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

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

 

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at Workshop Theatre - a review by August Krickel

Shattered survivors struggle over scraps of nourishment in a barren, apocalyptic wasteland in Workshop Theatre's new production of Edward Albee's classic play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  At least, it seems that way, as we spend a few desperate hours in the alcohol-fueled, vitriol-filled lives of a seriously disturbed, and disturbing, married couple, George and Martha. Audiences eager to experience Albee's dark fable with no holds barred will undoubtedly get their money's worth and then some, thanks to brilliant characterizations by a committed cast. Metaphors notwithstanding, the set-up for Who's Afraid is deceptively simple: two academic couples drink, carouse, and argue into the wee hours of the morning. Martha drunkenly and shrewishly criticizes George's shortcomings as a husband, a professor, and a man; he returns fire with wry, catty observations on said drunken shrewishness. Like rival boxers engaged in a harmless exhibition bout, often one or the other can't resist sneaking in a sucker punch or two. Neither really knows where to draw the line, but a bizarre game/deception has enabled the marital battle to rage on for 23 years. Like many, I read this play many years ago, and saw the Burton-Taylor film version, but I had forgotten how devastatingly witty the dialogue is. Elena Martinez-Vidal portrays Martha as an aging Snookie, the once-scandalous college president's daughter, now using booze and random affairs to carry her through a seemingly unhappy marriage. For Martha, it's far easier to get laughs from a clever play on the author Woolf's name and the nursery rhyme, than to actually discuss (or understand) Woolf's work.  Stann Gwynn as George wears a natty, professorial blazer, but sinks his hands deep into its pockets as if it were an old sweater, indicating general despair. Oddly, however, he is verbally clever and quick, nimbly playing with words, images and ideas; if this brilliant man's career has stalled, one wonders how responsible his drunken wife may have been in the squashing his ambitions. Both leads are at the top of their acting game, utterly believable as these amusing yet unlikeable characters.

Lee Williams and Giulia Marie Dalbec play a younger couple, labeled Nick and Honey in the program, although Nick is never referred to by name, and only he ever calls to his wife, as "honey."  Dalbec is either offstage or passed out (or both) for almost half of the play, but does a great job in a radically different role for her, playing mousy rather than the usual vivacious. During long stretches while others are speaking, she is always completely in character, busy with countless, unobtrusive little bits of business that make perfect sense.  It would be very easy to say that Williams seems awkward and self-conscious... except that Nick the character is supposed to be seen that way.  One could add that he is at times overwhelmed by the forceful personalities of the two leads...yet again, the character is written that way. Albee never gives Nick the lines to establish him as a scholar or scientist; in fact, in many ways he seems to be a younger, blander, incomplete version of George himself, with modest career goals, a wife who can't hold her liquor, a wealthy and larger-than-life father-in-law, and unspoken issues in his past. (The Trekkie in me wants Nick and Honey to be George and Martha from some alternate universe, visiting via a temporal flux, but no such luck.) Overall, Williams does his best with a difficult role.

I might have wanted to see a deeper debate on science vs. history or philosophy, but Albee is working in a different direction entirely, as the couples spend a solid two and a half hours (plus intermissions) seemingly fighting over nothing.  There's a central (and famous) plot twist that I won't reveal here, but in retrospect, it seems telegraphed from early in the first act, but I'm uncertain how newcomers to the show will perceive it.  Martha tells George that he doesn't know the difference between truth and illusion, to which he replies "No, but we must carry on as though we did."  In interviews, the playwright has professed a desire to aggressively engage the audience in the business of understanding the material, and accordingly we have to fill in many of the blanks and connect the dots for George and Martha's backstory and motivations. Only at the very end do we glimpse the actual affection and co-dependency shared by the couple, which then explains much of the dysfunctional fiction they have created, but audiences, scholars and critics have spent the last half century debating just how believable and effective that may be, from a literary standpoint. From a dramatic standpoint, it's quite moving.

Director Cynthia Gilliam allows the fast and furious dialogue to proceed naturally, never missing any of the many laugh lines that pepper the dark material.  I was surprised at how fresh and contemporary the 50-year-old script seemed, with just the tiniest hint of the Mad Men era, before certain modern expressions became common.  Costumes (by Janet Kile) are authentic, and yet could be worn today; a couple of random references to the Depression and World War 2 are the only things to indicate the setting. Towards the show's conclusion, George recites part of a Latin requiem, while Martha recounts an often-told story. Gilliam cleverly takes advantage of Gwynn's rich voice and has him actually sing the words, giving the moment a haunting beauty that is not otherwise found in the original.  Randy Strange's set accurately depicts an ordinary, upper-middle class living room, but I must praise whoever dressed the set (I'm guessing Meg Richards, credited for props.) Among all the customary suburban bric-a-brac are two framed photos, and sure enough, they are youthful portraits of Gwynn and Martinez-Vidal.

The ultimate question becomes: did I enjoy the play?  My answer is that I thoroughly enjoyed and admired the performances by the cast, and the new insights gained into the material via the director's vision.  I’d really question someone who actually enjoys Albee, much as one might admire the first ten minutes of Saving Pvt. Ryan, but not technically enjoy them.  Albee is one of the giants of contemporary theatre, and undeniably a genius, although possibly a mad genius. Joe Six-Pack who might otherwise be watching WWE Raw will likely not appreciate this work (although it features similar smackdowns and trash-talking!)  Any literate adults with backgrounds or interests in literature, sociology or psychology, and who want to see challenging themes acted out live by gifted performers, need to see this production.  With only seven performances left in a 199-seat theatre, there's no excuse for there not to be standing room only.  The show runs through Sat. Nov. 24th, i.e. the Saturday after Thanksgiving, contact the Workshop Box Office at 803-799-6551, or visit http://www.workshoptheatre.com for ticket information.

~ August Krickel

Cynthia Gilliam reflects on her upcoming production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at Workshop Theatre

Veteran Midlands director Cynthia Gilliam, one of the founders of Workshop Theatre, recently took time to chat with Jasper Theatre Editor August Krickel about her upcoming production of an Edward Albee classic. Jasper: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is currently being produced on Broadway in a very high-profile revival - why do you think it still resonates with audiences?

Cynthia Gilliam:  For me, Albee's script is as timeless as Macbeth. Delicately balanced between comedy and tragedy, I believe this play will be staged again and again, right on into the foreseeable future. While George and Martha are bickering, disappointed, aging, alcoholics, they are deeply in love with each other. Their marriage, like the play, is a tightly wound tragicomedic concoction bound to endure. While (the) script is incredibly heavy lifting for actors, it is a different experience for the audience, when it is well played.  First-timers are as amazed and delighted at the rich comedy in the script as they are raked by the anger and vitriol there.

Jasper:  Albee has said that he wants audiences still to be completely entranced by and caught up in his shows even as they leave the theatre.  What sort of ideas/themes/messages do you hope audiences will take from this show?

CG:  However they are wounded, most people manage to make their way through life as best they can. Those with scars seek others similarly wounded, and they accommodate each other, often with made up games, hearty laughter, and a good sex. The cards we are what they are. We must deal with what we are dealt.

Jasper:  This is the 50th anniversary of the original Broadway premiere of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  However, you've done this show previously in Columbia?

Cynthia Gilliam:  This marks my third, and most likely final, encounter with (this) play. I produced and directed it the first time with Milton Dixon as George, and Bette Herring as Martha at the Playbox Theater, housed in an old Postal Office in Eau Claire. Years passed, and Russell Green, former head of the Theater Department at USC and an incredible director, cast me as Martha opposite Bob Hungerford’s George in a production staged at Charlton Hall Antiques Gallery on Gervais Street.   Acting with Hungerford was a stellar experience, and Russell was a whiz, with a very firm hand. We were gypsies back in those days, but we managed to stage credible productions, get decent reviews, draw good crowds, pay our bills, share what was left over, and do exactly as we pleased. Adding up the days and nights spent on these first endeavors would likely equal five months of living inside this script. Martha was my very last appearance as an actress.

Jasper:  Stann Gwynn and Elena Martinez-Vidal (profiled in Jasper 004 as one of Columbia's "leading ladies") play George and Martha in this production.  Just like with the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor film version, it may be hard for local audiences to realize that Stann and Elena are old enough for these roles.  Have you worked with them before?

CG:  This production is my first opportunity to work with Stann, although I have admired his talent on many occasions.  He and Elena cast me as their director, and I responded to their call!  Elena and I go way, way back. We have been talking for several years about working together again.

Jasper:  We've followed the career of Giulia Dalbec-Matthews for a number of years, and are so impressed with the increasingly complex and challenging roles she has taken on in the last year.  Still, the vulnerable character of Honey is very different from anything she has done on stage previously - how did you come to cast her?

CG:  I have made a point of trying to see everything (on stage) I can this year, as I want to do more, and need to know what everyone is doing, and how well. Lucky for me, I saw Legally Blonde at Workshop, primarily because my daughter, Liz, is involved in producing the show at Dreher High School, and she wanted to see it.  I was struck with the incredible energy and focus coming from Giulia, (and so) I cast Giulia based on her performance in Blonde.  I believe Giulia is very serious about growing herself as an actress.  Wise beyond her years, her intuition tells her that the more roles she tucks into her resume, the more she can widen her range of opportunities. To become the best actress you can possibly be, you have to practice the craft regularly, stay on the lookout for roles that will give you growing pains and lengthen your reach. I admire her for taking on this part, and she is making it all her own. She is very “directable.”

Jasper:  We profiled veteran Workshop Theatre set designer Randy Strange this summer in Jasper 006. How is he to work with?

CG:  To borrow from Mr. Albee, Randy is “a beanbag”. He is the perfect collaborator. Because of Randy, this cast will have more than ten days to rehearse on a complete, furnished, and finished set. He has made a very challenging prop called for in the show, and I tested it three days ago. I irritate the snot out of him, but he endures and produces just what I need. Who could ask for more?

Jasper:  Big-budget musicals are always a hit locally, and sometimes so are new, name-brand dramas, but this show is 50-yrs. old, and touches on issues not everyone might relate to (academia, middle-age, upper-middle-class malaise, etc.)  Why should a Columbian theatre-goer come see this show?

CG:  Theatre-goers should come to this show for the same reason they would attend a fine production of Hamlet. Virginia Woolf is an American classic, and, as you said, it is over 50 years old. Yet, people are still putting it up on the stage all over the country. It is worth hearing and seeing every decade or so.  Were I in Chicago next week and a production was running there, I would book tickets as soon as I got to my hotel.   I do not believe it will wilt with time or fall from favor. There is so much in this script that is yet to be mined and put on display.

........................

Ticket information can be found at http://www.workshoptheatre.com/ or by calling the box office at 803-799-6551 from noon to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.  Show dates are Nov. 9-11, 14-18, and 23-24.  All performances are at 8:00 PM, except for matinees on Sunday Nov. 11 and 18.


 

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