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

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

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

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

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

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

Sumner Bender and Scott Herr - photo by Jonathan Sharpe

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

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

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

Kayla Cahill - photo by Richard Arthur Király Photography

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

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

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

~ August Krickel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ Arik Bjorn

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