REVIEW: Misery is Optional at Trustus Theatre

"Rest assured there isn’t a weak or underdeveloped character or a wasted moment." - Frank Thompson

 Director and Co-Writer Dewey Scott-Wiley

Director and Co-Writer Dewey Scott-Wiley

Words were spoken, hearts were broken, but now I hope you see it was the whiskey talking, not me.”  - Jerry Lee Lewis

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Though The Killer’s famous ditty about the perils of drinking was considered humorous in the 1950s (and still has a great tune), it’s no longer acceptable to laugh at alcohol/drug induced misbehavior. That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised at how much I laughed during Misery Is Optional, running tonight through Sunday at Trustus Theatre. Developed through the Midlands Tech-based Harbison Theatre Incubator Project, Misery Is Optional is a collection of vignettes and short monologues, taken verbatim from interviews with those suffering from chemical addiction. Their stories are often tragic, but Director Dewey Scott-Wiley wisely includes moments of hilarity throughout the show, without ever abandoning the seriousness of the disease or its impact on its victims and those in their personal orbits. Scott-Wiley’s staging is simple and minimalist, placing the focus squarely on the people and their experiences. While often colorful and eccentric, the many characters embodied by the cast of four are never lampooned or made into cartoonish figures. Scott-Wiley adds a glaze-thin layer of heightened reality at just the right moments, and at other times deals with stark reality head-on. The result is an immersive, emotionally engaging, and accurate-yet-respectful look at the world from the addict’s perspective. Character changes are done seamlessly onstage, with a simple change of hats or donning a pair of glasses, etc.
 

 Co-Writer, Christine Hellman

Co-Writer, Christine Hellman

The cast is uniformly strong, and features Scott-Wiley, alongside Christine Hellman, Arischa Conner Frierson, and Jason Stokes. This ensemble of four well-known Columbia actors flows seamlessly from one character to the next. Many are recurring, while others we glimpse only once. From well-heeled society alcoholics to homeless heroin addicts, the entire socio-economic spectrum is explored, subtly driving home the point that addiction cuts across all cultural lines. There is no linear plot, per se, but there is an unmistakable thematic arc, taking us from the darker, hopeless stories through the process of intervention and treatment, and ending on a bright note of hope.

Each of the four performers presents a chameleon-like ability to seamlessly navigate the waters of dialect, social class, education level, and a spectrum of emotions, which will likely leave each theatre-goer with his or her favorite characters, so I won’t prejudice anyone by sharing mine. Rest assured there isn’t a weak or underdeveloped character or a wasted moment. Scott-Wiley utilizes a circular-pattern style of blocking throughout the show, which creates a perpetually kinetic atmosphere. Whether physically or emotionally, there is always motion, and the overall pacing and fluidity of the show are clearly well-rehearsed and perfected.

Misery Is Optional is a non-season special event, being hosted by Trustus, so there are only three more chances to catch it. I would urge anyone who enjoys good theatre to experience this production. This isn’t a “Hey kids, don’t do drugs” Afterschool Special, nor does it speak only to those in recovery. It has a message, but it’s also a fascinating, funny, and enjoyable show.

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

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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
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Review: Trustus Theatre Presents Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet -- a Play for our Times

Marcus or The Secret of Sweet is the third installment of The Brother/Sister Plays by noted playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney whose work inspired the now Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated film Moonlight. Marcus is a coming-of-age story for the title character Marcus Eshu who is haunted by dreams and memories of his father Elegba that lead Marcus on a path to discovering his secret of sweetness, or key to his sexuality.

 

The play begins with two powerful images. The first occurs when Marcus’ dreams are dramatized by the full cast and narrated by cast member Chris Jackson while he is showered upon symbolizing a storm soon to come either within Marcus or the impending Hurricane Katrina to his town in Louisiana. The second occurs at the dynamic funeral procession for Marcus’ father where the cast marches around the theatre singing a Negro spiritual to honor Elegba’s death.

 

The play takes risks as the characters themselves verbalize their own asides, stage instructions and emotions, to the audience. At times in the play, this is helpful and even humorous, and at other times, it can appear condescending. The play also narrates the history of homophobia within the African American community all the way back to slavery, purporting that homosexuality would have been unprofitable for plantation owners, thereby eventually unaccepted and discouraged by black people. There is, finally, the running motif of Marcus’ sexuality perhaps being inherited from his father, embracing the theory of the so-called gay gene.

 

Marcus’ mother played by Celeste Moore declares in the play, “Ain’t nothing sweet about having a soft son.” The word sweet is a colloquialism used in the town for gay. Marcus labors intensely to unearth his father’s sweetness leading him to long for the affection of his uncle played by Jabar Hankins. Marcus’ dreams intensify the closer he gets to this secret that somehow everyone knows but him.

 

The cast complements each other well. Katrina Blanding nails her performance as Aunt Elegua with the candor and humor of Tyler Perry’s Madea character. John Floyd as Marcus Eshu is believable and engaging.

 

Marcus or The Secret of Sweet at Trustus is an education in drama and black culture. The play teaches the process of weathering the storms of internal and external conflict within the paradigms of family and community. 

-- Len Lawson

Len Lawson is the co-editor of the poetry anthology, Hand in Hand: Poets Respond to Race, releasing on February 19th from Muddy Ford Press. https://www.facebook.com/events/398977450447357/

REVIEW: Trustus Theatre’s production of BOY

by Kyle Petersen

 

Trustus Theatre’s production of BOY, the Anna Ziegler play which has won critical praise for its depiction of a heartbreaking attempt to “decide” a young boy’s sexual identity following a botched circumcision as an infant, is one of those plays that runs the risk of being too tightly-constructed without the emotional intimacy of the performances. Opening and closing with mirroring, highly symbolic set pieces at a Halloween party, the play flashes back and forth between a “present” time in the late 1980s as we learn about the young man known as Adam Turner and how we was raised as a girl, “Samantha,” in the 1960s. Rounding out the cast, there’s bewildered parents, a fussy and overconfident psychologist, and, of course, a love interest for the protagonist.

There’s a certain predictable, although occasionally frustrating, momentum which carries through Adam’s early years as his parents and doctor make ineffectual attempts at strictly socializing him as a girl so as to make sure the operation and hormones “take,” and it’s probably here the play lands its sharpest blows. Much of that comes from how acutely Stann Gwynn portrays Dr. Wendell Barnes, the gender specialist convinced of the absolute power of nurture over nature. Gwynn lends that character both a sense of brilliance inextricably linked to a pompous sense of superiority that often seems to plague status-driven academics and researchers. He’s a delight, a next-gen Freud with a tantalizing intimate relationship with Adam that eventually shatters his clinical remove. Gwynn’s fully-realized performance sits comfortably next to strong performances by Jennifer Little and Harrison Saunders, who play Adam’s parents Trudy and Doug Turner. The desperate drive and sense of helplessness that pervades Little’s performance, as well as the blue-collar distrust that Saunders’ Doug brings to the proceedings feel true to type. While some of their behavior can feel almost too pat and accommodating to the liminal uncertainty surrounding sexual identity, the actors make these characters real and heartbreaking in the tight quarters of Trustus’ Side Door. Doug’s rare, beer-assisted conversation with Adam about how we was raised is a special theatrical moment, and one that depends deeply on the actors to bring to life. 

Despite strong performances, there’s an almost documentary-like impulse towards this gender identity-confused coming-of-age narrative. It’s as if in the desire to craft a teachable moment, Ziegler is a bit too dismissive of the thorny ways that socialization still cuts deep, in unpredictable ways, across every person’s complicated sense of self.

This is perhaps even more apparent in the parallel, “present” time plot involving Adam’s romance with Jenny Lafferty, played by Martha Hearn with a quirky confidence that feels straight out of a mid-2000s indie flick. Hearn clearly sketches out her own take on Jenny, something which doesn’t always seems to jibe with the shallowness of the character in the script or with the expected drama of a young woman in the 1980s discovering puzzling, even betraying secrets about her romantic partner’s past. That’s not to say Hearn doesn’t turn in a solid performance, just that it stretches the believability just a bit. 

Where Trustus’s production shines brightest, though, is in the performance of Patrick Dodds as Adam. Dodds is a young actor who has dazzled in other Trustus productions like Spring Awakening and American Idiot but who here, with his musical showmanship set entirely aside, he proves his formidable acting chops as he jumps through the nervous and kindly self-effacing version of his character to the belligerent and angry 23-year-old still struggling with his tumultuous upbringing. Dodds heightens every gut-wrenching moment that Adam faces, only to disappear, often just seconds later, into the childlike wonder and puzzlement of the young “Samantha,” something he does without the benefit of a costume or makeup change (after all, he’s still “Adam”). His potent performance alone is worth the price of admission, a masterly effort that places him firmly in the top tier of Columbia’s theatre talent.

The set itself is relatively bare, a small, utilizing bright lights and a raggedly zig-zagging stage set up in the round with just a few crucial props to block off the scenes and a desk off to one side with a helpful calendar to denote which moment in time we’ve bounced around to. It’s simple and effective, with subtle flourishes of panache, something also true of Ilene Fins’ direction, moving these actors in careful concert in keeping with the taunt framework of Ziegler’s play. 

Although not without some minor flaws, it feels wrong to undercut the emotional impact of this production. While I have quibbles with the overarching narrative, particularly as its gleans a much happier story than the one that inspired it, tender, nuanced moments abound as the characters work their way through some of the earliest clinical attempts at addressing the uncertainties and hardships of pressing a binary understanding of gender identity and sexual biology onto a messy, complex world. Fins and her troupe of actors nails both the 21st century lens that we have as well as the realities of the situation decades earlier which is both revelatory and necessary. This is the kind of play that you might do well to start off 2017 with.

BOY plays on the Cohn Side Door Stage at Trustus Theatre through January 21. For times and tickets go to trustus.org.

REVIEW: Kimi Maeda's Ephemera Trilogy at the Trustus Side Door Theatre

Homecoming By: Kyle Petersen

Ephemera (noun):

  1. things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time.
  2. items of collectible memorabilia, typically written or printed ones, that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity.

"The year the law of gravity was abolished the moon wandered away. In the excitement we didn't notice that the Nakashimas disappeared. You had to hold on tight or things floated off. I suppose they never really put down solid roots."  –Kimi Maeda

It’s difficult to leave a performance of Kimi Maeda’s Ephemera Trilogy, which runs through May 7th in the Trustus Side Door Theatre, without your head buzzing with questions. What is the relationship between storytelling and art, art and memory, memory and identity, identity and truth?

Maeda is not offering up answers, of course, but is certainly providing provocative new ways of tackling these questions. Her work is deeply invested in interrogating the act of storytelling itself, of how we come to know ourselves through creative expression, with all of its messy contours and murky revelations. Using stories of her parents (and, perhaps more to the point, the stories they have told her) as logical guideposts to understanding herself, Maeda’s work is grounded in sorting through the thorny reality that the telling of a story is an ephemeral act and, yet, also the fundamental way we come to make sense of our memories and ourselves as people. Each section of Ephemera, which was developed over a period of six years, employs a different stunning and innovative method of telling a story, each of which foregrounds its storytelling artifice while at the same time reaching for something that feels true, that feels real, in the process.

In the first part of Ephemera, “Homecoming,” Maeda uses a flashlight to bring paper cutouts to life as she ponders questions about her parent’s homes as well as the kind of fables and myths we all tell about home, what it’s supposed to say about who we are. The idea is that how we think about home is a kind of storytelling in and of itself. Maeda is both fascinated and distrustful of these questions, and you can sense that lack of sureness in both the pre-recorded narrative and the ever-so-slight shake of the flashlight as she moves across and through the miniature tableaux and brings it to life. This story doesn’t, can’t, exist without Maeda there, providing that thin light and fragile movement necessary to make sense of this piece of visual art. This phenomenon is something that occurs in each of the sections, a kind of implicit recognition that how both viewer and artist are being swayed and prodded by a distinct viewpoint, one that only exists in precisely this way in this one particular moment in time. Each performance, then, is a reminder of both the power of storytelling and its ephemeral, magical nature.

The second section, “The Crane Wife,” has Maeda performing elegantly wrought shadow puppetry as she weaves together the story of her mom coming to America from Japan with an old Japanese folktale. Framed by (real?) historical letters that Maeda pens and reads aloud in real-time, the interpretation of the crane wife tale she tells becomes intertwined with how the artist understands her Japanese-American identity. Maeda renders it lovingly. She also ponders the story’s intrinsic message about sacrifice and feminism, testing what identifications she has with the story and the limits to which it can function as a genuine link to her Japanese heritage. That a folktale like “The Crane Wife” is endlessly told and retold, revised and reshaped, makes such tests of authenticity quite fraught. Yet this particular version will always have meaning for Maeda and her mother, will structure their identities and how they understand themselves. It’s an ancient practice of making new.

The final section, “Bend,” uses archival footage of Maeda’s father, suffering from dementia, and the famous Japanese sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, both of whom were assigned to the same Japanese internment camp in 1942 -1943. This footage and audio, which often features Maeda talking with her father about the past, is juxtaposed and blended with live sand drawings of figures and places, memories and fragments that are constantly erased, literally disappearing as Maeda draws over or sweeps them away with a broom the last image to make way for the next one. The idea of Maeda’s father, who is clearly a man of extraordinary intellect, warmth, and ambition having to grapple with his own shifting sands of memory makes this method of storytelling particularly significant and brings home the reality of the ephemeral nature of both memory and art.

These are by necessity brief and incomplete descriptions of what goes told through the incredibly innovative and evocative visual language that Maeda uses, but what’s even more difficult to translate is the sheer creativity at the heart of it all. The way she uses light and crumbled papers to conjure up a fire, the way layers of design and shadow move us through airports and palaces and soar us through the sky or into the interior of phone lines in “Homecoming.” The casual virtuosity of the shadow puppet illustrations of “The Crane Wife” that feel more keenly alive than any picture book. And perhaps most profoundly, the unusual framing and living transitions that exist over the course of one of her many sand drawings, each of which is remarkable in each distinct moment. It’s wholly distinct and different from simply watching a painter paint or an illustrator draw. I can’t help but think about a performance like this in spiritual and ritual terms, of finding some solace, some beauty, and some redemption in these symbolic and repetitive acts. Ritual is something that keeps tradition alive even as it changes, that gives us new spins on ancient questions, and that remind us all that all creative acts are storytelling ones, each with their fair share of an older narrative inextricably grafted to a new thread.  

To that end, art-as-ritual, or storytelling-as-ritual, or perhaps even storytelling-as-truth, feels at the heart of Maeda’s trilogy. Our stories are who we are. Even if there is something lost in translation, there is also something invented, something new, something you.   

And I can’t say that everything I pulled out of her Ephemera Trilogy is what Maeda necessarily intended. But I can without qualification say that such a rich, nuanced, and simply extraordinary piece of artwork is a treasure that contains multitudes and is very much worth spending your time with. 

https://vimeo.com/110097232

New Trustus Playwrights' Festival Winning Play Premiering on the 14th

Clint Poston and EG Engle with photography by Rob Sprankle  

 

Trustus Theatre is bringing a world premiere to the Midlands as Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich’s Big City comes to the Thigpen Main Stage. This winner of the Trustus Playwrights’ Festival will have a limited run from August 14 - 22, 2015. Audiences can also meet winning NYC playwright Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich when she visits Columbia and attends opening weekend.

 

The Trustus Playwrights’ Festival is a national competition that is held annually. Last season over 500 submissions made their way to Trustus Literary Manager Sarah Hammond in NYC, and Artistic Director Dewey Scott-Wiley and Hammond chose Big City as the winning play. The show is receiving its first professional production on Trustus’ Thigpen Main Stage this summer under the direction of Scott-Wiley.

 

Big City is a modern tale about 21st Century relationships and communication, Big City introduces audiences to Jane and Joe. These friends have been living with each other for a while and are "just roommates," except for Friday nights and the occasional Sunday morning. Now he's drowning in urban angst and wants a deeper commitment  -- a baby! -- but Jane says no. Deep down, are they really in love? Or is it just the narrowing of options and fear of being alone that comes from being closer to 30 than 20. Anything can happen over a meal of Chinese takeout and muscle relaxants, especially when unexpected guests invade the small apartment they call home.

 

Big City playwright Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich is a NYC playwright. Her work has been produced/developed in NYC at Playwrights Horizons, Second Stage, Roundabout, Rattlestick, Women’s Project, EST, New Georges, AracaWorks, Urban Stages, and many others. “Life these days seems to move at a faster, scarier, and more absurd pace than it used to,” said Blumenthal-Ehrlich. “Wifi and cell phones mean our work follows us wherever we go. Twitter and Facebook bring a false sense of friendship and intimacy. Not to mention that the world is scarier since 9/11 and ISIS. The irony is that in an era of heightened fears and isolation, we need each other more than ever. This can make for some oddball and heartrending hookups. That’s the back story of Big City, a quirky high-stakes comedy about Jane and Joe, engaged in an escalating conflict over their life as not-so-platonic urban roommates.”

 

Big City boasts a cast entirely comprised of Trustus Ensemble Members. EG Engle plays Jane and Clint Poston plays Joe. Catherine Hunsinger and Jason Stokes play Sandy and Bill – two characters who enter in the second act and bring even more chaos to this apartment nestled in the Big Apple.

 

Trustus Theatre’s Big City opens on the Thigpen Main Stage on Friday, August 14th at 8:00pm and runs through August 22nd, 2015. Showtimes for Big City are 7:30pm on Thursdays, 8:00pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and 3:00pm on Sundays. Tickets for musicals are $30.00 for adults, $28.00 for military and seniors, and $20.00 for students. Half-price Student Rush-Tickets are available 15 minutes prior to curtain. Patrons are encouraged to reserve early at www.trustus.org as the show has a limited run.

 

Trustus Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking is available on Lady St. and on Pulaski St. The Main Stage entrance is located on the Publix side of the building.

 

For more information or reservations call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6 pm at 803-254-9732. Visit www.trustus.org for all show information and season information.

 

Darling Dilettante—Discussing the Art of Fear By Haley Sprankle

dreamgirls2 “Do you ever get nervous up there?”

The age-old question for performers—the question of fear.

In just about every production I’ve been fortunate to be a part of, whether I’m the lead or the third white girl from the left, I’m asked this question by a person outside of the performance realm. They ensure me that they don’t understand how actors memorize each element of the show from lines to choreography to even just remembering to smile every now and then. I normally reply with “I used to when I first started, but now it just seems like second nature.”

Most recently, that question of fear prompted me to question myself and the things others around me do, though, and how we do them.

Every day, a banker goes to work. Every day a stay-at-home parent wakes up and takes care of their family. Every day a waiter or a writer or a bus driver or even the President of the United States gets up and fulfills their necessary requirements for the day. These could be things they’ve always done. These could be things they’ve just started doing. These could be things they love, or they could be things they don’t like.

dreamgirls

But they get up and they do them, and like most people feel about performing, I couldn’t even imagine doing these things.

With most things people do for the first time, there was probably an initial fear or nervousness.

What if they don’t like my work? What if I mess up? What if?

We can sit back and ask ourselves “What if?” all day long, but we will never know what WILL happen if we don’t try. Sometimes, it will be a little messy. Sometimes, it will be hard. Sometimes, you will do all right. Sometimes, you will do it all wrong.

One thing, however, is common among all these instances—you learn something new about yourself.

I recently came across a Japanese term: Wabi-Sabi. It translates to “A way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting, peacefully, the natural cycle of growth and decay.”

In every new or old thing you do, there are endless possibilities, but in the end, the best opportunity you have is to take each outcome and turn it into something beautiful.

So why let fear hold you back from trying something new?

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Last Friday, Dreamgirls opened at Trustus Theatre and will run through August 1st. The cast includes veterans to the stage and newcomers alike, all representing a long process of hard work, fun, and love that we have put into this show. For some of us, each night may just be another performance, but for others, one or more performances may be among the most nerve-wracking things they’ve ever done. At the end of each night, though, all we can do is do what we do best—put on a show. Things may not go exactly as planned, but that’s live theatre.

In live theatre, we support each other. In live theatre, we help each other. In live theatre, we build each other up.

In live theatre, we find the beauty within our fear and imperfections, and we turn it into art.

I won’t be afraid or nervous. I will be excited and proud.

Wabi-Sabi.

(Dreamgirls runs June 26-August 1. Go to trustus.org for tickets!)

Photos by Richard Kiraly

Holiday Shows A-Plenty Across Midlands Stages

christmasbells2 There's no shortage of seasonal favorites to be found around town.  The winter holidays are all about tradition; as days grow shorter, darker, and colder, we're comforted by what is familiar.  Local theatres are no exception, offering revivals of yuletide favorites, as well as productions of classics from the screen and stage.  Here are just a few!

The Waltons was a huge hit on television, but in Earl Hamner's novels and on the big screen, they were the Spencers, and Hamner adapted his memories of growing up in rural Virginia into a stage play as well.  Narrated by Clay-Boy Spencer, The Homecoming recalls a pivotal Christmas, a missing father, and lean times during the Depression. Lexington's Village Square Theatre returns with this favorite from a few seasons ago for one weekend only, December 4-7. MonaLisa Botts directs; for information, call 803-359-1436, or visit http://www.villagesquaretheatre.com.

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Similar small town warmth and values, filtered through a quirkier Southern Gothic perspective, earned Pamela Parker a Pulitzer nomination for her play Second Samuel.  West Columbia's On Stage Productions is reviving their successful production from earlier this year.  The Jasper review of that production said "like Steel Magnolias, the local ladies gather to chat at the beauty parlor, while the men convene at 'Frisky’s Bait and Brew,' the kind of place where you can get a Nehi and a Moon Pie as easily as a cold beer or a shot of whiskey...(The play) can be enjoyed at face value as a variation on Mayberry or Vicky Lawrence’s Momma’s Family, or taken at a much deeper level."

SecondSamuel2014-HolidayShow_pages Most of director Robert Harrelson's cast return, including Debra Leopard, MJ Maurer, Courtney Long, Anne Merritt Snider, Courtney Long, Sam Edelson, and Antoine T. Marion.  Run dates are December 4-13; for information, call 407-319-2596, or visit http://www.onstagesc.com/.  There will also be a special staged reading of the sequel, A Very Second Samuel Christmas  on Saturday, December 6, with the playwright in attendance - your chance to give feedback on a new  work in progress!

Town Theatre is also bringing back a popular hit, the stage adaptation by David Ives and Paul Blake of Irving Berlin's White Christmas. Based on the 1954 film, this musical, nominated for multiple Tony and Drama Desk Awards, is directed and choreographed by Shannon Willis Scruggs, with musical direction by Sharon McElveen Altman.  Frank Thompson and Scott Vaughan play Army buddies who stage a show at a quaint Vermont inn, encountering show biz shenanigans and romantic entanglements with Abigail Ludwig and Celeste Mills along the way.   Joining them are Bill DeWitt, Kathy Hartzog, Parker Byun, Andy Nyland, and Bob Blencowe;  the show continues this week, closing with a matinee on Sunday, December 7, and you can find a review at Onstage Columbia.

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Two other special performances are also scheduled for holiday fun. First,  Jamie Carr Harrington directs  Disney’s Sleeping Beauty - Kids, the culmination of her Fall Youth Program.  This timeless classic will magic its way into your heart this holiday season. There will be music and dancing, as well as magic spells and evil curses.  Maleficent crashes little Aurora’s Christening party, and places a curse on the baby simply because she was not invited. A urora is whisked away to the woods where she lives for 16 years.  Once upon a dream she meets a handsome stranger, who ends up being the prince who will break the spell with true love’s kiss. Come see Town Theatre’s Youth Program bring a little magic now to the stage, with ayoung beauty who pricks her finger on a spindle and falls asleep due to a curse. There will be fun bumbling fairies, happy woodland creatures, and fantastical goons. (Gotta love fantastical goons! ~ ed.) The show runs Dec. 12-14, with multiple matinee and evening performances.
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Also, Jasper Theatre Artist of the Year Finalist Frank Thompson directs A Christmas Carol Columbia - a new version of the Dickens novella, presented live on stage as a radio play, and written by James Kirk. (The author, not the captain.) This special performance will be presented just one, at 3 PM on Sunday, Dec. 21st.  For ticket information on all three productions, call 803-799-2510, or visit www.towntheatre.com.

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The St. Paul’s Players are presenting  The Fourth Wise Man, a musical adaptation of the short story “The Other Wise Man” by Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933), an author, educator, and clergyman who is credited with writing the lyrics for “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.”  The Fourth Wise Man is the story of Artaban, portrayed by Jim Jarvis.  Other cast members are John Arnold, Brenda Byrd, Olin Jenkins, Randy Nolff, Mark Wade, and Valerie Ward.  Artaban, one of the Magi who has studied the stars, endeavors to journey with Caspar, Melchoir, and Balthazar to pay tribute to the Christ Child. He carries three gifts, a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl; however, during his travels he faces tests and challenges. What happens when he finally has the chance to meet Jesus face-to-face?

The St. Paul’s Players' production of The Fourth Wise Man will be presented in the Good Shepherd Theatre at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, on the corner of Bull and Blanding Streets in downtown Columbia.  A dinner theatre performance will be held on Friday, December 5 at 6 p.m.  The cost is $10.00 per person, with advance reservations required. Call (803) 779-0030 to make reservations.  Two more performances will be held on Saturday, December 6 at 3 p.m. andat  7 p.m. There is no cost for the Saturday performances and no required reservations. For more information, contact John W. Henry, Producer, at 803-917-1002, or Paula Benson, Director, at 803-206-4965.
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Trustus Theatre found great success last year with Patrick Barlow's post-modern adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which remained faithful to the original Dickens material, while incorporating technical wizardry, live music enhanced with synthesizer effects, and sexy, steampunk-influenced costumes for the Ghosts.  You can read the Jasper review of that production here,  but there have been a few changes for this year's iteration, with Kendrick Marion joining Director Chad Henderson and last year's cast, including Catherine Hunsinger, Avery Bateman, Scott Herr,  and Stann Gwynn as Scrooge. The show runs through December 20 on the Thigpen Main Stage.

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Trustus also has a couple of special events scheduled this month. First,  late nights are back with The Ladies of Lady Street Late Night Cabaret, featuring the best in female impersonation. Join a highly entertaining quartet of both local and guest performers on Friday December 12th at 11:00pm.  The hour-long show features an entertaining mix of female impersonation, celebrity illusions, showgirl costumes, comedy, glamour and live singing. Vista Queen Emeritus Patti O’Furniture leads a cast that features Dorae Saunders (as seen on “America’s Got Talent” and former Miss US of A at Large),  the live singing talents of Denise Russell, and Veronica La Blank (Columbia’s Wild Card of Drag.) This is the second offering of a series of four shows during Trustus’ 30th season. The show takes place on the Thigpen Mainstage;    tickets are $20 each and can be purchased online at www.trustus.org or at the door.  Doors open at 10:45pm after the evening performance of A Christmas Carol. The show is at 11:00pm. The Trustus bar will open at 10:45pm and will remain open during the show. Or, make a night of it, and check out the Trustus production of A Christmas Carol that same night at 8pm. Tickets for that show are also available online.

Mark Rapp, appearing at Trustus Theatre

Then get ready for Jingle Bell Jazz, featuring the Mark Rapp Quartet and special guests on  December 17th.  Celebrated jazz trumpeter Mark Rapp and his quartet present a grooving, swinging, funky fun Christmas concert that will leave you toasty, warm and happy for the holidays. Rapp has prepared unique jazz arrangements of such Christmas classics as: Angels We Have Heard on High, Jolly Old St. Nicholas, O Come All Ye Faithful, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer to Wham!’s Last Christmas.Rapp has performed with such distinct artists from Branford Marsalis to Hootie and the Blowfish, released 5 diverse recordings, and is featured leading and playing the closing track of Disney’s "Everybody Wants to be a Cat" CD which also features such artists as Dave Brubeck and Esperanza Spalding. Mark is a featured artist in Mellen Press' "How Jazz Trumpeters Understand Their Music" among a prestigious list including Terence Blanchard, Lew Soloff, Freddie Hubbard, Tim Hagans, Dave Douglas and more. Mark has performed in jazz festivals around the world from the Fillmore Jazz Festival, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Newport Jazz Festival, WC Handy Festival, to Jazz Festivals in Switzerland, Croatia and Brazil.  The concert performance will begin at 9pm. Tickets are $20 and may be purchased from www.trustus.org.  For more information or reservations call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6 pm at 803-254-9732 .

mistletoe Theatre Rowe is presenting  Murder Under the Mistletoe at both its Columbia and Lexington locations: Scheduled dates are:

Lexington: December 4-7, 11-14, 18-21

Columbia: December 6, 7, 11, 12, 18, 19, 21

For information, call 803-200-2012, or visit http://scdinnertheatre.com.

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Shakespeare's Kidz, the youth program of the South Carolina Shakespeare Company, presents MidWinter's Eve: A Shakespeare's Kidz Tale on December 11th, at 6:00 pm at the Richland Country Library - and it's free!  Written and directed by London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art graduate Katie Mixon, the show is a fun, family friendly, heart-warming inside look at Christmas in Elizabethan England. It's the night before Christmas, when William Shakespeare pops off for some holiday cheer with the wife for the evening. The Shakespeare brood is on their own! Young twins Judith and Hamnet dance, and duel with swords, while Susanna dreams of romance. Friends Emilia, Malvolio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern join the party, with a search for the Yule Log, and visits from The Lord of Misrule!   Will the Shakespeare kids and their friends survive the night, or will chaos trump all?

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Featured in the cast of young performers are Elin Johnson, Joss Kim, Maize Cook, Walt Cook, Napoleon Rodriguez, Guillermo Rodriguez Oliveira, and Lindsay Knowlton.  The perforance is approximately 30 minutes;  you're encouraged to arrive at few minutes early to make your way downstairs and claim a good seat!  For more information, visit   http://www.shakespearesc.org/kidz.html.

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Columbia Children's Theatre presents Jack Frost, the world premiere of a new musical for children, with music by Paul Lindley II, and book and lyrics by Crystal Aldamuy. Run dates are December 5-14.

Something’s up with the weather.  The leaves are turning non-existent colors, unexpected snows are blanketing the orange groves and farmers are getting frost bite in the summer.  What is going on?  Is it global warming?  No, it’s Jack Frost being “creative” again. When Jack’s rebellion and yearning for self-expression start landing him in hot water, his parents The Snow Queen and The Frost King, decide that a little time spent with the industrious and practical Kringle family would teach the head-strong lad a lesson. So, in a move straight out of Trading Spaces, Jack and Crystal Kringle trade lives and suffice it to say cleaning up after reindeer is not exactly Jack’s cup of iced tea.  With a book and lyrics by Crystal-Alisa Aldamuy and music by Paul Gilbert Lindley II this wintry world premiere musical is just the thing to warm your heart!

Show Times:

~ August Krickel

"The Other Place" at the Trustus Side Door Theatre - a review by Rachel Arling

otherplace1 The Trustus Side Door Theatre production of Sharr White’s The Other Place provides an intriguing  night of theatre that challenges its audience with questions about personal identity, the effects  of illness on relationships, and the conflict between memory and reality. The eighty-minute play  begins relatively straightforwardly as Juliana, a brilliant 52-year-old scientist, gives a presentation pitching a new drug to a group of doctors. Juliana’s lecture is practiced and polished, and she  radiates self-assuredness to an almost annoying degree. We have no reason not to take her at  her word. However, as this darkly humorous mystery play continues, it becomes clear that Juliana  might be a less reliable narrator than we first assumed.

Directed by Jim O’Connor, the show is well-suited to the intimate venue because the script gives  the audience a first-hand view into Juliana’s head. We experience events in the same fragmented  way that she does, so it’s appropriate that we are also right there with her physically in the small  space. The set is minimalistic, especially during the first half of the play, when the scenes switch  abruptly (sometimes mid-sentence) between various locations. The slightly more detailed set of  the play’s second half depicts “the other place:” the Cape Cod vacation home that has been in  Juliana’s family for generations. The set is supplemented with excellent use of projections that  serve as PowerPoint slides for Juliana’s presentation, and the projections also occasionally set  the turbulent mood with images of crashing waves. The costumes, designed by Jean Gonzalez  Lomasto, are simple but well-chosen (though I was sometimes distracted by the clomping sound  of the women’s high heels on the hollow wooden stage, but this is a minor complaint.)

Erica Tobolski in "The Other Place" - Photo by Richard Arthur Király

The cast is comprised of four capable actors whose chemistry together increases as the play goes on. As Juliana, Erica Tobolski must carry the show. She navigates the highs and lows  of the complex character with dexterity, understanding that Juliana uses her acerbic wit and  authoritative demeanor as coping mechanisms that help her to grasp at the vestiges of control  over her life. Like the character of Vivian in Margaret Edson’s Wit, Juliana often breaks the fourth  wall to share the details of her struggle with an illness that might be cancer. Tobolski successfully  establishes a close relationship with audience members as she enlists our help to try to make  sense of her “episodes.” I do wish that some of the transitions between the different scenes and  audience addresses were clearer; however, I recognize that the blurred transitions might be a  directorial choice intended to illustrate the muddled nature of Juliana’s experience.

Bryan Bender plays Ian, Juliana’s husband. (Or is he her “soon-to-be-ex?” This is one of the  mysteries the playwright wants us to contemplate.) Both physically and emotionally, Bender  provides a solid, patient, and grounded presence compared to Tobolski’s agitated restlessness;  their relationship dynamic reminds me of the couple from Next to Normal in more ways than one.  Bender and Tobolski do their best work together during the climactic flashback scene that takes  place at “the other place.”

(L-R) Bryan Bender, Erica Tobolski, Jennifer Moody Sanchez - Photo by Richard Arthur Király

G. Scott Wild and Jennifer Moody Sanchez play the other men and women in the show. Wild has  the play’s two smallest roles, but he brings them to life with his typical skillful energy. Sanchez  plays three different characters: Juliana’s doctor, Juliana’s distant adult daughter, and a stranger.  She makes distinctive choices for each one, but I liked her best as the stranger. The scene  between Juliana and the stranger is hilariously entertaining because of the ridiculous situation  and the way the two actors react to one another. More importantly, though, the scene provides a  touching example of an empathetic connection between two people who have never met before. The stranger shows kindness to Juliana even though it doesn’t come easily to her because she is  dealing with myriad issues of her own. The two women are united by their suffering in “the other  place,” and sometimes the formation of such a connection is enough to help both of them start  the healing process.

Erica Tobolski and Jennifer Moody Sanchez - Photos by Richard Arthur Király

This production of The Other Place, which runs through November 1, is worth seeing. Don’t  expect to sit back in your seat and relax, though; the show requires its audience to watch actively  and make judgments about what’s happening. But doesn’t all effective art do that?

~ Rachel Arling

The Other Place runs through Saturday, November 1st in The Richard and Debbie Cohn Trustus Side Door Theatre (although the closing Saturday night is currently sold out.) The doors and box office open thirty minutes prior to curtain, and all Trustus Side Door tickets are $20 for general admission and $15 for students.  Reservations can be made by calling the Trustus Box Office at (803) 254-9732, and tickets may be purchased online at www.trustus.org.  The Richard and Debbie Cohn Trustus Side Door Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking is available on Lady Street and on Pulaski Street.  The Trustus Side Door Theatre entrance is through the glass doors on the Huger St. side of the building.

Horror, Camp, Comedy, and Splatter Come Together in Trustus Theatre’s Gloriously Gory "Evil Dead: The Musical" - a review by Jillian Owens

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What could possibly go wrong? Ash (played by Michael Hazin) is just an average S-Mart employee who wants to spend a relaxing spring break at a creepy abandoned cabin in the woods. Joining him on this vacation are his sweetheart, Linda (played by Elisabeth Baker), his jerk of a friend, Scotty (played by Patrick Dodds), his jerk of a friend’s recent hookup, Shelly (played by Abigail Ludwig), and his socially-awkward buzzkill of a little sister, Cheryl (played by Jodie Cain Smith.) When a mysterious trap door in the floor flies open, the fellas decide to investigate.

(L-R) Jodie Cain Smith, Elisabeth Baker, Michael Hazin, Patrick Dodds, Abigail Ludwig - rehearsal by  Richard Arthur Király - Photography

Michael Hazin and Patrick Dodds - - rehearsal by  Richard Arthur Király - Photography

Unless you’re -- as Scotty would say (and says repeatedly) -- “a stupid bitch,” you’ve probably figured out that this is the standard set-up for countless horror movies, and that there is no possible way for this to end well for our young friends. The group discovers a tape recorder and a very strange book, written in Latin. The bizarrely helpful voice on the tape (contributed by Scott Blanks) reveals that they hold the Necronomicon, a book of the dead bound in human flesh and written in human blood that has the power to unleash an army of some pretty catty Candarian demons upon the world. They, of course, play the transcription of the cursed words and release these aforementioned demons. And what do you do when being attacked by demons? You sing a song (“You stupid bitch!”)

Michael Hazin and Elisabeth Baker - rehearsal by Richard Arthur Király - Photography

Even the most pedestrian lovers of campy horror films can guess that this musical is based on the three films of the Evil Dead franchise: Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead 2 (1987), and Army of Darkness (1992.) The musical version, (created by George Reinblatt, Christopher Bond, Frank Cipolla, and Melissa Morris) was originally produced in 2003 in Toronto, Ontario where its success lead it to Off Broadway in 2006. The musical version combines the plots of the first two films, and contains several Army of Darkness references as well.

Jodie Cain Smith

The songs in the show are silly and fun, and reminiscent of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Song titles include, "All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons," “Bit-Part Demon","Do the Necronomicon", and –my personal favorite- “"What the F*ck Was That?" The music isn’t particularly challenging, and it certainly isn’t brilliant, but it’s also not trying to be. The simple score allowed director Chad Henderson to assemble a cast of very funny actors, some of whom are also very strong singers.

(L-R) Amy Brower and Michael Hazin -

Michael Hazin pulls off the role of Ash with a terrific Bruce Campbell (star of the film series) swagger and a commanding voice, and Elisabeth Baker was an obvious choice for the role of Linda, his sweet love interest. She’s also no stranger to musical theatre, and it shows. Matthew DeGuire seems an unlikely Jake (a rugged and sort of sketchy Mountain Man) which makes his role all the funnier and he nails every note. The rest of the cast’s strength lies primarily in their comedic abilities...and that’s okay. Jodie Cain Smith’s Cheryl is hilarious, both pre- and post- Deadite (the term for bodies possessed by Candarian demons), even if some of her numbers pushed her out of her comfortable vocal range. Amy Brower is the most melodramatic archaeologist you’ll ever meet, with some serious wardrobe malfunctions that lead to much laughter, and Patrick Dodds is a complete and utter jerkoff as Scotty, which in this case is a compliment.

Ash vs. the Deadites - "Come and get some!"- rehearsal photo  by Richard Arthur Király - Photography

Evil Dead: the Musical is the definitely the first musical I’ve ever been to that featured a “Splatter Zone.” That’s right - this stage adaptation maintains the high levels of campy gore established in the films, and if you’re feeling particularly fearless, you can choose to be covered in fake blood as the body count rises. You’ll also get to see a beheaded corpse with a grudge, a feisty dismembered hand, and a really unpleasant evil moose. Scenic Designers Brandon McIver and Baxter Engle and Prop Designer Jillian Peltzman have made this production a 4-D experience.

Evil Dead: The Musical is a must-see for horror fans, fans of all things funny, and fans of really strange musical adaptations. Go ahead...heed the calling of the Deadites...Join Us...at Trustus Theatre.

~ Jillian Owens

Evil Dead: The Musical runs through Saturday, July 26; call 803- 254-9732 or visit www.trustus.org for ticket information.  Also, be sure to check out the artwork of Sean McGuinness, aka That Godzilla Guy, the featured artist in the Gallery at Trustus for the run of the production.

 

"The House of Blue Leaves" at Trustus Theatre - a review by August Krickel

blueleaves2 There's a speech at the beginning of the second act of The House of Blue Leaves, the new show at Trustus Theatre, delivered by Philip Alexander as the son in the story's central family. Speaking directly to the audience, he details a missed opportunity for stardom; as a child, he had the chance to be cast as Huck Finn in a Hollywood film, and so naturally he tried to impress the director by dancing, singing, and cavorting about with a child's typical joyous lack of inhibition. The director assumes he must have some emotional or developmental challenge, and the boy's ambitions, along with his ego, are crushed.

(L-R) Scott Herr, Monica Wyche - Photo by Richard Arthur Király - Photography

That's a fair representation of the themes addressed in the show. Ordinary people aspire to greater things, sometimes with great self-deception, while struggling with the emotional burdens they carry. Rarely do things work out as planned, although sometimes fate seems to give them a break - but only if they are paying attention. Scott Herr takes the lead role of Artie, a mild-mannered New York zoo employee who composes and performs songs, partly as a hobby (which he thinks is his passion) and partly to distract him from his home life. His wife, whom he called "Bananas," suffers from some form of mental illness, which is only getting worse. As Bananas, Monica Wyche drifts in and out of incoherence, sometimes passively crumpling into a ball, sometimes delivering rambling monologues that are occasionally quite poetic, and sometimes giving us glimpses of the well-adjusted wife and mother she must have once been.

(L-R) Kayla CAhill, Sumner Bender - Photo by Richard Arthur Király - Photography

The third principal character is Artie's new mistress Bunny, as loud and brassy a New Yorker as her name implies. Sumner Bender, normally a willowy, chic and sophisticated young actress, somehow manages to play a significantly older and frumpier character through mannerisms and line delivery alone, although costume design by Dianne Wilkins helps. Resembling a younger version of a Far Side lady, Bender dominates the stage whenever she appears, engaging in non-stop chatter. She's annoying, yet ultimately she grows on you, sort of like Snookie. Part of that appeal derives from her (seemingly) genuine desire to help Artie move on to a better place in his life. Unfortunately that involves placing Bananas in an institution, which Artie describes as surrounded by trees full of lovely bluebirds, creating the illusion of the title's blue leaves. All three performers employ every trick in the actor's handbook to create nuanced characters, and their accents, especially those of Bender and Alexander, are just perfect (if a little grating to the Southern ear.)

Sumner Bender and Scott Herr - photo by Jonathan Sharpe

With that inter-personal backdrop, the play begins in 1965 as the Pope is visiting New York. Most of the characters are Irish Catholic, and see this as a potentially life-changing event. Artie's connection is vastly more important, as he not only hopes that he will somehow be blessed/forgiven/vindicated as he prepares to leave his wife, but also that the Pope will somehow convince the country to end the Viet Nam War, in which his recently-drafted son will otherwise soon be involved.  The story I have just described seems quite realistic, but there is a pervasive tone of the Absurd (with a capital A, signifying the dramatic form) as events that technically could happen transpire, but become progressively surreal. Among the visitors to Artie's home in the second act are three nuns (Becky Hunter, Rachel Kuhnle, and Erin Huiett) Artie's childhood friend Billy, now a Hollywood bigshot (Bernie Lee), Billy's girlfriend (Kayla Cahill), and a couple of authority figures (Robert Michalski and Clark Wallace.) Everyone is perfectly cast, and Lee especially looks the part, with simple things like a turtleneck and facial hair instantly defining his character.  Cahill in particular has some incredible moments where she's not saying a word, but her silence and pained expression speak volumes.

"Then, a lot of wild comedy breaks out."  (L-R) Erin Huiett, Robert Michalski, wild comedy - Photo by Richard Arthur Király - Photography

Then a lot of wild comedy breaks out, and there are some good laugh lines, as well as a lot of eloquent ones. Especially poignant is Herr's realization that "I'm too old to be a young talent." If at any time we lose track of a particular character's purpose or motivation, playwright John Guare incorporates a number of revealing and sometimes soul-baring monologues, spoken directly by the characters to the audience. Director Robin Gottlieb is a master of timing, and she has her actors working every possible detail of their roles, making unlikeable characters accessible to the audience.  All of this is significantly enhanced by Heather Hawfield's wide, expansive set design. It's just a realistic interior of a shabby apartment in a big city, but she somehow manages to open the stage up, as if she's taking a dollhouse and unfolding it, allowing us to see every corner. I can think of a half dozen shows or more at Trustus that would have benefited from this type of staging.

Kayla Cahill - photo by Richard Arthur Király Photography

As I have said previously, actors hate it when you review the material, not the performance. After all, they can't rewrite the script. So let me be clear: there is not a single flaw in acting or staging - everything is done quite proficiently and professionally, and I think everyone involved can be proud of their work on this show. That said... gentle reader, I just didn't get it. The play is a famous work from an important author; its original production won both the Obie and the Drama Critics' Circle Awards for Best Play, and subsequent revivals have garnered multiple Tony nominations and wins. Lots of famous people have appeared in versions of this show over the years. It's usually described as a comedy, or a dark comedy. There were certainly funny moments, and funny lines, but to me this was a serious drama that involved some witty characters and some surreal moments where you had to laugh. I'm told the audiences the night before and the afternoon after I saw the show were boisterous and laughing throughout the performance, whereas it was a much quieter house the night I attended.  This may well be. And given the fame and reputation of both the work and its author, I'm inclined to think I just somehow missed something.

(L-R) Clark Wallace, Sumner Bender -  photo by Richard Arthur Király Photography

There is certainly a broader theme of hope vs. reality, and the perils of life's curveballs. At some level I'm sure Artie represents humanity, with Bunny as the voice that tells us "you can do it," even if we can't. Bananas is probably the hurt child within us, the never seen Pope is surely symbolic of the redeeming panacea we all wish for, while the naughty nuns can probably be seen as representations of the random chaos surrounding and affecting us all. But again, let me be clear - while there are some Absurdist moments, this is by and large a straightforward, realistic play with a linear plot.  Possibly my tastes are changing as I get older, because parts of this play reminded me of Pinter's The Caretaker, Fugard's A Lesson from Aloes, even Beckett's Waiting for Godot, all difficult and challenging works which I enjoyed and admired as a young man. But for whatever reason, and no matter how well the cast delivered the author's well-chosen words, it never all came together for me in a way that I could understand, or benefit from some message or realization.  So that probably means it's just me. There are only seven shows remaining, and I encourage anyone who wants to be challenged by thought-provoking drama to go see the show right away.  I want to hear that you loved the comedy and were touched by the pathos, and I want you to tell me what I missed.  And I want you to tell me if the ending is literal or metaphorical. Seriously - we have a "comments" section below that is almost never used. So have at it, and tell me how I completely missed the boat on this one. And either way, enjoy some great actors while sipping on a tasty adult beverage in a cool, intimate performance venue.  The House of Blue Leaves runs through Saturday, May 24; call the box office at 803-254-9732 or visit www.trustus.org for ticket information.

~ August Krickel

Timely, relevant, and thought-provoking - a review of the NiA Company production of David Mamet's "Race" - by Jillian Owens

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David Mamet is a playwright that has no problem leaving you feeling uncomfortable.  The NiA Company  production at the Richard and Debbie Cohn Trustus Side Door Theatre of his play, Race , is no exception.  Mamet is known for his dark, fast-paced dialogue and sinister plots.  Characters deceive and manipulate each other, all in a struggle for power.  They aren’t motivated by a desire to do what’s good or right per se, but by a desire to win.

(L-R) Nathan Dawson, Ericka, Darion McCloud, HArrison Saunders; photo by Race opens Thursday, April 10th Shows on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays start at 8pm. The Sunday matinee on April  13th  will be at 3:00pm. The doors and box office open thirty minutes prior to curtain,  and all Trustus Side Door tickets are $20 for general admission and $15 for students.  Reservations can be made by calling the Trustus Box Office at (803) 254-9732, and  tickets may be purchased online at www.trustus.org .  The Richard and Debbie Cohn Trustus Side Door Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street,  behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking is available on Lady Street and on Pulaski Street.  The Trustus Side Door Theatre entrance is through the glass doors on the Huger St. side  of the building.    For more information or reservations call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6  pm at 803-254-9732. Visit www.trustus.org for all show information and season info. PHOTOS BY: Rob Sprankle

The setup of Race is simple.  Three lawyers are defending a white man for an alleged crime against a black woman.  One of the partners is a self-made black man named Henry Brown (played by Darion McCloud).  He is juxtaposed by the slick, snarky, and white Jack Lawson (played by Harrison Saunders).  And because the issues brought up by sex are just as interesting as race, they are joined by their third partner, Susan (played by Ericka Wright), who happens to be black.

The brutal one upmanship that is so common in a Mamet play is more subtle in Race.  There is a level of camaraderie and respect among Brown, Lawson, and Susan (curiously, the only character without a last name).  Usually, when watching a Mamet play, I feel disturbed.  His characters are usually so shockingly sociopathic that you can’t help but feel squeamish.  They seem capable of anything.  The characters in Race don’t quite reach this level.  This would be fine if his characters were written in such a way that they’re given somewhere to go developmentally, but they aren’t.  The language is fast and edgy, with plenty of racial and sexual epithets to keep the audience on its toes – but none of the character’s actions seem all that surprising, and this makes establishing suspense difficult.

race2Race feels like an exercise in how our prejudices affect our perception of reality.  Was Susan offered her position because she was a woman and black?  Does Lawson truly believe is client is innocent?  Is Brown afraid to voice his own doubts about the innocence of his client out of fear of seeming racially biased himself?  Are any of these people self-aware enough to be concerned about any of these things?

race3As I said, this is a difficult script, and in my opinion not necessarily Mamet’s best.  Director Heather McCue could have gone with a much easier play, but this is not what the NiA Company is about.  They seek to challenge their audience and themselves, which is commendable.  This puts a great deal of pressure on the actors.  They were all very good, but the text they’re working with doesn’t do them any favors.  McCloud is the most explorative actor in this show as Henry Brown, who is both believable and compelling.   Saunders is quick and cunning as Lawson, but there are moments where he perhaps could have made the choice to give his character moments of weakness that would have made Race much more suspenseful.  The same can be said of Wright’s Susan.  As she never seems to reach a point where she’s in serious danger of losing anything, whether emotionally or professionally, I found it difficult to feel much suspense or surprise at her actions.   Nathan Dawson plays Charles Strickland, a rich and arrogant man who may or may not be a rapist.  Dawson, an Australian, opted for an American accent for this show, although not altogether successfully.  Nevertheless, I commend him for offering moments of vulnerability that left me feeling uncomfortably sympathetic for his character.

The small black box space of the Side Door is completely ideal for this type of small production that takes on some very large issues.  Race is a timely and relevant work that if nothing else, will encourage a lively discussion between you and your friends after the show.

~ Jillian Owens

Race runs for four more performances, April 16-19.  The doors and box office open thirty minutes prior to curtain, and all Trustus Side Door tickets are $20 for general admission and $15 for students. Reservations can be made by calling the Trustus Box Office at (803) 254-9732, and tickets may be purchased online at www.trustus.org . The Richard and Debbie Cohn Trustus Side Door Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking is available on Lady Street and on Pulaski Street. The Trustus Side Door Theatre entrance is through the glass doors on the Huger St. side of the building.  For more information or reservations call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6 pm at 803-254-9732. Visit www.trustus.org for all show information and season info.

"See Rock City & Other Destinations" at Trustus: A Stage-cation Well Worth the Trip - a review by Arik Bjorn

Americans are suckers for a good travelogue set within the boundaries of their own white whale nation. Perhaps this is because so many of us spend most of our lives in some little corner of the vastness that is the Fruited Plain. For millions, just a trip from Manhattan to Coney Island, or from a one gas station town in North Carolina to Lookout Mountain, Georgia, represents an odyssey. And a visitor from Niagara Falls may as well be an extraterrestrial being to someone living in far-off Roswell, New Mexico. As I drove home from Trustus Theatre’s production of See Rock City and Other Destinations—tempted to put the pedal to the metal and drive north on I-95, past South of the Border and to wherever life takes me—I couldn’t think of any other significant musicals with expedition as a central theme. (Sorry, Oh! Calcutta! doesn’t count.) Yet there are so many great American travel books. My favorites include Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality and Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. But every American travel narrative, in my opinion, bows to the greatness that is John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. (Charley was Steinbeck’s trusty French standard poodle.)  There are many diadem quotations in this book, but this one is a true gem: “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. … The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”

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And that is the message at the heart of Adam Mathias and Brad Alexander’s award-winning production (2011 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Book and Outstanding Lyrics), presented in yellow-golf-sweater and tour-guide-khaki splendor by veteran director Dewey Scott-Wiley. As Scott-Wiley states: “We may embark on these journeys looking for escape…these destinations have the power to open our hearts and minds to real change.”

Steinbeck would agree.

In short, See Rock City presents separately parceled stories about average Americans pursuing humble dreams against the backdrop of popular tourist destinations: two strangers eating pie en route to a breathtaking view in the title town, Rock City; a conspiracy theorist seeking otherworldly companionship and self-validation near Area 51; a chemistry of multi-generational coupling before the normally unromantic backdrop of the Alamo; sisters celebrating ice, whales and ashes on an Alaskan cruise ship; two “d!ckheads” discovering forbidden love during a Coney Island freak show ride; and a bride-to-be barreling with nervous laughter at Niagara Falls.

The trick to nailing any stage expedition is set design. I admit I was nervous at first when I sat in my cozy Trustus seat and beheld the minimalist design that included not much more than two red diner stools. But once the curtains opened, Baxter Engle’s amazing three-screen projection design turned the entire stage into an animated album of famous American landmarks: the Space Needle, Wrigley Field, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc. The projections continued throughout the show, providing the patron with a believable sensation of “being there.” In fact, during the Niagara Falls vignette, I practically felt water spraying on my chest—then realized I had spilled Cabernet on myself. (Still, though, adult beverages in the comfort of one’s seat. Go, Trustus!)

Another major success of the production was the musical trio of Randy Moore (musical director, piano), Ryan Knott (cello) and Jeremy Polley (guitar). Moore makes a spot-on choice by concentrating on strings and conjuring the spirit of Woody Guthrie and so many other American road-trip artists. In fact, halfway through the production my mind couldn’t shake sounds gone-by of Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon;"  I could practically taste the beef jerky of road trip yore.

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Thousands of hours of effort go into every stage production, and every reviewer shouts curses at his or her limited space to credit those who deserve praise. The entire See Rock City troupe is worthy of accolades for acting and song; same for all of the technical staff. Truly outstanding are the voices of Kendrick Marion as Cutter the “motherf&%#er” prep school student and Kevin Bush as Jess of the Rock City-bound jalopy. I’ve seen Matthew DeGuire in many a role on Columbia stages, but it’s well worth the price of admission just to see him as a carney in lumberjack plaid and as Grampy, channeling the voice of post-stroke Anthony Hopkins in Legends of the Fall. Vicky Saye Henderson and Kyle (happy birthday!) Collins demonstrate ballet-like romantic chemistry, and it was a pleasure to see USC bioinformatics doctoral candidate Chase Nelson prove that science and the arts can mix—just don’t tell his Ph.D. advisor that he camps out in the New Mexico desert waiting for aliens. And stealing the first act is a “green jar from Home Depot,” tossed back and forth by Henderson,  Linda Posey Collins, and Caroline Jones Weidner; what it contains, you’ll have to travel to Trustus to see.

Kevin Bush, in "See Rock City & Other Destinations" - photo by Jonathan Sharpe

See Rock City & Other Destinations is a weekend-worthy stage-cation and a wonderful theatrical reminder that setting sail for somewhere else, letting a trip “take you,” is what life is all about. Who knows what you’ll discover when you get yourself to the theater.

See Rock City & Other Destinations runs March 14-April 5 (Thursdays through Sundays) with all performances beginning at 8 p.m. with the exception of 3 p.m. matinee performances on March 23 and March 30. (There is no matinee on March 16.) Tickets are $27 for adults, $25 for military and senior, and $20 for students. Half-price Student Rush-Tickets are available 15 minutes prior to curtain. Trustus Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street in the Vista. Call 254.9732 for more information or to reserve tickets. Parking is available on Lady Street and on Pulaski Street. The Main Stage entrance is located on the Publix side of the building. To learn more about Trustus Theatre , visit www.trustus.org . The Thursday preview performance of See Rock City & Other Destinations was a “Dining with Friends” fundraiser to benefit the AIDS Benefit Foundation of South Carolina. Kudos to this group for its excellent philanthropic work!

~ Arik Bjorn

 

"Clybourne Park" at Trustus Theatre - a review by August Krickel

Photo by Richard Arthur Király Photography Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park, currently running on the Thigpen Main Stage at Trustus Theatre, is by definition an important play; any winner of a Tony Award, an Olivier Award (England's Tony) and the Pulitzer Prize for Best Play, automatically commands and deserves attention. The show is also an unofficial (but direct) sequel to Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking A Raisin in the Sun, one of the earliest dramas to realistically address issues facing modern African-American families.  Raisin was nominated for multiple Tonys too, won the NY Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play in 1959, and ran for several years, appealing to both black and white audiences; its plot centered around a black family's plans to buy a house in a white Chicago neighborhood.

Clybourne Park's first act depicts the conflict that was meanwhile taking place in the sellers' living room, and its second act fast forwards to 2009, where the same actors play different characters engaged in similar wranglings over real estate that are really all about race and class. Well-written, well-crafted, and thought-provoking, Norris's script is also funny, disturbing, upsetting, provocative, and frustrating. Top-notch acting and direction ensure that the author's themes and issues are presented with clarity and eloquence, but the ultimate message may be that we have not progressed nearly as much as a society as we like to think.

In 1959, Bryan Bender, Lucas Bender, and  Erica Tobolski portray a wholesome middle-class family who could be Ward and June Cleaver's neighbors. Their banal and affected chatter hides a family tragedy, which makes them eager to sell their home to the first bidder. Neighbors (G. Scott Wild and Rachel Kuhnle) and the local minister (Bobby Bloom) break the news that the buyers are a "colored" family, and drag the housekeeper and her husband (Ericka Wright and Wela Mbusi) into an increasingly volatile argument over integration. 50 years later, the neighborhood is considered traditionally African-American, and at risk of losing much of its cultural heritage to gentrification. Wild and Kuhnle now play high-strung yuppies who imagine  themselves to be liberal and progressive, while Wright and Mbusi, representing the neighborhood association, are a seemingly pleasant, reasonable couple who discover how easily their buttons can be pushed when it comes to race. Norris seems to be saying that while these characters (and by implication, Americans) can co-exist peacefully in certain circumstances, at the same time there's much left unsaid, rather than ever honestly dealt with or resolved.

Norris's script makes good use of contemporary vernacular and modern speech patterns where people talk over one another and cut each other off mid-sentence.  Director Jim O'Connor keeps action and dialogue flowing at light speed, and his cast excels in making every word seem natural. Several actors adopt believable Northern accents, although to my ear some sounded more reminiscent of Minnesota, a la the film Fargo, than the Chicago natives I've known, but there are references to the characters' German and Scandinavian roots, and the effect works either way. Tobolski's suburban Suzie Homemaker in the first act, clad in a lovely dress and a frilly apron, is almost a comic stereotype, but there's a legitimate reason for her demeanor. Bryan Bender is a master of Midwestern reserve in the first act, then switches to broad comedy in the second act as a whimsical and quirky workman.  Kuhnle gets some of the sharpest barbs and meatiest character mannerisms to play with, while Wild's performance is the most believable and nuanced. His character is the only one in the second act to make some effort to address the real issues at hand, although he botches this attempt terribly. Still, his hapless frustration is likely to strike a familiar chord with many in the audience, as his attempts at political correctness reveal biases he never realized.  Christian Thee's set design of a typical 1950's living room seems simple, indeed minimalistic, yet its inventiveness becomes apparent in the second act. Panels and units within the set are quickly replaced during intermission to seamlessly depict a half century of urban decay. Also of note is Baxter Engle's sound design: assorted cell phones, radio broadcasts, and unseen construction equipment sound exactly as they should.

Photo by Richard Arthur Király Photography

While the script has many genuinely funny moments, it's ultimately a dark and wicked satire of society's attitudes and misconceptions about race, and a number of uncomfortable questions are raised, explored, yet never answered. Forcing an audience to think about, and sometimes laugh at, important topics that are more easily ignored is sufficient reason to admire and embrace Clybourne Park as a work of literature and social commentary. O'Connor and his cast add a necessary and welcome human touch, bringing difficult characters to believable life.

Clybourne Park runs on the Thigpen Main Stage at Trustus Theatre through Saturday, Feb. 8; contact the box office at 803-254-9732 for ticket information, or visit trustus.org/.

~ August Krickel

(This review also ran this week online at the Free Times.)

Theatre and passion are always in fashion - the Refashionista reviews "Love, Loss, and What I Wore"

As a lover of fashion, my editor here at Jasper assumed I’d be a great fit to review Love, Loss, and What I Wore at Trustus Theatre.   I was a little worried that this show wouldn’t be for me.  I hate conventional shopping and consumerism (99% of my wardrobe comes from local thrift stores), and I was worried that this show was going to be some sort of Sex and the City knockoff - more style than substance. caption

Based on the book by Ilene Beckerman, the stage adaptation by Nora and Delia Ephron explores the adventures, loves, friendships, and tragedies of an array of women, and how the fibers of the clothes they’ve worn through the years are forever entwined with their memories and the women they’ve become.  This is something that just about any woman (life-long nudists excluded), can understand.  We all remember what we wore for our first dates and for our first dances.  We remember that really hideous orange leather jacket that seems tres chic in high school, but we wouldn’t be caught dead in now.  Objects have power when tied to memories, and what objects do we share a more personal relationship with than our clothes?  They are expressions of who we are and how we want the world to see us.

The five women of this ensemble cast are Amy Brower, Emily Deck Harrill, Tiffany James, Jodie Cain Smith, and Caroline Weidner.  They each play several different characters, each with their own unique stories.  Some are moving, while others are hysterically funny.  Each actress does a fine job, and with a show like this, where each of the women play off each other in such an intimate way, I would find it inappropriate to point out individuals.   Director Larry Hembree has done a superb job of getting a multitude of compelling characters from his cast.  The renderings of decades of fashions by USC Art student Miranda Fuller give us a visual landscape as we travel through each woman’s life.  That being said, I found a few of the vignettes to be trite and formulaically crafted to elicit an emotional response without any real character development, but overall this show is well-written.

Love, Loss, and What I Wore works well in the intimate Side Door Theatre at Trustus, due to its minimalist requirements.  A cast of five, a few chairs, a bar, and a slightly judgmental guy on guitar (who also happens to be the show’s musical director, Jeremy Polley) are all this production requires…oh yes…and a few drinks to loosen up the memories.

Are you excited about this production?  Do you want to gather your girlfriends and check it out?  Well…I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Love, Loss, and What I Wore is completely sold out (even after adding on an additional Sunday matinee.)  However, perhaps if you pester Larry Hembree (he’s not just the show’s director, he’s also the Managing Director of Trustus Theatre), they’ll bring it back.  This has happened before. (And there's always the option to call the box office to check on any last-minute cancellations, and/or to see if there is any sort of waiting list in case of no-shows.)

~ Jillian Owens

Love, Loss, and What I Wore runs through Saturday, January 18th, 2013.  Shows on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays start at 8pm. The Sunday matinee on January 12th will be at 3pm. The doors and box office open thirty minutes prior to curtain, and all Trustus Side Door tickets are $20 for general admission and $15 for students. Reservations can be made by calling the Trustus Box Office at (803) 254-9732, and tickets may be purchased online at www.trustus.org .     Except that as of now, the rest of the run is SOLD OUT.

The Richard and Debbie Cohn Trustus Side Door Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking is available on Lady Street and on Pulaski Street. The Trustus Side Door Theatre entrance is through the glass doors on the Huger St. side of the building.     For more information or reservations call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6 pm at 803-254-9732. Visit www.trustus.org for all show information and season info.

 

"A Christmas Carol" for the post-modern, steampunk generation - August Krickel reviews the new show at Trustus

ChristmasCarol2 When the pretty young lady, clad in Victorian-era garb but sporting short, natural hair, leans into the microphone and begins beatboxing, you know this isn't your father's Christmas Carol. It's still Charles Dickens's timeless story, however, but with plenty of reinvention from playwright Patrick Barlow, director/scenic designer Chad Henderson, and costumer Amy Lown.   Purists may raise an eyebrow or two at this post-modern take on a holiday classic, while purists of a different sort may wonder why Trustus Theatre is producing a family-friendly, feel-good version of a century-and-a-half-old novella, but there's no question that talent both on stage and behind the scenes ensures enjoyable seasonal entertainment with some decidedly non-traditional story-telling twists.

We're all familiar with Scrooge, but let's focus on Barlow for a moment.  He's best known for a stage adaptation of The 39 Steps, in which three actors played dozens of characters from the Hitchcock film, interacting with a rugged hero whose tongue was firmly planted in cheek; their quick changes of costume, wig, accent and gender, miming or improvising most sets and props while navigating the melodramatic plot and dialogue made for broad slapstick comedy.  Here Barlow uses the same technique, but retains respect for the original flowery prose.

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Stann Gwynn, almost unrecognizable under heavy character make-up, plays Scrooge throughout.  The bulbous nose, ravaged face and bushy eyebrows (designed by Robin Gottlieb) are reminiscent of some of the dwarves from the recent screen version of The Hobbit - exaggerated but still believable - but more importantly, they seem to free Gwynn as an actor. He's played older before, he's done accents before, and he's played grandiloquent characters before, but I've never seen those all at once, with such sustained intensity over more than two hours. Avery Bateman, Catherine Hunsinger, Wela Mbusi, and Scott Herr portray everyone else, although the quick changes and jumps from one persona to the next occur fairly naturally.  Actors playing multiple roles is commonplace now on stage, and Barlow only occasionally uses that convention for comedy. Even the use of marionettes to depict young Scrooge and Tiny Tim prompts an initial surge of laughter from the audience, but then plays out in a fairly straightforward manner.  Indeed, I found myself wishing that there were a lot more comedy, even if improvised by the capable cast, especially in the first act. When Hunsinger appears as a sort of sexy, steampunk Spice Girl-turned-nanny in the second act as the Ghost of Christmas Present, the pace picks up, and Barlow occasionally veers away from the original Dickens text to insert jokes here and there, including a hilarious conclusion to Scrooge's dream that breaks the fourth wall unexpectedly.

Catherine Hunsinger - photo by Richard Arthur Király

All four of the mini-ensemble also double (triple?) as singers and musicians, providing mood music in the background via various instruments, and sometimes breaking out into traditional Christmas songs.  Both Hunsinger and Bateman, last seen together in Henderson's production of Spring Awakening two years ago, get to show off their lovely voices, but they actually are even more impressive in their mastery of multiple characters and authentic accents.  Dialect coach Marybeth Gorman (surely helped by Mbusi, a native of the U.K. who has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company) has ensured a lively mix of credible twangs and lilts that are mainly Cockney, "proper" British, and Irish, but I swear I heard hints of Manchester, rural Yorkshire, and Wales here and there, which was quite refreshing.

Stann Gwynn; photo by :Richard Arthur Király

A little more on the music:  sometimes, Henderson incorporates modern songs, from artists like Justin Timberlake and Panic! At The Disco. At other moments, the actors perform moody instrumental tunes, developed by cast and director before rehearsals began. Particularly effective are Hunsinger on cello at moments of poignancy and sorrow, and Herr on keyboards, creating menacing chords sung to by Bateman, as Mbusi appears as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.  Henderson uses a Line 6 Delay Modulator to create a number of beatbox and hip hop effects, as well as a Vocalist Live harmony effects processor. The tech gadgetry is certainly interesting; I'm not sure how much it actually adds to the performance, but it certainly livens up the proceedings. What is especially memorable is the production design, which incorporates a painted facade of a London street scene, plus expertly detailed projected images (snow falling, the hustle and bustle of city streets, a clock's face moving forward in time, the logo of Scrooge's business, a time vortex a la Doctor Who) courtesy of Baxter Engle.  Those projections are seen on a large round screen of sorts over stage left, and enhance the setting so much that I'd be happy to see similar effects in future productions. Amy Lown's excellent costumes include elegant Victorian attire, saucy steampunk-chic couture, and an ominous, tattered Christmas Yet to Come that could have been designed by Terry Gilliam.

Avery Bateman as the Ghost of Christmas Past

Not everything works. The audio technology sometimes gets very loud, which is intended as a sort of in-your-face wake-up call to an audience that might get bored by the familiar material, but might be a little intimidating to the youngest or oldest attendees. (The show is completely G-rated, but its intensity, from the apparitions for example, might make this best for, say, age 10 and older.)  Sometimes the music and sound effects clash with the dialogue, and/or make it sound distorted.  The first act drags at times, and could use a lot more of the comedy found the second. A re-imagined Marley, his chains now controlled by the other three actors as if to signify his torment in the afterlife, seems awkward and unwieldy rather than scary.  Christmas Yet to Come is scary, but a Darth Vader-like heavy breathing effect got laughs where there needed to be chills.

This production is a new one, however, simultaneously opening here, off-Broadway, and at other regional theatres around the country, and new works are often revised. What impressed me about Barlow's adaptation is his incorporation of huge amounts of the original language from Dickens, made easily relatable by proficient performers, and his tweaking of its theme to resonate even more with contemporary audiences. Scrooge is no longer simply a cranky old man who had a sad childhood and bad experiences at Christmas; Barlow's Scrooge is now much more of a predatory lender, who seems to take delight in seeing the poverty of his fellow citizens, and gloats over his riches like Alberich and the Rhine gold.  Several of the supporting characters emphasize with great eloquence the "It takes a village" mentality, making it clear that charity and compassion are necessary far beyond the Christmas season.  It's no secret to local theatre-goers that director Henderson likes to liven up material that needs it with inventive staging.  I'd love to see him take this overall production theme - music, costumes, set design - and apply it to some classic of the stage like Shakespeare or Aristophanes.

At this point, one is likely to do one of two things. Either you will say "Wow - a Dickens classic with a twist, actors playing live music, Avery Bateman beatboxing, Catherine Hunsinger playing the cello and dressed as a steampunk babe - I've got to make reservations now!!"  Or all of that that may sound utterly ridiculous.  I must say that I had no real interest in seeing the story of Scrooge yet again, but I enjoyed this production; however, I generally enjoy these performers, and the way Henderson often toys with narrative technique for maximum dramatic effect.  Box office for this show will likely determine whether Trustus experiments more in this direction, or less.  But as I often find myself saying with local productions, either way, the people involved do a great job.

A Christmas Carol runs through Saturday, December 21st; contact the Trustus box office at 803-2254-9732 for more information, or visit www.trustus.org.

~ August Krickel

"Venus in Fur" - a review of the new show at Trustus Theatre by August Krickel

Jennifer Moody Sanchez and Bobby Bloom in "Venus in Fur," running through  Sat. Nov. 16 on the Trustus Mainstage - Photo by Richard Arthur Király  Thomas is a serious author, determined to bring an influential work of Victorian eroticism to life on stage. Vanda is a brassy, uncultured actress. who assumes she's auditioning for glorified "S&M porn." Which she's totally down for.  His pencil-thin mustache, chiseled jawline, and rich baritone delivery channel his 19th-century protagonist, as he reads lines from classical poetry and his own play with passion and conviction. She shows up wearing lingerie and heels under a raincoat, although she assures him that "usually I'm really demure and sh!t."  He's Errol Flynn by way of Don Draper, dismissing her with a suave "if you will;" she’s Miley Cyrus, rendering his expression into the more modern "Whatever."

In Hollywood, this mismatched couple, played by Bobby Bloom and Jennifer Moody Sanchez, would be destined to fall in love. Off-Broadway, where David Ives's Venus in Fur premiered before a seven-month, critically-acclaimed run on Broadway, she's destined to tie him up and make him beg for more.  The new production at Trustus Theatre (which only runs through this weekend) is many things simultaneously:

- a seemingly straightforward, 2-person character study of actress and first-time director who begin  to take on the personas of their fictive counterparts as they run lines from his play.

- a recreation of the infamous 1870 novella, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose surname gave us the term "masochism," and who attempted to explain dominance and submission (from a man's perspective, anyway) in terms of reverence for an all-powerful, goddess-like image of female perfection.

- a contemporary examination of gender roles, and how women are portrayed and perceived in art, and in life.

- a murky journey through primal, mythological themes of mother goddesses and retribution.

- a covertly wicked satire of the audition/rehearsal process, where a director's routine instructions to a performer (e.g. "Stand there. No, more to your left. Now do the scene again. Again.  Stronger this time!") become a metaphor for S&M, and vice-versa.

- a fast-paced comedy, at times, with plenty of laughter and wit.

- a thriller in which both leads may have hidden agendas: how does Vanda know so much about Thomas's new play, and about his life? How is she able to give such a sophisticated reading, when Thomas feels she fails to understand even the basics of the character?  And is Thomas simply an up-and-coming playwright with vision, or does he have way too much attachment and connection to the themes explored in his work?  There's thunder, and lightning, and the way she loves him is frightening.

Jennifer Moody Sanchez and Bobby Bloom in "Venus in Fur," running through  Sat. Nov. 16 on the Trustus Mainstage - Photo by Richard Arthur Király

Bloom and Sanchez are alone on stage for nearly two hours, with no intermission (so be sure to visit the bar, and/or the facilities, just before curtain.) The play is a showcase for two talented performers, and they never disappoint. Both excel not only in embodying their primary characters but also in switching to their roles in the play-within-the play, whose own natures evolve as the show progresses.  As Vanda, Sanchez is all awkward arms and legs; as Wanda, the role she reads for, those limbs become elegant, willowy, and graceful.  She gets the majority of the laugh lines, while Blooms gets most of the play's eloquent ones, as when he describes how "two people meet, and ignite each other." Both are to be commended for bravery on stage, with Sanchez spending half the show in lingerie (although no more revealing than a typical swimsuit at the beach) and Bloom forced into moments of extreme emotional vulnerability.

Jennifer Moody Sanchez  in "Venus in Fur," running through  Sat. Nov. 16 on the Trustus Mainstage - Photo by Richard Arthur Király

The show is quite talky, esoteric, and abstract, with references to Tristan and Isolde, Paris and Anchises, Dionysus and the Bacchae.  Clues and red herrings, are dropped throughout as to what really may be going on, but when Thomas and Vanda reach an impasse, where he decides she is wrong for the role, and she implies that she never wanted it, something compels both to finish the scene, as if their fictive counterparts' lives are more important than their own.

A surprise ending may leave some feeling empowered from an uplifting and important, if shocking, message; others may feel cheated or short-changed. Scholars of theatre, history, and literature will appreciate a return to the form's most archetypal roots,  while a few  may simply echo the sorority girl from the viral video, saying "Wait.... what?"  I wonder if Ives began with a stage version of the original novella, then realized that it needed post-modern commentary and analysis via the framing device of the audition, and finally realized that he had painted himself into a narrative corner, with no way for a believable denouement. Or perhaps the final five minutes are the only logical way for this piece to play out, exactly as Ives intended.  However, as I expressed to the cast - this isn't hard when there are only two - screw the ending if you don't like it, because for me the play was all about the journey, not the destination.  It's a great chance to see two gifted young performers, capably directed by Jim O'Connor,  in the roles of a lifetime, and you will definitely be talking about the issues and themes addressed on your way home.

Because of the production’s limited run, there will be two performances on the evening of Friday, Nov. 15, at 7:30 and 10 PM. For more information or reservations, call the box office at 803-254-9732, or visit www.trustus.org.

~  August Krickel

A New Era Exploding at Trustus - a review of Ragtime (the Musical) by Jillian Owens

It was the music of something beginning. An era exploding.

A century spinning.

In riches and rags,

And in rhythm and rhyme.

The people called it Ragtime.

(L-R) Avery Bateman, Terrance Henderson, Marybeth Gorman, Luke Melnyk, G. Scott Wild

 

Ragtime (the Musical) - based on the E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name - is a story of hope and disillusionment in the face of the American Dream.  This dream is interpreted in many different ways by the many characters in the show, which opened at Trustus Theatre this past weekend.  Ragtime opens during the “Progressive Era” in 1904.  Industry is booming, and excitement is in the air.  This air is filled with the strange, new, simple, and syncopated music of Ragtime.  The music (by Stephen Flaherty) is catchy and tender, simple yet deep, with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and book by Terrence McNally.

Mother and Father have a kind, though sterile marriage.  When Father, played by G. Scott Wild, heads off to explore the North Pole with Admiral Peary, Mother - played by Marybeth Gorman - is left to tend to their son, large house, and business affairs.  When she digs up something very unusual in her garden, a chain of events are pushed into movement that will change the lives of her small family, as well as the communities around her.

ragtime2

Ragtime shines thanks to one of the most talented casts it could have possibly pulled together, consisting of many Columbia theatre veterans, as well as a few talented new faces.  There are no weak links in this production.  Terrance Henderson pulls double duty as the charismatic ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker and the show’s choreographer.  Vicky Saye Henderson plays the radical anarchist, Emma Goldman, with gusto, Younger Brother - played by Kevin Bush - is passionate about finding something to be passionate about, and Scott Vaughan’s appearances as Houdini, though short, are very charming.  Chip Stubbs delivers a beautiful standout performance as Tateh, with a voice that conveys all the determination, elation, and heartache of a poor immigrant father struggling to reconcile his dream of America with the reality of his new world.  Stories are intertwined and alliances are made and broken.  With so many characters and stories, you’re bound to find at least a few you can identify with.

(L-R) Terrnce Henderson, G. Scott Wild, Luke Melnyk, Marybeth Gorman, Avery Bateman; photo by Jonathan Sharpe

If you call the Trustus Box Office hotline, a friendly recording will inform you that this show has over thirty actors in the cast – the most they’ve had onstage at one time.  Upon hearing this, I must admit I was a little worried.  When Trustus tries to put on a large-scale show, it usually ends up being a mixed bag.  Their small stage can only hold so much spectacle, scenery, and cast members before things start to get cramped.

Fortunately, for director Chad Henderson, this particular big show doesn’t require a massive set or much spectacle beyond the talent of its actors.  That’s not to say the set is unimpressive.  Brandon McIver’s construction of his giant Statue of Liberty was well-documented on the Trustus Facebook page in the weeks before the opening.  This, along with fragments of early 1900’s Americana, are evocative of the period and theme.  The orchestra is small but skilled.  The costumes are period-accurate and lovely.

Between Henderson’s (Chad) stage direction and Henderson’s (Terrance) choreography, the actors don’t seem confined or cramped at all.  I would advise you to try to get a seat closer to the back as sight lines are a slight issue.  I can’t help but wonder…Is the success of Ragtime just the beginning of a new era of larger-scale productions for Trustus?  Are we ready for this “new music”?

~ Jillian Owens

 

 

Who is wrong and who is wronged? Ed Madden reviews "Collected Stories" at Trustus Theatre

Elisabeth Gray Engle and Elena Martínez-Vidal; rehearsal  photo by Richard Arthur  Király There was a moment during a dress rehearsal of Collected Stories earlier this week that simply crushed me.  The stage was dark, and a stagehand went around the set in the darkness, slowly and methodically making a mess of the place.  A plant toppled, papers strewn across furniture and floor, prescription bottles scattered on desk and table, a curtain undone, a shawl tossed in the floor.

Collected Stories, a play by Donald Margulies, opens at Trustus Theatre this Thursday, August 15, and closes on Sunday August 18.  It’s a short run for a powerful little play, directed by Milena Herring.  In a sequence of short scenes over the course of six years, we see Ruth Steiner, an older writer and teacher, take on as her student and later assistant the seemingly innocent Lisa Morrison, a 26-year-old would-be writer.  I say seemingly innocent, as it’s never clear how manipulative and shrewd she really is.  As the balance of power between the two shifts, we wonder at the end who the real innocent might be.

Ruth is played by the indomitable Elena Martinez-Vidal, confident and pitch-perfect throughout the play.  A couple of moments feel performed for the audience as much as they are for Lisa—stagey, theatrical, but that feels right.  Ruth’s little Greenwich Village apartment is her stage, Lisa her pupil and audience, and she is acting out what a famous writer is and says. I’m reminded of that scene in Douglas Sirk’s 1959 Imitation of Life, when Susie (Sandra Dee) tells her mother Lara (Lana Turner), “Oh stop acting mother!”  But she can’t: she is always onstage.  Martinez-Vidal is fascinating in this part, especially near the end, when Ruth’s life and health are ruined, and still some dark vitality—and anger—drives her speech and action.  She bristles stiffly in what seems to be a conciliatory hug from Lisa.

Elisabeth Gray Engle as Lisa was a puzzle, a chameleon.  Ingénue or ingenious, devious or devoted, we’re never really sure, though Engle, like Lisa, slowly but surely finds her voice.  The moment she tells Ruth about a story her father hated, something shifts in the play, and we start to realize that Lisa, as Engle deftly portrays her, has more to her than we imagined.

Either character could have been a type character if not a caricature—the old Jewish writer and professor, the gushing would-be writer—but both actresses brought a real depth to their portrayals.  The room itself, the set, is almost a character as well. Early in the play, Lisa rhapsodizes on how wonderful it would be to live in a place like that, a place perfect for a writer.  She reads the space through Ruth’s fiction, noting a Matisse from this story, the view of a playground from that one.  So when the stagehand comes through knocking over a plant and strewing paper and pill bottles, we realize that something has gone deeply wrong.

Elisabeth Gray Engle and Elena Martínez-Vidal; rehearsal  photo by Richard Arthur  Király

Two primary issues drive the play.  One is power.  When Ruth and Lisa argue over the guilt of Woody Allen after his affair with his 19-year-old step-daughter, we can’t help but wonder about the balance of power in this relationship.  Ruth admits her own affair with an older man, the poet Delmore Schwartz, but she also says that she has never written about the affair, even though it was the bright moment of her life.  “Some things you don’t touch,” she says, a command this daughter-figure is, we know, bound to disobey.

The second issue is the ownership of stories—and in an indirect way, lives.  Ruth admits to exaggerating elements of her own biography for political effect, and the two women agree that writers “rummage” through other people’s lives for stories.  “We’re all rummagers.  That’s what writers are.”  When one accuses the other, “You’ve stolen my stories,” the glib reply—“They stopped being your stories when you told them to me”— amplifies rather than answers the ethical questions.

In 1993, American novelist David Leavitt was sued by English poet Stephen Spender, who accused him of using a section of his memoir World Within World as fodder for his novel, While England Sleeps, a fictional portrayal of someone very like Spender.  I can’t help but think this literary larceny inflects Collected Stories, which premiered three years later in 1996.  (Leavitt’s next published work was The Term Paper Artist, a wicked novella from the point of view of an author accused of plagiarism, who starts to write term papers for college students.)

Where does theft stop and imagination begin?

Even though Ruth may think she’s granting voice to the voiceless, or Lisa may claim she is paying homage, there’s still a real sense here of ethical risk, one that carries, for me, beyond the play.  This would be a fascinating play to discuss in a creative writing class, where questions of writing about real people, people we know, inevitably lead to complex conversations.  What happens when our families read themselves in our stories (no matter how fictionalized)?  Or what happens when we alter details in a presumably nonfiction piece for aesthetic effect.  Yeah, we all know art is the lie that tells the truth (pace Oscar Wilde and Julian Barnes), but playful paradoxes rub raw when real people feel wronged.

Collected Stories closes out Trustus Theatre’s 28th season, and runs Thursday thru Sunday, August 15-18 (with a matinee on Sunday).   It’s a rich play—and as a meditation on plagiarism, intellectual property, and dishonesty, a great way to start the school year.  See it while you can.  Contact the box office at (803) 254-9732 for more information, or visit http://www.trustus.org .

~ Ed Madden

Be the first to see "The Velvet Weapon" (winner of the 2013 Trustus Playwrights' Festival) on Sat. Aug.10 at 2 PM!

velvetweapon

Love live theatre, but stymied by steep ticket prices?  Trustus has got you covered.

Love live theatre, but have commitments like jobs and children that keep you from going out at night?  Trustus has got you covered.

Love live theatre, but wish there were some way to see new shows other than traveling to New York?  Ever wish there were some way for new works of theatre to get a shot at an audience without having to worry about either being a Broadway blockbuster?  Trustus has got you covered.

Ever wish you could give feedback directly to a playwright, before the play ever even opens?  Trustus has got you covered.

Are you so tired of the famously hot August heat - punctuated by the monsoon-like August thunderstorms - that you wish you could just sit down in the dark somewhere with a cold beer or refreshing glass of wine, and watch some live theatre you've never seen before? Trustus has got you covered.

Tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 PM - that's Saturday, August 10th - The Velvet Weapon, winner of the 2013 Trustus Playwrights' Festival, will have a one-time-only staged reading at Trustus Theatre, open and free to the public.  The Trustus bar will also be open (although not free.)  There are only some 135 seats, however, so make sure one of them is yours.

The playwright, Deborah Brevoort, was kind enough to talk with Jasper about her new work, and you can read that exclusive interview here.  The cast for this reading includes:  Paul Kaufmann (last fall's Next to Normal and  I Am My Own Wife, both at Trustus), Trey Hobbs (Albany in USC's recent King Lear, Greg in reasons to be pretty at Trustus in 2010), Mandy Applegate (The Last Five Years and Plan 9 from Outer Space, both at  Trustus, and The Producers at Workshop) Hunter Boyle (Peron in Evita at Trustus, Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Workshop) Chelsea Nicole Crook, Eric Bultman, Cindy Durrett (numerous incarnations of Nunsense at Act One Theatre), Josiah Laubenstein (Edgar in King Lear, and Mike in Pine, the previous year's Festival winner  currently running at Trustus), Raia Jane Hirsch (The Motherf*@%er With the Hat at Trustus, Pride and Prejudice with SC Shakespeare Co.), and Kayla Cahill (The Shape of Things at  Workshop.)

Press material describes The Velvet Weapon as "a hilariously smart backstage farce that will leave you laughing while also engaging you long after you've left the theatre.  At the National Theatre of an unnamed country, in an unnamed city, a matinee audience rises up in protest over what is being performed on stage, and demands something new. They begin a performance of their own of The Velvet Weapon, a play by an unproduced playwright of questionable talent. Inspired by the Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia, The Velvet Weapon is a humorous exploration of populist democracy told through a battle between high-brow and low-brow art."

Director Chad Henderson shared a few thoughts with Jasper:

Jasper:   What has your involvement been in previous years with the Playwrights' Festival?

Henderson:  I directed Swing ’39 in 2011. I also acted in Copy Man under the direction of Jim Thigpen years ago.

Jasper:  Why is it important for an author to get feedback via a reading?

Henderson:  Probably the same reason I invite colleagues to come watch rehearsals of a show I’m directing before we open – its good to know what’s working and what’s not. In this particular case, Brevoort has written a farce – so pace and delivery is the name of the game it seems. The language on the page is the direct key to engaging an audience, so

Jasper:  How did you go about casting Velvet Weapon?

Henderson:  I was looking for people who are quick, humorous, and who have good timing.

Jasper:  For audience members who have never attended a reading before, what can they expect?

Henderson:  The actors (and it’s a great cast) will be reading without staging. Therefore, they will be acting while reading – but not walking around the stage. We would have loved to have staged this reading, however with farces there’s so much action that simplistic blocking would get in the way of the words being said. And since this is a celebration of a new work – we’re keeping it simple. But the script is certainly funny enough and endearing enough to entertain on a Saturday afternoon.

Jasper:  What sort of themes are addressed in this play?

Henderson:  “What is art?” is a question that strings through the narrative. Should art entertain? Should art explore the human condition? If it doesn’t explore the human condition – is it still art?

Be the first to see The Velvet Weapon, which will get a full production in the summer of 2014.  Curtain is at 2 PM tomorrow (Sat. Aug. 10) at Trustus Theatre, at 520 Lady Street in the heart of the Congaree Vista.  The Facebook "event" page for the reading is here.

~ August Krickel