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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Richard Arthur Király Photography

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

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

~ August Krickel

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

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

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

A century spinning.

In riches and rags,

And in rhythm and rhyme.

The people called it Ragtime.

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

 

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

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

ragtime2

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

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

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

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

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

~ Jillian Owens

 

 

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 Fall" at Trustus Theatre

Geoffrey NaufftsNext Fall, now running at Trustus Theatre, was Tony-nominated for Best Play, and won the Outer Critics Award.  As detailed in press material, "this contemporary play explores relationships, faith, family, and the very current topic of same-sex rights in hospitals. The show chronicles the five-year relationship between Luke and Adam. With Luke being devoutly religious and Adam being an atheist – their love and their principles are often tested. However, when an accident changes everything, Adam is forced to examine what it means to 'believe' and what it will cost if he doesn’t." Visiting Director Sharon Graci previously directed the show at Charleston’s PURE Theatre.  Trustus Artistic Director Dewey Scott-Wiley notes that “Next Fall asks a lot of important questions about love, family, religion, and civil rights, and how the questions get answered within the context of a same-sex relationship. What is most wonderful about Next Fall, however, is that many of the questions are left for the audience to answer.  There is nothing predictable or didactic about the show."

That said, every audience member brings a different perspective to any show. Jasper Literary Editor Ed Madden, Theatre Editor August Krickel, and guest critic Stephen Kish all had drastically differing takes on the production. One felt the show delivered an important message, one was looking for much more of a message, and one felt the message was less important than the love story. All enjoyed the performances by G. Scott Wild, Jason Stokes, and Kim Harne, and all to some extent felt the supporting cast were under-used, especially in the first act.  One liked the use of miming in place of props but didn't think it was always accomplished that well by the cast, while another admired the actors' mastery of the technique, but didn't like its use to begin with. Two weren't wild about the creative scene changes, while one loved them.  So go figure.  Jasper encourages and indeed embraces diversity of opinion, and urges everyone to go see the show, and decide for yourself.

Ed Madden's take on the show - with some editorial thoughts on the larger societal context of some of the issues raised, can be found here. August Krickel's review can be found  here and  here. And guest blogger Stephen Kish's review is below:

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A familiar feeling crept over me while sitting in the audience of Geoffrey Nauffts's Next Fall - I’ve seen this before.  A simple setup starts us off.  Friends and family gather after Luke (Jason Stokes) is critically injured in a car accident.  We have every type of stock character: the chatty, overbearing mother (Kim Harne), the female co-worker (Brandi Smith) who loves hanging out with gay men, the father (Stanford Gardner) who can't accept the truth about his son, and Adam (G. Scott Wild), the cynical, religion-hating lover of comatose Luke.  There is hope, briefly, that this may all play out like a Flannery O'Connor story, wherein characters from different backgrounds clash over fundamental ideals, ultimately leading to some great epiphany - but that would be reaching to hope for such greatness.  Sadly, Next Fall, plays out like a Lifetime Movie, but without any of the fun.

To be fair, it isn't the fault of the actors or even the director; the material never rises to the occasion, and never is the feeling of grief or loss truly seen or felt by anyone. There are, nevertheless, very good parts within this production.  Kim Harne as Luke's very Southern, very chatty mother is altogether fun in her performance.  The rest of the cast didn't fare as well.  Jason Stokes as Luke is likeable and charming, as is G. Scott Wild as Adam.  They do not, however, possess any chemistry as lovers.  This presents a large problem during the staging of the play, as their relationship is the main drama.  The remainder of the cast was under-utilized, and didn't make much of a lasting impression.

The direction, by Sharon Graci, presents problems early on due to some strange choreography choices that alert the audience to scene changes.  There was a moment when the cast is moving chairs, an enjoyable pop song is playing, and I truly thought they were going to burst out into a full-on musical number, but of course they were just setting up the next scene.  Things like this jar the audience out of the experience, and take away much of the dramatic tension.

With this feeling of familiarity persistent throughout the performance, I wasn't sure how to feel. In many ways, this is just another story of a closeted gay man who can't face his fundamentalist father; there was nothing new explored, just more of the same.  There could have been so much more that could have been said here, but the script happily meanders the entire time, never becoming edgy, or delivering anything more than a heavy-handed message.  I wanted more from this play, but sadly didn't get it. Then again, not everything has to be life-changing or challenging.

~ Stephen Kish

 

Next Fall runs through Saturday, November  10th, on the Thigpen Main Stage at Trustus.  Tickets are $22.00 for adults, $20.00 for military and seniors, and $15.00 for students. Half-price Student Rush-Tickets are available 15 minutes prior to curtain if seating is available.

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

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

Next Fall, This Fall: A Timely Play Opens at Trustus

“How do you make that call?”  That’s the question asked at beginning of the second act of Next Fall, the new play opening at Trustus this weekend.  And it’s really the question that drives the play.  Everyone is on cellphones in the play.  There are missed connections, unreturned calls, emergency contacts—and the inevitable chain of calls that happens when something awful happens to someone you know.

How do you make that call?

In the play, which was written Geoffrey Nauffts and staged on Broadway in 2010, Luke, a closeted gay man, lies in a coma in a New York hospital after an automobile accident.  Hospital policy limits access to “family only.”  In the hospital are two close friends and Luke’s parents, who have just arrived from Florida and who don’t know that Luke is gay, nor that he has lived with another man for 4 years.  The arrival of Luke’s partner at the hospital sets into motion the complicated (and sometimes infuriating) interactions of these 6 characters as Luke’s situation goes from bad to worse.  Life support, organ donation, access to your loved ones at a time of illness or catastrophe—all of these issues raise the question, “How do you make that call?”  And, perhaps, more importantly, who gets to make it.

It’s a deeply moving play, all the more so, I think, because it’s a message play about issues that matter, in some way, to everyone.  We’ve all faced, or will eventually face, these questions.  But I think they’re particularly fraught for gay people, and that’s where the real drama—and heartbreak—of the play lies.

* * *

Hospital visitation is an issue that has haunted the gay community for decades.  Under the law, for years, a family who had cut you off might have more claim over your health care than the partner you had chosen.  I remember, when I was younger, hearing about the Sharon Kowalski case.  Like Luke, Kowalski had been with her partner about 4 years, though unlike Luke and Adam, she and her partner Karen Thompson had had a commitment ceremony and had named one another as insurance beneficiaries.  Also like Luke, she ended up in a hospital after an automobile accident.  A drunk driver hit her in 1983, and she suffered severe brain injuries, with permanent physical and mental disabilities.  Kowalski’s anti-gay family and her lover repeatedly went to court over her guardianship.  One court after another disagreed.  Thompson eventually won, and the raised awareness in the lesbian and gay community about durable power of attorney forms for couples.

Of course, those legal forms don’t carry much weight if the state you live in doesn’t recognize your relationship—as Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond discovered when Pond collapsed on a family cruise in Florida with her partner and their two adopted children.  Even though Langbehn had the proper legal document, that durable health care power of attorney, the Florida hospital refused to recognize it.  As the Lambda Legal website puts it, “The hospital also informed her that she was in an antigay city and state and that she could expect to receive no information or acknowledgment as family.”  For almost eight hours, neither Langbehn nor their children were allowed to see Pond.  She died in the hospital.  To add not merely insult but cruelty to injury, the state of Florida and the Dade County Medical Examiner refused to give Langbehn a death certificate when she requested one to get life insurance and Social Security benefits for their children.

Clearly, even if you had the right piece of paper, this fundamental human right to take care of the ones you love was subject to a patchwork of hospital practice, state policy, and homophobia.  Clearly, too, despite the Full Faith and Credit clause, states could not only deny recognition of couples and families recognized elsewhere, but they could also do so, as the medical examiner’s actions suggest, in particularly cruel and inhumane ways.

I can’t help but wonder if the playwright had this case in mind, when he made Luke’s parents Floridians.

* * *

Like much of the play’s publicity, the play’s flashback scenes, within which the relationship of Adam and Luke is developed, focus on their fundamental religious differences.  Adam is an atheist or agnostic, while Luke is a devout believer of a particular sort—not only a Christian but one who believes in the Rapture (a nonmainstream theology made popular by TV evangelists and the Left Behind franchise) and one who hasn’t reconciled his sexuality with his faith.  He still thinks his homosexuality is wrong—so much so that he prays after sex, even though he’s been with Adam for years.

Understandably, that’s unsettling to Adam.  But it makes sense to Luke’s best friend Brandon, who has sex with black men but doesn’t believe in the “lifestyle.”  As he explains to Adam, “When you two were just hooking up, it was one thing, but when it turned into something, well, more . . . Look, I understand the need to act on the urges, believe me, but to choose the lifestyle? To live like it was . . . right, I guess?”  Brandon draws the line there.

Or as Adam throws it back at him, “You draw your line at love?”

Part of the power of this play for me actually lies in the representation of Luke and Brandon—perhaps uncommon figures in contemporary gay theatre but both very real kinds of gay men, not just closeted or self-loathing (those are familiar), but unable to reconcile their sexuality and their faith, and, like Brandon, so deeply conflicted that they give themselves permission to have sex (those pesky "urges") but not permission to love.  That Luke prays after sex is just one of many coping strategies for the cognitive dissonance he and Brandon feel, trapped between two incompatible worldviews.

I am not a theatre critic, but I have to say that G. Scott Wild was excellent—compelling and human in the role of Adam.  His first few scenes felt stagey (though that was perhaps more the script than his acting), but as he got into the character—and through the entire second act—I found his character heartbreakingly believable.  Also, Kim Harne as Arlene, Adam’s mother, was a believable gem of an unstoppably chatty Southern woman, though as with Adam, the play gives her much greater depth as a character in the second act.

Part of the problem with the play, in fact, is the way the first act has to establish character and worldview in broad strokes, but the second act fills in with depth and empathy characters who seemed almost cliché in the first.  For example, Stan Gardner as Butch, Adam’s father, is an asshole and a fundamentalist Christian who doesn’t believe in evolution, uses the n-word, and makes clear what he thinks of faggots.  It’s a hard role to pull off without being a cliché, but Stan pulls it off surprisingly well, especially in the second act as his world falls apart.  Brandi Smith as Holly (the self-described fag hag and Luke’s boss) and Bobby Bloom as Brandon are also quite good—Brandi's timing spot on, and Bloom’s doe-eyed face a canvas of masked self-torture and conflicted allegiances.  Pretty and self-assured, Jason Stokes as Luke was an enigma of a character for me, though Stokes registers the confidence of convinced Christians that can so often come across as self-righteous smugness.

I also have to say I love the way the director (Sharon Graci, Artistic Director of Pure Theatre) moves us between scenes, using musical breaks for characters to move around the simple chairs and table that create a hospital chapel, a New York loft, or a coffee shop.  Or the use of umbrellas to open each act (simple and stunning).  These were beautifully and carefully choreographed moments of music and movement.

I also liked the minimal staging, though at times the lack of props and the (sometimes not-so-well) mimed acting of drinking, opening doors, and packing a suitcase became distracting.  Perhaps it’s appropriate, though, given the play’s theme, that other than the hospital waiting room furniture, the only real props were a Bible, a bottle of pills, and a cellphone.

* * *

I love those moments in theatre when I lose my sense of being in an audience and I get lost in the story.  Those moments, in this play, when emotion overwhelmed the characters—and overwhelmed me.  Despite my problems with the first act, overall I thought the play powerful and important.  And by the end, simultaneously crushing and hopeful.

Luckily, thanks to President Barak Obama, the rules have changed about hospital visitation.  Moved, in part, by Langbehn’s horror story of anti-gay Florida and others like hers, the president signed an executive order in 2010 mandating that any hospital receiving government funding (including Medicare and Medicaid) recognize the relationships of gays and lesbians and their children.

Luckily, too, South Carolina passed a law in 2008 (in the wake of the amendment’s broad denial of rights to lesbian and gay couples), allowing one to designate hospital contacts and visitation rights.  (Gay activists kept a distance from these deliberations, for fear the knowledge that this law would allow recognition of lesbian and gay couples would derail it in the generally homophobic South Carolina legislature.)

Of course, such policies wouldn’t help someone like Luke in the play, unconscious and unable to make such designations, and too closeted (and perhaps too soon in the relationship) to have sought ratification of the relationship in a legal document.  When the surgeon stipulates “family only,” Adam protests, “I am family.”  That relationship, however, is not recognized by law or hospital policy, and with a faggot-hating, Bible-toting, creationist father in the waiting room, it’s not likely to be recognized by those who have the power to make the call either.

If Mitt Romney is elected, sadly, this play may have even more resonance.  Within the past week, Romney has announced that being able to visit your dying spouse or parent in the hospital is a privilege, not a right, and should be left to states to decide.  (See here and here.)  As others have noted, this implies that Romney would reverse Obama’s 2010 federal order requiring hospitals to recognize visitation rights of gay couples and their children.

On behalf of Romney, his spokesperson clarified:  “Governor Romney supports a federal marriage amendment to the Constitution that defines marriage as an institution between a man and a woman. Governor Romney also believes, consistent with the 10th Amendment, that it should be left to states to decide whether to grant same-sex couples certain benefits, such as hospital visitation rights and the ability to adopt children.”

Theory and practice, I guess.  Banning gay marriage is a federal issue, but it’s up to the states to put cruelty into practice.

Next fall, Next Fall might feel all too possible, given the vicissitudes of elections and the determination of the Right to turn back progress.  I hope, instead, that next fall (or maybe the one after that or the one after that...), as powerful and moving at this play is, it will seem a dated message play, that Next Fall will join Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart as a play about a time when institutionalized denigration of gay people and the denial of their relationships was a tacit norm.

"How do you make that call?"  And who gets to make it?

Go see the play.  Make sure your gay and lesbian friends have a durable power of attorney.  And vote.

 

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