REVIEW: Village Theatre Pulls Off a Hilarious R-Rated Avenue Q by Frank Thompson

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Whether or not they’re serious about requiring the under-seventeen crowd to bring along a parent, Village Square Theatre is following the MPAA rating system, prominently displaying the “rated R” logo and information on print publicity for their production of Avenue Q, a spoof of Sesame Street, complete with humans interacting with moon-faced puppets. That’s probably a good idea, because this is definitely not a show for children or the easily offended. In his program notes, Director Jeff Sigley notes that as a fringe production (not a part of the regular season) Avenue Q steps outside Village Square’s usual commitment to family-friendly entertainment. While I respect the fact that squeaky-clean shows provide an opportunity to introduce young people to the theatre, (and can be quite enjoyable) it’s nice to see a local group going outside its established audience base/comfort zone and presenting something different.  F-bombs are dropped, there’s a song dedicated to the joys of internet porn, and such issues as racism, sexual identity, and poverty are savagely lampooned. There are more than a few “I can’t believe they went there” moments in the show, each more outrageous than the one before, which quickly establishes a sort of permission to laugh at sentiments that would otherwise be met with shock and disapproval. Much in the style of the late George Carlin, Avenue Q realizes that the best way not to offend anyone is to, well, offend everybody. Having seen the show before, I was curious as to how it would play in what is a traditionally conservative house. If the audience at Sunday’s matinee is any indication of the overall response, this show has people guffawing like hell, almost to the point of rolling in the aisles. There are no sacred cows in the script, yet the writing never descends to sophomoric vulgarity in hopes of getting a cheap laugh. Yes, it’s unabashedly naughty and inappropriate, but the script is smart, clever, and somehow manages to establish its small urban neighborhood as a bizarre but welcoming place.

It’s a typical day on Avenue Q, with the regulars and a couple of newcomers to the neighborhood all doing their best to navigate the world of disillusioned Gen-Xers facing more humble lifestyles than they expected. In his introductory song, Princeton, ( well-voiced and puppeteered by Brooks Torbett) a recent college graduate, wistfully sings “What Do You Do With A B.A. In English?” The answer is that you move to the ghetto of Avenue Q, get a cheap apartment, and ponder the grim realities of adult life disappointment through a poignant but relatably funny musical introspective. In getting to know his new neighbors, Princeton finds budding romance with Kate Monster, (winningly created by Julia Hudson) a sweet, somewhat naïve young woman, and strikes up a conversation with former child star, Gary Coleman.

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 As one of the few flesh-and-blood human residents of Avenue Q, Coleman has burned through his Diff’rent Strokes money, hit rock bottom, and is now working as a maintenance man. Ara-Viktoria McKinney-Goins (who also serves as the show’s Musical Director) brings a gently irreverent tone to Coleman, which, while saucy and tinged with gallows humour, is never demeaning or cruel with regards to the late Coleman’s legacy. Providing some of the funniest “I’m going straight to hell for laughing at this” moments is Melissa Hanna’s Christmas Eve, an Asian-American woman whose broad caricature is only slightly less inappropriate than Mickey Rooney’s infamous turn as Mr. Yunioshi in the 1960s film, Breakfast At Tiffany’s. However, there’s such a complete detachment from real-life sensitivities, it somehow seems acceptable to laugh. As with the rest of the oft-politically incorrect denizens of Avenue Q, there’s no malice behind or “laughing at” Christmas Eve’s broken English and double-entendres. She’s quirky and plays to the stereotype, but she is a fully accepted and beloved-if-cranky member of the community. This is a fairly difficult tightrope to walk, and Hanna succeeds.

In a few of the more outrageous moments, we encounter Tyler Elling and Resi Talbot as the “Bad Idea Bears,” a somewhat Family Guy-esque variation on the virtuous “Care Bears” toys  which promote good behaviour and healthy decision-making. In a side-splitting montage, these sweet-faced teddy bears and their puppetmasters convince Princeton and Kate Monster to get wildly drunk on a work night, in addition to other shenanigans, all sung in the style of a “be good, kids” cartoon. Meredith Olenick gets roof-raising laughter in her turn as “bad girl puppet” Lucy The Slut. Lucy lives up to her name, complete with Dolly Parton coif, one-night stands, and foam rubber-and-felt décolletage. Keep a sharp ear out, as her one-liners are fast and sometimes unexpected, and you won’t want to miss a single tarty wisecrack. Perhaps the most memorable character, though, is Trekkie Monster, an obviously *ahem* inspired-by-Cookie-Monster aficionado of online sex videos. William Arvay gives Trekkie a soul beneath his grumpy exterior, but never holds back on allowing Trekkie to be who he is. Arvay’s “The Internet Is For Porn” literally stopped the show, and this old pro played every scene to its fullest, without ever drawing attention away from the rest of the cast. Avenue Q is an ensemble piece, and that concept/energy is obviously embraced by the team. The rest of the cast consists of Beck Chandler, (Brian) Raymond Elling, (Nicky) and James Galluzzo (Rod/Singing Box). Each brings a professional, well-rehearsed, and wickedly rib-tickling performance to a uniformly solid production. Stage Manager Lindsay Brown does an excellent job of riding herd on her human and puppet actors, and keeps the show’s pace moving briskly and seamlessly, with set changes, sound cues, and transitions going smoothly and efficiently.

…which leads me to what ultimately makes Avenue Q a success. This cast and crew obviously like each other, and have created that feeling an audience member can sense when a cast just “clicks.” The puppets and their handlers have spent a great deal of social time together, reinforcing these odd little relationships with which they’re tasked to bringing to life. A quick glance at Facebook shows multiple group karaoke outings, an evening on the town with the puppets in tow, and even some shots of Hudson and Kate Monster enjoying karaoke in the ship’s lounge on Hudson’s recent vacation cruise. Also worthy of note is the mid-rehearsal-period illness of director, Sigley. Having been hospitalized with pancreatitis for almost two weeks of the rehearsal period, he heaps tremendous praise on his cast and production team for following the oft-observed advice to “Keep Calm And Carry On.” McKinney-Goins made sure the cast perfected their vocals during their leader’s absence, and the group collectively did table work and tentative blocking, providing a semi-finished piece for Sigley to refine and complete upon his return. As one who extols the importance of teamwork and cast bonding when directing, I always appreciate seeing it having been emphasized in a show I’m reviewing.

Is Avenue Q flawless? No, but the good by far outweighs the bad. Dan Woodard’s set is just about perfect in design, but occasionally suffers from lighting issues which sometimes give the stage an overly bright, “full wash” texture, occasionally to the point of obscuring projected images on the upstage scrim. To their credit, Village Square usually features live musicians for musical theatre productions, but as a non-season show, Avenue Q relies on recorded music tracks. This is normally a somewhat significant disappointment to me, but in this oddball world of a children’s-show dystopia, it actually works. The music sounds like the incidental tunes we of a certain age recall from various PBS kids’ shows of the 70s and 80s, and in this specific case, that’s just what is needed. Although they were brief, I wish the show had not stopped for scene changes. The set is somewhat minimal,each vignette flows easily into the next, and spending 30 or so seconds in the dark did take me out of the moment a few times. Bringing the end of one scene or song downstage while the next one is being set upstage would have been perfectly true to the reality established by Avenue Q, and would have maintained a greater sense of continuity and uninterrupted flow.

While worthy of note, these few drawbacks do not significantly detract from the joyfully guilty pleasure that is Avenue Q. If double-entendres, single-entendres, occasionally raunchy humour, and broadly-drawn zany characters are your thing, you’ll enjoy Avenue Q. If you appreciate all of the above, wrapped in an overall message of acceptance along the lines of “don’t feel so bad, we’re all f**ked up in one way or another,” you will absolutely love it. Village Square is only a 20 minute drive from downtown, so make the trip out to Lexington this weekend and visit the fine folks and merry monsters of Avenue Q.

Avenue Q concludes its run this weekend, with performances at 7.30pm Friday and Saturday, and a 3pm matinee on Sunday. Tickets can be reserved at VillageSquare.com, or by ringing the Box Office on 803.359.1436.

Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER.

REVIEW: Trustus Delivers a Sweet, Funny, and Honest Motherhood Out Loud by Frank Thompson

The time does speed by, so enjoy every moment.”

Felicia Bulgozdy, Joseph Eisenreich, Katrina Blanding, and Becky Hunter

Felicia Bulgozdy, Joseph Eisenreich, Katrina Blanding, and Becky Hunter

I was curious as to why Trustus decided to go off-site for this production, which is being performed on the Columbia Children’s Theatre stage at Richland Mall. CCT is currently performing Mary Poppins at Eau Claire High School, so I figured it was simply a neat idea; a cute wink at the subject of motherhood, as well as an opportunity for two prominent arts organizations to partner and cross-promote. While these considerations and more were most likely part of the decision-making process, I must admit to having not considered the impact of place-association in creating the world of Motherhood Out Loud.

Having attended many performances at CCT, I have come to associate it with child-oriented entertainment and education. There’s a specific energy to the space, defined through the group’s signature décor of costumes and props, the openness of the seating, (sorry, folks, the front row is only a few feet from the stage, so there’s no sitting on the floor this time) and an overall feeling of being in a room that knows and welcomes the company of large groups of kids. I found myself smiling and looking around the audience space, as if I expected to see a laughing runaway toddler chased by a cheerful-but-weary mom, or a group of fidgety children eagerly awaiting the show. I was, that is to say, put into the perfect mindset for this little gem of a production.

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Motherhood Out Loud is a series of vignettes created by fourteen different playwrights, presented in a mockumentary style, with the characters frequently speaking directly to the audience while remaining in character. As the title suggests, the theme is that of motherhood, but this is more than a series of antique Erma Bombeck mom jokes or a retread of Kids Say the Darndest Things. While primarily a comedy, the script touches on timely and important topics such as same-sex parenting, gender identity, raising children with special needs, and how families deal with aging parents. Not having any kids of my own, I wondered if I would grow weary of the subject, but the writing is uniformly engaging, and requires no experience with parenting to appreciate and enjoy.

There’s a nicely-defined arc throughout Motherhood Out Loud, which opens with three pregnant women in various stages of agony and ecstasy, each ready to give birth. In their midst is a male OB-Gyn, doing his best to keep things normal while the three mothers-to-be expound on their hopes, dreams, and fears for the upcoming arrivals. There’s plenty of classic kidding-on-the-square about the physical pains of childbirth, but great sincerity and warmth shines through the vaudevillian “I’m giving birth to a bowling ball” humour, launching the stories of the numerous babies, children, and young adults about whom we will soon be hearing. As the show progresses through five “chapters,” these offstage offspring grow up, a process reflected in the monologues and small scenes we witness taking place among their elders. It may be cliché to wonder where the time went, but Motherhood Out Loud is only slightly over ninety minutes long (and quite entertaining) so I was actually a bit surprised when I realized it was over. The show runs without an intermission, adding another layer of audience relation to the text’s overall message. The time does speed by, so enjoy every moment.

The cast is strong and experienced, and even a Columbia theatre first-timer would know within the first few minutes that these folks are all A-list performers. Katrina Blanding, Felicia Bulgozdy, Joseph Eisenreich, and Becky Hunter each play about a dozen different characters, all fully developed and unique. They change the simple set pieces of oversized building blocks themselves, often while dancing along with a collection of 1960s and 70s pop classics ranging from “Ooh, Child” and “Baby Love” to “It Takes Two” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” (The scene change music would make an excellent road trip playlist.)

While this is a true ensemble piece, each actor has more than one opportunity to shine. No spoilers ahead, but definitely keep an eye out for Hunter’s delightfully less-than-perfect mom doing her best to live up to the standards of two idealized, by-the-book clones during a day in the park, Blanding’s hilarious and bittersweet monologue about the recent visit of her hovering, Carribean-accented helicopter mom, Bulgozdy’s second-act tour de force as an elderly grandmother who lays out some bare facts about child-raising, and Eisenreich’s funny, heartwarming, sweetly melancholy, yet ultimately empowering editorial about raising his child with another man. These were my particular faves, but without a clinker in the bunch, you may well discover yours in some of the other scenes. For a show with this structure to succeed, all the players must completely buy into the shifting realities from scene to scene and character to character, and this quartet succeeds with room to spare.

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Director Martha Hearn Kelly has cast with an expert eye, creating a team that works extremely well together, and could easily be envisioned as four parents having a grown-ups night out together, laughing and crying over the latest exploits of their kids. Kelly also serves double-duty as Sound Designer, so I may be hitting her up for a CD of the above-mentioned soundtrack. A well-supported and sustained theme clearly runs through both direction and sound , with congratulations due to Kelly for managing to excel at doing two challenging jobs at once.

Scenic Designer Sam Hetler, who recently began his new job as Trustus’ Technical Director, has done an admirable job, giving Motherhood Out Loud a bright, multi-colored, minimalist set, with simple cubes hung on the wall and scattered around the stage, occasionally functioning as storage units for the eye-catching accent pieces provided by Costume Designer Abigail McNeely. The actors are all dressed in basic black, with such things as scarves, ties, headdresses, etc., appearing from various cubbyholes and closets within the building-block structures to create various characters. Small though they may be, these transitions are all done with choreographed precision and nary a wasted movement, allowing the show to flow without interruption.

Motherhood Out Loud continues its run this weekend, with performances Wednesday – Sunday at 7pm, with a 2pm Sunday matinee. Whether you’re a parent or childless-by-choice, you’re sure to get some good laughs and a moment or two of sentimental warmth from this charming set of tales from the front lines of parenting, told by some of Columbia’s best storytellers.

 

-FLT3

Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER.

REVIEW: Chapin Theatre Company's Shrek: The Musical is an Ogre-Sized Delight by Frank Thompson

 

As the song goes, “it’s not easy being green,” but Clayton P. King manages to make it look effortless. Surrounded by a large cast of veterans and newcomers, King’s portrayal of the grumpy and reclusive title role in Chapin Theatre Company’s Shrek: The Musical is not only enjoyable, but also could serve as an unofficial master class for aspiring character actors. Expertly costumed and clad in full body padding, latex hands and headpiece, and a thick layer of makeup that would make The Wicked Witch Of  The West pea-soup hued with envy, the well-known local singer/actor is almost unrecognizable, but brings his usual flair and knack for interpreting a part to the Harbison Theatre stage. There’s a hint of Mike Meyers’ original screen incarnation in King’s portrayal, but he definitely makes it his own, presenting the audience with a slightly gentler, yet still comically fierce Shrek, who never relies on imitation. While some cartoon characters work splendidly when embodied by real-life actors, others falter somewhere in translation. (For every You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, there’s a Doonesbury, which proves that simply plonking down the inhabitants of a successful ink-and-paper universe onstage isn’t a guaranteed recipe for success.) Luckily, Shrek: The Musical makes the leap with room to spare, with its charm and middle-school affinity for the hilarity of flatulence fully intact. Indeed, one of the show’s highlights is a belch-and-poot contest duet between Shrek and Fiona (Korianna Hays.)

As Fiona, Hays matches King’s expertise with a skill set honed through years of experience ranging from Shakespeare to Something Very Fishy, an original musical for children which teaches marine conservation through song and dance. Though she may have grown up in a tower, awaiting her knight, this Fiona is no fragile flower, and Hays artfully creates a spunky, self-sufficient young woman who can clearly handle herself in any situation. On a side note, the next generation of stage performers is well represented, with adult Fiona singing a trio with herself (herselves?) in childhood and teenagerhood. Katy Grant and Abby Tam play Young and Teen Fiona respectively, and are in fine voice, blending perfectly with Hays in their musical growing-up montage. Carter Tam makes a brief but noteworthy appearance as Young Shrek, as well.

The supporting cast is uniformly strong, with Major McCarty handing in a hilarious and over-the-top camp turn as the diminutive tyrant, Lord Farquaad. As he clearly revels in the distinction of being one of the only characters to break the fourth wall, McCarty’s performance brings to mind the delightfully shameless mugging of a young Paul Lynde or Charles Nelson Reilly, complete with demands for applause and cheeky asides to the audience. Along for the ride is first-timer Gerrard Goines, who keeps up with his more experienced co-stars in the role of Donkey. As does King, Goines takes a pinch of the film character (voiced by Eddie Murphy) and then puts his own spin on Shrek’s ever-faithful, if beleaguered best friend and traveling companion. A splendid singer with a natural comic’s timing, Goines will most certainly be seen again on local stages.

Other standouts include powerhouse vocalist Jas Webber, who brings the Dragon to saucy, sassy life, and Michelle Strom as Gingy, the Gingerbread Man of nursery-rhyme fame, whose scene with McCarty veers rib-ticklingly into the waters of British pantomime as they transform the lyrics to “Do You Know The Muffin Man” into mock-serious banter. Similar nods to multiple pop culture phenomena throughout the ages, from Monty Python to Friends, are peppered throughout the show, including a second-act opener featuring Busby Berkeley style tap choreography, a trio of Motown-esque Blind Mice, and a final line plucked straight from the pages of Dickens. (There are other Easter Eggs as well, but I’ll let you enjoy looking for them.)

The ensemble is the backbone of any musical, and this one does not disappoint. There isn’t a weak link to be found, and the script provides plenty of opportunities for all, with pretty much every cast member having a spotlight moment or two. The commitment to the wacky reality of their world is clear, and in-jokes abound, from a mid-thirties Peter Pan needing a shave to a wisecracking, beehive-haired Sugar Plum Fairy. There’s no official Costume Designer credited, so I’ll offer kudos to the show’s Co-Directors, Tiffany Dinsmore and Meesh Hays, who managed to bring just about every character from the Mother Goose canon to the Harbison stage, in authentic and easily identifiable outfitting, with a color palette of bright primaries and soft pastels that perfectly reinforce Shrek: The Musical’s cartoon pedigree.

A wide swath of choreographic styles, from traditional “old school” musical theatre to contemporary, intertwine throughout, courtesy of Choreographers Meredith Boehme and Katie Hilliger, who have taken a group with varied levels of experience and made them all look like trained pros. While some routines are more complex than others, there’s no hint of anything being simplified or watered down. Boehme and Hilliger have obviously choreographed to the strengths of their cast, allowing dancers and non-dancers alike to move with what looks like effortless ease. Musical Director Mary Jo Johnson has clearly worked the vocals well, with soloists and group numbers both coming in strong and solidly supported.

On the technical side, Danny Harrington’s set design is whimsical and fully realized, often operating in an almost Transformers style, with a series of hinges, individual pieces, and large units blending nicely with flown-in backdrops. All scene changes are done in full view, allowing the show to progress uninterrupted, which adds a touch of magic to an already enchanting production. Laura Anthony’s light design is subtle and most effective, utilizing shadows and isolated sections of the stage to create everything from the suggestion of overhead foliage to a starlit night, blending nicely with Harrington’s set.

Flaws are few and far between in this production, but if one must be nit-picky, there were a couple of  less-than-perfect moments in Sunday’s matinee performance. The show moves at a comfortably brisk pace, but the trade-off is that a few lines and bits seemed rushed, and a couple of the higher-pitched speaking voices were slightly difficult to understand, especially with the added challenge of using distinctive speech patterns to create fairy-tale characters. The large ensemble numbers in the first act seemed a bit vocally muddled, but clear diction prevailed by act two, so perhaps it just took a little time for my hearing to adjust to the combination of character voices and sometimes- intricate wordplay within the lyrics.  The set, while sumptuous, has clearly been nicked and scratched in a few spots during what must have been a demanding tech week, but there’s nothing that a couple of dabs of paint here and there wouldn’t fix.

Shrek: The Musical is a massive undertaking, and Chapin Theatre Company has risen to the challenge with high production values, a sleek and streamlined visual quality, and a uniformly talented and capable cast who are clearly having great fun with the material. This isn’t a deep, thoughtful, drama, but it never pretends to be anything it isn’t. It’s a funny, lighthearted, and joyful confection which doesn’t take itself too seriously. Get ready to laugh, enjoy the inherent goofiness of it all, and make the short drive out to Harbison Theatre at Midlands Technical College for a winning performance. The production continues its run with shows this Thursday and Friday at 7.30pm, and 3.00pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday.

-          FLT3

Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER.

 

REVIEW - Heathers at Trustus Theatre by Frank Thompson

Here she is with two small problems

And the best part of the blame

Wishes she could call him heartache

But it's not a boy's name…

-From the song “Appetite” by Prefab Sprout (1985)

Lisa Baker, Brittany Hammock, and Katie Leitner

Lisa Baker, Brittany Hammock, and Katie Leitner

While the music and lyrics for Heathers: The Musical are all original, created for the stage version by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe, I couldn’t get the above Prefab Sprout song out of my head when pondering how to address the production from a critical standpoint. For those unfamiliar with the Daniel Waters film upon which the stage adaptation is based, the story centers around Veronica, a seventeen-year-old high school student who develops a darkly romantic relationship with a charismatic nihilist, J.D., whose moral relativism is softened by a genuine concern for the underdog. Coming from a dysfunctional, single-parent home, J.D. is cynical beyond his years, and quite capable of handling himself in just about any situation. Veronica comes from a different world, with an almost-stereotypical loving-but-clueless “Mom and Dad” straight out of central casting.

Veronica’s life isn’t a horror story, but she suffers all the usual travails of a cute-but-nerdy young woman navigating the world of geeks, jocks, outcasts, and the rest of the archetypes that exist in high school to this day. In a funhouse-mirror version of the Pygmalion myth, Veronica finds herself thrust into the world of the uber-cool girls who rule the school’s social scene. Her malevolent new mentors, each named Heather, decide to make a sport of transforming Veronica into one of their own, yet maintain social dominance over her. After utilizing Veronica’s skill at imitation handwriting, the Heathers enjoy unlimited hall passes and excuse letters, and decide to play a cruel trick on a nerdy girl who happens to be Veronica’s best friend. The joke goes terribly wrong, resulting in the breaking up of a party and Veronica’s expulsion from the group by ringleader Heather Chandler. While attempting to make amends, Veronica (with J.D. at her side) accidentally poisons Heather Chandler, having just dismissed J.D.’s suggestion that they do exactly that. A hastily-forged suicide note covers their tracks, but their victim’s ghost remains prominent in Veronica’s psyche. After several comparably dark experiences, Veronica wants nothing more than to return to her previously-normal life, but J.D. has the conflicting goal of essentially murdering the entire student body. Without spoiling the denoument for those seeing the show for the first time, I will simply say that the final few minutes will not only have you on the edge of your seat, but also leave you pondering the concepts of right and wrong in this particular situation. This is by no means meant to suggest that Heathers: The Musical is without lighthearted moments, but even the hilarity is grounded in a macabre reality that never completely releases the audience from a feeling of impending disaster.

The cast is comprised of an outstanding brio of Trustus regulars, familiar faces from other venues, and a few first-timers, all of whom come together to create a believable and cohesive ensemble. Katie Leitner’s Veronica is immediately relatable and sympathetic, falling (as did most of us) somewhere around the middle of the school’s social spectrum. Presenting her as a latter-day Carrie, minus the pig’s blood, would have not only been overdone, but would also have somewhat absolved Veronica for her actions. Leitner displays her strength at creating three-dimensional characters by making Veronica a normal kid caught up in a disturbingly abnormal set of circumstances. As with her recent portrayal of Daisy Fay in Trustus’ The Great Gatsby, Leitner succeeds in being likeable but flawed. As her figurative reverse-mirror image, Michael Hazin provides a level of sync with J.D. that brings to mind a well-choreographed ballroom dance. Hazin offers a darker reflection of Leitner’s image, with J.D. flying (for the most part) under the social radar, as opposed to swimming midstream. Each character has the potential to survive through relative social invisibility, but neither their respective personalities nor the situations that arise allow either to embrace that option. Both Leitner and Hazin are in fine voice, and only a small suspension of disbelief is required, but their clearly trained and experienced vocal work almost cracks the façade of their being teenagers. Both are youthful twentysomethings in real life, and are physically believable as high school students, so this is hardly a negative point, but when they sing, it’s obvious that these are well-taught professionals.

Clearly reveling in every malignant power move and verbal smackdown, Brittany Hammock deliciously chews the scenery as Heather Chandler. Her alpha-of-all-alphas interpretation of the role is spot-on, taking command of the triad in everything from physical presence to the occasional “putting in place” of the other two Heathers. Interestingly, once she becomes a ghost, Hammock asserts her new quasi-immortality through a slightly softened approach to Veronica. Sometimes a whisper is more frightening than a shout, and Hammock utilizes both between her corporeal and ghostly forms. Though not physically connected to the world of the living, Heather Chandler becomes even more of a puppeteer after her death, as we see her leisurely chip away at Veronica’s sanity. Her eponymous cohorts, Heather McNamara (Rachael Mitchum) and Heather Duke (Jazmine Rivera) initially appear to be Heather Chandler clones with slightly less authority, but after her death, they begin to reveal more depth of character. Mitchum, while never coming across as deferential, is somehow the most humane of the three, heaping slightly less attitude and intimidation on her fellow students. It’s a subtle choice, but Mitchum makes it work well in setting up a moment of high drama in the second act. Rivera’s Heather Duke, by contrast, brings out the fangs and claws when Heather Chandler’s death leaves an opening for the group’s leader. Though not mentioned in the script, the performances of all three Heathers suggest a variety of control mechanisms employed pre-mortem by Heather Chandler. Combining Hammock’s dead/undead personae, one could easily see her slightly softening to control Heather McNamara, while displaying a more fierce approach to managing Heather Duke. Kudos to all three for creating a depth and texture that enhances the story while remaining faithful to the playwrights’ dialogue.

As “bad boy” football stars, Kurt and Ram, Paul Smith and Josh Kern are less defined by the script, yet never allow themselves to slide into caricature. At first they appear to be nothing more than bullying jocks, but a set-up midnight encounter with Veronica displays their more vile and predatory natures. Jordan Harper’s ever-put-upon Martha adopts a similar style, introducing herself as a stereotypical nerdy girl, then revealing herself to be much more emotionally textured in a second-act spotlight number that showcases her impressive vocal range. The rest of the cast fills in the remaining students and adults orbiting the main story, and there truly isn’t a weak link in the bunch. A particular standout is Cassidy Spencer, whose work I’ve not seen before, but look forward to seeing in future productions. As an ensemble member, Spencer may have had two or three lines, but most of her acting was done through face and body language, which she presented most memorably. (In reviewing my notes, I referenced her several times as “girl in denim skirt,” each time with a comment on her commitment to the scene, her character, and the reality established by the principal players.)

On the technical side, Heathers: The Musical is mostly successful. Sam Hetler’s set is streamlined, yet totally evocative of a neon-hued, white-tiled 1980s, Amy Brower Lown’s costume design is scrupulously faithful to the period and gives a respectful nod to the film, while maintaining an originality and freshness of vision, and Lighting Designer Frank Kiraly brings his customary skill at creating multiple settings with different combinations of shading and color. Choreographer Grayson Anthony and Musical Director Randy Moore keep the movements (both physical and musical) brisk and sharp, and Stage Manager Brandi Smith nicely corrals all of the elements into a cohesive and smooth production. My only real complaint is that the vocals, even in ensemble numbers, were a bit difficult to hear over the band. In talking with Moore and several cast members following the performance, I found out that there were several mic and sound issues the night I was there, and I feel confident that those small issues have since been ironed out. One other small issue is entirely script-related, as I had the same reaction when reviewing another production of the show earlier this year. The adults are double/triple cast, often with little or no time for costume or wig changes, which can lead to a bit of confusion as to which is whom at any given moment. Matthew DeGuire, Jonathan Monk, and Lisa Baker turn in delightful performances as the multiple grown-ups, but I do wish the script made it easier for them to change back and forth more easily.

Director Dewey Scott-Wiley has, as usual, assembled a winning cast and created a world which is both believable and captivating. I frequently find myself using the word “thoughtful” to describe her work, and Heathers: The Musical is no exception. In her Director’s Notes, Scott-Wiley observes that in today’s more violent society, things like murdering your classmates aren’t as outrageous as they were thirty years ago, and this level of directorial awareness is part of what makes the show work. By immersing the audience in an era-specific set of mores, she succeeds in getting stylized-yet-believable work from her cast while essentially giving the audience permission to laugh at things that would strike too close to home in today’s world.

Heathers: The Musical runs through 27 July, and tickets can be purchased online at Trustus.org, or by calling the Box Office at (803) 254.9732. They’re likely to go quickly, so don’t delay in making your reservations.

-FLT3

Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER.

 

REVIEW: Fierce & Fabulous Cabaret - an Entertaining Concert with Potential for Growth

by Frank Thompson

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   (As always, I open with the disclaimer that I am a frequent director and a member of the Board of Trustees for Workshop Theatre.)

   The Fierce & Fabulous Cabaret, running through Sunday at Workshop’s new home at Cottingham Theatre on the Columbia College campus, bills itself as “celebrating the women of Broadway,” and there’s certainly no shortage of celebrated talent onstage. Featuring several well-established Midlands-area chanteuses alongside a few new faces/voices, last Saturday evening’s performance brought the audience to its feet more than once with multiple show-stopping bravura turns by some of the best female vocalists in town.  The acoustics at Cottingham are nice and hot, and while live mics are utilized, I doubt if even half the cast needs any amplification. These ladies know how to project and sell a song, and if you’re looking for a showcase of outstanding music plucked from Broadway hits from the 1950s to today, you’ll find it at The Fierce & Fabulous Cabaret.

   Following a full-cast rendition of  “I’m A Woman” from Smokey Joe’s CaféRegina Skeeter sets the bar high with “Home,” one of the lesser-known but most vocally powerful ballads in The Wiz. (This was my first time seeing Skeeter perform, and she delivers strength as well as a sense of dreamy wonderment to her turn in the spotlight.)  Columbia legend Valdina Hall absolutely soars with Sondheim’s  “Send In The Clowns,” and Robin Gottlieb’s signature number, Cabaret, quite literally had the crowd shouting for an encore. The second act rocks open with Katrina Blanding  delivering  Dreamgirls  “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” with her usual powerhouse voice and innate storyteller’s gift for conveying a song’s emotional foundation. On Jason Robert Brown’s  “I Can Do Better Than That,”  Emily Northrop engages the audience from intro to post-applause, demonstrating  not only impressive vocals but also an understanding of  true cabaret technique, and Mandy Applegate Bloom’s  “She Used To Be Mine” from Waitress brings down the house in classic eleven-o’clock-number style.

   The rest of the cast offers solid work across the board, and there truly isn’t a weak link, though those mentioned above are particular standouts. While watching the performance, I began to realize that I was missing the sense of an overall emotional arc, framing piece, or central theme to segue the audience from each number to the next. Some of the performers simply took the mic and started singing, others utilized a few lines of dialogue, and a few (see above) took a moment to connect with the audience. If this sounds nit-picky, it’s because The Fierce And Fabulous Cabaret is of such high quality, I truly hope it comes together as a more thematically cohesive piece. Who are these women? Are they the actual people we see onstage? If so, great! I would suggest having each song tied to the singer's life experience, allowing a glimpse of the real-life woman known to many only as her onstage personae.  (Gottlieb and Northrop are particularly skilled at bonding with the audience, as is Emily Clelland, who relates a personal experience that motivated her as a performer, followed by an enthusiastic song-and-dance rendition of  “If They Could See Me Now” from Sweet Charity.)  A few of the pieces, while quite splendidly performed, seemed randomly inserted. Kathy Seppamaki’s  “Christmas Lullaby” (Songs For A New World) is one of the best-sung ballads in a show full of A-list talent, but feels somewhat out of place between two comedic bits, and without context . Lou Boeschen’s  “On The Steps Of The Palace” (Into The Woods) is lovely, and dovetails nicely into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s  “Stepsisters Lament,” yet nothing is said about the Cinderella myth. This would have been a perfect opportunity to comment on any number of themes relevant to modern womanhood. Once I realized that I was seeing a sort of hybrid concert/cabaret, I just sat back and enjoyed the music, all the while thinking how interesting it is to watch the artistic process unfold. With a stronger sense of identity and a commitment to one specific reality/style, The Fierce And Fabulous Cabaret could easily tour as a professional show. The talent is there, the music is solid and representative of classic and contemporary Broadway, and the basic structure is in place. All it needs is a more defined sense of identity and an answer for “why is each song in its particular spot?”

   The set is simple and sleek, designed by Patrick Faulds to provide tiered seating for the cast, who stay onstage the entire show. As usual, Dean McCaughan’s steady hand keeps sound well-balanced and smooth, though I was disappointed to see that the production utilizes pre-recorded music tracks instead of live accompaniment. For future gigs, I would suggest a single pianist who could also serve as a narrative voice, presenter, and general point of connection between the singers and their audience.

   The Fierce And Fabulous Cabaret is well worth your time and money exactly “as is,” and I strongly recommend you see it now. With a little scripting revision and specific motivation behind each number, it could have a significant future, and you’ll want to catch this act from the very start of its evolution.

   There are only three performances left, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets can be purchased by calling (803) 799.6551 or visiting Workshoptheatre.com

-FLT3

REVIEW: Trustus Theatre's The Great Gatsby Like No Other by William Arvay

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“As of January first, it’s the twenties again!” declared Chad Henderson as he introduced Trustus’ latest production, “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s roaring twenties novel, adapted for the stage in 2006 by Simon Levy.

Almost a century after it was written, “Gatsby” deals with America’s continuing modern struggles with wealth and class, war and our treatment of veterans, marital infidelity, white supremacy, business ethics, transparency and the eternally insoluble question of whether money can buy happiness, or, as The Beatles parsed it, can it buy love?

The Great Gatsby is considered by many to be a contender for the title of The Great American Novel, and it has been transformed into several memorable, lavish films over the ensuing decades, most recently by director Baz Luhrmann in 2013 starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and by Francis Ford Coppola in 1974, with Robert Redford in the title role.

To rise to the challenge of the greatness of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby” director Henderson began with the only stage adaptation authorized and granted exclusive rights by the Fitzgerald Estate.

But then he immediately upped the ante by enlisting the talents of trumpeter and composer Mark Rapp as musical director (for a non-musical!) who brought original jazz music with the 5 piece on-stage combo ColaJazz. Henderson also brought aboard a crew of dancers from Columbia City Ballet, choreographed by Stephanie Wilkins, to portray the frenzied flappers at Gatsby’s legendary decadent parties.

Working with technical director Richard Kiraly, Henderson designed a simplified high-tech set of large projection screens to portray orgiastic jazz age parties, great halls filled with marble statuary, the streets of 1920s New York, a hydroplane rocketing over the ocean waves, Gatsby’s swimming pool, and of course the iconic eyes-and-eyeglasses sign advertising the wares of an oculist, standing in for the eyes of a judgmental God. The scenery can change with breathtaking speed and realism. Sound effects blend seamlessly with the constantly shifting locales and even special effects. Costumed members of the ensemble add or subtract furniture pieces in character as the finishing touches to each scene.

Both sides of the stage are framed by open quadrangles lined in incandescent bulbs, suggesting both a theatre marquee and the open covers of a book, out of which the story leaps.

The show starts with a stunning and unexpected spotlight vocal solo by one of the cast members singing a modern hit ballad that has been interpolated into the script. During the course of the show, other cast members step up to the ColaJazz microphone to sing musical commentary upon the drama unfolding on stage. This reviewer will leave no further spoilers as to the singers’ identities or the choice of songs, so as to maximize the surprising spontaneity for the audience.

In every rendition of “Gatsby” my favorite character winds up being Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, and he is ably brought to life by Jared-Rogers Martin. Fitzgerald’s prose flows clearly and gently from his voice, and he brings the wide-eyed earnestness of a young man from Minnesota to the mansions of the corrupt, lustful, and fabulously wealthy Long Island elites.

Jason Stokes brings broad-shouldered good looks and a resonant baritone voice to the title role, and is at once confident and forlorn. His tender infatuation for Daisy Fay Buchanan, played by Katie Leitner with a spoiled sensuality and tortured despair, drives all events in this drama. Richard Edward III is Daisy’s abusive, adulterous lout of a husband, Tom Buchanan, who also abuses his mistress Myrtle Wilson, played expertly and with earthy emotion by Raia Jane Hirsch. Brandon Chinn gives us Myrtle’s cuckolded garage mechanic husband, George Wilson, with a homespun pathos that masks his deeper moral code. The plum role of professional golfer Jordan Baker, Daisy’s long-time sardonic girlfriend, who later becomes Nick’s tempting girlfriend is played with layered subtlety and empowered command by Brittany Hammock. She is Fitzgerald’s acknowledgement of the evolving role of women in the 20th century. Elizabeth Houck, LaTrell Brennan, Josh Kern and Frank Thompson complete the acting ensemble with memorable performances in multiple roles, particularly Thompson’s shadowy criminal version of Meyer Wolfsheim, Kern’s flawless butler, Houck’s gossipy socialite and Brennan’s crystal clear exposition.

What sets this performance apart from others you might see on the local stage is the addition of music and dance to the production. While not a musical, per se, Britanny Hammock and Katie Leitner’s bonus vocal numbers accompanied by Rapp and band are exquisite, haunting audience members into the night. And Stephanie Wilkins’ choreography, set specifically on City Ballet principal dancers Bonnie Boiter-Jolley and Claire Rapp, along with Jordan Hawkins, Marian Morgan, and Katherine Brady, is a step above in terms of the professionalism typically brought to a local stage. Wilkins researched the dance styles of the period and incorporated elements of everything from the Foxtrot to the Black Bottom to the Lindy Hop in her choreography. The dancers blended well with the actors and created a large but well-managed multi-talented ensemble of performers.

(Full disclosure - Boiter-Jolley and Henderson are the daughter and son-in-law of Jasper editor Cindi Boiter.)

This is a “Gatsby” unlike any other you will see anywhere else, and it is here for only a brief time, ending April 27. The Sunday matinee audience honored the performance with a standing ovation. Waste no time reserving your tickets at www.trustus.org or call the box office at (803) 254-9732.

Trustus Theatre is located in Columbia’s Congaree Vista at 520 Lady Street.

 

 

REVIEW: Trustus Theatre's Cost Of Living is An Acting Tour-De-Force With Diverse And Talented Cast

Pictured Ellen Rodillo-Fowler and Bauer Wesetren - photo courtesy of Trustus Theatre

Pictured Ellen Rodillo-Fowler and Bauer Wesetren - photo courtesy of Trustus Theatre

In his pre-show welcoming speech, Trustus Theatre’s Artistic Director, Chad Henderson, spoke briefly about a few of the production requirements listed in the contract for playwright Martnya Majok’s Cost Of Living. According to Henderson, the script and stage directions strongly suggest that actors with disabilities are to be cast in the roles of Jon (Bauer Westeren) and Ani (Kathy LaLima.) Trustus’ professional commitment to inclusivity is well-known, as is their mission to tackle new and innovative work, which made theirs the perfect stage upon which to present this 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. In their bios, both Westeren and LaLima mention life with spina bifida and Multiple Sclerosis, respectively, and each expresses gratitude for the opportunity to perform onstage. Cost Of Living shows that the footlights are meant to shine on both of them, and will hopefully encourage more performers who, for whatever reason, think full-length shows are “not for them” to re-think that notion.

Director Paul Kaufmann delivers his traditional textured and subtly reinforced thematic consistency and “world-creating” to the production, with a solid eye for casting. The script involves two pairs of people, each pair in a unique relationship, with sufficient parallels to the companion story to allow them to come together at the end without seeming forced. There’s no deus ex machina involved, although one is gently teased before being revealed as a false hope

The two stories are straightforward and relatively simple in terms of plot, and are told through alternating scenes with only one or two jumps in time. We first meet Eddie (Eric Bultman), sitting alone in a bar. The first scene is an extended monologue, casting the audience member in the role of the sympathetic listener. In a riveting spotlight moment, Bultman immediately spellbinds the room with a tale of tragedy and hope. His sincerity never falters, whether he’s on the verge of tears or cracking up at one of his many one-liners, including “the shit that happens is not to be understood…that’s in the Bible.” This Biblical reference is explained through the mention of the many lonely nights Eddie has spent on the road as a long-distance truck driver. “Motels give you certain feelings,” Eddie muses, “and that’s why they’re all full of Bibles.” Though he’s often been tempted, Eddie has remained (mostly) faithful to his wife, who we now assume to be deceased. After a slightly cryptic discussion of said wife, Eddie reveals that he no longer consumes alcohol, having overcome a drinking problem, yet offers to buy his unseen companion a drink every time he “gets gloomy.” These moments of abrupt transition between contemplative malaise and forced jocularity give Bultman the chance to display his acting skills as well as an impressive storyteller’s ability to mesmerize the listener. Rich and full of character, his speaking voice does the heavy lifting in the opener, setting a tone that sustains through his work opposite his scene partners. (To avoid bouncing between the two plotlines, I’ll tell the stories in linear fashion.)

Following a mention of how his wife used to text him little notes every day, Eddie reveals that he has been recently receiving new daily texts, which obviously leaves him a bit confused. These mystery messages have drawn him to the bar, where he is awaiting his new correspondent, who fails to show. In a moment both hilarious and heartbreaking, Eddie asks the audience if “a ghost ever stood you up?”

In what we assume to be a flashback sequence, Eddie gets his wife, Ani, settled into an accessible apartment, and we find that their relationship is on the skids. Having shattered her spine in a car crash, Ani is full of rage and resentment toward Eddie, with substantial justification. (As always, I will try and keep spoilers to a minimum.) LaLima’s Ani may be unable to move most of her body, but she has lost none of what we can assume to have been a long-established spitfire personality full of wit and no-nonsense realism. As with Bultman’s bar scene, LaLima’s reaction to the new normal of her life takes her from depression to hilarity to arch sarcasm, always with a metaphorical (and occasionally literal) arched eyebrow. Eddie wishes to comfort her, subsequently offering to act as her caretaker. Though estranged, they are still technically married for insurance purposes, and Eddie reasons that he is the obvious person for the job. She finally consents, and the unspoken between them shouts volumes, allowing plot points to reveal themselves in their own good time. LaLima is both wounded and defiant, subtly driving home the fact that people with disabilities are far from helpless. In one of the show’s most touching scenes, she shares a cigarette with Eddie while he helps her take a bath. The very basics of human touch and the emotions it can evoke are beautifully illustrated with minimal dialogue. Any given moment of the production could have left a few audience members in tears, but this particular one, I suspect, had the entire space softly crying as a single unit. Not to be overly flowery, but in that few minutes, we in the seats experienced a collective emotional response. Joy, grief, and hope are component parts, but I’m not sure there is a single word to define the specific feeling we shared. Kudos to LaLima and Bultman for a story well-told, and for a scene of absolute magic.

In the other story, wealthy and cynical John is introduced as he interviews his potential new caretaker, Jess (Ellen Rodillo-Fowler.) Erudite and sophisticated, John is puzzled as to why a tough-talking, streetwise bartender with a degree from Princeton wants such a physically demanding and time-consuming job. Jess is visibly nervous, and Rodillo-Fowler adds several layers of discomfort which deftly inform the audience that she is a woman with secrets to keep and a desperate need for extra income. John is sardonic and somewhat suspicious, but eventually agrees to give Jess a chance. In a scene involving John’s first bath from Jess, Westeren and Rodillo-Fowler offer an alternate set of circumstances to the Eddie/Ani bathtub scene, playing Jess’ uncertainty with the situation and John’s dry responses for some well-timed comic relief. Each scene establishes a new intimacy between caregiver and caretaker, and begin to inspire introspection as to which character is in the power position at any given point. Rodillo-Fowler is well-known to Trustus audiences as a versatile and talented performer, and first-timer Westeren has no apparent difficulty in matching her dramatic and comedic capacities. Clearly at ease onstage and gifted with a stinging sense of delivery reminiscent of Hugh Laurie’s House, I hope and expect to see much more of Westeren in upcoming seasons at Trustus and elsewhere.

By the story’s end, each pair has suffered ups and downs, moments of closeness, a scene of great danger, and one so full of simultaneous sadness and happy anticipation it drew audible gasps at Saturday night’s performance. (Not going to spoil the surprise, but in a superb second-act twist, a misunderstanding leads to one hell of a reveal.)

Brandon McIver’s scenic design and projections are understated and functional, allowing for smooth transitions and more than one multi-use section of playing space. We know exactly where we are at all times, but the design never gets in the way of the story. Frank Kiraly’s lighting design works quite well alongside the set, sometimes using what appears to be but a single instrument to create a locale. One moment that particularly stands out is Rodillo-Fowler’s anxiety-filled phone call to her mother, who lives in the Philippines. (A special nod to Rodillo-Fowler’s ability to convey every emotion and meaning in Jess’ monologue, spoken entirely in Tagalog.) Kiraly has given her the simplest of top-lit streetlight motifs, and the effect is a keen visual representation of the isolation Jess feels. Sound Designer Patrick Michael Kelly embraces the subtlety of running/dripping water as a connecting concept, and allows it to reinforce the overall piece without ever intruding on the point of focus.

Cost Of Living continues its run Thursday through Saturday, with two performances on Saturday, and the show is selling out quickly. Don’t miss your opportunity to experience this timely, contemplative, laugh riot/heartbreaker of an evening in the Trustus Side Door Theatre.


Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER.

 

 

REVIEW: A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time -- Trustus' New Production Proves That What Makes Us Different Only Makes Us Stronger by Christina Xan

“Chandler’s portrayal of Christopher is remarkable, his embodiment of the character and commitment to his role is evident, and his passion leaks through every word he speaks.”

Last Friday night, Trustus Theatre opened The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, their interpretation of the 2015 Tony Award winning Broadway play.

 

The original play itself is an interpretation of Mark Haddon’s 2003 book, making this performance, essentially, an interpretation of an interpretation – and a good one at that.

 

For those who don’t know, the play surrounds a 15-year-old boy named Christopher, who although not directly stated, is implied to have Asperger’s, a syndrome that previously fell on the autism spectrum and now is under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The play opens on Christopher cradling the body of his neighbor, Mrs. Shears’, murdered dog. While Mrs. Shears blames Christopher for the death of her dog and calls the police on him, Christopher asserts that he did not kill the dog and that he is telling the truth because he “cannot tell a lie.”

 

Once being released from police custody, Christopher makes it his mission to find the dog, Wellington’s, true killer, despite strict orders from his father not to. The majority of the play, then, follows the path Christopher travels to discover who killed Wellington and the fallout from what else he discovers along the way (all while trying to ace maths on the way to being an astronaut! Phew!). Any mention of the play’s further details might spoil it for those who have not seen it, so I will end my little summary here, but know that this is a play full of important ideas like understanding what family really means, why people make the decisions they do, and how we become the people we are today.

 

The play is told in two acts and is told in mostly present time with some flashbacks. However, the play is technically told through stories Christopher is writing about the experiences we are seeing. His teacher, Siobhan (played by the wonderful Libby Hawkins), has encouraged Christopher to write his experience in a book and to even turn it into a play. The play we see, thus, is not only what is happening to Christopher as he and Siobhan read from his book, but in the end, is the play itself, even breaking the 4th wall at times. All these transitions are done fairly smoothly, but one wants to make sure to pay close attention to not miss important details! 

 

I, myself, have never seen the original Broadway play. Though I knew the plot generally beforehand, I knew nothing about the set up or staging of the original play and thus cannot speak to how faithfully this was interpreted. However, I genuinely enjoyed the staging of this play and felt as if all creative decisions made by the director, Chad Henderson, and the cast brought the story to life in such a way that I couldn’t imagine it any differently. (Full disclosure - Chad Henderson is the son-in-law of the executive director of the Jasper Project.)

 

The set design and costuming were minimal, which fit the tone of the play. The lighting, which paralleled the design in its simplicity yet also was complex enough to fit the rapidly changing emotions presented in every scene, was done by the fabulous Baxter Engle, who came back from NYC just to do this design. The show itself follows a plot with twists and turns and a plethora of emotions, so the clean set literally and figuratively set the stage for these emotions to be felt without becoming muddled with distractions.

 

The stage, which appeared completely flat, was actually comprised in areas of many “boxes” that could be pulled out of the stage at ease and slipped back in just as quickly. These boxes, though always appearing the same, easily became briefcases, suitcases, chairs, rooms, trains and more with just a switch of the imagination. The fluency with which the characters switched scenes and the poise with which they held themselves filled in any missing spots.

 

A screen behind the characters acted as a literal window into Christopher’s mind and would show us answers to mathematical problems, letters he read, and more, both giving us insight into the plot of the play and into the mind of an autistic individual. Additionally, characters dressed in black, who acted as voices in some scenes, also acted as elements of Christopher’s mind, being choreographed to move around him and appear, say, threatening or even to become stage props themselves, picking up and propelling Christopher into “space” in one scene.

 

While the staging was innovative and the production sound, genuinely, the acting is the highlight of this play. Every character fills their role stunningly well. I wish I could speak to the passion and truth of every player in this wonderful team. Scott Pattison perfectly embodies the caring but lost dad whose few bad decisions snowball out of control. Raia Jane Hirsch’s flashback scenes in the first act make us feel the tension of having to decide between the elusive freedom the world offers and the simultaneously bright but restrictive path of motherhood. (Full disclosure - Hirsch is a member of the board of directors for the Jasper Project.)

 

However, the star of the show truly is Beck-Ryan Chandler. Chandler, who plays Christopher, is the first autistic person to perform the role in the entire Southeast, and he delivers a truly remarkable performance. His embodiment of the character and commitment to his role is evident throughout, and his passion leaks through every word he speaks. As you sit in the audience, you feel scared when Christopher feels scared, confused when he is confused, and happy when he is happy.

 

It fills me with pride to see Trustus has taken the strides to find an autistic actor to fill an autistic role. Too often in our society, whether on a small stage or the big screen, roles are given to actors based on ease of finding them or based on money and rarely on the representation they call for. We live in a society where roles are whitewashed, where cisgender individuals take roles of the LGBTQ+ community and where talented actors and actresses like Christopher are overlooked for people who have no idea what having autism is like. This coupled with the fact that mental illness and syndromes like autism are terribly stigmatized and awfully misunderstood, makes this exploration of a teenager with autism navigating his everyday life so, so important. I am so thrilled to say this has happened in our city and should be seen for this if nothing else.

 

In the end, this show will put you on a roller coaster of emotions. I laughed, fumed, gasped, and cried – definitely cried. The people in this show are doing such important work in our community and in our world, and fortunately, it’s also just a damn good show – clever, interesting, well-done, and endlessly important.

 

Christopher asks us in the last line of the play, “Does that mean I can do anything?” to which there is no response. This lack of a response, this empty space is for us to decide, yes, that not only can he do anything, but this is the possibility for all of us. We are all capable of facing our fears and using our unique strengths to launch ourselves (pet rat included or not) into the stars.

 

Catch The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time until February 9th at Trustus Theatre: https://trustus.org/event/the-curious-incident-of-the-dog-in-the-night-time/

 

Follow The Jasper Project on Facebook and on Instagram @the_jasper_project

for more updates on local artists and events!

 

 

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REVIEW: Trustus Theatre Provides a Hauntingly Delightful Ride with Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol

 

“Marley was dead to begin with…”
Charles Dickens – “A Christmas Carol”

L to R — Richard Edward III, Kevin Bush, Krista Forster, Jeff Driggers

L to R — Richard Edward III, Kevin Bush, Krista Forster, Jeff Driggers

These six words are well-known by just about anyone who has ever read or seen a production of Dickens’ now-immortal (pun intended) holiday classic. The undeniability of Marley’s having left the realm of the living is also the first point established in Tom Mula’s Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, running through 22 December at Trustus Theatre. As a huge Dickens fan, as well as a Christmas nut, I eagerly anticipated seeing this production, and was not at all disappointed. Time, finances, and practicality usually prevent me from seeing local shows more than once, but I’m going to do my best to catch this gem again before it closes. Like its inspirational predecessor, this is a story with many layers and subtleties beneath the deceptively simple plot, and the combination of acting and directorial skill lives up to Trustus’ long-cemented reputation for professional and artfully crafted work. For those familiar with the BBC series, Dickensian, this script takes a similar approach to the world(s) created by Dickens well over a century ago, and turns perspective on its ear, giving us a glimpse of how certain events came to be, and an intriguing semi-prequel as seen from the viewpoint of a secondary character. (On a side note, if you haven’t seen Dickensian, look for it online. By coincidence, the plot centers around the murder of Jacob Marley, and characters from multiple Dickens novels are interwoven throughout.)

…but, I digress. I’m here to discuss what’s being presented onstage at Trustus, so let’s get to it. As Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol opens, a recently-deceased Marley has arrived in a posthumous waiting room, where he encounters a sort of eternal book-keeper who has tallied up Marley’s good deeds and his sins, with the latter taking up the lion’s share of the ledger. As he is assigned, as Dickens described them, “the chains he forged in life,” Marley realizes that each condemned soul experiences his or her own personal Hell, where a manifestation of one’s particular sins serve as the tools of eternal torture. Marley’s punishment for his heartless greed and miserliness arrive in the traditional form of literal chains, bearing heavy cash boxes and other tools of his ruthless pursuit of wealth as a money-lender. With assistance from a damnation-borne, yet playfully charming sprite called Bogle, he is offered a single chance for escape from his fate; to redeem his partner, Ebenezer Scrooge, whose avarice and cruelty exceeded even Marley’s. (In a cheeky aside, Marley refers to Scrooge as the only man in the world worse than himself.) At first he is reluctant, but a shot at a reprieve is too tempting to resist, so Marley sets out, with Bogle in tow, on what seems an impossible mission. From here, the story takes on a sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque quality, with familiar scenes and experiences seen through Marley’s eyes. His backstory is provided, and we discover that his childhood was as traumatic and depressing as Scrooge’s, with the two first meeting as teenage employees of Mr. Fezziwig, whom they eventually betray and drive out of business, taking over the firm for themselves. As the show progresses, we realize that Marley was actually all three of the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet-To-Come, taking on different forms, but all the while witnessing Scrooge’s life choices and literally watching him turn into the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” of A Christmas Carol. Throughout the long night’s journeys, Marley softens on Scrooge, whom he actually despised in real life, and gradually replaces hatred with pity. To avoid a significant spoiler, I will simply say that Marley’s animus was well-placed, as we learn in his death scene, which makes his journey toward compassion all the more effective.

The script makes ample use of Dickens’ dialogue, and tosses in a few subtle references that die-hard fans of the original will enjoy. (“Easter eggs” in a story of Christmas, if you will.) Here I will give away one plot point that is not only clever, but completely changes the context of one of Scrooge’s lines in A Christmas Carol. Another apprentice at Fezziwig’s, Dick Wilkins, is seen cruelly bullying Marley, and it is Scrooge who comes to his defense, eventually leading to Wilkins’ fall into disgrace and penury. While taking Marley’s part in matters, Scrooge explains that he, too, has been bullied by Wilkins, and suggests that the two of them can bring an end to his cruelty as well as his situation. Devotees of the original will recall Scrooge seeing his tormentor in the Christmas Past flashback, and shouting ““Dick Wilkins, to be sure! Bless me, yes. There he is. He was very much attached to me, was Dick. Poor Dick! Dear, dear!” (As he was yet to have been reformed, Scrooge’s seemingly affectionate comment takes on a sinister tone when Wilkins’ true nature is revealed in this version.)

The rest of the show follows along fairly closely to the events of the original, with Marley growing more human as he watches Scrooge grow into the ogre he knew in life. It’s certainly no secret that Scrooge eventually repents and changes his ways, so we can assume that Marley manages to escape his torment.

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As for the performances, there isn’t a weak link (pun once again intended) in the show. Kevin Bush, well-known to Columbia audiences, steps outside his usual wheelhouse of lovable and/or sympathetic characters to portray Marley as an absolute scoundrel and hard-edged “bad guy,” retaining a definite gruffness even as his humanity blossoms. Having always been impressed with Bush’s talent, my respect and admiration for his versatility cannot be understated. This is a role unlike any I have ever seen him tackle, and he succeeds as only a true master of his craft can. (He’s also a very nice guy in real life, which made it even more darkly delightful to watch him channel a hateful old bastard like Marley.)

All the other characters are played by three actors who match Bush’s skill and stage presence. Krista Forster’s Bogle manages to be otherworldly, cute, menacing, and fun simultaneously. Her physicality and use of the playing space often suggested the movements of a spider, yet her vocal and facial expressions maintained an undercurrent of saucy friendliness. Bogle is sassy, playful, and hilarious at times, yet always clearly in command of the situation, as well as Marley’s trip through his memories. Forster approaches it subtly, but leaves no doubt that Bogle is in charge and fully at ease, which provides a nice contrast to Marley’s initially stern (but eventually pointless) resistance to his task. Richard Edward III delivers an appropriately nasty and duplicitous Scrooge who is somehow even more tyrannical than Dickens’ character, yet never crosses over the line to caricature. While definitely making the character his own, Edward embodies his role with several Spirits of Scrooge Past (that was the third one, so I promise, no more puns.) Hints of George C. Scott’s interpretation are there, as well as a dash of Albert Finney’s and a moment or two of Kelsey Grammer’s, all connected by the fresh work of Edwards, who obviously did his research and then added his own vision. Jeff Driggers’ Bob Cratchit is as endearing as one would expect, but Driggers somehow makes him more three-dimensional than the too-kindly-to-be-true Cratchit often seen in A Christmas Carol. This Cratchit comes across as more of a decent fellow who has accepted the fact that he must take whatever his employer dishes out, as opposed to a simpering innocent. One of the things that has always perplexed me about Cratchit is his loyalty to Scrooge. Even in 1840s London, demeaning, low-paying jobs were not impossible to find, so why did Cratchit work for the worst employer in the city? Driggers artfully justifies this by adding a slight resignation to his fate, leaving the audience with the impression that while he could likely do better, it just isn’t worth the risk of missing even a few day’s pay, and he has decided to just make the best of his lot. Without giving away which plays whom, which would ruin the fun, I must emphasize that Forster, Edward, and Driggers all bring the same artistry to each of their additional roles.

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On the technical side, Curtis Smoak’s lighting dovetails perfectly with Sam Hetler’s set, which is somewhat minimalist, but definitely evocative of the early Victorian era. As we follow Marley and Bogle, we visit a myriad of locales, which Smoak and Hetler manage to believably create. Costume Designer Jean Lomasto has, as usual, done outstanding work in dressing her actors in period style while maintaining the script’s eccentric nature, and Christine Hellman’s Hair Design deftly supports all of the above. This is a production crew that has obviously communicated well and brought the same sensibilities to each of their creations.

Director Patrick Michael Kelly has cast his show well, assembled a highly-skilled production team, and paced the show briskly, yet allows the actors to take the time they require in the moments where the audience needs to ponder and process what’s happening onstage. The smoothness of the production’s flow, and the undercurrent of suspense in what is, even in forced perspective, a well-known story are testimonials to Kelly’s vision and commitment to treating Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol as the fresh, new(ish) piece that it is.

There are quite a few dark moments, even more so than in the original story, so this may not be the show for pre-teens who still enjoy Frosty and Rudolph, but should delight both Dickens aficionados and those encountering Marley, Scrooge, and the Spirits for the first time. Tickets are sure to sell quickly, so don’t delay in making your reservations for this splendid addition to the holiday canon. (And yes, there’s always wine and popcorn.)

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Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER, and can be reached at FLT31230@Yahoo.com

Chapin Theatre Company Scores Yuletide Points with "A Charlie Brown Christmas"

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“If I were given the opportunity to present a gift to the next generation, it would be the ability for each individual to learn to laugh at himself.”

-          Charles M. Schulz

 

Ah! The Christmas season! A time for frantically shopping, decorating the house, attending holiday pageants and concerts, and generally working one’s self into a frenzy over creating the “perfect” Christmas experience. In our quest to achieve these goals, we often lose sight of the joy, warmth, and simple times that can bring us the greatest satisfaction. PEANUTS  creator, Charles Schulz, understood that the foibles and absurdities of human behaviour are universal, and that laughing at one’s own folly is not only good for the psyche, but also for the soul.

On 9 December, 1965, television viewers were introduced to the first animated special featuring Charlie Brown and the gang. A Charlie Brown Christmas was an immediate hit, and the cartoon has become a staple of “gather-the-family” holiday viewing. Though most of us will watch the TV special at least once this year, I encourage anyone who loves it (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) to check out Chapin Theatre Company’s live-action adaptation. The stage play is almost identical to the original, with maybe a few lines changed here and there, but very few. Purists will be pleased, and others (like yours truly) will feel the excitement of a scavenger hunt when catching the occasional rewrite or added dialogue.

The story is so well-known, it hardly bears repeating, but just in case, here’s the plot in a nutshell: Charlie Brown is depressed at his mid-December inability to find the Christmas spirit, so he turns to his friends, most of whom are caught up in the commercialism and benign greed that was, over 50 years ago, already beginning to overtake the holiday. After an unsuccessful visit with Lucy at her Psychiatric booth (“five cents, please,”) Charlie Brown finds hope when he is invited to direct the annual nativity play. Tasked with finding a tree, Charlie Brown and Linus set out for the market, where they come across a sad, droopy, little tree. Recognizing a fellow outcast, Charlie Brown brings his glorified pine branch back to rehearsal, where it is ridiculed by the rest of the cast. Linus speaks a few words from the Biblical account of the birth of Jesus, and then further lifts Charlie Brown’s spirits by bringing everyone together to decorate the tree, which miraculously becomes a vision of beauty. (And yes, they all sing “loo loo loo, loo loo loo loo loo” at the end.)

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Directors Meesh Hayes and Beth Strickland have created a beautiful homage to Schulz’s distinctive style, yet bring a few touches of their own to keep the story fresh. Kudos also to Costume Designer Tiffany Dinsmore for her nigh-upon-identical costumes that immediately evoke the cartoon, and Scenic Designer Bill Botts, who clearly went to great lengths to honour Schulz’s signature slightly wobbly line-drawing style, on everything from Snoopy’s doghouse to the 60’s “mod” holiday trees on display. This show and its spirit clearly aim to celebrate what inspired its creation.

An interesting side note: when auditions were held, all ages of children and adults were encouraged to audition, as Hayes and Strickland were open to a grown-up cast as well as a youthful one. In the end, the “teens and tweens” were chosen; a decision with which I heartily agree, having seen more than one fifty-something Linus dispensing wisdom to a Charlie Brown with slightly greying facial hair in various productions of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. This is not to suggest that adults can’t present an enjoyable evening with the PEANUTS kids, but seeing actors at or relatively near the characters’ ages added a specific twinkle of holiday cheer to the show.

The performances were uniformly solid, and I honestly bought into the show’s reality, essentially forgetting that these kids were born well after I graduated college. Audrey Thomas (Charlie Brown) and Michaela Grindstaff (Linus) make their trouser-role casting work beautifully, and while neither disguises the fact that they’re girls in real life, they embrace the characters with honesty and sincerity, making their actual genders immaterial. I saw Charlie Brown and Linus, period. They acted the roles as written, and succeeded. (I particularly loved the nod to the TV special, when Linus pronounces “…and they were so afraid” as “…and they were sore afraid.”) Lauren Bailey’s Lucy is just as cynical and hard-boiled as her comic strip counterpart, yet allows a touch of humanity to shine through. Juliana Mays (Sally) has only a few lines, but brings down the house when she asks Santa for money for Christmas, “preferably tens and twenties,” to be exact, and Skylar Raynor clearly has a blast in the role of Snoopy, with ever-faithful Woodstock (Ellee Burrows) in tow. The rest of the cast is talented, well-rehearsed, and maintain character(s) throughout.

By now you may be wondering “why go and see it if it’s the same as the cartoon?” To this I would answer that the stage play is professionally presented by an extremely talented group of young actors who deserve to be seen; a sentiment many seem to share, as a few upcoming performances have already sold out. It’s a bit of a drive out to the Firehouse Theatre (about half an hour from downtown Columbia,) but worth the trip.

On a personal note, I will add that the folks out at Chapin Community Theatre are welcoming, friendly, and proud of the work they’re doing. Before the show, I went to buy a hot chocolate, only to learn that credit/debit cards are not accepted. At the interval, a very kind lady asked if she could buy me a hot chocolate, apologizing for the lack of a credit card machine. That’s hospitality. That’s Christmas.

A Charlie Brown Christmas runs through this weekend, but you’d better hurry if you want tickets, as they’re going fast. Perhaps that’s because it’s not only a good production, but one that allows adults (and even some kids) to laugh at the qualities they share with Charlie Brown and the rest of Schulz’s assemblage of mini-adults. Merry Christmas, Mr. Schulz. You got your wish.

To reserve tickets, you can ring CCT on 803. 240. 8544, or email ChapinTheatre@att.net. . I saw “Cast Snoopy,” which features a few double-cast roles with “Cast Woodstock,” so if you’re going to see a specific actor, you may want to double-check the schedule.

 

Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER, and can be reached at FLT31230@yahoo.com

Better Late Than Never Review - Shakespeare in Love from USC

“I am very sorry, sir,” said Bob. I am behind my time.

-          Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Much like Bob Cratchit, I must apologize profusely to the cast and crew of USC’s outstanding production of Shakespeare In Love. After seeing last Sunday’s matinee, I planned to have a review ready within a couple of days. A series of storms, both literal and figurative, got in my way this week, and I’m afraid my review will serve more of an archival purpose than a promotional one. Nonetheless, the show deserves the accolades I have been carrying around in my head for six days, so here goes:

~~~

Based upon the Tom Stoppard film of the same title, Lee Hall’s Shakespeare In Love retains “about 90%” of Stoppard’s film dialogue, according to Kevin Bush, Marketing Director for USC’s Department of Theatre and Dance. The old adage of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is wisely heeded by Hall, who still manages to bring a freshness and slight opening-up of the film to his stage adaptation. Also impressive is the Elizabethan-meets-Techno music by composer Paddy Cunneen, which underscores (pun intended) the timelessness of not only Shakespeare’s works, but also the message that tumultuous love affairs existed well before gossip tabloids and tell-all books. Having live musicians onstage, augmenting the recorded bits was an excellent choice, and the overall aesthetic was that of an Elizabethan love story that could just as easily happen today.

Staying faithful to the movie’s plot, the play, a young William Shakespeare is having difficulty finishing his “comedy” of Romeo and Juliet. With opening night creeping ever closer, Shakespeare’s anxiety and frustration put production of the show into increasing unlikeliness, until he finds his muse in Viola, a young woman of the upper classes who disguises herself as “Thomas Kent,” and manages to land the role of Romeo (ironically, opposite a boy in female dress as Juliet, given the era’s ban on women performing onstage.) A romance quickly blossoms, despite Viola’s engagement to a nobleman whom she neither loves nor understands, and who  seeks her dowry to prop up his estate in the Colonies. As in the film, mistaken identities, double-and-triple layers of deception, and Shakespeare’s Cyrano-esque courtship of Viola (with his friend, Kit Marlowe, supplying romantic dialogue from a nearby hiding place,) propel the plot. As one might presume, chaos obviously ensues, but to paraphrase the title of another of The Bard’s works, all’s well that (almost) ends well, and though Viola does, indeed, depart for The New World, the ensuing heartbreak prompts Shakespeare to reconceptualize Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy, overcoming his writer’s block, and finishing what eventually becomes one of his most celebrated and oft-performed plays.

As Shakespeare, John Romanski is less the dashing Bard of legend, and much more an ordinary young artist, struggling to find fame and love. Bravo to Romanski for taking a role that could have been played as a whinier version of Charlie Brown mooning over The Little Red-Haired Girl, and embracing the joy and enthusiasm he has for his writing and performing troupe. Though not a doppelganger, Romanski’s look definitely offers a reasonable approximation of what Shakespeare may have looked like as a young man. I particularly enjoyed Romanski’s layering of emotions and reactions to the series of successes and failures his character faces. To say that his fortunes swing like a pendulum is an understatement, yet Romanski never makes his transitions from happiness to despair to fear to ecstasy jarring or overly sudden. He plays the subtlety of Shakespeare as expertly as the bombast, and never allows himself to veer into a parody or exaggerated comic version of the role.

Olivia Hensley’s Viola is another “perfect fit” for her role, with her pluck and determination paired with softness and genuine care for the playwright with whom she finds herself falling in love. Hensley’s look is gently beautiful, with the flowing hair and stylish dresses of an Elizabethan lady of means and stature, which makes her successful disguise as a boy even more impressive. As with Romanski, she never falls victim to caricature, but does change her voice and bodily movement to create both an elegant ingénue and a male commoner who is honestly believable. Her final letter to Shakespeare is a mini tour-de-force, and Hensley is spot-on with her delivery, mixing resignation, sadness, and “smiling against tears” into a brio of emotions that provide one of the show’s most touching moments.

Wessex, the “designated baddie” of the show, is brought to life by William Hollerung, who combines a scheming con man’s superficial charm with a few moments of genuine menace. You don’t like him very much, but you can almost feel sympathy for him, despite the atrocities he commits against Viola, and his overall pomposity and conniving. I would stop short of describing him as a comedic villain, but there is a sprinkling of bumbling humour underpinning his rogueish misdeeds, and Hollerung plays the laugh moments (an especially funny bit involving rotating clothing racks brought the house down Sunday afternoon) perfectly straight, which makes them even funnier. As the most ill-intentioned character in the show, he is ironically dressed in all white, reinforcing his outer layer of respectability. (Nice choice, Costume Designer Molly Morgan.)

The rest of the cast is uniformly solid, which speaks volumes of Director Andrew Schwartz’s skills at casting and direction, as well as the quality of education USC Theatre students are receiving. This was a good play, period; not just a “good college show.” I would personally place it in competition with most professional shows I have seen. The cast was well-rehearsed, the timing and delivery were impeccable across the board, and was over long before I wanted it to end.

Scenic Designer Nate Terracio’s set is semi-minimalist, with a few flourishes of grandeur, which perfectly reflects the events and encounters Shakespeare experiences throughout. I’m not sure whether or not that was the motivating force behind his design concept, but it was most effective in tying together the physical locations and the mindset of the protagonist.

Again, I offer my mea maxima culpa for my tardiness to all involved with this most enjoyable production. Yours faithfully promises to be Johnny-on-the-Spot with getting his job done next time. Bravi, Shakespeare In Love company! You truly created a work of which you can be quite proud.

Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER.

 

REVIEW - Trustus's Silence! The Musical is a Hilarious Respite from a Weary World

“A little nonsense, now and then, is relished by the wisest men.”

-WillyWonka - Charlie And The Chocolate Factory

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Members of the Silence! cast Sam McWhite, Mike Morales, Kayla Machado, Latrell Brennan, and Abigail McNeely

 When one thinks of The Silence Of The Lambs, words like “hilarious” and “side-splittingly funny” don’t generally come to mind. The classic film, starring Jodie Foster and Sir Anthony Hopkins, sent chills up the spines of movie-goers worldwide, but other than one or two cheeky asides from Hopkins, the movie was a straight-up crime drama/thriller without much comic relief. Such is definitely NOT the case with Trustus Theatre’s season-opener, Silence! The Musical, which serves up an affectionate but irreverent parody of the original.

The plot of the musical follows that of the film fairly closely, but takes advantage of every opportunity to play the situations and characters for laughs. Inside jokes abound, and sassy references to other pop culture staples can be found…if you know where to look. I am going to try and see the show again, as I was so busy laughing and scribbling down notes, I’m sure I missed a few things here and there. Director Jonathan Monk clearly had great fun in using his own celebrated sense of  humour to enhance an already outrageous comedy. Kudos  are also due to Monk for his superb casting, which made the show damn near perfect. (My only caveat is that the script is quite vulgar in spots, which I find delightful, but if sexual slang and twisted characters aren’t your thing, beware.)

As Clarice Starling, Kayla C. Machado is the only character to do a full-out imitation of her film counterpart. In her early-90s bobbed hairdo and makeup, she bears a striking resemblance to Jodie Foster, but the verisimilitude doesn’t stop there. Without ever breaking character, Machado delivers a brilliant rendition of Foster’s distinct dialect, complete with pronouncing her “s” sounds with “sh.” For example, she consistently refers to herself as “Agent Shtarling,” which simply got funnier as the show progressed. I will admit to having feared at first that the convention would get old, much like an SNL skit that runs several minutes too long, but I was wrong. To use another subversive pop culture example, it’s like a running gag on Family Guy that’s funny at first…then it starts to get old…but then it crosses over into hilarious, and you laugh until it’s over. Machado is, ironically, given the number of insinuations about Starling’s (and Foster’s) sexuality, the “straight man,” yet she gets some of the biggest laughs of the evening. One of her finest moments is when she gives a lengthy, incomprehensible, monologue about her detective work, only to be met with a response of “I have no clue what the fu*k you just said” from Robin Gottlieb (more on her in a minute,) and Machado manages to keep a perfectly straight face. (To her credit, Machado and a couple of the other actors did have one “Harvey Korman Experience,” when they all cracked up at some uproariously crude witticism. Rather than being a distraction, this was a positively golden moment when the actors simply couldn’t contain their hilarity, which strengthened the already-solid connection with the audience. Harvey would have been proud. ;-)

Machado and Morales with Robin Gottlieb

Machado and Morales with Robin Gottlieb

As Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Hunter Boyle is at the peak of his game. I attended the show with my friend, local actor Bill Arvay, who declared Boyle’s performance “the best thing I’ve ever seen him do.” While this may have been a bit hyperbolic, given Boyle’s rich resume of memorable characters, I understood the sentiment. Boyle’s Lecter isn’t quite as menacing as Hopkins’, which illustrates the understanding Boyle and Monk had of the character as he fits into this somewhat Bizzaro-World spoof. Boyle is less genius cannibal, and more smartass intellectual, and it works. One of the many tips of the hat to other theatrical works is his prison suit number, 24601. (Les Mis fans, admit it, you were mentally singing it once you noticed the number.) Boyle is still the “Hannibal The Cannibal” from the movie, but he deftly takes the lighter script to heart.  Straight lines are played for laughs, and Boyle had to hold for laughter for at least thirty seconds when Lecter corrected S(h)tarling on the famous “Fava beans and a nice Chianti” line.

Patrick Dodds, whose considerable talent seems to grow and develop with each role he undertakes, manages to create a frightening Buffalo Bill who still fits in with the MAD Magazine atmosphere of zaniness. While making the part  his own, Dodds winks at the character with a few straight-from-the-film bits. Fans of the movie will remember the odd tic of a laugh Buffalo Bill tries to suppress when asking Starling about a missing woman she is seeking. “Was she like, a big, fat, person?” isn’t a funny line per se, but when Dodds adds the brief snicker to his query, the result is a cascade of knowing laughter from the audience. While Dodds is younger and a bit more manic than his screen counterpart, he is a perfect fit (see what I did there?) for the demented lunatic of the stage adaptation.

Dressed in all black, with white floppy ears, the other five actors play “everyone else,” including a flock of lambs, establishing individual characters by adding a jacket, hat, or comparably simple garment. Costume Designer Amy Brower Lown succeeds in maintaining  a specific, cohesive, style without ever compromising the ersatz reality of the script. Lown’s concept is brilliantly supported by LaTrell Brennan, Robin Gottlieb, Abigail McNeely, Samuel McWhite, and Mike Morales, who transition seamlessly from character to character.

As Ardelia, Starling’s roommate and is-she-or-isn’t-she girlfriend, Brennan not only develops a three-dimensional character, but also displays great facility at  delivering a punchline, often remaining perfectly serious during her funniest moments. Gottlieb brings her customary stage presence and overall panache to playing a series of all-male characters. (Another inside joke is set up when Gottlieb appears as Starling’s deceased father, prompting Starling to plead “Papa, can you hear me?” with Yentyl–like wistfulness.) In an uncredited cameo as mental patient Miggs, Gottlieb hilariously re-creates the (in)famous moment when Miggs masturbates and flings the resulting *ahem* substance at Starling, substituting a can of Silly String at a decidedly seminal moment in the show.

Working double duty as Buffalo Bill’s victim, Catherine, and her US Senator mother, McNeely demonstrates an almost chameleon-like ability to morph into completely different appearances. I honestly didn’t realize the roles were done by the same person until well over halfway through.

McWhite’s primary alter-ego of Lecter’s keeper, Dr. Chilton, is less pathetic than the film Chilton, interpreted more as a fast-talking pickup artist than a socially awkward nerd. While we can easily imagine the movie incarnation moping in depression after failing to seduce Starling, McWhite’s Chilton has probably had more successes than failures with women, and displays a delightful “your loss, baby” attitude, likely moving on to his next potential lover.

Morales was the most difficult actor to track, as he, like McNeely, apparently has the ability to shape-shift. I suspect it was he who played the geeky entomologist who also fails to woo Starling with his offer of “cheeseburgers and the amusing house wine.” ( This line is pretty much a throwaway in the movie, but takes on great hilarity when placed in the world of Silence!) Morales also has a most amusing death scene as the ill-fated Officer Pembry. As with the rest of the show, what was frightening and/or grotesque on the silver screen becomes fodder for hilarity onstage.

Sam Hetler’s scenic design is both functional and visually intriguing, creating a unit set that serves as over a dozen locations. Hetler’s work is showing up with growing frequency on Columbia stages, and he never fails to deliver a professional-quality set with a few unexpected flairs. Marc Hurst’s lighting design reinforces Hetler’s fun-house set with dramatic changes in intensity and color, never letting the audience forget that this is a bizarre alternate reality. Particularly impressive were his use of lighting Buffalo Bill’s lair from beneath the playing surface (blending perfectly with Hetler’s dungeon-wall motif,) and a sudden full-stage switch to fuzzy black-and-green to simulate the view from a pair of night-vision goggles. Hurst also helps create locales with projected establishing texts such as “Baltimore Nuthouse” and “Mr. Belvedere, Ohio,” among others.

Machado and Hunter Boyle

Machado and Hunter Boyle

Musical Director Randy Moore lives up to his customary professionalism, making piano, keyboard, and drums sound like a full orchestra. Bravo to Trustus and Moore for utilizing live musicians in a time when far too many theatres are opting for “canned” pre-recorded orchestration. The freshness and obvious communication among the four instrumentalists added another layer of connection to the show, as well as the audience.

Lest there be any doubt, I found Silence! To be a laugh-a-minute roller coaster ride of naughty satire, and left with my sides aching from constant guffawing.  It’s definitely for grown-ups, and never blinks or shies away from that fact, so be prepared. Never before have I seen a dancing vagina ballet, bubble-wrap bulletproof vests, the “Manamana” song used as a diversionary tactic, an imitation of Jodie Foster reciting “she sells seashells by the seashore,” or Hunter Boyle in a fabulous hat and caftan ensemble. (Okay, that last one was a lie.)

Silence! runs through 3 November, and tickets can be purchased online at Trustus.org, or by ringing the box office on (803) 254.9732. Word is spreading, and tickets are likely to be going fast, so reserve your seats soon for this delightfully macabre, oft-profane, “egregiously misrespectful” piece of  theatre that maintains Trustus’ commitment to professional and well-produced art.

Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER.

Patrick Dodds as Buffalo Bill - all photos courtesy of Trustus Theatre

Patrick Dodds as Buffalo Bill - all photos courtesy of Trustus Theatre

REVIEW -- OnStage Production's Hairspray is a Jewel Worth the Trip

“…your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them.”

-Obi-Wan Kenobi,
“Star Wars: A New Hope”

Tracy sends a cheerful "Good Morning, Baltimore!" to her hometown.

Tracy sends a cheerful "Good Morning, Baltimore!" to her hometown.

Okay, I will freely admit that the first couple of times I attended a show at OnStage Productions, my eyes concealed a perfect gem, literally at my feet. When one arrives at The Old Mill in Lexington, it looks like someone converted a couple of ancient warehouses into an upscale brewpub, added a small shop or two, then called it a day. While these establishments do exist, there’s also something quite special just a few feet underground.

Housed in a renovated downstairs area, OnStage has created  the look, feel, and atmosphere of a cozy, hip, Off-Broadway house. The space is a bit cramped, and has a slightly “rough at the edges” feel, as I firmly believe all good playhouses should. Be prepared to sit close to your seatmates, but that’s all part of the aura and style OnStage has created in building what could easily be a 100-seat, upstairs, Greenwich Village theatre. Just set your personal space requirements to “NYC mode,” and you’ll have a blast.

 

Speaking of blasts, Director Robert Harrelson truly blew us away with Saturday night’s performance of Hairspray, The Musical, which continues its run this Thursday-Sunday. With a cast full of talent, and some most innovative staging, Harrelson makes the show work like a well-oiled machine. The set, though simple in design, effectively creates the show’s various locales through a quartet of four-sided columns, outstanding use of lighting to suggest a specific space, and a never-ending flow of kinetic energy from the cast, who all move things around just in time to be perfectly in place for the next scene. The action of the play never wanes, nor does the seemingly boundless energy of the cast. One of the highest compliments I can give a musical is that it “never stops moving,” which perfectly describes this version of Hairspray.

 

And of the performance, itself? Well, it had me singing along with half the score, and laughing uproariously, often at the most inappropriate jokes and one-liners. Again, I must sing Harrelson’s praises for DOING THE SHOW AS WRITTEN. Hairspray, the John Waters film which gave rise to the musical, was subversive as hell, made fun of cultural stereotypes, and embraced the taboo with mischievous glee. The musical has toned down a bit of Waters’ signature vulgarity, but keeps its norm-shattering and cheeky storyline intact. Harrelson has not altered the script in any way, nor has he “bleeped out” a single potentially-controversial line. This is Hairspray as it was written to be played, not a sanitized-for-grandma production. (Incidentally, I saw several grandma-types laughing and enjoying the show right along with me.) Bravo for Harrelson for his faithfulness to the work, and the ensuing quality that comes with that integrity.


Charity Gilbert, Laiyah Smith, and Jamila Wicker raise the roof as "The Dynamites."

Charity Gilbert, Laiyah Smith, and Jamila Wicker raise the roof as "The Dynamites."

The cast has some double-casting, with about half the roles being played at all performances, with others alternating between two actors. My friends and I saw “Cast A,” and they delivered a fast-paced, turbo-charged, roller coaster of a ride that I’m sure is matched in quality by “Cast B.”

Leading the cast as Edna Turnbladt is Bradley Watts (who shares the role with Jeffrey Sigley.) Watts is great fun to watch, and throws himself enthusiastically into the part. There’s a definite nod to Harvey Fierstein’s Edna, but Watts makes the role his own, not only vocally, but also through the creation of a slightly softer, somewhat less acerbic Edna than we’ve seen from other productions. Without ever losing the comedy or the no-nonsense personality, Watts gives us an Edna that retains her strength, but never at the cost of her femininity. Her rapport with husband Wilbur, played in both casts by Theodore Reynolds, is spot-on, and the two clearly trust each other as scene partners, creating a snapshot of the trust and affection between Edna and Wilbur. Reynolds is appropriately goofy without ever resorting to mugging for the audience, and makes Wilbur the lovable doofus with great success.

As Tracy Turnbladt, Whitney McDonald shines in a role she is clearly delighted to be playing. Her talent is undeniable, and she’s clearly confident in the character choices she has made. A “plus-sized” social warrior and crusader for justice, McDonald’s Tracy is also quite lovely. (Think Nigella Lawson meets a Designing Women-era Delta Burke, with a dash of Adele thrown in,) and serves as a perfect example of how beauty not only comes from within, but also that outer beauty can take many forms. McDonald allows Tracy a sweetness that never compromises her commitment to equality and progress. As for her vocals, one word. Wow! Harrelson has clearly followed the old theatrical adage of “cast the best singers first,” and McDonald can deliver on a ballad or belt the paint off the back wall, without ever losing pitch or sincerity. (Tracy is played on alternate nights by Katie Edelson.)

As foils for the Turnbladt women, we meet Velma and Amber Von Tussle, a former pageant star, and her beauty-queen daughter, Lisa Baker and Zanna Mills, respectively, who share the roles with Leslie Dellinger and JoJo Wallace. Baker brings down the house with her “Miss Baltimore Crabs” number, and Mills, who demonstrated her skill at playing sweet and innocent as Mary Ann in last season’s Gilligan’s Island: The Musical, shows that she can play “mean girl” Amber with equal aplomb. Mills also makes her debut as a choreographer in this production, and the result is a series of well-rehearsed, toe-tapping, fun choreography that almost pulls the audience members into the aisles to boogie down.

As David LaTorre performs with both casts, I can quite literally say that there isn’t a weak (L)ink in the show. (Thanks, folks, I’ll be playing here all week.) In what could easily be a standard, Richie Cunningham-esque boyfriend role, LaTorre find’s Link’s humanity in every sense of the word. Neither Superboy nor “bad boy,” Link finds himself at several personal and ethical crossroads, and LaTorre conveys well his sense of conflict, as well as his desire to do what is right, even if it costs him. Ara-Viktoria Goins is a somewhat sexier Motormouth Maybelle than devotees of Hairspray may be used to, but it works brilliantly with the character’s believe-in-yourself philosophy. Goins, like McDonald, has a huge voice that can shake the rafters, as well as purr seductively, as she demonstrates in her performance of “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful.”


Ara-Viktoria Goins as Motormouth Maybelle.

Ara-Viktoria Goins as Motormouth Maybelle.

Much of the social statements in Hairspray center around the budding romance between Seaweed Stubbs (Joshua Wright) and Penny Pingleton (Camryn Harsey, alternating with Kari Tilghman.) Seaweed is black, Penny is white, and it’s 1962, so there’s plenty of era-based controversy over their relationship. While never preachy or heavy-handed, their story strikes at the core message of the play, which is that what’s on the outside doesn’t matter. Both performers approach the material with a light touch, but their message of social justice, equality, and the strength of unity comes through loud and clear. Wright and Harsey both bring strong voices and considerable stage presence to their roles.

Debra Leopard and Mark DiNovo, as usual, turn in memorable, fully-realized, enjoyable characters. While Leopard is a hoot as Penny’s religious-fanatic mother (and also shines in a smaller role as the High School principal,) DiNovo had me doubled over with laughter every time he took the stage. His two “bonus” roles in “Good Morning, Baltimore” and “The Big Doll House” are absolute side-splitters, and his lame-clad Mr. Spritzer is a delight. Linda Lawton Brochin serves up a couple of hilarious cameos, and Karlton Timmerman’s Corny Collins hits all the right notes as a smarmy-but-charming dance show host, and manages to show off a very nice singing voice, as well.

Were there a few negatives? Yes, but none that marred the experience. The musicians (yes, Hairspray utilizes live musicians, which I strongly support) could be a bit overpowering at times, but to be fair, we were seated fairly close to them. A couple of the soloists had to struggle with a note that was too high or too low, and I occasionally missed a lyric or two. There was one small glitch during a scene change, but by the time I even noticed, it had been corrected.

OnStage Productions is a short, 20-minute drive from Downtown Columbia, and I strongly encourage everyone to make that drive. Hairspray is slick, polished, well-paced, and provides a subtle reminder of the importance of equality and acceptance in society.

 

Hairspray concludes its run this Thursday-Sunday. Tickets can be purchased by visiting www.onstagesc.com

Frank Thompson is Theatre Editor for Jasper.

Next up for the Jasper Project?

Keith Tolen is our first featured artist in the

Tiny Gallery Series

Thursday, October 4th in

Studio #7 of Tapp’s Arts Center https://www.facebook.com/events/975033929365281/

REVIEW: South Carolina Shakespeare Company's The Liar

“Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies…”

-Fleetwood Mac

the liar.jpg

 Due to Hurricane Florence, The Liar will end its run tonight!

There are plenty of lies in South Carolina Shakespeare Company’s production of The Liar, previously scheduled to run through Saturday at Columbia Music Festival Association, and not all of them are sweet or little. Actually, there are some absolute whoppers thrown down in this hilarious prevarication-palooza, which playwright David Ives has skillfully translated and peppered with contemporary references, some Shakespeare here and there, and just a hint of sympathy for the eponymous character. Based on the 1644 French comedy, Le Menteur, by Pierre Corneille, the plot is a delightful confection, with a storyline straight out of an episode of Three’s Company. Misunderstandings and mistaken identities abound, lechery is played for laughs, and the bungling anti-hero grows increasingly frantic as his schemes unravel. A somewhat deus ex machina conclusion solves everything by play’s end, and The Liar becomes an honest man…perhaps.

 

The show opens with a hilarious introduction by Cliton, manservant to Dorante, (who is the titular liar.) As Cliton, Sam Hetler  hits the bull’s-eye with his interpretation of the servant who is much more intelligent than his master. Though this archetype is a stock character in farce, Hetler brings a freshness and sincerity to the role. His is the only character to “break the wall” and address the audience, until Dorante concludes the show with a brief address. Hetler’s opening monologue is part rap, part straight pentameter, and part free-style. Were it not for his period costume (more on that in a minute), one might mistake him for the hands-down winner of an open-mic poetry slam. With his witty delivery and slightly-put-upon demeanor, Hetler masterfully draws the audience into the tale from the very beginning.

Played by SCSC regular, Jeff Driggers, Dorante is an eager young man who abandons his study of  Law to experience all the pleasures and diversions of Paris. (In a delicious twist of irony, Dorante is practically incapable of telling the truth, while Cliton has a comparable inability to tell a lie.) As Dorante, Driggers is a veritable dervish for most of his stage time. Constantly in motion, telling one falsehood after another, with his anxiety growing with every close call, I couldn’t help thinking of The Music Man, and how Driggers is surely destined to play Professor Harold Hill someday. His energy is seemingly boundless, and his delivery and timing are outstanding. My one complaint was that occasionally he spoke so quickly in his con-man patter, I had a difficult time catching each word, but his absolute commitment to the role and slightly over-the-top physicality left no doubt as to his meaning.

 

Soon enough, he meets two lovely young women, Clarice (Hillary MacArthur), and her friend, Lucrece (Mary Miles). Immediately proving himself a BS artist extraordinaire, he regales the ladies with stories of his battlefield heroism against the German Army. He immediately falls for Clarice, only to misunderstand when Lucrece’s maid, Isabelle, (Brittany Hammock, who turns in a delightful double role) describes her mistress as “the most beautiful one,” and sets his cap to win his inamorata, whom he now thinks is named Lucrece. The three female actors have no difficulty in keeping up with their male castmates, delivering unique, individual, characters who manage to create a cohesive trio (quartet?) without sacrificing or diluting any of their differences. Miles’ Lucrece is appropriately befuddled, without ever resorting to caricature, and uses her facial expressions to communicate just as clearly as her voice. As always, her time onstage is professional and artfully crafted. (After the show, I commented to Miles that if ever I open a playbill and see her name, I know to expect a high-quality performance, and The Liar was no exception.) As Clarice, MacArthur demonstrates not only comedic proficiency, but also an ability to play her unhappy moments with authenticity, while never compromising the overall texture of the silliness surrounding her. Although frequently distressed, MacArthur also provides a sort of calm within the chaos, treating the audience to a layered and complex character. Hammock, with a distinctive half-flowing, half-braided hairdo adding to the illusion, also plays Isabelle’s twin sister, Sabine, who just happens to be Lucrece’s maid. Though played by the same actress, the two roles are somewhat Jekyll-and-Hyde in their differences. Hammock proves that she can play sweet and salty with equal aplomb, and creates two characters with easily-identifiable differences in style and temperament, though I wouldn’t have minded a tiny costume change, such as a hat or scarf, to further punctuate the duality of the roles.

 

Things get even more turned-around when we meet Alcippe, Dorante’s best friend. Did I mention that Alcippe is engaged to Clarice? The traditional Comedie –Francaise misconceptions and mutually cloudy understandings leave Alcippe constantly vacillating between fury and thick-headed amiability. As played by Josh Kern, Alcippe has the capacity to turn his emotions on a dime (centime?) and clearly revels in playing a hothead and a pleasant fop. Having worked with Kern several times over the last seven or eight years, I have enjoyed watching a kid with a hell of a lot of raw talent grow into a seasoned pro who is quickly mastering his craft.

 

Also in the melee are Alcippe’s friend, Philiste (Morgan Wood) and Dorante’s father, Geronte (Douglas McConnell), who further complicate matters through relaying inadvertent half-truths and misinformation (Philiste), and arranging for Dorante to marry Clarice, whom Dorante thinks is named Lucrece. While these two roles are somewhat smaller than the rest, both Wood and McConnell make the most of their onstage moments, matching the rest of the cast in skill and commitment to the “reality” of the script.

 

A story about a midnight boat ride, a hilariously mimed duel, and countless moments of ensuing confusion add to the insanity, with a tidy-if-contrived happy ending for everyone. Director Scott Blanks clearly had a good time creating the frenetic insanity of the piece, yet never allows the chaos to go too far off the rails. Discipline and precision are essential when half the characters are frequently out of control, and Blanks expertly keeps the lunacy tightly blocked and well-rehearsed.

Costume Designer Janet Kile made the interesting choice of dressing each character in a combination of classical and contemporary fashion. (Kern’s plush blue great-coat and Driggers’ ornate vest work particularly well with blue jeans.) While not at all distracting, the costumes helped establish the timelessness of the plot, as does modern scene-change music. (Lady GaGa’s “Bad Romance” was an especially nice touch.) As Cliton, Hetler was the only character to appear in all-period dress, which served his character well, as he not only opens the show by addressing the audience, but comments frequently on the wild events that sweep him along for the ride.

 

The Liar is a perfect show for those who love classic farce, but it never shies away from its moments of modernity. Playwright David Ives not only translated, but also re-wrote parts of the script, adding multiple modern-day terms and expressions. As with Kile’s costumes and the 21st century music, the dialogue occasionally reinforces the message that similar shenanigans go on in 2018 as went on in 1645.

 

-FLT3

Frank Thompson is proud to serve as JASPER’s Theatre Editor, and can be reached via email at FLT31230@Yahoo.com

REVIEW: Misery is Optional at Trustus Theatre

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

Director and Co-Writer Dewey Scott-Wiley

Director and Co-Writer Dewey Scott-Wiley

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

--

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

Co-Writer, Christine Hellman

Co-Writer, Christine Hellman

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

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

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

REVIEW: Jon Tuttle's Boy About Ten at Trustus Theatre

A talent for drama is not a talent for writing, but is an ability to articulate human relationships.” 

-Gore Vidal

Boy about ten.jpg

John Tuttle is, by any standard, a man with a talent for writing, but after seeing the world premiere of his play, Boy About Ten, I can affirm that he is also quite adept at articulating human relationships. Indeed, the oft-troubled intertwining of Boy About Ten’s dysfunctional, but (somewhat) connected nuclear family of four, drives the plot of Tuttle’s work, taking a well-written piece to the level of a performance bristling with all the sharp edges relationships can provide. This is not to suggest that the production currently running at Trustus is without laughter or light-hearted moments. It may be a tragicomedy, but Boy About Ten doesn’t hesitate to let the tragic cede the stage to the comedic in a legitimate, story-faithful way. In his program notes, Trustus Artistic Director, Chad Henderson, comments that “this play has undergone a more involved development process than our previous Playwrights Festival winners or commissions,” which no doubt contributed to the feeling of polish and streamlining found in the script. I managed to make notes on some of the truly standout lines, but by no means is my list comprehensive.

 

The play opens with D’Loris (Lonetta Thompson), a kindhearted but world-weary social worker, dealing with what is clearly a family in distress. She is trying to prepare Todd (Tommy Wiggins), the elder son, to go to his mothers’ house for a week. Todd is obviously troubled in multiple ways, but is largely nonverbal, using a set of oversized headphones to drown out the conflict which surrounds him, while hiding his face behind his chin-length bangs.  As usual, Thompson creates a fully-realized, textured character, who has flaws as well as sincerely caring nature. I never tire of seeing Thompson onstage, as she is always completely immersed in and committed to her character and the moment. It would have been the easy way out to depict D’Loris as either a hyper-idealistic Wonder Woman, or as a “honey, I’ve seen it all,” world-weary cynic, but Thompson chose to create someone in-between, and in the process, gave the audience a layered, complex, and realistic performance. Kudos also to Wiggins, a former Trustus Apprentice Company member, making his mainstage debut. Though Todd doesn’t speak much, especially in the early scenes, his body language, movement style, and a sort of self-embrace clearly establish him as a damaged human being, doing his best to avoid his psychic pain. When it is revealed that he is a self-cutter/burner, it is a bit of a shock, but totally believable for the character he has, by that point, made three-dimensional. I suspect we’ll be seeing much more of Wiggins on the Trustus stage in seasons to come, and I look forward to watching his development as an actor.

 

The arrival of Tammy (Jennifer Hill), lightens the mood by, ironically, introducing the least likeable of the five characters. Hill’s Tammy is brash, flashy, loud, and obnoxious, fancying herself far above the rest of the family. She dresses herself in designer clothing, while a couple of mentions are made of the kids’ clothes coming from Goodwill, and she personifies the cliche of the “helicopter parent,” dispensing screechy advice and criticism thinly veiled as “encouragement.” Hill’s comedic timing is absolutely spot-on, and she brought Friday night’s house down with such well-penned verbal spewings as “I was once a Sweet Potato Queen, now I’m a Cyclops!” (It seems that Tammy has a glass eye, which is broken, requiring her to wear an eye patch.) Clearly proud of her somewhat meager accomplishments, she touts having played Yum-Yum in a community college production of The Mikado, along with a few other small successes, in an attempt to impress D’Loris, who is eventually prompted to ask “what the hell is wrong with you people?” The moments of conflict between Tammy and D’Loris establish a curious dynamic. Tammy, in her own twisted, control-freak way, wants the best for her children, while D’Loris tries to help establish exactly that, which eludes the self-centered Tammy.

One gathers fairly quickly that Tammy is at her ex-husband’s house to swap out the younger son, Timmy, (Daniel Rabinovich), who is a straight-A, rule-abiding, do-gooder, complete with Webelos Scout uniform, and practically a stranger to Todd, and the two react somewhat cautiously to each other. (I may have missed an important line or mention of the situation, but it is clear that the brothers have not spent much time together.) Rabinovich demonstrates an actor’s sensitivities quite impressively, especially for a young actor. His character arc may well be the most dramatic in terms of growth and change, and he handles it like a true pro. As with Wiggins, this is a young man to watch.

Once all is settled, Timmy is left alone with his father, Terry. Played by Trustus mainstay, Paul Kaufmann, Terry is an affable, childlike n’ere-do-well, whose love for his sons manifests in an “at my house, there are no rules” dynamic. (When asked by Timmy if they can attend an Imax film or visit the Planetarium, Terry immediately scoffs at the thought of an educational outing, at least in the traditional sense.) Kaufmann, without ever breaking the established reality of the play, or mugging to the audience, brought to life an enchanting man-child, reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Big, with a dash of Bertie Wooster and Falstaff tossed in. To Timmy’s growing amusement, the two of them chug Cheerwine (no sodas allowed at Tammy’s house), fight ludicrous pretend war games against “Vagicilla, Dark Queen of the Nether Regions” (inspired, no doubt, by Tammy), and Timmy frequently receives his father’s military decorations, which may or may not be legit. It was at this point that I began to wonder about the show’s eponymous title. Was Timmy the Boy About Ten, or was his father? Had the parent/child dynamic between them already shifted before the action of the play began? Kaufmann, incidentally, scores one of the biggest laughs in the show while telling Timmy about his days in an ersatz KISS cover band. “You can always tell when chicks dig you. They chew their gum at you…like meat!”

 

A brief in-one scene gives us our sole glimpse of life at Tammy’s house, when the focus is, both literally and figuratively, on Todd, who is passively receiving an unwanted haircut from his mother. A special tip of the hat to Lighting Designer Laura Anthony, for transforming a simple floor lamp into a “where were you on the night of the robbery?” beacon. This is an occasion upon which the lighting truly made the scene for me. We, the audience, are semi-blinded by the intensity of the same light shining into Todd’s eyes, and subject to the same jabber from Tammy. Like a police officer in a bad, made-for-TV crime drama, she prattles on and on about how Todd should want to be “normal” and make friends “like all the other boys,” painting a Leave It To Beaver lifestyle, which will supposedly emerge with a haircut and a suit from Goodwill. Interrogation/indoctrination and “tough love” establish an uneasy coexistence at Tammy’s house, and the two children she raised reflect that. Timmy’s unblinking obedience earns him praise, so he obeys. Todd, whom I assumed to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, is unable to deal with what his senses perceive as blinding light and a barrage of impossible commands. Though short, this scene impacted me. I began to wonder through whose eyes we were seeing any given situation, and then viewing each scene from each character’s angle. Thank you, Jon Tuttle, for this (I’m guessing) three-page scene, which widened the lens through which I saw the rest of the play. Though she was the antagonist of the scene, it allowed a glimpse into Tammy’s desperate desire for a “normal, happy, family,” and humanized her for me.

 

I won’t go into too much detail about the second act, as it is, essentially, a minefield of spoilers, and much of what happens requires the elements of shock and surprise to work. While not without laughs, the second act takes a somewhat darker turn, with a grim family story, involving animal abuse, being revealed. (*While no violence is depicted onstage, a gruesome monologue could be mildly to moderately triggering for some.*) Terry childishly endangers his and Timmy’s lives at the end of act one, the aftermath of which, we see in act two. Todd returns, neatly trimmed and besuited, but still distant, albeit with the occasional smile of hope. Toward the end of the play, we discover that Terry suffered physical wounds far worse than Timmy’s while saving the boy from the dangerous results of his (Terry’s) recklessness. Romantic impossibilities are pondered and argued, D’Loris loses another crumb of her idealism, but hangs on to hope, Timmy takes his first step toward adult cynicism, Tammy reveals some game-changing information, and the family is left as we found them; bruised and battered, but oddly okay. The playwright leaves us with the idea that life will simply go on, and with the insanity and bizarre love in this family, who can even speculate on the eventual outcome?

 

Director Patrick Michael Kelly has taken an artfully written play, refined by much workshopping, and brought to the stage a world of slightly-heightened reality, never losing sight of the connecting themes of family and what it truly means to care for someone.

 

So, who is the Boy About Ten? I have my suspicions that each character, with the exception of D’Loris (who serves as the impartial observer and voice of reason) is that boy. Perhaps that answers my earlier question, and tips us off that the show is seen from D’Loris’ perspective.

Boy About Ten is an engaging, thought-provoking, and most enjoyable play, and a worthy addition to the Tuttle ouvre. Only four performances remain, so get your tickets now!

-- Frank Thompson

~~0~~

Tickets can be purchased online at Trustus.org , or by calling the Trustus Theatre box office on 803.254.9732
 
Remaining performance dates are:
Wednesday, August 22 – 7:30pm
Thursday, August 23 – 7:30pm
Friday, August 24 – 8:00pm
Saturday, August 25 – 8:00pm
 
Frank Thompson is the theatre editor for Jasper Magazine - contact him at flt31230@yahoo.com
~~0~~

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The Jasper Project is a non-profit all-volunteer organization that provides collaborative arts engineering for all disciplines of arts and artists in the South Carolina Midlands and throughout the state. Please help us continue to meet our mission of validating the cultural contributions of all artists and growing community within the arts by becoming a member of the Jasper Guild .  We'll print your name in the magazine, thank you on social media, and love you forever!

www.JasperProject.org

 

Something like a review - Cassie Premo Steele's Tongues in Trees, poems 1994 - 2017

"... Coin by coin, drop your worth into the jar of your heart and feel the equity begin. You are not a commodity...."

from Trust, by Cassie Premo Steele

 

cassie tongues in trees.jpg

I’ve been enjoying spending some time the past week or so with Cassie Premo Steele’s newest collection of poetry, Tongues in Trees, poems 1994 – 2017, published by Unbound Content in 2017. I nabbed a copy from Cassie on First Thursday when Cassie, along with Randy Spencer, so generously read for Kathryn Van Aernum’s opening of Common Ground at Anastasia & Friends. Kathryn’s show will be up for the rest of August, by the way, if you missed this lovely look at the places where we put our feet on a daily basis.

Cassie’s collection is divided into three sections—1994-2004, 2006-2016, and 2017. I met Cassie during the second section of this book when she taught me two classes in the women’s and gender studies graduate certificate program at USC – theory and methods. It was an interesting experience to learn theory and methods from an instructor who was not a social scientist. My first two degrees were in sociology and sociologists live and die by theory and methods. The scientific method validates our work when novices want to compare our work to the findings of Oprah. I was all about the N.

But one of the things Cassie taught me was that there are other important ways to validate reality in addition to statistical significance. And her point was well taken. Just because a person’s reality does not reside within the safe neighborhood of the majority does not negate their reality. Of course, I knew this already but her way of reminding me this, after the fully immersive experience of being a survey research wonk, changed my world. And I thank her for that.

 

Cassie Premo Steele (photo by Suzanne Kappler)   

Cassie Premo Steele (photo by Suzanne Kappler)

 

In reading Cassie’s collection, I’ve become aware of how much the author’s world has also changed in the time I’ve known her. Without going into personal details, Cassie’s paradigm shifted in several ways over the course of our friendship. And it shifted beautifully to a place of fulfillment and authenticity. Her collection of poems and their shifting persuasions are elegantly emblematic of her growth as a scholar, an artist, and a human being. The nature of this book continues to teach me (remind me) about the importance of fluidity, of being in the moment, of keeping my feet close to the ground but still floating gently enough above it that I can still move easily and purposefully, exploring places and realities from many perspectives, even the most lonely and quiet.

I don’t know how to thank this poet, this friend, for such an important and powerful lesson.

But I can share with you my favorite poem from this lovely collection which is, probably not coincidentally, the next to last poem in the book. This poem tells me that patience should not be so exalted that it becomes a bog of our best intentions, and it reminds me once again that constructs, when they are first born, are made of wishes and fumes. We add the bricks and mortar. And we can tear them down. - CB

 

World

By Cassie Premo Steele

 

I see your boots by the bed and I shed years of straightening

up not sitting till it was right the spoon out of the sink the towel

on the rack the peanut butter capped the coat in the closet the plants

watered and animals fed but none of this straightened me so I threw

spoons until a visitor came and it was you and we threw towels

on the floor ate everything with our fingers took boxes from the

closet and let a spring come up to feed and water the world.

 

~~O~~

www.cassiepremosteele.com

 

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

 

The Jasper Project is a non-profit all-volunteer organization that provides collaborative arts engineering for all disciplines of arts and artists in the South Carolina Midlands and throughout the state. Please help us continue to meet our mission of validating the cultural contributions of all artists and growing community within the arts by becoming a member of the Jasper Guild .  We'll print your name in the magazine, thank you on social media, and love you forever!

www.JasperProject.org

 

 

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

By Cindi Boiter

Libby Campbell stars in Hir

Libby Campbell stars in Hir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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