REVIEW - Trustus's Silence! The Musical is a Hilarious Respite from a Weary World

“A little nonsense, now and then, is relished by the wisest men.”

-WillyWonka - Charlie And The Chocolate Factory

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Members of the Silence! cast Sam McWhite, Mike Morales, Kayla Machado, Latrell Brennan, and Abigail McNeely

 When one thinks of The Silence Of The Lambs, words like “hilarious” and “side-splittingly funny” don’t generally come to mind. The classic film, starring Jodie Foster and Sir Anthony Hopkins, sent chills up the spines of movie-goers worldwide, but other than one or two cheeky asides from Hopkins, the movie was a straight-up crime drama/thriller without much comic relief. Such is definitely NOT the case with Trustus Theatre’s season-opener, Silence! The Musical, which serves up an affectionate but irreverent parody of the original.

The plot of the musical follows that of the film fairly closely, but takes advantage of every opportunity to play the situations and characters for laughs. Inside jokes abound, and sassy references to other pop culture staples can be found…if you know where to look. I am going to try and see the show again, as I was so busy laughing and scribbling down notes, I’m sure I missed a few things here and there. Director Jonathan Monk clearly had great fun in using his own celebrated sense of  humour to enhance an already outrageous comedy. Kudos  are also due to Monk for his superb casting, which made the show damn near perfect. (My only caveat is that the script is quite vulgar in spots, which I find delightful, but if sexual slang and twisted characters aren’t your thing, beware.)

As Clarice Starling, Kayla C. Machado is the only character to do a full-out imitation of her film counterpart. In her early-90s bobbed hairdo and makeup, she bears a striking resemblance to Jodie Foster, but the verisimilitude doesn’t stop there. Without ever breaking character, Machado delivers a brilliant rendition of Foster’s distinct dialect, complete with pronouncing her “s” sounds with “sh.” For example, she consistently refers to herself as “Agent Shtarling,” which simply got funnier as the show progressed. I will admit to having feared at first that the convention would get old, much like an SNL skit that runs several minutes too long, but I was wrong. To use another subversive pop culture example, it’s like a running gag on Family Guy that’s funny at first…then it starts to get old…but then it crosses over into hilarious, and you laugh until it’s over. Machado is, ironically, given the number of insinuations about Starling’s (and Foster’s) sexuality, the “straight man,” yet she gets some of the biggest laughs of the evening. One of her finest moments is when she gives a lengthy, incomprehensible, monologue about her detective work, only to be met with a response of “I have no clue what the fu*k you just said” from Robin Gottlieb (more on her in a minute,) and Machado manages to keep a perfectly straight face. (To her credit, Machado and a couple of the other actors did have one “Harvey Korman Experience,” when they all cracked up at some uproariously crude witticism. Rather than being a distraction, this was a positively golden moment when the actors simply couldn’t contain their hilarity, which strengthened the already-solid connection with the audience. Harvey would have been proud. ;-)

Machado and Morales with Robin Gottlieb

Machado and Morales with Robin Gottlieb

As Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Hunter Boyle is at the peak of his game. I attended the show with my friend, local actor Bill Arvay, who declared Boyle’s performance “the best thing I’ve ever seen him do.” While this may have been a bit hyperbolic, given Boyle’s rich resume of memorable characters, I understood the sentiment. Boyle’s Lecter isn’t quite as menacing as Hopkins’, which illustrates the understanding Boyle and Monk had of the character as he fits into this somewhat Bizzaro-World spoof. Boyle is less genius cannibal, and more smartass intellectual, and it works. One of the many tips of the hat to other theatrical works is his prison suit number, 24601. (Les Mis fans, admit it, you were mentally singing it once you noticed the number.) Boyle is still the “Hannibal The Cannibal” from the movie, but he deftly takes the lighter script to heart.  Straight lines are played for laughs, and Boyle had to hold for laughter for at least thirty seconds when Lecter corrected S(h)tarling on the famous “Fava beans and a nice Chianti” line.

Patrick Dodds, whose considerable talent seems to grow and develop with each role he undertakes, manages to create a frightening Buffalo Bill who still fits in with the MAD Magazine atmosphere of zaniness. While making the part  his own, Dodds winks at the character with a few straight-from-the-film bits. Fans of the movie will remember the odd tic of a laugh Buffalo Bill tries to suppress when asking Starling about a missing woman she is seeking. “Was she like, a big, fat, person?” isn’t a funny line per se, but when Dodds adds the brief snicker to his query, the result is a cascade of knowing laughter from the audience. While Dodds is younger and a bit more manic than his screen counterpart, he is a perfect fit (see what I did there?) for the demented lunatic of the stage adaptation.

Dressed in all black, with white floppy ears, the other five actors play “everyone else,” including a flock of lambs, establishing individual characters by adding a jacket, hat, or comparably simple garment. Costume Designer Amy Brower Lown succeeds in maintaining  a specific, cohesive, style without ever compromising the ersatz reality of the script. Lown’s concept is brilliantly supported by LaTrell Brennan, Robin Gottlieb, Abigail McNeely, Samuel McWhite, and Mike Morales, who transition seamlessly from character to character.

As Ardelia, Starling’s roommate and is-she-or-isn’t-she girlfriend, Brennan not only develops a three-dimensional character, but also displays great facility at  delivering a punchline, often remaining perfectly serious during her funniest moments. Gottlieb brings her customary stage presence and overall panache to playing a series of all-male characters. (Another inside joke is set up when Gottlieb appears as Starling’s deceased father, prompting Starling to plead “Papa, can you hear me?” with Yentyl–like wistfulness.) In an uncredited cameo as mental patient Miggs, Gottlieb hilariously re-creates the (in)famous moment when Miggs masturbates and flings the resulting *ahem* substance at Starling, substituting a can of Silly String at a decidedly seminal moment in the show.

Working double duty as Buffalo Bill’s victim, Catherine, and her US Senator mother, McNeely demonstrates an almost chameleon-like ability to morph into completely different appearances. I honestly didn’t realize the roles were done by the same person until well over halfway through.

McWhite’s primary alter-ego of Lecter’s keeper, Dr. Chilton, is less pathetic than the film Chilton, interpreted more as a fast-talking pickup artist than a socially awkward nerd. While we can easily imagine the movie incarnation moping in depression after failing to seduce Starling, McWhite’s Chilton has probably had more successes than failures with women, and displays a delightful “your loss, baby” attitude, likely moving on to his next potential lover.

Morales was the most difficult actor to track, as he, like McNeely, apparently has the ability to shape-shift. I suspect it was he who played the geeky entomologist who also fails to woo Starling with his offer of “cheeseburgers and the amusing house wine.” ( This line is pretty much a throwaway in the movie, but takes on great hilarity when placed in the world of Silence!) Morales also has a most amusing death scene as the ill-fated Officer Pembry. As with the rest of the show, what was frightening and/or grotesque on the silver screen becomes fodder for hilarity onstage.

Sam Hetler’s scenic design is both functional and visually intriguing, creating a unit set that serves as over a dozen locations. Hetler’s work is showing up with growing frequency on Columbia stages, and he never fails to deliver a professional-quality set with a few unexpected flairs. Marc Hurst’s lighting design reinforces Hetler’s fun-house set with dramatic changes in intensity and color, never letting the audience forget that this is a bizarre alternate reality. Particularly impressive were his use of lighting Buffalo Bill’s lair from beneath the playing surface (blending perfectly with Hetler’s dungeon-wall motif,) and a sudden full-stage switch to fuzzy black-and-green to simulate the view from a pair of night-vision goggles. Hurst also helps create locales with projected establishing texts such as “Baltimore Nuthouse” and “Mr. Belvedere, Ohio,” among others.

Machado and Hunter Boyle

Machado and Hunter Boyle

Musical Director Randy Moore lives up to his customary professionalism, making piano, keyboard, and drums sound like a full orchestra. Bravo to Trustus and Moore for utilizing live musicians in a time when far too many theatres are opting for “canned” pre-recorded orchestration. The freshness and obvious communication among the four instrumentalists added another layer of connection to the show, as well as the audience.

Lest there be any doubt, I found Silence! To be a laugh-a-minute roller coaster ride of naughty satire, and left with my sides aching from constant guffawing.  It’s definitely for grown-ups, and never blinks or shies away from that fact, so be prepared. Never before have I seen a dancing vagina ballet, bubble-wrap bulletproof vests, the “Manamana” song used as a diversionary tactic, an imitation of Jodie Foster reciting “she sells seashells by the seashore,” or Hunter Boyle in a fabulous hat and caftan ensemble. (Okay, that last one was a lie.)

Silence! runs through 3 November, and tickets can be purchased online at Trustus.org, or by ringing the box office on (803) 254.9732. Word is spreading, and tickets are likely to be going fast, so reserve your seats soon for this delightfully macabre, oft-profane, “egregiously misrespectful” piece of  theatre that maintains Trustus’ commitment to professional and well-produced art.

Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER.

Patrick Dodds as Buffalo Bill - all photos courtesy of Trustus Theatre

Patrick Dodds as Buffalo Bill - all photos courtesy of Trustus Theatre

A Conversation with Heathcliff

Jasper noticed a new face on the performance art scene and thought we should remember our manners and give him a proper welcome and introduction. Here's a peek at a conversation we just had with this lovely older gentleman, Heathcliff.

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Hi Heathcliff! We understand that you’re having a show this weekend at Trustus Theatre and we thought you might want to introduce yourself to the Jasper readers. Would that be OK?

 

JASPER: Can you tell us how old you are, where you’re from, and how you ended up in Columbia, SC?

HEATHCLIFF: Absolutely. Now, Cindi, most of my pictures make me seem younger, but I am actually 78 years old and have the wig to prove it. I don’t want to give away the particulars of my birth as my show will elaborate on that topic via shadow puppetry. I try to explain everything with shadow puppetry if I can help it - you should see the first draft of my answers to these questions! As for how I ended up in Columbia, my accompanist Wanda has spoken of its smiling faces and beautiful places for quite some time. I had to come see what all the fuss is about!

 

JASPER:  What line of work are you in and what do you like most about it?

HEATHCLIFF:  I suppose it could be considered more of a square and less of a line, but I am in the storytelling and empathy business. I think we are all young at heart, and I love giving people permission to exist in a ridiculous world for a time. Right now more than ever, we need to be reminded of our unique capacity to enjoy each other’s company.

 

JASPER:  As a gentleman of advanced age you must have some great memories. Will you share a little something special with our readers?

HEATHCLIFF: Yes, there was this one time…(falls asleep)

 

JASPER:  You also must have met lots of famous people – do you know Diane Keaton perchance? What do you think about her?

HEATHCLIFF: Oh my goodness, yes. Diane is an old friend - we share a mutual love of clown paintings, and she is directly responsible for my leaving the business for a decade. I don’t hold it against her because she was trying to help - I will go into more direct detail in my show. Diane, if you’re reading this, no hard feelings.

 

JASPER:  Now, who is Wanda and why is she horning in on your show?

HEATHCLIFF: I actually play the horn in the show! Wanda is the lovable green squeak toy with a smile in the picture. She is my accompanist and soul mate, and she can play any instrument in the world. She is shy so she normally pre-records everything for our shows. She also was rumored to have had a secret affair with Tom Jones in the 70s, but I’ll let her tell you about that.

 

JASPER:  On a scale of 1 – 17, with 1 being boring and 17 being whoopee, how naughty will your show be this weekend?

HEATHCLIFF: I leave the math to my team of accountants, but I will say that I believe humor is the best medicine. If you weaponize humor or constantly go for the low hanging fruit, it turns into something that can actually make you unhealthy. But since I’m old, I have to occasionally reach for the apple that’s in front of me. Now I’m hungry. The short answer is, there are no swear words or “blue humor” as we used to call it. I’d rate it PG: Probably Good.

 

JASPER:  I think we may have some mutual acquaintances. Have you ever heard of a fellow who goes by the name of Jonathan Monk and a lady named Krista Forster? What do you know about these folks?

HEATHCLIFF: Oh my goodness! Jonathan Monk is my manager, though we never seem to be in the same place at the same time. Krista Forster looks shockingly similar to my distant relative Sheila Murphy of Janitorial Services. These two, I’m told, have been working to devise a new comedic piece in town - I can’t wait to see it.

 

JASPER: Anything else you’d like to tell our readers about your upcoming show?

HEATHCLIFF/JONATHAN MONK: Hi Cindi, this is Jonathan Monk. Heathcliff had to make an emergency trip to Zesto’s. Regarding the show, I’d like to say this is a fantastic opportunity for me to continue to explore a character I created in 2003 during my time as a Musical Theatre major at Carnegie Mellon. While Heathcliff the character is known for his embellishments regarding the truth, I have been fortunate enough to perform as Heathcliff in Pittsburgh at The Andy Warhol Museum, in NYC at Emerging Artists Theatre, Don’t Tell Mama and 54 Below, and in Martha’s Vineyard at the Grange Hall Theatre. What’s exciting to me about this new show is this is the first time Heathcliff has incorporated other human characters. Wanda (his accompanist) is a puppet, so it’s refreshing to be able to discover and interact with other characters in Heathcliff’s world: a mix of Mister Rogers, Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Andy Kaufman, with a dash of Red Skelton. I am thankful and excited to be able to premiere a new Heathcliff show here in my hometown!

 

Shows are this Friday at 11:15pm, Saturday at 3pm, and Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are $10 / each and will be sold at the door.
http://trustus.org/event/healthcliff/

 

Cindi Boiter is the executive director of the Jasper Project and a big fan of new performing arts. Reach her at Cindi@JasperColumbia.com

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