REVIEW: A Bright Room Called Day by Frank Thompson

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was

the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the

epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the

season  of  Light,  it  was  the  season  of  Darkness,  it  was  the 

spring  of  hope,  it  was  the  winter  of  despair,  we  had 

everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were

all  going  direct  to  Heaven,  we  were  all  going  direct  the 

other way—in short, the period was so far like the present

period…”

 

-Charles Dickens

“A Tale Of Two Cities”

 

   After seeing Trustus Theatre’s production of A Bright Room Called Day on opening night, I have made it a point to “talk up” the show as much as possible, but (with sincere regret) I have just now been able to write a review. With all due apologies and a promise not to make a habit of late-posting, I would like to now offer my thoughts on what may be the most riveting show I’ve seen at Trustus since August: Osage County, a couple of seasons ago. There are two remaining performances, Friday and Saturday, 2 and 3 February. In brief, you need to see one (or both) of them.

   While a completely different show in almost every way, A Bright Room Called Day does have a quite literal kinship with its predecessor. August: Osage County was the last show directed at Trustus by its beloved founder, the late Jim Thigpen, and his daughter, Erin Wilson, masterfully directs A Bright Room Called Day. This is the first of Wilson’s work I have seen, and it’s quite clear that both her professional training and the lessons she no doubt learned at the knee of her father have come together to create an insightful, skilled directorial eye and style all her own. Wilson’s attention to the small details of movement and human interaction in a confined space creates a pleasantly cozy feeling in the early scenes, which slowly morphs into a trapped, claustrophobic aura by the end of the performance. (Ironically, as fewer people occupy the room, it seems to grow smaller and more prisonlike.) 

   Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner wrote A Bright Room Called Day in the 1980s, outraged at then-President Reagan for his (Reagan’s) lack of any apparent concern over the AIDS crisis. (Indeed, Reagan is invoked in the modern-day side story that serves as a point of comment on the main story. More on that in a moment.)

 

   Though Reagan was the bete noir when the show was penned, Wilson has, without changing the script, clearly suggested that we examine the politics of 2018 and what’s going on all around us. The story, while interesting, is an oft-told one. A group of what might well have been called “undesirables” share good times together, only to be divided both philosophically and literally by the rise of The Third Reich. The scenes set in early 1932 could easily have been played in a contemporary 2016. Liberalism seems firmly established, there’s toasting and optimism (the show opens on a New Year’s Eve celebration), and the charmingly eccentric group of characters we meet are leading happy, bohemian lives and freely share their common views as well as their disagreements without rancor. There’s an opium-addicted film star, a devout Communist, a homosexual man-about-town, a one-eyed film-maker, and a seemingly meek actress of lesser fame, who owns the apartment and revels in their company.
 

   As the scenes and time progress, we sense a growing feeling of unease as Germany begins to undergo a multitude of bad decisions and changes for the worse. Through dialogue and a positively masterful use of projected titles, we follow the Nazi party’s initial defeats, its growing influence, and President von Hindenburg’s eventual hesitant appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor. From there begins the inevitable unraveling of the social fabric, both large-scale and among the small circle of leftists who inhabit the small apartment.

   Without beating the metaphor to death, or even mentioning his name, the “Trump as Hitler” theme rings loud and clear, speaking not only to the skills of the director and cast, but also to the timelessness of Kushner’s script. The 1930s scenes are intercut with a series of 1980s monologues by a young woman of high-school age (remember the side story?), who writes daily hate-mail letters to President Reagan, and offers a great deal of commentary that is just as applicable today as it was in the days of The Love Boat and the Commodore 64 computer.

   The second act brings to the forefront the horrors of Berlin in the early 1930s. The Reichstag fire, book-burnings, and the official opening of Dachau are mentioned, one of the characters suffers a beating, another essentially chooses to collaborate, still another flees for his safety, and Agnes, the owner of the flat, wonders aloud if she will ever leave.

   There are also other visitors to the apartment, none terribly welcome. A pair of friendly-but-don’t-push-us bureaucrats visit Agnes to “encourage” her to rethink her upcoming performance of a skit involving a “Red Baby”, complete with painted baby doll to emphasize the message. There can be tremendous intimidation in ersatz kindness and calm, and the actors in these roles convey just that.

   The story takes two turns toward surrealism in the characters of Die Alte (which, thank you Google, translates to “the old” or “the ancient”) and Gottfried Swetts, who just happens to be Satan. As the representatives of the otherworldly, each is clearly defined as unique in the reality of the main story. Die Alte is wraithlike, eerie, and seems to move freely about within the darkness. Swetts, by contrast, is dressed spiffily in an expensive-looking suit and topcoat. (A word to the wise: don’t pet the Devil’s dog.) At first the inclusion of these characters seemed out-of-place to me, but upon further reflection, what could be more appropriate than vaguely malevolent absurdity in a play about a historically significant collapse of reason and sanity?

   By now you have probably noticed that I haven’t mentioned any actors by name. That’s because director Wilson and her team have produced an almost-flawless piece of ensemble theatre by a cast of top-tier performers. There is no “standout” because this group contains no weak links. The roles are superbly cast, and the chemistry amongst them is clear. Therefore, I offer my congratulations and unfettered praise to Krista Forster, Jonathan Monk, Jennifer Hill, Becky Hunter, Alex Smith, Mary Miles, Frederic Powers, Elena Martinez-Vidal, Paul Kaufmann, and Avery Bateman. Each of you truly disappeared into your characters.

   Danny Harrington does a commendable job with the set, somehow making a pre-war German flat and a 1980s classroom cohesively exist on the same stage. In what may or may not have been a deliberate choice, one of the paintings on Agnes’ wall is partially obscured by what seems to indicate either fallen plaster or water damage. This image spoke strongly to me, and seemed an apt representation of how none of the characters, from the most innocent to the most evil, ever seemed to grasp the larger issues, or “see the whole picture” if you will.

   With one final apology for being so late in turning in my homework, I strongly encourage anyone who hasn’t yet seen A Bright Room Called Day to catch one of the two remaining performances. You’ll leave thinking.

Reviewer Frank Thompson

Reviewer Frank Thompson

PREVIEW: Finlay Park welcomes back SCSC with The Merry Wives of Windsor - By Alivia Seely  

Libby Campbell-Turner and Becky Hunter with Hunter Boyle - photo by Rob Sprankle  

“Better three hours too soon than a minute too late.”

 

The words of William Shakespeare are not always as clear in their meanings as audience members would like them to be. Yet, that does not stop the talented individuals from The South Carolina Shakespeare Company from taking that difficult language from folio, to the stage.

 

Sharing the beautiful, historic language with audiences across Columbia, the SC Shakespeare Company will be gracing the Finlay Park stage for a two weekend production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

 

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a story that chronicles the life of Sir John Falstaff, played by Hunter Boyle. Falstaff is an outrageous man. He is a retired bacchanal with vulgar wit and multiple schemes of seduction, as he plans to dazzle the hearts of Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, played by Libby Campbell-Turner and Becky Hunter. Yet, it does not take long before the two ladies and Ford’s husband Master Ford, to figure out why Falstaff is set on reeking havoc in Windsor.

“He is a very suspicious and jealous husband. I think that he is someone that always thinks that someone is up to something. So when all of this stuff with Falstaff starts happening, my character Master Ford very easily and rapidly buys the fact that his wife is cheating. He then sets out to discover if that is true,” says Scott Blanks, managing director for the South Carolina Shakespeare Company, and will be playing the role of Master Ford.

 

This production is directed by Linda Khoury, artistic director and co-founder of the company. Other notable characters are: Robert Shallow, played by Chris Cook, Dr. Caius, played by Tracy Steele, Master Page, played by Jason Sprankle, Mistress Quickly, played by Sara Blanks, Anne Page, played by Katie Mixon and Parson Evens, played by David Reed.

“It is captivating, energetic, and is a humorous take on marriage, miscommunication, and forgiveness. The wild and bawdy characters along with the fast-moving story full of mischief and trickery will keep the audience riveted,” says Khoury.

 

The outdoor performance environment is no stranger to these company members. Finlay Park has been home to numerous SCSC performances in the past. The only thing that will be keeping them out of the park is inclement weather.

“I really enjoy the outdoor environment. I think audiences enjoy the outdoor environment. I can tell your first hand it is a really great experience for an audience member; however, it is really rather difficult for actors and actresses,” says Blanks.

 

Although there are moments of scandal and humorous revenge, Khoury encourages the entire family to come out and enjoy the show.

 

The South Carolina Shakespeare Company is one of the most popular professional theatre companies and producers of classical theatre in South Carolina. Since its founding in 1992, the company has sought to bring language, art, and history to the community in order to foster the arts culture.

 

The show opens Saturday April 23 at 8:00 p.m. in Finlay Park, and will run again April 27-30 at 8:00 p.m. For more information about the show visit www.shakespeareSC.org.

 

 

"The House of Blue Leaves" at Trustus Theatre - a review by August Krickel

blueleaves2 There's a speech at the beginning of the second act of The House of Blue Leaves, the new show at Trustus Theatre, delivered by Philip Alexander as the son in the story's central family. Speaking directly to the audience, he details a missed opportunity for stardom; as a child, he had the chance to be cast as Huck Finn in a Hollywood film, and so naturally he tried to impress the director by dancing, singing, and cavorting about with a child's typical joyous lack of inhibition. The director assumes he must have some emotional or developmental challenge, and the boy's ambitions, along with his ego, are crushed.

(L-R) Scott Herr, Monica Wyche - Photo by Richard Arthur Király - Photography

That's a fair representation of the themes addressed in the show. Ordinary people aspire to greater things, sometimes with great self-deception, while struggling with the emotional burdens they carry. Rarely do things work out as planned, although sometimes fate seems to give them a break - but only if they are paying attention. Scott Herr takes the lead role of Artie, a mild-mannered New York zoo employee who composes and performs songs, partly as a hobby (which he thinks is his passion) and partly to distract him from his home life. His wife, whom he called "Bananas," suffers from some form of mental illness, which is only getting worse. As Bananas, Monica Wyche drifts in and out of incoherence, sometimes passively crumpling into a ball, sometimes delivering rambling monologues that are occasionally quite poetic, and sometimes giving us glimpses of the well-adjusted wife and mother she must have once been.

(L-R) Kayla CAhill, Sumner Bender - Photo by Richard Arthur Király - Photography

The third principal character is Artie's new mistress Bunny, as loud and brassy a New Yorker as her name implies. Sumner Bender, normally a willowy, chic and sophisticated young actress, somehow manages to play a significantly older and frumpier character through mannerisms and line delivery alone, although costume design by Dianne Wilkins helps. Resembling a younger version of a Far Side lady, Bender dominates the stage whenever she appears, engaging in non-stop chatter. She's annoying, yet ultimately she grows on you, sort of like Snookie. Part of that appeal derives from her (seemingly) genuine desire to help Artie move on to a better place in his life. Unfortunately that involves placing Bananas in an institution, which Artie describes as surrounded by trees full of lovely bluebirds, creating the illusion of the title's blue leaves. All three performers employ every trick in the actor's handbook to create nuanced characters, and their accents, especially those of Bender and Alexander, are just perfect (if a little grating to the Southern ear.)

Sumner Bender and Scott Herr - photo by Jonathan Sharpe

With that inter-personal backdrop, the play begins in 1965 as the Pope is visiting New York. Most of the characters are Irish Catholic, and see this as a potentially life-changing event. Artie's connection is vastly more important, as he not only hopes that he will somehow be blessed/forgiven/vindicated as he prepares to leave his wife, but also that the Pope will somehow convince the country to end the Viet Nam War, in which his recently-drafted son will otherwise soon be involved.  The story I have just described seems quite realistic, but there is a pervasive tone of the Absurd (with a capital A, signifying the dramatic form) as events that technically could happen transpire, but become progressively surreal. Among the visitors to Artie's home in the second act are three nuns (Becky Hunter, Rachel Kuhnle, and Erin Huiett) Artie's childhood friend Billy, now a Hollywood bigshot (Bernie Lee), Billy's girlfriend (Kayla Cahill), and a couple of authority figures (Robert Michalski and Clark Wallace.) Everyone is perfectly cast, and Lee especially looks the part, with simple things like a turtleneck and facial hair instantly defining his character.  Cahill in particular has some incredible moments where she's not saying a word, but her silence and pained expression speak volumes.

"Then, a lot of wild comedy breaks out."  (L-R) Erin Huiett, Robert Michalski, wild comedy - Photo by Richard Arthur Király - Photography

Then a lot of wild comedy breaks out, and there are some good laugh lines, as well as a lot of eloquent ones. Especially poignant is Herr's realization that "I'm too old to be a young talent." If at any time we lose track of a particular character's purpose or motivation, playwright John Guare incorporates a number of revealing and sometimes soul-baring monologues, spoken directly by the characters to the audience. Director Robin Gottlieb is a master of timing, and she has her actors working every possible detail of their roles, making unlikeable characters accessible to the audience.  All of this is significantly enhanced by Heather Hawfield's wide, expansive set design. It's just a realistic interior of a shabby apartment in a big city, but she somehow manages to open the stage up, as if she's taking a dollhouse and unfolding it, allowing us to see every corner. I can think of a half dozen shows or more at Trustus that would have benefited from this type of staging.

Kayla Cahill - photo by Richard Arthur Király Photography

As I have said previously, actors hate it when you review the material, not the performance. After all, they can't rewrite the script. So let me be clear: there is not a single flaw in acting or staging - everything is done quite proficiently and professionally, and I think everyone involved can be proud of their work on this show. That said... gentle reader, I just didn't get it. The play is a famous work from an important author; its original production won both the Obie and the Drama Critics' Circle Awards for Best Play, and subsequent revivals have garnered multiple Tony nominations and wins. Lots of famous people have appeared in versions of this show over the years. It's usually described as a comedy, or a dark comedy. There were certainly funny moments, and funny lines, but to me this was a serious drama that involved some witty characters and some surreal moments where you had to laugh. I'm told the audiences the night before and the afternoon after I saw the show were boisterous and laughing throughout the performance, whereas it was a much quieter house the night I attended.  This may well be. And given the fame and reputation of both the work and its author, I'm inclined to think I just somehow missed something.

(L-R) Clark Wallace, Sumner Bender -  photo by Richard Arthur Király Photography

There is certainly a broader theme of hope vs. reality, and the perils of life's curveballs. At some level I'm sure Artie represents humanity, with Bunny as the voice that tells us "you can do it," even if we can't. Bananas is probably the hurt child within us, the never seen Pope is surely symbolic of the redeeming panacea we all wish for, while the naughty nuns can probably be seen as representations of the random chaos surrounding and affecting us all. But again, let me be clear - while there are some Absurdist moments, this is by and large a straightforward, realistic play with a linear plot.  Possibly my tastes are changing as I get older, because parts of this play reminded me of Pinter's The Caretaker, Fugard's A Lesson from Aloes, even Beckett's Waiting for Godot, all difficult and challenging works which I enjoyed and admired as a young man. But for whatever reason, and no matter how well the cast delivered the author's well-chosen words, it never all came together for me in a way that I could understand, or benefit from some message or realization.  So that probably means it's just me. There are only seven shows remaining, and I encourage anyone who wants to be challenged by thought-provoking drama to go see the show right away.  I want to hear that you loved the comedy and were touched by the pathos, and I want you to tell me what I missed.  And I want you to tell me if the ending is literal or metaphorical. Seriously - we have a "comments" section below that is almost never used. So have at it, and tell me how I completely missed the boat on this one. And either way, enjoy some great actors while sipping on a tasty adult beverage in a cool, intimate performance venue.  The House of Blue Leaves runs through Saturday, May 24; call the box office at 803-254-9732 or visit www.trustus.org for ticket information.

~ August Krickel

Eugenie Carabatsos discusses her play "Pine," premiering at Trustus Friday August 2nd

Eugenie Carabatsos

 

Pine, the new play by Eugenie Carabatsos and winner of the  Trustus Playwrights’ Festival will open on the Thigpen Main Stage at Trustus Theatre this Friday, August 2, at 8 PM, and will run through the following Saturday, August 10.  The author graciously agreed to share a few thoughts with Jasper, prior to her first visit to Columbia this weekend to see the world professional premiere of her new play.

Jasper:   What inspired you to become involved in theatre?  Is that your main focus as a writer?

Carabatsos:   My primary interest and passion is drama, though I would love to also be a novelist and perhaps create my own television show someday. As far back as I can remember, I have loved theater. My parents are theater-lovers, so they would take me to see plays and musicals frequently as a child. I remember I made my parents take me to see a community theater production of Annie Get Your Gun three times in one weekend. I always loved going to plays and telling stories, but it wasn't until my senior year of high school when I combined my love of storytelling and my love of plays and wrote my first play for my senior project. After seeing my play read aloud by actors, I was hooked.  I have not done any acting, but I have self-produced a few of my plays in festivals, which is a fun, challenging experience that I like very much.

Jasper:  Where did you grow up? 

Carabatsos:   I am from Bridgehampton, NY, which is a small town on the eastern end of Long Island. The area I live in is not unlike New England, so it was a very nice, easy transition to living in Middletown, CT for college.

Jasper:   Your alma mater, Wesleyan, is a very distinguished liberal arts college.  Did you study theatre or writing there?     

Carabatsos:  Wesleyan does have a wonderful theater and film program, but I actually was an English major, so I didn't get involved in the theater scene at all in college. For me, the best way to learn how to write well is to read well-written books, plays, and essays, so I definitely feel as though I gleaned a lot from my education creatively, even though I wasn't involved in the theater program there.

Jasper:  You wrote the first draft of Pine while attending an artist-in-residence program in the Catskills.   Was there anything in particular that inspired this story?

Carabatsos:   The play isn't based on personal experience. I was thinking about what it would be like for a young widow, and what her relationship would be with her "ex's" family.   I thought that relationship might be an interesting idea for a play. Then I thought, well what if the dead spouse was still around, but no one knew it? And that was the jumping off point. Then when I was in the Catskills, I thought that would be a perfect setting for the play.

Jasper:  Is there a significance to the title?

Carabatsos:   The title refers both to the idea of longing, and also to the smell that connects the family to each other and especially to the father.

Jasper: Is comedy a new medium for you?  And do you like to work with any recurring themes in your work?

Carabatsos:   Yes - when I wrote Pine, I hadn't dabbled in comedy at all.   I think the most recurring themes in my work are death, memory, and love. In terms of writing style, I am very interested in trying out different structures. Pine has a pretty straightforward structure, but most of my other work plays a lot with structure.

Jasper: Are you a full-time author? 

Carabatsos:  Making a living off of writing has been a goal since I decided I wanted to be a writer. I hope to one day reach it!  I work both as a private tutor and academic tutor for a tutoring company that specializes in clinically informed tutoring. I have also previously worked for an online university as an adjunct teacher. I actually really enjoy my tutoring work, and I am passionate about education, but being a writer full-time is definitely the end goal.

Jasper:   Part of the Trustus Playwrights' Festival includes a staged reading the year before the actual premiere, allowing for feedback.  What was that process like?

Carabatsos:  I did not attend the reading, but I had a wonderful conversation with the director afterwards, and we discussed the feedback the play received. It was a really helpful conversation. The play has been revised since that first reading. The core of the play is the same, but there are some things that I expanded upon or made stronger connections to. For example, I gave a lot more information about the father, so that the ending had more weight. I also included a scene with Rita in the trees and allowed her to have a moment with her daughter, Julie.

Jasper: How did you discover Trustus, and are you familiar with the Midlands area?

Carabatsos:   I learned about Trustus through a posting on pwcenter.org, which is the website I use to find all of my play submission opportunities. I have driven through South Carolina on a roadtrip, but haven't spent any significant time there (or in the South in general). I am really looking forward to it!

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(L-R) Josiah Laubenstein, Rachel Kuhnle, Becky Hunter, Cory Alpert, and Hunter Bolton. (Photo by Jonathan Sharpe)

From press material:

Eugenie Carabatsos has written eight plays, all of which have been produced in professional or festival settings.  After Eternity (Winner of the Venus Theatre Festival), The Brink, and Stalled have been produced in festivals including the Alumnae Theatre New Ideas Festival (Toronto, ON), the Midwinter Madness Festival (New York, NY), the Venus Theatre Festival (New York, NY), and Manhattan Repertory Theatre Festival (New York, NY). Her ten-minute plays have been produced by the Playwrights' Round Table (Orlando, FL), the Short + Sweet Festival (Sydney, Australia), the Edward Hopper House (Nyack, NY), Manhattan Repertory Theatre, The Secret Theatre (Queens, NY), Silver Spring Stage (Silver Spring, MD), the Pan Theater (Oakland, CA), the Complete Theatre (New York, NY), and Love Creek Productions (New York, NY). In Their Glory has received staged readings as part of Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival in Toronto, and, by the Truffle Theatre Company in Brooklyn. A one-act version of the play won the Scholastic Arts and Writing Award for Best Play in 2006. She graduated from Wesleyan University in 2010 with a BA in English.

The Trustus Playwrights’ Festival is considered by various publications to be one of the best in the nation. Not only do winning scripts garner a professional reading, but they also receive a full production on the Trustus Thigpen Main Stage. Past winners of this festival including  Jon Tuttle, Stephen Belber, and Andrea Lepico have gone on to have their scripts published and performed all over the nation. Past winner David Lindsay-Abaire was even awarded the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award later in his career. Now NYC playwright Eugenie Carabatsos joins the fine company of Playwrights’ Festival winners as her play Pine makes its professional debut right here in the Capital City.

Pine, under the direction of Trustus Artistic Director Dewey Scott-Wiley, is a ghost story – with humor and a tremendous amount of heart. As the lights come up, audiences are introduced to the White family. Gathering for the Christmas holidays, we realize that older son Colin White seems to go throughout the house unnoticed. Further exposition reveals that Colin is actually a ghost following a fatal car accident years earlier. Colin constantly tries to avoid his overbearing mother and to communicate with his younger brother Teddy, but Teddy can’t see him…or can he? The plot thickens as Colin’s ex-girlfriend shows up to the White home for a holiday visit with her new boyfriend. The Whites' Christmas takes many turns as Colin’s memory and spectral presence make us wonder if Colin’s family is beyond his reach.

Sarah Hammond, a Columbia native who is now a successful playwright in NYC, is the Trustus Literary Manager and oversees the festival submissions. “We went electronic with our competition last year,” said Hammond. “This year, for the first time ever, we also eliminated the submission fee for playwrights, which increased the number of submissions substantially. We got 400 submissions this year from all over the country.” Submissions consist of playwright bios, a play synopsis, and a 10-page script sample  which Hammond has to peruse thoroughly. She then asks for full plays from 25-40 of the playwrights submitting. “When asking for those full scripts, we look first for voices that leap off the page,” says Hammond “Is it theater? Does it feel live? Some dialogue just sings, and that's apparent in a ten-page sample. There's a rhythm - an energy - that comes from a playwright's gut. While we don't have one aesthetic for the new work at Trustus, we do tend to favor scripts with a very strong current of personal truth.” After the full scripts have been read, the top five make their way to Columbia, SC where the Trustus Artistic Director chooses the winner. Obviously, Ms. Carabatsos’ Pine found itself in the winner’s circle in 2012.

Director Dewey Scott-Wiley has assembled a talented cast to bring Carabatsos’ characters to life for the first time. Long-time Trustus Company member Becky Hunter (Palace of the Moorish Kings) takes the stage as Rita, the matriarch of the White family. Hunter Bolton (Love! Valour! Compassion!) makes his Trustus debut as Colin, the ghost. Playing Teddy and Julie, Colin’s siblings, are Cory Alpert and Rachel Kuhnle respectively. Playing Julie’s husband is USC MFA in Acting candidate Josiah Lauberstein (Boeing Boeing). Portraying Colin’s ex-girlfriend Rachel is Jennifer Moody Sanchez (My First Time), and with her is Harrison Saunders (Red) as Rachel’s new boyfriend and soon-to-be fiancé.

Pine makes its premiere on the Trustus Thigpen Main Stage on Friday, August 2nd at 8:00pm and runs through August 10th, 2013. Main Stage shows start at 8:00 pm Thursdays through Saturdays, and Sunday matinees are at 3:00pm. Tickets are $22.00 for adults, $20.00 for military and seniors, and $15.00 for students. Half-price Student Rush-Tickets are available 15 minutes prior to curtain.

Trustus Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking isavailable on Lady St. and on Pulaski St. The Main Stage entrance is located on the Publix side of the building.   For more information or reservations call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6 PM at 803-254-9732, visit www.trustus.org .

~ August Krickel

Jon Tuttle's "The Palace of the Moorish Kings" - A Review by Jillian Owens

Jon Tuttle’s new play, The Palace of the Moorish Kings (based on the short story by Evan S. Connell) makes for a powerful and thought-provoking night of theatre.  Tuttle is no stranger to  Trustus Theatre – he’s their Playwright-in-Residence.  You may remember him from such works as The Sweet Abyss, Holy Ghost, and The White Problem. It’s Thanksgiving Day, 1970.  Dave and Millicent, played by Gene Aimone and Christina Whitehouse-Suggs, are a seemingly happy upper middle class couple full of smiles with a lovely home (newly renovated!) and dear friends whom they’ve invited over for their traditional holiday feast.  But there’s more than a hint of worry behind their cheerful expressions:  there’s one guest that hasn’t RSVP’d.  Their son has gone missing in Vietnam, but traditions must continue.

As the guests arrive, we learn theirs is not the only family in concealed crisis.  Aileen and Art (played by Becky Hunter and Christopher Cockrell), have a marriage whose foundation is beginning to show its cracks.  Leroy and his daughter Junie (played by James Harley and Erin Huiett) seem to be a content pair, but why has Junie dropped out of college?  Barbara and Al (played by Kim Harne and Shane Walters) are still deeply in love after many years of marriage, but Barbara’s sporadically shaky right hand indicates trouble on the horizon.  This coming-of-middle-age story explores what this group of friends, who have known each other since high school, has given up in their quest for the American Dream.  They’ve all achieved their own levels of success, but still have become wistful and jealous when they hear from their friend J.D., a draft dodger who chose a life of travel and adventure over college, a job, and marriage.  They all live vicariously through his letters from around the world, which curiously never ask about their own, considerably more predictable lives.

All of the actors do an excellent job with their roles.  Huiett makes a wonderfully subtle Junie, which is perhaps the most important character in the play.  We see her asking all the questions the rest of the group wishes they had asked themselves at her age.  She’s not quite so easily sold on the idea of a marriage and a split level being the ingredients for happiness and fulfillment.  Hunter’s Aileen is spot-on and sassy, with unwavering energy and passion.  Aimone, Suggs, and Cockrell deliver powerful and dynamic performances. Other characters, however, seem to exist merely as sounding boards for their more fleshed-out counterparts.  James Harley does what he can with the role of Leroy, who doesn’t say or do very much, except get a little sad about his divorce, and worried about his daughter.  Harne and Walters also fall victim to being good actors with weak characters.  They make a convincingly loving couple, and Harne’s portrayal of a woman who is in the beginning stages of a serious illness is truly touching -- but it seems like Al only exists to provide exposition about the adventures of the well-traveled J.D.  Once again, Walters does what he can, but this script doesn’t give him anywhere to go.  As  director, Dewey  Scott-Wiley has gotten the most out of her cast with this demanding script.

A great deal of dialog is dedicated to how beautiful and amazing Dave and Millicent’s home is, and the set really needed to show the 1970's ideal of beautiful and amazing.  I wasn’t feeling it.  It seemed almost unfinished and quickly thrown together.  An implied set would have worked better for this production if budget or time constraints were the issue. 

The Palace of The Moorish Kings leaves you in a state of thoughtful contemplation.  I would like to see this show 20 years from now, to see if I still identify with the youthful idealism of Junie, or if I find myself agreeing with the older, more conservative Dave.  It’s a show I’d like to take my parents to see with me and discuss over dinner afterwards. Perhaps you’ll go see it with yours?

 

~ Jillian Owens

The Palace of the Moorish Kings  continues its run on Wednesday, August 15th, and runs through this Saturday, August 18th.   The Wednesday and Thursday night performances  start at 7:30 PM, while Friday and Saturday nights begin at 8:00 PM.  Note that half-price student tickets are available 15 minutes prior to every curtain.  Trustus Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking is available on Lady St. and on Pulaski St.  The Main Stage entrance is located on the Publix side of the building.  For more information or reservations, call the box office at 803-254-9732, or visit http://www.trustus.org .