REVIEW: A Bright Room Called Day by Frank Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

period…”

 

-Charles Dickens

“A Tale Of Two Cities”

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewer Frank Thompson

Reviewer Frank Thompson

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.

 

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Transylvania Mania at Workshop Theatre - a review of "Young Frankenstein" by Jillian Owens

youngfrank1 It seems appropriate that the last show ever to be performed by Workshop Theatre at their Gervais and Bull Street location would be Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein. Emotions surrounding their move to 701 Whaley run high among the Columbia theatre community. Only something silly and fun will do for this occasion. Adapted from the 1974 film of the same name, Young Frankenstein tells the story of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fron-ken-steen”!), grandson to that other Frankenstein who terrorized the townsfolk of Transylvania with his monsters for decades.

Kyle Collins as Dr. Frankenstein - photo by Rob Sprankle

Frederick is summoned to Transylvania to claim his inheritance when his Grandfather dies. At first, he has no intention of “joining the family business” of creating monsters, but then he meets Igor (played by Frank Thompson), a masterless hunchbacked stooge who pronounces his name “Eye-gor,” and who softens his resolve in the song "Together Again (for the First Time."  A visit from the ghost of his dead grandfather (played by Hunter Boyle), and the temptation of taking on a sultry local by the name of Inga (played by Courtney Selwyn) as his lab assistant remove it altogether. With the assistance of Igor, Inga, and his horse-scaring housekeeper Frau Blucher (played by Elena Martinez-Vidal, he builds a monster that-- you guessed it--ends up terrorizing the village.

Elena Martinez as Frau Blucher ("Nee-e-e-e-igh!") - photo by Rob Sprankle

This is one of the best put-together casts I’ve seen. Kyle Collins is a delightfully neurotic Dr. Frankenstein, and Thompson is a brilliantly hilarious Igor. Vicky Saye Henderson delivers a standout performance as the Doctor’s madcap socialite fiancée, Elizabeth Benning, who is more than a bit frigid with the good doctor in the song "Please Don't Touch Me." Selwyn is an exciting and relatively new talent, having only one other production under her belt (the recent Ragtime at Trustus.) With impressive vocal chops and other…ahem…assets, she is perfectly cast as Inga, and I look forward to seeing her talent grow in future productions. Martinez-Vidal earned the most laughter as Frau Blucher, sometimes without havingto say a thing.  Jason Kinsey is perfectly cast as The Monster, and his “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number does not disappoint.

Courtney Selwyn as Inga - photo by Rob Sprankle

This is one of those rare Columbia productions that has somehow managed to capture the best of our local talent, and has showcased it fantastically well. Even the ensemble is comprised of actors and actresses whom I’m accustomed to seeing in lead roles. And I’ve never seen a show where the cast is so clearly having such a ridiculous amount of fun.

Frank Thompson as Igor - photo by Rob Sprankle

That’s what this show is. Pure fun. Well, not all that pure. There are plenty of bawdy jokes, songs (such as the song, “Deep Love,” which is referring to exactly what you think it’s referring to) , and silly sight gags. But this is nothing that would surprise anyone who’s ever seen a Mel Brooks film.

Young Frankenstein is a big show, both in cast size, and technically speaking. Randy Strange has done a phenomenal job with the challenging set requirements, most impressively in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. This is a bittersweet compliment, as this is to be Strange’s last show in his decades-long career-- but what a way to go out. What couldn’t possibly be built on such a small stage is created through the clever use of projections by Baxter Engle, also credited as Sound Designer for this show.

Director Chad Henderson, Choreographer Mandy Applegate, and Music Director Tom Beard have created a production that is truly a triple threat. Great direction, great choreography, and great musical talent have come together to make the last show on this stage something truly special.  Young Frankenstein runs though Saturday, May 24;  contact the box office at 803-799-6551, or visit www.workshoptheatre.com for ticket information.

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Who is wrong and who is wronged? Ed Madden reviews "Collected Stories" at Trustus Theatre

Elisabeth Gray Engle and Elena Martínez-Vidal; rehearsal  photo by Richard Arthur  Király There was a moment during a dress rehearsal of Collected Stories earlier this week that simply crushed me.  The stage was dark, and a stagehand went around the set in the darkness, slowly and methodically making a mess of the place.  A plant toppled, papers strewn across furniture and floor, prescription bottles scattered on desk and table, a curtain undone, a shawl tossed in the floor.

Collected Stories, a play by Donald Margulies, opens at Trustus Theatre this Thursday, August 15, and closes on Sunday August 18.  It’s a short run for a powerful little play, directed by Milena Herring.  In a sequence of short scenes over the course of six years, we see Ruth Steiner, an older writer and teacher, take on as her student and later assistant the seemingly innocent Lisa Morrison, a 26-year-old would-be writer.  I say seemingly innocent, as it’s never clear how manipulative and shrewd she really is.  As the balance of power between the two shifts, we wonder at the end who the real innocent might be.

Ruth is played by the indomitable Elena Martinez-Vidal, confident and pitch-perfect throughout the play.  A couple of moments feel performed for the audience as much as they are for Lisa—stagey, theatrical, but that feels right.  Ruth’s little Greenwich Village apartment is her stage, Lisa her pupil and audience, and she is acting out what a famous writer is and says. I’m reminded of that scene in Douglas Sirk’s 1959 Imitation of Life, when Susie (Sandra Dee) tells her mother Lara (Lana Turner), “Oh stop acting mother!”  But she can’t: she is always onstage.  Martinez-Vidal is fascinating in this part, especially near the end, when Ruth’s life and health are ruined, and still some dark vitality—and anger—drives her speech and action.  She bristles stiffly in what seems to be a conciliatory hug from Lisa.

Elisabeth Gray Engle as Lisa was a puzzle, a chameleon.  Ingénue or ingenious, devious or devoted, we’re never really sure, though Engle, like Lisa, slowly but surely finds her voice.  The moment she tells Ruth about a story her father hated, something shifts in the play, and we start to realize that Lisa, as Engle deftly portrays her, has more to her than we imagined.

Either character could have been a type character if not a caricature—the old Jewish writer and professor, the gushing would-be writer—but both actresses brought a real depth to their portrayals.  The room itself, the set, is almost a character as well. Early in the play, Lisa rhapsodizes on how wonderful it would be to live in a place like that, a place perfect for a writer.  She reads the space through Ruth’s fiction, noting a Matisse from this story, the view of a playground from that one.  So when the stagehand comes through knocking over a plant and strewing paper and pill bottles, we realize that something has gone deeply wrong.

Elisabeth Gray Engle and Elena Martínez-Vidal; rehearsal  photo by Richard Arthur  Király

Two primary issues drive the play.  One is power.  When Ruth and Lisa argue over the guilt of Woody Allen after his affair with his 19-year-old step-daughter, we can’t help but wonder about the balance of power in this relationship.  Ruth admits her own affair with an older man, the poet Delmore Schwartz, but she also says that she has never written about the affair, even though it was the bright moment of her life.  “Some things you don’t touch,” she says, a command this daughter-figure is, we know, bound to disobey.

The second issue is the ownership of stories—and in an indirect way, lives.  Ruth admits to exaggerating elements of her own biography for political effect, and the two women agree that writers “rummage” through other people’s lives for stories.  “We’re all rummagers.  That’s what writers are.”  When one accuses the other, “You’ve stolen my stories,” the glib reply—“They stopped being your stories when you told them to me”— amplifies rather than answers the ethical questions.

In 1993, American novelist David Leavitt was sued by English poet Stephen Spender, who accused him of using a section of his memoir World Within World as fodder for his novel, While England Sleeps, a fictional portrayal of someone very like Spender.  I can’t help but think this literary larceny inflects Collected Stories, which premiered three years later in 1996.  (Leavitt’s next published work was The Term Paper Artist, a wicked novella from the point of view of an author accused of plagiarism, who starts to write term papers for college students.)

Where does theft stop and imagination begin?

Even though Ruth may think she’s granting voice to the voiceless, or Lisa may claim she is paying homage, there’s still a real sense here of ethical risk, one that carries, for me, beyond the play.  This would be a fascinating play to discuss in a creative writing class, where questions of writing about real people, people we know, inevitably lead to complex conversations.  What happens when our families read themselves in our stories (no matter how fictionalized)?  Or what happens when we alter details in a presumably nonfiction piece for aesthetic effect.  Yeah, we all know art is the lie that tells the truth (pace Oscar Wilde and Julian Barnes), but playful paradoxes rub raw when real people feel wronged.

Collected Stories closes out Trustus Theatre’s 28th season, and runs Thursday thru Sunday, August 15-18 (with a matinee on Sunday).   It’s a rich play—and as a meditation on plagiarism, intellectual property, and dishonesty, a great way to start the school year.  See it while you can.  Contact the box office at (803) 254-9732 for more information, or visit http://www.trustus.org .

~ Ed Madden

Collected Stories, opening at Trustus, poses tough questions by Jaquelyn Mohan

collected stories Who owns your memories?  It is a strange question, and one which opens conversation about intellectual property, personal experience, ownership, and the often blurred line between what is right and what is wrong.  In Collected Stories, playwright David Margulies raises these issues, and Milena Herring further explores these issues and more in her production of the controversial play opening at Trustus Theatre this August.

 

Collected Stories tells the tale of the changing relationship between two women over a span of six years.  Ruth Steiner, played by Elena Martinez, takes the role of teacher and mentor to the younger Lisa Morrison, played by E. G. Heard Engle.  Ruth is a respected professor and short story writer in her mid-fifties who takes on Lisa, graduate student and aspiring writer, as her assistant.  As the years pass, they become friends and eventually adversaries as one character makes a choice that forever changes both women’s lives, careers, and futures.

 

A USC graduate, director Milena Herring worked in New York in the theater business for thirty years before returning to Columbia in 2010.  Her love for Collected Stories originally sparked when she saw the play performed in New York in 1997 by Uta Hagen and Debra Messing.  Herring is thrilled to finally have the opportunity to direct Collected Stories.

 

“What appealed to me about the play originally was the veracity of who is wrong and who is right.  There’s a point in the play where the audience gives a collective gasp and realizes a truth about ones of the characters,” Herring says, recalling when she first saw the play years ago.  “The plays that I love, both as a director and as a member of the audience, are plays that move the audience from point A to point B or even point W—they move the audience intellectually or emotionally, and this play does both.”

 

Collected Stories deals with numerous highly charged ideas and themes ranging from betrayal, intellectual property, the creative process, aging, lost love, and literary appropriation.  “It’s a good thinking person’s play,” Herring says.  The play deals with these heavy issues with honesty and oftentimes humor.  “It’s just very real,” Herring adds.  “In the 1960s it would have been called kitchen sink realism.  It’s a slice of life.  You’re dropping in on a conversation between Lisa and Ruth over six years.”

 

In this unique two-person play, both actors are equally passionate about the issues the play raises and the story it tells.  “This is a story about two women and their friendship. Friendships change and shift over time as lives change, and I love that their relationship is the root of the play,” says Engle, who takes the roll of Lisa Morrison.  Elena Martinez Vidal, who plays Ruth Steiner, said “I like this kind of show because it can engender tons of discussion…The play does not guide the audience to any conclusions: they will have to make up their own minds.  And those conclusions will probably depend a lot on their experiences and backgrounds.”  Collected Stories will leave you wondering to what extent your life is your own and how one person’s experience can become another person’s story.

 

Collected Stories is the celebratory closing play for the 28th season at Trustus Theatre.  “The first play of the season was Next to Normal, and it was a really fine local production you could hold up to any New York production,” Herring recalls.  “Collected Stories is a good counter production to Next to Normal…They’re good bookends to the season.”  Raising ideas pertinent to theater itself such as intellectual property and literary appropriation, Collected Stories is a brave production that is sure to keep the audience guessing until the end and, as they exit the theater, leave them with the haunting question, Who owns your memories?

 

Three leading ladies work together to run this play, two on-stage and one off-, and make it an experience no one will soon forget or, for that matter, be able to stop talking about.  Sponsored by Callison Tighe with consideration by Muddy Ford Press, Collected Stories will run on the Trustus main stage from August 15th through the 18th.  Trustus Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street.  For tickets and more information, visit www.trustus.org or call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6 pm at 803-254-9732.

 

-- Jaquelyn Mohan, Jasper intern

 

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Director Milena Herring talks with Jasper about "Collected Stories," opening at the Art Museum Wed. May 15

Jasper How did  you first discover Collected Stories, and how did you come to direct this production? Milena Herring:  I have wanted to direct this show since first reading the script in New York in 1997.  Donald Margulies is a gifted playwright, one of my favorites, and I had directed another of his plays, Sight Unseen.  I saw an early, first-run production of Collected Stories at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the Village, starring Uta Hagen and a young Debra Messing. That was an indelible production. I moved to Columbia in 2010, but I never forgot about Collected Stories. Then last spring, Dewey Scott-Wiley was feeding my cat while I was on vacation, and I left a copy of the script for her to peruse and perhaps consider for a Trustus production. It turned out that the Trustus season had already been chosen, but they were adding an Off-Off-Lady Series, and she and Larry Hembree thought it would be a good addition to that.

Jasper :  The show will be presented in conjunction with the South Carolina Book Festival.  What are some themes that the show touches on, that might be of particular interest to Festival attendees?

Herring:  One of the central questions asked in the play -- Who owns your memories? -- may be of particular interest to attendees of the Book Festival. Literary appropriation, intellectual property rights, whether a person’s life events are suitable for another to use in their own creative process -- I think these are provocative issues that will be interesting to everyone. Collected Stories really explores very universal themes of lost love, betrayal, and aging. Lest that sound too heavy, let me add that the play explores these themes with great comic as well as dramatic writing.

The story is centered on a respected short-story writer and professor in her mid-fifties, Ruth Steiner, and Lisa Morrison, a naive and talented graduate student and aspiring writer who Ruth hires as her assistant. Taking place over six years, Collected Stories eavesdrops on Ruth and Lisa as their relationship evolves from mentor/protégée to loving friends to adversaries and, ultimately, disintegrates over some of the issues I’ve just mentioned. The playwright doesn’t come down on the side of either character, but lets the audiences decide for themselves who is wrong or right. I love that.

It takes very skillful actors to perform a full length 2-character play.  The beauty of Collected Stories is the many layers of meaning and depth of the two characters as they transition and evolve over 6 years. I have a director’s dream in Elena Martinez-Vidal as Ruth and Elisabeth Gray (EG) Engle as Lisa.  Elena and EG are inhabiting the roles fully, and finding nuances and subtleties in these two flawed but honest women. They are also a joy to work with, and we are having a wonderful time.

Elena Martinez-Vidal, Elisabeth Gray Engle

 Jasper :  The Off-Off-Lady series of plays has taken Trustus out into the community, into alternative venues. Tell us about the space you are using for this production.

 Herring:   We are fortunate to have the use of a huge, loft-like space on the 2nd floor of the Columbia Museum of Art. Most people have never seen this space before, and it is exciting to be part of building new audiences for Trustus in unusual venues. I believe people will leave our production at the Columbia Museum of Art not only debating about the issues explored in the play, but wowed by the unique theatricality of the setting.

Jasper : Columbia is fortunate to have you back home, but most of your career has been in New York.  What were some highlights?

Herring:  As soon as I finished my theatre studies at USC, I moved to Manhattan and lived there for almost 30 years. For the first six of those years, I pursued my dreams of acting. I studied with Sanford Meisner, and I made the usual, endless rounds of auditions. I got parts in Off-Off-Broadway showcases, Upper Eastside Shakespeare productions in church basements, small roles on All My Children and One Life to Live. I shot a TV commercial that went national, but nothing that could really sustain body and soul. So, with several friends I started a theatre company, and began to hone my skills as a director. For the next 8 years I served as the artistic director of Leap Productions, in a small 99-seat theatre. We did 5 shows a season and among the off-Broadway plays and musicals I directed there were Eleemosynary by Lee Blessing, Sight Unseen by Donald Margulies, A Cowboy's Dream by John Foley, Painting Churches by Tina Howe, Lips Together, Teeth Apart by Terrence McNally, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me by Frank McGuiness, Oil City Symphony by Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick, and Smoke on the Mountain by Mark Hardwick and Connie Ray, among many others. We all worked 70 hours a week doing everything from marketing the season to writing grants, and I loved it. I always say that if I’d had a trust fund, I might still be doing it. But eventually the building we rented was sold, and by that time I was exhausted. Frankly, I needed to make some money so I could afford to actually GO to the theatre. My last 15 years in Manhattan, I worked in advertising and as a professional fundraiser, and enjoyed having weekends off.

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Jasper :   Columbia theatre, and the arts scene, has certainly changed in the last few years. What are some of your impressions now that you are back home?

Herring:  I was in my first play at Town Theatre when I was 8, and I didn’t stop acting in local productions until I moved to New York at 23.  I cut my teeth under the tutelage of the beloved children’s theatre director, Mary Lou Kramer. Later, I was part of the first generation to grow up with Workshop Theatre where my mother, the late actress, director and drama teacher, Bette Herring, was one of the founders. It was a great privilege to have the opportunities afforded me by supportive parents who made sure I got to dance classes at Calvert Brodie, rehearsals all over town, and still made me do my homework-- even if it was done backstage!  Columbia had two strong, healthy community theatres when I was young and it has an even larger and more diverse performing arts community today. When I was ready to leave New York, one of the reasons I chose to move to Columbia was because of the vibrant and exciting things happening in all of the arts here. Columbia is fortunate to have a first-class art museum, a wonderful symphony orchestra, several ballet and modern dance companies, a large variety of music outlets - I could go on and on. It was, and is, clear to me that Columbia understands how important the arts are to its financial health. By supporting the arts, a city is repaid exponentially by its ability to attract new businesses and industry, by growing its tourism dollars, and by a culturally enriched population.

Collected Stories, sponsored by Callison Tighe and Muddy Ford Press (publishers of Jasper - The Word on Columbia Arts)  opens Wednesday, May 15 at the Columbia Museum of Art, and runs through Sunday, May 19. Contact the Trustus box office at 803-254-9732 for ticket information.

 

~ August Krickel

 

 

 

Memorable Theatre Moments from 2012 - August Krickel's picks

This time last year, on a lark, I put together a stream-of-consciousness recollection of some things I had enjoyed on stage over the preceding year.  Would you believe - we set a new record for site visits with that blog post!  Sure, sure, the site and blog were still young, and most of it was folks logging in to see if they were mentioned or not, but still, it showed everyone involved that there is significant interest in theatre among the greater Columbia arts community.  As I wrote at the time, "theatre for me is sometimes not about the final product, but rather individual moments that move me, make me smile, or stay with me long after the show is done."  This year I have been fortunate to see most of the shows at the main theatres in downtown Columbia:  7 of 8 done on the Thigpen Mainstage (plus a late-night show) at Trustus, 3 of the 5 done at the Trustus Side Door, 5 of 6 at both Town and Workshop, plus a couple at Columbia Children's Theatre.  That's 23 freakin' shows, which sadly means that I didn't have time to see any at the many excellent theatres and venues on campuses and in the suburbs.  So with that disclaimer, I give you the best, funniest, and most memorable theatre moments for me from 2012: - the opening image as the curtain rose in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at Town Theatre, with dancers frozen in exotic poses. In particular, Haley Sprankle, Grace Fanning and Becky Combs were draped over their partners with extension that went from here to the moon, and it perfectly captured the look and feel of the carefree and free-spirited Riviera setting.

- Doug Gleason in Scoundrels, goofing and camping it up shamelessly, then breaking into song with the voice of an angel, not a buffoon.  In my review, I wrote that he reminded me of the young Bill Canaday, a gifted comic actor now happily retired from the state and (at least temporarily) the stage. Several people mentioned to the real Bill that they saw his name in a theatre review, and he laughed and later told me that this was like the actor's nightmare - was he supposed to have been in a show somewhere?  Did he miss his entrance?

- Elizabeth Stepp as a huffy, haughty insect, miffed over being shooed away in Pinkalicious at Columbia Children's Theatre.  Lindsay Brasington, vamping and cooing for the press as she imagined being the first doctor to diagnose acute "pinkititis." George Dinsmore, dramatically confessing to his wife after all these years, his dark secret that he too secretly had a fondness...for the color ....pink.  (At which point Sumner Bender leaned over and whispered to me "But they named their daughter ... Pinkalicious?"

- Shelby Sessler's tour-de-force as three separate and distinct characters in Alfred

Hitchcock’s 39 Steps at Town.  Only a couple of weeks after portraying the titular tyke in Pinkalicious above,  she played a va-va-voomish German femme fatale,  a forlorn Scottish farm wife, and a proper yet spunky yet romantic British lady. As the German she somehow managed to not only play dead, but to feign rigor mortis, stretched out over an armchair... I still don't know how she managed it.  As the lady, she and her castmates mimed all the effects to convey a train speeding down the tracks.... and if you looked down, very subtly her hand was fanning the hem of her skirt back and forth to add the effect of wind.  Not surprisingly, she was one of three finalists for Jasper Theatre Artist of the Year, and organized the entertainment for the November issue release party at City Art.

 

 

- Avery Bateman and Kanika Moore playing multiple roles in Passing Strange at Trustus.  Bateman cracked me up as a materialistic princess-type whose life with hero Mario McClean was pre-planned within about 5 seconds; then she and Moore turn up as Dutch girls, then Germans. "Have a conversation vit' ze hand," Moore declares, almost getting American slang right. Even music director Tom Beard got a line in on stage, rising in outrage, when the cynical German nihilist characters dismiss the punk movement as commercialism, to protest "What about The Clash, man???"    Also loved the vivid colors that symbolized the free-spirited European setting of Passing Strange, provided via original paintings from ten local artists, and director Chad Henderson's always-moving, never-a-dull-moment, no-one-wasted-on-stage  blocking.  (And sure enough, Henderson was voted Theatre Artist of the Year by Jasper readers!)

- Randy Strange's lush, opulent, plantation-interior set for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Workshop Theatre. There was something to take everyone's breath away in this classic show, from Jason Stokes in a towel, to E.G. Heard (and on alternating nights, Samantha Elkins) in a negligee. Ironically, the beautiful and talented Heard teaches theatre at my old high school, while the equally lovely and gifted Elkins teaches drama at the one I was zoned for. I seem to recall my old theatre teacher was nicknamed "Sasquatch" - my how times have changed!

- G. Scott Wild utilizing the teeny Side Door Theatre space at Trustus more efficiently and realistically than I had ever seen before, with his set design for A Behanding in Spokane. The entire show takes place in a hotel room, and Wild wisely used every single

inch of available space, including the main entrance into the theatre as the room's only door, complete with deadbolt and peephole.  And Wild himself, perfectly capturing a world-weary, frustrated (possible) serial killer, then seamlessly segueing into the character's actual nature: a world-weary, frustrated, hen-pecked nebbish.  When you meet him, you realize Wild is quite young, but with little make-up and primarily mannerisms, he effectively embodied a character 20+ years older than he. Christopher Walken played this role in New York, but I somehow suspect that Walken played Walken, while Wild embodied and fleshed out the character.

- Also, in Spokane, Elisabeth Smith Baker embraced a challenging character role.   In my review, I wrote that she somehow managed "to be pathetic and sympathetic, winsome and adorable in a skanky sort of way, vulnerable, crafty and resourceful, yet sometimes just dumb as a post. She has some nice moments of physical comedy that would make Lucille Ball proud.   At one point she makes a quite logical decision to try to charm her way out of a life and death situation, yet her effort is so obviously contrived that only an idiot would fall for it... and of course, one does."

- Sumner Bender and Ellen Rodillo-Fowler, both getting a chance to sink their teeth substantial roles in In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play at Trustus.  Color-blind casting is always a tricky challenge, and Bender and her infant's wet nurse need to be white and black respectively, because of specifics in the script, but Rodillo-Fowler played another society lady, and peer to Bender.  Was she perhaps the mixed-heritage daughter of a prominent admiral or missionary? Could she have simply been adopted, and raised in starchy whitebread Victorian society?  Or was she (as my spirit-guide Dr. Moreau suggested) a Native American? Most importantly, it didn't matter.

- Vibrator also featured the return of Steve Harley, not seen enough on local stages in recent years. I got some mileage out of this line of his:  "Hysteria is very rare in men, but then he is an artist.” The artist referenced was played by Daniel Gainey, one of a number of gifted young actors who seemingly came out of nowhere to captivate local audiences. (See Wild and Gleeson above, and Andy Bell below; with Gainey, "nowhere" was actually many roles in opera and operatic musical theatre.)

- Speaking of Gleeson, he played a vastly different type in Andrew Lippa's Wild Party at Workshop, still a clown, but a scary one. The extreme physicality of some of the choreography was impressive, as were his scenes with Giulia Marie Dalbec (his leading lady in Scoundrels above, but more on her in a moment.) Also in the cast as part of the ensemble was Grace Fanning, as an underage party girl in the Roaring 20's. At one point the lyrics describe each "type" as they enter: a dancer, a producer, a madam, a boxer, and.... as Fanning sashays in, anticipating something like "a flapper," "a beauty," "a vamp" .... all she gets is: "a minor." The look of shock and outrage on her face was priceless, a combo of "I'm busted!" and "Is that all I get?"

- the strong supporting cast in Grease at Town, finally getting to sing all their best songs. The film version cut out a lot of the 50's do-wop homages, and focused on Sandy and Danny.  Here, Sirena Dib got to break hearts with "Freddy My Lo-ove," and Patrick

Dodds (still sporting his high hair from Spring Awakening) not only got a chance to smile on stage, but rocked out with "Those Magic Changes," two of my favorite songs of all time. Hunter Bolton reclaimed Kenickie's "Greased Lightning" (complete with the original lyrics describing exactly what sort of wagon it is) while Jenny Morse and Mark Zeigler beautifully harmonized in "Mooning," a song I had forgotten entirely. Leandra Ellis-Gaston got to drop the (Italian) F-bomb on Town Theatre's stage (it's just the seemingly meaningless "fangu," but it means the same thing) and was another example of how color-blind casting rarely hurts

anything.  Sure, the script calls for Rizzo to be Italian, but who's to say her dad wasn't progressive, and married an African-American?  Dodds also got some incredible moments of physical comedy with Haley Sprankle, as he tries to match her, move for move, at the prom.

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth Stepp, a gifted comedienne, literally throwing herself into each scene with abandon, as a beautiful Cinderella (at Columbia Children's Theatre) who still managed to get plenty of laughs.

 

 

 

 

- Gerald Floyd's increasing frustration with life after death in Almost An Evening (at the Trustus Side Door) navigating obstacles that ran from a maddeningly matter-of-fact receptionist (Vicky Saye Henderson, another Theatre Artist of the Year finalist) to a smooth-talking, winking bureaucrat (Jason Stokes.) Followed by his sympathetic portrayal of a grieving Texas father, in his scene with Kendrick Marion, playing against type as a stuffy, repressed government operative.

- the graphic puppet sex and nudity in Avenue Q at Trustus. And Kevin Bush hastily inventing his girlfriend Alberta...from ...um... Vancouver...in Canada.  And Katie Leitner voicing and manipulating two very different-sounding characters, Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut, with the aid of Elisabeth Smith Baker, who voiced plenty of others too, including one of the Bad Idea Bears. "Important day at work tomorrow?  Let's do some shots!"

 

- the commitment by director Shannon Willis Scruggs and costumer Lori Stepp to go all the way into the absurd in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Town.  The musical numbers are pastiches of various styles (country, rockabilly, calypso, etc.) and here, almost like a live cartoon, the cast morphed quickly into Frenchmen with berets, cheerleaders with pom-poms, you name it. Frank Thompson as the King, baby, i.e. an Elvis-style Pharaoh, was particularly amusing.  James Harley noted in his review that "some of the show’s best energy comes from deep within the ensemble, Charlie Goodrich leading the way with 100% commitment to every movement he makes on stage."  There were dozens of people on stage at any given time, so I made a point to look for Goodrich within each number, and sure enough, whether or not he had any lines, he was always the best at reacting appropriately to whatever was going on.  And conceiving the "hairy Midianites" as members of ZZ Top was just inspired.

- Katie Foshee, who has enlivened the ensembles of about a hundred musicals in recent years, stepping into (and owning) the lead role in Camp Rock - The Musical at Workshop.  Avery Herndon and Alex Webster too were adorable as they as they succumbed to puppy-love-at-first sight, and Kathryn Reddic made a great mean girl.  From her bio, Reddic would have had Linda Khoury for drama in high school, meaning that she is well-versed in Shakespeare, and as a current English major at Vanderbilt she is surely immersed in Shelley and Keats, Joyce and Yeats, Chekhov and Strindberg, yet she rocked out like Beyonce in some complex hip-hop dance numbers.  Commodore girls represent, y'all.

- James Harley back on stage in Palace of the Moorish Kings at Trustus, under-playing a complex character who wasn't given a lot of lines or movement. Silence can sometimes speak volumes, and Harley had some great moments where he started to say something... then words failed him, and the point was nevertheless made.  But he did get a few memorable lines as a member of the "greatest generation," who never felt entirely comfortable as being seen as a hero, since he never killed anyone, never did anything heroic, and only served after being drafted.

- Elisabeth Smith Baker (yet again!) so sweet and natural in Next to Normal at Trustus.  And the show's big "reveal," which fooled me entirely, even though I more or less was familiar with the plot.  Andy Bell made a great transition from musician to actor/singer on stage, and the entire cast distinguished themselves as professionally as if they were the original cast on Broadway. The set too (by Danny Harrington, with input from Chad Henderson) showed how even the big-name New York shows are going for simple, stylized, low-cost sets these days, which often work better than trying to achieve realism.

- Giulia Marie Dalbec dominating the year with not one but four bravura performances.  While she has played countless roles as vixens, ingénues, or someone'sgirlfriend or daughter, Dalbec made her mark as a name-brand lead in Scoundrels and Wild Party (above) and as Elle in Legally Blonde at Workshop. The word that immediately comes to mind to describe her on stage now is "confident" - and with that confidence, she bravely took on the role of the meek Honey in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (also at Workshop) and nailed that one too.  Half the time Honey was drunk, or passed out, or ignored by everyone else, but Dalbec was always engaged in believable action and movements, however subtle.

 

- Robert Michalski's swaggering cameo as a UPS delivery guy in Blonde; I don't think I've ever seen a performer simply walk across a stage and then through the audience and get such a big laugh.  As I wrote at the time, he definitely had a package, and was determined to deliver it.

- Elena Martinez-Vidal's characterization (complete with New England accent) of Martha (in Virginia Woolf) as an aging Snookie, the college president's scandalous daughter who bluffs her way through academia via booze, sex, humor and bravado.

- Paul Kaufmann playing 35 different characters in I Am My Own Wife at the Trustus Side Door. Clad for most of the time in a dress!  The main figure was an East German "tranny granny" who may or may not have been a pioneering cultural historian, a murderer, an informer for the secret police, and/or a courageous activist and supporter of the oppressed gay community in Berlin.  After a while you got used to most of the various German and American "voices" ...and out of the blue, he's also a crisp Anglo-Indian reporter called Pradeep Gupta, with the perfect, smooth, musical lilt to his voice that you'd expect.  And this was a week after playing the male lead in Next to Normal !

 

 

- the striking, sunset-hued panels that comprised most of the set for Next Fall at Trustus. And the banter between G. Scott Wild and Jason Stokes (both yet again!) as mismatched lovebirds who just happen to be guys.  And the odd (but probably fairly common) paradox of fundamentalist Christian characters as they try to rationalize their own "sinful" lifestyle, especially as detailed by Bobby Bloom.

- Abigail Smith Ludwig, conveying the flowing, soft, lyrical beauty of German syllables and consonants in a  disgruntled rendition of "O Tannenbaum" in Winter Wonderettes at Town. And Alexa Cotran, yet another remarkable discovery, a very young performer who matched her older castmates note for note, scene for scene. Cotran bears a striking resemblance to my first grade teacher, who had that exact same huge 1960's hairdo, perfectly coiffed here by Cherelle Guyton, who was responsible for most of the good-looking hair in the shows mentioned above.

- the wonderful cast of [title of show] at Trustus in just about every moment on stage. Laurel Posey recounting her recurring lead role as "corporate whore," and Robin Gottlieb segueing from a cute number on secondary characters into Aerosmith were especially funny, but somehow the genuine moments in this little show touched me as few usually do.  "Who says four chairs and a keyboard can’t make a musical?  We’re enough with only that keyboard - we’re okay with only four chairs. We’ll be fine with only four chairs - we’ll rock hard with only four chairs!"  That sort of do-it-yourself mentality and optimism can be applied to so many things in life, as can their conclusion that it's better to be "nine people's favorite thing, than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing."  Score one vote for the rice crispy treats, as this was far and away my favorite show of the year.

- the actual do-it-yourself production of Plan 9 from Outer Space - Live and Undead 2.0 presented at Trustus, but essentially cobbled together on a shoe-string six months earlier at Tapp's Art Center.  Thanks to enlisting the aid of some of Columbia's finest actors, the show almost became a real play, even though the basic idea was to do a tongue-in-cheek spoof of what many feel is the worst movie ever made. So many of the cast were inspired in their campy re-imagining of the film's original dialogue, including Jennifer Mae Hill as a sexy stewardess (Hill was a gifted actress at Trustus, Chapin, and elsewhere long before she got into doll-making) and Chad Forrister as the stolid hero. Forrister was also the hero of 39 Steps above, and has perfected the mock-heroic, ever-so-slightly-exaggerated tone required by these spoofs.  Victoria Wilson was beautiful as an evil alien, but used a

rich, serious, Shakespearean voice that reminded you of Judith Anderson or Maggie Smith. Some of Forrister's best moments came with Catherine Hunsinger, playing the soon-to-be-abducted heroine.  There's an exercise in acting classes called "give and take," where two actors alternate allowing each other to take focus and dominate a scene. Hunsinger could have gotten some laughs as a stereotypical 1950's housewife, and given some to Forrister; instead, she wisely chose to downplay her performance, setting him up for vastly bigger laughs than either would have gotten separately.  As I wrote in the review, "Another example of her generosity on stage comes when the zombie-fied Scott Means attacks her; she swoons melodramatically...but at the same time, falls over the actor's shoulder in a perfectly-timed movement, allowing him to lift her easily, with as much grace as two ballet dancers.  Well, or pro wrestlers."

Hunsinger is a fearless performer, taking an emotionally demanding role in Spring Awakening the year before as the (semi-compliant) victim of a disturbing rape/seduction by the show's protagonist, yet somehow she managed to allow him to still seem deserving of the audience's sympathy. And then she tackled the Olivia Newton-John role in Grease (above) which is surely a daunting vocal challenge for the most talented of singers, but she filled Sandy's saddle oxfords with ease.  That incredible voice had its biggest test in Plan 9, as Hunsinger's character was pursued across stage and into the house by zombies.  The

original villains' make-up from the film was absurd enough, and here it was made even campier, yet Hunsinger chose to play the entire scene straight. As Chris Bickel cued some vintage movie chase-scene music and Hunsinger gamely screamed her head off, just for a moment I was no longer at Trustus.  Just for a moment I was a 13-year-old watching the Mummy or the Wolfman or the Creature abduct some forgotten heroine on the Universal or Hammer Studios back lot. Just for a few seconds there was a genuine chill down my back, as a brave young actress fully committed to being a terrified damsel in distress, running for her life from unspeakable horror.   Theatre is supposed to transport you, to take you out of yourself, and so this was for me, however briefly, the most memorable moment on stage in 2012.

So there are some of the things I enjoyed in the last year.  How about you?  That "comments" section below is there for a reason. What did you enjoy on stage in 2012?

~ August Krickel

 

Wishes from and for the Columbia Arts Community for Christmas - Part I

One of the best Christmases I can remember celebrating with my friends happened over twenty years ago. We were all young and economically challenged -- Coles, Cathy, Natalie, Margaret, and I -- but we loved each other dearly and wanted to give one another the world. So we decided to stuff each others' stockings with wishes for the things we most wanted our friends to have. Once we let go of the obligation to give one another material things, we were free to give them any wish we chose. Vacations, book deals, confidence, sleep. It was liberating and it made us seriously consider how we might improve the lives of the people we loved if money and time and power and even magic were at our disposal.

In this same vein, Jasper asked Columbia artists and arts lovers what they would like Santa to bring to their beloved arts Community this Christmas. Answers are still coming in, but here's a start on what folks had to say.

Please feel free to comment on these wishes below, and do add some wishes of your own.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas from your friends at

Jasper - The Word on Columbia Arts.

 

From Tom Poland

I’d like for Santa to bring the arts community a big bag of confidence, commitment, and energy. Being an artist often means working in isolation wondering if your work is good or wondering if it makes a meaningful contribution to society. Being sure of your work and

yourself generates the strength to keep plugging away at your chosen craft. When you believe in and commit to your art it does make a meaningful contribution. The journey is a long one, a marathon, and rewards go to the patient and persistent.

 

From Alexis Doktor

I feel that most often the problems that I'd love to see fixed don't lie within the arts community, but those that hold the strings. I wish Santa could bring a new found respect and intrigue to those that don't currently appreciate the arts. That maybe people would see the beauty in our movements, our music, our work, our soul, instead of which gamecock has the most field goals or who just got benched. The artists I've met in Columbia, whether performers or fine artists, all share something: passion. And it seems that every year funding gets smaller, and concerns are turned elsewhere. The artists here live out their resolutions every day... do what you love, and do it often. Personally, I'd love to see the Main Street first Thursday arts fair grow and grow. It's such a wonderful forum for artists of all kinds. I'd like to see more funding given to the companies that work SO hard on SO little (i.e. Workshop Theatre, Columbia City Ballet, Trustus, SC Shakespeare Company, and the list goes on). I'd like to see a new governor who understands and appreciates that taking away arts and good education from our children hurts everyone, because they are the future!

 

From Natalie Brown

I would love to see an arts incubator space open up, and/or live/work artist spaces in the downtown area. Bonus points if the ceilings are high enough for a circus arts school.

Belly Dancer and Columbia Alternacirque director Natalie Brown

 

From Chris Bickel

I'd love to see Santa bring us more alternative spaces for display of works. I'd like to see more businesses open up their walls to local artists. We're seeing more of this lately in Columbia, and it's a trend I'd like to see continue. It's an aesthetic improvement to the business and good exposure for the artist.

 

 

 

From Chris Powell

I'd like Santa to bring us all some unification, concrete goals both as a community (and as individuals), continuing inspiration gleaned from our daily lives, and the energy and eagerness to help our fellow artist in THEIR work as well as the open mind to accept their criticisms.

 

From Alex Smith

Integrity. Honesty. A ten ton sack full of hundred dollar bills.

 

 From Elena Martinez-Vidal

Funding and audiences!

 

Merry Christmas from Jasper!

 

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

Behind the scenes (and the wardrobe and lighting) of Swing '39

Some of the staff of Jasper had the good fortune last night to attend the closing performance of TRUSTUS Theatre's most recent play, Swing '39. Directed by Chad Henderson, a young man who, full disclosure, is dear to the heart of this writer, Swing '39 was the winner of the TRUSTUS Playwright's Festival.  Written by Alessandro King, a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, Swing '39 was developed during readings both at Sarah Lawrence and at New Dramatists, "the country's premiere center for the support and development of playwrights," according to their website. While we enjoyed the play and thought the second act made up for some needed editing on the playwright's part in the first, we were also duly impressed by the set design, lighting design, and costuming.

Danny Harrington, who did the scenic design, was able to capture the essence of early 20th century propriety in his pink, center-stage Davenport which appeared to be as appropriately uncomfortable as it was beautiful.

Costume Designer, Alexis Doktor, one of the two most under-recognized and over-achieving members of the Columbia arts community, scored an A+ again with her too snug pencil skirts for the women and too large suits for the men. Her wardrobe decisions well reflected the constraining sex role constructs of the pre-World War II era. (And the shoes chosen for Sylvia, played by Bianca Raso, were to die for!)

Aaron Pelzek, the other of the two most under-recognized and over-achieving members of the Columbia arts community, announced he was serious about his lighting design in the first few seconds of the show when he dramatically lit the stage, one fixture at a time, to the tune of the opening music.

Finally, hats off to Elena Martinez-Vidal who played the off-stage voice of Sylvia's mother with a demanding whine that would put that of Howard Wolowitz's Ma to shame. That said, at least one member of our theatre-going party has not been able to get Dr. Hook's rendition of Sylvia's Mother out of her head since reading the program last night.

Other standouts from the performance include G. Scott Wild in the role of Benny Goodman and Rozlyn Stanley as his love interest, Maggie. Wild, seen most recently as John Wilkes Booth in  the TRUSTUS production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, also directed by Henderson, was a snarling portrait of professionalism. Stanley embodied the kind of sensual naiveté that would allow a girl of her character's age to become involved in a tryst with such an unlikely partner.

Kudos to the cast and crew of Swing '39. We're looking forward to seeing more of you all on our city's stages in the near future.

-- C. Boiter

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