in a brief and amusing bit as the German equivalent of a valley girl. My favorite character, however, was Alfred Kirschner (the only character for which Kaufmann changes costume) who maintains a defiant, bitchy sort of battered dignity while incarcerated by the secret police.  I haven't seen Kaufmann play many sympathetic characters - even in the recent Next to Normal  (in which, astoundingly, he was performing nightly while presumably rehearsing this show!) I felt sorry for him, but didn't entirely like the character; here there are enough for anyone to find one to whom they can relate.

Admittedly, not everyone may want to see man in a dress playing different characters, or care about events that happened thousands of miles away and before many of us were born, or want to reflect on the conflicting natures of truth, memory and history.  I recently wrote that Columbia needed something like the late-night Last Call Series production of Plan 9 From Outer Space every weekend of the year. We also need dozens of one-performer plays like I Am My Own Wife, that showcase the talent of local theatre artists. Seeing a "serious" show like this in such an intimate space really makes you think you're in the middle of New York City, where plentiful audiences ensure lengthy runs for the edgiest or most controversial fare, in the tiniest of venues.  Sadly, there are only 5 chances left to see this one: tonight (Friday) Sat. the 13th, and then Thurs. 10/18 through Sat. 10/20.  All performances are at 8 PM; contact the box office at 254-9732 for more information, or visit www.trustus.org.

~ August Krickel

"Next to Normal" at Trustus Theatre - a Review by Jillian Owens

When I was asked to review Trustus Theatre’s first show of the season, Next to Normal, I was hesitant.  I don’t usually like musicals.  It seems like the vast majority that are being launched on Broadway nowadays are pure fluff – adaptations of 80’s and 90’s movies hoping to bank on an easily entertained populace’s desire for nostalgia and escapism.  But then there was this little gem that won the Tony for Best Score, Best Orchestrations, and Best Book by Tom Kitt (Music) and Brian Yorkey (Book and Lyrics).  It also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama - an uncommon honor for a musical.  “What am I in for?” I wondered. The story of a family being ripped apart by mental illness seems an unlikely subject for a musical, which is one of the reasons this one works so well.  The play opens on what appears to be a typical morning with Diana Goodman (played by Vicky Saye Henderson) preparing lunches for her husband, daughter, and son, and devolves into her throwing sandwiches on the floor.  Diana is not well.  She suffers from severe bipolar disorder, accompanied by hallucinations.   In the next few weeks, Diana visits her psychotherapist (played by Terrance Henderson) who adjusts and readjusts her meds until she is mentally numb, but deemed “stable”.   But she misses her highs and lows…making her something less than the most cooperative patient.

This show’s power comes from the twisted but strong ties between the characters.  Dan (Paul Kaufmann) loves Diana, but wonders who is crazier: her for her illness, or him for staying with her?   Natalie (Elisabeth Baker) is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the play.  She is struggling to be the perfect daughter, but gets lost in competition with her brother (the song “Super Boy and the Invisible Girl”), while living with the very real fear that her mother’s illness might be lurking somewhere in her DNA as well.  Fortunately, she has found a friend in her new love, Henry (played by Chase W. Nelson) whose struggle to keep her out of trouble is a haunting mirror image of the struggle between Dan and Diana.  I won’t give any spoilers here, but rest assured, the plot twists in surprising and heartbreaking ways that will leave you agog.

The entire cast is simply terrific.  Vicky Saye Henderson’s vocal chops are on perfect display here, and Paul Kaufmann’s numbers will make you tear up.  Terrance Henderson’s voice is powerful and lush, and he gives great dimension to what could easily have ended up being a throwaway role.  It’s exciting to see terrific young talent cropping up in Elisabeth Baker, Andy Bell, and Chase W. Nelson – all relative newcomers to the Trustus stage.  I look forward to seeing more from them.

Next to Normal, directed by Chad Henderson,  is the type of show Trustus does best.  They have taken an amazing script, combined it with a small but amazing cast, and put it on a simple but well-designed set.  Musical Director Tom Beard's orchestra is subtle and effective.  The music melds with the story seamlessly.  Spectacle and shows with huge casts have never been the ideal for such a small stage, and this one doesn’t need it.  This show is powerful…spine-tinglingly so.  This is a beautifully challenging piece of theatre that needed to be created, and demands to be seen.

You should see this show.  Yes…you.  Even if you don’t like musicals, and especially if you or anyone you love has been affected by mental illness.  You will leave the theatre profoundly affected.

This is the first show without Jim and Kay Thigpen at the helm (Happy Retirement!), and proof that you can still put your trust in Trustus.

~ Jillian Owens

Next to Normal runs at Trustus Theatre through Sat. Sept. 29th; contact the box office at 803-254-9732 for ticket information.

 

Review -- August: Osage County

Jasper loves dysfunctional families.  Wait, let's clarify that - Jasper loves Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas about dysfunctional families, and there's a doozy of one running right now through Sat. Nov. 12th, at Trustus Theatre. August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts, is billed as Jim Thigpen's directorial swan song; he and wife Kay, with whom he founded Trustus 26 years ago, will retire at the end of this season (see the current issue of Jasper at http://jaspercolumbia.net/current-issue/ for details.) Fortunately, he has assembled a highly functional cast of family, both literal (brother Ron Hale and daughter Erin Wilson) and theatrical (a veritable who's who of local theatrical talent) to bring this provocative and compelling work to Columbia audiences.

The show recounts a few weeks in the lives of the Weston family, disrupted by the disappearance of the father. His three daughters return home, family and significant others in tow, to support their mother, and along the way we meet an aunt, and uncle, a cousin, and a few innocent bystanders. I was only familiar with this work from some reviews I read a few years ago, when it premiered and promptly won the Tony and N.Y. Drama Critics' Circle Awards for Best Play, the Drama Desk and Outer Critics' Circle Awards for Best New Play, and the Pulitzer. As a result, I had some misconceptions going in.  This is in no way, shape or fashion a comedy, even a dark one.  There are certainly some witty lines; most of the characters are fairly eloquent people connected to academia, and often barbs spoken in moments of great anger, frustration, and passion get some big laughs. Nevertheless, this play is a tragedy of the ordinary, an examination of the dark underbelly of contemporary American society, depicted before us via one truly unfortunate family.

Likewise, the title notwithstanding, this isn't really a rural or country-themed play at all.  While there is a plaid shirt here, some cowboy boots there, a backdrop that suggests dull stucco or adobe walls, and a Native American housekeeper, the setting isn't so much Oklahoma as it is any desolate location, and the desolation is as much spiritual as literal. One character notes that this isn't the Midwest, but rather the Plains, which he compares to the Blues, just not as interesting.  Nor is the show particularly surreal or avant-garde, as I somehow had expected. Sadly, the obstacles that confront these characters (with perhaps one Southern Gothic exception) are all too commonplace: divorce, infidelity, youthful rebellion, repression, substance abuse, suicide, and depression. The language is sometimes quite eloquent and poetic, but more often quite down-to-earth and familiar.

Yet this is a tremendously entertaining evening at the theatre, thanks to the supremely talented cast. While each of the thirteen actors gets his or her moment to shine on stage, top honors have to go to Libby Campbell Turner, in the central role of Violet, the harsh matriarch of the Weston family. We first see Violet helplessly struggling to form her words and thoughts as a result of her addiction to painkillers; the effect is shocking, especially for those familiar with Campbell Turner's assertive stage presence in any number of shows over the last several decades. Have no fear, however: Violet's coherence returns with a vengeance, as she tries to bring down each of her three daughters in turn. We chillingly realize that while the pills may have loosened her tongue, they surely didn't create her venom.

Violet's main adversary is her eldest daughter, Barbara, played by Dewey Scott-Wiley. She and Paul Kaufmann (as her husband Bill) are masters of the stage whisper, which they must employ for a marital spat that they desperately wish to remain unheard.  Scott-Wiley expertly depicts this ordinary yet complex character, as we see her first channeling her father in an alcohol-fueled intellectual ramble, then mirroring her mother, attempting in vain to control all around her, while still clad in her nightclothes.

Another standout is Gerald Floyd, as Violet's amiable but long-suffering brother-in-law whom she bitingly notes is now the family patriarch "by default," after her husband's disappearance. In a play where characters often naturalistically talk over one another, timing is everything, and Floyd is the champ, portraying a man who rarely gets a word in edgewise, yet always makes his point known.  Late in the third act, his demand that his wife (played by Elena Martinez-Vidal) show some shred of decency and compassion to their son, was for me perhaps the most moving moment in the play.

Another cast member whose vocal talent must be noted is Ellen Rodillo-Fowler, as the housekeeper Johnna. Brassy and feisty just a few weeks ago in Third Finger, Left Hand, here she plays soft and stoic, often pausing a half-second before most of her lines, and thus showing the depth and thought behind them.  Ron Hale, as Violet's husband, shines in the opening scene, waxing poetic and philosophical while concealing the depths of despair into which he has fallen. Sarah Crouch as the granddaughter Jean, Joe Morales as the local Sheriff, Kevin Bush as the supposed loser cousin "Little" Charles, Erin Wilson as the frustrated, plain-Jane middle daughter, and Robin Gottlieb as the somewhat spoiled youngest daughter who foolishly thinks she has escaped the family cycle, all do fine work, many playing against type.  Stann Gwynn as Gottlieb's fiancé has perhaps the fewest lines, but is memorable for making the audience wonder which is creepier: his interaction with Jean (which quickly moves into "Like to watch gladiator movies?" territory) or his career as a yuppie entrepreneur profiting from the Persian Gulf conflict.

One suspects that just as every great actor must try Hamlet in his youth, Macbeth in middle age and Lear as he gets older, so too must every playwright, Letts included, take a stab at a tragedy of family dysfunction.  August: Osage County presents us with no moral or lesson, but rather portrays people making the choices they must, but then living with the consequences.  I was reminded more than once during the show of a line spoken by Clint Eastwood in the film Gran Torino, about how "the thing that haunts a man most is what he isn't ordered to do."

Critics have called this the first great play of the new century. I'm not so sure I'd quite go that far, but there are certainly echoes of any number of classics:  Lillian Hellman's "little foxes, that spoil the vines," the spectre of substance abuse from A Long Day's Journey Into Night,  the bleak sense of frustration and yearning from  Chekhov's The Three Sisters and Turgenev's A Month in the Country, families coping with long-repressed secrets from Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Ibsen's The Wild Duck,  and a dozen Tennessee Williams works, and the domestic battles in the homes of academics from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and On Golden Pond.   Shoot, stick togas on the Westons and you'd basically have the cursed House of Atreus.  Time will tell if this is the latest retelling of eternal themes from the human experience, or a well-crafted pastiche of those themes, designed as an acting tour-de-force for a talented ensemble.

Either way, it rarely gets better than this if you want to see some of Columbia's finest performers flexing their dramatic muscles in some rich and juicy material. Director Thigpen made a wise choice for his finale, and deftly pulls it all together for a rich and thought-provoking evening at the theatre.

If you're going, note that the show runs a solid three and a half hours, with two intermissions, but it feels like not much more than two. Just be sure to make dinner and babysitter arrangements accordingly.  Call the Trustus Box Office at 254-9732 for ticket information.

 

~ August Krickel