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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Herr, Wild, with Hunter Boyle and Katrina Blanding

 

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

 

Mostly, though, I just wanted a better play.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

velvet weapon 6

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

- Ed Madden

Photos courtesy of Rob Sprankle

Ed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cymbeline live in Filnay Park - photo by Jillian Owens

Bobby Bloom and Katie Mixon; photo by Jeff Driggers

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

Chris Cook and Libby Campbell Turner; photo by Jeff Driggers

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

Bobby Bloom and Wela Mbusi - photo by Jeff Driggers

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

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

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

cymbeline7

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

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

~ Jillian Owens

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

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

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

 

 

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

 jasper_watches

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

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

Bobby Bloom and Katie Mixon; photo by Jeff Driggers

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

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

Chris Cook and Libby Campbell Turner; photo by Jeff Driggers

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

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

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

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

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