REVIEW: Hir at Trustus Theatre is an exceptional study in cultural constructs

By Cindi Boiter

 Libby Campbell stars in Hir

Libby Campbell stars in Hir

Taylor Mac’s dark comedy Hir, playing at Trustus Theatre’s Richard and Debbie Cohn Side Door Theatre, is a play not everyone in Columbia is going to be ready for. And that’s a shame. Because mixed into the comedy and irony and more than a few truly exquisite lines of dialogue may be some answers to the questions so many of us keep raising our fists to the sky and shouting. Questions like How, as in How did our culture get into the mess we’re in? And What, as in What are we going to do fix it?

But playwright Taylor Mac, also an author, actor, singer-songwriter, director, drag artist, Pulitzer Prize finalist, MacArthur fellow, and recipient of a slew of additional accolades, knows something not all of us want to admit, and something some of us aren’t even capable of understanding – that the culture we have constructed isn’t working, it hasn’t worked for a long time, and it may have never worked very well to begin with.

We enter into the world of Hir after the protagonist Paige, played brilliantly by Libby Campbell-Turner, has already made this realization. Having bought into the American dream of a house in the suburbs, a cookie-cutter marriage, and two darling boys supposedly guaranteeing a happily-ever-after, Paige has already found the folly in her actions given that her husband has inflicted pretty much every kind of abuse at his disposal on her, one of her sons is an arrogant young transsexual, the other a washed up military man with a penchant for doing drugs in all the wrong places (you’ll get this later), and home-sweet-home is built on a landfill, complete with clandestine pipes emitting dangerous gases. But rather than fight the reality as it presents itself to her, as so many Americans are wont to do, Paige has not only accepted, but embraced her new reality and at times appears to celebrate it.  

When her oldest son Isaac, played by Tristan Pack, returns from war to find the family unit he left behind in a state of comfortable chaos, (Dad had a stroke and appears on stage at curtain wearing clown make-up and a lady’s housecoat, his sister is now his brother, and all housekeeping has been abandoned), Paige and Isaac clash over her newly open-minded life philosophy. In trying to reassert the patriarchal structure that governed the family prior to his leaving he enlists the aid of his brother Max, played by Sebastian Liafsha, who had previously rejected all gender roles prescriptions but suddenly declares himself trans-masculine. Isaac relies on the tried and true performative guideposts of masculinity—rhetoric, denigration, intimidation, confederation, and, ultimately, violence—in his attempts to restore what he considers order to the household. But in a jaw-dropping final scene Mac exposes patriarchy for the paper tiger anyone who has ever studied the social sciences knows it to be. A simple human construct and nothing more.

Directed by Lindsay Rae Taylor, a third-year MFA Directing Candidate at USC with a pedigree that belies her academic status, (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and Tisch), there is great nuance in Campbell’s treatment of Paige and it’s easy to see these two powerhouse theatrical artists working well together. Campbell brings the personal insight of having grown to maturity enduring the silliness of performative masculinity her whole damn life and applies that experience to her interpretation of Paige. While her performance teeters toward madcap at times, and the character could have been played closer to unhinged, Campbell keeps her version of Paige grounded, self-aware. In many ways Paige is a feminist prophet and Campbell plays the prophet comfortably.

Cleverly enough, it is Max’s story (previously Maxine’s) that provides the foundation on which the larger story is built. Liafsha, a student at White Knoll High School, is a charismatic young actor who plays Max as youthfully arrogant about hir enlightenment. It is from Max that Paige learns key terms that help her navigate the “paradigm shifts” of her new world. In fact, it is the adaptation of the newly created pronoun hir, a combination of him and her, which gives the play its title.

Ripley Thames convincingly plays the role of stroke victim Arnold, Paige’s husband, with generosity and humility. Costume designer Jessica Bornick effectively dresses Thames’ character in just about as unflattering a costume as any man could manage wearing and Thames does it with ease. The chaos of the setting is created by Sam Hetler who keeps the audience on edge wondering if the players might fall into the dishevelment of the set or be squashed by a falling mattress.  Patrick Michael Kelly, Tyler Omundsen, and Logan Davies provide sound, lighting, and scenic design, and Barbara Smith is the stage manager.

It should also be said that this writer had the pleasure of seeing Taylor Mac perform three years ago at Spoleto Festival in Charleston and judy’s one-person cabaret show at the Woolfe Street Theatre was profoundly transgressive then. (Mac uses the pronoun judy rather than him/her.) The fact that Mac’s Hir is playing in Columbia at all is a telling tribute to Trustus Theatre and proof, once again, that Trustus is the shiny glint on the steel blade that keeps the Columbia performing arts scene in the 21st century.

See this play and talk about it when it’s over. Let yourself question the efficacy or futility of the constructs Hir draws into question—masculinity, homemaking, institutionalized education, college, and more, but mostly patriarchy and how “the whole alphabet of gender” undermines it so damningly.

Hir runs through June 9th and tickets are available at Trustus.org

 

Cindi Boiter is the executive director of The Jasper Project and editor of Jasper Magazine

Review: Workshop Theatre's String of Pearls

Frank Thompson is a frequent theatre critic for JASPER, who is reviewing for his "home theatre.” Mr. Thompson wishes to freely disclose that he is employed as Box Office Manager for Workshop, is a frequent director with the company, and serves as Vice-President of the Board of Trustees. He has put on his blinders for what he thinks is a fair and unbiased review, and will do his best to deliver.

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STRING OF PEARLS

 Presented by Workshop Theatre at Columbia College’s Cottingham Theatre, runs this Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets can be purchased by calling (803) 799.6551

 

****

 

   A “McGuffin” is a term used mostly in film, to describe a single object or event around which a story revolves. The titular jewels in Workshop Theatre’s String Of Pearls serve just such a purpose, as a bevy of female characters find their disparate lives impacted by the temporary stewardship of a string of perfect pearls. Through the passing of several decades, we see the pearls elicit joy, sorrow, confusion, and hope, along with a multitude of different emotions and reactions from twenty-seven women, played by an ensemble of six actresses. Ellen Rodillo-Fowler, Cathy Carter Scott, Christine Hellman, Krista Forster, Sandra Suzette Hamlin-Rivers, and Alyssa Velazquez, each at the top of her game, manage to create believable, three-dimensional characters, some of whom we get to know quite well, and others we glimpse for only a moment or two. Each, however, helps to move along the plot, and there is scarcely a wasted word in the script, which makes for a streamlined, well-paced production.

  Director Zsuzsa Manna has obviously put a great deal of thought and research into bringing each character, no matter how minor, into her overall vision. Watching the chameleon-like changes each actress made physically, vocally, and stylistically, truly created the illusion of a much larger cast. (Having known, and/or worked with most of the cast, even I had to occasionally squint and ask myself “now which one is that?”) Special commendation to Costume Designer Alexis Docktor, who created multiple eras and class levels, each of which were appealing and period-appropriate. Helping her create the magic is Wig Designer, Christine Hellman, whose skills clearly are not limited to performing. At one point, Velasquez, a natural brunette, sported thick, flowing, blonde locks that could have easily passed for a 1970s’ Farrah Fawcett hairdo, and Rodillo-Fowler’s scruffy pink punk ‘do is a true work of retro art.

   The set is simple, but effective. Two small platforms, a handful of moderately-sized props, and two elegant sheer curtains provide the representation for dozens of locales. Minimalism works well with this script, allowing the acting to shine as the central focus. Scenic and Sound Designers, Zsuzsa Manna and Dean McCaughan, respectively), have taken a subtle and most effective approach, with minor changes of lighting and/or the tiny ding of a single bell completely transforming the scene.

   Lest I seem completely biased, I will say that String Of Pearls is not flawless. At Sunday’s matinee, a line or two got dropped, but quickly corrected, and the occasional entrance seemed a bit late, most likely due to costume change issues, which tend to smooth out by any show’s second weekend.

   A word to parents, the extremely conservative, and the easily-offended. String Of Pearls contains a fair amount of grown-up dialogue, some of it extremely straightforward, and several adult situations. And yes, the pun you’re probably chuckling about right now is, indeed, mentioned in detail. (You may want to leave the pre-teens at home for this one, and let them enjoy Workshop’s June production of Shrek, Jr. )

   Columbia College’s Cottingham Theatre is a comfortable, easily-located facility (just GPS 1301 Columbia College Drive, and you’ll be able to drive straight to the door), and the acoustics are top-notch. Even stage whispers could be easily heard. The sight lines are clear, and the seats a bit small, but comfy. That said, it’s an older building without all the fancy bells and whistles that have now become industry standard, and has a slightly-frayed-at-the-edges feel, though I personally find that to be a charming asset to any theatre.

   String Of Pearls is a perfect show for those seeking an intelligent, funny, grown-up look at life. It made me think of the internet meme with words for familiar, but difficult-to-describe, feelings, specifically sonder, which is "the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own." Originally from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, sonder has now entered the vernacular, and it was sonder that I felt while watching the show. One object, twenty-seven complex individuals, and one hilarious, poignant, thought-provoking trip through a cornucopia of human experiences.

-FLT3

21 May, 2018

REVIEW: The Restoration's Constance - An Original Musical

by Jon Tuttle

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Eight years and several iterations after its 2010 debut, the Restoration’s Constance is finally and fully on its feet at Trustus, and it is a monolith.  

 

A fictional musical saga set in Reconstruction-era Lexington, the play defies summation except to say they’re all there, all those primal southern tropes, like bigotry, miscegenation, old money, zealotry, revenge, hypocrisy, and violence.   It’s unwieldy and exhausting and overwhelming and an excellent example of what theatre is for. 

 

It’s elemental, is what it is.   It begins with fire—the actual fire set by Sherman’s troops in 1865 at St. Stephen’s Church—and ends in flood, the drowning of an entire town by an embittered native son.   It is earth, in its emphasis on home and land and the genius of place.    And it is air, or rather ayre, an aural palette of (how to describe it?) Americana/heartland/folk balladry. 

 

That Constance is a protracted labor of love between two old friends--Trustus Artistic Director Chad Henderson and The Restoration founder Daniel Machado--becomes obvious in its attention to detail and commitment of resources.   Henderson wrote the book, quilting together Machado’s songs with dialogue so assured you can’t hear the writing.  In directing it, he deployed many of the theatrical gadgets in his Swiss Army knife.  And he hired Tom Beard, always a pro, as musical director, and Jessica Bornick, whose costumes are terrific.  The result is a multi-media, multi-modal theatrical tsunami, more akin to Bernstein’s Mass than to the last musical you saw.

 

The flood scene, for instance, is magnificently effectuated by the “floating” of church pews by members of the ensemble.   The fire is a combination of lighting mayhem, percussive stomping, urgent strings and

choreography.   Virtually every scene introduces a fresh visual element--Brechtian projections, newsreel footage, scrim silhouettes, a cascade of flying paper, and (this was brilliant) an unruly mob armed with creepy flashlights marauding the auditorium.  Meanwhile, hanging ominously on the back wall: heavy ropes, impossible to ignore in a play about race.

 

And there are unmistakable references to Our Town, appropriate in such a panoramic homage to our town, such as the adult Constance’s observation of herself at different ages, or the funeral scene, or in Paul Kaufman’s (riveting) Reverend Harper, at first a unifying and benevolent consciousness presiding over these affairs like Wilder’s Stage Manager,  later reduced by time and tribulation to a ragged, wild-haired, raging alcoholic howling about the “Werewolf of Ballentine” and looking as horrifically grizzled as Steve Bannon on a good day.   

 

The cast itself is colossal, consisting of twenty-five actors led by Trustus veterans Kaufman and, in the role of the adult Constance Owen, Vicky Saye Henderson, whom I cannot review fairly because her singing beguiles me.   I think, however, she might be magnificent because what I wanted most was more of her.  

 

And here begin my apprehensions.  

 

The play is actually two, each its own act.  In the first, we meet teenage Constance (played by Brittany Hammock) and her love interest, the mixed-race Aaron Vale (Mario McClean).  So convincing is their chemistry, so harmonious their voices, so solid their performances, that the play is never better than when they are on stage.  Indeed, their scenes together provide the evening’s best moments and melodies (like “I Can’t Stop Wanting You”).  If such actors are the inheritors of Trustus’ reputation, then the theatre is in excellent hands. 

 

But the first act is so long as to test the limits of the even the most heroic middle-aged prostate.   This being a work-still-in-progress, further pruning is likely to be done.  A good place to start, so say I, would be the subplot involving a local troupe’s production of Othello, which seems to ape Waiting for Guffman and features the embarrassing caricature of a flaming primo uomo.  Or perhaps the glimpses we are given into the troubled marriage of Col. and Mrs. Palmer, he a pompous developer with an eye for the colored help, she a pious shrew competing for his attention.   To be fair, their story is actually quite compelling, particularly as it is embodied by Stan Gwynn and Len Marini, but it tries to compete with the real story here, that being Constance and Aaron’s, whose secret wedding in a short, lovely benedictory would have made an excellent act-closer.  And should have.  

 

Better there, so say I, than much later, at Aaron’s death scene, and for two reasons.  One is that it’s odd.  No sooner has he suffered an infarction than he calls for his guitar, sits up, and begs Constance, through song, not to “let my music die with me.  Don’t let it go into the ground with me.  Write it down, write it down, write it down for me.”   It’s a fine piece of music, but it would have made more sense had it been sung a capella, since he’s, you know, dying.  And until that point he hadn’t really identified so strongly with his music.  He took more pride, or so I thought, in his skills as a builder.   

 

At any rate, I was sorry to see him go, partly because I really liked him, but mostly because I knew the play had just created for itself a considerable structural challenge.  Conventional Dramatic Wisdom dictates that a second act must trump the first; it must quicken the themes and conflicts already established and more deeply develop its characters.   But now a romantic lead was dead, so that story was over.  Where to now? 

 

Conventional Dramatic Wisdom can be wrong, of course. Witness Robert Schenkkan’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Kentucky Cycle, a play very similar in texture and scope.  It’s actually nine different, barely-connected plays spanning two-hundred years and running six hours.  It shouldn’t work, but it does, and Constance shares its DNA.   And it attempts the same sort of narrative teleportation:  in Act II we are introduced to Thomas Vale, Constance and Aaron’s quadroon son, who now becomes our protagonist because Constance is glimpsed only rarely.

 

In an opening duet, ten-year-old Thomas (Henry Melkomian) and his friend Henry (Christopher Hionis) sing (quite well) that “I don’t understand” why race would separate people, and that refrain interweaves gracefully through the rest of the play, which is essentially a catalogue of young Thomas’ frustrations. These are (a) the death, in war, of Henry; (b) unrequited affection for Willodean, on account of the one-drop rule; (c) the foreclosure on the family home, and (d) there’s this hooker.   And so the stage is set for the violent climax, and when it comes, it’s a cathartic sensory spectacle played out before Constance’s eyes so that the full measure of her loss can be realized.   The whole act has the shape of a perfectly plausible plotline, the closing of a long and vicious circle, really the story of the South itself.

 

And yet….

 

Perhaps there are again too many distractions.   At one point, for instance, two of Colonel Parker’s mill hands interrupt a New Year’s Eve party bearing a bag of bloody cotton testifying to the death of Flora, the object of his unreconstructed lust.   But because the contents of the bag better resemble the offal of a difficult liposuction, his grief seems comical.  And then, for instance, there’s a song about Little Round Shoes, which “I don’t understand.”    And the cast turns over almost completely, as generations do, and I get that, but I kept wondering where Constance went.   When in the coda she is discovered, years later, recounting her story to a stranger on a train, she feels like a stranger on a train. 

 

And yet, and yet.

 

“Constance” means fidelity, commitment, perseverance, which perhaps explains the sensation of comfort attendant to our last encounter with her.   It is comforting, at play’s end, to look back upon her life and see so many familiar stories there, and so much sorrow, and more than that, so much goodness. 

 

The theatre’s purpose is tell stories of other people so that we can find designs for living our own real stories—which are unwieldy and exhausting and overwhelming.  They are epic poems, is what they are, and one ought to appreciate a piece of art that sings one.   

 

Constance may become a permanent part of Trustus’ repertoire, a play it can return to in years to come, and it ought to, because it’s uniquely theirs, and it’s ours, and it’s really quite extraordinary. 

 

Jon Tuttle is Professor of English and Director of University Honors at Francis Marion University and former Literary Manager at Trustus Theatre, where his play BOY ABOUT TEN will premier in August.

 

 

REVIEW: Flight at USC is a Needed Addition to American History and Drama

"We are weightless and unbound by gravity ..."

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Flight, conceived and directed by Steve Pearson and written by Robyn Hunt, is not an easy play. To start with, it is an historical drama exploring a subject about which little history has been written. Its fictional characters, who lived lives split between the theatrical stage and the aviation hangar, are based loosely on actual female aviation pioneers whose lives were similarly fragmented. Add to this a deep thematic attachment to the work of Anton Chekov, and top it with a singular character whose place in time and space is hard to peg, and the result is nothing less than a study in complexity. But bear with the play’s construct, lean into its sometimes surprising interludes into dance and theatrics, stay with the play, and, ultimately, the viewer is delivered a simple and straightforward message, which is this: Though women are remembered too often for the performative work they do, (and there is a performative nature to far too much of the work of women), it is the unlauded milestones women have made—the ones accomplished when they were not being watched, critiqued, or directed—that have produced the greatest resonance, not just for the individual women themselves, but for humanity writ large.

A production of the University of SC Department of Theatre and Dance, Flight is making its second appearance in Columbia. First presented in 2009 by department professors Pearson and Hunt, Flight took wing on a national tour during which its script was tightened and refined by the playwright Hunt. It returns to Columbia this month with some of the original cast who also served as original researchers into the history and culture of women in aviation upon which the play is based.

The story of two French actress/aviators and a similarly ground-breaking woman documentarian, Flight takes the audience into an airline hangar in which the women appear to be constructing a plane in preparation for a trailblazing flight from Paris to Moscow. In fact, over the course of the play, the actors actually (re)assemble a ¾ scale replica of an early monoplane called the Bleriot XI, (previously hand-fashioned by Pearson). Always in motion, Madeleine, played by Gabriela Castillo, and Sophie, played by Kimberly Gaughan, create strong supporting roles for one another as their characters are juxtaposed in disposition and delivery, with Gaughan as intensely restrained—think tempered drama just below the surface of her character’s personality—as Castillo is light and optimistic. These women require no sympathy, despite the unaccommodating culture in which they work and live. They are empowered by their own dignity and dedication to their science. Gaughan and Castillo do their characters ample justice and should be proud of their work.

As the documentarian Alisse, playwright Hunt lends a diligent gentility to her character—so composed, so professional in the face of adversity—and her blending of the kind of maturity one can only admire with her easy manipulation of the stage, floating in and out of the machinations of filmmaking and the cultural machinations of womanhood are deliberate and nuanced.

Eric Bultman plays the part of the oft aloft Jean Luc, a prescient and somewhat ethereal combination of mystic and mechanic who seems to represent not only science but a more benevolent patriarchy than the one in which the women operate, offering a fluid form of interactive narration that has a grounding effect for the audience. Bultman is inordinately well-suited for the authoritative presence his character demands and, particularly in his tango with Hunt, which seems to so beautifully marry science to art, exhibits an easy command of the stage.

In the role of Gerard, a good-natured compatriot of the women from the theatre, Nicolas Stewart faces challenges in displaying a sense of comfort with his character’s physical form, lacking variability from the easy-going persona to which he so frequently returns. Still, there is much to look forward to in this young actor’s future.

The gradual materialization of an almost full-sized airplane on the stage aside, the rest of the set, also created by Pearson, is sparse but strong, exhibiting a captivating design element in its color and texture. Even more engaging is the costuming of the characters, designed by Lisa Martin-Stuart and Kristy Hall, which makes no apparent concessions to convenience or cost in the adherence to authenticity. It is satisfying to see period costuming so thoroughly implemented with no tell-tale signs of the 21st century sneaking out from around the edges.  A light and lovely score accompanies the play’s progress.

It is cliché to say that Flight reminds us of how far we have come yet how far we still need to go, but it must be said. These powerful characters leave us with the optimistic words that we, as women, are weightless and unbound by gravity. But until we transcend, or at a minimum reconfigure, the performance of womanhood as culture demands it, we may never fully get off the ground.

Flight is at the Center for Performance Experiment and runs through April 29th.

Cindi Boiter is the executive director of the Jasper Project and editor of Jasper Magazine.

REVIEW: Fun Home - The Queer Musical I Did Not Know I Needed

by Connie Mandeville

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When I told my partner she was lucky enough to be my date to a musical that had a lesbian lead character, she was less than thrilled. “A musical?” she asked. Her skepticism was understandable. Accurately portraying the complexity of coming out on a stage through song and dance seems farfetched. But as we watched Alison Bechdel’s story unfold, we both saw parts of our own stories, our own struggles, but also our own victories in her experiences.

 

Fun Home depicts the story of a queer woman who grew up in a rural Pennsylvania town during the 1960s and 1970s. It also follows her journey of discovering her sexual orientation as a college student at Oberlin College in the 1980s. Based on the tragicomic memoir, the story is told by an adult Alison (performed by Robin Gottlieb) while she forces herself through both the happy and painful memories of growing up and coming out of the closet ultimately to write her book. These memories are portrayed through flashbacks with a small Alison (performed by Clare Kerwin) and a college-aged Alison (performed by Cassidy Spencer), and as revealed in the opening scene, these flashbacks are clouded by her father’s (performed by Paul Kaufmann) suicide. Although Alison is the center of the narrative, Fun Home is also the story of her parent’s tumultuous relationship because of her father’s bisexuality and extramarital affairs which led to his death. Her father’s experience living in the closet is touching, but her mother (performed by Marybeth Gorman) triumphs as the tragic hero of the tale because of the sacrifices she made not only to maintain appearances of a perfect nuclear family, but also to keep her family together.

 

What is so refreshing about the coming out story and queer experience in Fun Home is the balance of both the blissful excitement and the excruciating heartbreak of discovering one’s sexual orientation. It is not an exploitation of queer pain, but instead a celebration of self discovery which is emphasized by solos wonderfully performed by Kerwin and Spencer. From Alison’s nervousness and excitement to attend her first Gay Straight Alliance meeting, to her feelings of validation at her very first sighting of a butch woman, this is more than just the story of her parent’s rejection when she first came out to them. Alison even has a moment of complete ecstasy the first time she sleeps with another woman, a moment so groundbreaking she burst out into song about changing her major to sleeping with her new girlfriend. Although the pains and pleasures of coming out are weaved together to create an accurate representation, Alison’s masculine gender expression is often conflated with sexual orientation which is inaccurate and borderline transphobic. A young girl rejecting dresses and other gender stereotypes does not always lead to a lesbian identity, and there are many transmen who date men.

 

In the wake of the MeToo Movement, there were aspects of Fun Home that were problematic. Her father is a teacher who had sex with male students who were underage, which is not only statutory rape, but it also perpetuates the stereotype of gay men preying on young men. Her father’s predatory behavior is never fully addressed except for one flippant comment from her mother. It is understandable to overlook her father’s abuse of power not only because of the circumstances of his death, but also because it is difficult to fairly judge someone you love so much. Additionally, Fun Home, both the tragicomic and musical, was created before the MeToo Movement went viral so the writers most possibly lacked the social context to delve into Alison’s father’s crimes.

 

Despite the tragedies of Alison’s life, Fun Home is not a depressing tale. Instead, the brutally honest depiction of coming out as a lesbian in a rural area was the queer musical I did not know I needed. 

REVIEW: Columbia City Ballet's Off the Wall and Onto the Stage by Susan Lenz

Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green

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For me, writing a review of a one-night-only performance is difficult, especially since my viewpoint is as an expert audience member. No matter what I say, there’s no chance for others to attend the show to agree with me or not. So, I’m approaching this review from another angle. I’m comparing last Friday, February 9th performance of Off the Wall and Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green to earlier productions of the same show. I’m hoping that this article will explain why the public should see any ballet more than once. Ballets, even the classical ones, change over the years, from season to season, from cast to cast, through new costuming and staging and even through new choreography.

 

Columbia City Ballet’s Off the Wall has undergone plenty of changes since it’s 2005 premier. I attended that lavish February 4th opening at the Koger Center and largely agreed with the New York Times review which stated, “The evening seems short on specifics of Gullah life, let alone the evocation of actual characters” and went on to note a lack of coherence in the choreography and a disconnect between the two acts. That was thirteen years ago. 

 

Since that time, Artistic Director William Starrett has been polishing the show. In fact, this signature production is occasionally presented in a scale-down version as it was during the summer of 2014 for the 39th annual national assembly of The Links Foundation, an international nonprofit. That forty-two minute performance outside Washington, DC for an audience of 4,000 earned the company $50,000.  The first act vignette, “Love of the Harvest” to Marlena Smalls’ “Carry Me Home,” is frequently performed alone. I saw Amanda Summey and prima ballerina Regina Willoughby dance this remarkably touching piece last month in remembrance of Coralee Harris, a long-time arts supporter and former chairman of the board for the ballet company.  Basically, Off the Wall has been an active part of Columbia City Ballet’s repertoire since it debuted and is constantly being refined. 

 

The second time I saw the production was in 2011. Changes, especially in the second act, improved the experience. Individual personalities better emerged in the Silver Slipper Dance Hall and an interior church scene was added as a final number. Jonathan Green’s paintings, dance, and choral music brought the audience to a standing ovation then and again last Friday night. 

 

I generally complain about Columbia’s audience rising to their feet when the curtain falls as if a requirement, but it was impossible to stay seated in the crescendo of energy brought about by dancers popping up and down in their pews to high-spirited vocals by Elliott Hannah and singers from the Claflin University Gospel Choir, the University of South Carolina, ATOF, and Benedict College.  The show ends very, very well, especially in a space as open as the Township Auditorium. Audience and performers melded into a singular celebration.  It was terrific.

 

Other highlights include billowing fabric from which Regina Willoughby magically appears, Maurice Johnson striking a pose so perfectly that it suggests he modeled for Jonathan Green’s Fishing Break, and Amanda Summey’s feisty character in “He Treats Your Daughter Mean”. It was also a pleasure to see guest principal dancer Paunika Jones return to Columbia.

 

Most important to the success of this ballet is the way large-scale scrims of Jonathan Green’s painting really do come to life. Even from the 2005 debut, this difficult task worked. Translucent backdrops give way to specific places and characters. Yet, the spacious Township Auditorium seems to dwarf these backdrops when compared to their impact at the Koger Center. Fortunately, a multi-media projection off-set this spatial concern and actually showed even more of Jonathan Green’s low country images. Overall, the change in venue made the performance new and fresh.

 

The next time I see Off the Wall and Onto the Stage, there will be other changes.  How do I know this?  Well, in 2005 I had the pleasure of watching former prima ballerina Mariclare Miranda.  The New York Times liked her too, describing her as “an elegant classical dancer (who) proves that some exalted titles are not merely honorific.”  Later this season Regina Willoughby will retire, too.  Therefore, the future will bring another dancer to sizzle in Little Esther Phillips 1962 R&B hit “Please Release Me”.  I will look forward to that show.