"Our Town" at Longstreet Theatre - a review by Jillian Owens

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The University of South Carolina’s second production of the 2014-15 academic year isn’t the most adventurous of choices, but it is a popular one. Often-produced, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (directed by Steven Pearson in USC's Longstreet Theatre) tells the simple story of a simple town full of simple people,  but also tackles themes as heavy as why no one seems to appreciate life while they’re living it, and the meaning of eternity.

One of the reasons this play is so -- in my opinion -- over-performed is that it’s easy to produce. The script dictates that no props or sets be used. The actors must instead mime all action. Ladders become the second floors of houses where characters exchange secrets, and there are a few tables and chairs. That’s it. No real budget is required. Another reason this play is often-produced is that it’s extremely popular. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938, and its 1989 Broadway revival garnered a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for Best Revival.

 Matthew Cavender and Nicole Dietze - photo by Jason Ayer,

Our Town is divided into three acts: Daily Life, Love and Marriage, and Death and Dying.  The play opens in the tiny town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire in 1901. An equally omniscient and nostalgic Stage Manager (Carin Bendas) introduces us to several of the townsfolk and explains the town’s not-very-exciting history. We see the Gibbs and Webb families sending their children off to school. It’s all a bit tedious, and it’s meant to be. We meet the two teenagers, George Gibbs (Matthew Cavender) and Emily Webb (Nicole Dietze.) Much like the town of Grover’s Corners, there’s nothing really remarkable about either of them. We begin to see them fall in love. We see them marry. Nothing remarkable.

The third act poses an intriguing question: If you were dead and could go back to any day in your life, what would it be, and how would your perspective change? If youth is wasted on the young, is life wasted on the living? Do any of us really appreciate life while we’re in the moments that stack upon other moments until it’s all over? According to the Stage Manager, "No. Saints and poets maybe...they do some.”

photo by Jason Ayer

Most of it is frightfully simple and boring, as are most of our lives. And that’s kind of the point. If Our Town wasn’t written in this simplistic style and with so few things that actually happen, we wouldn’t be as able to empathize with the characters as we are. We can see ourselves in them...not in those exciting, electric moments that we wait for, but in the spaces in between when we’re cooking dinner, running errands, or just chatting with a friend. This is who we are.

This production of Our Town features a new crop of MFA students, as well as a few undergrads. Dietze and Cavender are naively pleasant enough as Emily and George. I enjoyed the easy and comfortable dynamic between Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs (Josh Jeffers and Candace Thomas), which was perhaps the most subtly touching and believable relationship in this production. The Stage Manager is usually cast as a male, but features a female actor, Carin Bendas, in this production. It’s a difficult role, as it isn’t really so much a character as it is a time-warping deliverer of exposition. Bendas comes off as off-puttingly smug at times, but still delivers some of the best lines of the show with empathy and compassion. All of the actors do an impressive job at miming props, and manage to deliver decent New Hampshire accents.

Carin Bendas - photo by JAsopn Ayer

I was impressed by how visually interesting the “not really a set” set was. Neda Spalajkovic adhered to Wilder’s desires as much as she could, while still giving the audience something interesting to look at that establishes location and time changes. And even if you don’t care very much for this sort of show, you’ll be impressed with how she has worked with lighting designer Ashley Pittman to create a visually stunning final tableau.

photo by Jason Ayer

The plot is slow. The language is plain. But then you get lines like this that jump out at you and stir something inside of you:

“We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”

And this is why Our Town remains an American theatre classic.

~ Jillian Owens

Show times for Our Town are 8pm Wednesdays through Saturdays, with additional 3pm matinees on Sunday, November 16 and Saturday, November 22.  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 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 7.  Longstreet Theatre is located at 1300 Greene St.

"Ajax in Iraq" at USC's Longstreet Theatre - a review by Kyle Petersen

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All Photos by Jason Ayer Aiax-1.jpg Shown: Jamie Boller as A.J. Ajax-2.jpg Shown: Jasmine James as Athena Ajax-3.jpg Shown:  Jamie Boller (left) as A.J. and Jasmine James as Athena Ajax-4.jpg Shown:  Jamie Boller (left) as A.J. and Jasmine James as Athena

It’s hard not to applaud Theatre South Carolina for picking Ajax in Iraq to open its 2014-2015 season. Playwright Ellen McLaughlin forges a conceptually complex narrative that intertwines Sophocles’ original Greek tragedy, a play often used as a discussion tool for military veterans and civilians both to explore the deleterious effects of wartime on an individual’s psyche, with the modern-day tale of a female soldier in Iraq who, after demonstrating a heroism similar to that of the storied tragedian’s protagonist, is raped by a superior officer and suffers from PTSD.   In the process, McLaughlin takes on the politics of our invasion and occupation of Iraq, the geopolitics of the region, the philosophical and psychological issues at the heart of all war, America’s treatment of its combat veterans, and the problem of sexual abuse in the military — all extraordinarily relevant issues for a generation of college students who have essentially spent their entire lives with our nation at war. That’s a lot of meat for this almost exclusively undergraduate cast to bite off.

All Photos by Jason Ayer Aiax-1.jpg Shown: Jamie Boller as A.J. Ajax-2.jpg Shown: Jasmine James as Athena Ajax-3.jpg Shown:  Jamie Boller (left) as A.J. and Jasmine James as Athena Ajax-4.jpg Shown:  Jamie Boller (left) as A.J. and Jasmine James as Athena

Fortunately, this talented group were game for a challenge. Both Jamie Boller as AJ, the female protagonist, and Jasmine James as the goddess Athena, who narrates both storylines, shows poise and depth in their performances, with the former giving a nuanced treatment of the dramatic emotional swells her role was tasked with, and the latter providing a dynamic treatment to the lengthy monologues that are often weighed down with the heavy expositional load that the character carries. Reginald Leroy Kelly, Jr. was also a standout, with an impressive physical presence that brought Ajax’s bloodthirsty hysteria to life. The undergraduate ensemble cast as a whole dove into the play with verve, and captured the unsettling but time-honored truth that all wars are fought by children.

 

 

It’s also worth noting that the scenic design by Andy Mills was quite astute, with a gorgeously craggy set of stones with the fractured geography of Iraq outlined in chalk, and a small covered pit lowered in the center that provided an important literal and symbolic space for Ajax’s descent into madness. Director Peter Duffy’s blocking and Terrance Henderson’s choreography also made expert use of the theater-in-the-round framework, and the entire production team brought an impressive level of thought and poise to the table.

ajax-poster-200pxHowever, the play itself often felt too limited by its wide grasp. The vast majority of the story was told, rather than shown, to the audience, both by Athena as narrator and the Greek chorus of American soldiers. While on a microlevel McLaughlin’s words had power, the net effect felt too much like a rambling, lengthy, unfocused sermon. Relatively little time was actually spent on the most emotionally and thematically fraught element of the play, the details of AJ’s psychological trauma. Instead, lengthy digressions were taken to incorporate a Victorian spin on the history of the Middle East in the 20th century and what amounted to a PSA about homeless vets. And, while the Ajax story obviously recognizes the long history of soldiers psychologically traumatized by war, I feel as if McLaughlin did a disservice to AJ’s story by pairing it so unproblematically with the Greek tragedy. After all, being raped by a superior officer is categorically and qualitatively different than failing to be properly recognized for one’s efforts, and apart from actually staging the rape, the play had relatively little to say on the subject, a pity given the enormity of the problem - women who served in the war were more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than die in combat.

 Jasmine James as Athena - photo by JAson Ayer

That said, the play is littered with powerful moments, among them the deft explication of how soldiers mostly end up fighting for love of one another more than any national, ideological, or moral reason, and a powerfully staged rape scene that placed the actors across the stage from one another and captured a cold, alienating sense of aloneness surrounding that act of violence that’s difficult to connote with a literal depiction. (The play also wisely closed on the lit images of soldier’s graves with the actors taking discrete bows from the edges—a sobering way to keep the focus on the issues rather than the theatrics of the performance.)

There’s no doubt that the subject matter and staging of such traumatic stories are worthwhile, and many will likely leave these performances with a heightened sense of our nation’s collective failure to grapple with the immense psychological damage our decade at arms has caused a generation of American soldiers. But I also can’t help but see the play as a bit too heavy-handed in its polemics and remiss in its elision of the extraordinary gender inequities in today’s military. These detractions limit the ability of the play to contribute to an important, underserved conversation around these issues. Despite McLaughlin’s considerable gifts, Ajax in Iraq will always feel like a bit of a failure because of that alone.

~ Kyle Petersen

Show times for Ajax in Iraq are 8pm Wednesdays through Saturdays, with additional 3pm matinees on Sunday, October 5 and Saturday, October 11.  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 by calling 803-777-2551 or by visiting the Longstreet Theatre box office, which is open Monday-Friday, 12:30pm-5:30pm, beginning Friday, September 26th.  Longstreet Theatre is located at 1300 Greene St.

Jillian Owens reviews "Compleat Female Stage Beauty" at USC's Longstreet Theatre

  The timing could not be better for Theatre South Carolina’s production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty, directed by Gary Logan.  Gay rights and gender equality have been hot button issues this election season, and both of these are woven intricately into the tapestry of this poignant and bawdy production.

In 1660, Edward Kynaston is sitting pretty as the most famous leading lady in the London theatre scene.   After 18 years of Puritan rule, England is experiencing a renaissance of theatre, fashion, and decadence.  Called "the loveliest lady that ever I saw in my life" by Samuel Nicolas, Edward is loved and admired for his brilliant portrayal of tragic female roles.  When King Charles II signs a law allowing women to act on the stage, his career is ruined, and his entire identity is called into question.

This show features a new crop of USC Theatre's MFA candidates.  Melissa Peters immersed herself in  extensive movement and vocal work to develop the role of Kynaston.  “The shape of the pelvis changes a lot about how we move,” she told Otis Taylor of The State.  Her hard work has paid off.  You completely forget that she is a she, and instead can only see her as Edward Kynaston.  While Kynaston was the last of his kind, his rival Margaret Hughes was the first of her kind.  Kate Dzvonik is lovely and charismatic in this role.  However, she is difficult to understand through her thick accent.  Most of her performance comes off as one-dimensional, but she is positively winning in her final scene.  Leeanna Rubin makes a hilarious and raunchy Nell Gwynn, the popular mistress of King Charles II (played by Cory Lipman).  Stephen Ingle is  playfully perverse as Kynaston’s  fey and foppish antagonist, Sir Charles Sedley—who suceeds in being both mincing and menacing.

April Andrews has earned accolades for her amazing costumes, and Xuemei Cao’s set is cleverly transformative.  The transitions between scenes are scored by Matthew Nielson, and are evocative of the period.

Compleat Female Stage Beauty reminds us of the progress that has been made in our society’s acceptance those who are gay and transgendered.  Yes—there is much progress to be made, but at least gays can marry in nine states.  The risk of being pelted with excrement onstage for being a homosexual has lessened considerably since the 1600’s as well.  But, the question of what it means to be man or a woman is still a question that continues to pop up in conversation…whether we’re discussing transgendered youths being admitted into the Girl Scouts, gays in the military, or even whether boys should be allowed to wear pink.  The discussion of sexual and gender identity have become major political issues.

While addressing serious subject matter, this show still manages to be quite funny.  Hatcher has written a cleverly witty script, and the cast manages the delicate balance of capturing  every humorous moment without becoming farcical or irreverent.

Compleat Female Stage Beauty is a darkly comical, but  touching production.  It brings humanity to issues that are easy to think of as being merely political and abstract.  Due to its mature subject matter and some partial nudity, this is definitely an adults-only show.

~ Jillian Owens

Show times are 8pm Wednesdays-Fridays, and 7pm Saturdays.  There is an additional half-price late night performance on Saturday, November 17 at 11pm.   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 by calling 803-777-2551 or by visiting the Longstreet Theatre box office, which is open Monday-Friday, 12:30pm-5:30pm.

 

 

 

"The Importance of Being Earnest" at USC's Longstreet Theatre - a Review by Jillian Owens

Originally billed as “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” The Importance of Being Earnest gets a fun and funky 1960’s reboot in the new Theatre South Carolina production of Oscar Wilde’s last and best-known play. The plot of this rollicking farce is perhaps best expressed in the line, “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.”  John and Algernon are close pals with double lives.  John (aka Jack) avoids his somber life of responsibilities in the country by inventing a brother by the name of Ernest, whom he constantly has to visit, to rescue him from some scrape or another.  Algernon (aka Algy), on the other hand, frequently escapes to the country to avoid unwelcome social obligations, claiming to visit his imaginary (and always sickly) buddy, "Bunbury."

This arrangement serves them both well, until John (who is living as "Ernest" in the city) falls in love with Algy’s cousin Gwendolen.  Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell, is appalled to discover Ernest/John is an orphan, found in a handbag at Victoria Station.  To escape her disapproval, Gwendolen and Ernest/John plan to elope in the country.  Little do they know, Algy overhears their plans, and decides to have a bit of his own fun.  After finding out John has a beautiful young ward by the name of Cecily at his country estate, he shows up posing as John’s rascally younger brother...."Ernest."

 

Traditional Wildean wit, hilarity and clever banter ensue.  Even those who have never seen this play performed live will remember many of Wilde’s signature one-liners.  Both Gwendolyn and Cecily are determined that they can only love a man by the name of Ernest, and certainly not John or Algy!  The play is a searing commentary on the frivolity and insincerity of Victorian culture.  Wilde believed “that we should take all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.”

This production was cleverly re-set from 1895 to some time in the 1960’s with go-go dancers, a terrific retro score, a set that would be any Anglophile’s dream, and wildly flamboyant costumes.  And it works.  Director Robert Richmond is obviously aware that with a show so dialogue-heavy, a modern audience could easily get bored.  There is absolutely no opportunity for boredom in this intensely high-energy production.  The actors are constantly in movement (a benefit of this production being done in the round), and the dance numbers between scenes are expertly choreographed by Emily Gonzalez (more on her later).

I always look forward to seeing a production at USC, as their shows easily have the most consistently high production values in Columbia.  This show was no exception.  The fun and adaptive set by Kimi Maeda transforms perfectly from a swinging 60’s bachelor pad to a happy hippie garden.  The costumes are simply brilliant.  Elizabeth Coffin displays an amazing amount of talent here, especially for an undergrad.  They are wild, colorful, clever, and beautifully executed with an intense attention to detail.

Pictured: From left, Danielle Peterson (as Gwendolen), Liam MacDougall (as Algernon) and William Vaughan (as Jack)

I was surprised to discover that the cast for this show was all undergraduates.  Usually Theatre South Carolina relies much more heavily on its graduate students.  Emily Gonzalez makes a delightfully naive Cecily Cardew, and her choreography gives this show the jolt of energy it needs to maintain the interest of a modern audience.  Rocco Thompson delivers a particularly hilarious standout performance as Lady Bracknell.  Liam Macdougall’s Algernon is funny and fey, though difficult to understand at times.  Danielle Peterson seemed a bit stiff and uncomfortable in her role as Gwendolen, almost as if she were playing the role 15 years older than it was intended.  But her spot-on sense of comedic timing more than compensates for this.  William Vaughan plays off his fellow actors well as an exuberant though put-upon John/Ernest.  All of the actors do a fine job, especially for being such a young group with varying levels of experience.

The Importance of Being Earnest makes for a delightfully witty way to spend an evening.  So go ahead…take a walk on the Wilde side.

~ Jillian Owens

The show runs through Sat. Oct. 13th at USC's Longstreet Theatre.  Show times are 8 pm Wednesdays-Fridays, 7 pm Saturdays and 3 pm on the first Sunday.  There is an additional half-price late night performance on Saturday, October 13 at 11 pm.   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 by calling 803-777-2551 or by visiting the Longstreet Theatre box office, which is open Monday-Friday, 12:30 pm-5:30 pm.