"The Other Place" at the Trustus Side Door Theatre - a review by Rachel Arling

otherplace1 The Trustus Side Door Theatre production of Sharr White’s The Other Place provides an intriguing  night of theatre that challenges its audience with questions about personal identity, the effects  of illness on relationships, and the conflict between memory and reality. The eighty-minute play  begins relatively straightforwardly as Juliana, a brilliant 52-year-old scientist, gives a presentation pitching a new drug to a group of doctors. Juliana’s lecture is practiced and polished, and she  radiates self-assuredness to an almost annoying degree. We have no reason not to take her at  her word. However, as this darkly humorous mystery play continues, it becomes clear that Juliana  might be a less reliable narrator than we first assumed.

Directed by Jim O’Connor, the show is well-suited to the intimate venue because the script gives  the audience a first-hand view into Juliana’s head. We experience events in the same fragmented  way that she does, so it’s appropriate that we are also right there with her physically in the small  space. The set is minimalistic, especially during the first half of the play, when the scenes switch  abruptly (sometimes mid-sentence) between various locations. The slightly more detailed set of  the play’s second half depicts “the other place:” the Cape Cod vacation home that has been in  Juliana’s family for generations. The set is supplemented with excellent use of projections that  serve as PowerPoint slides for Juliana’s presentation, and the projections also occasionally set  the turbulent mood with images of crashing waves. The costumes, designed by Jean Gonzalez  Lomasto, are simple but well-chosen (though I was sometimes distracted by the clomping sound  of the women’s high heels on the hollow wooden stage, but this is a minor complaint.)

Erica Tobolski in "The Other Place" - Photo by Richard Arthur Király

The cast is comprised of four capable actors whose chemistry together increases as the play goes on. As Juliana, Erica Tobolski must carry the show. She navigates the highs and lows  of the complex character with dexterity, understanding that Juliana uses her acerbic wit and  authoritative demeanor as coping mechanisms that help her to grasp at the vestiges of control  over her life. Like the character of Vivian in Margaret Edson’s Wit, Juliana often breaks the fourth  wall to share the details of her struggle with an illness that might be cancer. Tobolski successfully  establishes a close relationship with audience members as she enlists our help to try to make  sense of her “episodes.” I do wish that some of the transitions between the different scenes and  audience addresses were clearer; however, I recognize that the blurred transitions might be a  directorial choice intended to illustrate the muddled nature of Juliana’s experience.

Bryan Bender plays Ian, Juliana’s husband. (Or is he her “soon-to-be-ex?” This is one of the  mysteries the playwright wants us to contemplate.) Both physically and emotionally, Bender  provides a solid, patient, and grounded presence compared to Tobolski’s agitated restlessness;  their relationship dynamic reminds me of the couple from Next to Normal in more ways than one.  Bender and Tobolski do their best work together during the climactic flashback scene that takes  place at “the other place.”

(L-R) Bryan Bender, Erica Tobolski, Jennifer Moody Sanchez - Photo by Richard Arthur Király

G. Scott Wild and Jennifer Moody Sanchez play the other men and women in the show. Wild has  the play’s two smallest roles, but he brings them to life with his typical skillful energy. Sanchez  plays three different characters: Juliana’s doctor, Juliana’s distant adult daughter, and a stranger.  She makes distinctive choices for each one, but I liked her best as the stranger. The scene  between Juliana and the stranger is hilariously entertaining because of the ridiculous situation  and the way the two actors react to one another. More importantly, though, the scene provides a  touching example of an empathetic connection between two people who have never met before. The stranger shows kindness to Juliana even though it doesn’t come easily to her because she is  dealing with myriad issues of her own. The two women are united by their suffering in “the other  place,” and sometimes the formation of such a connection is enough to help both of them start  the healing process.

Erica Tobolski and Jennifer Moody Sanchez - Photos by Richard Arthur Király

This production of The Other Place, which runs through November 1, is worth seeing. Don’t  expect to sit back in your seat and relax, though; the show requires its audience to watch actively  and make judgments about what’s happening. But doesn’t all effective art do that?

~ Rachel Arling

The Other Place runs through Saturday, November 1st in The Richard and Debbie Cohn Trustus Side Door Theatre (although the closing Saturday night is currently sold out.) The doors and box office open thirty minutes prior to curtain, and all Trustus Side Door tickets are $20 for general admission and $15 for students.  Reservations can be made by calling the Trustus Box Office at (803) 254-9732, and tickets may be purchased online at www.trustus.org.  The Richard and Debbie Cohn Trustus Side Door Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking is available on Lady Street and on Pulaski Street.  The Trustus Side Door Theatre entrance is through the glass doors on the Huger St. side of the building.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Richard Arthur Király Photography

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

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

~ August Krickel

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

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

  photo by Jonathan Sharpe

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Trustus Theatre’s Clybourne Park opens on the Trustus Main Stage on Friday, January 24th at 8:00pm and runs through February 8th, 2014. Thigpen Main Stage shows start at 8:00pm Thursdays through Saturdays, Saturday matinees are at 2pm, and Sunday matinees are at 3:00pm. There will not be a matinee performance on January 26.  Tickets are $22.00 for adults, $20.00 for military and seniors, and $15.00 for students. Half-price Student Rush-Tickets are available 15 minutes prior to curtain.

 

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

 

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

   

"Good People" - Jillian Owens reviews the new play at Trustus Theatre

David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, the new show at Trustus Theatre,  takes place in Boston, but really exists in two separate worlds.  Margie Walsh (Dewey Scott-Wiley) isn’t doing well at life.  As struggling single mother with a severely disabled adult daughter, she’s barely getting by paycheck to paycheck.   When she’s laid off from her job at the Dollar Store for excessive tardiness –mostly from having to care for her daughter—she’s left with no prospects and a looming eviction. Her friends suggest she go talk to her old high school flame, Mike (Jason Stokes) to see if he can give her a job.  They all remember him as being “Good People” - surely he’ll help an old friend out. Mike is completely beating Margie at the game of life:  he’s a successful doctor with a home, a family, and a practice in Chestnut Hill, an upscale part of town.   Mike never says he’s rich, just “comfortable,” to which Margie snaps back, "Oh, comfortable.  You're comfortable. OK — I guess that makes me uncomfortable."  She manages to wheedle an invitation to a birthday party that his wife is throwing for him, where she hopes to meet her new future employer.

 Richard Kiraly

Lindsay-Abaire presents some truly interesting characters and concepts in this play.  Mike is that guy who managed to “get out” and make something of his life and Margie is that girl who just didn’t make it.  While Mike feels entitled to his success, since after all he did work extremely hard to get there, Margie points out that he had several lucky breaks that most people in the "Southie" end of Boston never had.  At what point are you truly just stuck?  When Margie, the self-proclaimed “too nice” girl attempts to blackmail Mike with frightening secrets from his past, you can’t help but wonder if any of these people are “good” at all.

goodpeople4

This script is particularly compelling as Lindsay-Abaire grew up in Southie.  Like Mike, he grew up as the son of a fruit peddler, and was one of the lucky ones able to get out after getting a scholarship to Milton Academy when he was 11.  The author says that the reason it took him so long to write a play about his childhood home was that “I was terrified.  You love and care about these people deeply, and you don’t want to misrepresent them.”  His characters are treated with compassion and dignity here.

This production, directed by Jim O’Connor, is subtle and well-executed.  This show is a terrific example of what can be done with a terrific cast and a terrific director when they’re given a terrific script.  Dewey Scott-Wiley is a raw and intelligent Margie who interjects just the right amount of humor into a very serious story.  Jason Stokes plays Mike, and while he’s probably too young for this role (despite several references in the script to his looking good for his age), he manages to make you feel truly sorry for him when Margie starts laying in to him.  The supporting cast, consisting mostly of Columbia theatre veterans, all deserve mention as well.  Erica Tobolski, Barbara Lowrance Hughes, Kevin Bush, and Michelle Jacobs all deliver solid performances.

Kiraly

That being said, the set seemed hastily put-together, clunky, awkward, and not very well designed, which has been a recurring issue for Trustus.  For this performance it was downright distracting as actors struggled with some of the set pieces and curtains.  But that’s nitpicking.

Trustus Theatre has been spot-on with the plays they’ve chosen this season.  I’m happy to see them getting back to their mission of bringing some of the best new theatre to Columbia, SC, and I hope this continues.

Good People runs through April 6; contact the box office at 803-254-9732 for ticket information, or visit www.trustus.org (and try out the new Trustus online reservation system.)

~ Jillian Owens