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

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

-WillyWonka - Charlie And The Chocolate Factory

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

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

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

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

Machado and Morales with Robin Gottlieb

Machado and Morales with Robin Gottlieb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Machado and Hunter Boyle

Machado and Hunter Boyle

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW: Barbecue at Trustus Theatre - Frank Thompson

“There’s a face that we wear in the cold light of day.
  It’s society’s mask, it’s society’s way,

  But the truth is that it’s all a façade…”

 

-Jekyll And Hyde: The Musical

 

   When Frank Wildhorn penned the above lyrics for his adaptation of the classic tale of The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde over two decades ago, he probably didn’t anticipate them being used in the introduction of a review for a yet-to-be-written play about a family staging an intervention, but the song has been stuck in my head since seeing Friday night’s performance of Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue. As usual, Trustus Theatre has selected a multi-layered, thoughtful, and well-crafted piece of work to open the 2017-2018 season. It also happens to be hilariously funny at times, especially early on, as we are introduced to a series of social misfits gathering for a cookout/confrontation in hopes of persuading the meth-addicted Barbara (Christine Hellman and Devin Anderson) to get the help she desperately needs. Known also as “Zippity-Doo”, Barbara is the loosest cannon on a full deck; her would-be rescuers each have substance and/or personal issues, and the family is a nigh-stereotypical dysfunctional, lower-middle-class bunch.

 

   It would be impossible to adequately review the performance without revealing a few spoilers, so if you want to go in completely blind, stop reading now and take my word that Barbecue is well worth your time and money.

 

   If you’re still reading, I promise not to give away all of the surprises, but to avoid confusion, I’ll go ahead and say that each role is double-cast, with one family entirely African-American, the other entirely white. The two families are identically named and costumed, with only minor (or so it seems) differences between them. Both Barbaras are addicts, and the set-up for the intervention, etc., utilizes almost identical dialogue, with a few cultural colloquialisms and stylistic choices unique to each group. The first act alternates scenes between the groups, with a fairly close-to-real-time overlap until a big reveal at the end of the first act, at which point we realize that we’re watching a reality show onstage. (The TV series Intervention is actually mentioned several times). But which “reality” is real? Over drinks at intermission, several friends and I guessed what would happen as well as what was going on. We were all incorrect, which illustrates the artistry of the playwright in avoiding the obvious in a play populated by what seem at first to be two-dimensional characters.

   The show opens with a laugh-riot, profanity-laden, monologue by Christopher Cockrell as Barbara’s n’ere-do-well brother, James T., who wants nothing to do with any of it, yet is forced to set up for the party alone. Having seen Cockrell mostly in dramatic, serious roles, I was most impressed with his flawless comedic timing, as well as his ability to convincingly play a lowbrow redneck. It’s always enjoyable to see familiar faces in roles outside their personal norm, and Cockrell’s James T. is just that. Matching Cockrell’s stage presence and skill, Kendrick J. Lyles appears as the black James T., who, while slightly more laid-back, is the same scruffy, beer-swilling schlub as his white counterpart. One has a mullet, the other dreadlocks, but they’re both reluctant, unimpressed with the plan, and would rather be anywhere else.

 

   Krista Forster and LaTrell Brennan share the role of Barbara’s sister, Marie, who has plenty of her own secrets. As with Cockrell and Lyles, both performers manage to create the same character with just enough differences to keep things interesting. While each Marie is self-serving and hypocritical, Forster’s is a bit more aggressive somehow, with Brennan’s interpretation bringing out a slightly softer side. Rather than being a distraction, this adds another layer to the almost-but-not-quite-identical nature of the two families. One gets the idea that Marie is following fairly closely in Barbara’s footsteps, which is supported by slight differences in the two Barbaras that mirror the personality of each Marie. Kudos to director Ilene Fins for weaving such subtleties into the parallel universes.

   Trustus mainstay Elena Martinez-Vidal plays the white incarnation of Aldean, a chain-smoking opioid addict who is battling breast cancer. With her edgy, crass, and selfish nature, Aldean could easily be the most-disliked of this crew of undesirables, but Martinez-Vidal brings a raffish lovability to the role. She’s the cranky old aunt or neighbor lady whose nastiness is somehow endearing. Her counterpart, Mahogany Collins, is just flat-out hateful, with hilarious results. In the hands of a less skilled actress, this approach could have fallen flat, but Collins brings such sincerity to Aldean, you can’t help cracking up at her most venomous lines. This was my first time seeing her onstage, and I certainly hope it won’t be the last.

   Two more familiar faces on the Trustus stage, Dewey Scott-Wiley and Marilyn Matheus, provide what semblance of stability the family has in Lillie Anne, the harried organizer and driving force behind the intervention. It goes without saying that each of these seasoned pros turns in a solid, well-developed performance, but as an added layer to an already complex set of circumstances, the two Lillie Annes also helped define each family. Each has seen tragedy and loss, but seemingly from different directions. With Scott-Wiley’s Lillie Anne, there’s a slightly frantic quality which suggests a family in decline, while Matheus’ solid, no-nonsense Lillie Anne has the aura of someone who has pulled herself up beyond her beginnings. The script does not address the issue, but the performances suggest one person who is desperately trying to fix something broken, while the other is calmly determined not to let things get any worse.

   And of Barbara, herself? Well, that’s where things get complicated, and (SPOILER ALERT!!!!) once we discover that Hellman’s is the actual Barbara, the story splits open, and we see Anderson in her true identity: a successful singer who plans to conquer Hollywood by bringing Barbara’s story to life onscreen. (While in rehab, Barbara wrote a best-selling book about her experiences). In one of the show’s strongest scenes, the two play a game of cat-and-mouse over identity and reality, with Barbara claiming to have made up the entire story, which doesn’t seem to matter at all to the singer, who has her eyes on the Oscars and nothing else. Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that everything from race to sexual identity is addressed in the scene, with the overwhelming message being that reality is subjective and what you see isn’t always what you get. By the end of the scene, the two have merged in a way, and the audience is left wondering how many layers of deception and fakery just occurred, and if a “real” Barbara has faded into a pastiche of lies and re-writes. Hellman and Anderson manage to create just enough doubt about…well, almost everything. Watching their interaction and the game of one-upsmanship literally had me on the edge of my seat and figuratively doubting my sanity as each “revealed” something that may or may not have been true.

      By the end, all is made clear, but the path takes several more twists along the way, dropping in one or two more revelations that tie the two worlds together. The final moment of the show (which I won’t reveal) brought laughter from some, gasps from others, and a whispered-but-distinct “daaaaaaaamn” from someone in the row behind me. For a script which addresses and bases itself on relativism and skewed perspective, I can think of no better reaction. Barbecue is a fresh, thought-provoking, mind-twisting, funny, vulgar, and intelligent piece of theatre, with a strong cast and ambiguous storyline that leaves you scratching your head a little. It’s a perfect show for Trustus, and Artistic Director Chad Henderson is clearly committed to continuing the theatre’s goal of bringing new works of high quality to the stage. His opening night welcome to the audience included a tribute to his mentor, the late Jim Thigpen, whom I have no doubt would have taken great pride in Barbecue.

 

Frank Thompson is a graduate of The University of Alabama and Cumberland School of Law, who has made his home in Columbia since 2010. He has performed, taught classes, and/or directed with several local theatres, and co-writes a column for "The Good Life" blog for Goodwill Industries, along with his wife, Laurel Posey. His essay, 'Que, was featured in the 2014 edition of Fall Lines by Muddy Ford Press.

 

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