REVIEW: Trustus Theatre's Tail! Spin!

ShowHeader_Anatomy by: Kyle Petersen

Tail! Spin! is quite the appropriate beginning to Trustus Theatre’s 32nd season. Smart, raunchy, irreverent, and curious, it takes the audience’s incessant interest in the current political season and steers it into the recent past to take stock of the peculiar sexual preoccupations and peccadillos that seem to come along with politics.

The play, written (or assembled?) by Mario Correa, uses exclusively previous statements, interviews, dialogue, and social media content to tell the stories of the sex scandals of four politicians: Idaho Senator Larry Craig, who was caught soliciting gay sex in an airport bathroom; New York Representative (and failed NYC mayoral candidate) Anthony Weiner, who has a sexting addiction; Florida House Representative Mark Foley, who had inappropriate relationships with many underage male pages; and our own South Carolina Governor (and current House Representative) Mark Sanford, who handled a dopey extra-marital affair in the most clumsy way possible.

The premise is a challenging one, particularly given that just five actors (and only one woman) are tasked with bringing to life these rapid-fire, often fragmented narratives to life without sacrificing any comic timing, but Trustus, as usual, shines. Although a more-barebones and unadventurous set and sound design than is typical for the theatre, the acting and directing here is top-notch, elevating itself clearly above the world of SNL sketches and late night show fodder with which it shares similar DNA in its witty and puerile subject matter. Stann Gwynn delivers a note-perfect, awkwardly fastidious Larry Craig alongside Kevin Bush as the undercover agent who arrests him and Ellen Rodillo-Fowler as his hilariously in-denial wife. Both Bush and Rodillo-Fowler end up being MVPs throughout, darting through such a dizzying array of roles that makes the play double as an acting showcase. Bush’s nuanced, complex take on Mark Foley, the lone sinning politician which inspires some sympathy here, is perhaps the best moment, and the fact that he couples it with scene-stealing imitations of Stephen Colbert and the South Carolina State House Speaker is fairly incredible.

For her part, Rodillo-Fowler has to tackle every single female role in the piece, often leading to her having to literally interview herself as both Barbara Walter and Jenny Sanford (her Walters impression is priceless). While she delivers a remarkably graceful performance given the circumstances (there were a couple of moments where clarity suffered, although the writing seems the most likely culprit), the fact that the play doesn’t add a second female actor is either an intentional nod to the relative absence of women in politics or a reification of the boys club-default that exists in both political and comedic worlds. Either way, it would have been nice for her to have some help.

Joseph Eisenreich as Anthony Weiner and Clint Poston as Mark Sanford also perform nicely as both main characters and reliable sidemen—Eisenreich in particular comes in handy as he moves from the lascivious braggadocio of Weiner to the innocent adolescent that Bush’s Foley is obsessed with. Neither plays their main parts to type—Eisenreich is more All-American boyish in the Marco Rubio mold than the wiry, nervy real-life Weiner, while Poston plays Sanford with every bit of the principled conviction and quaint narcissism of our former governor, but without the aw-shucks bizarreness that characterized many of his even less-famous press appearances.

Director Jason Stokes, along with his top-rate cast, deserve credit for honing the fragmented give-and-take nature of this challenging script into clear punch lines and playfully subversive juxtapositions. You could see the play falling apart if performed by a lesser crew, instead of delivering two hours of solid laughs.

As far as any larger meaning or political statement, I’m not sure if I quite see one beyond the fact that it’s our current, sexually-charged and politically-saturated media culture  that makes this collage-like production possible, and that the hypocritical positions that we demand (or that politicians demand of themselves?) is a historical reality that gets endlessly repeated.

The bottom line, though, is that if the all-too-painful comedic reality of the current Presidential race has you down, Tail! Spin! serves as a reminder that absurdity is par for the course for our political landscape, and we might as well laugh at it.

Jason Stokes Talks About Tail! Spin! Opening Friday Night at Trustus Theatre

It's easy for a performing arts organization, be it theatre, dance, or music-based, to stick with the safe bet. Fill the seats by offering shows your audience has become accustomed to. Go to the same old pool, season after season, and keep it all familiar so your organization can pay the rent. And as long as your audience never leaves the city limits they may not realize that one of the responsibilities of an arts organization is to nurture the cultural literacy of its audience by offering new works. Works that challenge or discomfit. Works that take chances. Works that go out on a limb and take the audience with them as they shakily find their balance, but ultimately enjoy the view. While too many organizations in Columbia adhere to this boring, stagnating, audience-offending policy -- and we'll be writing more about this soon -- at least, and thank whoever the god of the performing arts is for this, we have Trustus Theatre.
Yes, Trustus has some familiar fun coming up this season (Walter Graham plays the alien transvestite Frank N. Furter in the delicious Rocky Horror Picture Show, for example). But at the same time, Trustus never fails to continue to take chances. Be it via the Trustus Playwright's Festival which last month gave us Anatomy of a Hug, one of the oddest little, top-notch shows we've seen in a while -- fresh, brand new, exciting; or via shows like the one opening Friday night on the Cohn Side Door Stage -- Tail! Spin! 
Directed by Jason Stokes,  Tail! Spin! stars Stann Gwynn, Kevin Bush, Clint Poston, Joseph Eisenreich, and Ellen Rodillo-Fowler. We asked Stokes to tell us a bit about where the story came from and how he plans to bring it to the stage. Find his comments below and plan to come out to check out this fascinating and funny piece of political theatre. It's new and different, and it should be perfect for the political season.  - CB
ShowHeader_Anatomy

Directing Tail! Spin! by Jason Stokes 

Tail! Spin! chronicles the real life political scandals of Larry Craig, Anthony Weiner, Mark Foley and Mark Sanford using their own texts, emails, Facebook messages, IM’s, and interviews. Using their own public and private words to tell the story in my opinion changes this show from being just a strict “by the numbers” bio-play, into a dramedy version of reality. The show hinges on each person’s scandal, but at its core, the show really details the toll their  actions take on them, their families, and political careers while bringing them face to face with who they really are thanks in no small part the modern-day twenty-four hour media coverage.  Some of the men are unable, or unwilling, to accept this new self-revelation.
From the beginning, the most difficult task of directing this piece was finding the right balance between the acts of these men and their humorous attempts to spin the details to a more favorable outcome. It’s my opinion that in order to get to the US Senate, House or Governor’s mansion you must possess a certain amount of intelligence … even if the intelligence comes from a team; the individual must be smart enough to adhere to the sound advice of others.  But the politicians focused on in this play react like children with their hands caught in the proverbial cookie jar after their sexual indiscretions are discovered. And their mindset becomes “If I don’t admit anything, then nobody will know.”  As is so often the case with political scandal, the denial becomes worse than the act.
We find ourselves in a polarizing political and social climate at present. Compromise is a dirty word, if you’re a republican then the democrats have no validity in their thoughts or policies; and if you’re a democrat, the republicans have lost their minds and their party is a mess with no real hope of salvation and thus should be completely cast aside (Yes, I’m generalizing, but find any two members of either party and ask them to agree on something, anything).  Which is why this show comes to Columbia at the absolute right time. While the subject matter can be shocking and their attempt to keep it quiet should be laughed at, hopefully, the audience will see these men as flawed human beings who made really, really bad decisions that when pieced together the way the playwright has, prove quite hilarious. And maybe for a few moments, we can all be Americans enjoying a night of entertainment together, as one people, the way we should be. To quote Dennis Miller however... "Of course, that's just my opinion. I could be wrong."
Jason Stokes first appeared at Trustus as Adam in 2002’s The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told.  Other Trustus roles include Roger in Rent, Rocky in The Rocky Horror Show, Luke in Next Fall. Other shows in the Columbia area include The Full Monty, Sleuth, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In January of this year he held a reading of his new screenplay Composure, detailing the murder of N.G. Gonzales by SC Lieutenant Gov. James Tillman, in the Trustus Side Door.  He has also written, produced and directed four films, the most recent film  blocked was featured in the 2nd Act Film Festival, presented by The Jasper Project. 

REVIEW: Trustus Theatre's Peter and the Starcatcher

Paul Kaufmann Trustus Theater’s production of Peter and the Starcatcher, by Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, is a fantastic voyage through the imagination and it’s absolutely not to be missed.  After a hugely successful run on and off Broadway, the adult prequel to Peter Pan is skillfully brought to the Trustus stage by director Robert Richmond. In the age of sequels, prequels, and reboots, Peter and the Starcatcher truly adds to the ethos of Peter Pan, painting a portrait of a boy that longs for a home, a family, and a chance to enjoy a childhood.

"Johnathon Monk gives us a tender and melancholy orphan in the boy that will become Peter Pan."

The cast of pirates, lost boys, savages, and mermaids is made up of favorite local veteran actors as well as newcomers. Johnathon Monk gives us a tender and melancholy orphan in the boy who will become Peter Pan. Despite being a grown man, Monk is able to convincingly convey a childlike look of innocence and wonder, especially via his evocative eyes. This is a very physical show and whether he is pantomiming running through a jungle or doing the back stroke in the sea, Monk is a delight to watch. Grace Ann Roberts is wonderful as Molly, a plucky 13 year old over-achiever that craves adventure. Roberts gave a very natural and poised performance; I look forward to seeing her onstage again. Hunter Boyle hilariously plays Molly’s nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake. Kevin Bush plays Bumbrake’s love interest, a salty seaman named Alf. Boyle and Bush are both very funny, especially in their scenes together. The standout performance of the night is given by Paul Kaufmann as Black Stache the Pirate. The role seems written for the veteran Columbia actor. Kaufmann’s impeccable comedic timing, voice range, and general joie de vivre are all able to fully shine here. He creates a villain you can’t help but love. The ensemble as a whole is strong and does a great job of creating the world they inhabit.

 

"Grace Ann Roberts is wonderful as Molly, a plucky 13 year old over-achiever that craves adventure."

 

"Hunter Boyle hilariously plays Molly’s nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake. Kevin Bush plays Bumbrake’s love interest, a salty seaman named Alf. Boyle and Bush are both very funny, especially in their scenes together. "

 

"The standout performance of the night is given by Paul Kaufmann as Black Stache the Pirate. "

Much like children at play, the actors create extraordinary places and things with ordinary everyday objects. A rope forms a doorway, a plastic glove becomes a bird. A little imagination goes a very long way here. Richmond proves you don’t need pricey special effects or elaborate costumes to leave your audience dazzled. Though not a musical, we are treated to a few very entertaining numbers under the musical direction of Caroline Weidner. She and Greg Apple provide live accompaniment throughout. The set, designed by Baxter Engle and constructed by Brandon Mclver, opens up the Trustus stage like I’ve never seen before, transforming the space into a massive ship, along with ropes and pulleys that are used to great effect throughout the show. The back wall of the stage looks directly into the dressing room, which I was afraid might be distracting, but wasn’t in the least. In fact it was a nice touch that added to the idea that this show has nothing to hide, that we’re all on this journey together. I enjoyed Matt "Ezra" Pound’s sound design, particularly before the show started where creaking ship and sea noises set the mood nicely. Jean Lomasto’s costumes are reminiscent of children playing dress-up, inventive and interesting to look at.

This is a charming tale, appropriate for children and grownups alike. It tells us an entertaining story of how Neverland became a magical island and why Peter Pan never wants to grow up. It’s sometimes hard to trust people with beloved characters from our childhood for fear we might be let down. I urge you to trust Richmond and his cast, to take their outstretched hand, leave your grownup problems behind you, and go on an adventure. You won’t regret it.

- Jennifer Hill

Photos by Richard Kiraly

Civil Blood Makes Civil Hands Unclean: Jason Stokes Premiers Original Historical Screenplay, Composure - by Haley Sprankle

composure  

Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Columbia where we lay our scene...

 

The year is 1903. The Tillman family, headed by the Lieutenant Governor for the State of South Carolina, and the Gonzales family, headed by the founder of The State newspaper, are in a known feud. This ancient grudge (that began in the 1880s) broke to new mutiny as Lieutenant Governor James H. Tillman murders NG Gonzales.

 

That’s where local actor, filmmaker, and screenwriter Jason Stokes’ story begins.

 

“I first heard about this story at my ‘real’ work (Media Director for the South Carolina Bar) in 2000 during a presentation on the subject by Donnie Myers. I was fascinated by the story in part because of the sensational nature of the crime, but the more I began to research the story I realized that there was much more to it than just a murder and a murder trial,” Stokes explains.  “The Tillmans and The Gonzaleses were two powerful families in the city of Columbia who did not like each other for various reasons. This feud began in the late 1880’s and continued even after the events of January 15, 1903. During that time one side wielded power and opinion in the public press while the other side railed against the Gonzaleses and The State newspaper with every stump speech.”

 

This Saturday, Stokes presents an original screenplay titled Composure based on this rich piece of Columbia’s history. His cast includes such luminary local talent such as Paul Kaufmann, Eric Bultman, Stann Gwynn, Terrance Henderson, Hunter Boyle, Clint Poston, Katie Leitner, Stan Gardner, G. Scott Wild, Libby Campbell, Kevin Bush, Jonathan Jackson, Nate Herring, and Kendrick Marion.

 

“I’ve been very fortunate not only to have these talented actors lend their craft to this project but they are also valued friends and colleagues. I promise to anyone in attendance, if the story doesn’t impress you the talent certainly will,” Stokes says.

 

While Stokes is certainly no stranger to the Columbia arts community, having been seen in productions ranging from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Rent, not many know that he is a writer.

 

“I began writing just after my father passed away in 1989. My mother gave me a notebook to write down memories of my father when I had them but, being an adolescent, as I started writing down a memory or story it would veer away from facts to whatever fiction my mind was dreaming up at the time. So I’ve been writing for the last 27 years (to varying degrees of success),” Stokes said.

 

After writing about 30 screenplays, some of which have television spec scripts pitched to shows such as The West Wing and Castle, Stokes has developed his own style and writing process.

 

“Each screenplay is different, but they all seem to start before I really know where they are going. For example, I’ll write a scene that I either have no idea what it’s trying to say in a grand scheme, or I don’t know where it belongs in the story I’m thinking about,” Stokes delineates. “Composure was no different. The surface story was there but to make it interesting and make it build to something that makes people think was the challenge. This being a historical piece I just kept doing more and more research to see if I could find anything new to add to the layers, which took time. I worked off-and-on on the screenplay for about three years, and it wasn’t until I decided to begin with the murder and then bounce back and forth in time during the trial, to add the ‘why’ of the murder, that made it really exciting for me to want to write it.”

 

Being an actor himself adds a particularly interesting dynamic to Stokes’ work and process, as well.

 

“As an actor, it’s always a blessing to work on a well written piece of work, Tennessee Williams, Terrance McNally, Jonathan Larson, you want to chew on it as long as you can because really good, juicy dialogue and lyrics don’t come around all the time. So when I write I like to think of the story and dialogue in the vein; Would this be something I would want to sink my teeth into as an actor and rejoice in the fact that I GET to say these lines and tell this story?” Stokes adds.

 

Don’t miss the two hours’ traffic of the Trustus Side Door Theatre this Saturday, January 16 for free! Doors and bar open at 6:30 with the performance beginning at 7:30.

 

“Opinion reporting is nothing new, as evident by this story, but with the advent of technology and polarizing news outlets only compounding the divisive nature and climate I think we find ourselves in today, this is a true story that still has relevance and meaning,” Stokes says. “No one story, one person, one political ideology can be measured strictly in absolutes. If the audience can be entertained and enlightened in some way through the events of these gentlemen, then maybe the cast and I will have offered a different perspective in which to view our own world.”

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

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

c

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

Steinbeck would agree.

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

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

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

rockcity

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

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

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

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

~ Arik Bjorn

 

USC Dance Company Presents Concert of Dance Innovation Feb. 12 – 15 at Drayton Hall Theatre

USC dance mass-hysteria The USC Dance Company will present Breaking the Barrier, a program of contemporary dance works, February 12-15, 2014 at Drayton Hall Theatre.

Directed by Assistant Professor Thaddeus Davis, the concert will feature an all female cast, performing modern and contemporary dance works by the influential African-American choreographer Pearl Primus and the internationally-awarded choreographer Helen Simoneau, as well as brand new works by dance faculty Tanya Wideman-Davis, Stephanie Wilkins and Thaddeus Davis.

 

About the Featured Works

Bushache Étude,  by pioneering African-American choreographer Pearl Primus, recreates a ritual dance of the Bushongo people of the former Belgian Congo, which was used to purge their communities of evil spirits.  Speaking to NPR in 1994, Primus stated that she intended for the dance to “show the dignity, beauty and strength in the cultural heritage of the peoples of African ancestry” living in the US.

“It's a dance of transforming oneself for the benefit of the community,” says dance instructor Diane McGhee Valle, “where one tries to overcome personal fears and purge the community of evil.”

Valle, the head of USC’s Dance Education track, was instrumental in making Bushache Étude available across the nation through her work with the American Dance Legacy Institute in the late 1990s.  The ALDI worked with Primus before her death in 2010 to include Bushache in their Repertory Études™ initiative, which strives to pass on the legacy of influential American choreographers to contemporary dance artists, teachers and students.

“The basic idea of the dance is tackling fear, and everyone faces fear, whether psychological, physical or cultural,” Valle says.  “We are taking this idea and embodying it as contemporary women.”

Paper Wings by Helen Simoneau Contemporary choreographer Helen Simoneau has been described as having “a gift for creating shapes with dancers’ bodies” (Winston-Salem Journal), with an “ability to…create pieces that float beautifully between imagery and purpose” (ExploreDance.com).  The award-winning artist has seen both her solo and company works performed throughout North America, Europe and Asia.  She comes to the University through a connection to assistant professors of dance Thaddeus Davis and Tanya Wideman-Davis – all three are recent graduates of the Hollins University/American Dance Festival MFA program.

The USC dancers will perform Simoneau’s Paper Wings, which made its debut at the American Dance Festival in 2012.  Set to a minimalistic score of electronics and percussion, the piece explores movement possibilities by assigning dancers with physical tasks and giving them the opportunity to discover their own unique physical approaches to accomplishing those goals.

“When coaching the dancers, something I talk about a lot is having a real-time experience,” Simoneau explains.  “If the dancers are able to have a really sensorial experience of the movement in real time, then the audience will take in what is actually happening rather than what is being performed.  They will notice that difference.”

Untitled by Tanya Wideman-Davis Assistant Professor Tanya Wideman-Davis’ still untitled work explores how the configuration of the performance space itself can affect the movement around it.  The piece features a prominent architectural element with a built-in light source, which reflects down and away from the structure.

“The audience will be witnessing how the dancers move around this particular structure and navigate the architecture in space,” she says.  “We’re investigating how space and movement can be shaped so that they are both causing a similar experience.”

Reframing by Stephanie Wilkins USC Dance instructor Stephanie Wilkins describes her work as a dance about freeing oneself from emotional pain.  For her, a quote from the writer Alexander Dumas sums it up best: “Moral wounds… may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart.”

“Basically the first section, which has 4 big frames which will hang from the ceiling, one dancer behind each one, is about hiding behind your pain and not dealing with it, but wanting to break free of it and learn to love again,” she explains.   “And the second section will be about this process of breaking free and feeling everything again.”

Mass Hysteria by Thaddeus Davis Assistant Professor Davis describes Mass Hysteria as a “pure dance work.”  The acclaimed choreographer, recipient of the prestigious Choo San Goh award, says it is “an educational tool for our students to explore contemporary dance and the process of making new work.”

 

 

Putting It All Together

When asked about all the selections being presented for the concert, Wideman-Davis thinks back to how artists like Primus paved the way for contemporary female dance creators.

“Pearl was provocative, a female choreographer at a time when were there not a lot of opportunities for African-American women to create work.  This program, with four original works by female choreographers, is like a platform for women to be able to present creative, in-the-now work with young artists who are themselves in the process of figuring out how they’re going fit in the artistic world.”

Breaking the Barrier will be performed at 7:30pm February 12-15 at Drayton Hall Theatre.  Tickets for the concert are $12 for students, $16 for USC faculty/staff, military and seniors (60+) and $18 for the general public. Tickets can be purchased in advance by calling (803) 777-5112, or can be charged by phone at (803) 251-2222.  Drayton Hall Theatre is located at 1214 College St.

For more information on Breaking the Barrier or the dance program at the University of South Carolina, contact Kevin Bush by phone at 803-777-9353 or via email at bushk@mailbox.sc.edu.

 

Theatre SC Opens Charming Chekhov Classic Three Sisters November 15

Three Sisters Theatre South Carolina  will present the Chekhov classic Three Sisters at the University of SC’s historic Longstreet Theatre November 15 – 23.

Show times for Three Sisters are 8pm Wednesdays-Fridays, 7pm Saturdays and 3pm on the first Sunday.  There is an additional half-price late night performance on the final Saturday, November 23.  Tickets for the production are $12 for students, $16 for USC faculty/staff, military personnel and seniors 60+, and $18 for the general public. Tickets can be purchased in advance by calling 803-777-2551 or by visiting the Longstreet Theatre box office, which is open Monday-Friday, 12:30pm-5:30pm, beginning Friday, November 8. Longstreet Theatre is located at 1300 Greene St.

A vibrantly modern story, the titular characters in Three Sisters, first performed in 1901, live together in their family home, settled in a provincial Russian town.  They feel trapped by their conventional existence, however, and long to return to the sophisticated world of Moscow, which they were forced to leave years before.   Anton Chekhov's poignant story is at once full of charm and anguish as the sisters are haunted by an impending future beyond their control and recollections of a happier past that keep them from truly living in the present.

University theatre professor Steven Pearson is directing the play, which he describes as “a breath of fresh air” and emblematic of Chekhov’s timeless appeal.   “Chekhov’s plays have lasted because they’re about the human condition,” he says.  “His work has a big heart for humanity and is loving about the difficulties of being alive and the magnificence that can exist in small events.”

Pearson has extensive experience with the work of Chekhov, both as a director and scholar.  Additionally, three of his original works (Balance, Gravity, and Flight, produced through his company Pacific Performance Project/east) are billed as “riffs” on themes present in Chekhov’s works, The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters.

The director says he is working to bring Chekhov’s intended sense of lightness to the play, which is commonly produced with a more somber tone.  “Chekhov’s approach to things is not much different than, say, Charlie Chaplin’s approach,” Pearson says. “In [Chaplin’s] City Lights, for instance, The Tramp will get to a place that’s almost sentimental, where there is feeling and sadness and so on, and then – poof! – he gets water thrown in his face and we laugh.  Chekhov actually uses that structure a lot.  It gets kind of sad and then there’s something wacky that happens, just like in real life.  There’s essentially a very human, smiling person that is watching this comedy of us going through our lives.”

All eight of the theatre program’s Master of Fine Arts in Acting candidates will appear in the production, including, as the sisters, Melissa Reed (Olga), Kate Dzvonik  (Masha) and Laurie Roberts (Irina).  Several professional guest actors will also appear in the production, including two longtime favorites of Theatre SC stages, Bob Hungerford (Chebutykin) and recently retired professor Richard Jennings (Ferapont/Anfisa).  NYC-based actor/director Michael Place will take the role of Solyony.

A mix of period-realism and impressionism makes up the production’s scenic design, created by MFA scenic design candidate Meredith Hart.  Guest artist Andy Smith, a Seattle-based professional lighting designer, will enhance the design’s impressionistic elements with evocative lighting textures.  Detailed, period-specific costuming is being created by MFA costume design candidate Vera DuBose.  Director Steven Pearson will also double as the show’s sound designer.

Pearson sums up the emotional resonance of the show by pointing to Chekhov’s mastery at portraying the reality of living.

“It's not like we go through our lives and suddenly something magnificent happens and that's the only meaning there is,” he explains.  “Real life is much bigger than that, and we have to get sensitive to what's going around us.  It's a magical thing to be alive, even the difficult parts, and I think that Chekov got his finger on that.”

For more information about Three Sisters or the theatre program at the University of South Carolina, contact Kevin Bush by phone at 803-777-9353 or via email at bushk@mailbox.sc.edu.

A New Era Exploding at Trustus - a review of Ragtime (the Musical) by Jillian Owens

It was the music of something beginning. An era exploding.

A century spinning.

In riches and rags,

And in rhythm and rhyme.

The people called it Ragtime.

(L-R) Avery Bateman, Terrance Henderson, Marybeth Gorman, Luke Melnyk, G. Scott Wild

 

Ragtime (the Musical) - based on the E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name - is a story of hope and disillusionment in the face of the American Dream.  This dream is interpreted in many different ways by the many characters in the show, which opened at Trustus Theatre this past weekend.  Ragtime opens during the “Progressive Era” in 1904.  Industry is booming, and excitement is in the air.  This air is filled with the strange, new, simple, and syncopated music of Ragtime.  The music (by Stephen Flaherty) is catchy and tender, simple yet deep, with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and book by Terrence McNally.

Mother and Father have a kind, though sterile marriage.  When Father, played by G. Scott Wild, heads off to explore the North Pole with Admiral Peary, Mother - played by Marybeth Gorman - is left to tend to their son, large house, and business affairs.  When she digs up something very unusual in her garden, a chain of events are pushed into movement that will change the lives of her small family, as well as the communities around her.

ragtime2

Ragtime shines thanks to one of the most talented casts it could have possibly pulled together, consisting of many Columbia theatre veterans, as well as a few talented new faces.  There are no weak links in this production.  Terrance Henderson pulls double duty as the charismatic ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker and the show’s choreographer.  Vicky Saye Henderson plays the radical anarchist, Emma Goldman, with gusto, Younger Brother - played by Kevin Bush - is passionate about finding something to be passionate about, and Scott Vaughan’s appearances as Houdini, though short, are very charming.  Chip Stubbs delivers a beautiful standout performance as Tateh, with a voice that conveys all the determination, elation, and heartache of a poor immigrant father struggling to reconcile his dream of America with the reality of his new world.  Stories are intertwined and alliances are made and broken.  With so many characters and stories, you’re bound to find at least a few you can identify with.

(L-R) Terrnce Henderson, G. Scott Wild, Luke Melnyk, Marybeth Gorman, Avery Bateman; photo by Jonathan Sharpe

If you call the Trustus Box Office hotline, a friendly recording will inform you that this show has over thirty actors in the cast – the most they’ve had onstage at one time.  Upon hearing this, I must admit I was a little worried.  When Trustus tries to put on a large-scale show, it usually ends up being a mixed bag.  Their small stage can only hold so much spectacle, scenery, and cast members before things start to get cramped.

Fortunately, for director Chad Henderson, this particular big show doesn’t require a massive set or much spectacle beyond the talent of its actors.  That’s not to say the set is unimpressive.  Brandon McIver’s construction of his giant Statue of Liberty was well-documented on the Trustus Facebook page in the weeks before the opening.  This, along with fragments of early 1900’s Americana, are evocative of the period and theme.  The orchestra is small but skilled.  The costumes are period-accurate and lovely.

Between Henderson’s (Chad) stage direction and Henderson’s (Terrance) choreography, the actors don’t seem confined or cramped at all.  I would advise you to try to get a seat closer to the back as sight lines are a slight issue.  I can’t help but wonder…Is the success of Ragtime just the beginning of a new era of larger-scale productions for Trustus?  Are we ready for this “new music”?

~ Jillian Owens

 

 

Off the Top of my Head -- Kevin Bush Takes the Stage Again -- by Sam Smith, Jasper intern

Kevin Bush Off Did you miss the first showing of Off the Top of my Head? Don’t worry, you have one more chance on July 12 when the Last Call Series at Trustus ends its season. After Ain’t Misbehavin’, Kevin Bush will perform an original show with special guests Terrance Henderson, Vicky Saye Henderson, Jason Stokes, and his brother Eddie Bush. Doors open at 10:45, and the show will start at 11:15. Tickets are sold at the door for $15.

The word ‘cabaret’ was first used in 1655 as a variation of the word tavern, and taverns are where cabarets began. The sun would go down and people would head to the local tavern for a night of drinking, laughter, and music. Eventually, cabarets moved out of taverns and into strip clubs, night clubs, restaurants, and finally to the stage. In America, cabarets became popular in the roaring twenties during Prohibition, where it was a fixture, just as much as a light would be, in speakeasies. After the rising popularity of concerts, variety shows, and comedy houses in the sixties, cabaret saw a slow decline until there were very few places left in America that still did cabaret. Luckily, cabaret is starting to see a revival with new artists interpreting it in new ways.

Off the Top of my Head starts with music where cabaret left off. It pulls heavily from music of the sixties, and Kevin Bush describes it as a sort of “Great American Songbook, Volume 2.” The night will be filled with songs by Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Marvin Gaye, Freddie Mercury and Queen, Ben Folds, Stephen Sondheim and a few others. Off the Top of my Head will focus on songs that Kevin Bush finds inspirational due to their lyrics, music, or artists, and he intends to make the show, in his own words, “a sort of "mix tape" that's intended to share the brilliance of these songs, and their songwriters, with an audience.”

This promises to be an entertaining and enjoyable evening. The resurgence of cabaret as a medium of entertainment is unique to particular areas of the United States, and Columbia, South Carolina usually wouldn’t be among that list. The chance to see a cabaret without traveling is something you don’t want to miss in the end of the Last Call season. Off the Top of my Head gives its audience a chance to hang out, have fun, and enjoy the performance art that is a cabaret show without them needing a time machine, and it’d be a shame to miss it.

Trustus Theatre is at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais Street Publix. For 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.

- Sam Smith, Jasper intern

"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

Jillian Owens reviews [title of show] at Trustus Theatre

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

~ Jillian Owens

[title of show] runs on the Trustus Main Stage through December 16th, 2012. After the New Year, the show returns on January 3rd, 2013 and runs through January 12th, 2013. Main Stage shows start at 8:00pm Thursdays through Saturdays, and Sunday matinees are at 3:00pm. Tickets are $27.00 for adults, $25.00 for military and seniors, and $20.00 for students. Half-price Student Rush-Tickets are available 15 minutes prior to curtain.

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

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

 

"Hansel & Gretel" at Columbia Marionette Theatre: A Sweet Artistic Triumph - a Review by Arik Bjorn

Dorothy Parker once reviewed a play that was so incompetent in all aspects, that she decided to leave most of her newspaper column space newspaper blank, stating that the production did not even deserve typeset words.  Nothing could be more opposite with respect to deserved accolades than Columbia Marionette Theatre’s latest production, Hansel & Gretel.  Artistic Director Lyon Hill has created something so phenomenal and unique that I was tempted to write the entire review in 100-point font.  However, recognizing that giant block letters might not be a preference for the average online reader, I will offer a single, megalithic, lexical frieze to frame my review:

 HANSEL & GRETEL IS A MONUMENTAL MARIONETTE CREATION!

TAKE EVERYONE YOU KNOW TO GO SEE IT!

As I have written in previous reviews, what I appreciate most about the CMT mission — and executive direction John Scollon should be applauded for this — is that it eschews the glamourized, Walt Disney fairytale and clings to the tried-and-true philosophy of edge-of-your-seat, Grimm storytelling.  And what better tale to present (especially in the month of hobgoblins and pumpkins) than one which seems to have been universally ignored by the animated children’s fantasy industry:  Hansel & Gretel.

My four-year-old daughter Kat plied me with questions about the story on the way to the theatre; she had never even heard the title.  The only factoid I would let slip is that there was likely to be a house made out of candy.  As one can imagine, that was enough to set her imagination’s hook.  But not even I was prepared for the sumptuousness of what CMT had prepared for patrons of all ages.

Upon crossing the dragon’s head threshold, even theatregoers who have attended multiple CMT productions will immediately realize there is something unique about this production.  A large, curved film screen covers center stage, and there is something oddly cartoon-esque about the set.  This was intentional; director Hill drew expertly on the classic black-and-white animation of the Fleischer Brothers (Betty Boop, Popeye, Koko the Clown) as inspiration for his set and marionette characters.  This is especially telling in the rounded qualities of the puppet faces, and in their oblong eyes; in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen marionettes which seemed so eerily alive.

Hansel and Gretel deep in the forest

The show begins with an immediate departure from the traditional Hansel & Gretel tale.  Both the poor woodcutter and his wife absolutely adore their children.  The reason for this welcome twist may be that Hill wrote the story as a special dedication to his young son, Oliver.  A dreaded wood filled with ghosts and boy-eating witches is one thing, but no child should have to endure the added torture of an abusive stepmother.  Yet despite being the candied apples of their parent’s eyes, there’s only so much roasted boot a la tongue any child can endure.  Following Hansel’s retelling of ‘The Tale of the Three Thieves’ — in which the stage is expanded with computer animation, and puppeteers Cooper Hill, Payton Frawley and Lyon Hill enthrall the audience with precisely-timed shadow puppetry — audience members soon find themselves in familiar territory:  at play in the field of the pastry-bread home with strawberry shortcake shutters.

 

A reviewer really could wax on and on about this spectacular production.  Like the professional marionette stages in Prague, this is a show that adults without children would thoroughly enjoy.  And I truly hope that other marionette professionals around the region and nation take the opportunity to travel to Columbia to witness what is without a doubt the crowning work to date by Lyon Hill and CMT’s very talented crew.  The production also boasts an incredible original score in the vein of a Woody Allen soundtrack by David Drazin, as well as the aforementioned original animation by Wade Sellers and Jeffrey Shroyer, and the vocal talents of local actors Kevin Bush and Jenny Mae Hill.

Hansel, Gretel and Witch

My personal favorite puppet moment was the skeleton whose bones magically dislocate and reassemble during a Fred Astaire song-and-dance number.  I also loved the owl puppet set high aloft the stage as introductory narrator; I hope the owl becomes a mainstay character for future CMT productions.  (Perhaps call him Owlistair Cooke.)  Another ingenious creative choice was making the witch a haggy vulture, whose appetite for human flesh is a bit easier for children to swallow, given her carrion nature; that, and it’s a tad easier to stomach watching a bird get its just desserts by being cooked in an oven than a humanoid figure.

At one point, Hansel describes the treasure of the three thieves — upon which the brother and sister pin their hopes to save their family from poverty — as so valuable that it cannot be named.  Without a doubt, our city is home to such a valuable treasure for children’s storytelling, yet it has a name:  Columbia Marionette Theatre.  And I can only conclude in the way in which I began:  Hansel & Gretel is unlike any show CMT has ever staged; whether child or adult, you are in for an extraordinary storytelling treat.

 TAKE EVERYONE YOU KNOW TO GO SEE IT!

~ Arik Bjorn

Hansel & Gretel runs until December 29 with performances every Saturday at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.  Tickets are $5 per person.  Children under 2 are free!  The Columbia Marionette Theatre is located at 401 Laurel Street (corner of Huger and Laurel).  Call 252.7366 for more information or to reserve party space for your little ones.  To learn more about Columbia Marionette Theatre, visit www.cmtpuppet.org .

NOTE: Tuesday Oct. 9th, from 6:00 to 8:00 PM, there will be a special event in the Hallway at 701 Whaley showcasing The Art of Hansel and Gretel by Lyon Forrest Hill. Get a glimpse inside Columbia Marionette Theatre's production of Hansel and Gretel. This exhibit features conceptual art including sketches, character designs and prototype marionettes by Lyon Forrest Hill. Deliciously evil treats provided by Jenny Mae Hill. Details can be found at http://www.facebook.com/events/188415467960730/

Avenue Q at Trustus Theatre - A Review

Avenue Q, the new summer show now running at Trustus Theatre, is a lively, witty, naughty musical romp through the challenges of young adulthood in the big city, told via catchy, silly, bouncy songs, performed by puppets. Well, by live actors, four of whom give voice and life to a number of Muppet-style hand puppets.  For sheer escapism and entertainment, you absolutely will not be disappointed by this triple Tony winner that ran for over six years in New York, and still thrives and prospers off-Broadway today.

With music and lyrics by creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and book by Jeff Whitty, Avenue Q  follows the adventures of recent college grad Princeton, an archetypal naïf looking for his meaning in life... or perhaps just a job, and a cheap place to live, which he finds in the low-rent zone of Avenue Q.  Princeton is Everyman (or Everypuppet) at 22, and this theme has been explored countless times over the years, in films like How to Marry a Millionaire, musicals like How to Succeed in Business, and even the current HBO series Girls.  The show's brilliance lies in its reinvention of the coming-of-age genre, using multi-colored felt and cloth puppets, especially since the impression conveyed is that we are seeing the familiar Sesame Street characters all grown up, and having to confront the realities and responsibilities of maturity.  A disclaimer in the program makes it clear that there is no actual connection to any Jim Henson creations or properties; one imagines that at this stage, Elmo, Kermit and friends are such cultural icons that they classify as public figures, and therefore fair game for parody and satire.  Unlike the Muppets, however, the audience actually sees each performer skillfully manipulating his or her diminutive alter-ego, and so the relevant expressions and emotions are visible on the live actor's face as well.  All are attractive and talented, causing one to want to follow them on stage, but just as much attention needs to be paid to the puppets, who are the actual characters.

Performing Princeton, Kevin Bush finds just the right tone to seem sympathetic, yet still a bit of an immature tool.  A subplot revolving around an ambiguous pair of roommates (think Bert and Ernie) features Bush as Rod, an uptight and closeted yuppie banker whose nose and eye design are as phallic as his name.  Rod's denial of his sexuality and feelings for his best friend become increasingly ludicrous, culminating in a stream-of-consciousness musical fabrication about an imaginary girlfriend, from Canada, named Alberta, who lives in... ummm... Vancouver.  The ever-youthful Bush could really have played either of these roles quite believably in a "normal" play; I do wish there were a bit more distinction in their voices, especially since between the two characters, he has at least 50% of the dialogue in the show.  Still, he's a great singer and a delight to see.

Katie Leitner as Princeton's love interest, Kate Monster, is equally appealing.  Looking back over my notes, I see at least half a dozen times where she duets with Bush or joins in a group number, and I have jotted down "beautiful harmony" or "incredible voice."  Her solo "Fine Fine Line" (a melancholy reflection on the difference between lovers and friends) could easily have been part of a "serious" musical, whereas most of the other songs replicate the sing-song style of a children's show.  With no way to really change the facial expression of the hand puppets, emotions must be conveyed by adjusting their posture or position; somehow Leitner expertly manages to depict Kate Monster as a sloppy drunk, with her hair falling into her face, and the moment is one of many comic highlights.  She also gets to create Lucy the Slut, who oozes mint-julep sultriness and temptation, with a rich deep voice an octave or so lower than Kate's.  Brien Hollingsworth also displays amazing diversity in his voice characterizations as four different characters, including Trekkie Monster (addicted to porn in lieu of cookies) and Nicky, who accepts BFF Rod's sexuality long before Rod acknowledges it.  Hollingsworth and Elisabeth Smith Baker perform Nicky together, and also appear as the Bad Idea Bears, Care Bear-like apparitions who suggest things like chugging Long Island Teas the night before an important day at work, or using funds sent from the 'rents to buy some beer, and it might as well be a case, since those are better bargains.  Baker probably does the best at recreating the perky, cartoonish voices one expects, and also helps to manipulate most of the other puppet characters when their principal portrayers are busy, e.g. she performs Lucy's movements when Leitner is performing Kate. Through some skillful choreography and misdirection, rarely can one ever tell that the principal actor is doing both voices, and this also means that Baker has to know not only her own characters' lines, but most of the rest of the script too, in order to move the puppet's mouth at the right moment, in synch with the right dialogue. The other three performers accomplish this as well, but Baker is perhaps the best at turning invisible on stage, this being that rarest of times when that's a good thing.  And did I mention that Princeton and Kate engage in some graphic puppet sex?  Well, as graphic as hand puppets who only exist from the waist up can get, but that's incredibly, and hilariously, graphic.

Just like Sesame Street, there are human characters too, similarly disillusioned 20-somethings, played by G. Scott Wild, Annie Kim, and Devin Anderson.  While these characters are never fully developed, the performers are excellent, and their voices blend beautifully with the rest of the cast.  Director Chad Henderson brings the customary style that I have come to expect from his shows:  everyone is completely believable in their characters, everything moves at a lively pace, and there's never a dull moment on stage, even in transitional moments and bridging scenes.  Musical Director Randy Moore capably leads four other musicians and never once drowns out the singers.  Danny Harrington's set is ostensibly a simplistic, child-like facade of an apartment row, but utilizes striking colors and odd angles (much like his recent set for Grease at Town Theatre) to make an attractive visual statement.  Performers frequently have to make rapid exits in time to appear as another character in an upstairs window, and I'm guessing the true extent of Harrington's design can only be appreciated from backstage, as everything seems to flow quite smoothly.   There's also a multi-media component, incorporating a tv-like screen that projects video clips (created by Aaron Johnson) and little visual lessons, in that same Sesame Street style.  The excellent puppet creations are by Lyon Hill (profiled in the cover story of the current issue of Jasper - The Word on Columbia Arts) and Karri Scollon, the result of a collaboration between Trustus and the Columbia Marionette Theatre.

Trustus of course is at a crossroads, with new leadership coming in, and the ever-present challenge to stay true to their mission (edgy shows from NY that might not be done elsewhere locally) while giving the audiences what they want (which by and large is light, frothy, silly musical comedies.)  Through some happy harmonic convergence, Avenue Q  manages to do both simultaneously.  The only caveats might be:  a) however adorable the puppets may be, and however appealing the performers, the humor and language is decidedly R-rated, so consider yourself forewarned, or titillated in advance, as the case may be; and  b) the score is quite catchy and eminently hummable, but no moreso (and no less) than any good Muppet Show song.  As above, coming-of-age stories are nothing new, and have been depicted musically as recently as March's Passing Strange, which was wildly popular among most artists, musicians and theatre folks I know. For me, however, Avenue Q  is the most entertaining production I've seen at Trustus in years, and certainly the best show I've seen locally since Victor/Victoria  at Workshop some 15 months ago.  Retelling  fundamental and timeless themes using a new, unexpected, yet also familiar story-telling technique is simply a stroke of genius, and you owe it to yourself to take a trip down to Avenue Q.

Avenue Q runs through Sat. July 21st; contact the Trustus box office at 803-254-9732 for ticket information.

~ August Krickel

(Photo credit - Bonnie Boiter-Jolley)

University Theatre Program To Stage Undergraduates’ Original Works - Guest blog by Kevin Bush

Three plays written and directed by university theatre majors will be premiered February 15-26, 2012 when the University of SC Department of Theatre and Dance presents a festival of Original Works.

The History of Elizabeth I, written by senior Jeffrey Earl in the heightened language style of Shakespeare, will be performed February 15-19 at Benson Theatre, located at the corner of Pickens and Whaley Streets. Show times are 8pm each evening.  Admission is $5.  Tickets are available only at the door.

Tomfoolery, a commedia dell'Arte play by senior Brittany Price Anderson, and Good Mourning, a dark story of grieving by junior Jake Mesches, will be performed together February 23-26 at the Lab Theatre, 1400 Wheat St.  Show times are 8pm each evening.  Ticket cost to see both shows is $5; tickets are available only at the door.

 

 

The History of Queen Elizabeth I Jeffrey Earl describes The History of Queen Elizabeth I as a "continuation of Shakespeare's "history" plays," written in the manner of Elizabethan theatre.  The story dramatizes the attempt of Mary, Queen of Scots to seize the throne from Elizabeth I.

Earl notes that while the script is in the style of Shakespeare, it still contains 21st century references.  “I hope to show the importance of heightened language and verse, even when written by contemporary authors," he says.

Earl is wearing other hats in addition to writing and directing.  He composed transition and underscored music for the play, and, with the guidance of Professor Lisa Martin-Stuart, is also designing costumes for the production.  He is designing the set, lighting and sound, as well.

Actors in the production are: Kayla Cahill, Danielle Peterson, Rocco Thompson, Liam MacDougall, Dillon Ingram, Esteban Nevarez, Hunter Bolton, Ait Fetterolf, Adam Bintz, Steven Canada, Andrea Wurzburger and Rachel Player.  Mallory Shirley will stage manage, with assistance from John Floyd.  Earl received additional faculty support from Victor Holtcamp, assistant professor of theatre, and Nina Levine, associate professor of English.

Tomfoolery Conceived and performed in the style of commedia dell’Arte, the traditional Italian form of improvisational theatre, Tomfoolery is described by its creator and director Brittany Price Anderson as a “zany, naughty, slapstick fairy tale.”

Dating from the 16th century, commedia dell’Arte is a theatre form in which stock characters, such as two lovers, a merchant and servants, find themselves trying to make sense of often humorous scenarios filled with mix-ups, mayhem and monkey-business.  Each evening, a cast of six will take on the classic commedia roles in traditional masks, which they have created themselves.

Created as part of her senior thesis project for the SC Honors College, with the guidance of theatre professor Jim O’Connor and associate professor Sarah Barker, Anderson says her goal with the project is enable her cast of actors to “create a story in which every person in the cast has an equal share.”

“Our jumping off point is a ‘dirty fairy tale” set in a world of where royalty and magic co-exist, so the only restrictions we have are our imaginations,” she says.

Actors in the production are:  Tyler Carolan, Sirena Dibb, Vincent King, Katie McCuen, Emily Olyarchuk and Finn Smith.  Michelle Ouhl will serve as stage manager for the production.

Good Mourning Grieving over a loved one is no less than torture in Jake Mesches’ play, Good Mourning.

The dark one-act begins with a recent widower being held captive by a masked man who guides him through the psychological horrors of the grieving process.  As his maltreatment continues, the widower finds he has the choice of either giving in to his captor’s abuse or fight to the final stage of grief: acceptance.

Mesches says his goal of the piece is no less than what he believes theatre is designed to do – to confront his audience with a reality they may not be aware of.  “Remarkably, human beings have an innate defense again the impending fact of death,” he explains.  “It is not until we experience the most devastating tragedies of out lives that we are forced to remove ourselves from the shroud of ignorance and accept the finality of death as universal.  I would like to challenge the audience to allow themselves an hour to stop denying death.”

Six actors will bring Mesches’ work to life on stage, including himself, William Vaughn, Caroline Wilson, Elizabeth Turner, Cayla Fralick and Katie Cole.  Artistic staff for the production includes Neal Tucker (assistant director), Becky Doran (stage manager) and Curtis Smoak (lighting design).

For more information on Original Works, or any of the productions of the University of SC Lab Theatre or Department of Theatre and Dance, contact Kevin Bush by phone at (803) 777-9353 or by email at bushk@mailbox.sc.edu.

Review -- August: Osage County

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~ August Krickel