"King Lear" in Finlay Park - a review by Jillian Owens

The South Carolina Shakespeare Company opens their fall season with King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies. George Bernard Shaw once said "No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear,”  and one can definitely see where he’s coming from. Madness, betrayal, suffering, war, and death are all over this play, and the body count is nothing short of impressive. kinglear

The elderly King Lear (Chris Cook) is ready for retirement. He plans to divide his kingdom among his  three daughters, Goneril (Raia Hirsch), Regan (Sara Blanks), and Cordelia (Katie Mixon.) But there’s  a catch: the largest quantity of land will go to the daughter who can prove she loves him most. Goneril  and Regan are perfectly happy to deliver speeches of loyalty and devotion that drip with aspartame. But  Cordelia remains stoic, saying she has nothing to compare her love to. Her frankness leads to her father  disowning her and splitting his lands between Regan and Goneril. The King of France, impressed with her honesty offers to marry her:

“Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor; most choice, forsaken;  and most lov'd, despis'd!  Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon. Be it lawful I take up what's cast  away.”

And they hop off to France.

Chris Cook as King Lear

Lear quickly learns how fickle filial loyalty can be. As soon as he relinquishes his power, he loses all  respect from both of his daughters. They chide him for being raucous, and force him to let the majority of  his entourage go. This shocking fall from power and dignity leads Lear to become more and more insane as the play progresses. The former King quickly learns that his only true friends are his now-disguised former pal Kent (Tracy Steele) whom he banished for defending Cordelia, and his Fool (played by Jeff Driggers.)

Intermingled in this main plot is further drama with a troublemaking illegitimate son by the name of  Edmund (Bobby Bloom) to the Earl of Gloucester (Richard Purday.) He tricks Gloucester - way too easily - into thinking his legitimate son Edgar (William Cavitt) plans to steal his estate.   Eyeballs are removed, women are seduced, and lots of folks die in some pretty creative ways.

Katie Mixon (center) as Cordelia - photo by Gerilyn Browning Kim

In this production of Lear, director Linda Khoury has assembled a large cast with varying skill levels and a  curious array of accents. Cook is a vulnerable and powerful Lear, and he captures his descent into madness with an intensity that evokes sympathy. Hirsh and Blanks are appropriately evil as Goneril  and Regan, and Mixon makes for a wonderful contrast as the honest and sincere Cordelia.  Edmund gets some of the best lines in the play, and Bloom delivers them with acerbic intensity:

“Wherefore should I stand in the plague of custom, and  permit the curiosity of nations to deprive me, for that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines lag of  a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?”

Driggers plays the Fool (see what I did there?) not so much as a clown, but as a terrified young man who grasps  the gravity of a dangerous situation from which he must save his friend. There’s an urgency about this Fool that is an unexpected take on the character. Cavitt delivers one of the most challenging and high-energy  performances in the play as the selfless, though hopelessly naive, Edgar.

Richard Purday and Chris Cook - photo by Rob Sprankle

A few members of the ensemble couldn’t quite pick an accent - which was distracting - but as I said  before, this is a large cast and every actor’s performance can’t always be golden. At the preview performance I attended, there was a moment of nudity that I’m not altogether sure was simply a wardrobe  malfunction. I can’t imagine bringing small children to something as heavy as a Shakespearean  tragedy, however, so this might not be an issue for you. The key players do interesting work, and the SC  Shakespeare Company takes a straightforward interpretation of King Lear to a few surprisingly creative  places.

~ Jillian Owens

King Lear runs Wednesday, October 22 through Saturday, October 25 in the Amphitheatre in Finlay Park. Curtain is at 7:30 PM, and the Wednesday performance is free!  For more information, visit http://www.shakespearesc.org/ .

 

Shakespeare's Epic Romance "Cymbeline" - a review by Jillian Owens

cymbeline8 When I heard the South Carolina Shakespeare Company had chosen Cymbeline for their spring show, I was excited. This is one of Shakespeare’s least-performed plays.  I had never seen a production, and can’t remember the last time it was produced here in Columbia.

The South Carolina Shakespeare Company describes Cymbeline as an “epic romance,” and I have to agree that it certainly is. From its wildly complicated plot involving murder, kidnapping, attempted murder, gender-bending hilarity, deception, jealousy, battles, and a bizarre deus ex machina plot twist, “epic” seems an apt descriptor for this show.

(L-R) Bobby Bloom, Chris Cook, Katie Mixon, Libby Campbell Turner, Wela Mbusi; photo by Jeff Driggers

The play opens in Ancient Britain. King Cymbeline’s daughter, Imogen (played by Katie Mixon) has married Posthumus Leonatus (played by Bobby Bloom) against her father’s wishes. Posthumus is banished, but the two vow to work this all out somehow. Meanwhile, Cymbeline’s new wife, the Queen (played by Libby Campbell Turner) has great plans to make Imogen marry her son from a previous marriage -- the loutish Cloten (played by Scott Means) -- and then to poison Cymbeline (played by Chris Cook) and Imogen in order to secure Cloten’s position as King.

Cymbeline live in Filnay Park - photo by Jillian Owens

Bobby Bloom and Katie Mixon; photo by Jeff Driggers

Are you following along so far? Good -- because things are about to get weird. While in exile in Italy, Posthumus encounters Iachimo (played by Wela Mbusi) who  wagers that he can seduce Imogen. Posthumus, full of pride for his wife’s chastity, agrees to the bet. Iachimo meets with Imogen, who refuses his advances. Being the weirdo creepster he is, Iachimo hides in her bedroom to steal a token that will make it look as though he has been successful in his seduction while she sleeps.  Posthumus, not being the forgiving sort, sends his servant Pisanio (played by G. Scott Wild) to kill Imogen. However Pisanio, not being the murdering sort, warns Imogen, who then escapes, disguised as a young man.

Chris Cook and Libby Campbell Turner; photo by Jeff Driggers

What follows is one of the most bizarrely complicated plots I’ve seen since LOST. Someone gets beheaded. Someone is given a potion that was meant to kill them but only makes them seem dead for a bit. A battle is fought and people are imprisoned. And I promise you won’t see the twist at the end coming.

Bobby Bloom and Wela Mbusi - photo by Jeff Driggers

There’s a lot to like about the SC Shakespeare Company’s performance of Cymbeline. As I mentioned before, this play is rarely performed anymore, and it’s very different from most of Shakespeare’s other works. Theories exist that he didn’t even write Cymbeline entirely on his own. Its scarcity makes it a special treat to scholars and enthusiasts alike.

(L-R) G. Scott Wild, Katie Mixon - photo by Jillian Owens

There are also some impressive performances, most notably by Bobby Bloom as Posthumus and Katie Mixon as Imogen. Bloom’s commanding resonance and passion are perfect for his role, and Mixon makes a lovely and surprisingly empowered Imogen. Wild’s role of Pisanio may be a small one, but his moments with Imogen show a beautiful empathy that is impressive to achieve with such little stage time. Scott Means has lightened what could have been a disturbingly dark role in his interpretation of Cloten, and this choice gives this production of Cymbeline moments of much-needed frivolity.

cymbeline7

The extremely misogynistic themes of Cymbeline are difficult to watch, though. The men (those who don’t die anyways) have seemingly - and at times literally - earned favor with the gods, whereas Imogen, the most honorable person in the play, is continually victimized, preyed upon, and objectified. The plot is needlessly confusing at times, as if Shakespeare was just seeing how many strange things he could throw into a play. Who knows? That might be the case. You should also be warned that this is a long show, clocking in at about three hours with a 15 minute intermission, so be sure you’re prepared to make a night of it.

Even though I can understand why it isn’t one of the Bard’s most popular works, I admire the South Carolina Shakespeare Company and director Linda Khoury for taking on such a work as Cymbeline and bringing it to a public that might otherwise never see this strange part of his canon.

~ Jillian Owens

Cymbeline runs Wednesday through Saturday, May 7—10, 2014 at 8:00 PM in the amphitheatre in Finlay Park.  Admission is free, although  a donation of $10 is a suggested. If you will attend with a large party, please arrive early for the best seating.  The Finlay Park Amphitheatre is at 930 Laurel Street, Columbia, SC 29201.  So hie thee hence from thy computer screen and sally forth post-haste to Finlay Park!

For more information, please call 803-787-2273 or visit www.ShakespeareSC.org .

Come early (6:00PM) before the Thursday May 8th performance, and you and your family can also enjoy Shakespeare’s Kidz (the SCSC’s new school-aged company, directed by Imogen actress Katie Mixon) as they take the stage with a re-telling of a classic using humor, some modern language, and sword fighting in Don’t Say Macbeth!

 

 

Jasper Goes to the Library with the SC Shakespeare Company, Tues. 5/6 at the Cooper Branch!

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In the latest installment of the popular "Jasper Goes to the Library" series, theatre is the featured art form, with scenes from Shakespeare's Cymbeline performed by members of the South Carolina Shakespeare Company on Tuesday, May 6 at 6:30 PM, at the Cooper Branch of the Richland Library, located at 5317 N. Trenholm Rd., Columbia, SC 29206,  in Forest Acres.

Over the last six months, Jasper – the Word on Columbia Arts – has partnered with artists in each of six disciplines – visual art, film, literary art, music, dance, and now theatre – in special events at different locations of the Richland Library. The goal has been to engage community members, arts enthusiasts, and library patrons in an intimate setting, allowing for them to enjoy presentations by artists, and develop a better understanding of each discipline.

Bobby Bloom and Katie Mixon; photo by Jeff Driggers

Join Cymbeline cast members and veteran local actors Chris Cook (founder of High Voltage Theatre), Libby Campbell Turner (recalled as the mother in August: Osage County), Katie Mixon (a graduate of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) and Bobby Bloom (a finalist for the 2013 Jasper Theatre Artist of the Year) as they present scenes from the play in the intimate setting of the Cooper Branch. This library event takes place at 6:30 PM on Tuesday May 6, 2014, will last approximately 45 minutes, and is FREE!

The South Carolina Shakespeare Company will perform Cymbeline in its entirety live in Finlay Park,  Wednesday through Saturday, May 7—10.

Chris Cook and Libby Campbell Turner; photo by Jeff Driggers

Cymbeline features forbidden love, mistaken identity, banishment, and a magic potion; Shakespeare weaves multiple threads into this endlessly inventive tapestry of ancient Britain. You will also find laughter, betrayal, and of course an evil queen. When the brave princess Imogen is falsely accused of betrayal, she escapes her father’s court and sets forth on a treacherous journey to redeem her place and reunite with her true love—but it might take a miracle or two. Shakespeare companies around the country are re-discovering this stirring and poetic tale. The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC produced the play to popular success last season, and now director Linda Khoury has assembled a top-notch cast right here in SC, and local audiences have a rare opportunity to see Cymbeline.

The title character, King Cymbeline, is played by Christopher Cook. He is joined by Katie Mixon as Imogen, Libby Campbell-Turner as the Queen, Wela Mbusi as Iachimo, and Robert Bloom as Posthumous, with Jeff Driggers as Guiderius and G. Scott Wild as Pisanio. The professional cast is supported by costume designer Alexis Doktor, scenic designer Lee Shepherd, and lighting designer Rufus Carson.

For more information on the performance in Finlay Park, visit http://www.shakespearesc.org/cymbeline.html

The Cooper Branch of the Richland Library is located at 5317 N. Trenholm Rd., Columbia, SC 29206; phone: 803-787-3462.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Richard Arthur Király Photography

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

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

~ August Krickel

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

Trustus brings Pulitzer Prize and Olivier award-winning comedy “Clybourne Park” to Columbia with a talented ensemble cast under the direction of Guest Director Jim O’Connor.

  photo by Jonathan Sharpe

 

Trustus Theatre is bringing Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize, Tony, and Olivier Award-winning comedy Clybourne Park to the Thigpen Main Stage. This show, a response to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, is a provocative and humorous look at racial relations and reactions in America. Clybourne Park is directed by award-winning guest director Jim O’Connor, and opens on the Thigpen Main Stage Friday January 24th at 8:00pm. The show runs through February 8th, 2014. Tickets may be purchased at www.trustus.org.

 

Clybourne Park explodes on to the Main Stage in two outrageous acts set fifty years apart. Act I takes place in 1959, as nervous community leaders anxiously try to stop the sale of a home to a black family. Act II is set in the same house in the present day, as the now predominantly African-American neighborhood battles to hold its ground in the face of gentrification. A wonderfully well-crafted script that received all of the top theatrical honors, Clybourne Park intriguingly explores conflicting aspects of the American experience.

 

Much of director Jim O’Connor’s theatrical career and life has been spent addressing social issues ranging from Apartheid, sexual equality and harassment, social order and responsibility, and American values. “I was elated when Trustus offered me this script,” said O’Connor. “This script is such a direct, powerful, and humorous chance to direct another piece dealing with the world of prejudice and racial relationships. Clybourne Park furnishes a delightful and meaningful evening in the theatre, but also offers the audience something to think about later as well. It can be used as a guide in our everyday lives.”

 

O’Connor has assembled a strong ensemble cast for this daring production. Trustus Company members G. Scott Wild (Ragtime), Rachel Kuhnle (Pine), and Venus in Fur’s Bobby Bloom (2013 Jasper Artist of the Year in Theatre Finalist) are returning to the Thigpen Main Stage. Joining them are USC theatre professor Erica Tobolski (Good People) and A Christmas Carol’s Wela Mbusi, who has performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the U.K. Making their Trustus debuts and rounding out the cast are Erika Wright, Bryan Bender, and Lucas Bender.

 

Popular local artist Christian Thee is designing the scenic elements of Clybourne Park, where the house on stage must magically transform and age 50 years over the course of intermission. Thee is bringing his mastery of trompe l'oeil (“fool the eye”) art and design to the set in order to make the illusion of age and transformation come to life for the audience.

 

“Beyond its well deserved pedigree with a Pulitzer Prize and an Olivier Award, this script demands attention because of its subject matter,” said Director Jim O’Connor. “This script is unique because of the wonderfully creative form and ability to make its point through laugh out loud characters, situations and lines. All one has to do is read a daily newspaper to find the relevance of racial harmony or disharmony in 2014. There continue to be cases in the Supreme Court, battles in Congress and, conflicts in daily life based on when and how different races will ever manage to get together and shed traces of prejudices.”

 

There will be a talk-back following the show on February 2nd. The panel will consist of, photographer Vennie Deas Moore who is currently documenting growth in downtown Columbia from 1920 to 1950, Tige Watts who is currently President of the National Council of Neighborhoods, Julia Prater who is deputy director of the Columbia Housing Authority, the cast, and the director Jim O’Connor.

 

Trustus Theatre’s Clybourne Park opens on the Trustus Main Stage on Friday, January 24th at 8:00pm and runs through February 8th, 2014. Thigpen Main Stage shows start at 8:00pm Thursdays through Saturdays, Saturday matinees are at 2pm, and Sunday matinees are at 3:00pm. There will not be a matinee performance on January 26.  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 is available on Lady St. and on Pulaski St. The Main Stage entrance is located on the Publix side of the building.

 

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

   

"Venus in Fur" - a review of the new show at Trustus Theatre by August Krickel

Jennifer Moody Sanchez and Bobby Bloom in "Venus in Fur," running through  Sat. Nov. 16 on the Trustus Mainstage - Photo by Richard Arthur Király  Thomas is a serious author, determined to bring an influential work of Victorian eroticism to life on stage. Vanda is a brassy, uncultured actress. who assumes she's auditioning for glorified "S&M porn." Which she's totally down for.  His pencil-thin mustache, chiseled jawline, and rich baritone delivery channel his 19th-century protagonist, as he reads lines from classical poetry and his own play with passion and conviction. She shows up wearing lingerie and heels under a raincoat, although she assures him that "usually I'm really demure and sh!t."  He's Errol Flynn by way of Don Draper, dismissing her with a suave "if you will;" she’s Miley Cyrus, rendering his expression into the more modern "Whatever."

In Hollywood, this mismatched couple, played by Bobby Bloom and Jennifer Moody Sanchez, would be destined to fall in love. Off-Broadway, where David Ives's Venus in Fur premiered before a seven-month, critically-acclaimed run on Broadway, she's destined to tie him up and make him beg for more.  The new production at Trustus Theatre (which only runs through this weekend) is many things simultaneously:

- a seemingly straightforward, 2-person character study of actress and first-time director who begin  to take on the personas of their fictive counterparts as they run lines from his play.

- a recreation of the infamous 1870 novella, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose surname gave us the term "masochism," and who attempted to explain dominance and submission (from a man's perspective, anyway) in terms of reverence for an all-powerful, goddess-like image of female perfection.

- a contemporary examination of gender roles, and how women are portrayed and perceived in art, and in life.

- a murky journey through primal, mythological themes of mother goddesses and retribution.

- a covertly wicked satire of the audition/rehearsal process, where a director's routine instructions to a performer (e.g. "Stand there. No, more to your left. Now do the scene again. Again.  Stronger this time!") become a metaphor for S&M, and vice-versa.

- a fast-paced comedy, at times, with plenty of laughter and wit.

- a thriller in which both leads may have hidden agendas: how does Vanda know so much about Thomas's new play, and about his life? How is she able to give such a sophisticated reading, when Thomas feels she fails to understand even the basics of the character?  And is Thomas simply an up-and-coming playwright with vision, or does he have way too much attachment and connection to the themes explored in his work?  There's thunder, and lightning, and the way she loves him is frightening.

Jennifer Moody Sanchez and Bobby Bloom in "Venus in Fur," running through  Sat. Nov. 16 on the Trustus Mainstage - Photo by Richard Arthur Király

Bloom and Sanchez are alone on stage for nearly two hours, with no intermission (so be sure to visit the bar, and/or the facilities, just before curtain.) The play is a showcase for two talented performers, and they never disappoint. Both excel not only in embodying their primary characters but also in switching to their roles in the play-within-the play, whose own natures evolve as the show progresses.  As Vanda, Sanchez is all awkward arms and legs; as Wanda, the role she reads for, those limbs become elegant, willowy, and graceful.  She gets the majority of the laugh lines, while Blooms gets most of the play's eloquent ones, as when he describes how "two people meet, and ignite each other." Both are to be commended for bravery on stage, with Sanchez spending half the show in lingerie (although no more revealing than a typical swimsuit at the beach) and Bloom forced into moments of extreme emotional vulnerability.

Jennifer Moody Sanchez  in "Venus in Fur," running through  Sat. Nov. 16 on the Trustus Mainstage - Photo by Richard Arthur Király

The show is quite talky, esoteric, and abstract, with references to Tristan and Isolde, Paris and Anchises, Dionysus and the Bacchae.  Clues and red herrings, are dropped throughout as to what really may be going on, but when Thomas and Vanda reach an impasse, where he decides she is wrong for the role, and she implies that she never wanted it, something compels both to finish the scene, as if their fictive counterparts' lives are more important than their own.

A surprise ending may leave some feeling empowered from an uplifting and important, if shocking, message; others may feel cheated or short-changed. Scholars of theatre, history, and literature will appreciate a return to the form's most archetypal roots,  while a few  may simply echo the sorority girl from the viral video, saying "Wait.... what?"  I wonder if Ives began with a stage version of the original novella, then realized that it needed post-modern commentary and analysis via the framing device of the audition, and finally realized that he had painted himself into a narrative corner, with no way for a believable denouement. Or perhaps the final five minutes are the only logical way for this piece to play out, exactly as Ives intended.  However, as I expressed to the cast - this isn't hard when there are only two - screw the ending if you don't like it, because for me the play was all about the journey, not the destination.  It's a great chance to see two gifted young performers, capably directed by Jim O'Connor,  in the roles of a lifetime, and you will definitely be talking about the issues and themes addressed on your way home.

Because of the production’s limited run, there will be two performances on the evening of Friday, Nov. 15, at 7:30 and 10 PM. For more information or reservations, call the box office at 803-254-9732, or visit www.trustus.org.

~  August Krickel

Up Close & Personal with Jennifer Moody Sanchez of Venus in Fur -- The Hot Trustus Play with a Feminist Angle

   

Bobby Bloom and Jennifer Moody Sanchez -- photo by Jonathan Sharpe

Jasper sat down with Jennifer Moody Sanchez who is starring opposite Bobby Bloom in the new Trustus play, Venus in Fur, opening on Friday, November 8th.  We're sharing just a bit of our conversation.

 

Jasper:  Jennifer, you’re starring, along with Bobby Bloom, in Venus in Fur opening on November 8th at Trustus Theatre. Jasper had the opportunity to read playwright David Ives’ script, and it wasn’t until the end that we had any idea where the play was going. We don’t want to suggest any spoilers, but how do you keep suggestions or hints or clues to the ending of a play like Venus in Fur from the audience as the play moves along? Or do you?

 

Jennifer: We toyed around in rehearsals with the idea that let's leave these little "clues" for the audience to feed off of. Clearly in the script, Thomas is catching my character, Vanda, in all of her lies. When he calls her on it, she changes the subject and manipulates the conversation. She is always one step ahead of him. She's a master manipulator. I think we all know at least one person like that!

 

Jasper:  All of the promotional material, and the poster itself which depicts a young woman dressed in a merry widow and holding a riding crop, suggests that the play is pretty racy. Is it racy?

 

Jennifer: Yes, it's racy and erotic but more importantly it's about men and women and the power struggles that go along with that. There are issues that deal with role playing and sexual politics but it's also a sort of backstage comedy. There's tons of humor in the play, especially about the world of working in the theatre.

 

Jasper: Venus in Fur isn’t exactly a play within a play, but it is about a play within a play – how difficult is it for you to be an actor who is acting like an actor who is acting like an actor? There’s a lot of switching of parts – do you use an accent?

 

Jennifer: This is an actors’ dream role! My wonderful director, Jim O'Connor and I sat down and counted about 14 different roles I'm supposed to play … not two. There are so many layers to this role and unexpected turns. I'm still finding them! She takes not only Thomas on this wild ride but the audience is locked in the room with her on a 90 minute journey. It's such a juicy role and it's been the most challenging roles I've ever played, but also the most rewarding. I use a mid Atlantic dialect with the help of my fabulous vocal coach, Erica Tobolski.

 

Jasper: Early in the play your character Vanda, in talking about the play that is the subject of this play, refers to the play as “basically S&M.” Is Venus in Fur about S&M or does Venus in Fur possibly use S&M as a vehicle for a larger question?

 

Jennifer: Venus in Fur is a play about an aspiring theatre director/playwright who adapted a famous erotic novel called Venus in Furs. In the novel, just like the play, the balance of power shifts as my character, Vanda establishes total power over Thomas. It does deal with the idea of people "getting off" with this type of pain=pleasure but more importantly the larger question is basically: "Be careful what you wish for." Vanda takes Thomas into his own play and then teaches him about the power of his own words!

 

Jasper: Vanda, in her role as Dunayev, also says that “in our society, a woman’s only power is through men. Her character is her lack of character. She’s a blank, to be filled in by creatures who at heart despise her.” This is a pretty accurate take on how misogyny works to socially construct reality. Was playing this part, and saying lines like this, liberating for you as an actor or as a woman or as either?

 

Jennifer: One of my favorite parts in the play is when I give this women's empowerment monologue. As a woman and as a new mother, I feel like this is the entire point of the play. When I am saying these words I feel like I'm levitating! It really is mind blowing to think that a MAN wrote this play. David Ives wrote a complex, brilliantly structured play about sexual politics and the power of women! God love him!

 

Jasper: Given that the definition of feminism is the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, would you say that Venus in Fur is a feminist play? Why or why not?

 

Jennifer: Absolutely. Without a doubt. This character comes into a man's world and he thinks that she is not right for the part. She's vulgar, classless, and everything that he doesn't want in his play. But she ends up being brilliant! She changes his script and he goes along for the ride. She takes total control over him and teaches him that women are not objects or play things. She shows him the power of a woman.

 

Jasper:  Is there anything you’d like to talk about that I didn’t ask you about – What?

 

Jennifer: This is the first time this production has been produced in Columbia, SC. I'm so honored to be a part of this history. After leaving LA in December, I knew exactly where I wanted to perform: Trustus Theatre. Trustus is on the verge of cutting edge theatre and I'm so happy to be a part of the company.

Announcing the Jasper 2013 Artists of the Year Finalists in Dance, Music, Literary Arts, Theatre, and Visual Arts

Jasper leaf logo

With a total of 55 nominations, 20 adjudicators, and over 10 hours of deliberation behind us, Jasper Magazine is pleased to announce our top three finalists for the honor of

Jasper 2013 Artists of the Year

in

Dance, Music, Literary Arts, Theatre, and Visual Arts.

 ~

~Dance~

Wayland Anderson

Erin Bolshakov

Terrance Henderson

~Music~

Phillip Bush

FatRat da Czar

The Restoration

~Literary Arts~

James Barilla

Janna McMahan

Aida Rogers

~Theatre~

Bobby Bloom

Terrance Henderson

Vicky Saye Henderson

~Visual Arts~

Michaela Pilar Brown

Thomas Crouch

Philip Mullen

~~~

The above 15 artists were among 55 artists nominated by their peers and fans. Based on the information submitted with the nominations, a panel of judges selected the top three artists in each category to compete for the title

Jasper 2013 Artist of the Year.

Now the fun begins!

You’re invited to vote for your choice for Jasper 2013 Artist of the Year in each of the five categories by visiting Jasper's website

starting on Wednesday, September 25th.

There, you’ll find summaries of each artist’s accomplishments for the period of

September 15, 2012 – September 14, 2013.

The winners of Jasper 2013 Artist of the Year in Dance, Literary Arts, Music, Theatre, and Visual Arts will be announced on November 21, 2013 at the release of Jasper Magazine V. 003, N. 003 during Vista Lights. All 15 artists will be featured in the same issue of Jasper Magazine.

Go to www.JasperColumbia.com

and vote for your choice of Jasper 2013 Artist of the Year starting on Wednesday, September 25th

Voting ends on midnight, October 20th, 2013.

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/ .

 

 

 

 

"By The Way, Meet Vera Stark" - a review of the new show at Trustus

Trustus Theatre's new production of Lynne Nottage's play By The Way, Meet Vera Stark tackles an odd paradox from early Hollywood: talented actors of color were finding professional success on screen in mainstream films that starred white performers, but most commonly were cast as maids, slaves, "mammies," and other stereotypical roles. Hattie McDaniel, for example, broke the color barrier when she won the Oscar, but still she played a servant, not a teacher, mother, or romantic lead. Employing a dizzying array of narrative and dramatic techniques, Nottage traces the career of the fictional Vera Stark (Michelle Jacobs), an aspiring African-American actress in the early '30's who works by day as a maid for the frivolous Gloria Mitchell (Katie Mixon), a Mary Pickford-like starlet famed as "America's Little Sweetie Pie." Advance press material notwithstanding, Vera Stark is neither a screwball comedy (although it is sometimes funny, if perhaps not hilarious) nor a riff on Gone With the Wind (although Mixon sometimes channels the breathless drawls of Vivian Leigh and Olivia de Havilland.)  Gloria is desperate to land the lead in The Belle of New Orleans, a weepy film melodrama that draws from classics like Camille and Dion Boucicault's The Octaroon. That term, by the way, turns up frequently: it's a 19th-century term for a person with one-eighth black heritage, who would still have been classified as a slave. (A mixed-race friend of mine once laughingly used that term to describe herself, and later a co-worker asked "What did you say you were again?  A Macaroon?")

caption

Vera, clearly a close friend, confidante and sister-figure for her scatterbrained employer, wants a shot at playing the “Belle's” maid, an actual dramatic role with lines beyond "Yes, ma'am." In moments that define the play's central issues, Vera and roommate Lottie (Annette Dees Grevious) discuss the inherent irony of Vera's situation; these conversations, and scenes where Vera flirts with ambitious, driven jazz musician Leroy (an earnest and smooth Jabar Hankins) could be excerpts from a good August Wilson drama set in the 1930's. Strangely, however, different scenes and different characters in the first act are written in drastically, sometimes jarringly different styles. When Jacobs and Grevious banter with Janell Bryant (as their saucy friend Anna Mae, who intends to find stardom via affairs with white producers and directors who think she's Brazilian) the mood lightens, and the laughs come fast and furious, in the vein of socially-conscious comedies from the '70's like Good Times.  Hollywood types turn up: Bobby Bloom as a no-nonsense producer who could be from a realistic 1940's drama, and Clint Poston as an idealistic director, clearly an Otto Preminger figure, but as broadly comic as if Franz Liebkind's accent and Roger DeBris's flamboyance were taken from The Producers and morphed into a single character.  Bloom's studio exec, by the way, could easily have been one-note, and played by an older man, simply a quasher of any projects that won't sell at the box office. The youthful Bloom gives a remarkably three-dimensional performance, proving that there are no small roles, only small actors.  With the simplest of tools - suspenders instead of a belt, hair parted a certain way, a cigar held like Bogart, wire-rimmed glasses, assertive body language - he perfectly conveys an Irving Thalberg-like visionary, who wants to give audiences a brief escape from the grim realities of the Depression.

Mixon, meanwhile, dives into the role of the vodka-fueled Gloria with as much gleeful abandon as she dove into that quiche a few months ago in the Side Door Theatre, flamboyantly vamping like Lydia Languish or other 17th and 18th-century heroines of classic farce. When all these characters are on stage together, the show comes closest to capturing the spirit of a vintage screen comedy, a la Golddiggers of 1933, or How to Marry a Millionaire, with Grevious taking the older, more cynical Lauren Bacall role, Jacobs becoming sweet Betty Grable, and Bryant as the luscious but clueless Marilyn Monroe.  But if these references to obscure shows and characters you may not be familiar with are becoming a little annoying, that to some extent is my point. The author clearly intended this mash-up of genres, and each cast member does just fine, but at times the effect is confusing, as if disparate characters from separate plays all found themselves on stage together.

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The storytelling chaos coalesces into something different entirely, however, as Act Two becomes a retelling of, reflection on, and subtle satire of the themes we saw in Act One. Three modern scholars (Grevious, Bryant, and Wela Mbusi) debate the legacy and sociological impact of Stark's life, as we see first a "clip" from The Belle of New Orleans, featuring Gloria, Vera, Lottie, and even "Brazilian Spitfire Anna Fernandez" (i.e. Anna Mae) in the roles that defined their careers, followed by a clip from a 1970's Merv Griffin-style talk show, where we see the older Vera and Gloria reunite. Here director Dewey Scott-Wiley brilliantly captures the differing levels of narrative: we the audience are watching a contemporary academic forum, whose participants are in turn watching a 40-year-old TV clip (acted out live by the performers from within a framed portal;) the talk show guests are in turn watching a film clip from 40 years earlier, the very movie that the characters were obsessing over live on stage in the first act.  Confused?  It actually makes perfect sense, and is a superb payoff to the confusion of Act One. Vera has become a parody of herself, much like the aging Josephine Baker or Eartha Kitt, and we learn that she ended her life soon after this TV appearance, dying young like Dorothy Dandridge, who likewise struggled for mainstream roles in Hollywood.  Leroy turns up as a bitter and defiant Charlie Parker-style burnout, excellently embodied as an older man by Hankins, while Gloria has naturally become a beloved screen goddess of yesteryear.  Scott-Wiley's inventive staging places the live action of the 70's clips behind scrims, eliminating the need for any significant make-up effects, while the 1930's movie was actually filmed in black-and-white by Jason Steelman, and directed by Scott-Wiley.  While it is supposed to be a parody of the era and its cinematic and acting conventions to some extent, the movie-within-the-play is actually pretty decent, with some nice angles, and plenty of attractive shadows, beams of light, and shades of gray.  Bloom doubles as the talk show host, and again manages to create an entirely different character, saying volumes with his pained expression as his interview/reunion devolves into a catfight.

Scott-Wiley doubles as scenic designer, and the art deco-influenced set is serviceable, but looks unfinished. The scrim effects are outstanding in the second act, but really should have been covered up by paintings, tapestry, anything, in the first act. Portions of the stage become particular locales (Vera's apartment, the exterior of the studio, etc.) but little is done to give any sense of change, and the actors' blocking within these smaller areas sometimes seems cramped and constrained. Costumes by Amy Brower expertly define varying eras; a number of characters wear striking creations from La-Ti-Da Jewelry Designs, which are also featured on display in the theatre's bar/gallery area.

Nottage has won just about every award imaginable: Pulitzer, Obie, Guggenheim, even a MacArthur "Genius" grant, but I don't think any were for this play.  The show is enjoyable enough, but never entirely decides what it wants to say, or what kind of play it wants to be. It's never a complete laugh-fest, nor do the more serious moments delve particularly deeply into material ripe for exploration. I also fear that some of the structural madness and much of the very broad comedy in the first act may turn off patrons who expect more from Trustus.  To them I say that the second act is the pay-off, and it's worth the wait. Remember - the venue is called "Trust Us" for a reason.

By The Way, Meet Vera Stark runs through Saturday, May 18th on the Thigpen Main Stage at Trustus.  Information can be found, and tickets may be purchased online at www.trustus.org , or call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6 PM at 803-254-9732.  And you can read James Harley's review of the production at Onstage Columbia and at the Free Times.

~ August Krickel

 

"The Whipping Man" - Jillian Owens reviews the NiA Company/Off Off Lady Series production at the CMFA ArtSpace

At the end of the Civil War, a young Jewish soldier (Bobby Bloom) returns to his once-grand plantation in Virginia—now in ruins. The only remaining inhabitants of his childhood home are two of his former slaves, Simon (Darion McCloud) and John (Mario McClean), who were also raised as Jews in the DeLeon home. As they come together to celebrate Passover, secrets are revealed, alliances are severed and forged, and the meaning of freedom is explored. niA

As newly-free men, Simon and John are now left to discover how to fend for themselves when the only world they’ve known has crumbled around them. Simon, the older and gentler of the two, intends to stay on with the DeLeons as a servant—and to be well-paid for it.  John, wild with freedom, loots and ransacks the empty mansions around him.

“What’s all this?”

“Things.”

“Whose?”

“Mine now.”

“What are you going to do with it?”

“Own it.”

“Why?”

“Because I can.”

He plans on moving to New York City to make his fortune.  But do either of these men really see these dreams as possibilities, or are these just the stories they’ve told themselves in order to cope with the loneliness, hopelessness, and famine of their war-ravaged surroundings?

When Caleb returns in dire need of medical attention, questions of loyalty arise.  Why should Caleb expect the help from the men he used to own-- and even have whipped-- now that they are free?  It is possible for men of different races to truly be friends when one of the races has been repressed by the other?  How can one race with a history of being enslaved justify enslaving another?  As these men gather to literally break bread together, these questions are explored.  While it’s initially surprising to seeing two black men of Jewish faith in 1865, this isn’t all that strange for the time.  The tie-in to their observance of Passover, which commemorates the Exodus, is fitting, but it’s beaten to death (no pun intended) in this play. We get it.

Thankfully, Matthew Lopez’s script is deeper than this over-explored metaphor.  The secrets these three men share and keep from each other twist around them, chaining them to their ruined home.  While technically all “free” men, none of them can leave.  There is no emancipation from the sins of their pasts, and the sense of impending doom almost seems to play a fourth character in this play.

Darion McCloud delivers a beautiful performance as the kind and loyal Simon. You may be familiar with Mario McClean’s work as a local singer/musician. I would have liked to have seen a subtler take on the character of John, whose non-stop angry energy becomes more bombarding than moving at times. Bobby Bloom’s Caleb had a Southern accent that came and went and he yawned noticeably several times. Despite these distractions, Bloom’s performance was still powerful.

The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez is a great fit for the NiA Company, whose mission is to bring actors of all colors and cultures together.  As the “Where’s Waldo?” of the Columbia theatre community, it’s challenging to find some of their venues, but the CMFA Artspace houses this show nicely.  I recommend sitting a few rows back to overcome the sight line issues of a stage that is too high for the first couple of rows to see well.

Co-directed by Darion McCloud and Heather McCue, The Whipping Man is a thought-provoking story of shame, regret, faith, and redemption.

~ Jillian Owens

The Whipping Man runs through Friday, March 22 at the CMFA ArtSpace at 914 Pulaski Street. Curtain is at 7:30 PM, and tickets may be purchased at the door.

 

“The Whipping Man” by the Trustus Theatre at CMFA March 12-22 by Giesela Lubecke

  Cast of The Whipping Man -- Mario McClean, Darion McCloud, and Bobby Bloom

 

The Trustus Theatre’s performance of Mario Lopez’s awarding-winning Civil War play opens at the Columbia Music Festival Association 7:30 p.m. March 12.

 

The Whipping Man continues Trustus Theatre’s Off-Off Lady Street Series, an experiment to bring theatre to nontraditional venues across Columbia. The series began  last August at Tapp’s Art Center with Robbie Robertson’s “The Twitty Triplets.”  For The Whipping Man, Trustus Threatre partnered with the CMFA and the NiA Company, a theatre group committed to bringing artistic programs to minorities, at-risk youths and economically challenged groups.

 

The Whipping Man is set shortly after the end of the Civil War. Confederate soldier Caleb, played by Bobby Bloom, is a Jewish plantation owner who has returned from the War. When he comes home, he finds that his family is missing, and the only people left are his former slaves John and Simon (played by Mario McClean and Darion McCloud, respectively).

 

“There’s three characters, and I don’t know, I wouldn’t say there’s a single main character,” said Bloom. “It’s about all three of their relationships with each other.”

 

Together, Caleb, John and Simon must work through their differences as former master and slaves while they celebrate Passover, a holiday celebrating the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.

 

“It’s a great story that takes place in such a short period of time,” said McLean. “It’s really heavy material, but it keeps you captivated. I think I was just overwhelmed by the  history of it.”

 

Bloom, like McLean, was also struck by the historical facts the play bases itself on. “The fact that there were Jewish slave owners in the South I had never really considered, just because Judaism is based around being freed from slavery,” said Bloom.

 

Both Bloom and McClean expressed their dedication to preparing for their challenging roles. McClean, who has performed in several musicals, admitted he initially felt a bit out of his element getting into the mind of former slave John.

 

“It was terrifying, but it’s so much more work that I was looking forward to getting into about acting, because in musicals, you’ll have a musical number that carries you through and songs that pretty much tell you how to feel. This being my first non-musical, it was a big challenge.”

 

Bloom, who was introduced to the script two years ago by cast mate Darion McCloud, said that his biggest challenge was learning how to communicate with an off-screen character.

 

Cast of The Whipping Man from left to right Mario McClean, Darion McCloud, and Bobby Bloom

“There’s a letter in this show, and I’ve actually never had a letter onstage before,” said Bloom. “I’ve had to create an entirely new relationship with someone who is not even there,

and there’s not even a person playing that character. I’ve had to approach a lot of things differently than I usually approach them.”

 

Performances of “The Whipping Man” will continue for the next week. The show will take a break on the Sabbath, return to the stage March 16, and end its run March 22, three days before Passover. Tickets to “The Whipping Man” are $10 and can be purchased at the CMFA door.

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/ .

Marauding Zombies, Playful Amphibians, and That Mofo With the Hat - What to See on Stage This Weekend

George Romero's low-budget, cult hit from 1968, Night of the Living Dead, was the granddaddy of all modern zombie stories. Zombies had been around before, but were usually depicted as corpses animated by some controlling voodoo master. Romero took the basic idea of hordes of the undead from Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, made them less vampires and more corpse-like, yet still eager to chomp your flesh and turn you into one of them, and his world-view of a zombie apocalypse took off, influencing everything from the Resident Evil and Silent Hill video games, to director John Landis's classic video for the Michael Jackson song "Thriller," to the current hit comic book and cable tv series The Walking Dead. We're still fond of this exchange from the Joss Whedon-produced series Angel, written by Steven S. DeKnight (now the show-runner for Spartacus) : CONNOR (Angel's mortal son, who hates him): He looks dead.

ANGEL (the "good" vampire with a soul) : He is dead. Technically, it's undead. It's a zombie.

CONNOR: What's a zombie?

ANGEL: It's an undead thing.

CONNOR: Like you?

ANGEL: No, zombies are slow-moving, dimwitted things that crave human flesh.

CONNOR: Like you.

ANGEL: No! It's different. Trust me.

Zombies are all the rage in Columbia too, with an annual Zombie Walk (Crawl? Lurch?) each Hallowe'en. High Voltage Theatre is currently producing a stage adaptation of the original Romero film, running this weekend and the next, Friday and Saturday nights, through Sat. Feb. 15th, at the Tapp's Art Center on Main Street. For information or reservations, call: 803-754-5244. And you can read a review at the Free Times.

Over at Richland Mall in Forest Acres, Columbia Children's Theatre is opening their new production of A Year With Frog and Toad, the Tony-nominated (seriously!) musical by Robert and Willie Reale, based on Arnold Lobel's series of children's books. The cast includes local favorites such as Jerry Stevenson, Lee O. Smith, Bobby Bloom, Sara Jackson, Paul Lindley II (doubling as musical director) Toni Moore, and Elizabeth Stepp (who also choreographs.)

From press material:

Arnold Lobel's well-loved characters hop from the page to the stage in A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD, the Theatre of Young Audiences version of Tony-nominated musical. This whimsical show follows two great friends -- the cheerful, popular Frog and the rather grumpy Toad -- through four, fun-filled seasons. Waking from hibernation in the Spring, Frog and Toad plant gardens, swim, rake leaves, go sledding, and learn life lessons along the way. The two best friends celebrate and rejoice in their differences that make them unique and special. Part vaudeville, part make believe, all charm, A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD tells the story of a friendship that endures, weathering all seasons.

The show runs through Sun. Feb. 17th; contact the box office at (803) 691-4548 for information.

Meanwhile, down in the Vista, Trustus Theatre opens Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Motherf@*#&er With the Hat, directed by Chad Henderson, with a score by Preach Jacobs, scenic design by Kimi Maeda, and featuring Alexis Casanovas, Shane Silman, Raia Jane Hirsch, Michelle Jacobs, and Joe Morales.

From press material:

ADULTS ONLY PLEASE: language, nudity, sexual situations, & violence

"This sexy and modern show was nominated for Tony Awards, Drama League Awards, Outer Critics Circle Awards, and Drama Desk Awards – TRUST US, it’s more than the title that’s provocative about this show."

Struggles with addiction, friendship, love and the challenges of adulthood are at the center of the story. Jackie, a petty drug dealer, is just out of prison and trying to stay clean. He's also still in love with his coke-addicted childhood sweetheart, Veronica. Ralph D. is Jackie's too-smooth, slightly slippery sponsor. He's married to the bitter and disaffected Victoria, who, by the way, has the hots for Jackie. And then there's Julio, Jackie's cousin … a stand-up, "stand by me" kind of guy. However, when Jackie comes home with flowers to find a strange man’s hat by his and Veronica’s bed, these characters careen forward as Jackie goes in search of the hat’s owner. What follows is an examination of trust, lust, loyalty, and true love.

You can read an interview with director Chad Henderson here.  Contact the box office at (803) 254-9732 for ticket information.

"Next Fall" at Trustus Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ Stephen Kish

 

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

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

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

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

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

How do you make that call?

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Trustus's Off-Off Lady Series presents Red - a review

Trustus launched the first play in its Off-Off Lady Series on Wednesday night with a production of John Logan's Red at the Columbia Museum of Art, coinciding with the Mark Rothko exhibit now on view.

It was just plain fun to arrive at the art museum and be directed around back and up a ramp to get to the captured theatre space where the play would be presented. Once in the bowels of the art museum -- in rooms and hallways few of us ever enter -- we were then directed to board a monstrous freight elevator where we were transported to an even more massive warehouse/storage area resembling an empty parking garage. There to the left was an elongated theatre space created via pipe and draping with a single row of chairs lining the drapery walls. Center stage, on the same level as the chairs, was created by renown design artist Christian Thee, and it, in almost every way, did an excellent job of replicating Mark Rothko's Bowery art studio at the end of the 1950s. Barry Sparks' lighting design, which had to have been challenging given the unusual theatre setting, lent a desired sense of staleness to the milieu indicative of Rothko's disdain for natural light.

Red is about the period in Rothko's life during which he was commissioned to create art for the Seagram Company's new, and now famous, Four Seasons Restaurant. An abstract impressionist, Rothko was offered a hefty sum of money for the time, and through dialogue with his assistant, a fictional character named Ken, he addresses issues of compromise, the value of art -- particularly postmodern art -- and the value of intellect. The questions are provocative in the kind of way that makes the audience want to hit "pause" on the play so you can talk with one another about the merits of possible answers before continuing on with the plot.

Unfortunately, Harrison Saunders, the actor playing Rothko, made some of us want to hit "pause" on occasion to turn down the rage. It wasn't that Saunders was unable to summon Rothko's anger and seeming disgust at the state of arts affairs in a postmodern world -- he did so well and convincingly; it was his lack of ability to modulate the irateness of the artist that felt grinding as the play wore on. While it would be unfair to compare Saunders' performance to that of Alfred Molina who played Rothko in the Broadway play, what we do know of Molina's performance is that it gave the character the opportunity to build from a simmering peevishness to the kind of tremoring rage required of the final scene when the artist decides against selling his art to the Four Seasons. Saunders, on the other hand, went from zero to sixty in the first act and stayed there all night.

Luckily Bobby Bloom, who played the role of Rothko's assistant Ken, responded appropriately to the building conflict, doing a fine job of being at once Rothko's sounding board and his punching bag, while at the same time maintaining his own agency as an artist.

Red was written by John Logan, who we know most recently from the screenplay for Hugo. Included among his earlier award-winning works are The Aviator, the Last Samurai, the Gladiator and a dozen more screenplays of note. Despite its limited run on Broadway -- it opened in London in 2009 -- Red won six Tonys in 2010.

Inconsistencies aside, the experience of seeing Red at the Columbia Museum of Art is something that should not be missed. Kudos to managing Director Larry Hembree, who directed this show, and artistic director Dewey Scott-Wiley for conceptualizing this experience. We'll go see Trustus performances no matter how far off-off Lady Street we have to travel.

Red continues through October 14th at the Columbia Museum of Art/ For tickets call Trustus at 803-254-9732