PREVIEW: Finlay Park welcomes back SCSC with The Merry Wives of Windsor - By Alivia Seely  

Libby Campbell-Turner and Becky Hunter with Hunter Boyle - photo by Rob Sprankle  

“Better three hours too soon than a minute too late.”

 

The words of William Shakespeare are not always as clear in their meanings as audience members would like them to be. Yet, that does not stop the talented individuals from The South Carolina Shakespeare Company from taking that difficult language from folio, to the stage.

 

Sharing the beautiful, historic language with audiences across Columbia, the SC Shakespeare Company will be gracing the Finlay Park stage for a two weekend production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

 

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a story that chronicles the life of Sir John Falstaff, played by Hunter Boyle. Falstaff is an outrageous man. He is a retired bacchanal with vulgar wit and multiple schemes of seduction, as he plans to dazzle the hearts of Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, played by Libby Campbell-Turner and Becky Hunter. Yet, it does not take long before the two ladies and Ford’s husband Master Ford, to figure out why Falstaff is set on reeking havoc in Windsor.

“He is a very suspicious and jealous husband. I think that he is someone that always thinks that someone is up to something. So when all of this stuff with Falstaff starts happening, my character Master Ford very easily and rapidly buys the fact that his wife is cheating. He then sets out to discover if that is true,” says Scott Blanks, managing director for the South Carolina Shakespeare Company, and will be playing the role of Master Ford.

 

This production is directed by Linda Khoury, artistic director and co-founder of the company. Other notable characters are: Robert Shallow, played by Chris Cook, Dr. Caius, played by Tracy Steele, Master Page, played by Jason Sprankle, Mistress Quickly, played by Sara Blanks, Anne Page, played by Katie Mixon and Parson Evens, played by David Reed.

“It is captivating, energetic, and is a humorous take on marriage, miscommunication, and forgiveness. The wild and bawdy characters along with the fast-moving story full of mischief and trickery will keep the audience riveted,” says Khoury.

 

The outdoor performance environment is no stranger to these company members. Finlay Park has been home to numerous SCSC performances in the past. The only thing that will be keeping them out of the park is inclement weather.

“I really enjoy the outdoor environment. I think audiences enjoy the outdoor environment. I can tell your first hand it is a really great experience for an audience member; however, it is really rather difficult for actors and actresses,” says Blanks.

 

Although there are moments of scandal and humorous revenge, Khoury encourages the entire family to come out and enjoy the show.

 

The South Carolina Shakespeare Company is one of the most popular professional theatre companies and producers of classical theatre in South Carolina. Since its founding in 1992, the company has sought to bring language, art, and history to the community in order to foster the arts culture.

 

The show opens Saturday April 23 at 8:00 p.m. in Finlay Park, and will run again April 27-30 at 8:00 p.m. For more information about the show visit www.shakespeareSC.org.

 

 

"King Lear" in Finlay Park - a review by Jillian Owens

The South Carolina Shakespeare Company opens their fall season with King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies. George Bernard Shaw once said "No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear,”  and one can definitely see where he’s coming from. Madness, betrayal, suffering, war, and death are all over this play, and the body count is nothing short of impressive. kinglear

The elderly King Lear (Chris Cook) is ready for retirement. He plans to divide his kingdom among his  three daughters, Goneril (Raia Hirsch), Regan (Sara Blanks), and Cordelia (Katie Mixon.) But there’s  a catch: the largest quantity of land will go to the daughter who can prove she loves him most. Goneril  and Regan are perfectly happy to deliver speeches of loyalty and devotion that drip with aspartame. But  Cordelia remains stoic, saying she has nothing to compare her love to. Her frankness leads to her father  disowning her and splitting his lands between Regan and Goneril. The King of France, impressed with her honesty offers to marry her:

“Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor; most choice, forsaken;  and most lov'd, despis'd!  Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon. Be it lawful I take up what's cast  away.”

And they hop off to France.

Chris Cook as King Lear

Lear quickly learns how fickle filial loyalty can be. As soon as he relinquishes his power, he loses all  respect from both of his daughters. They chide him for being raucous, and force him to let the majority of  his entourage go. This shocking fall from power and dignity leads Lear to become more and more insane as the play progresses. The former King quickly learns that his only true friends are his now-disguised former pal Kent (Tracy Steele) whom he banished for defending Cordelia, and his Fool (played by Jeff Driggers.)

Intermingled in this main plot is further drama with a troublemaking illegitimate son by the name of  Edmund (Bobby Bloom) to the Earl of Gloucester (Richard Purday.) He tricks Gloucester - way too easily - into thinking his legitimate son Edgar (William Cavitt) plans to steal his estate.   Eyeballs are removed, women are seduced, and lots of folks die in some pretty creative ways.

Katie Mixon (center) as Cordelia - photo by Gerilyn Browning Kim

In this production of Lear, director Linda Khoury has assembled a large cast with varying skill levels and a  curious array of accents. Cook is a vulnerable and powerful Lear, and he captures his descent into madness with an intensity that evokes sympathy. Hirsh and Blanks are appropriately evil as Goneril  and Regan, and Mixon makes for a wonderful contrast as the honest and sincere Cordelia.  Edmund gets some of the best lines in the play, and Bloom delivers them with acerbic intensity:

“Wherefore should I stand in the plague of custom, and  permit the curiosity of nations to deprive me, for that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines lag of  a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?”

Driggers plays the Fool (see what I did there?) not so much as a clown, but as a terrified young man who grasps  the gravity of a dangerous situation from which he must save his friend. There’s an urgency about this Fool that is an unexpected take on the character. Cavitt delivers one of the most challenging and high-energy  performances in the play as the selfless, though hopelessly naive, Edgar.

Richard Purday and Chris Cook - photo by Rob Sprankle

A few members of the ensemble couldn’t quite pick an accent - which was distracting - but as I said  before, this is a large cast and every actor’s performance can’t always be golden. At the preview performance I attended, there was a moment of nudity that I’m not altogether sure was simply a wardrobe  malfunction. I can’t imagine bringing small children to something as heavy as a Shakespearean  tragedy, however, so this might not be an issue for you. The key players do interesting work, and the SC  Shakespeare Company takes a straightforward interpretation of King Lear to a few surprisingly creative  places.

~ Jillian Owens

King Lear runs Wednesday, October 22 through Saturday, October 25 in the Amphitheatre in Finlay Park. Curtain is at 7:30 PM, and the Wednesday performance is free!  For more information, visit http://www.shakespearesc.org/ .

 

REVIEW: The Velvet Weapon, or The Importance of Being Barney - by Jasper Literary Arts editor Ed Madden

  Cast of The Velvet Weapon with playwright Deborah Brevoort seated in center

 

History repeats itself, according to Karl Marx, first as tragedy then as farce.  I couldn’t help but think of this observation while watching The Velvet Weapon, a self-proclaimed farce purportedly inspired by the Velvet Revolution in former Czechoslovakia.  I say purportedly because beyond a broadly construed theme of populism versus power, the play is philosophically incoherent, and it seems to trivialize the very historical moment to which it pays homage.  I left the theatre still giggling at the performance (it was, at times, quite funny), but wondering why this play was the winner of the 2013 Trustus Playwrights’ Festival.

 

Premiering at Trustus last weekend, The Velvet Weapon is a new comedy by Deborah Brevoort.  (For more about the playwright and the play, see the previous Jasper blog..)  In the play, the audience at the National Theatre in an unnamed country protest a play being performed onstage and demand the performance of something different, “The Velvet Weapon,” a play by an unproduced playwright of questionable talent.  According to pre-performance publicity, this play is supposed to be “a metaphorical examination of the Velvet Revolution,” the 1989 non-violent transition of power in Czechoslovakia led by students, political dissidents, and artists, which ended Communist rule.  It is supposed to be about populist democracy.  In the Free Times preview, Brevoort said some audiences had compared her play to the Occupy Movement. That’s a lot of heavy lifting for a really light play.

 

First, let me say that I love the Trustus commitment to new work.  Let me say, too, that there was much to admire about this performance.  The acting was mostly superb, and the actors did their heroic best to save the script. G. Scott Wild, in particular, was spectacular as Monsieur Le Directeur (aka Charlie), the pompous playwright, director, and dramaturg of the National Theatre.  In one early scene he is backstage, wildly acting out his own play as it’s being performed onstage—histrionic, hilarious, perfect.  Scott Herr as the amateur playwright Winston, Katie Mixon as usher and would-be actress Geraldine, and Libby Campbell-Turner as Winston’s mother also stood out, and Katrina Blanding and Hunter Boyle were hysterical stereotypes of backstage bitchiness.  And John Taylor Kearns, with his series of broadly comic accents and absurd physical humor, was a goofy delight.  Also, in a farce filled with slamming doors and rushed entrances and exits, the comic timing of the ensemble cast was spot on.

 

Scott Herr, standing, with G. Scott Wild, supine

That said, I was surprised by some of the staging.  The movement from first to second act is smart, the stage transformed over intermission from a backstage set to a stage-upon-the-stage, a set change that transformed us, the Trustus audience, into the dissatisfied audience in the fictional National Theatre.  However, in a play that puts a proscenium stage onstage, that makes the audience part of the cast, and that stages two plays within the play, you really expect more interesting experiment with theatricality and staging.  Only one entrance came through the audience—Kearns as Governor, at the end of the play.  The lost opportunity here may be more a fault of script than direction, but in a play that claims to be about the power of art to blur the boundaries between theatre and life, that final weak attempt to break the fourth wall seemed (yawn) an empty gesture.

Herr, Wild, with Hunter Boyle and Katrina Blanding

 

Further, when there was supposed to be crowd noise—or keys jingling (more about that in a moment)—I wanted more noise.  Whether we were supposed to be hearing the rebellious audience on the other side of the stage in the first act or the rebellious citizenry outside the theatre, it sounded like maybe five people backstage.  (The downpour Saturday night made more noise than that fictional roaring crowd.)  I wanted the political uproar outside to more obviously impinge on the inside of the theatre.  In a play in which the stage and the street are transforming each other, isn’t that the point?

 

Mostly, though, I just wanted a better play.

 

The problem isn’t that the play’s a farce, all mad pacing and hasty exits and someone caught with his (or her) pants down.  There are moments of delightful silliness, and I laughed helplessly when a woman in a horse costume—a gag set up well in advance—galloped across the stage.  With the mishmash of accents, plot non sequiturs, and that kitchen sink thrown onstage (a poke at theatrical realism?), there’s more than a little of the theatre of the absurd in this as well—perhaps Brevoort’s nod to the absurdist playwright Vaclav Havel, one of the leaders of the Velvet Revolution and the first democratically elected president of Czechoslovakia.  Nor is the problem that it tries to do something serious.  A good farce can make us laugh at serious things.  I’m thinking here of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, or Brendan Behan’s The Hostage (a mad farce about deadly politics), or Nicky Silver’s wicked dark AIDS farce Pterodactyls (Trustus staged a smart production of this several years ago).

 

No, the problem isn’t that it makes the serious trivial or makes the trivial serious, but that it trivializes the very things it asks us to take seriously: art and revolution.  Consider, for example, the jingling of keys.  This was the symbol of the November 1989 demonstrations in Prague, crowds of people jingling their keys to ring out the old regime and signify the opening of locked doors.  At the 20th anniversary in 2009, it became the emblem of the Revolution, and the gesture was revived by the crowds of mourners at Havel's funeralin 2011.

 

In the play, keys jingle weakly soon after Winston announces that he is “taking a stand for a different kind of theatre,” theatre as “an instrument of human liberty.”  When the keys started tinkling beyond the stage doors in the play, I recognized the signature gesture of the revolution, but by the time I thought to pull out my keys and add some noise and solidarity, the moment had passed, the keys were gone, and we were into some incoherent interpretive blather from Winston about truth.  That signature emblem was just a weak and passing gesture, a tossed-off reference—about as meaningful as a later allusion to Oz (“Josef, I don’t think we’re in the theatre any more!”)  With all that heavy lifting in pre-performance publicity (we’re reminded, for example, that Brevoort traveled to Prague in 2005 and interviewed 43 leaders of the revolution), we’re asked to believe that the historical context matters.  Instead we get the unbearable slightness of keys.

 

For Havel, we get Winston, that “playwright of questionable talent.”  Winston says the national theatre is a “factory” for the production of plays that are filled with incoherence, obscurity, and “intellectual masturbation.”  Pleasure, he says, has been replaced by seriousness—or pseudo-seriousness.  He says the audience needs meaning—though his mother explains that that means his play is very entertaining.  Winston’s play, “The Velvet Weapon,” has a cast of 700, an evil king and evil queen, a dragon—and hey, if someone wants to be a horse, then there’s a horse, too.  After all, auditions are merely “rituals of the old power structure,” and his stand is more about opportunity than art.  “I get to stand upon this stage,” he says to the audience, “and soon you will get to stand upon this stage, too”—both “the talented and the untalented.”

 

Winston’s nemesis is Monsieur Le Directeur, an elitist and snob who has written a Beckettian play about a hole in the stage.  He thinks art should be protected from the masses.  He complains about the “busload of housewives from the suburbs” that shows up for the matinee.  He wants to win awards from the government (mostly to make his colleagues feel bad).  His plays are filled with metaphors and syllogisms (a very very bad thing, we are led to believe); indeed, he himself spouts bad syllogistic logic.  “The best works of art only appeal to the few,” he claims, so that the fact that the audience doesn’t like his play is proof that it is good.

velvet weapon 6

 

Skewering pretention is funny.  I love Beckett, but I rarely teach Waiting for Godot without first disarming my students by showing the Monsterpiece Theatre version of Waiting for Elmo.  The central conflict here, however, is all stereotype and cliché—artists versus amateurs, elitism versus opportunity—language that reminds me of the hyperbolic and vitriolic discourse that surrounded the recent controversy over the North Carolina governor’s appointment of a self-published poet as the state’s poet laureate.

 

So bad art is good for the body politic, and good art is bad.  And that play by Monsieur about the hole in the stage that we never get to see?  Two people on a bare stage sounds like Beckett, but two people with a shovel standing over a hole is surely Shakepeare—Hamlet, to be precise, the gravedigger scene, one of the most important moments of syllogistic logic in English drama.  (All men turn to dust, Hamlet says.  Even Alexander the Great was a man, so he too turns to dust, nothing but a bit of clay to plug a beer barrel.)  It’s surely no accident that Winston says when that play is performed, “the gravedigger wins.”  Ironically, this aborted play is likely more akin to Havel’s absurdist drama than Winston’s heartwarming dragon epic.

 

To make things more confusing, despite the rhetoric of populism, the play never really knows where its politics lie.  When the audience storms the stage Monsieur shouts, “You have to have talent to be up here.”  The stage manager adds, “ You have to have a union card to come up there.”  So, sure, this is about storming the barricades for access, but the audience that storms the stage really never insists that Winston’s questionable play go on.  No, it’s foisted on us by his haranguing mother and ultimately by the Governor, who wants the play performed, then cancels it, then puts it back on.  At the end, Winston’s play is finally and sketchily acted out as an allegory for the transfer of political power.  The dragon lies down, the princess marries the prince, and everyone pledges to be nice to everyone else.  Convicted by this play, the Governor gives up his crown, and Winston qua Havel is crowned Governor by the Governor (not elected president).  The end.

 

So there’s bad art and good art, and good art is a tool of the totalitarian state, and bad art is the velvet weapon of the people, but the state demands the production of bad art in order to reinstate a different version of the state.  This is a message play with a very confused message.

 

The fundamental problem in this fundamentally confused play is the insistent and incoherent transposition of the political and aesthetic, a mash-up of ideas that does a disservice to both.  We are supposed to think that a clichéd and exaggerated battle between low art and high art is, in some important and meaningful way, analogous to the battle between populist democracy and totalitarian government.  Historical emblems like the keys are reduced to empty gestures.  For samizdat, we get a script thrown out the door.  And for the Velvet Revolution, we get “The Velvet Weapon,” a play about a dragon—also a metaphor for revolution, also a metaphor for genitalia (when the embarrassed Winston holds his script in front of his crotch, the scantily clad Geraldine touches it, asking, “Is that the velvet weapon?”), and ultimately “a pledge to be nice to everybody.”  So for a history of massive nonviolent political resistance we get the pledge to be nice, policemen smothered in kisses and a man who gives up his seat on the bus for an old woman.  Honestly, if we’re in a world in which those in power are “struck down by sweetness,” that dragon onstage at the end really should be purple, not green.  He is Barney..

 

I want to commend Trustus on the commitment to new work.  Arts organizations need to take chances on new work and new artists.  But give us a little credit as an audience.  Just because it’s slapstick doesn’t mean we’ll like it.  We are like that restless audience in the National Theatre: we want to be entertained, but really we’re hungry for meaning too.  Trust us.

- Ed Madden

Photos courtesy of Rob Sprankle

Ed

Ed Madden is the literary arts editor of Jasper Magazine and the author of Nest.

Shakespeare's Epic Romance "Cymbeline" - a review by Jillian Owens

cymbeline8 When I heard the South Carolina Shakespeare Company had chosen Cymbeline for their spring show, I was excited. This is one of Shakespeare’s least-performed plays.  I had never seen a production, and can’t remember the last time it was produced here in Columbia.

The South Carolina Shakespeare Company describes Cymbeline as an “epic romance,” and I have to agree that it certainly is. From its wildly complicated plot involving murder, kidnapping, attempted murder, gender-bending hilarity, deception, jealousy, battles, and a bizarre deus ex machina plot twist, “epic” seems an apt descriptor for this show.

(L-R) Bobby Bloom, Chris Cook, Katie Mixon, Libby Campbell Turner, Wela Mbusi; photo by Jeff Driggers

The play opens in Ancient Britain. King Cymbeline’s daughter, Imogen (played by Katie Mixon) has married Posthumus Leonatus (played by Bobby Bloom) against her father’s wishes. Posthumus is banished, but the two vow to work this all out somehow. Meanwhile, Cymbeline’s new wife, the Queen (played by Libby Campbell Turner) has great plans to make Imogen marry her son from a previous marriage -- the loutish Cloten (played by Scott Means) -- and then to poison Cymbeline (played by Chris Cook) and Imogen in order to secure Cloten’s position as King.

Cymbeline live in Filnay Park - photo by Jillian Owens

Bobby Bloom and Katie Mixon; photo by Jeff Driggers

Are you following along so far? Good -- because things are about to get weird. While in exile in Italy, Posthumus encounters Iachimo (played by Wela Mbusi) who  wagers that he can seduce Imogen. Posthumus, full of pride for his wife’s chastity, agrees to the bet. Iachimo meets with Imogen, who refuses his advances. Being the weirdo creepster he is, Iachimo hides in her bedroom to steal a token that will make it look as though he has been successful in his seduction while she sleeps.  Posthumus, not being the forgiving sort, sends his servant Pisanio (played by G. Scott Wild) to kill Imogen. However Pisanio, not being the murdering sort, warns Imogen, who then escapes, disguised as a young man.

Chris Cook and Libby Campbell Turner; photo by Jeff Driggers

What follows is one of the most bizarrely complicated plots I’ve seen since LOST. Someone gets beheaded. Someone is given a potion that was meant to kill them but only makes them seem dead for a bit. A battle is fought and people are imprisoned. And I promise you won’t see the twist at the end coming.

Bobby Bloom and Wela Mbusi - photo by Jeff Driggers

There’s a lot to like about the SC Shakespeare Company’s performance of Cymbeline. As I mentioned before, this play is rarely performed anymore, and it’s very different from most of Shakespeare’s other works. Theories exist that he didn’t even write Cymbeline entirely on his own. Its scarcity makes it a special treat to scholars and enthusiasts alike.

(L-R) G. Scott Wild, Katie Mixon - photo by Jillian Owens

There are also some impressive performances, most notably by Bobby Bloom as Posthumus and Katie Mixon as Imogen. Bloom’s commanding resonance and passion are perfect for his role, and Mixon makes a lovely and surprisingly empowered Imogen. Wild’s role of Pisanio may be a small one, but his moments with Imogen show a beautiful empathy that is impressive to achieve with such little stage time. Scott Means has lightened what could have been a disturbingly dark role in his interpretation of Cloten, and this choice gives this production of Cymbeline moments of much-needed frivolity.

cymbeline7

The extremely misogynistic themes of Cymbeline are difficult to watch, though. The men (those who don’t die anyways) have seemingly - and at times literally - earned favor with the gods, whereas Imogen, the most honorable person in the play, is continually victimized, preyed upon, and objectified. The plot is needlessly confusing at times, as if Shakespeare was just seeing how many strange things he could throw into a play. Who knows? That might be the case. You should also be warned that this is a long show, clocking in at about three hours with a 15 minute intermission, so be sure you’re prepared to make a night of it.

Even though I can understand why it isn’t one of the Bard’s most popular works, I admire the South Carolina Shakespeare Company and director Linda Khoury for taking on such a work as Cymbeline and bringing it to a public that might otherwise never see this strange part of his canon.

~ Jillian Owens

Cymbeline runs Wednesday through Saturday, May 7—10, 2014 at 8:00 PM in the amphitheatre in Finlay Park.  Admission is free, although  a donation of $10 is a suggested. If you will attend with a large party, please arrive early for the best seating.  The Finlay Park Amphitheatre is at 930 Laurel Street, Columbia, SC 29201.  So hie thee hence from thy computer screen and sally forth post-haste to Finlay Park!

For more information, please call 803-787-2273 or visit www.ShakespeareSC.org .

Come early (6:00PM) before the Thursday May 8th performance, and you and your family can also enjoy Shakespeare’s Kidz (the SCSC’s new school-aged company, directed by Imogen actress Katie Mixon) as they take the stage with a re-telling of a classic using humor, some modern language, and sword fighting in Don’t Say Macbeth!

 

 

Jasper Goes to the Library with the SC Shakespeare Company, Tues. 5/6 at the Cooper Branch!

 jasper_watches

In the latest installment of the popular "Jasper Goes to the Library" series, theatre is the featured art form, with scenes from Shakespeare's Cymbeline performed by members of the South Carolina Shakespeare Company on Tuesday, May 6 at 6:30 PM, at the Cooper Branch of the Richland Library, located at 5317 N. Trenholm Rd., Columbia, SC 29206,  in Forest Acres.

Over the last six months, Jasper – the Word on Columbia Arts – has partnered with artists in each of six disciplines – visual art, film, literary art, music, dance, and now theatre – in special events at different locations of the Richland Library. The goal has been to engage community members, arts enthusiasts, and library patrons in an intimate setting, allowing for them to enjoy presentations by artists, and develop a better understanding of each discipline.

Bobby Bloom and Katie Mixon; photo by Jeff Driggers

Join Cymbeline cast members and veteran local actors Chris Cook (founder of High Voltage Theatre), Libby Campbell Turner (recalled as the mother in August: Osage County), Katie Mixon (a graduate of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) and Bobby Bloom (a finalist for the 2013 Jasper Theatre Artist of the Year) as they present scenes from the play in the intimate setting of the Cooper Branch. This library event takes place at 6:30 PM on Tuesday May 6, 2014, will last approximately 45 minutes, and is FREE!

The South Carolina Shakespeare Company will perform Cymbeline in its entirety live in Finlay Park,  Wednesday through Saturday, May 7—10.

Chris Cook and Libby Campbell Turner; photo by Jeff Driggers

Cymbeline features forbidden love, mistaken identity, banishment, and a magic potion; Shakespeare weaves multiple threads into this endlessly inventive tapestry of ancient Britain. You will also find laughter, betrayal, and of course an evil queen. When the brave princess Imogen is falsely accused of betrayal, she escapes her father’s court and sets forth on a treacherous journey to redeem her place and reunite with her true love—but it might take a miracle or two. Shakespeare companies around the country are re-discovering this stirring and poetic tale. The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC produced the play to popular success last season, and now director Linda Khoury has assembled a top-notch cast right here in SC, and local audiences have a rare opportunity to see Cymbeline.

The title character, King Cymbeline, is played by Christopher Cook. He is joined by Katie Mixon as Imogen, Libby Campbell-Turner as the Queen, Wela Mbusi as Iachimo, and Robert Bloom as Posthumous, with Jeff Driggers as Guiderius and G. Scott Wild as Pisanio. The professional cast is supported by costume designer Alexis Doktor, scenic designer Lee Shepherd, and lighting designer Rufus Carson.

For more information on the performance in Finlay Park, visit http://www.shakespearesc.org/cymbeline.html

The Cooper Branch of the Richland Library is located at 5317 N. Trenholm Rd., Columbia, SC 29206; phone: 803-787-3462.

"Crimes of the Heart" - a review of the new show at Workshop Theatre

(L-R) Katie Mixon, Allison Allgood, Erin Huiett Tennessee Williams meets Steel Magnolias meets Charmed. That's how Crimes of the Heart might be pitched for a tv miniseries, as the power of three sisters reunited by family crisis enables them to navigate the murky swamp waters of Southern Gothic dysfunction. Beth Henley's dark comedy (or witty drama, depending on your perception) was all the rage in the early '80's, winning both the Pulitzer and the Critics' Circle Award for best play, receiving multiple nominations for Tony awards and Oscars (for its screen incarnation) and running for 535 performances on Broadway.  In ensuing years it has become a staple of regional and community theatre, due to its small cast, simple set, and easily-accessible-themes of love, loss, conflict and reconciliation among family members. These themes, being universal, have been addressed in other works before and since, and as a result, much of the material seems awfully familiar, but director Jocelyn Sanders has chosen a talented cast for her revival currently running at Workshop Theatre, and they ensure a spirited and lively evening of fun on stage.

The Magrath sisters can't get a break.  Their mother notoriously committed suicide when they were children, after their father abandoned them; the grandfather who raised them now clings to life in a hospital. Eldest sister Lenny (Allison Allgood) faces becoming a spinster as she turns 30 in small-town Mississippi in 1974, while free-spirited, scandalous middle sister Meg (Katie Mixon) is recovering from a failed show business career and a stay in a psychiatric hospital. Meg's return coincides with the arrest of youngest sister Babe (Erin Huiett) for the attempted murder of her abusive husband. As the play opens, we learn that even a beloved family horse was struck by lightning.  This all sounds pretty grim, yet most of the show plays like a situation comedy, as if Tennessee Williams had penned a terribly wicked episode of Designing Women. Lenny is a more functional version of The Glass Menagerie's Laura or Summer and Smoke's Alma, with Meg and Babe high-strung variations on Blanche Dubois.  (If in parallel time streams Blanche had either set out for California, or married a rich lawyer, only to give in to her penchant for young boytoys.)  Mixon portrays Meg fairly seriously, allowing the laughs to come naturally with the lines, while Allgood goes for a more comic interpretation, while nevertheless revealing assorted wounds and vulnerabilities.  Huiett faces the biggest challenge. In the notes I took during the performance, I see that at three different times I wrote "This is a woman on the edge."  Huiett employs an array of vocal mannerisms and affectations to convey a person repressing deep emotions, and some work better than others.  There's a detached, upwards lilt to much of her delivery, yet to me, it's indicative of her very tenuous grasp on stability.  Babe chooses each word very carefully, fearful that she may reveal too much about the shooting and what led up to it, and more fearful that recalling certain events may send her off the deep end.  It takes getting used to, but there is great power in her performance, especially in a riveting monologue midway through the show.  Huiett admirably sustains tremendous highs and lows over the course of more than two and a half hours. (There is only one intermission, in between Acts 2 and 3, so be forewarned.)

(L-R) Katie Mixon, Erin Huiett, Allison Allgood

Denise Pearman, George Dinsmore and Hans Boeschen (alternating in his role with Lee Williams) do good work as supporting characters; all function as plot devices to provide exposition, and to give one or more sisters a challenge or obstacle to overcome, yet each performer has some good bits. Dinsmore, as Meg's ex-boyfriend, becomes frustrated as he falls into familiar patterns of behavior; the actor flails his hand with unspoken emotion and powerlessness, giving a visual echo to the thoughts we know are within.  Pearman is the sisters' nosy neighbor/catty cousin, and perfectly captures the parochialism of a small-town "Ladies' League" member. (Interestingly, her hair is far more beautiful than her nature. Bless her heart.) Boeschen is growing as an actor, and is convincing as a rookie lawyer determined to save Babe from jail, while trying to resist his attraction to her. Although as Huiett observed in a tv interview promoting the show, good luck with that.

Director Jocelyn Sanders has successfully helmed a number of big-cast, big-budget musicals in recent years, but is back in her comfort zone of character-centric drama, with plenty of opportunity to focus on characterization, line readings and mannerisms.  At times the sisters, each histrionic and often hysterical, talk at once in rapid fire, but then Sanders will allow for a long and uncomfortable period of silence, to accentuate a particular emotion or realization. The entire cast does well with body language. Characters find themselves alone on stage, sometimes pacing frantically, or engaging in frenzied stage business, alternating with quiet and meaningful moments of reflection. The action takes place in the kitchen of the Magrath family home, with a finite number of places to locate the actors (a table, some chairs, the counter, a cot placed by a stairwell) yet Sanders keeps her cast moving rapidly yet naturally. She also creates some interesting stage pictures, as when Lenny, ostensibly the eldest and most grounded, rests her head in the lap of her younger - and ostensibly more troubled - sister, looking for comfort and reassurance.

Randy Strange's set is up to his usual level of excellence. A glimpse of a tree outside the kitchen window is well-lit by Barry Sparks's lighting design, which incorporates subtle shades of violet and blue to remind us of the time of day during different scenes. Baxter Engle's sound design incorporates a very believable ring for a busy kitchen telephone that thankfully sounds exactly as if it's ringing (instead of a sound effect coming from a speaker somewhere else.) I might add that on opening night the rings were timed perfectly, since nothing ruins a mood on stage like a phone still ringing after the actor has answered it.  Costumes by Alexis Doktor are.... well, I can't say attractive, so let's just say they are quite authentic for the 1974 setting, and are exactly what these characters would think are attractive.

Literary aficionados will surely catch hints and traces of everyone from Faulkner to Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, while theatre buffs will spot themes addressed in the plays above. Younger audience members will have seen similar plotlines in a dozen or more made-for-cable movies. Still Henley is working in a tradition, and her work, and in particular this work, has influenced a generation of successors and imitators.  Were this the miniseries I imagined above, there would also be preceding scenes focusing on the Magraths' childhood years, and a conclusion where we learn if Babe prevails in court, if Lenny finds a "fella," and if Meg can ever pull it together. Instead, the play ends in media res, with the assurance that the reunited family unit will somehow find the strength to prevail.  Which is almost disappointing, but I thought about the implications over the weekend, and realized the bigger message. As each parental figure leaves, the Magraths' lives slowly unravel, and each sister grabs at some possible escape. Had they stayed together, Babe might never have ended in a bad marriage, or at least might have found the strength to leave it sooner. Lenny seems quite confident and happy when her sisters are around.  Even Meg, who provides most of the liveliness that keeps the family unit going, might make fewer bad choices if she were secure in the knowledge that her (remaining) family loves her.  Indeed, the implication is that the power of three together is more than the sum of its parts. When the sisters laugh and giggle and gossip together, their problems seem smaller somehow, and easy to overcome.  None of that would succeed, however, without the talent of cast and director working in concert to bring out the nuances and themes within the text.

Whether by design or fortunate coincidence, Workshop is revisiting some of the more important plays of the last few decades this season, each representing a particular genre.  Last summer's Doctor Dolittle was a classic tale for small children, while Beehive was a musical revue featuring girl groups from the 60's. Sleuth was a male-centric, sophisticated comic thriller, and here Crimes of the Heart represents female-centric theatre that addresses....well.... affairs of the heart. Up next is a vintage but decidedly male-centric Neil Simon coming-of-age comedy, Biloxi Blues, and the season concludes with a wacky and broadly comic new musical straight from Broadway, Young Frankenstein. That's a nice and representative tour through the repertoire of modern theatre, and exactly what one expects from Workshop.

Crimes of the Heart runs through Sat. Jan. 25th, with a 3 PM matinee on Sunday the 19th.  Call the box office at 803-799-6551 for more information, or visit http://www.workshoptheatre.com .

 

~ August Krickel

"By The Way, Meet Vera Stark" - a review of the new show at Trustus

Trustus Theatre's new production of Lynne Nottage's play By The Way, Meet Vera Stark tackles an odd paradox from early Hollywood: talented actors of color were finding professional success on screen in mainstream films that starred white performers, but most commonly were cast as maids, slaves, "mammies," and other stereotypical roles. Hattie McDaniel, for example, broke the color barrier when she won the Oscar, but still she played a servant, not a teacher, mother, or romantic lead. Employing a dizzying array of narrative and dramatic techniques, Nottage traces the career of the fictional Vera Stark (Michelle Jacobs), an aspiring African-American actress in the early '30's who works by day as a maid for the frivolous Gloria Mitchell (Katie Mixon), a Mary Pickford-like starlet famed as "America's Little Sweetie Pie." Advance press material notwithstanding, Vera Stark is neither a screwball comedy (although it is sometimes funny, if perhaps not hilarious) nor a riff on Gone With the Wind (although Mixon sometimes channels the breathless drawls of Vivian Leigh and Olivia de Havilland.)  Gloria is desperate to land the lead in The Belle of New Orleans, a weepy film melodrama that draws from classics like Camille and Dion Boucicault's The Octaroon. That term, by the way, turns up frequently: it's a 19th-century term for a person with one-eighth black heritage, who would still have been classified as a slave. (A mixed-race friend of mine once laughingly used that term to describe herself, and later a co-worker asked "What did you say you were again?  A Macaroon?")

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Vera, clearly a close friend, confidante and sister-figure for her scatterbrained employer, wants a shot at playing the “Belle's” maid, an actual dramatic role with lines beyond "Yes, ma'am." In moments that define the play's central issues, Vera and roommate Lottie (Annette Dees Grevious) discuss the inherent irony of Vera's situation; these conversations, and scenes where Vera flirts with ambitious, driven jazz musician Leroy (an earnest and smooth Jabar Hankins) could be excerpts from a good August Wilson drama set in the 1930's. Strangely, however, different scenes and different characters in the first act are written in drastically, sometimes jarringly different styles. When Jacobs and Grevious banter with Janell Bryant (as their saucy friend Anna Mae, who intends to find stardom via affairs with white producers and directors who think she's Brazilian) the mood lightens, and the laughs come fast and furious, in the vein of socially-conscious comedies from the '70's like Good Times.  Hollywood types turn up: Bobby Bloom as a no-nonsense producer who could be from a realistic 1940's drama, and Clint Poston as an idealistic director, clearly an Otto Preminger figure, but as broadly comic as if Franz Liebkind's accent and Roger DeBris's flamboyance were taken from The Producers and morphed into a single character.  Bloom's studio exec, by the way, could easily have been one-note, and played by an older man, simply a quasher of any projects that won't sell at the box office. The youthful Bloom gives a remarkably three-dimensional performance, proving that there are no small roles, only small actors.  With the simplest of tools - suspenders instead of a belt, hair parted a certain way, a cigar held like Bogart, wire-rimmed glasses, assertive body language - he perfectly conveys an Irving Thalberg-like visionary, who wants to give audiences a brief escape from the grim realities of the Depression.

Mixon, meanwhile, dives into the role of the vodka-fueled Gloria with as much gleeful abandon as she dove into that quiche a few months ago in the Side Door Theatre, flamboyantly vamping like Lydia Languish or other 17th and 18th-century heroines of classic farce. When all these characters are on stage together, the show comes closest to capturing the spirit of a vintage screen comedy, a la Golddiggers of 1933, or How to Marry a Millionaire, with Grevious taking the older, more cynical Lauren Bacall role, Jacobs becoming sweet Betty Grable, and Bryant as the luscious but clueless Marilyn Monroe.  But if these references to obscure shows and characters you may not be familiar with are becoming a little annoying, that to some extent is my point. The author clearly intended this mash-up of genres, and each cast member does just fine, but at times the effect is confusing, as if disparate characters from separate plays all found themselves on stage together.

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The storytelling chaos coalesces into something different entirely, however, as Act Two becomes a retelling of, reflection on, and subtle satire of the themes we saw in Act One. Three modern scholars (Grevious, Bryant, and Wela Mbusi) debate the legacy and sociological impact of Stark's life, as we see first a "clip" from The Belle of New Orleans, featuring Gloria, Vera, Lottie, and even "Brazilian Spitfire Anna Fernandez" (i.e. Anna Mae) in the roles that defined their careers, followed by a clip from a 1970's Merv Griffin-style talk show, where we see the older Vera and Gloria reunite. Here director Dewey Scott-Wiley brilliantly captures the differing levels of narrative: we the audience are watching a contemporary academic forum, whose participants are in turn watching a 40-year-old TV clip (acted out live by the performers from within a framed portal;) the talk show guests are in turn watching a film clip from 40 years earlier, the very movie that the characters were obsessing over live on stage in the first act.  Confused?  It actually makes perfect sense, and is a superb payoff to the confusion of Act One. Vera has become a parody of herself, much like the aging Josephine Baker or Eartha Kitt, and we learn that she ended her life soon after this TV appearance, dying young like Dorothy Dandridge, who likewise struggled for mainstream roles in Hollywood.  Leroy turns up as a bitter and defiant Charlie Parker-style burnout, excellently embodied as an older man by Hankins, while Gloria has naturally become a beloved screen goddess of yesteryear.  Scott-Wiley's inventive staging places the live action of the 70's clips behind scrims, eliminating the need for any significant make-up effects, while the 1930's movie was actually filmed in black-and-white by Jason Steelman, and directed by Scott-Wiley.  While it is supposed to be a parody of the era and its cinematic and acting conventions to some extent, the movie-within-the-play is actually pretty decent, with some nice angles, and plenty of attractive shadows, beams of light, and shades of gray.  Bloom doubles as the talk show host, and again manages to create an entirely different character, saying volumes with his pained expression as his interview/reunion devolves into a catfight.

Scott-Wiley doubles as scenic designer, and the art deco-influenced set is serviceable, but looks unfinished. The scrim effects are outstanding in the second act, but really should have been covered up by paintings, tapestry, anything, in the first act. Portions of the stage become particular locales (Vera's apartment, the exterior of the studio, etc.) but little is done to give any sense of change, and the actors' blocking within these smaller areas sometimes seems cramped and constrained. Costumes by Amy Brower expertly define varying eras; a number of characters wear striking creations from La-Ti-Da Jewelry Designs, which are also featured on display in the theatre's bar/gallery area.

Nottage has won just about every award imaginable: Pulitzer, Obie, Guggenheim, even a MacArthur "Genius" grant, but I don't think any were for this play.  The show is enjoyable enough, but never entirely decides what it wants to say, or what kind of play it wants to be. It's never a complete laugh-fest, nor do the more serious moments delve particularly deeply into material ripe for exploration. I also fear that some of the structural madness and much of the very broad comedy in the first act may turn off patrons who expect more from Trustus.  To them I say that the second act is the pay-off, and it's worth the wait. Remember - the venue is called "Trust Us" for a reason.

By The Way, Meet Vera Stark runs through Saturday, May 18th on the Thigpen Main Stage at Trustus.  Information can be found, and tickets may be purchased online at www.trustus.org , or call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6 PM at 803-254-9732.  And you can read James Harley's review of the production at Onstage Columbia and at the Free Times.

~ August Krickel

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

~ Jillian Owens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ Arik Bjorn

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