Such a Funny and Loving Gentleman - Remembering Will Moreau Goins by August Krickel

Will Moreau Goins

Duyugodv Ayosdi Ji Dekananogis Awohali Tsiyohi Uhyali Do

December 2, 1961 - November 11, 2017

will in MFL.jpg

Around the theater, he was always called Will Moreau. Or sometimes just Moreau. And among friends, "Dr. Moreau," a winking reference to the H.G. Wells character played on screen by Charles Laughton, Marlon Brando, and Burt Lancaster, but also an acknowledgement of Will's life outside the theater, as a scholar of Native American culture with a doctorate in anthropology. In that world he was more often referred to as Dr. Will Goins, and he always explained with a laugh that stars like Angelina Jolie and Tom Cruise use their middle names for their acting careers, so why couldn't he?

 

My friend William Moreau Goins came into this world on December 2, 1961, and left us Saturday, November 11, 2017. Like the face of America, his heritage was a mix of ethnicities, but he was descended from Cherokees in North and South Carolina on both sides of his family, including a great-great-grandfather who was a medicine man in Oconee County, and that's the path he followed, becoming Chief of the South Carolina Cherokee Tribe, and Chief Executive Officer of the Eastern Cherokee, Southern Iroquois, and United Tribes (ECSIUT.)  Film maker Antara Brandner, who worked with Will on a number of cultural and spirituality-themed projects, says that he told her recently that his full Cherokee name was Duyugodv Ayosdi Ji Dekananogis Awohali Tsiyohi Uhyali Do. (Although several sites have only the final three names listed.)

 

Growing up in the Washington, DC area, Will double majored in Anthropology and Communication (including TV, Radio and Film Production and Performance) at George Washington University, and his first professional jobs were media-related, at agencies including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Indian Health Service. He later joked that he and his co-workers - many of whom acted in The Free Spirit Players, a Native American theater company that Will founded and was its artistic director in the 80's - were "Fed-skins," taking a pejorative term and turning it into a joke. Which is the sort of thing Will always did. He later earned a Master's degree in Educational Administration, and a doctorate in Anthropology from Pennsylvania State University. Only a couple of weeks before his death, while he was promoting his upcoming film festival, I teased him, asking him if that was Penn State, or State Pen? That kind of banter flowed freely whenever Will was around.

 

After working for museums in Pennsylvania, DC, and the Detroit area, Will moved to South Carolina in 1997 to be closer to family. He told me that he was amazed to discover that "the state didn't know who its first residents were," and that almost no one with Native heritage - Cherokee in particular - considered themselves to be Native. Much of that stemmed from a couple of centuries in which most of South Carolina's indigenous peoples opted to blend in with and marry into the state's white and African-American population, at a time when their relatives in North Carolina were being relocated to Oklahoma, and when a Native person of color wasn't allowed to own land. 

 

And so Will set out with a simple mission: to educate people of Native descent about their heritage, and to tell the rest of the world "We're still here." 

 

Along the way he partnered with the Nickelodeon to host the Native American Film and Video Festival of the Southeast, the organization's first "niche" programming event which provided the template for more elaborate events like Indie Grits; the festival concluded its landmark 20th year earlier this month. He worked with representatives from state government to acknowledge November as Native American Heritage Month in South Carolina, and to designate November 18th as Native American Awareness Day. The symbolic importance of those proclamations aside, he also helped the Cherokee in South Carolina to achieve formal state recognition as a tribe, and worked with the Commission on Minority Affairs to expand their mission to include Native Americans.

 

He led the Cultural Arts Ensemble, an American Indian dance group, which performed at numerous festivals and events, and was active with the South Carolina Traditional Arts Network. Will did countless presentations to school groups as a visiting artist and speaker through the S.C. Arts Commission and the SC Humanities Council, sometimes appearing in character as a particular historical figure, such as Sequoyah. He was always a popular guest lecturer at Heathwood Hall, which his niece Amanda attended, and he was instrumental in the creation of an Indian Medicine Wheel Garden in front of the school's campus center in 2010.  He painted. He sang, and danced.  A video clip of Will performing a traditional song can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFRobuzlqn0


He also created beadwork, a traditional craft learned from his great aunt. He did demonstrations of Native cooking techniques, and I fondly recall his appearance on campus a few years ago, serving his "Cherokee chili" to intrigued international students at an event hosted by USC's Office of Multicultural Affairs. (It was basically dough dipped in boiling oil, then lifted out to serve as a sort of flatbread on which chili was then poured.)  Books that he edited included: South Carolina Indians Today : An Educational Resource Guide (1998),  The People Speak: A Collection of Writings by South Carolina Native Americans in Poetry, Prose, Essays and Interviews (2002), and South Carolina's Native American Cooking : Cherokee Traditional & Contemporary Recipes with Additional Southern Recipes by Other Indigenous Natives (2005.)  As a member of the McKissick Museum's Advisory Council, he helped revive their annual celebration of folk life, rebranding the event as "FOLKFabulous," and served as guest curator for the year-long exhibition “Traditions, Change and Celebration: Contemporary Native Artists in the Southeast.”  Most recently, he collaborated on expanding the footprint of FOLKFabulous to reach a much wider audience, relocating to become part of the annual State Fair, and promoting their current exhibition “WELL SUITED: The Costumes of Alonzo V. Wilson for HBO’s Treme” which celebrates the blending of Native and African American culture and music in Mardi Gras.  In 2008, he was given the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award for his work in the preservation of traditional arts and culture.  

 

Will was also a fervent supporter of progressive and faith-based causes. He served as Board President of the Interfaith Partners of South Carolina, representing the inclusive spirituality of Native Americans. At a screening of the film Kateri, about the first Native American saint, just three days before his death, Will was asked about the movie's historical authenticity. He noted that had the film been written by a person of Native descent, a key line spoken by a priest would instead have been spoken by Kateri herself, that the Christian God and the God worshipped less formally by Indians were one and the same. 

 

Some in the theater community knew much of the preceding, but many didn't. They just knew Will as a prolific actor, and a fun guy to be around. Who knows how many shows he was in?  I saw him in 19 over the last 9 years, and that was surely only half that he did in that timeframe, and there would have been that many or more dating back to 1997, when he made his Columbia stage debut as Bernardo in West Side Story at Town Theatre. Just a few recent credits include Ado Annie's shotgun-totin' father in Oklahoma!, the gambler whose heart is set on a horse named Valentine in Guys and Dolls, and the elocution professor in Singin' In the RainSugar, Evita, Les Miserables, Amadeus...the list is nearly endless. Will never had a problem being in the ensemble, or playing small character roles. In fact, he could often be found crewing backstage for shows he wasn't in. Family was very important to him, and often he wouldn't audition for a play if he knew that the runs dates conflicted with one of his nieces' graduation ceremony. 

 

Laurel Posey had this to share: 

I think Will was in the majority of the shows I've done since moving here in 1994, including The Producers, The Full Monty, Ragtime, La Cage Aux Folles, Seussical, and many others, mostly at Workshop. He worked everywhere, loved every single role, and loved to bond over those shared experiences....  I did love doing Tarzan with him (at Town Theatre) mostly because I loved watching (him with my husband) Frank together in an ad-libbed, pre-2nd-act bit where Frank as Professor Porter dubbed him "Kangala," his trusty companion on safari. I loved watching him work in Oklahoma at Town, too; he made Andrew Carnes hilarious and unforgettable (which is a tough job as scripted).  No matter where you put him, he gave it his all and usually offered something unexpected, unique, and memorable.  Will never did anything halfway... he was bigger than life, in all things. He was passionate, strong-willed, and tough. He was also incredibly generous. One of the things I've been thinking a lot about over the last few days is how he accepted everyone for exactly who they were. Now, if he thought you ought to be doing something differently, he'd tell you, repeatedly and in detail!  But no matter who you were, he appreciated you, warts and all. He wanted everyone to succeed... friends, strangers, his community, organizations, governments... he saw potential in everyone and everything.  He was a good man and I can't believe he's gone. We'll not see his likes again and the world's a little dimmer now.

 

Kerri Roberts played Will's daughter in My Fair Lady at Town in 2016. When I met her a few months ago, we pointed out this made her my stage granddaughter, or perhaps step-daughter, since I had played Will's role of Alfie many years previously. Will and I joked that the text clearly states that Alfie is part Welsh, and that was the reason for Will's tan complexion - he wasn't Native, he was just Welsh. Kerri shared these thoughts, which could have come from any of hundreds of former castmates:

In 1998, I was a senior at Columbia College. I auditioned for my very first role in a musical theater production, Town Theatre’s West Side Story.  I was cast as Maria - a dream role - but I felt nervous going into rehearsals because I really only knew one other person involved in the show.  Will Moreau was cast in the role of Bernardo, Maria’s brother. Having recently moved to Columbia, this was also Will’s first show in the Columbia theater community. From the very beginning Will was kind, reliable, supportive, and committed! Even though he, in his mid-thirties, had already done so much with his life, and I was a 21-year-old college kid, he made me feel special and took time to encourage me!  That show, that cast, was magical!  Some of those people, including Will, became friends that I will always have a special connection to.  I would not share the stage again with Will for 18 years, but he was implanted in my heart!

My family moved to Africa to live and work for 7 years and shortly after we returned at the end of 2014, I saw an audition posting for Mary Poppins.  I decided to go for it and audition!  It felt SO great to be back on the stage after 10 years and doing what I love most!  When tech week came around, who did appear backstage working crew?  None other than Will Moreau!  What a joy to reconnect!  He was so genuinely interested in what my life had been life in Africa, what my life was like now, my kids, etc.  He was such a person of great depth. There was nothing at all shallow about him.  We could skip over the small talk and get right to the good stuff.  The stuff that mattered, that we were passionate about.  Interspersed with silliness of course - Will was never always serious!

In the summer of 2016, my three daughters also got to know Will as he played King Triton in Town’s The Little Mermaid.  They were in the ensemble for that show and of course they also loved him. During that summer the announcement came out for My Fair Lady auditions.  I remember basically jumping up and down and squealing with Will because we were both so excited!  Eliza Doolittle was a bucket list role for me and Will really wanted to play the role of Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father.  Auditions and call-backs later, more squeals and hugs and jumping around ensued when we both accepted the roles we so desperately wanted to play. It was definitely the role of a life-time for me.  Will was there all the way encouraging me once again - always making me smile and making me feel so good about my performance.  And he has to be the most lovable Alfie Doolittle that there ever was.  Oh my goodness.  Will poured his heart and soul and so much time and research into that role, as I’m sure every role he ever played.  He just loved it and his love radiated as he performed. After that he never stopped greeting me as “my noble daughter”.

He often asked me about roles and told me which ones he thought I needed to do someday.  We also dreamed about doing a “reunion” of our West Side Story cast and performing the “middle aged” version of the show!  Can you imagine? He was so supportive of the arts and artists in Columbia and really worked to try and bring people together within the arts community.  He was a great example in that way.

Some of my favorite memories will be fighting over the Secretary of State parking place (after hours of course) in the parking lot next to Town Theatre; watching Will, Chris Kruzner, Bob Blencowe, and Bill Dewitt pal around together; the adventure of never knowing what might come out of his mouth on stage; the time he performed “With a Little Bit of Luck” with his fly down (and the comments that followed!); watching him engage my introverted husband in deep conversation; his encouragement to me in ministry opportunities I had; his willingness to be involved even if he was just lending a hand back stage; his passion for the marginalized; his intellect; his ability to gently and gracefully talk to those who disagreed with him on political, religious, or social issues; his openness to learn from others and to teach; his very recent visit to my daughter’s 3rd grade class and her new-found interest in her Cherokee heritage. 

I wish now that I had many more opportunities to talk to him.  To learn from him. There was still so much about him that I didn’t know. Certainly I wouldn’t claim to be one of Will’s closest friends, but I would call him a big brother.  Mi hermano. I will miss him.  The world will not be the same.

 

Two other bucket list roles Will achieved were the Engineer in Miss Saigon, and Clopin, the Gypsy King in Hunchback of Notre Dame, the latter becoming his last role on stage. Shirley McGuinness was in both productions with him at Town Theatre, and also knew Will from St. Peter's - few people knew that Will was actually raised Catholic, and still attended mass on occasion. She said:

There are faces around Columbia that remind you that even though this City is the State Capital, it really can be a small welcoming town if you are willing to open your heart, broaden your perspective and be willing to share an experience.  Such moments can be epic as sharing a stage, motivating as calling for justice at a rally or moving as holding a hand in prayer.  Will Moreau was one of those first faces for me.  Not only was he willing to share the story for anyone who took the time to hear, but he was an active listener and encourager of making sure your voice was heard

 

Former congressional candidate Arik Bjorn shared this:

I considered Will a mentor, which he perhaps did not realize. I wanted Will to be at every major rally and event in which I participated. His presence was a very blessing upon the cause, and his embrace an encouragement that I was headed on the right path. (Because he never would have hesitated to tell me otherwise.)

One of my favorite moments was at the recent Love Thy Neighbor rally at the SC State House, which I emceed. Just minutes before the rally began, “YMCA” by The Village People started playing over the speaker system. Will, in full Native American regalia, performed impromptu the familiar dance upon the State House steps, then a few minutes later gave a very inspiring, spiritual benediction about people helping people. Will was a “full spectrum” public figure.

 

"This is how we did it in the 80's, y'all," Will proclaimed with glee in that video clip. And indeed, when he appeared in a scene in The Producers at Workshop in which the ensemble turns up in Village People attire, one guess which member Will embodied.

 

Visual artist Faith Mathis posted this on Will's Facebook page:

I remember the first time I saw you, was at the International Festival when I was 13. I had felt discouraged to represent the USA, and chose instead to dress in Japanese kimono to represent my cousins, because my schooling had made me think the USA had no original culture to celebrate. I saw you... in full traditional Native dress, (and) you sang our national anthem, and everyone was silent because your voice moved people. I too, was moved. Your presence and voice not only brought a much needed awareness and understanding of Native peoples to our community, but also showed what pure forgiveness, and pride for one's heritage looked like, and influenced me to feel proud of Native ancestors I have, who helped the natural beauty of our land flourish. You helped us to never forget who we are by just being yourself, and we will not forget you.

 

Antara Brandner offered these thoughts to Will:

Our collective hearts are broken at losing you so soon.  You leave such a powerful legacy of loving kindness, compassion and inclusivity.  From your friends at Heathwood Hall and The Academy For Future Science, we thank you and offer up blessings on your ascent.  From the stars you came ... and to the stars you shall return.  Wado, beloved friend, Wado Sgi.

 

At a candlelight memorial service outside the Nickelodeon - the marquee read "Rest in Power, Dr. Will Goins" - Antara Brandner and Jean Asbill Chow spoke eloquently and with great emotion about Will's compassion and humanity.  The latter's daughter, Kelsey Asbille, auditioned with Will for her first role at Workshop Theatre before going on to a career in film and television, and credits him with welcoming her into the Columbia theater community. Her mother explained how supportive Will had been of her daughter's career, encouraging her to seek out Native roles in the film Wind River - which opened the most recent Native American Film Festival, and for which Asbille returned to town as the guest of honor - and in the upcoming tv series Yellowstone, and to explore her Native heritage further.  Will always explained to me that his tribe had no percentage blood test or requirement - if you were of Cherokee descent, then that was part of your heritage.          

I was only in one play with Will, for about 10 seconds, my "cameo" in Spamalot at Town Theatre in 2015. Yet while I was waiting backstage, I enjoyed hearing his outrageous ad-libs during the scene in which Sir Lancelot storms the swamp castle. Voices from offstage are supposed to be screaming in terror, and the mike leading to the speaker I was closest to seemed to always pick up Will's voice from among dozens, with every line he spoke dripping with double entendre. And once that candlelight vigil ended, we all became less serious, and acknowledged that for all his gentle compassion, Will Moreau was a very, very silly man. Colleague Frank Thompson plans to organize an event in his memory in the new year that will be one part memorial, one part wake, and two parts roast, only appropriate for such a funny and loving gentleman.

 

The official celebration of Will's life will be held the day after Thanksgiving; details can be found at: http://www.palmermemorialchapel.com/obituaries/William-Goins-4/.  

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to

The Will Moreau Goins Memorial Fund at Town Theater 

1012 Sumter Street, Columbia, SC 29201

or

St Peter’s School - Children’s Arts & Music Program in Honor of Dr. Goins

 1035 Hampton Street, Columbia, SC 29201

~~~

A sound clip of Will singing Amazing Grace in the Cherokee language can be found at:  https://knowitall.org/audio/amazing-grace-will-moreau-goins-digital-traditions

Will in regalia.   

Will in regalia.

 

will nick marquee.jpg

Rosewood Arts Festival, After the Rain, Celebrates 5th Year This Sunday, Oct. 25th

Tom Hall & the Plowboys performing at Rosewood Arts Festival by: Jasper Intern Jake Margle

After a necessary rain check, the Rosewood Arts Festival will be back at Rockaway’s this Sunday, October 25. Hurricane Joaquin may have put a damper on spirits, but with the return of the sun comes Columbia’s much-loved, family-friendly arts festival, back for its fifth year and better than ever.

This year’s festival will have all of the familiar elements that made past festivals such a hit. With around 100 artists booth expected to fill the Rockaway’s parking lot, there is sure to be an eclectic mix of work to view and purchase, all the while keeping the intimate feel that has put the Rosewood Arts Festival at the top of local arts supporter’s favorite annual events.

New for this year is a literary section set to feature 15 authors, including the work of Robert Ariail, a prominent political cartoonist whose work is featured regularly in The State.

The festival makes good on its promise to features artwork of all types. This year the Columbia Children’s Theatre will be performing Pinocchio, sure to keep those performing arts lovers in the crowd happy.

Festival regular and Lexington local “Abstract” Alexandra will be returning once again with her unique brand of contemporary paintings and sculptures. She’s been featured in the festival since its first year and is pleased to see it stick to its roots while also growing.

“I love how every year they get new collectors and performances to come,” she said. “There’s always something new to see.”

In five years the festival has grown steadily out of the single parking lot behind Rockaway’s, where they had just a few booths and one stage. The growth has been far from explosive, but Festival Director Arik Bjorn thinks that its small size is part of the allure.

“The point of the festival has always been to be a family-friendly, pro-artist, pro-patron festival,” Bjorn said. “We’ve got a community that really likes art. We’ve got Shandon right over here and other neighborhoods that really aid in that community feel.”

Patrons and artists alike benefit from the intimacy of the event. Entering a booth in the festival only costs the artist $30, less than half of what other festivals charge. The public pays nothing to enter, an aspect that Bjorn thinks inspires more people to attend and may increase the likelihood that they will purchase a piece.

“They do a very good job at organizing,” Alexandra said. “Artists, we’re marathon runners. We have to create the art and then set up this little retail outlet and fix that up, we do so much work already. Arik and all the volunteers pick up any slack and offer so much help, and that means a lot to the artist.”

The question on everyone’s mind is, will the festival expand past its current state?

“Oh no, it will always be here,” Bjorn said. There are plans to make room for more booths in the surrounding areas, but Rockaway’s will always be its home.

“We do this so artists can showcase their wares and make it worth their while,” Bjorn said. “We’re very content right now just to grow at the speed that we are.”

Music at the Rosewood Arts Festival by Annie Brooks

rosewood arts fest 2014 The Rosewood Arts Festival is a day of family friendly fun centered around the celebration of music and art. Hosted by Rockaway’s Athletic Club, the festival is in its fourth consecutive year. From 10 am to 6 pm there will be two stages featuring music from various genres. This year has gathered Chase Asmer, Dreher High School Chorale, Tom Hall and the Plowboys, the SC Philharmonic Orchestra Musicians, and the Tonya Tyner Trio. There will be something for every ear to enjoy.

Of the musical talents he has brought together to perform at the festival, creator Arik Bjorn said, “I know one thing, and that’s that this is the best group of Columbia musicians and entertainers you’re going to find in a single place on a single day this year.”

The various musical groups participating are just as passionate about the event.

The SC Philharmonic has been a returning presence to the festival. This year they will be represented by two small ensembles on either stage; a string quartet and a wind duo. Executive director Rhonda Hunsinger said, “We are excited that the SC Philharmonic has been a part of the Rosewood Arts Festival since its inception. The festival has done a wonderful job of making sure a wide variety of musical genres is represented, from contemporary to classical. The Festival gives the SC Phil a great opportunity to share classical music with the public, and introduce it to those who may not have ever attended an SC Phil performance.”

 

Tonya Tyner

This will be the second year that Tonya Tyner has played with a group for the festival. She is proud to be a returning artist to a festival that brings so many different components of the arts community together. Thrilled with the group she has joining her, Tonya will play guitar, along with Brodie Porterfield, and L.J. Errante on the mandolin. All of their songs are original and offer a folky bluegrass vibe. Tonya also offered that the festival is a great way to meet the artists and discuss their art.

 

It is not often that one is given access to such rich talent for no cost of admission. The Rosewood Arts festival is a wonderful opportunity to be submersed in local art and music. There will be entertainment all day with crafts, face painting, and good food as well. It is a free event cohosted by Rockaways Athletic Club and the Trenholm Artist Guild, held at Rockaways (2719 Rosewood Drive) on September 20th from 10 am to 6 pm.

 

Coloring the City: The Rosewood Arts Festival by Haley Sprankle

Artist - Justice Littlejohn Throughout history, art has defined culture.  Art exhibited the grandeur of empires and kingdoms, depicting their great struggles and triumphs.  Art evolved over time through different techniques and perspectives.  Art brought people together and encouraged community.

Four years ago, Arik Bjorn and Forest Whitlark spawned an idea to create an artistic festival that would bring the community together to celebrate local artists’ work, and so the Rosewood Arts Festival was born. “Our intent from day one has been to create a family-friendly, easily accessible arts festival, which is why we don’t charge admission and only charge a nominal fee for booth,” Bjorn says.

For many local artists, fees play a great deal into whether or not they can afford to showcase their work in festivals such as this one.  Fortunately, the low fees and the wonderful time of year creates the perfect environment for this festival.

Artist - Abstract Alexandria

“He [Bjorn] told me about it and I immediately thought it was a great opportunity for me to share my creations.  It’s the perfect time of year to be outside among so many talented folks from all creative outlets,” local painter Justice Littlejohn says.  “I am looking forward to being surrounded by so much creative energy and hopefully meeting some new friends.”

With over 100 different artists being featured in this festival, tremendous diversity is featured in the artwork.  Artist Sean McGuinness, or That Godzilla Guy, adds an eccentric twist to his photography by featuring Godzilla in his work. “My artwork is very eclectic, but it is also focused, unique, and enthusiastic.  I bring art appreciation through Godzillafication.  Whereas other artists use charcoal or paint, I use photography and toys,” McGuinness says.

Artist - Charles Hite

As art shapes and influences the community, the community also shapes and influences art.  Local photographer Charles Hite only began taking photos seriously around 2009 and gained an appreciation for the world around him. “Although I’ve seen a lot of changes around here, I’ve been guilty of rushing by things, not paying attention or taking things for granted. In the last 20 years or so, I’ve come to deeply realize we have beauty all around us, and I have a greater appreciation and contentment of my surroundings,” Hite says.  “I hope my photos will encourage people to take a pause, become curious and go out, and experience some of the beautiful and interesting places we have here in the Midlands and across our beautiful state.”

While some artists have hopes of prompting the community to be more involved or influencing the way they view their lives, painter Abstract Alexandra has simpler goals. “I hope my art will bring a bit of color and joy that others may hang on their wall and enjoy for years to come,” Alexandra says.

The festival is cohosted by Rockaways Athletic Club and the Trenholm Artists Guild and will be held at Rockaways (2719 Rosewood Drive) on September 20 from 10 am to 6 pm.  In its fourth consecutive year, the festival has more than doubled its featured artists, making more art directly available to the public while also allowing artists to put themselves out there.  Come on out to experience some color, live music, and great food!

The cast of "Commedia Snow White" tell all to intrepid reporter Kat Bjorn (age 6 and 1/2)

First Grader Kat Bjorn Interviews the Cast of Columbia Children’s Theatre Commedia Snow White

by Kat Bjorn (with some help from Papa)

Kat’s Papa:  Hey folks, technically this isn’t a review of Columbia Children’s Theatre’s latest production, Commedia Snow White (although visit Jasper early next week for just that - a review by Melissa Swick Ellington) but seriously, you have to see this show—even you adults without kids.  After all, there’s a dwarf named Truculent.  And Paul Lindley II (Punchin) performs several numbers from Cats.  And Anthony Harvey (Arlequino) gets stuck in an infinite regress watching himself as The Mirror.  And Elizabeth Stepp (Columbine) as that “Really Pale Brunette Girl” does cartwheels around Beth DeHart’s (Rosetta) smoking tan Evil Queen.  Also, Julian Deleon (Pantalone) has a Spanish pirate hat that belongs in a Captain Morgan commercial.

caption

Kat Bjorn:  Papa, shhh!!  I’m starting the interview now.

Papa:  Okay, time to turn into a transcriber.  Gotta go.  Seriously, see this show!

Jerry Stevenson, CCT Artistic Director:  How old are you now, Kat?  This is like your 30th interview.

Kat:  I’m six and a half.

Arlequino :  You seem old.

Kat:  I’m just tall for my age.  Who is your favorite dwarf and why?

Pantalone:  Effervescent.  No, Truculent.

Punchin:  Or did you mean the Disney ones?

Really Pale Brunette Girl (aka Snow White):  Dopey.  He’s got a purple hat.

Punchin:  Duck.

Kat:  Duck?

Punchin:  Duck!

[Entire Cast ducks.]

Kat:  Did you mean Doc?

Punchin:  Hee-hee.

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Kat:  If there were an 8th Dwarf, what would his or her name be?

[Kat whispers to Really Pale Brunette Girl (aka Snow White).] 

Really Pale Brunette Girl (aka Snow White):  Plumpy?

[Entire Cast exchanges looks with one another.]

Entire Cast:  Plumpy.

Evil Queen:  Hairy.

Kat:  If Snow White wears a yellow dress, why isn’t she Snow Yellow?

[Pause.  Laughter ensues.]

Kat:  What is Commedia dell’arte?

Really Pale Brunette Girl (aka Snow White):  Commedia dell’arte is a form of theatre that originated in Italy in the 1500s—

Punchin:  [in an outrageous Italian accent]  That’s why we have these outrageous Italian accents!

Really Pale Brunette Girl (aka Snow White):  Ahem.  All the characters are stock characters—

Pantalone:  We go great with soup!

Really Pale Brunette Girl (aka Snow White):  Sigh.

Pantalone:  I mean, I run the troupe!

Kat:  Next question.  My Papa said your Commedia dell’arte shows have lots of “ChapStick” comedy.  What does that mean?

Really Pale Brunette Girl (aka Snow White):  Something to do with Ruby Lip Smackers, I imagine.

Arlequino:  Did he mean “slapstick”?

Punchin:  I think she knows what she means.

Arlequino:  [standing]  You minda your own-a business!

Punchin:  [standing, grabs Arlequino’s nose]  No, you minda your own-a business!

[Arlequino roundhouses Punchin.]

Evil Queen:  I think you get the picture.

Kat:  Moving right along.  What’s the next project for the Spaghetti & Meatball players?

Jerry Stevenson:  Commedia Our Town!

Papa:  [to himself]  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Jr.

Kat:  I don’t remember seeing puppets at the Columbia Children’s Theatre before.  What was it like to work with puppets?

Pantalone:  Jerry and Jim have been using more and more puppets lately.

Arlequino:  Apparently they work for practically nothing and don’t complain about union violations.

Kat:  Guess my favorite part of the show.

[Entire Cast spends several hours guessing.]

Punchin:  [exhausted]  I give up…my excerpt from Godspell?

Kat:  When the Evil Queen was on fire.  I also liked it when Pantalone came and sat next to me.  I tickled him with my magic rose.

[Shameless Plug:  Bring $3 so your kid can buy a Magic Rose.]

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Kat:  Okay, last question.  What does the fox say?

Entire Cast:  Ring-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding! / Gering-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding! / Gering-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding!

Kat:  That’s a wrap!  Another slice of pizza, please!

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

Kat Bjorn is a rising first grader who loves Riverbanks Zoo and Fancy Nancy chapter book mysteries—and math, if you can believe it.

Commedia Snow White runs through June 22 with performances at the following dates and times:  Saturday, June 14 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.  Sunday, June 15 at 3 p.m.; Friday, June 20 at 8 p.m. (late night date night for grown-ups, with possibly a little more mature humor added in); Saturday, June 21 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Sunday, June 22 at 3 p.m. There are additional Thursday matinee performances at 10:30 a.m. on June 19, June 26 (sold out), July 10, July 17 and July 24. Tickets are $10 for adult and children 3 and up. Seniors & Military ticket prices are $8. Tickets are $5 for the Saturday 7 p.m. performance. The Columbia Children’s Theatre is located at the Second Level of Richland Mall, 3400 Forest Drive (corner of Beltline and Forest Drive) - or as they say in Forest Acres, over where the old S&S Cafeteria used to be. Enter the Second Level parking garage walkway and park in Level 2-L for easy access. Call 691.4548 for more information or to reserve tickets for groups. To learn more about Columbia Children’s Theatre , visit http://columbiachildrenstheatre.com/ .

 

The Play Within the Play Within the Padded Walls: Must-See "Hamlet" at Theatre SC - a review by Arik Bjorn

Artwork by Spenser Weeks

“Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad

would amount to another form of madness.”

~ Pascal, Pensées

There is one place, surely, that Hamlet does not belong—he, who, more than any other character in literature defines modern consciousness and consciences, and from whose troubled lips and bare bodkin tongue issue more coarsely-witted words-words-words than nary a cock can crow at a russet mantle morn.

And that place is a madhouse.

So, then, let us put him there and see what happens!

Costello and

Let us see if the Prince of Denmark, condemned to an asylum, can drive Ophelia sane.   Let us see if the play within the play within the padded walls of Elsinore makes madness into method.   Such is the daring spectacle that USC associate professor and director Robert Richmond has unveiled for audiences at USC 's Drayton Hall Theatre during the next two weeks (April 18-26), with the Theatre South Carolina season finale, Hamlet.

“You can do Hamlet in ruffles and codpieces, and in the right place, at the right time, it’s exactly the right thing to do,” explains Richmond in pres material.  “But—”

The former associate artistic director of the Aquila Theatre Company, who for the third time is venturing as director to the rotten kingdom of Denmark, need not say more.  Michel Foucault wrote in Madness and Civilization:  “On all sides, madness fascinates man.”  And that, theatergoers, is reason enough.

Reason enough to trade Elizabethan collars for head cages, doublets for straightjackets, Claudius’ throne for a wooden wheelchair.  Reason to transform the Globe Theatre stage into a fantastical sanitarium borne from the imagination of Terry Gilliam and Dante’s Inferno, complete with googly-eyed sock puppets and slide whistles.  Reason to fashion costumes that impossibly join the worlds of Mad Max and Foyle’s War (applause for MFA student costume designer April Andrew), plus soundscapes that magically transport audience members into an eerie Myst-like wonderland (kudos to sound designer Britt Sandusky).

Reason enough to cackle.  To roil.  To twitch.  To gambol in a clown nose.  Perchance to drool.

For four centuries, scholars and critics, actors and audiences, have toyed with Hamlet’s feigned madness—when all this time Shakespeare and other formidable authors like Joseph Heller (Catch-22) and Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) have simply been trying to tell us that while the world might be a stage, it’s also a nuts as knickers loony bin.  Despite civilization’s best efforts to segregate the sane from the insane, the outside world is itself one great big round Marat/Sade.

Throughout the profound experimental success of Richmond’s Hamlet, one is confronted with narrative dilemmas—which are intriguing even when they hit dead ends.  In a ruffle and codpiece Hamlet, all characters have readily-identified roles with respect to Claudius and Gertrude’s court.  But in an asylum Elsinore, the characters have fresh designations as either staff members or inmates.

I applaud Richmond’s choices.  Nearly every player is a detainee.  The few exceptions include Polonius, who, while traditionally played as a babbling pedant, here loosely is crowned warden of the nuthouse, Keeper of the Keys in bloodstained scrubs, and is played with Stanley-Tucci-Devil-Wears-Prada-butchery deft by second year MFA student Trey Hobbs.  Also, Horatio, played with staccato objectivity by second year MFA student Kate Dzvnonik, is a photojournalist of sorts granted unrestricted access to the Elsinore grounds.  Horatio’s camera is present throughout much of the production, recording all, occasionally changing hands, eventually finding Horatio again.

The two other staff members—perhaps it’s better to label them as malleable bureaucrats—are the under-the-radar characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who ultimately inherit Polonius’ key ring following his dinner date with the worms at the hand of Hamlet.  Once R&G exeunt for good, so do the madhouse keys, and with them all hope for Elsinore’s deranged population.  (I could write an essay just on that keychain.)

The experimental nature of Richmond’s production—which excels on every technical level (and for which assistant technical director Christine Jacky and Theatre SC Artistic Director Jim Hunter deserve umpteen accolades)—forces interesting re-readings.  For instance, Claudius might be King of Denmark, but he is no less an inmate than McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Yet in sanitarium Hamlet, Claudius is freed from his normal role as an immobile agent of fratricide, and stalks the stage as a ferocious tattooed sociopath, played expertly and with Hannibal Lecter energy by guest artist and Royal Academy of Dramatic Art-trained actor Richard Sheridan Willis.

James Costello and Laurie Roberts; photo by Jason Ayer

On the other side of the re-reading spectrum, the character of Ophelia has less definition in unhinged Hamlet.  Though played masterfully by second year MFA student Laurie Roberts in full spectrum mania descent, from mop bucket shampoos to sock puppet solos, Ophelia’s familial connection to the warden Polonius (and this goes for Laertes too) as well as her romantic association with Hamlet are somewhat difficult to map.

Even the audience itself has a renewed role.  While Horatio’s camera might serve as a metaphorical Panopticon (defined as a circular prison with cells arranged around a central well, from which prisoners could at all times be observed), it is the individual in the seat who truly serves as Denmark’s omnipresent surveillor, free to judge all players as well as Hamlet’s stability.  This makes for intriguing penetrations of the fourth wall, as each soliloquy can be interpreted as a character staring into the inviolable lens of a security camera and communicating one-way with an unseen master.

(As an aside—and be honest, you want to know—I was disappointed in the obvious quality of Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” speech, as played to the Panopticon, but was mesmerized by the “what a piece of work is man” monologue, played roughly in the same manner.  Another interesting turn of the experiment.)

James Costello; photo by Jason Ayer

And, finally, we come to the title character.  Second year MFA student James Costello is the most talented USC student actor I have seen since Demetrios Troy.  One has few opportunities to play Hamlet, but you would have to look to James Earl Jones’ King Lear or Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus to find an actor pour more energy and intent into a role.  Costello’s Prince of Denmark, more Mel Gibson than Kenneth Branagh, also is reminiscent of Brad Pitt’s Jeffrey Goines in Twelve Monkeys:  one minute lucid, then instantly flipping to apoplectic possession at the hands of the Scarecrow-Sock Monkey Ghost.  Whether comically turning a book into a flying birdie or grappling in blood sport chains with Laertes, Costello has complete control of the Panopticon—the mark of any successful Hamlet, and well worth the price of admission itself.

Well, almost finally.  I want to give a lexical standing ovation to every member of the Theater SC technical crew who helped turn the stage itself into a memorable character.  From the human cage vents to the trap door maws, not since The Muppet Show has a stage been so anthropomorphic.  Elsinore herself lives and breathes.  Achtung!

Director Richmond’s Hamlet is a superlative example of educational theater and in my opinion is the first absolute-must-see production in Columbia since he directed Elephant’s Graveyard at Trustus Theatre.  Every flaw is forgivable and quickly forgotten—even the exclusion of the minor character Fortinbras, who to my mind is as structurally critical to Hamlet as Hecate is to Macbeth.  Alas.

I have never seen a Shakespeare production that so consciously reminds me that all of its voices originated in one single human mind.  My ultimate reading of Richmond’s experiment is that Hamlet, in the right light, exposes the mad, mad, mad, mad, sane mind of one William Shakespeare.

As Harold Bloom once wrote, “All that matters is Hamlet’s consciousness of his own consciousness, infinite, unlimited, and at war with itself.”

What a piece of work is a man!   The paragon of animals!

Yet, also: A beast. No more.

~ Arik Bjorn

 

Hamlet at USC's Drayton Hall Theatre runs April 18-26.  Show times are as follows:  Friday, April 18: 8 pm; Saturday, April 19: 7 pm; Wednesday-Friday, April 23-25: 8 pm; Saturday, April 26: 7 pm and 11 pm (half-price for late night performance).  There is no performance on Sunday, April 20 because of the Easter holiday.

Tickets are $18 for general public, $16 for USC faculty/staff, military and seniors 60+, and $12 for students.  USC Drayton Hall Theatre is located at 1214 College Street on the USC-Columbus campus (on College Street between Sumter and Greene Streets).  Call 803.777.2551 for more information or to reserve tickets.

To read more, visit:  http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/thea/2014/hamlet.html

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

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

c

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

Steinbeck would agree.

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

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

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

rockcity

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

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

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

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

~ Arik Bjorn

 

Rosewood Arts Festival -- by Deborah Swearingen

rosewood 2013 “Let’s start an arts festival.” These simple words came in the form of a bold proposal over drinks by local writer Arik Bjorn and Rockaways owner Forest Whitlark a little over three years ago. Out of this, a day filled with affordable artistic fun evolved.

The third annual Rosewood Arts Festival will be held Saturday, September 28th at 2719 Rosewood Drive, on the grounds of Rockaways, from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m.

Co-hosted by the Trenholm Artists Guild (TAG) and Rockaways Athletic Club, the festival features art in a variety of forms, including but certainly not limited to painting, jewelry, ceramics, and fabric art. As the festival has grown, more eccentric forms of art have been introduced. This year’s addition? Garbage art.

“Our vision has always been to have a neighborhood festival that benefits the artist,” said Bjorn, co-founder of the festival. For this reason, the Rosewood Arts Festival is affordable for vendors and free of charge for attendees.

Entertainment has always been integrated into the day, and this year, South Carolina Philharmonic Orchestra Musicians, the South Carolina Shakespeare Company, Tonya Tyner & Friends, Tom Hall & the Plowboys and several student groups are performing, along with a variety of other acts.

tom hall at rosewood

Competitions are held each year; one for best art and one for best booth but arguably the most well known – the Paint-A-Cheeseburger challenge. $150 is the going prize for the artist who can create the most impressive cheeseburger. In years past, painted cheeseburgers have been the only art form competing for the prize, but both gourd and ceramic cheeseburgers will be entering the mix this year.

The festival is sponsored by the City of Columbia, The State, Pepsi, US Foods, First Citizens Bank and Beverage South.

To find out more, visit “Rosewood Arts Festival” on Facebook.

-- Deborah Swearingen, Jasper Intern

Blond Ambition Collides with Chef Boyardee: The Commedia Rapunzel at Columbia Children’s Theatre (plus the return of celebrity guest blogger Kat Bjorn, age 5)

The Spaghetti and Meatball Players seriously need to get out of town—and take The Commedia Rapunzel with them.  And that’s not a bad thing.  Columbia Children’s Theatre should take this hair-raising (or rather, lowering) show on the Commedia dell’Arte road, and see if they can pull a Muppets Movie and make their way to writer-director Sam LaFrage’s transplant home with that little street you may have heard of, called Broadway. The Commedia Rapunzel is the funniest play I have seen in years.  If you don’t believe me, just ask the dozen or so adults who nearly passed out from laughter by the end of Friday night’s opening performance.  Of course, children will be asking their parents for weeks why they laughed so hard about lines about Judge Judy, Julie Taymor and Jennifer Tilly.  On the way home this evening, I started to explain to my daughter, Kat, about the opening scene from a faux production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, then thought better of it.  I told her that the scene was mostly a joke for the adults, and, yes, that was lemonade Martha kept throwing in George’s face.

Dramatic beat.

The veteran pasta players, which include the exceptionally talented Elizabeth Stepp, along with Bobby Bloom, Paul Lindley II and Beth DeHart, have become such a well-virgin-olive-oiled machine that Columbia residents are experiencing one of those moments that occur once in a generation in a community:  when a group of inspired artists have been together long enough to click on all cylinders and deliver high-performance aesthetics.  I’m not sure we can call the Spaghetti and Meatball Players an artist’s circle so much as a dramatic dumpling.  But the results are just as satisfying.

rapunzel

LaFrage rightly describes Commedia dell’Arte as allusional theatre.  In this second of his Columbia “princess plays” (last year was The Commedia Cinderella), he has taken the art of the allusion to the outer limits of dramatic writing.  It is as if he has figured out a way to freebase Cap'n Crunch, and share it harmlessly with children.  For minutes on end, jokes from one end of the pop culture spectrum to the other fly at the audience in Gatling gun fashion, with many yuks sailing straight over the heads of children audience members, yet plenty landing squarely all the same, and with enough rubber chicken and Scooby Doo/Keystone Cops chase scenes to make up for the rest.

Rapunzel (2)

As alluded above, take a moment before the show to tell your children that this production will bear no resemblance whatsoever to Tangled, or to any other semi-faithful production of the classic fairy tale of Rapunzel (which one of the Meatballers tells us is German for “corn salad”).  Eventually the story will wend its way to a damsel with distressed hair locked away in a tower by a surrogate mother witch with a penchant for organic farming and small business entrepreneurship, played with spot-on, quirky compassionate conjuring by Beth DeHart (Carolyn Chalfant will alternate in this role.)   Only the title damsel, played by Elizabeth Stepp (whose comic acting really deserves notice by some producer at Nickelodeon) has a singing voice akin to one of those epic fail American Idol teens—and for a few moments, the audience doesn’t feel too terribly bad about her predicament.

Bobby Bloom keeps the zaniness from descending into total abandon with multiple roles, including especially the Commedia narrator Pantalone.  He also nails the part of Prince Prometheus Phoo-Phoo Something-or-Other II, who, clad in Viking helmet and Japanese smoking jacket, settles in the end for a date night at Red Lobster with Rapunzel—which must be the 21st-century version of “happily ever after.”  Paul Lindley II and LaFrage team up in several dynamic duo roles, including two Glee-inspired snobby Mockingbirds, and the outrageously redneck Baker and Baker’s Wife.  And Ashlyn Combs is a great masked transition player in addition to her surprise “bet your bottom dollar” appearance.

As for technical accolades, LaFrage perhaps deserves even more credit for his sound design than writing; I cannot imagine how many painstaking hours he and Stage Manager/Sound Technician Erin Huiett must have spent producing dozens of perfectly timed audio gimmicks.  Last but not least, while the set design is lean (though the show is pleasingly prop heavy), I kept looking at the patchwork of appropriately-ragtag fabric that adorned the set, wondering to myself with a smile whether they had stolen the material from my Aunt Helga’s bloomer drawer or from her curtains.

While there are a few moments that might frighten tiny tots—there’s no getting around the fact that Commedia masks are going to tiptoe into some little ones’ dreams—I just cannot recommend The Commedia Rapunzel enough.  Columbia Children’s Theatre puts on great shows season after season, but they really have outdone themselves this time.  I’m fairly sure I laughed even more than my daughter—I’m still rolling from the reference to NBC’s “the more you know” PSA's.  (See CMT’s special adults-only date night performance on June 22!)  But my daughter’s attention was held captive for the full hour and a half by the frenetic fireworks of LaFrage & Co.  Still, though, I know it’s going to take me the better part of the weekend to explain why it was funny when one of the actors held up a placard of that great comic fallback Alf.

~ Arik Bjorn

 

And now: an exclusive Jasper interview with the cast!

 

The Cast of Rapunzel Lets Down Its Hair with Kat Bjorn

Kat Bjorn:  Mr. Sam [LaFrage, the director], Mr. Jim [Litzinger, CCT Managing Director] said you are from Camden, South Carolina.  Now you live in New York City, “the city that never sleeps.”  What is the difference between the two cities?

Mr. Sam :  Oh my, where do I begin?  New York is much bigger!  I think five families live in Camden.  But it’s bigger than Lugoff.  And there’s lots of theatre in New York.

The Cast of Rapunzel Lets Down Their Hair with Kat Bjorn (1)

KB:  Mr. Sam, Mr. Jerry [Stevenson, CCT Artistic Director, and portrayer of the character Toad on stage] said he directed you when you were in 8th grade.  Did he dress like Toad back then too?

Mr. SAM:  [silence.]  Um, no.  I don’t think so.  He cast me as Willy Wonka.

KB:  Can you spell Commedia dell’Arte?

Entire Cast:  C-O-M-M-E-D-I-A  D-E-L  A-R-T-E.

KB:  Two L’s!  You forgot the other L!

Mr. Bobby:  Yes, but it’s pronounced Arté.  Ar-tay.

[Kat’s Papa mentally plans a later home lesson on Italian vowel pronunciation.]

KB:  What is Commedia dell’Arte?

Mr. SAM:  It’s a type of theatre in Italy that started in the street.  Very physical comedy.  And it was one of the first times that girls were allowed to be in plays.

KB:  Mr. Sam, why did you write a play about Rapunzel?

Mr. SAM:  Mr. Jim and Mr. Jerry selected the play and asked me to write it.  I really enjoyed it.  But it’s a weird fairy tale.  I mean, a girl gets locked up in a tower!

KB:  Mr. Sam, you have written two plays in Columbia now about princesses.  Who is your favorite princess and why?

Mr. SAM:  The Little Mermaid.

KB:  [jumps up and down]  That’s my favorite princess too!

Ms. Elizabeth:  Mine was always Snow White.  We were both brunettes and pale.

KB:  Yeah, but what about the apple?

[Cast thinks deep thoughts about this.]

KB:  What is Rapunzel’s hair made out of?

Ms. Elizabeth:  Weave.  Horse hair.

KB:  That’s what my Papa said, but I didn’t believe him.

Papa:  See!  Sometimes I’m right.

KB:  How come in these kind of plays the actors talk to the kids, but not in some of the other plays at Mr. Jim and Mr. Jerry’s theatre?

Mr. Bobby:  [provides long exposition on the history of the fourth wall in dramatic form.]

Mr. Sam:  Actually—

[Mesmerized by Mr. Bobby’s disquisition, KB motions to Mr. Sam to zip his mouth.]

KB:  Rapunzel, in real life, what is the worst thing that ever happened to your hair?

Ms. Elizabeth:  I had long hair past my bottom when I was your age.  One night I fell asleep next to a rolly brush, and it got all caught up in my hair.  It took my aunt hours to undo it.

KB:  Ms. Elizabeth, if you take off your Rapunzel wig, will your hair be long like mine, short like Mr. Sam’s the director, or bald like my Papa’s?

[Ms. Elizabeth removes her wig and lets down her long hair.  KB and Cast climb it and exit stage left.]

 

Rapunzel runs June 14-23 with performances at the following dates and time:  Friday, June 14 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, June 15 at 10:30 a.m. & 2 p.m.; Sunday, June 16 at 3 p.m.; Friday, June 21 at 7:00 p.m.; Saturday, June 22 at 10:30 a.m. & 2 p.m.; and Sunday, June 23 at 3 p.m.  (Saturday, June 22 is a Special Late Night Date Night for adult kids at heart beginning at 9:00 p.m.  Doors open at 8:00.)  There will also be three special matinee performances for kids and adults on Thursday, June 27; Friday, June 28; and Thursday, July 18 at 10:30 a.m.  Tickets are $8 for adult and children 3 and up.  The Columbia Children’s Theatre is located at the Second Level of Richland Mall, 3400 Forest Drive (corner of Beltline and Forest Drive).  Enter the Second Level parking garage walkway and park in Level 2-L for easy access.  Call 691.4548 for more information or to reserve tickets for groups of 10 or more.  To learn more about Columbia Children’s Theatre , visit http://columbiachildrenstheatre.com/ .

 

 

 

 

An Ode to Toad, and a Dialogue with Frog: "A Year with Frog and Toad" - a Ribbiting Production at Columbia Children’s Theatre! Plus: the return of celebrity guest blogger Kat Bjorn (age 5)

If you only have time to read the first paragraph, let me make this simple:  unless you are the bride and groom in a wedding, or have the misfortune of attending your own funeral these next two weekends, move whatever scheduling mountains you must — no matter your age — to attend A Year with Frog and Toad at Columbia Children’s Theatre. Frog and Toad are sacred characters who define our contemporary storytelling selves, not just for children, but for parents and anyone else who later in life relearns the critical import of children’s tales.  Arnold Lobel’s kinetic Frog and sourpuss Toad, and their whimsical, parable adventures, have become for millions of readers a canonical definition of storybook friendship — perhaps no less important than Gilgamesh and Enkidu, only with a wee biteen more emphasis on tea and cookies.

Thus, one has to imagine that any children’s theatre approaches the staging of the groundbreaking 2003 musical adaptation of nine priceless vignettes from Lobel’s four Frog and Toad books with the gravitas of a classical company staging King Lear.  (For those unaware, the musical, commissioned by Lobel’s daughter, cracked the mainstream Broadway barrier after initial successful runs in Minneapolis and Off-Broadway.)  Indeed, this production was enough to draw Artistic Director Jerry Stevenson out from under the lily pads and onto the stage for his first main role since co-founding Columbia Children’s Theatre.  This alone is cause for celebration, as Stevenson nails every warty jot and tittle of Toad’s reluctant, crepe-hanger personality.  Given the adult audience members’ uniform delight in Stevenson’s performance, one sincerely hopes that he will consider lending his comedic and singing talents to other roles about town in the years to come.

One simply cannot heap enough praise onto the entire cast and crew for possibly pulling off the best children’s show in the history of our famously hot town, and the show I have most enjoyed attending since the legendary production of Ragtime at Workshop nearly a decade ago.  I still feel the warmth of theatrical mirth hours after the curtains closed, and I am sincerely jealous that my daughter, Kat (see interview with cast below), will have the opportunity to attend a second performance with her school next week.

Of particular thespian note, one must congratulate veteran children’s theatre actor Lee O. Smith for a frolicking, amphibian performance as Frog that seems to have been plucked from a Bing Crosby/Bob Hope “Road to” film.  Also, Elizabeth Stepp again demonstrates requisite talent in anthropomorphic animal roles, in particular as the crocheted-Mohawk Lizard; she brings such animation to her characters that at times one finds her nearly a full time zone ahead of anyone else on stage.  Finally, Paul Lindley II and his crisp voice nearly bring the show to a halt — literally — as the postal-laden Snail, who, inch by inch throughout, ties together all of the separate narrative threads.

While the Columbia Children’s Theatre stage itself may be humble (yet deserving of ‘amphi’-theatrical size), the company’s creative team really has outdone itself.  Jim Litzinger’s daisy-and-cattail, woodsy stage truly brings the storybook backdrop to life.  But the success of any show with animal characters hangs in the creative balance of its costumes, and the team of Stevenson and Donna Harvey seems to have raided with abandon Plato’s World of Forms for an abundance of imaginative ideas, from Frog and Toad’s outrageous argyle socks, to Turtle’s straw hat shell, to the umbrella puppets in the ghost story vignette, “Shivers.”  Then there’s Toad’s bathing suit, which out of respect for his metamorphic modesty, I shan’t discuss.

One final shout out is deserving of local face-painting artist, Sarah Dippity, who donated her time on opening night to turning dozens of kiddy faces into a colorful collage of butterflies, Darth Mauls, princesses, and Iron Man masks.

A reviewer knows that he cannot cash the following chip lightly:  I really cannot think of a time I have enjoyed myself more in a Columbia theatre.  More importantly, I know that my five-year-old daughter and dozens of other children on Friday night felt precisely the same way.

One final word:  Go.  Or as Snail might put it:  Escargot.

~ Arik Bjorn

Kat Bjorn’s Interview with Frog & Toad

 

KB:  Why is it “frog and toad” and not “toad and frog”?

Toad:  Alphabetical order.  I’m pretty sure “F” comes before “T.”

[cast sings “the alphabet song” in somewhat accurate fashion—amazingly so, in fact, for a group of minimally-educated woodland creatures.]

KB:  I picked up a toad once, and it felt lumpy-bumpy.  Toad, are you lumpy-bumpy?

Toad:  Definitely.  Definitely lumpy-bumpy.

KB:  How did you come up with your Frog voice and your Toad voice?

Toad:  That is my default Cowardly Lion voice.

Frog:  I obsessively watched the TV show “Frasier.”

KB:  [coughs]  What’s it like to be amphibians?

Toad:  It’s very convenient when traveling.

Frog:  Absolutely.  Over land and water.  Very handy.

KB:  In the story “Cookies,” we don’t know what kind of cookies they are.  Are they bug and fly cookies?

Bird:  The song is very clear.  They are Marvelous Cookies.

Snail:  With a touch of honeysuckle nectar, I think.

Lizard:  And mealworms.  Ooh, yeah.  Yum, yum.  Mealworms.

KB:  That is disgusting.  Next question.  In the story “Spring,” why did Frog trick Toad with the calendar pages?

Frog:  What?!  I didn’t trick him!

KB:  [coughs; clears throat]  Yes you did!  And you threw it in the fireplace!

Toad:  You tricked me, Frog?!  You owe me a calendar.  I’m not speaking to you again.

KB:  In the story “A Swim,” how does a turtle sound when it laughs?  Turtles don’t make sounds!

[cast is stumped.  sound of non-equity crickets.]

KB:  In the story “The Letter,” why didn’t Frog just deliver the letter himself instead of giving it to Snail?

Toad:  We were in desperate need of an 11 o’clock number.

Snail:  And I delivered!

KB:  [coughs]  Last question.  Have Frog and Toad known each other since they were tadpoles?

Toad:  [points to a portrait on the wall]  We’re related, actually.  Those are our ancestors in the painting “American Frog-thic.”

Frog:  Say, that’s quite the cough you have there, kid.

KB:  I know.  I have a frog in my throat.

Frog and Toad runs February 8-17 with performances at the following dates and time:  Friday, February 8 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, February 9 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Sunday, February 10 at 3 p.m.; Friday, February 15 at 7:00 p.m.; Saturday, February 16 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; and Sunday, February 17 at 3 p.m.  Tickets are $8 for adult and children 3 and up.  The Columbia Children’s Theatre is located at the Second Level of Richland Mall, 3400 Forest Drive (corner of Beltline and Forest Drive).  Enter the Second Level parking garage walkway and park in Level 2-L for easy access.  Call 691.4548 for more information or to reserve tickets for groups of 10 or more.  To learn more about Columbia Children’s Theatre , visit http://columbiachildrenstheatre.com/ .

A Poor Man’s Götterdämmerung (God bless you!) or Everything You Ever Needed to Know About Wagner from Fools in Thule - Arik Bjorn reviews Das Barbecü

  Somebody somewhere - probably with the encouragement of a little Schnapps - declared 2013 “The Year of Richard Wagner.”  And this wasn’t even an article in The Onion.  For this reason, opera companies and classical orchestras the world over have been scrambling to place the greatest of German composers on their season schedules.  This includes Opera at USC, which for its part has chosen to bless our community with a three-night performance beginning Friday, February 1, of Das Barbecü, a best-lil’-Ragnarök-in-Texas reworking of the fourth opera of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Götterdammerüng.

 

There are more than a handful of Wagner enthusiasts none too pleased to witness the canonical characters Siegfried and Brünnhilde hogtied and dragged to a dusty, smokehouse world of armadillos and Dallas pompadours.  (For this we can credit Seattle Opera General Director Speight Jenkins, who commissioned the work in 1991 in order “to counteract the heaviness of the Ring.”)  Then again, those who find Das Barbecü an irreverent toying with Wagner’s Ring Cycle might themselves wonder how the immortals of Asgard felt when Wagner lifted and rearranged so many elements from the Norse Eddas.  Stick that in your Texas crude and smoke it, Herr Komponist.

When asked why she chose this of all possible Wagner (or quasi-Wagner) showcases, director Ellen Schlaefer (also the director of Opera at USC) admits that “it’s fun and midwinter.”  She pauses to consider the fact that a Columbia winter does not exactly threaten the leaves of Yggdrasil with hoarfrost.  She explains that USC opera students have their own matriculating cycle:  during the course of their studies, students get performance shots at a Mozart opera, an operetta, and a musical.  (Over this year, community members have the opportunity to see Opera at USC perform Copland’s The Tender Land, the baseball opera Bambino, and Don Giovanni.)  Thus, the planets were simply aligned to fit into the worldwide Wagner celebration with a fun musical.

Schlaefer also notes that it is not necessary to know Wagner’s Ring Cycle in order to enjoy the performance.  While that is the case, to my mind, it actually works the other way around.  Das Barbecü could become the quintessential Wagner primer for 21st-century theatregoers.  After all, Götterdämmerung is not the easiest tale to follow, especially if you do not have the time to read the complete works of Snorri, nor to learn German.  There are Norns, rings of fire, various personages from Valhalla, plus two fairytale lovers Siegfried and Brünnhilde.  Oh, and there’s a Ring of Power which every character seems determined to possess - yet instead of a Gollum, there is a sniveling, greedy dwarf named Alberich.  In fact, what audience members quickly realize is there are more characters in this tumbleweed plot than you can shake a horny toad at — yet only a handful of actors.  For the innumerable costume and character transitions, the cast, led by long-time Columbia musical veteran Stann Gwynn (as Wotan, Gunther, et al.) and USC student Jared Ice (as Siegfried, Dwarf, et al), plus stage manager Kaley Smith, are due copious accolades.

The show is replete with just about every honkytonk stereotype in the book, including requisite songs about guacamole and hails to the great Lone Star State.  About halfway through the performance, the thought dawned on me that perhaps every literary stage epic should be rewritten with a Texas backdrop.  I would love to see Les Mis with a storming of the UT-Austin bell tower, or Tevye in a ten-gallon hat.

Truly deserving of praise is scenic designer Teddy Moore, who has turned the stage of Drayton Hall into a sprawling, ocher, bourbon bottle label, with cartoonesque backdrops and set pieces that play like candy to the eye during scene changes.  Equally pleasant are the splendid singing voices of the quartet of female actresses, Shelby Sessler, Christa Hiatt, Stephanie Beinlich, and Jordan Harper (Brünnhilde), as well as the live musical student performances directed and joined by USC faculty member Rebecca Phillips.  A final note of thespian praise goes to the aforementioned Ice, who plays the entire role as Alberich the Dwarf in a bent-knee-catcher position, which left my 40-year-old knees wincing all night long.

Asgard & Co. do not make rounds to Columbia very often.  I highly recommend a trip to the USC campus this weekend for a Lone Star/Valhalla hoedown.  You will laugh to beat the barbecue band, and then can brag to all your friends that you too participated in the great Global Wagner-Fest of 2013.

Das Barbecü runs February 1-3 at Drayton Hall on the University of South Carolina campus.  Drayton Hall is located at the corner of Greene and Bull Streets.  The February 1 and 2 performances are at 7:30 p.m.  The February 3 performance is at 3:00 p.m.  Performances are $5 for students, $15 for seniors/USC faculty & staff/military, and $20 for other adults.  For tickets, please call:  803.777.5369.  To learn more about Opera at USC, visit them on Facebook.

~ Arik Bjorn

 

A String Lesson in Compassion: A Review of "Beauty and the Beast" at Columbia Marionette Theatre by Arik Bjorn

On the heels of the Columbia Marionette Theatre’s technically and visually stunning production of Hansel and Gretel comes another tale of dark forest puppetry straight from the classic fairytale canon:  Beauty and the Beast. There is hardly a child alive—or adult for the matter—who associates this children’s fantasy with anything other than Disney’s bookworm Princess Belle and the behemoth Beast, which seems inspired from a Klingon on steroids.  About the only original concept Mickey Mouse & Co. retained in its animated film are the mid-eighteenth-century French origins of the story.  CMT artistic director Lyon Forrest Hill and writer-director John Scollon once again reclaims the forgotten origins of timeless children’s storytelling, and with a few musical numbers of their own, remind us that La Belle et la Bête is first and foremost a moral tale—not a song and dance routine with perfect pitch, jazz hands silverware.

Well aware of the attention span of the average tot, Scollon perfectly condenses the tale of the selfish, spellbound prince and the selfless merchant and his daughter into a perfect hour of weekend entertainment.  On a proverbial dark and stormy night, a prince, expecting his latest noblematch.com date at the palace door, instead comes face-to-face with an old hag whom he refuses to grant shelter.  The hag reveals her magical self, and converts the nobleman into a pectoral-heavy satyr, and his footman Radcliffe into a cheese-mongering, pudgy rodent, now Ratcliffe.  In this state they will remain until the master of the estate learns a life-changing lesson about compassion.  (At this point, parents are wishing this would actually happen to most hedge fund managers.)

Meanwhile, a woebegone merchant “in a nearby neck of the woods” receives a singing telegram from a seaman informing him that his poverty has come to an end:  his ship, the S.S. Porcupine, has finally docked at port laden with foreign goods.  The merchant’s daughter, Grace, asks her father to pick out the entire Tiffany catalog on his journey to claim his fortune.  The more modest daughter, Beauty, expresses that she will be content with just a single rose.  That rose, of course, becomes the crux upon which Beauty will eventually sacrifice herself, becoming an indentured guest in her entrapped father’s place at the Beast’s enchanted castle.  Finally, the prince learns his lesson about judging others by their outward appearance, and is allowed to trade his hooves for his feet, and gets a storybook wedding ending, to boot.  (Could there possibly be a more relevant 21st-century fairytale—even for hedge fund managers?)

The production is replete with technical highlights that will delight both children and adults, including an abracadabra buffet table and vanity, a sartorial dance number with dazzling gowns, and the magical prince portrait behind which the beast both conceals and reveals himself to those who dare enter his domain, and which is a critical leitmotif children will later encounter in every 1930s horror movie and episode of Scooby-Doo.  While the beast is a truly delightful feat of puppetry monstrousness, CMT should be even more proud of its Beauty creation; she is the spitting image of a young Kim Basinger.   CMT always puts as much creative effort into designing its sets as it does its marionettes; of note are set painter Carolyn Merkel’s Osiris-eye stain glass windows and swirling blue-green forest backdrop, as well as the miniature castle model and character figurines which maintain kiddie attention spans during set changes.

Beauty and the Beast is a must-see show for parents seeking an affordable, high-quality entertainment option on weekends this spring.  The show also provides an open door for parents to teach their children “the real” fairytale classics.  And remember:  Columbia Marionette Theatre provides field trip and birthday party options for larger groups of children.  CMT is an arts community jewel and once again has earned our support.

Beauty and the Beast runs until March 16 with performances every Saturday at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.  Tickets are $5 per person.  Children under 2 are free!  The Columbia Marionette Theatre is located at 401 Laurel Street (corner of Huger and Laurel).  Call 252.7366 for more information or to reserve party space for your little ones.  To learn more about Columbia Marionette Theatre, visit www.cmtpuppet.org .

Special note to parents:  There is something important about the soft edge of darkness and fear of marionette theatre.  Stringed puppet shows are no less a rite of childhood passage than roller coasters and midway funhouses.  But as parents, we sometimes forget that the diminutive marionettes are as large as, or larger than, the little audience members sitting segregated from adults in the first few rows.  As a suggestion, if you are bringing your little one to CMT for the first time, it would not be a bad idea to arm him or her with a little penlight or an open hand for comfort during the first few minutes.  Fret not:  your child will quickly become an audience veteran and become engrossed in the narrative.  Yet thinking about this in advance may help to avoid disturbing other children trying to follow the show closely.

~ Arik Bjorn

 

 

Sunday in the Park with Jane (& other Quirky Manners of the Landed Gentry) - Arik Bjorn reviews "Pride & Prejudice"

Though American society seems to have disposed itself entirely of formal introductions, carefully-constructed speech, and scripted courtships, we remain obsessed with British mannerisms.  As if popular shows like Downton Abbey and all of the other series tossed to us across the pond via Masterpiece Theatre were not evidence enough, there seems to be a revival of 19th-century British literature, as theatre.  Every week one sees a new Hollywood film, miniseries, television show, and even detective series inspired by the works of the Bronte Sisters, Jane Austen, George Eliot and the like. South Carolina Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Linda Khoury agrees:  “We are Anglophiles at heart.  And there’s this Jane Austen fever at the moment.  When we asked Company members about whether or not to do Pride & Prejudice this season, they said, ‘Oh my God, Mr. Darcy!  Yes!’”

The works of Jane Austen seem to be everyone’s current favorite landed-gentry flavor; the stage adaptation of Pride & Prejudice by playwright and former Actors Theatre of Louisville Artistic Director Jon Jory has been staged by a number of classical theatre companies across the country in recent years.  At first, this fact might seem incongruous:  why would classical theatres be attracted to a story seemingly imprisoned within a 19th-century manor and its well-groomed grounds?  Yet when one rolls an Austen novel onto the stage, what one finds is something closely resembling Shakespeare’s romantic comedies—only refreshingly absent multiple pairs of separated twins wandering about Asia Minor looking for one another.

In fact, halfway through the SC Shakespeare Company’s production of Pride & Prejudice, the thought occurred to me that the pompous clergyman Mr. Collins—played with impeccable comedic timing by veteran Columbia actor George Spelvin—was just one pair of yellow stockings and crossed garters short of a Malvolio.  This is the kind of character determination one gets from “seeing” an Austen novel rather than reading it.  The same is true with a number of other characters; for instance, Elizabeth Bennet, the axis upon which the tale’s many love stories turn, and with whom theatre patrons are likely to fall for thanks to a wonderful performance by the lovely Katie Mixon, is really just a slightly less histrionic, though equally stubborn, version of Shakespeare’s Beatrice.

Of course, one gets a bit more black box production value with a show in the park.  There are no panorama shots of the Hertfordshire countryside, nor horse-drawn carriages—although I will admit that watching local thespian hoot Clark Wallace as Mr. Gardiner pretend to guide an imaginary carriage horse is, at times, far more entertaining than anything BBC could deliver.  And one never knows what surprises lay in store for a live show at Finlay Park—from remote-control airplanes making cameo appearances to gospel choirs suddenly breaking into jubilant song across the way, to a pair of hobo wayfarers wandering across the stage.  Then again, one might also behold the serendipitous timing of a local church bell ringing just as Mr. Bingley steals a kiss from Elizabeth’s sister, Jane.

Sometimes in set design, simplicity says everything, and one must applaud set designer Lee Shepherd for presenting the Britain of two centuries ago with two principal pieces:  a pair of monumental lattice windows through which we metaphorically peak into the lives of the Bennet family, and a pair of matching staircases to represent their leisurely, gentlemanly and gentlewomanly lives.  Yet nothing is simple about the period costume work of Alexis Doctor (profiled in the Jasper 006 cover story) ; she provides sumptuous costumes which help the actors and patrons alike fall backward naturally in time.

The story of Pride & Prejudice is well-known; however, if there is a gap in your knowledge of world literature, simply know that Mr. & Mrs. Bennet of Meryton, Hertfordshire, near London, have five daughters of marrying age, whom must wend their way through the labyrinth of British customs and breeding to find satisfactory mates—and do whatever it takes to avoid marrying Clergyman Collins.

There are many fine performances in the production in addition to the work of Spelvin and Mixon.  Every Austen story needs its somewhat feather-headed parents:  Alfred Kern delivers a delightful performance as Mr. Bennet, played perfectly like Jim Broadbent on Prozac; and Ruth Glowacki as Mrs. Bennet keeps the audience tittering with her “a’ plenty palpitations.”  All of the Bennet daughters are well cast to their respective personalities, but one especially delights in the ‘poo-poo’ naughtiness of the scandalous youngest daughter, Lydia, played by Sirena Dib.  Sting lookalike Tracy Steele provides a complex portrayal of the strong-yet-meek Mr. Bingley, and Sara Blanks plays his strident, gossiping sister, Caroline Bingley, with equal solidity.  And Mrs. Gardiner is played by local attorney Raia Hirsch, who returns to the stage after many years, having not skipped a theatrical beat.

Last but not least, one must present a standing ovation to Company Stage Manager, Paula Peterson, whose work and dedication to the Shakespeare Company, as well as to many other Columbia community and professional theatre productions over the years, deserves accolades and recognition.  One simply cannot understand the mind-bending machinations required to stage a live production out-of-doors—let alone a show where the backstage is actually an island with a watery moat.

The SC Shakespeare Company recently participated in Cheer from Chawton, a one-woman show about the life of Jane Austen that was performed at USC’s Drayton Hall in September.  In the show, one learns that Austen’s own childhood was spent entertaining her family with “little theatricals,” so perhaps the great author herself would delight in seeing her two-century-old popular tale brought to life on stage.

As director Khoury explains, it makes sense for the Shakespeare Company to do just so for a fellow British storyteller:  “Austen is a complement to the Bard.  They both distill everything through characterization.  And, of course, Austen has that certain sense and sensibility.”

~ Arik Bjorn

Pride & Prejudice runs throughout October in the Finlay Park Amphitheatre with performances on October 17-20 and October 24-27 at 7:30 p.m.  Performances are free!  If you would like to reserve group seating, plus call:  803.787.BARD.  Finlay Park is located in downtown Columbia, on the block bounded by Assembly Street, Laurel Street, Gadsden Street, and Taylor Street, behind the main post office.  (The amphitheater is on the Laurel Street side.)  To learn more about the South Carolina Shakespeare Company, visit www.shakespearesc.org or visit the Company’s Facebook page.

 

 

"Hansel & Gretel" at Columbia Marionette Theatre: A Sweet Artistic Triumph - a Review by Arik Bjorn

Dorothy Parker once reviewed a play that was so incompetent in all aspects, that she decided to leave most of her newspaper column space newspaper blank, stating that the production did not even deserve typeset words.  Nothing could be more opposite with respect to deserved accolades than Columbia Marionette Theatre’s latest production, Hansel & Gretel.  Artistic Director Lyon Hill has created something so phenomenal and unique that I was tempted to write the entire review in 100-point font.  However, recognizing that giant block letters might not be a preference for the average online reader, I will offer a single, megalithic, lexical frieze to frame my review:

 HANSEL & GRETEL IS A MONUMENTAL MARIONETTE CREATION!

TAKE EVERYONE YOU KNOW TO GO SEE IT!

As I have written in previous reviews, what I appreciate most about the CMT mission — and executive direction John Scollon should be applauded for this — is that it eschews the glamourized, Walt Disney fairytale and clings to the tried-and-true philosophy of edge-of-your-seat, Grimm storytelling.  And what better tale to present (especially in the month of hobgoblins and pumpkins) than one which seems to have been universally ignored by the animated children’s fantasy industry:  Hansel & Gretel.

My four-year-old daughter Kat plied me with questions about the story on the way to the theatre; she had never even heard the title.  The only factoid I would let slip is that there was likely to be a house made out of candy.  As one can imagine, that was enough to set her imagination’s hook.  But not even I was prepared for the sumptuousness of what CMT had prepared for patrons of all ages.

Upon crossing the dragon’s head threshold, even theatregoers who have attended multiple CMT productions will immediately realize there is something unique about this production.  A large, curved film screen covers center stage, and there is something oddly cartoon-esque about the set.  This was intentional; director Hill drew expertly on the classic black-and-white animation of the Fleischer Brothers (Betty Boop, Popeye, Koko the Clown) as inspiration for his set and marionette characters.  This is especially telling in the rounded qualities of the puppet faces, and in their oblong eyes; in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen marionettes which seemed so eerily alive.

Hansel and Gretel deep in the forest

The show begins with an immediate departure from the traditional Hansel & Gretel tale.  Both the poor woodcutter and his wife absolutely adore their children.  The reason for this welcome twist may be that Hill wrote the story as a special dedication to his young son, Oliver.  A dreaded wood filled with ghosts and boy-eating witches is one thing, but no child should have to endure the added torture of an abusive stepmother.  Yet despite being the candied apples of their parent’s eyes, there’s only so much roasted boot a la tongue any child can endure.  Following Hansel’s retelling of ‘The Tale of the Three Thieves’ — in which the stage is expanded with computer animation, and puppeteers Cooper Hill, Payton Frawley and Lyon Hill enthrall the audience with precisely-timed shadow puppetry — audience members soon find themselves in familiar territory:  at play in the field of the pastry-bread home with strawberry shortcake shutters.

 

A reviewer really could wax on and on about this spectacular production.  Like the professional marionette stages in Prague, this is a show that adults without children would thoroughly enjoy.  And I truly hope that other marionette professionals around the region and nation take the opportunity to travel to Columbia to witness what is without a doubt the crowning work to date by Lyon Hill and CMT’s very talented crew.  The production also boasts an incredible original score in the vein of a Woody Allen soundtrack by David Drazin, as well as the aforementioned original animation by Wade Sellers and Jeffrey Shroyer, and the vocal talents of local actors Kevin Bush and Jenny Mae Hill.

Hansel, Gretel and Witch

My personal favorite puppet moment was the skeleton whose bones magically dislocate and reassemble during a Fred Astaire song-and-dance number.  I also loved the owl puppet set high aloft the stage as introductory narrator; I hope the owl becomes a mainstay character for future CMT productions.  (Perhaps call him Owlistair Cooke.)  Another ingenious creative choice was making the witch a haggy vulture, whose appetite for human flesh is a bit easier for children to swallow, given her carrion nature; that, and it’s a tad easier to stomach watching a bird get its just desserts by being cooked in an oven than a humanoid figure.

At one point, Hansel describes the treasure of the three thieves — upon which the brother and sister pin their hopes to save their family from poverty — as so valuable that it cannot be named.  Without a doubt, our city is home to such a valuable treasure for children’s storytelling, yet it has a name:  Columbia Marionette Theatre.  And I can only conclude in the way in which I began:  Hansel & Gretel is unlike any show CMT has ever staged; whether child or adult, you are in for an extraordinary storytelling treat.

 TAKE EVERYONE YOU KNOW TO GO SEE IT!

~ Arik Bjorn

Hansel & Gretel runs until December 29 with performances every Saturday at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.  Tickets are $5 per person.  Children under 2 are free!  The Columbia Marionette Theatre is located at 401 Laurel Street (corner of Huger and Laurel).  Call 252.7366 for more information or to reserve party space for your little ones.  To learn more about Columbia Marionette Theatre, visit www.cmtpuppet.org .

NOTE: Tuesday Oct. 9th, from 6:00 to 8:00 PM, there will be a special event in the Hallway at 701 Whaley showcasing The Art of Hansel and Gretel by Lyon Forrest Hill. Get a glimpse inside Columbia Marionette Theatre's production of Hansel and Gretel. This exhibit features conceptual art including sketches, character designs and prototype marionettes by Lyon Forrest Hill. Deliciously evil treats provided by Jenny Mae Hill. Details can be found at http://www.facebook.com/events/188415467960730/

Goodnight Moon at Columbia Children’s Theatre: An Udderly Mush-See Lunar Odyssey - A review by Arik Bjorn (plus a special interview with the cast by guest blogger Kat Bjorn, age 4)

Doubtless I am one of millions of parents who have read aloud Margaret Wise Brown’s classic bedtime tale, Goodnight Moon, at the conclusion of a marathon parenting day in soft, poetic fashion, a nocturne prelude to my child’s sojourn into sleep.  Our interpretations were all wrong; my eyes have now seen the moonlight thanks to writer Chad Henry and Columbia Children’s Theatre (CCT) artistic director Jerry Stevenson.  Instead, the cute gray Bunny, tucked under the green blanket and played with exquisite, thumping animation by Paul Lindley II, is no less a precocious daydreamer than Maurice Sendak’s Max.

Why we parents were so easily duped remains a mystery.  After all, what child’s bedroom is replete with a fireplace, telephone, tiger skin rug and 19th-century French mantel clock?  Parental instinct should have told us something was going on.

Transferring a timeless, if not somewhat abstract, classic children’s story into an engaging musical is a daunting theatre challenge.  (I would rather be charged with turning Coriolanus into a ballet.)  But foremost props—pun intended—should be lavished upon the CCT set design team of Jim Litzinger, Patrick Faulds, Donna Harvey & Co.  Immediately upon entering the auditorium, one is presented with a vibrant, life-size mirror image of illustrator Clement Hurd’s nocturnal bedroom world.  By the time the metaphorical curtain rises, patrons of all ages are convinced they are inside the pages of a cosmos where all the universe’s inanimate objects are accorded equal rights to a kind goodnight.  So well-crafted is this stage that neither children nor adults suspect that it is about to spring to life, including choreographed argyle socks, gyrating lampstands, trap door frames, literal clock faces, prankish blankets, and an anthropomorphic telephone that scared me into thinking it was a green version of comedian Carrot Top.

For every child, hare or human, bedtime is a diurnal odyssey in which the 60-minute period between hitting the sack and falling asleep leads to under-the-covers-flashlight adventure—no matter how many times Old Lady Bunny appears to operatically croon, “HUSH!”  While parents are pleasantly amused by the night-time imagination of Bunny, every child in the audience will likely consider the events on stage a familiar evening occurrence in his or her bedroom.  What’s so unusual about wall pictures coming to life and breaking into a Fosse chair and tap number?  Or dolls in the dollhouse crying out to their master?  Or a hula-hooping mouse?

The between-the-lines key to every successful children’s show in this genre is of course a sufficient number of adult-targeted puns and slapstick gags—of which this show has no shortage, thanks to the cross-dressing antics of Lee O. Smith as a hirsute bovine and balding tooth fairy.  Another key is an audience filled with children who could care less about the cache of candy their parents have lavished upon them, because they are so eager to behold what happens next.  Several times I surveyed the throng of crisscross applesauce-seated children and saw nothing but riveted eyes.

Other performances of note include Elizabeth Stepp as the Bronx vaudevillian “ya-da-da-da-da” Dog; Anthony Harvey and Hannah Mount as the playful Kittens-turned-tap dancing Musical Bears; and Evelyn Clary as the Mouse, which my four-year-old daughter could not stop talking about until her head hit the pillow; then again, her name is Kat.

Director Stevenson once again regales us with a children’s play which is a worthy venture for every Columbia family in the next few weeks—only this time, he has demonstrated a bit of literary magic, proving that every story, even the most seemingly simple, is an open work, as complex in interpretation as all the “looth tooths” in the sky.

~ Arik Bjorn

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

 Kat Bjorn’s Interview with the Cast of Goodnight Moon

KB:  Why is the play called “Goodnight, Moon”?

Cast:  [deep thoughts]  That’s a good one.

KB:  Why is the mouse young?

Mouse:  Are you suggesting I’m old, kid?

KB:  No,  I think you’re a teenager.  [big hug from mouse]  You’re supposed to be four; I’m four, too!

Mouse:  I’ll take teenager.

KB:  What is mush?

Cast:  [more deep thoughts]  It’s like oatmeal but has completely different ingredients.

KB:  Why would the bunny rabbit not go to sleep?

Bunny:  There’s just so much to do!  I don’t want to go to sleep.  I have so much energy!

Director:  He ate chocolate in bed.

KB:  Have you read the book Goodnight Moon?  Did you like it?

Bunny:  I read it as a child.  I really did like it; it was really fun to bring it to life on the stage.

KB:  Do you say goodnight to everything in your house?

Black Kitten:  Yes.

Dog:  Only animate things.

[general commotion]

KB:  Quiet, everybody!  Raise your hand if you say goodnight to everything in your house.

[Black Kitten raises hand timidly]

KB:  Thank you.

Cow:  I do, too.  But I have serious OCD.

KB:  Ahem!  Have you ever eaten mush?

Dog:  I like grits better.  It’s very mushy.  It’s like soggy rice oatmeal.

Director:  It’s actually spray insulation.

 

Goodnight Moon runs September 21-30 with performances at the following dates and time:  Friday, September 21 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, September 22 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Sunday, September 23 at 3 p.m.; Friday, September 28 at 7:00 p.m.; Saturday, September 29 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; and Sunday, September 30 at 3 p.m.  Tickets are $8 for adults and children 3 and up.  The Columbia Children’s Theatre is located in the second level of Richland Mall, 3400 Forest Drive (corner of Beltline and Forest Drive).  Enter the second level parking garage walkway and park in Level 2-L for easy access.  Call 691.4548 for more information or to reserve tickets for groups of 10 or more.  To learn more about Columbia Children’s Theatre , visit http://columbiachildrenstheatre.com/ .

 

Jasper Welcomes Jillian Owens to the Theatre Review Team

 

 

As Jasper builds our blog to provide readers with up-to-date reviews of theatre and dance, we welcome Jillian Owens to the Jasper Theatre Review Team. Along with August Krickel, Jeffrey Day, Arik Bjorn, and others, Jillian will be lending her critical eye to opening nights of theatre about town and sharing her insights with you as quickly as possible so that you can make informed decisions about how to best spend your local theatre dollars.

A Columbia transplant, Jillian Owens graduated from the University of South Carolina with a BFA in Theatre and English.  She has worked in many areas of theatre, both locally and nationally, including set design, lighting design, costume design, stage/production management, and acting.

By day, Jillian works for the South Carolina Arts Commission as their Grants Manager.  By night, she writes at ReFashionista.net, her world-renowned recycled fashion blog.

Please help us welcome Jillian to the Jasper Family!

 

Would you like opening night of your play reviewed? Please contact August Krickel at Akrickel@JasperColumbia.com

Arik Bjorn Reviews Cinderella at Columbia Children’s Theatre: Bippity-Boppity Buffoonery with a Spaghetti Twist

Somewhere in Columbia this evening, the minds of sleeping children are processing the uproarious phenomenon that is Columbia Children’s Theatre’s current Commedia dell'Arte production of Cinderella.  Until tonight, these innocents had never heard Olivia Newton-John sing “Xanadu.”  Never once had it occurred to them that a princess could be bippity-boppity-beautiful in a hot pink and floral poodle skirt and piggy slippers.  And they have no idea why their parents’ bellies burst with laughter over references to some guy named Dick Cheney and tapeworms, and at the unbridled performance of a white trash, uni-browed wicked stepmother, who makes Norma Desmond look like Mother Teresa. These flowers of our future returned to the comfort of their domiciles on Cinderella’s opening night with a renewed, perhaps refined, appreciation of clowning and fairy tales.  And when their cerebellums finally finish stripping away all the layers of buffoonery and silliness sometime in August, what will remain is the essential truth that beauty on the inside matters most.  That, and never be the last one caught holding a rubber chicken at the end of a Keystone Cops-style chase scene.

If you have never attended Columbia Children’s Theatre, your family is in for a real treat, one which begins well before the house lights are dimmed.  First, you will be doing society a great service by patronizing the only retail mall space in the world that has managed to redeem the boxed blandness of space usually reserved for Aeropostale and Banana Republic outlets.

Artistic Director Jerry Stevenson and Managing Director Jim Litzinger have built a children’s thespian wonderland on the second level of Richland Fashion Mall.  Children enter a lobby space filled with suits of armor, masks, and costumes, then are swiftly separated from their parents like wheat from chaff, the adults condemned to “grown-up chairs” while the tots are invited to dance to “Y.M.C.A.” and “The Hokey Pokey” on a brightly-checkered, padded floor space in front of the stage area.  Children eat popcorn and Skittles, adults sip Coke, and everyone has a relaxed sense that this is the kind of theatre that was designed in Willy Wonka’s world of forms.

As to the show itself, the above tidbits have prepared you for the fact that this is not your average Cinderella production.  The curtain rises (or, rather, is tossed off stage left), and the (Jiminy) crickets begin.  Literal crickets, actually, prompting a series of knowing chuckles from adults, and bewildered looks by children.  Then a comedic troupe with mock-Italian accents, presenting itself as the Spaghetti & Meatball Players, demolish the fourth wall, and begin banging into each other with parasols and hat racks.  From there, it’s a jet-fueled, jolly joker jaunt into humor hyperspace.  Eighty minutes later, adults and children alike are ready for giggling triage.

One cannot applaud enough the work of director Sam LaFrage, who, thankfully, has also provided a functional explanation of Commedia dell'Arte in the show program, for parents who mayfeel compelled to explain to their children why this production did not resemble Walt Disney’s familiar version.  (Actually, as a parent of a four-year-old daughter, I do recommend that parents explain there will be some differences in advance to their children.  My daughter Katherine loved the show, and cherished her onstage dance with actor Edward Precht, who plays the Prince and Meatballer Pantalone, yet she wanted a little reassurance afterwards that Cinderella’s castle estate in Orlando hadn’t been sacked and overrun by Italian clowns.)

As to the other Meatballers, Elizabeth Stepp brings enough pure energy to the stage to keep the Olympic flame alive until 2020.  Paul Lindley II and LaFrage (who moonlights as director and Meatballer) play gender-bending stepsisters of such pure, perfidious evil that I expected Macbeth’s Hecate to rise from the depths in the guise of Snooki.  LaFrage also brings down the house at one point as a ding-a-ling Chip Potts, lampooning the classic song “Beauty and the Beast.”  And Beth DeHart’s dual roles as roller skating fairy godmother and wicked stepmother Viola Scruffanickle quite nearly put one adult sitting near me into comic cardiac arrest.

Don’t just go to this show.  Go in droves.  Bring your neighbors.  Bring your friends.  Bring your worst enemies, and let the goofiness settle your long-term differences.  (For all that, consider the excellent weekday group rate that Columbia Children’s Theatre offers.  See website below for more details.)  But most importantly, bring your children.  Bring everyone’s children!  Then immediately afterward, have them call their grandparents and enjoy the pure thrill of watching them try to explain every strange and wonderful hilarity they have just experienced.

 ~ Arik Bjorn

Cinderella runs June 15-24, with performances at the following dates and time:  Friday, June 15 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, June 16 at 10:30 a.m. & 2 p.m.; Sunday, June 17 at 3 p.m.; Wednesday, June 20 at 10:30 a.m.; Thursday, June 21 at 10:30 a.m.; Friday, June 22 at 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Saturday, June 23 at 10:30 a.m. & 2 p.m.; Sunday, June 24 at 3 p.m.; and a special Thursday, July 19 performance at 10:30 a.m.  Tickets are $8 for adults and children ages 3 and up.  The Columbia Children’s Theatre is located at the Second Level of Richland Mall, 3400 Forest Drive (corner of Beltline and Forest Drive).  Enter the Second Level parking garage walkway and park in Level 2-L for easy access.  Call 691.4548 for more information or to reserve tickets for groups of 10 or more.  To learn more about Columbia Children’s Theatre, visit http://columbiachildrenstheatre.com/ .

No Lie! CMT's Pinocchio Is Anything But A Wooden Performance - A Guest Blog by Arik Bjorn

There is no entertainment venue in Columbia more likely to have fallen straight out of the pages of a Ray Bradbury story than the Columbia Marionette Theatre, which this past weekend revived its wonderful 1992 original production of Pinocchio.  Even for adults, there is something magically inviting about the castle theatre ensconced at the corner of Huger and Laurel Streets, its giant mural of Punch, puppet-turned-puppeteer, dangling a stringed unicorn and dragon, and inviting children of all ages to rediscover authentic, if not shadowy, storytelling.  The best part of any CMT production is a stiff refusal to cater to the “Mickey Mouse-ification” of fairy tales, and the insistence that a peppering of Brothers Grimm in every scene is a recipe for narrative pleasure. At the age of four, my daughter Katherine is already a CMT veteran, having attended numerous productions.  She accompanied me to this weekend’s premier of Pinocchio, and I have made every effort to review the show from her diminutive perspective.  Sometimes the best part of parenting is rediscovering familiar stories through the eyes of one’s children - and also through their arms and legs, as on numerous occasions throughout the production her hands were wrapped tightly around my arms or her own face, her feet bouncing up and down with uncontrollable delight and fear.

Every CMT show begins well before Artistic Director Lyon Hill (profiled in the cover story in the current issue - # 5 -  of Jasper - The Word on Columbia Arts) emerges from backstage to lead the crowd in a birthday “Huzzah!” for whatever little boy or girl is lucky enough to host a dinosaur-, fairy tale-, or Wizard the Oz-themed birthday party.  Just getting your youngster from the lobby to his or her general admission seat is worth the price of admission.  Children enter the theatre’s faux archway main entrance, and are immediately surrounded by marionettes hanging from the ceiling and puppeteer dioramas from previous CMT productions, as well as a large mounted dragon head that once was the centerpiece of a real Medieval-themed wedding at CMT.  (By the way, parents, CMT offers a number of affordable “starter” marionettes for the novice puppeteers in your home.)

Inevitably, one or two children begin whimpering or looking cautiously askance before the show even starts, as does my child occasionally still.  It’s no lie that there is something naturally eerie about marionettes.  For the past several generations, our puppet-viewing collective consciousness consists mostly of cuddly Muppets, and the lack of softness of form of the traditional marionette immediately bespeaks more funhouse than Sesame Street.  But this is precisely the world of lost storytelling that marionette theatres engender.  CMT makes all of its marionettes on site in its workshop from hand-carved molds.  As Hill explains, he is not interested in smoothing the pin-prickly scary parts of a story, or conforming to pop culture’s sense of how a genie, T-Rex or mermaid should be physically represented:  “Every marionette has is its own silhouette.”

While patrons will not find Jiminy Cricket in this production of Pinocchio, what they will find is something that would make the story’s original Italian teller, Carlo Collodi, proud—plus a few inventive 21st-century twists, including a break-dancing wooden boy and a jazz-duet cat and fox.  And, of course, like any good children’s story, there are a few jokes just for adults, including the “BELIEVE” UFO poster on the dilapidated backstage wall of Boyaradi’s Fabulous Marionette Theatre, and a sign outside the theater that reads “Come Inside for Fun, Excitement and Man-Eating Plants.”

The show is a panoply of theatrical creativity.  In one early scene, the Fairy’s wand, with a mind of its own, causes all the puppets in Geppetto’s studio to dance unexpectedly.  The set drops of 19th-century Italy and the Isle of Joy (replete with its own cherry-topped sundae mountain), as well as Geppetto’s studio, are museum-worthy pieces.  And in one of the final scenes, Pinocchio and his papa emerge from the belly of the whale and rise magically to the ocean surface.  (I am willing to bet that every child who sees this show afterward will dream mystically of water gobos.)

 

This 45-minute version of Pinocchio is jam-packed with wonderful storytelling and numerous artistic and design triumphs, including, of course, the one trick both children and adults eagerly await to see:  the title character’s famous fibbing proboscis.  Several times after the performance, my daughter asked me how Pinocchio’s nose grew.  Fortunately, when I replied “magic,” my own nose remained its normal length.  But for the life of me, I have no idea how Hill & Company make that nose extend and retract with only strings!  (By the way, someone should give CMT a medal for understanding that 45 minutes is the ideal duration for a weekend children’s event.)

Along with Hill, puppeteers Kimi Maeda, Cooper Hill and Payton Frawley bring this timeless classic to life; not quite to the point where a little wooden boy is turned into the real thing, but definitely enough for you to tell everyone you know with kids to get down to the Columbia Marionette Theatre next Saturday.  And when all the dusty wonder has settled, most important of all, children walk away having learned a real moral lesson.  Just ask my daughter, who told me, “The lesson is always tell the truth and stay close to your papa - or else you’ll be turned into a donkey or eaten by a whale.”  Close enough, dear one, close enough.

~ by Arik Bjorn

Pinocchio runs through Sat. Sept. 8th, with performances every Saturday at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.  Tickets are $5 per person.  Children under 2 are free!  The Columbia Marionette Theatre is located at 401 Laurel Street (corner of Huger and Laurel).  Call 803-252-7366 for more information, or to reserve party space for your little ones.  To learn more about Columbia Marionette Theatre, visit www.cmtpuppet.org .