"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

Deborah Brevoort's "The Velvet Weapon" Wins 2013 Trustus Playwrights' Festival - Chad Henderson Directs Staged Reading Saturday, August 10th

The Velvet Weapon, by Deborah Brevoort, is the winner of the 2013 Trustus Playwrights' Festival, and will receive a full production in the summer of 2014, preceded by a staged reading  this coming Saturday, August 10th, at 2 PM on the Thigpen Main Stage at 520 Lady Street in the Vista.  As sponsor of one of the nation's longest-running play festivals, Trustus has nurtured and fostered the growth of new playwrights such as David Lindsay-Abaire, who later went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Over the following year, each winning playwright has the chance to develop the script for production, with the opportunity for input from and consultation with members of the Trustus staff and company, based on feedback at the initial staged reading.  This year's reading will be directed by Chad Henderson, chosen by Jasper readers as the 2012 Theatre Artist of the Year.  Included in the cast are Paul Kaufmann (Next to Normal and I Am My Own Wife at Trustus) Raia Jane Hirsch (The Motherf*@%er With the Hat at Trustus, Pride and Prejudice with SC Shakespeare Co.) Kayla Cayhill (The Shape of Things at Workshop) Trustus Managing Director Larry Hembree, Eric Bultman, and Chelsea Crook.

The reading is free and open to the public, but seating is limited; the bar will be open, with liquid refreshments for sale.

Deborah Brevoort holds an MFA in Playwriting from Brown University and an MFA in Musical Theatre writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she currently teaches. She also teaches in the MFA playwriting programs at Columbia University and Goddard College. Her web site is www.DeborahBrevoort.com.  She is perhaps best known for her work The Women of Lockerbie, which won the Kennedy Center’s Fund for New American Plays Award, and the silver medal in the Onassis International Playwriting Competition. It has been produced across the U.S., as well as in Scotland, Japan, Greece, Spain, Belarus, Poland, Australia and England, and has been translated into seven languages.

The Velvet Weapon was inspired by the Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia, and is described as "a hilariously smart backstage farce that will leave you laughing while also engaging you long after you've left the theatre," and "a humorous exploration of populist democracy told through a battle between high-brow and low-brow art.  At the National Theatre of an unnamed country, 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."

 The author kindly agreed to share some thoughts with Jasper via e-mail in this exclusive interview!

Deborah Brevoort, author of "Thye Velvet Weapon," winner of the 2013 Trustus Playwrights' Festival

Jasper:  You have written drama, comedy, and the books for musicals.  Is The Velvet Weapon your first venture into farce?

Brevoort:   Velvet Weapon is my first farce, although one of my previous plays, The Poetry of Pizza, an Arab/American comedy about love, used elements of farce here and there. Albert Bermel, who wrote the definitive critical study on farce, said that it was “an older dramatist’s medium, because the techniques involved are so formidable.”   That surprised me; farces tend to feel so slight. They are like meringues that melt the minute they hit your mouth.   So, I wanted to try my hand at the form to see what was so difficult.  I was greatly humbled by it, I have to say.   These “slight” little plays are built like Swiss watches!

Jasper:  Do you find it challenging or difficult to move from one form to another, or does that give you a sort of freedom, to work in whatever form suits the material?

Brevoort:  I love writing in multiple forms.  I always find it difficult to move back and forth between them, but that is also the pleasure of it. As a writer, I have a couple of rules for myself. One is that I don’t ever repeat myself.  Another is that in every project I do, there must be something that I don’t know how to do. These rules help to ensure that I am always stretching myself as an artist, and that I don’t stagnate, or get too comfy.

Jasper:   Your theatrical career began at Alaska's Perseverance Theatre, and from there you moved into writing - how did that transition take place?

Brevoort:  I was the Producing Director of Perseverance Theatre, which means I was the person who raised all the money, and was the public administrative face of the theatre.  But Perseverance was an unusual company, because we were basically a group of artists who administered ourselves and the company. I started out as an actor, and worked in the acting company for the better part of 13 years.  I had always wanted to be a writer, so when we started offering playwriting classes at the theatre, led by Paula Vogel and Darrah Cloud, I took them. Paula snatched me out of the class, told me I was writer, and gave me a fellowship to come to Brown University to make the switch from theatre producing and acting to writing. I accepted the fellowship, and moved to NYC, where I’ve been ever since, working as a playwright, lyricist and librettist.

Jasper: I gather that contemporary themes, especially relating to political and social topics, recur in your work, although perhaps sometimes not overtly. Do you have a particular goal in your work?

Brevoort:  I am not aware that I have a political agenda or even that I have political themes - I just write what interests me.  And I am committed to writing each project truthfully, whatever that may entail.

Jasper:  How easy or difficult is it to make the audience think while still entertaining them?

Brevoort:  There are plenty of techniques you can use as a playwright to make an audience think or feel.  To me it’s simply a matter of craft.  It’s no harder to make an audience think than feel—it just requires different tools.  I do have to say, however, that the hardest thing to do is to make an audience laugh. That is 100 times harder than to make them cry.

Jasper:  Why did the "velvet revolution" in Czechoslovakia appeal to you as source material?

Brevoort:  I was very good friends with Pavel Dobrusky, a Czech scenographer who defected from the former Czechoslovakia and came to work with us at Perseverance Theatre in the mid-1980’s.  When the Velvet Revolution happened in 1989, Pavel worked with us on production called Wonderland, a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland take on the events taking place in Eastern Europe.  It was one of my favorite productions at Perseverance Theatre.

Fast forward 15 years:  Pavel and I both now live in NYC and got to talking one night about The Velvet Revolution and how we’d love to make a theatre piece about it.  Pavel knew all the theatre artists who had been involved—they were his old friends.  We put together a grant request to CEC Arts Link, which gave money to theatre artists to do projects in Eastern Europe.  We got the grant, which enabled the two of us to go to both the Czech and Slovak Republics and to interview all the artists who collaborated with Vaclav Havel to bring down the Soviet regime.  We spent about a month conducting intense, in-depth interviews with 43 of the ringleaders.

After the interviews, I remarked to Pavel that the Velvet Revolution was like one, great big back stage farce. Literally.   So, I wrote the play as a farce.

The goal was for Pavel to eventually direct the play.  But unfortunately, Pavel passed away.

Jasper:   Once you finished the play, you had readings at La Mama and the NJ Playwright’s Theatre?  How did that process work?   

Brevoort:  In addition to getting a CEC Arts Link grant to do the interviews, I got a playwriting fellowship from the NJ Council on the Arts, to write the play. The reading at the NJ Playwright’s Theatre was part of that fellowship.  Pavel directed the reading, which was done for about 30 NJ senior citizens, all of whom thought I was writing a satire about Obama.

The La Mama reading was part of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts “Performing Revolution in Central and Eastern Europe” festival, a citywide, 5-month event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.  Pavel was no longer in NYC at that point, so he didn’t direct the reading. Many audience members at the reading were from Eastern Europe, so they got all the references in the play and recognized it as the story about Vaclav Havel.  The other half knew nothing about the Velvet Revolution and thought I was parodying populist democratic movements taking place around the world.

In February of this year I had a reading of the play at William Patterson University in NJ, and this time the audience thought I was writing about Occupy Wall Street.

This of course tickles me to no end; it was my goal that this play be about populist democracy not about the Velvet Revolution—and it appears to be working on that level because people are seeing references to American politics or world politics in it.  But I have also loaded the play with lots of inside jokes and references that only Eastern Europeans would “get”—and they seem to be “getting” them.

Each reading helped me to CUT the script. Speed of delivery is necessary for farce. If you have one syllable too many in a line, you won’t get a laugh.  So these readings have helped me to pare each line down so they work like darts.

Jasper:  How did you discover Trustus and the Playwrights' Festival?

Brevoort: I have heard about Trustus for many years,  most recently when I was the playwright-in-residence at Center Stage in Greenville, SC.  I’m delighted to get a chance to work with them!  I’ve never been to Columbia, so I don’t know anything about the community, and am looking forward to coming down and being there next year for rehearsals.

~ August Krickel

"The Motherf*%#er With the Hat" - August Krickel reviews the new Trustus show

"We're the theatre that curses and does nude shows," Trustus co-founder Jim Thigpen joked in the very first issue of Jasper. And how. The Mother*#%$er With the Hat features plenty of full frontal male and female nudity, liberal use of the title expletive along with its many cognates and derivatives, plus violence, and drug and alcohol abuse. Or, as an old roommate used to say, that's four-star entertainment right there for sure. Director Chad Henderson notes in the program that author Stephen Adly Guirgis chose the title as a disclaimer to signify the intensity of the subject matter, a sort of "let the buyer beware" warning so that the audience has no illusions as to the grittiness of the themes or dialogue.  That said, there is plenty of comedy, a few moments of tenderness and compassion, and a lot of insight into human nature, however dysfunctional and self-destructive that may be.  The play's five characters are low-lifes, addicts, ex-cons, alcoholics and/or scumbags, but thanks to the commitment of the performers, and some creativity from Henderson and scenic designer Kimi Maeda, we sort of kind of care about them, at times anyway.

Jackie (Alexis Casanovas) is newly paroled and newly sober; his AA sponsor Ralph (Shane Silman) now sells nutritional supplements instead of drugs, and has stayed sober for 16 years in spite of a tumultuous marriage to Victoria (Michelle Jacobs) whom he met, you guessed it, at a meeting. Jackie's cousin Julio (Joe Morales) has likewise channeled his energies into therapeutic massage and perfecting his recipe for the perfect empanada, but is ready to stash a handgun or channel his inner Van Damme in a rumble. Veronica (Raia Jane Hirsch) still uses, and may be cheating on Jackie with the titular character, who could just as easily be called "some dude who may be doing my girlfriend." Or Jackie may just be paranoid, and in need of a refresher course on the Twelve Steps.  All five actors believably flesh out these damaged characters as they navigate the choppy waters of recovery, relationships and betrayal. At one point, Silman and Casanovas are so intently arguing with each other that one gets the impression that they have forgotten the audience entirely, and instead just really want to win the argument, using the playwright's words. Equally impressive is the way that the actors bare their souls on stage while baring everything else, yet manage to stay in character, and never miss a beat. The dialogue is very honest, which again explains the play's title, since people use the term so frequently these days, especially in the sub-culture we see depicted here.

 

Guirgis has a way of relaying fairly profound thoughts and ideas via the natural cadences of simple and ineloquent people. At some level, all the characters realize how badly they have messed up their own lives, and how tenuous their grasp on stability is. Yet "the space between who you are, and who you think you are, is pretty wide," as Cousin Julio tells Jackie - cautionary words for us all. Morales, deadpan as Julio, provides most of the wisdom in the first act, which is in many ways a comedy, although one peopled with sad, tragic figures. The second act is more of a serious drama, although full of hilarious lines, most spoken by Julio.  Guirgis once worked on an episode of The Sopranos (as did two of the original Broadway cast, including the original Victoria, Annabella Sciorra, aka Tony's crazy goomah Gloria Trillo.) Before I spotted that in the program, I leaned over to my friend and whispered "Tell me this isn't Christopher and Adriana," the similarly struggling and clueless addicts from that series.   "What are we, Europeans?  I'm from the neighborhood," Jackie protests when faced with a difficult choice. There are a number of modern playwrights who use the natural rhythms of common urban speech to depict "real" life in the big city, including David Mamet, Martin McDonagh, and Neil LaBute, all performed by Trustus over the years.  In fact, this work could almost be reasons to be pretty, Pt. 2, if that LaBute play had focused on losers and substance abusers. Directed a few years ago by Henderson, reasons featured similar themes of commitment and infidelity, similar challenges of growing up and getting serious about life, similar blunt language, similar argument and fight scenes, and similar scene transitions.

Speaking of those transitions, I griped and moaned like a...well, like the title of this play, over another recent production where the actors did choreographed actions as the scenes changed. Here, it works perfectly, and indeed enhances the material. Henderson keeps his cast in character, or stylized versions of their characters, as they act out brief, pantomimed representations or summaries of what they are feeling. Sure, it keeps the action and pace flowing while the cast and stagehands change the scenery, but the mini-vignettes work quite well on their own. Nowhere is it better, or more appropriate, than when Hirsch sees the walls literally and figuratively closing in on her, and rushes to push back in vain.  Kimi Maeda's scenic design is created with an artist's eye, and incorporates three revolving, triangular set pieces, each forming part of the interior of three apartments.  Anything the actors need to touch - a chair, a door, a table, even a boom box - is physically present on stage, while everything else - a window, a lamp, the headboard of a bed - is painted onto the colorful walls with simple, broad strokes. Henderson mentioned the cartoon-like echoes of artists like Roy Lichtenstein in his interview with Jasper, but I was actually reminded of the work of Toulouse-Lautrec, and of local artist Page Morris, who coincidentally was featured in an exhibition just a couple of blocks down Lady Street from the theatre during opening weekend.    .

As I have written previously, back in the day Trustus used to do shows like this all the time: controversial, raw, edgy, unknown outside of New York, and featuring crazy titles. In fact, I found myself mentally casting this c. 1990, with Firdous Bamji and Erin Thigpen in the leads, and maybe Linda Pollitt and George Altman (or Jayce Tromsness) as Victoria and Ralph.  Here, there isn't a lot of controversy per se, apart from, well, OK, the title, the language, and the nudity. The themes are relatively straightforward, with no message beyond acknowledgement of humanity's flaws, and how we all have to strive to overcome those to get through one day at a time, even if we occasionally act like idiots and jeopardize it all. Consider yourself warned, or encouraged to see the show, depending on how much you enjoy challenging material, and how willing you are to laugh at the disturbing absurdities of human existence.

The Mother*#%$er With the Hat runs through Sat. Feb. 23rd; contact the box office at 803-254-9732 for ticket information.

~ August Krickel

Marauding Zombies, Playful Amphibians, and That Mofo With the Hat - What to See on Stage This Weekend

George Romero's low-budget, cult hit from 1968, Night of the Living Dead, was the granddaddy of all modern zombie stories. Zombies had been around before, but were usually depicted as corpses animated by some controlling voodoo master. Romero took the basic idea of hordes of the undead from Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, made them less vampires and more corpse-like, yet still eager to chomp your flesh and turn you into one of them, and his world-view of a zombie apocalypse took off, influencing everything from the Resident Evil and Silent Hill video games, to director John Landis's classic video for the Michael Jackson song "Thriller," to the current hit comic book and cable tv series The Walking Dead. We're still fond of this exchange from the Joss Whedon-produced series Angel, written by Steven S. DeKnight (now the show-runner for Spartacus) : CONNOR (Angel's mortal son, who hates him): He looks dead.

ANGEL (the "good" vampire with a soul) : He is dead. Technically, it's undead. It's a zombie.

CONNOR: What's a zombie?

ANGEL: It's an undead thing.

CONNOR: Like you?

ANGEL: No, zombies are slow-moving, dimwitted things that crave human flesh.

CONNOR: Like you.

ANGEL: No! It's different. Trust me.

Zombies are all the rage in Columbia too, with an annual Zombie Walk (Crawl? Lurch?) each Hallowe'en. High Voltage Theatre is currently producing a stage adaptation of the original Romero film, running this weekend and the next, Friday and Saturday nights, through Sat. Feb. 15th, at the Tapp's Art Center on Main Street. For information or reservations, call: 803-754-5244. And you can read a review at the Free Times.

Over at Richland Mall in Forest Acres, Columbia Children's Theatre is opening their new production of A Year With Frog and Toad, the Tony-nominated (seriously!) musical by Robert and Willie Reale, based on Arnold Lobel's series of children's books. The cast includes local favorites such as Jerry Stevenson, Lee O. Smith, Bobby Bloom, Sara Jackson, Paul Lindley II (doubling as musical director) Toni Moore, and Elizabeth Stepp (who also choreographs.)

From press material:

Arnold Lobel's well-loved characters hop from the page to the stage in A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD, the Theatre of Young Audiences version of Tony-nominated musical. This whimsical show follows two great friends -- the cheerful, popular Frog and the rather grumpy Toad -- through four, fun-filled seasons. Waking from hibernation in the Spring, Frog and Toad plant gardens, swim, rake leaves, go sledding, and learn life lessons along the way. The two best friends celebrate and rejoice in their differences that make them unique and special. Part vaudeville, part make believe, all charm, A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD tells the story of a friendship that endures, weathering all seasons.

The show runs through Sun. Feb. 17th; contact the box office at (803) 691-4548 for information.

Meanwhile, down in the Vista, Trustus Theatre opens Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Motherf@*#&er With the Hat, directed by Chad Henderson, with a score by Preach Jacobs, scenic design by Kimi Maeda, and featuring Alexis Casanovas, Shane Silman, Raia Jane Hirsch, Michelle Jacobs, and Joe Morales.

From press material:

ADULTS ONLY PLEASE: language, nudity, sexual situations, & violence

"This sexy and modern show was nominated for Tony Awards, Drama League Awards, Outer Critics Circle Awards, and Drama Desk Awards – TRUST US, it’s more than the title that’s provocative about this show."

Struggles with addiction, friendship, love and the challenges of adulthood are at the center of the story. Jackie, a petty drug dealer, is just out of prison and trying to stay clean. He's also still in love with his coke-addicted childhood sweetheart, Veronica. Ralph D. is Jackie's too-smooth, slightly slippery sponsor. He's married to the bitter and disaffected Victoria, who, by the way, has the hots for Jackie. And then there's Julio, Jackie's cousin … a stand-up, "stand by me" kind of guy. However, when Jackie comes home with flowers to find a strange man’s hat by his and Veronica’s bed, these characters careen forward as Jackie goes in search of the hat’s owner. What follows is an examination of trust, lust, loyalty, and true love.

You can read an interview with director Chad Henderson here.  Contact the box office at (803) 254-9732 for ticket information.

Memorable Theatre Moments from 2012 - August Krickel's picks

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ August Krickel

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ Jillian Owens

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

 

Avenue Q at Trustus Theatre - A Review

Avenue Q, the new summer show now running at Trustus Theatre, is a lively, witty, naughty musical romp through the challenges of young adulthood in the big city, told via catchy, silly, bouncy songs, performed by puppets. Well, by live actors, four of whom give voice and life to a number of Muppet-style hand puppets.  For sheer escapism and entertainment, you absolutely will not be disappointed by this triple Tony winner that ran for over six years in New York, and still thrives and prospers off-Broadway today.

With music and lyrics by creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and book by Jeff Whitty, Avenue Q  follows the adventures of recent college grad Princeton, an archetypal naïf looking for his meaning in life... or perhaps just a job, and a cheap place to live, which he finds in the low-rent zone of Avenue Q.  Princeton is Everyman (or Everypuppet) at 22, and this theme has been explored countless times over the years, in films like How to Marry a Millionaire, musicals like How to Succeed in Business, and even the current HBO series Girls.  The show's brilliance lies in its reinvention of the coming-of-age genre, using multi-colored felt and cloth puppets, especially since the impression conveyed is that we are seeing the familiar Sesame Street characters all grown up, and having to confront the realities and responsibilities of maturity.  A disclaimer in the program makes it clear that there is no actual connection to any Jim Henson creations or properties; one imagines that at this stage, Elmo, Kermit and friends are such cultural icons that they classify as public figures, and therefore fair game for parody and satire.  Unlike the Muppets, however, the audience actually sees each performer skillfully manipulating his or her diminutive alter-ego, and so the relevant expressions and emotions are visible on the live actor's face as well.  All are attractive and talented, causing one to want to follow them on stage, but just as much attention needs to be paid to the puppets, who are the actual characters.

Performing Princeton, Kevin Bush finds just the right tone to seem sympathetic, yet still a bit of an immature tool.  A subplot revolving around an ambiguous pair of roommates (think Bert and Ernie) features Bush as Rod, an uptight and closeted yuppie banker whose nose and eye design are as phallic as his name.  Rod's denial of his sexuality and feelings for his best friend become increasingly ludicrous, culminating in a stream-of-consciousness musical fabrication about an imaginary girlfriend, from Canada, named Alberta, who lives in... ummm... Vancouver.  The ever-youthful Bush could really have played either of these roles quite believably in a "normal" play; I do wish there were a bit more distinction in their voices, especially since between the two characters, he has at least 50% of the dialogue in the show.  Still, he's a great singer and a delight to see.

Katie Leitner as Princeton's love interest, Kate Monster, is equally appealing.  Looking back over my notes, I see at least half a dozen times where she duets with Bush or joins in a group number, and I have jotted down "beautiful harmony" or "incredible voice."  Her solo "Fine Fine Line" (a melancholy reflection on the difference between lovers and friends) could easily have been part of a "serious" musical, whereas most of the other songs replicate the sing-song style of a children's show.  With no way to really change the facial expression of the hand puppets, emotions must be conveyed by adjusting their posture or position; somehow Leitner expertly manages to depict Kate Monster as a sloppy drunk, with her hair falling into her face, and the moment is one of many comic highlights.  She also gets to create Lucy the Slut, who oozes mint-julep sultriness and temptation, with a rich deep voice an octave or so lower than Kate's.  Brien Hollingsworth also displays amazing diversity in his voice characterizations as four different characters, including Trekkie Monster (addicted to porn in lieu of cookies) and Nicky, who accepts BFF Rod's sexuality long before Rod acknowledges it.  Hollingsworth and Elisabeth Smith Baker perform Nicky together, and also appear as the Bad Idea Bears, Care Bear-like apparitions who suggest things like chugging Long Island Teas the night before an important day at work, or using funds sent from the 'rents to buy some beer, and it might as well be a case, since those are better bargains.  Baker probably does the best at recreating the perky, cartoonish voices one expects, and also helps to manipulate most of the other puppet characters when their principal portrayers are busy, e.g. she performs Lucy's movements when Leitner is performing Kate. Through some skillful choreography and misdirection, rarely can one ever tell that the principal actor is doing both voices, and this also means that Baker has to know not only her own characters' lines, but most of the rest of the script too, in order to move the puppet's mouth at the right moment, in synch with the right dialogue. The other three performers accomplish this as well, but Baker is perhaps the best at turning invisible on stage, this being that rarest of times when that's a good thing.  And did I mention that Princeton and Kate engage in some graphic puppet sex?  Well, as graphic as hand puppets who only exist from the waist up can get, but that's incredibly, and hilariously, graphic.

Just like Sesame Street, there are human characters too, similarly disillusioned 20-somethings, played by G. Scott Wild, Annie Kim, and Devin Anderson.  While these characters are never fully developed, the performers are excellent, and their voices blend beautifully with the rest of the cast.  Director Chad Henderson brings the customary style that I have come to expect from his shows:  everyone is completely believable in their characters, everything moves at a lively pace, and there's never a dull moment on stage, even in transitional moments and bridging scenes.  Musical Director Randy Moore capably leads four other musicians and never once drowns out the singers.  Danny Harrington's set is ostensibly a simplistic, child-like facade of an apartment row, but utilizes striking colors and odd angles (much like his recent set for Grease at Town Theatre) to make an attractive visual statement.  Performers frequently have to make rapid exits in time to appear as another character in an upstairs window, and I'm guessing the true extent of Harrington's design can only be appreciated from backstage, as everything seems to flow quite smoothly.   There's also a multi-media component, incorporating a tv-like screen that projects video clips (created by Aaron Johnson) and little visual lessons, in that same Sesame Street style.  The excellent puppet creations are by Lyon Hill (profiled in the cover story of the current issue of Jasper - The Word on Columbia Arts) and Karri Scollon, the result of a collaboration between Trustus and the Columbia Marionette Theatre.

Trustus of course is at a crossroads, with new leadership coming in, and the ever-present challenge to stay true to their mission (edgy shows from NY that might not be done elsewhere locally) while giving the audiences what they want (which by and large is light, frothy, silly musical comedies.)  Through some happy harmonic convergence, Avenue Q  manages to do both simultaneously.  The only caveats might be:  a) however adorable the puppets may be, and however appealing the performers, the humor and language is decidedly R-rated, so consider yourself forewarned, or titillated in advance, as the case may be; and  b) the score is quite catchy and eminently hummable, but no moreso (and no less) than any good Muppet Show song.  As above, coming-of-age stories are nothing new, and have been depicted musically as recently as March's Passing Strange, which was wildly popular among most artists, musicians and theatre folks I know. For me, however, Avenue Q  is the most entertaining production I've seen at Trustus in years, and certainly the best show I've seen locally since Victor/Victoria  at Workshop some 15 months ago.  Retelling  fundamental and timeless themes using a new, unexpected, yet also familiar story-telling technique is simply a stroke of genius, and you owe it to yourself to take a trip down to Avenue Q.

Avenue Q runs through Sat. July 21st; contact the Trustus box office at 803-254-9732 for ticket information.

~ August Krickel

(Photo credit - Bonnie Boiter-Jolley)

Behind the scenes (and the wardrobe and lighting) of Swing '39

Some of the staff of Jasper had the good fortune last night to attend the closing performance of TRUSTUS Theatre's most recent play, Swing '39. Directed by Chad Henderson, a young man who, full disclosure, is dear to the heart of this writer, Swing '39 was the winner of the TRUSTUS Playwright's Festival.  Written by Alessandro King, a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, Swing '39 was developed during readings both at Sarah Lawrence and at New Dramatists, "the country's premiere center for the support and development of playwrights," according to their website. While we enjoyed the play and thought the second act made up for some needed editing on the playwright's part in the first, we were also duly impressed by the set design, lighting design, and costuming.

Danny Harrington, who did the scenic design, was able to capture the essence of early 20th century propriety in his pink, center-stage Davenport which appeared to be as appropriately uncomfortable as it was beautiful.

Costume Designer, Alexis Doktor, one of the two most under-recognized and over-achieving members of the Columbia arts community, scored an A+ again with her too snug pencil skirts for the women and too large suits for the men. Her wardrobe decisions well reflected the constraining sex role constructs of the pre-World War II era. (And the shoes chosen for Sylvia, played by Bianca Raso, were to die for!)

Aaron Pelzek, the other of the two most under-recognized and over-achieving members of the Columbia arts community, announced he was serious about his lighting design in the first few seconds of the show when he dramatically lit the stage, one fixture at a time, to the tune of the opening music.

Finally, hats off to Elena Martinez-Vidal who played the off-stage voice of Sylvia's mother with a demanding whine that would put that of Howard Wolowitz's Ma to shame. That said, at least one member of our theatre-going party has not been able to get Dr. Hook's rendition of Sylvia's Mother out of her head since reading the program last night.

Other standouts from the performance include G. Scott Wild in the role of Benny Goodman and Rozlyn Stanley as his love interest, Maggie. Wild, seen most recently as John Wilkes Booth in  the TRUSTUS production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, also directed by Henderson, was a snarling portrait of professionalism. Stanley embodied the kind of sensual naiveté that would allow a girl of her character's age to become involved in a tryst with such an unlikely partner.

Kudos to the cast and crew of Swing '39. We're looking forward to seeing more of you all on our city's stages in the near future.

-- C. Boiter

Check out more of Jasper Magazine at our website at www.jaspercolumbia.com