REVIEW - Heathers at Trustus Theatre by Frank Thompson

Here she is with two small problems

And the best part of the blame

Wishes she could call him heartache

But it's not a boy's name…

-From the song “Appetite” by Prefab Sprout (1985)

Lisa Baker, Brittany Hammock, and Katie Leitner

Lisa Baker, Brittany Hammock, and Katie Leitner

While the music and lyrics for Heathers: The Musical are all original, created for the stage version by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe, I couldn’t get the above Prefab Sprout song out of my head when pondering how to address the production from a critical standpoint. For those unfamiliar with the Daniel Waters film upon which the stage adaptation is based, the story centers around Veronica, a seventeen-year-old high school student who develops a darkly romantic relationship with a charismatic nihilist, J.D., whose moral relativism is softened by a genuine concern for the underdog. Coming from a dysfunctional, single-parent home, J.D. is cynical beyond his years, and quite capable of handling himself in just about any situation. Veronica comes from a different world, with an almost-stereotypical loving-but-clueless “Mom and Dad” straight out of central casting.

Veronica’s life isn’t a horror story, but she suffers all the usual travails of a cute-but-nerdy young woman navigating the world of geeks, jocks, outcasts, and the rest of the archetypes that exist in high school to this day. In a funhouse-mirror version of the Pygmalion myth, Veronica finds herself thrust into the world of the uber-cool girls who rule the school’s social scene. Her malevolent new mentors, each named Heather, decide to make a sport of transforming Veronica into one of their own, yet maintain social dominance over her. After utilizing Veronica’s skill at imitation handwriting, the Heathers enjoy unlimited hall passes and excuse letters, and decide to play a cruel trick on a nerdy girl who happens to be Veronica’s best friend. The joke goes terribly wrong, resulting in the breaking up of a party and Veronica’s expulsion from the group by ringleader Heather Chandler. While attempting to make amends, Veronica (with J.D. at her side) accidentally poisons Heather Chandler, having just dismissed J.D.’s suggestion that they do exactly that. A hastily-forged suicide note covers their tracks, but their victim’s ghost remains prominent in Veronica’s psyche. After several comparably dark experiences, Veronica wants nothing more than to return to her previously-normal life, but J.D. has the conflicting goal of essentially murdering the entire student body. Without spoiling the denoument for those seeing the show for the first time, I will simply say that the final few minutes will not only have you on the edge of your seat, but also leave you pondering the concepts of right and wrong in this particular situation. This is by no means meant to suggest that Heathers: The Musical is without lighthearted moments, but even the hilarity is grounded in a macabre reality that never completely releases the audience from a feeling of impending disaster.

The cast is comprised of an outstanding brio of Trustus regulars, familiar faces from other venues, and a few first-timers, all of whom come together to create a believable and cohesive ensemble. Katie Leitner’s Veronica is immediately relatable and sympathetic, falling (as did most of us) somewhere around the middle of the school’s social spectrum. Presenting her as a latter-day Carrie, minus the pig’s blood, would have not only been overdone, but would also have somewhat absolved Veronica for her actions. Leitner displays her strength at creating three-dimensional characters by making Veronica a normal kid caught up in a disturbingly abnormal set of circumstances. As with her recent portrayal of Daisy Fay in Trustus’ The Great Gatsby, Leitner succeeds in being likeable but flawed. As her figurative reverse-mirror image, Michael Hazin provides a level of sync with J.D. that brings to mind a well-choreographed ballroom dance. Hazin offers a darker reflection of Leitner’s image, with J.D. flying (for the most part) under the social radar, as opposed to swimming midstream. Each character has the potential to survive through relative social invisibility, but neither their respective personalities nor the situations that arise allow either to embrace that option. Both Leitner and Hazin are in fine voice, and only a small suspension of disbelief is required, but their clearly trained and experienced vocal work almost cracks the façade of their being teenagers. Both are youthful twentysomethings in real life, and are physically believable as high school students, so this is hardly a negative point, but when they sing, it’s obvious that these are well-taught professionals.

Clearly reveling in every malignant power move and verbal smackdown, Brittany Hammock deliciously chews the scenery as Heather Chandler. Her alpha-of-all-alphas interpretation of the role is spot-on, taking command of the triad in everything from physical presence to the occasional “putting in place” of the other two Heathers. Interestingly, once she becomes a ghost, Hammock asserts her new quasi-immortality through a slightly softened approach to Veronica. Sometimes a whisper is more frightening than a shout, and Hammock utilizes both between her corporeal and ghostly forms. Though not physically connected to the world of the living, Heather Chandler becomes even more of a puppeteer after her death, as we see her leisurely chip away at Veronica’s sanity. Her eponymous cohorts, Heather McNamara (Rachael Mitchum) and Heather Duke (Jazmine Rivera) initially appear to be Heather Chandler clones with slightly less authority, but after her death, they begin to reveal more depth of character. Mitchum, while never coming across as deferential, is somehow the most humane of the three, heaping slightly less attitude and intimidation on her fellow students. It’s a subtle choice, but Mitchum makes it work well in setting up a moment of high drama in the second act. Rivera’s Heather Duke, by contrast, brings out the fangs and claws when Heather Chandler’s death leaves an opening for the group’s leader. Though not mentioned in the script, the performances of all three Heathers suggest a variety of control mechanisms employed pre-mortem by Heather Chandler. Combining Hammock’s dead/undead personae, one could easily see her slightly softening to control Heather McNamara, while displaying a more fierce approach to managing Heather Duke. Kudos to all three for creating a depth and texture that enhances the story while remaining faithful to the playwrights’ dialogue.

As “bad boy” football stars, Kurt and Ram, Paul Smith and Josh Kern are less defined by the script, yet never allow themselves to slide into caricature. At first they appear to be nothing more than bullying jocks, but a set-up midnight encounter with Veronica displays their more vile and predatory natures. Jordan Harper’s ever-put-upon Martha adopts a similar style, introducing herself as a stereotypical nerdy girl, then revealing herself to be much more emotionally textured in a second-act spotlight number that showcases her impressive vocal range. The rest of the cast fills in the remaining students and adults orbiting the main story, and there truly isn’t a weak link in the bunch. A particular standout is Cassidy Spencer, whose work I’ve not seen before, but look forward to seeing in future productions. As an ensemble member, Spencer may have had two or three lines, but most of her acting was done through face and body language, which she presented most memorably. (In reviewing my notes, I referenced her several times as “girl in denim skirt,” each time with a comment on her commitment to the scene, her character, and the reality established by the principal players.)

On the technical side, Heathers: The Musical is mostly successful. Sam Hetler’s set is streamlined, yet totally evocative of a neon-hued, white-tiled 1980s, Amy Brower Lown’s costume design is scrupulously faithful to the period and gives a respectful nod to the film, while maintaining an originality and freshness of vision, and Lighting Designer Frank Kiraly brings his customary skill at creating multiple settings with different combinations of shading and color. Choreographer Grayson Anthony and Musical Director Randy Moore keep the movements (both physical and musical) brisk and sharp, and Stage Manager Brandi Smith nicely corrals all of the elements into a cohesive and smooth production. My only real complaint is that the vocals, even in ensemble numbers, were a bit difficult to hear over the band. In talking with Moore and several cast members following the performance, I found out that there were several mic and sound issues the night I was there, and I feel confident that those small issues have since been ironed out. One other small issue is entirely script-related, as I had the same reaction when reviewing another production of the show earlier this year. The adults are double/triple cast, often with little or no time for costume or wig changes, which can lead to a bit of confusion as to which is whom at any given moment. Matthew DeGuire, Jonathan Monk, and Lisa Baker turn in delightful performances as the multiple grown-ups, but I do wish the script made it easier for them to change back and forth more easily.

Director Dewey Scott-Wiley has, as usual, assembled a winning cast and created a world which is both believable and captivating. I frequently find myself using the word “thoughtful” to describe her work, and Heathers: The Musical is no exception. In her Director’s Notes, Scott-Wiley observes that in today’s more violent society, things like murdering your classmates aren’t as outrageous as they were thirty years ago, and this level of directorial awareness is part of what makes the show work. By immersing the audience in an era-specific set of mores, she succeeds in getting stylized-yet-believable work from her cast while essentially giving the audience permission to laugh at things that would strike too close to home in today’s world.

Heathers: The Musical runs through 27 July, and tickets can be purchased online at Trustus.org, or by calling the Box Office at (803) 254.9732. They’re likely to go quickly, so don’t delay in making your reservations.

-FLT3

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

 

REVIEW: Jon Tuttle's Boy About Ten at Trustus Theatre

A talent for drama is not a talent for writing, but is an ability to articulate human relationships.” 

-Gore Vidal

Boy about ten.jpg

John Tuttle is, by any standard, a man with a talent for writing, but after seeing the world premiere of his play, Boy About Ten, I can affirm that he is also quite adept at articulating human relationships. Indeed, the oft-troubled intertwining of Boy About Ten’s dysfunctional, but (somewhat) connected nuclear family of four, drives the plot of Tuttle’s work, taking a well-written piece to the level of a performance bristling with all the sharp edges relationships can provide. This is not to suggest that the production currently running at Trustus is without laughter or light-hearted moments. It may be a tragicomedy, but Boy About Ten doesn’t hesitate to let the tragic cede the stage to the comedic in a legitimate, story-faithful way. In his program notes, Trustus Artistic Director, Chad Henderson, comments that “this play has undergone a more involved development process than our previous Playwrights Festival winners or commissions,” which no doubt contributed to the feeling of polish and streamlining found in the script. I managed to make notes on some of the truly standout lines, but by no means is my list comprehensive.

 

The play opens with D’Loris (Lonetta Thompson), a kindhearted but world-weary social worker, dealing with what is clearly a family in distress. She is trying to prepare Todd (Tommy Wiggins), the elder son, to go to his mothers’ house for a week. Todd is obviously troubled in multiple ways, but is largely nonverbal, using a set of oversized headphones to drown out the conflict which surrounds him, while hiding his face behind his chin-length bangs.  As usual, Thompson creates a fully-realized, textured character, who has flaws as well as sincerely caring nature. I never tire of seeing Thompson onstage, as she is always completely immersed in and committed to her character and the moment. It would have been the easy way out to depict D’Loris as either a hyper-idealistic Wonder Woman, or as a “honey, I’ve seen it all,” world-weary cynic, but Thompson chose to create someone in-between, and in the process, gave the audience a layered, complex, and realistic performance. Kudos also to Wiggins, a former Trustus Apprentice Company member, making his mainstage debut. Though Todd doesn’t speak much, especially in the early scenes, his body language, movement style, and a sort of self-embrace clearly establish him as a damaged human being, doing his best to avoid his psychic pain. When it is revealed that he is a self-cutter/burner, it is a bit of a shock, but totally believable for the character he has, by that point, made three-dimensional. I suspect we’ll be seeing much more of Wiggins on the Trustus stage in seasons to come, and I look forward to watching his development as an actor.

 

The arrival of Tammy (Jennifer Hill), lightens the mood by, ironically, introducing the least likeable of the five characters. Hill’s Tammy is brash, flashy, loud, and obnoxious, fancying herself far above the rest of the family. She dresses herself in designer clothing, while a couple of mentions are made of the kids’ clothes coming from Goodwill, and she personifies the cliche of the “helicopter parent,” dispensing screechy advice and criticism thinly veiled as “encouragement.” Hill’s comedic timing is absolutely spot-on, and she brought Friday night’s house down with such well-penned verbal spewings as “I was once a Sweet Potato Queen, now I’m a Cyclops!” (It seems that Tammy has a glass eye, which is broken, requiring her to wear an eye patch.) Clearly proud of her somewhat meager accomplishments, she touts having played Yum-Yum in a community college production of The Mikado, along with a few other small successes, in an attempt to impress D’Loris, who is eventually prompted to ask “what the hell is wrong with you people?” The moments of conflict between Tammy and D’Loris establish a curious dynamic. Tammy, in her own twisted, control-freak way, wants the best for her children, while D’Loris tries to help establish exactly that, which eludes the self-centered Tammy.

One gathers fairly quickly that Tammy is at her ex-husband’s house to swap out the younger son, Timmy, (Daniel Rabinovich), who is a straight-A, rule-abiding, do-gooder, complete with Webelos Scout uniform, and practically a stranger to Todd, and the two react somewhat cautiously to each other. (I may have missed an important line or mention of the situation, but it is clear that the brothers have not spent much time together.) Rabinovich demonstrates an actor’s sensitivities quite impressively, especially for a young actor. His character arc may well be the most dramatic in terms of growth and change, and he handles it like a true pro. As with Wiggins, this is a young man to watch.

Once all is settled, Timmy is left alone with his father, Terry. Played by Trustus mainstay, Paul Kaufmann, Terry is an affable, childlike n’ere-do-well, whose love for his sons manifests in an “at my house, there are no rules” dynamic. (When asked by Timmy if they can attend an Imax film or visit the Planetarium, Terry immediately scoffs at the thought of an educational outing, at least in the traditional sense.) Kaufmann, without ever breaking the established reality of the play, or mugging to the audience, brought to life an enchanting man-child, reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Big, with a dash of Bertie Wooster and Falstaff tossed in. To Timmy’s growing amusement, the two of them chug Cheerwine (no sodas allowed at Tammy’s house), fight ludicrous pretend war games against “Vagicilla, Dark Queen of the Nether Regions” (inspired, no doubt, by Tammy), and Timmy frequently receives his father’s military decorations, which may or may not be legit. It was at this point that I began to wonder about the show’s eponymous title. Was Timmy the Boy About Ten, or was his father? Had the parent/child dynamic between them already shifted before the action of the play began? Kaufmann, incidentally, scores one of the biggest laughs in the show while telling Timmy about his days in an ersatz KISS cover band. “You can always tell when chicks dig you. They chew their gum at you…like meat!”

 

A brief in-one scene gives us our sole glimpse of life at Tammy’s house, when the focus is, both literally and figuratively, on Todd, who is passively receiving an unwanted haircut from his mother. A special tip of the hat to Lighting Designer Laura Anthony, for transforming a simple floor lamp into a “where were you on the night of the robbery?” beacon. This is an occasion upon which the lighting truly made the scene for me. We, the audience, are semi-blinded by the intensity of the same light shining into Todd’s eyes, and subject to the same jabber from Tammy. Like a police officer in a bad, made-for-TV crime drama, she prattles on and on about how Todd should want to be “normal” and make friends “like all the other boys,” painting a Leave It To Beaver lifestyle, which will supposedly emerge with a haircut and a suit from Goodwill. Interrogation/indoctrination and “tough love” establish an uneasy coexistence at Tammy’s house, and the two children she raised reflect that. Timmy’s unblinking obedience earns him praise, so he obeys. Todd, whom I assumed to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, is unable to deal with what his senses perceive as blinding light and a barrage of impossible commands. Though short, this scene impacted me. I began to wonder through whose eyes we were seeing any given situation, and then viewing each scene from each character’s angle. Thank you, Jon Tuttle, for this (I’m guessing) three-page scene, which widened the lens through which I saw the rest of the play. Though she was the antagonist of the scene, it allowed a glimpse into Tammy’s desperate desire for a “normal, happy, family,” and humanized her for me.

 

I won’t go into too much detail about the second act, as it is, essentially, a minefield of spoilers, and much of what happens requires the elements of shock and surprise to work. While not without laughs, the second act takes a somewhat darker turn, with a grim family story, involving animal abuse, being revealed. (*While no violence is depicted onstage, a gruesome monologue could be mildly to moderately triggering for some.*) Terry childishly endangers his and Timmy’s lives at the end of act one, the aftermath of which, we see in act two. Todd returns, neatly trimmed and besuited, but still distant, albeit with the occasional smile of hope. Toward the end of the play, we discover that Terry suffered physical wounds far worse than Timmy’s while saving the boy from the dangerous results of his (Terry’s) recklessness. Romantic impossibilities are pondered and argued, D’Loris loses another crumb of her idealism, but hangs on to hope, Timmy takes his first step toward adult cynicism, Tammy reveals some game-changing information, and the family is left as we found them; bruised and battered, but oddly okay. The playwright leaves us with the idea that life will simply go on, and with the insanity and bizarre love in this family, who can even speculate on the eventual outcome?

 

Director Patrick Michael Kelly has taken an artfully written play, refined by much workshopping, and brought to the stage a world of slightly-heightened reality, never losing sight of the connecting themes of family and what it truly means to care for someone.

 

So, who is the Boy About Ten? I have my suspicions that each character, with the exception of D’Loris (who serves as the impartial observer and voice of reason) is that boy. Perhaps that answers my earlier question, and tips us off that the show is seen from D’Loris’ perspective.

Boy About Ten is an engaging, thought-provoking, and most enjoyable play, and a worthy addition to the Tuttle ouvre. Only four performances remain, so get your tickets now!

-- Frank Thompson

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Tickets can be purchased online at Trustus.org , or by calling the Trustus Theatre box office on 803.254.9732
 
Remaining performance dates are:
Wednesday, August 22 – 7:30pm
Thursday, August 23 – 7:30pm
Friday, August 24 – 8:00pm
Saturday, August 25 – 8:00pm
 
Frank Thompson is the theatre editor for Jasper Magazine - contact him at flt31230@yahoo.com
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