REVIEW: Misery is Optional at Trustus Theatre

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

Director and Co-Writer Dewey Scott-Wiley

Director and Co-Writer Dewey Scott-Wiley

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

--

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

Co-Writer, Christine Hellman

Co-Writer, Christine Hellman

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

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

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

REVIEW: Barbecue at Trustus Theatre - Frank Thompson

“There’s a face that we wear in the cold light of day.
  It’s society’s mask, it’s society’s way,

  But the truth is that it’s all a façade…”

 

-Jekyll And Hyde: The Musical

 

   When Frank Wildhorn penned the above lyrics for his adaptation of the classic tale of The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde over two decades ago, he probably didn’t anticipate them being used in the introduction of a review for a yet-to-be-written play about a family staging an intervention, but the song has been stuck in my head since seeing Friday night’s performance of Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue. As usual, Trustus Theatre has selected a multi-layered, thoughtful, and well-crafted piece of work to open the 2017-2018 season. It also happens to be hilariously funny at times, especially early on, as we are introduced to a series of social misfits gathering for a cookout/confrontation in hopes of persuading the meth-addicted Barbara (Christine Hellman and Devin Anderson) to get the help she desperately needs. Known also as “Zippity-Doo”, Barbara is the loosest cannon on a full deck; her would-be rescuers each have substance and/or personal issues, and the family is a nigh-stereotypical dysfunctional, lower-middle-class bunch.

 

   It would be impossible to adequately review the performance without revealing a few spoilers, so if you want to go in completely blind, stop reading now and take my word that Barbecue is well worth your time and money.

 

   If you’re still reading, I promise not to give away all of the surprises, but to avoid confusion, I’ll go ahead and say that each role is double-cast, with one family entirely African-American, the other entirely white. The two families are identically named and costumed, with only minor (or so it seems) differences between them. Both Barbaras are addicts, and the set-up for the intervention, etc., utilizes almost identical dialogue, with a few cultural colloquialisms and stylistic choices unique to each group. The first act alternates scenes between the groups, with a fairly close-to-real-time overlap until a big reveal at the end of the first act, at which point we realize that we’re watching a reality show onstage. (The TV series Intervention is actually mentioned several times). But which “reality” is real? Over drinks at intermission, several friends and I guessed what would happen as well as what was going on. We were all incorrect, which illustrates the artistry of the playwright in avoiding the obvious in a play populated by what seem at first to be two-dimensional characters.

   The show opens with a laugh-riot, profanity-laden, monologue by Christopher Cockrell as Barbara’s n’ere-do-well brother, James T., who wants nothing to do with any of it, yet is forced to set up for the party alone. Having seen Cockrell mostly in dramatic, serious roles, I was most impressed with his flawless comedic timing, as well as his ability to convincingly play a lowbrow redneck. It’s always enjoyable to see familiar faces in roles outside their personal norm, and Cockrell’s James T. is just that. Matching Cockrell’s stage presence and skill, Kendrick J. Lyles appears as the black James T., who, while slightly more laid-back, is the same scruffy, beer-swilling schlub as his white counterpart. One has a mullet, the other dreadlocks, but they’re both reluctant, unimpressed with the plan, and would rather be anywhere else.

 

   Krista Forster and LaTrell Brennan share the role of Barbara’s sister, Marie, who has plenty of her own secrets. As with Cockrell and Lyles, both performers manage to create the same character with just enough differences to keep things interesting. While each Marie is self-serving and hypocritical, Forster’s is a bit more aggressive somehow, with Brennan’s interpretation bringing out a slightly softer side. Rather than being a distraction, this adds another layer to the almost-but-not-quite-identical nature of the two families. One gets the idea that Marie is following fairly closely in Barbara’s footsteps, which is supported by slight differences in the two Barbaras that mirror the personality of each Marie. Kudos to director Ilene Fins for weaving such subtleties into the parallel universes.

   Trustus mainstay Elena Martinez-Vidal plays the white incarnation of Aldean, a chain-smoking opioid addict who is battling breast cancer. With her edgy, crass, and selfish nature, Aldean could easily be the most-disliked of this crew of undesirables, but Martinez-Vidal brings a raffish lovability to the role. She’s the cranky old aunt or neighbor lady whose nastiness is somehow endearing. Her counterpart, Mahogany Collins, is just flat-out hateful, with hilarious results. In the hands of a less skilled actress, this approach could have fallen flat, but Collins brings such sincerity to Aldean, you can’t help cracking up at her most venomous lines. This was my first time seeing her onstage, and I certainly hope it won’t be the last.

   Two more familiar faces on the Trustus stage, Dewey Scott-Wiley and Marilyn Matheus, provide what semblance of stability the family has in Lillie Anne, the harried organizer and driving force behind the intervention. It goes without saying that each of these seasoned pros turns in a solid, well-developed performance, but as an added layer to an already complex set of circumstances, the two Lillie Annes also helped define each family. Each has seen tragedy and loss, but seemingly from different directions. With Scott-Wiley’s Lillie Anne, there’s a slightly frantic quality which suggests a family in decline, while Matheus’ solid, no-nonsense Lillie Anne has the aura of someone who has pulled herself up beyond her beginnings. The script does not address the issue, but the performances suggest one person who is desperately trying to fix something broken, while the other is calmly determined not to let things get any worse.

   And of Barbara, herself? Well, that’s where things get complicated, and (SPOILER ALERT!!!!) once we discover that Hellman’s is the actual Barbara, the story splits open, and we see Anderson in her true identity: a successful singer who plans to conquer Hollywood by bringing Barbara’s story to life onscreen. (While in rehab, Barbara wrote a best-selling book about her experiences). In one of the show’s strongest scenes, the two play a game of cat-and-mouse over identity and reality, with Barbara claiming to have made up the entire story, which doesn’t seem to matter at all to the singer, who has her eyes on the Oscars and nothing else. Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that everything from race to sexual identity is addressed in the scene, with the overwhelming message being that reality is subjective and what you see isn’t always what you get. By the end of the scene, the two have merged in a way, and the audience is left wondering how many layers of deception and fakery just occurred, and if a “real” Barbara has faded into a pastiche of lies and re-writes. Hellman and Anderson manage to create just enough doubt about…well, almost everything. Watching their interaction and the game of one-upsmanship literally had me on the edge of my seat and figuratively doubting my sanity as each “revealed” something that may or may not have been true.

      By the end, all is made clear, but the path takes several more twists along the way, dropping in one or two more revelations that tie the two worlds together. The final moment of the show (which I won’t reveal) brought laughter from some, gasps from others, and a whispered-but-distinct “daaaaaaaamn” from someone in the row behind me. For a script which addresses and bases itself on relativism and skewed perspective, I can think of no better reaction. Barbecue is a fresh, thought-provoking, mind-twisting, funny, vulgar, and intelligent piece of theatre, with a strong cast and ambiguous storyline that leaves you scratching your head a little. It’s a perfect show for Trustus, and Artistic Director Chad Henderson is clearly committed to continuing the theatre’s goal of bringing new works of high quality to the stage. His opening night welcome to the audience included a tribute to his mentor, the late Jim Thigpen, whom I have no doubt would have taken great pride in Barbecue.

 

Frank Thompson is a graduate of The University of Alabama and Cumberland School of Law, who has made his home in Columbia since 2010. He has performed, taught classes, and/or directed with several local theatres, and co-writes a column for "The Good Life" blog for Goodwill Industries, along with his wife, Laurel Posey. His essay, 'Que, was featured in the 2014 edition of Fall Lines by Muddy Ford Press.

 

Barbecue.jpg

REVIEW: Anatomy of a Hug at Trustus Theatre

96782e2e6608539536c186e458b4b0f1 By Jon Tuttle

You know how this will end.  You know when you meet her that Amelia, a thirty-something emotional shut-in, will journey from estrangement to engagement.   And still, in the closing moments of Anatomy of a Hug, when all of the obvious signs have directed you to that inevitable conclusion, you are thrilled.   Kat Ramsburg’s original script is the most engaging Trustus Playwrights’ Festival winner in recent memory and makes for a powerful evening of theatre.

The play ends, as it must, of course it must, with an embrace. But not the one you think, and not the one on the playbill, where Dewey Scott-Wiley, as Sonia, a dying ex-con, hugs daughter Amelia, played by Rebecca Herring. The play begins as these two are reunited through a Compassionate Release program, owing to the former’s late-stage ovarian cancer. Sonia functions through the rest of the play as an hourglass: we sense, as her condition diminishes, the denouement quickly approaching.

And so there is an urgency to the action: the play, you feel, must hurry up to solve the riddle of Amelia.  But it doesn’t. Instead, Ramsburg exploits that urgency by patiently and methodically assembling her characters, and Herring quite marvelously inhabits a young woman suffering from technology-induced autism. Her mother having spent twenty-six years in prison for killing her father, Amelia has been shunted from one foster home to another. Along the way, she has counted on television to provide her with a social circle and a recognizable (or at least predictable) plotline. Her extensive DVD collection is full of friends she can “check in with” and who are “always there when you need them.” In a particular touching revelation, we learn that it was TV’s Roseann who told her about menstruation and that Sex and The City’s Aidan was her first boyfriend.

As a Save The Children-style telemarketer, Amelia is quite adept at constructing compelling narratives that convince strangers to “adopt” children in Burundi for only $35 a month. She is so earnest and knows so little of real emotional intimacy that she can, without the slightest sense of irony, peddle children half-a-world away.   It’s only when a co-worker, Ben, begins courting her that we see how lost she is. Her problem is not that she has walls; she has nothing to build them with.  She simply doesn’t know how to be. As she tells Ben, “I don’t have any other stories” than the ones she lives through on TV.

Ben is played here by Patrick Michael Kelly in an affecting return to Trustus’ stage after several years in New York, and in Ben’s trajectory we sense the underpinnings of the production itself. In the early going, he bumbles onstage like The Honeymooners’ Ed Norton. He is, well, cartoonish—or as Amelia calls him, “like someone in a sitcom—there’s something not quite real about you.”  And that’s because there’s nothing quite real about the staging.

Director Chad Henderson, along with some inventive scene, sound, and lighting design by Baxter Engle and Marc Hurst, plays Brecht for us. The backdrop is a test-pattern, the lights are exposed, and we assume the role of a studio audience even to the extent that we are instructed (by electronic light boards) when to applaud and laugh. At first, that conceit doesn’t work.  It pushes us—Brecht would say alienates us—out of the play itself. We are asked to laugh at lines that aren’t that funny, to applaud beats that don’t deserve it. We are placed, that is, in an emotionally-manufactured setting where we simply don’t know if our responses are appropriate.

Just like Amelia.

Along the way, though, the production changes just as Ben does. Kelly plays Ben as two people: an irritating, schmaltzy showman protecting someone much more wounded and sincere.  About the time we discover ourselves warming up to him, we notice also that our responses aren’t being coached anymore: all the studio trappings have fallen away, and we have been allowed into the world of the play.

Sure there are problems, there must always be problems. Some may find the television studio elements too intrusive. While Brecht insisted that we must always be shown that we are being shown something, his best plays often ignored that advice. As Sonia, the catalyst for Amelia’s ultimate emotional re-integration, Scott-Wiley’s not given much to do except break the damned TV and die (which she does quite movingly. The woman sitting next to me was downright weepy.) And the story she tells about the murder charge that landed her a life-sentence doesn’t quite add up; it sounds more like vehicular manslaughter, the sort of thing you could plea-bargain out of, particularly if you have a daughter who needs you.

And there are times when Ramsburg forgets the thing she does best: knowing what to leave out. She is very good at minimizing exposition and keeping us Here In This Moment, but through the latter third of the play—as Amelia finds her voice—I felt I was once again being coached on how to feel and respond.   Still, the writing here is very assured, and Ramsburg’s play is a threnody for those like Amelia crippled by a culture that artificializes family and belonging and what Arthur Miller called the congealments of warmth.

If the opening night standing ovation is any indication, Trustus’ production has done it considerable justice. Herring’s Amelia is someone we know better than she knows herself, and that’s some trick.  As a woman destroyed by disease and hallucinating on painkillers and flashbacks, Sonia is lucky to have Scott-Wiley. Kelly’s Ben shows us a broken man trying hard to be someone more charming and charismatic than he really is.  And Iris—well, Iris is difficult in that she is a primarily just a functionary, equal parts social worker, DOC case manager, and hospice nurse.  But Annette Grevious ably humanizes her and establishes a presence that quilts these torn pieces together.

At bottom, Anatomy of a Hug is a boy meets/gets/loses/gets girl story.  Like many modern plays, this play gives us two quirky lovers fighting through the obstacles within and without and arriving at last in each other’s arms. And yet it feels new. It allows us to identify with that part of our psyche that is permanently awkward or stunted or doesn’t know what to do with its hands, and, in the end, it grants us compassionate release.

Jon Tuttle is Professor of English at Francis Marion University and former Literary Manager at Trustus Theatre, which has produced five of his plays.  

Announcing the 2015 Jasper Artists of the Year

It was a beautiful night of revisiting the best of the Italian Renaissance at the Big Apple last night when we announced and celebrated the 2015 Jasper Artists of the Year. Without further ado, the winners are: Martha Brim pictured with Jasper Contributing Dance Editor Bonnie Boiter-Jolley

MARTHA BRIM ~ 2015 JAY IN DANCE

Julia Elliott with Jasper Literary Arts Editor Ed Madden

JULIA ELLIOTT ~ 2015 JAY IN LITERARY ARTS

Craig Butterfield pictured with Jasper Music Editor Michael Spawn

CRAIG BUTTERFIELD ~ 2015 JAY IN MUSIC

Dewey Scott-Wiley pictured with Jasper Assistant Editor Kyle Petersen

DEWEY SCOTT-WILEY ~ 2015 JAY IN THEATRE

Kimi Maeda pictured with Jasper Editor Cindi Boiter

KIMI MAEDA ~ 2015 JAY IN VISUAL ARTS

 

Congratulations to all the JAY Winners and Finalists!

Thanks to Kristine Hartvigsen for photography, Mouse House for framing, Singing Fox for event planning, and Coal Powered Filmworks for Sponsorship. Special thanks to the shared talents of Duo Cortado, Cathering Hunsinger, the Trustus Apprentices, Chris Carney, and Jasper's Wet Ink spoken word poetry collective.

5 Playwrights - 5 Directors - 5 Casts of 4 Actors -- 1 Night Only with FEST 24!

fest 24

FEST 24: 5 playwrights, 5 directors, and 20 actors create and perform 5 new 10-minute plays in 24 hours. Always entertaining, always a whirlwind - and not to be missed! You'll truly have a unique experience at this one-night only performance!

This is how it works --

  • 7 pm - Saturday evening (August 23rd):  5 directors show up at Trustus Theatre and pick (from a hat, we can only assume) one of 5 playwrights and 5 casts of 4 actors. A matter of minutes later, the playwrights (not all currently in SC, but all with ties to SC) each receive an email with instructions that they have until 7 am Sunday morning to create an original, 10 minute play that includes 1 specific prop and 1 specific line of dialogue, (which will be announced to the public just before 8 pm on Saturday evening.)

 

  • Night falls, playwrights write, actors and directors sleep - restlessly.

 

  • 7:30 am Sunday morning (August 24th): directors and casts show up once again and meet with artistic/criminal mastermind Chad Henderson who delivers unto them brand new, never performed plays, fresh from the printer and the exhausted imaginations of the now sleeping playwrights.

 

  • 8 am until 7:59 pm Sunday -- directors and casts rehearse tirelessly

 

  • 8 pm Sunday -- YOU show up to Trustus theatre (there are a few seats left, but not many) as the 5 brand new world premiere plays are performed to witness the kind of innovative, cutting edge theatre arts Columbia can now get accustomed to.

BOOM!

This is how we do it now.

~~~

Introducing the actors:

fest 24

and the directors:

Heather Lee

 

Elena Martinez-Vidal

 

Robert Richmond

 

Dewey Scott-Wiley

 

Larry Hembree

 

And the playwrights:

Sarah Hammond

A resident playwright at New Dramatists since 2007, Sarah's plays are Green Girl, The Extinction of Felix Garden, Circus Tracks, Kudzu, and House on Stilts. Honors include the Lippmann Family “New Frontier” Award, Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Heideman Award, commissions from South Coast Repertory and Broadway Across America, and a residency at The Royal National Theatre in London. String, her musical with Adam Gwon, won the Frederick Loewe Award at New Dramatists, a NAMT residency grant, the Weston Playhouse New Musicals Award, and was chosen for the Eugene O'Neill National Music Theatre Conference. Her plays have been produced at the Summer Play Festival at The Public, Trustus Theatre, Hangar Lab, City Theatre Summer Shorts, Live Girls! Theater, Collaboraction, Tulsa New Works for Women, and several universities. Her short plays are published in Ten-Minute Plays for 2 Actors: The Best of 2004 (Smith and Kraus) and Great Short Plays: Volume 6 (Playscripts, Inc.).

Randall David Cook

 

A New York-based playwright who originally hails from South Carolina. In recent years he's had two plays premiere Off-Broadway: in 2007, Fate's Imagination opened at the Players Theatre (Entertaining...Tasty plot twists and some very funny lines, The New York Times), and in 2006 Sake with the Haiku Geisha opened at the Perry Street Theatre (Witty, Observant, The New York Times) and was chosen as one of Backstage magazine's Picks of the Week. His one-act play Sushi and Scones was broadcast by the BBC, and his two screenplays (Quintet and Revelation) were both finalists for the Sundance Filmmakers Lab. He is the Resident Playwright of Gotham Stage Company, the writer of the annual Fred and Adele Astaire Awards (for best of dance on Broadway and in film) and an active member of the Dramatists Guild.

Robbie Robertson

 

A playwright, screenwriter and a graduate of the University of South Carolina and UCLA’s professional screenwriting program. Robbie’s first play, Mina Tonight!, was published by Samuel French Inc. and has been produced in regional theatres across the nation. He is also the writer/director of the musical theatrical production, The Twitty Triplets, which has been produced at Trustus and other local venues over the last two decades years (and set to return in 2015). Robbie’s screenplays have placed in several national contests, and his latest, Sweet Child of Mine, was named one of the top 12 comedy scripts in the Austin Film Festival’s Screenwriting Competition. Last year in NYC, Robertson staged a sold out run of his staged adaptation of the film Satan in High Heels, a work that received its first staged reading at Trustus. In 2013, he was awarded the SC Arts Commission Fellowship in Screenwriting. Robbie thanks Larry Hembree and Chad Henderson for their sincere interest and courage in mounting new works.

Dean Poyner

An emerging playwright, Dean was selected as a Kennedy Center / ACTF Core Member Apprentice at the Playwrights’ Center (Minneapolis, MN) for the 2010 / 2011 season. His plays include: THE MORE BEYOND (developed with Playwrights' Center, Kennedy Center, The Puzzle Festival NYC, The Flea, Semi-Finalist for the 2011 Princess Grace Award), BELLHAMMER, a modern allegory set in the world of Christian Professional Wrestling (developed at Carnegie Mellon University, Semi-Finalist for the O'Neill Theatre Conference), the full-length drama PARADISE KEY (Winner of the 2010 Trustus Theatre Playwrights' Festival, produced at Arena Players Repertory Theatre in NY, Trustus Theatre, Hyde Park Theatre), the Zombie-thriller H apocalyptus (produced by The Salvage Company at the Cairns Festival, Queensland Australia, and at Piccolo Spoleto Festival, developed at The Garage Theatre in San Francisco, and in residency at The Studios of Key West), the full-length drama, LOSING SLEEP (Winner of the 2008 Helford Prize in Drama, and produced Off-Off Broadway at the American Theatre of Actors), and the full-length, two-person comedy, COMPANY TIME (developed under luxurious circumstances at the Players Theatre, NYC.)Dean's screenplay SALK, the true story of the discovery of the vaccine against Polio, won the 2009 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation student screenplay award. Dean graduated from WheatonCollege, Wheaton, IL, with degrees in Philosophy and Communications, and received his MFA in Dramatic Writing at CarnegieMellonUniversity where he was a two-time recipient of the Shubert Foundation Fellowship. He is a Principle Artist with The Salvage Company (NYC), and a proud member the Playwrights’ Center and the Dramatists Guild of America.

Michael Thomas Downey

 

Downey has written plays before and he hopes the knowledge of that makes you feel like the two hundred bucks you're shelling out for a celebrity impersonator to join you at the "legitimate theater" tonight isn't going to waste. The important thing to remember is that Mike is getting out there and is no longer aware of his grotesque limitations. Mr. Downey (Janet if you're nasty) likes huffing gin, shouting at cars, and collecting wall hangings that have printings of that footprint dealie about Jesus. He's six foot one inch tall and would love to talk about the 1984 film "2010: The Year We Make Contact" with you over tea and Bavarian sage rugelach. His wife and children tolerate his frequent Finish Jenkka dancing…barely.

 

 

 

 

Trustus Playwright's Festival Welcomes Play by Deborah Brevoort of The Women of Lockerbie Fame

Deborah Brevoort

Internationally produced playwright Deborah Brevoort premieres her new farce The Velvet Weapon at Trustus Theatre in The Vista. This script is the winner of the Trustus Playwrights’ Festival, an annual competition that gives a full production to a new original work. This world premiere production of Brevoort’s The Velvet Weapon will run from Friday August 8th at 8:00pm through August 16th, 2014. Tickets may be purchased at www.trustus.org.

 

Trustus Theatre prides itself on its mission to produce and nurture new American scripts and playwrights with the Trustus Playwrights’ Festival. The festival has produced the work of many playwrights who went on to enjoy further success, including Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. This festival allows Trustus to become a voice in the national theatre scene by fully producing new works by American playwrights, while also bringing provocative and original stories to Columbia audiences.

 

This year’s winning script The Velvet Weapon is an intelligent, raucous, and political farce by internationally produced playwright Deborah Brevoort. The script takes audiences to the National Theatre of an unnamed country in an unnamed city where a matinee audience rises up in protest over what is being performed on stage and demands something new. They begin a performance of their own of “The Velvet Weapon,” a play by an unproduced playwright of questionable talent. Inspired by the Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia, The Velvet Weapon is a humorous exploration of populist democracy told through a battle between high-brow and low-brow art.

 

Deborah Brevoort is a playwright and librettist from Alaska who now lives in the New York City area. She is best known for her play The Women of Lockerbie which won the Kennedy Center’s Fund for New American Plays Award and the silver medal in the Onassis International Playwriting Competition.  It was produced in London at the Orange Tree, off-Broadway at the New Group and Women’s Project, and in Los Angeles at the Actors Gang and Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum. It has been produced all over the US and internationally in Scotland, Japan, Greece, Spain, Poland, Belarus, Australia, and has been translated into seven languages.

 

Brevoort’s The Velvet Weapon is a metaphorical examination of The Velvet Revolution, a non-violent transition of power in what was Czechoslovakia in 1989. The period of upheaval and transition lasted just over ten days.  Students, older dissidents, and artists demonstrated against the one-party government of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. The final result was the end of forty one years of Communist rule and the subsequent conversion to a parliamentary republic. Brevoort was inspired by events involving Vaclav Havel, revolutionary leader and artist who had been censored and imprisoned by the regime. “Havel, a playwright, orchestrated the revolution with a group of theatre artists and rock musicians from the green room of the Magic Lantern theatre in Prague,” said Brevoort. “With over a million people shouting ‘Havel to the Castle!’ in Wenceslas Square, Havel donned a suit from the theatre’s costume shop, went to the castle and was sworn in as President by voice vote from the polis. He and his fellow theatre artists took over the government in what was one of the most pure democratic events in human history.”

 

Brevoort has been working on The Velvet Weapon for years preceding the script winning The Trustus Playwrights’ Festival.  “One of my dear friends Pavel Dobrusky, defected from Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s while the country was still being run by the Soviet regime,” said Brevoort. “Although Pavel remained in the USA after the Velvet Revolution, he was able to go back to Prague every year after the country became democratic. About fifteen years after the Revolution, Pavel and I decided to apply for a grant from CEC ArtsLink to travel to Prague to interview the ringleaders of the revolution, many of whom were his old theatre friends.  Our goal was to make a theatre piece about the revolution that I would write and he would direct.” The show was intended to be produced at a Czech theatre.

 

What followed was years of grant-funded travel for Brevoort and Dobrusky where they gathered interviews and learned first-hand about the people and ideas that made the Velvet Revolution happen. However, as time passed leadership changed at the Czech theatre that intended to produce the script and the play found itself without a producing agent. Brevoort had seen the Trustus Playwrights’ Festival cited in many trade “opportunities” lists, so she submitted her new farce to the festival and it won. “Pavel passed away last year,” said Brevoort. “I am sad that he will not be able to complete The Velvet Weapon project with me, but I am glad and very grateful that the project will continue and that it will begin its life on the stage at Trustus Theatre.”

 

(L- R) Scott Herr, G. Scott Wild, Katrina Blanding, Hunter Boyle

Artistic Director Dewey Scott-Wiley directs this world premiere production of The Velvet Weapon, with a talented comedic cast featuring the talents of Trustus Company members G. Scott Wild (Clybourne Park) and Katrina Blanding (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Ragtime). Actors Hunter Boyle (Young Frankenstein, Ragtime), Scott Herr (The House of Blue Leaves, A Christmas Carol), Raia Jane Hirsch (The Motherf**ker With The Hat), John Edward Ford, Libby Campbell (August: Osage County), and broadcast personality Taylor Kearns round out the cast bringing this show to life for the first time.

 

Trustus Theatre’s The Velvet Weapon opens on the Trustus Main Stage on Friday, August 8th at 8:00pm and runs through August 16th, 2014. Thigpen Main Stage shows start at 8:00pm Thursdays through Saturdays, and Sunday matinees are at 3:00pm. Tickets are $22.00 for adults, $20.00 for military and seniors, and $15.00 for students. Half-price Student Rush-Tickets are available 15 minutes prior to curtain.

 

Trustus Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking 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.

 

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

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

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

Steinbeck would agree.

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

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

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

rockcity

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

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

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

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

~ Arik Bjorn

 

OH, THE PLACES YOU’LL GO -- A look at the technical theatre of See Rock City & Other Destinations - A guest blog by Chad Henderson

see rock city See Rock City & Other Destinations opens on the Thigpen Main Stage this Friday at Trustus Theatre. This uplifting musical charts the journeys of various characters as they become risk-takers in order to find connection and answers to life’s questions through visits to various American tourist locales. This award-winning script takes audiences to Rock City Gardens, The Alamo, Roswell, Niagara Falls, Glacier Bay, and Coney Island all in the course of two hours. One might question how these tourist sites could manifest in a theatrical setting before the audience’s eyes, but the bold visions of director Dewey Scott-Wiley and designer Baxter Engle proposed the answer: projection mapping.

 

Projection mapping is a projection technology used to turn facades into display surfaces for video projection. Often times the surfaces used are unexpected such as a building or a room that is painted uniformly to accept projections.  By using specialized software, a two or three dimensional object is spatially “mapped” on a virtual program which mimics the real environment it is to be projected on. The software can communicate with a projector to fit desired images onto the surface of that object. This technique is often used by artists, advertisers, and promoters alike who can add extra dimensions, optical illusions, and notions of movement onto static objects. See Rock City & Other Destinations will mark the inaugural use of this type of technological design on this scale for the 29 year old theatre company that is constantly striving to bring current productions to Columbia.

 

Director Dewey Scott-Wiley assembled a talented cast for this moving production, but she knew that the technical theatre aspects of the show would have to match the thrilling performances of the actors. Many theatres have the privilege of fly systems and off-stage storage space for large scene changes – but Trustus simply doesn’t have those abilities. So the question remained: “How do we transport across America in a time efficient and visually appealing way?”

 

Baxter Engle, a Trustus Company member since 2007, suggested the first-time use of projection mapping on the Main Stage to take audiences on this journey. Engle has designed many creative projection designs for various productions in Columbia including Town Theatre’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Trustus’ Assassins, A Christmas Carol, and Henderson Bros. Burlesque. He also had the opportunity to design large-scale projections for internationally known designer Nic Ularu when he worked on Ularu’s original production Fusions, which premiered at the World Stage Design conference in Cardiff, Wales last summer. Naturally director Dewey Scott-Wiley, who is in her second year as artistic director at Trustus, jumped at the chance to bring something innovative to the Thigpen Main Stage.

 

Through the use of two projectors, a program called QLab (not usually associated with projection mapping), and various surfaces created for projections in the scenic design (designed by this humble blogger) – Engle is able to transition from Rock City Gardens, a journey down the highway, Glacier Bay, and Coney Island all with the click of the spacebar on the computer that’s running the program.

 

Modern theatre is certainly trending towards the use of projection technology in productions. It is cost efficient because it keeps scenic material costs low and allows for less backstage crew work in scene changes. In many cases it can add a mood or image into an audience’s experience that would be expensive or impossible to create live on stage. Some productions are even using holograms for scenic elements or characters in modern productions. See Rock City & Other Destinations will mark a technological advancement for the Trustus, but the goal is creating the sense of travel that the script asks for.

 

Audiences craving “new” can be rest-assured that See Rock City & Other Destinations will deliver. The show may not come with popular name recognition, but Trustus’ production comes with a talented cast, the music and book delivers in a big way, and the spirit of the production is steeped in innovation. This show is about risk-taking and the creative team of this production is striving for just that.

 

“You have brains in your head.

You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”

― Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You'll Go!

 

SEE ROCK CITY & OTHER DESTINATIONS  runs at Trustus Theatre March 14 – April 5, 2014. Tickets may be purchased online at www.trustus.org or by calling the box office at (803) 254-9732.

"Pine" at Trustus Explores Emotions, Loss, and Family Dynamics

(L-R) Josiah Laubenstein, Rachel Kuhnle, Becky Hunter, Cory Alpert, and Hunter Bolton. (Photo by Jonathan Sharpe) Pine, the winner of the Trustus Playwrights' Festival which runs through this coming Saturday, August 10th, has a double meaning in its title:  the aroma of the trees that dominate stage right, and the prevailing cloud of mourning that has surrounded an upstate New York family since the death of middle son Colin five years previously.  Never entirely a comedy nor a sentimental drama, this new play from Eugenie Carabatsos successfully explores the complex nuances of how ordinary people interact in situations we all face: loss of a loved one, inclusion of newcomers to the family, and changing dynamics when children become adults. The twist: Colin is still around.  His spirit lingers in his family's home, and comments on all the action as it unfolds on stage.

That twist is certainly nothing new, from literature (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Topper, Wilde's Canterville Ghost) to stage (I Hate Hamlet, Coward's Blithe Spirit) to film (the Patrick Swayze-Demi Moore movie Ghost, and big-screen versions of most of the preceding.)  Following the conventions of the genre, it's therefore no plot spoiler to assume that one or more characters have unfinished business, but as in life, nothing is clearly spelled out. Are some characters still grieving, or did they never have a chance to?   Is Colin trapped in limbo as a result, or is the unfinished business his?

 Photo Credit: Richard Arthur Király - http://www.facebook.com/RKiralyPhotography

Advance publicity and opening scenes where Colin speaks to the audience make it clear that Colin really is a ghost, i.e. this isn't Next to Normal, and he's not the product of anyone's delusion.  As Colin, Hunter Bolton is up to the challenge of reacting to everyone's dialogue and movement without ever being acknowledged by the other characters.  He's terribly under-used in the first act, simply because there's no one with whom to interact. Still, a number of audience members commented on how skillfully his body language and facial expressions convey his presence and feelings, even when he's a passive observer.  The pace picks up significantly in the second act, when plot twists allow Colin to participate more, and the opening night audience gave the first scene of Act 2 a round of applause as a result.  Bolton takes his time with every line, and is both sympathetic and believable as a decent, ordinary guy who has found no answer to his question:  "If I'm gone, why am I still here?"

 Photo Credit -  Richard Arthur Király -  http://www.facebook.com/RKiralyPhotography

Indeed, all the characters are quite ordinary; one might almost say under-developed,except part of the point of the script is that this is a regular family, with no dysfunction beyond what would be expected.  Becky Hunter as sharp-tongued mother Rita, Rachel Kuhnle as independent sister Julie, and Cory Alpert as troubled younger brother Teddy all look like they and Bolton could be related.   Jennifer Moody Sanchez plays Rachel, Colin's fiancée (not his ex- fiancée, Colin is quick to assert, since they never broke up) who is still considered part of the family, but also is finally ready to move on with her life.  Josiah Laubenstein as in-law Mike has some nice moments of comedy with Kuhnle; I enjoyed his portrayal of Edgar in USC's King Lear a few months back, but the manic tone that worked for Edgar's feigned madness is a little distracting here, and there's no line that couldn't benefit from being delivered an octave lower.  He gets some of the show's biggest laughs, however, rejoicing when Rachel's new boyfriend supplants him as the barely-accepted outsider.  In one of the show's many relatable and accessible themes, boyfriend Miles (Harrison Saunders) has to compete with the persisting presence of Colin, and how many of us have had to compete with the metaphoric ghost of a significant other's ex?  Which is especially ironic, given that Bolton and Saunders fought for the hand of Juliet as Romeo and Paris in a memorable production in Finlay Park a few years ago.

I was prepared to say that Alpert's maturity makes him a little old for his role, but program notes reveal he is exactly the same age as his character, the teen who survived the car crash that killed Colin, and who states what I'm told is sadly all too common in such scenarios: "it should have been me."  His scenes with Bolton are genuinely moving, as each wrestles their circumstances, the former pleading "I'd rather have this than nothing," while the latter despairs "I'd rather have nothing than this."   Alpert and Bolton do nice work together as they reveal how family conflict can persist long after one of them is gone.  Carabatsos excels in natural dialogue that captures the quirks of everyday life, as when wine is spilled on Rita's best pair of slacks, and she gripes that even a new pair won't be that same "best" pair.  A culminating and cathartic scene allows each character to grieve in a different way, and to explain differing but understandable rationales.

 Photo Credit -  Richard Arthur Király - http://www.facebook.com/RKiralyPhotography

Guest designer Chet Longley's set is more detailed than we have seen recently at Trustus, and includes a very believable patch of forest, and a simple recreation of the wooden-siding-covered exterior and interior of a home in the Catskills. I might have enjoyed a little more set decoration - mirrors or pictures on the wall, the occasional lamp or dresser - but as much space for movement needs to be opened up, in order for the cast to be able to move about freely with ever bumping into the invisible Colin. A nice touch is the way an upstairs bedroom is located directly above the kitchen, allowing Bolton to move easily from one to the other, perching on top of a refrigerator as a ghost might.

Director Dewey Scott-Wiley handles the challenges of blocking around an unseen and non-corporeal main character well, and takes full advantage of her cast's ability to wring emotion and meaning from pauses and silences as well as from lines.  Her sound design might need a little tweaking, however, as audibility and clarity decreases the farther a character goes toward stage right.  There is also a whooshing sound effect hat signifies Colin's presence that I never entirely "bought," although at the same time I can't think what, if anything, might work better.

Eugenie Carabatsos

Playwright Carabatsos graduated from college only three years ago, and is to be commended for her mastery of realistic dialogue and the ability to focus on and portray idiosyncratic character traits that we all possess.  Her skill not only derives from what must surely have been an excellent education at Wesleyan University, but also, I suspect, from good genes:  I discovered at opening night that her father, James Carabatsos, is the screenwriter of such films as Hamburger Hill, Sally Field's Heroes, and Clint Eastwood's Heartbreak Ridge. While completely unrelated to Pine, I must note that as recently as three weeks ago a group of baby boomers in a 5 Points bar paused while channel-surfing to chant "Swede, Swede, Swede!" along with Clint's platoon, that at least once a month for the last couple of decades I have quoted the "permission to speak freely?" line, and that also within this past month I quoted the immigrant soldier from Lost Battalion who proudly asserted that he was indeed an American: "I took the test!"

Pine is not the greatest play ever written, but it's certainly a good one.  It could probably stand another re-write or two, to tighten up the story and perhaps drop about 30 minutes of chit-chat.   The characters too could be more fully developed - we could see Teddy as more fragile, more lost, and more at risk, and Rita could be meaner and feistier, a la Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment (and everything she's done since.) Pine's tone is very much like that film, or the play and film Steel Magnolias, both full of memorable laugh lines but ultimately dealing with death.  It would be very easy to say the ending is all too predictable, but in the last half hour, I found myself desperately wanting just that ending and no other.  Which makes me think that the characters became people that I cared about. A friend and colleague noted that he felt his emotions were a little manipulated, and I can certainly see that.  My reaction, however, is excitement and joy that such a young writer has mastered the skill of manipulating emotions!   Either way, I don't think there was a dry eye in the sold-out opening night house by the show's end, and I rarely cry at live theatre.

Pine may not go on to win any Tony Awards - although it would be extremely cool if it did - but could certainly make for a decent Hallmark Hall of Fame movie.  What's much more important is this chance to nurture and encourage the growth of a new, talented author, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if one day Pine is seen as a promising early work from an acclaimed playwright.  But make those reservations now - there are only three more chances to be part of theatre history, with shows this coming Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8 PM.  Contact the Trustus box office at (803) 254-9732 or visit www.trustus.org for more information.

~ August Krickel

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

Eugenie Carabatsos

 

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

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

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

Jasper:  Where did you grow up? 

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

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

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

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

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

Jasper:  Is there a significance to the title?

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

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

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

Jasper: Are you a full-time author? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

From press material:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ August Krickel

"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?")

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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

 

"5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche" - Jillian Owens reviews the new Trustus Side Door Theatre production

Love, loss, secrecy, catharsis, and the vast importance of egg-based protein in one’s diet are all parts of the wonky comedy that is 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche. Welcome to 1956! It’s time for the annual Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein quiche breakfast-- and you’re all invited!  So grab a seat by a fellow “widow” *wink* and a nametag, and let the festivities begin!

But wait…can these five ladies maintain decorum and adhere to their motto: "No men. No meat. All manners."  even when nuclear Armageddon is upon them?!?!  Of course not! (and would it be any fun at all if they did?)  This play is absurd.  If it were a quiche, it would be filled with marshmallow fluff and bananas.  It’s silly, bawdy, and not at all deep.  That’s not a bad thing, friends!

The first 10 minutes or so made me wonder if I could tolerate the next 70.  This show is over-the-top, and I was worried that it was about to get downright annoying.  Not to worry.  As I settled in with my fellow “widows” *wink*, I really began to have fun!

As we begin our meeting (we’re all a part of this…check your name tag), our five officers take care of all necessary business and explanations.  Dale (played by Emily Meadows) hasn’t spoken to a man since she was three.  Ginny (played by Katie Mixon) is one of our newest members from across the big pond who loves her quiche …quite… ahem... graphically.  Vern (played by Dewey Scott-Wiley) is our pantsuit-loving DIY enthusiast.  Wren (played by Vicky Saye Henderson) is the epitome of barely contained ladylike excitement.  Lulie (played by Elena Martinez-Vidal) is our matriarch — protecting the sanctity of our eggs and quiches at whatever the cost.

 

This ensemble cast works really well together.  The role of Dale could have been written for Meadows, and Scott-Wiley’s Vern is terrifically farcical.  Martinez-Vidal comes off as distractingly heavy-handed (even for this production), but it all somehow manages to work.

The original NYC incarnation of this show has just arrived Off-Broadway after a sold-out run at the New York International Fringe Festival.  The director of this humbler (but still hilarious) production, Robin Gottlieb, has been talking with the show’s writers, Andrew Hobgood and Evan Linder throughout the rehearsal process, getting rewrite and edit upon rewrite and edit.

While the NYC cast’s Off-Broadway venue may be a bit larger than our more intimate Trustus Side Door Theatre, the smallness of Trustus’ black box venue is great for the audience participation this show demands.  Don’t worry — you’re not going to be pulled onstage, but you very well might be addressed directly by one of the officers of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein!

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche is a short (80 minutes) and utterly silly show that grownups (this show is NOT for the kiddos) with a bawdy sense of humor will enjoy — specially if they get a cocktail or two in them beforehand.  I’m rating Quiche R for lady-on-lady passion, lascivious quiche-eating, and partial disrobing.  So why in the world would you want to miss it?

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche runs two more weekends, Thursday-Saturday, at the Side Door Theatre (off Lady Street) and closes on February 2nd; for ticket information, contact the Trustus box office at (803) 254-9732.

~ Jillian Owens

Jillian Owens reviews [title of show] at Trustus Theatre

Trustus Theatre has just launched their production of [title of show] , and no…that’s not a misprint.  Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell are two nobodies in New York who have only three weeks to write a musical to enter in the inaugural New York Musical Theatre Festival.  Unable to come up with an original work (not a show based on a book or a movie), they decided to write their musical about their experience writing their musical, along with their talented friends, Susan and Heidi. How meta!

This probably sounds like one of the most trite, gimmicky, and self-aggrandizing ideas you’ve ever heard of, right?  Don’t worry, you aren’t alone in thinking this.  Jeff, Hunter, Susan, and Heidi all have their doubts and fierce insecurities about this work-in-progress about their work-in-progress, and that’s what makes this tiny show with only four chairs and a keyboard really special.

Keep in mind: this show is a true story about four friends who played themselves in show about themselves.  Director Dewey Scott-Wiley had the unenviable task of casting this show with four real people who could fully embody the characters of four other real people who custom-made a show for themselves.  I’m happy to say, she nailed it.  Kevin Bush (Jeff), Matthew DeGuire (Hunter), Robin Gottlieb (Heidi), and Laurel Posey (Susan) are all Columbia theatre veterans whom you’ve probably seen before, and they’re all absolutely terrific in this production.  Randy Moore isn’t just the Musical Director for this show;  he also plays Larry, the oft-neglected keyboard guy who doesn’t really get any lines, and doesn’t even get to be in the publicity photos (song: “Awkward Photo Shoot”).   With this group of local all-stars, it would be hard to go wrong.  It’s important for the actors in this show to have chemistry.  We need to believe they are the tight-knit group of pals they are portraying in order to care about them.  Otherwise [title of show] would be a total bore.  As you learn more about these people, you begin to feel an odd sort of comfiness.  I really felt like these were my friends, and I found myself rooting for this little show with a big heart the entire time.

 

 

The dialog starts off as being a bit too try-hard with cliché gay and sex jokes that feel forced.  As the play (and our understanding of the characters) develops, it becomes more real—and really quite funny!  The score is cute, witty, and at times truly moving.  The lighting design by Frank Kiraly makes the most of an intentionally simple set in brilliant and clever ways.

[title of show] explores the terrifying excitement of creating something new.  In the song “Change It, Don’t Change It”, our fab four begin to doubt the quality of their work and themselves.  Is their play really good enough for Broadway?  Are they good enough?  As Susan says, "Why is it that if a stranger came up to me on a subway platform and said these things, I'd think he was a mentally ill asshole... but when the vampire in my head says it, it's the voice of reason?"

If you have ever created anything, or thought of creating anything, this show will inspire you.  It will inspire you to finish that novel that’s been languishing in your desk drawer for over a year.  It will inspire you to write that screenplay that you don’t think will be clever enough.  It will inspire you to try out for that play.  It will inspire you to stop “procrasturbating” (as Hunter says), and put something new out into the world.

~ Jillian Owens

[title of show] runs on the Trustus Main Stage through December 16th, 2012. After the New Year, the show returns on January 3rd, 2013 and runs through January 12th, 2013. Main Stage shows start at 8:00pm Thursdays through Saturdays, and Sunday matinees are at 3:00pm. Tickets are $27.00 for adults, $25.00 for military and seniors, and $20.00 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.

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~ Jillian Owens

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

 

Review -- August: Osage County

Jasper loves dysfunctional families.  Wait, let's clarify that - Jasper loves Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas about dysfunctional families, and there's a doozy of one running right now through Sat. Nov. 12th, at Trustus Theatre. August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts, is billed as Jim Thigpen's directorial swan song; he and wife Kay, with whom he founded Trustus 26 years ago, will retire at the end of this season (see the current issue of Jasper at http://jaspercolumbia.net/current-issue/ for details.) Fortunately, he has assembled a highly functional cast of family, both literal (brother Ron Hale and daughter Erin Wilson) and theatrical (a veritable who's who of local theatrical talent) to bring this provocative and compelling work to Columbia audiences.

The show recounts a few weeks in the lives of the Weston family, disrupted by the disappearance of the father. His three daughters return home, family and significant others in tow, to support their mother, and along the way we meet an aunt, and uncle, a cousin, and a few innocent bystanders. I was only familiar with this work from some reviews I read a few years ago, when it premiered and promptly won the Tony and N.Y. Drama Critics' Circle Awards for Best Play, the Drama Desk and Outer Critics' Circle Awards for Best New Play, and the Pulitzer. As a result, I had some misconceptions going in.  This is in no way, shape or fashion a comedy, even a dark one.  There are certainly some witty lines; most of the characters are fairly eloquent people connected to academia, and often barbs spoken in moments of great anger, frustration, and passion get some big laughs. Nevertheless, this play is a tragedy of the ordinary, an examination of the dark underbelly of contemporary American society, depicted before us via one truly unfortunate family.

Likewise, the title notwithstanding, this isn't really a rural or country-themed play at all.  While there is a plaid shirt here, some cowboy boots there, a backdrop that suggests dull stucco or adobe walls, and a Native American housekeeper, the setting isn't so much Oklahoma as it is any desolate location, and the desolation is as much spiritual as literal. One character notes that this isn't the Midwest, but rather the Plains, which he compares to the Blues, just not as interesting.  Nor is the show particularly surreal or avant-garde, as I somehow had expected. Sadly, the obstacles that confront these characters (with perhaps one Southern Gothic exception) are all too commonplace: divorce, infidelity, youthful rebellion, repression, substance abuse, suicide, and depression. The language is sometimes quite eloquent and poetic, but more often quite down-to-earth and familiar.

Yet this is a tremendously entertaining evening at the theatre, thanks to the supremely talented cast. While each of the thirteen actors gets his or her moment to shine on stage, top honors have to go to Libby Campbell Turner, in the central role of Violet, the harsh matriarch of the Weston family. We first see Violet helplessly struggling to form her words and thoughts as a result of her addiction to painkillers; the effect is shocking, especially for those familiar with Campbell Turner's assertive stage presence in any number of shows over the last several decades. Have no fear, however: Violet's coherence returns with a vengeance, as she tries to bring down each of her three daughters in turn. We chillingly realize that while the pills may have loosened her tongue, they surely didn't create her venom.

Violet's main adversary is her eldest daughter, Barbara, played by Dewey Scott-Wiley. She and Paul Kaufmann (as her husband Bill) are masters of the stage whisper, which they must employ for a marital spat that they desperately wish to remain unheard.  Scott-Wiley expertly depicts this ordinary yet complex character, as we see her first channeling her father in an alcohol-fueled intellectual ramble, then mirroring her mother, attempting in vain to control all around her, while still clad in her nightclothes.

Another standout is Gerald Floyd, as Violet's amiable but long-suffering brother-in-law whom she bitingly notes is now the family patriarch "by default," after her husband's disappearance. In a play where characters often naturalistically talk over one another, timing is everything, and Floyd is the champ, portraying a man who rarely gets a word in edgewise, yet always makes his point known.  Late in the third act, his demand that his wife (played by Elena Martinez-Vidal) show some shred of decency and compassion to their son, was for me perhaps the most moving moment in the play.

Another cast member whose vocal talent must be noted is Ellen Rodillo-Fowler, as the housekeeper Johnna. Brassy and feisty just a few weeks ago in Third Finger, Left Hand, here she plays soft and stoic, often pausing a half-second before most of her lines, and thus showing the depth and thought behind them.  Ron Hale, as Violet's husband, shines in the opening scene, waxing poetic and philosophical while concealing the depths of despair into which he has fallen. Sarah Crouch as the granddaughter Jean, Joe Morales as the local Sheriff, Kevin Bush as the supposed loser cousin "Little" Charles, Erin Wilson as the frustrated, plain-Jane middle daughter, and Robin Gottlieb as the somewhat spoiled youngest daughter who foolishly thinks she has escaped the family cycle, all do fine work, many playing against type.  Stann Gwynn as Gottlieb's fiancé has perhaps the fewest lines, but is memorable for making the audience wonder which is creepier: his interaction with Jean (which quickly moves into "Like to watch gladiator movies?" territory) or his career as a yuppie entrepreneur profiting from the Persian Gulf conflict.

One suspects that just as every great actor must try Hamlet in his youth, Macbeth in middle age and Lear as he gets older, so too must every playwright, Letts included, take a stab at a tragedy of family dysfunction.  August: Osage County presents us with no moral or lesson, but rather portrays people making the choices they must, but then living with the consequences.  I was reminded more than once during the show of a line spoken by Clint Eastwood in the film Gran Torino, about how "the thing that haunts a man most is what he isn't ordered to do."

Critics have called this the first great play of the new century. I'm not so sure I'd quite go that far, but there are certainly echoes of any number of classics:  Lillian Hellman's "little foxes, that spoil the vines," the spectre of substance abuse from A Long Day's Journey Into Night,  the bleak sense of frustration and yearning from  Chekhov's The Three Sisters and Turgenev's A Month in the Country, families coping with long-repressed secrets from Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Ibsen's The Wild Duck,  and a dozen Tennessee Williams works, and the domestic battles in the homes of academics from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and On Golden Pond.   Shoot, stick togas on the Westons and you'd basically have the cursed House of Atreus.  Time will tell if this is the latest retelling of eternal themes from the human experience, or a well-crafted pastiche of those themes, designed as an acting tour-de-force for a talented ensemble.

Either way, it rarely gets better than this if you want to see some of Columbia's finest performers flexing their dramatic muscles in some rich and juicy material. Director Thigpen made a wise choice for his finale, and deftly pulls it all together for a rich and thought-provoking evening at the theatre.

If you're going, note that the show runs a solid three and a half hours, with two intermissions, but it feels like not much more than two. Just be sure to make dinner and babysitter arrangements accordingly.  Call the Trustus Box Office at 254-9732 for ticket information.

 

~ August Krickel