REVIEW: Trustus Theatre's The Great Gatsby Like No Other by William Arvay

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“As of January first, it’s the twenties again!” declared Chad Henderson as he introduced Trustus’ latest production, “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s roaring twenties novel, adapted for the stage in 2006 by Simon Levy.

Almost a century after it was written, “Gatsby” deals with America’s continuing modern struggles with wealth and class, war and our treatment of veterans, marital infidelity, white supremacy, business ethics, transparency and the eternally insoluble question of whether money can buy happiness, or, as The Beatles parsed it, can it buy love?

The Great Gatsby is considered by many to be a contender for the title of The Great American Novel, and it has been transformed into several memorable, lavish films over the ensuing decades, most recently by director Baz Luhrmann in 2013 starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and by Francis Ford Coppola in 1974, with Robert Redford in the title role.

To rise to the challenge of the greatness of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby” director Henderson began with the only stage adaptation authorized and granted exclusive rights by the Fitzgerald Estate.

But then he immediately upped the ante by enlisting the talents of trumpeter and composer Mark Rapp as musical director (for a non-musical!) who brought original jazz music with the 5 piece on-stage combo ColaJazz. Henderson also brought aboard a crew of dancers from Columbia City Ballet, choreographed by Stephanie Wilkins, to portray the frenzied flappers at Gatsby’s legendary decadent parties.

Working with technical director Richard Kiraly, Henderson designed a simplified high-tech set of large projection screens to portray orgiastic jazz age parties, great halls filled with marble statuary, the streets of 1920s New York, a hydroplane rocketing over the ocean waves, Gatsby’s swimming pool, and of course the iconic eyes-and-eyeglasses sign advertising the wares of an oculist, standing in for the eyes of a judgmental God. The scenery can change with breathtaking speed and realism. Sound effects blend seamlessly with the constantly shifting locales and even special effects. Costumed members of the ensemble add or subtract furniture pieces in character as the finishing touches to each scene.

Both sides of the stage are framed by open quadrangles lined in incandescent bulbs, suggesting both a theatre marquee and the open covers of a book, out of which the story leaps.

The show starts with a stunning and unexpected spotlight vocal solo by one of the cast members singing a modern hit ballad that has been interpolated into the script. During the course of the show, other cast members step up to the ColaJazz microphone to sing musical commentary upon the drama unfolding on stage. This reviewer will leave no further spoilers as to the singers’ identities or the choice of songs, so as to maximize the surprising spontaneity for the audience.

In every rendition of “Gatsby” my favorite character winds up being Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, and he is ably brought to life by Jared-Rogers Martin. Fitzgerald’s prose flows clearly and gently from his voice, and he brings the wide-eyed earnestness of a young man from Minnesota to the mansions of the corrupt, lustful, and fabulously wealthy Long Island elites.

Jason Stokes brings broad-shouldered good looks and a resonant baritone voice to the title role, and is at once confident and forlorn. His tender infatuation for Daisy Fay Buchanan, played by Katie Leitner with a spoiled sensuality and tortured despair, drives all events in this drama. Richard Edward III is Daisy’s abusive, adulterous lout of a husband, Tom Buchanan, who also abuses his mistress Myrtle Wilson, played expertly and with earthy emotion by Raia Jane Hirsch. Brandon Chinn gives us Myrtle’s cuckolded garage mechanic husband, George Wilson, with a homespun pathos that masks his deeper moral code. The plum role of professional golfer Jordan Baker, Daisy’s long-time sardonic girlfriend, who later becomes Nick’s tempting girlfriend is played with layered subtlety and empowered command by Brittany Hammock. She is Fitzgerald’s acknowledgement of the evolving role of women in the 20th century. Elizabeth Houck, LaTrell Brennan, Josh Kern and Frank Thompson complete the acting ensemble with memorable performances in multiple roles, particularly Thompson’s shadowy criminal version of Meyer Wolfsheim, Kern’s flawless butler, Houck’s gossipy socialite and Brennan’s crystal clear exposition.

What sets this performance apart from others you might see on the local stage is the addition of music and dance to the production. While not a musical, per se, Britanny Hammock and Katie Leitner’s bonus vocal numbers accompanied by Rapp and band are exquisite, haunting audience members into the night. And Stephanie Wilkins’ choreography, set specifically on City Ballet principal dancers Bonnie Boiter-Jolley and Claire Rapp, along with Jordan Hawkins, Marian Morgan, and Katherine Brady, is a step above in terms of the professionalism typically brought to a local stage. Wilkins researched the dance styles of the period and incorporated elements of everything from the Foxtrot to the Black Bottom to the Lindy Hop in her choreography. The dancers blended well with the actors and created a large but well-managed multi-talented ensemble of performers.

(Full disclosure - Boiter-Jolley and Henderson are the daughter and son-in-law of Jasper editor Cindi Boiter.)

This is a “Gatsby” unlike any other you will see anywhere else, and it is here for only a brief time, ending April 27. The Sunday matinee audience honored the performance with a standing ovation. Waste no time reserving your tickets at www.trustus.org or call the box office at (803) 254-9732.

Trustus Theatre is located in Columbia’s Congaree Vista at 520 Lady Street.

 

 

REVIEW: Trustus Theatre's Cost Of Living is An Acting Tour-De-Force With Diverse And Talented Cast

Pictured Ellen Rodillo-Fowler and Bauer Wesetren - photo courtesy of Trustus Theatre

Pictured Ellen Rodillo-Fowler and Bauer Wesetren - photo courtesy of Trustus Theatre

In his pre-show welcoming speech, Trustus Theatre’s Artistic Director, Chad Henderson, spoke briefly about a few of the production requirements listed in the contract for playwright Martnya Majok’s Cost Of Living. According to Henderson, the script and stage directions strongly suggest that actors with disabilities are to be cast in the roles of Jon (Bauer Westeren) and Ani (Kathy LaLima.) Trustus’ professional commitment to inclusivity is well-known, as is their mission to tackle new and innovative work, which made theirs the perfect stage upon which to present this 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. In their bios, both Westeren and LaLima mention life with spina bifida and Multiple Sclerosis, respectively, and each expresses gratitude for the opportunity to perform onstage. Cost Of Living shows that the footlights are meant to shine on both of them, and will hopefully encourage more performers who, for whatever reason, think full-length shows are “not for them” to re-think that notion.

Director Paul Kaufmann delivers his traditional textured and subtly reinforced thematic consistency and “world-creating” to the production, with a solid eye for casting. The script involves two pairs of people, each pair in a unique relationship, with sufficient parallels to the companion story to allow them to come together at the end without seeming forced. There’s no deus ex machina involved, although one is gently teased before being revealed as a false hope

The two stories are straightforward and relatively simple in terms of plot, and are told through alternating scenes with only one or two jumps in time. We first meet Eddie (Eric Bultman), sitting alone in a bar. The first scene is an extended monologue, casting the audience member in the role of the sympathetic listener. In a riveting spotlight moment, Bultman immediately spellbinds the room with a tale of tragedy and hope. His sincerity never falters, whether he’s on the verge of tears or cracking up at one of his many one-liners, including “the shit that happens is not to be understood…that’s in the Bible.” This Biblical reference is explained through the mention of the many lonely nights Eddie has spent on the road as a long-distance truck driver. “Motels give you certain feelings,” Eddie muses, “and that’s why they’re all full of Bibles.” Though he’s often been tempted, Eddie has remained (mostly) faithful to his wife, who we now assume to be deceased. After a slightly cryptic discussion of said wife, Eddie reveals that he no longer consumes alcohol, having overcome a drinking problem, yet offers to buy his unseen companion a drink every time he “gets gloomy.” These moments of abrupt transition between contemplative malaise and forced jocularity give Bultman the chance to display his acting skills as well as an impressive storyteller’s ability to mesmerize the listener. Rich and full of character, his speaking voice does the heavy lifting in the opener, setting a tone that sustains through his work opposite his scene partners. (To avoid bouncing between the two plotlines, I’ll tell the stories in linear fashion.)

Following a mention of how his wife used to text him little notes every day, Eddie reveals that he has been recently receiving new daily texts, which obviously leaves him a bit confused. These mystery messages have drawn him to the bar, where he is awaiting his new correspondent, who fails to show. In a moment both hilarious and heartbreaking, Eddie asks the audience if “a ghost ever stood you up?”

In what we assume to be a flashback sequence, Eddie gets his wife, Ani, settled into an accessible apartment, and we find that their relationship is on the skids. Having shattered her spine in a car crash, Ani is full of rage and resentment toward Eddie, with substantial justification. (As always, I will try and keep spoilers to a minimum.) LaLima’s Ani may be unable to move most of her body, but she has lost none of what we can assume to have been a long-established spitfire personality full of wit and no-nonsense realism. As with Bultman’s bar scene, LaLima’s reaction to the new normal of her life takes her from depression to hilarity to arch sarcasm, always with a metaphorical (and occasionally literal) arched eyebrow. Eddie wishes to comfort her, subsequently offering to act as her caretaker. Though estranged, they are still technically married for insurance purposes, and Eddie reasons that he is the obvious person for the job. She finally consents, and the unspoken between them shouts volumes, allowing plot points to reveal themselves in their own good time. LaLima is both wounded and defiant, subtly driving home the fact that people with disabilities are far from helpless. In one of the show’s most touching scenes, she shares a cigarette with Eddie while he helps her take a bath. The very basics of human touch and the emotions it can evoke are beautifully illustrated with minimal dialogue. Any given moment of the production could have left a few audience members in tears, but this particular one, I suspect, had the entire space softly crying as a single unit. Not to be overly flowery, but in that few minutes, we in the seats experienced a collective emotional response. Joy, grief, and hope are component parts, but I’m not sure there is a single word to define the specific feeling we shared. Kudos to LaLima and Bultman for a story well-told, and for a scene of absolute magic.

In the other story, wealthy and cynical John is introduced as he interviews his potential new caretaker, Jess (Ellen Rodillo-Fowler.) Erudite and sophisticated, John is puzzled as to why a tough-talking, streetwise bartender with a degree from Princeton wants such a physically demanding and time-consuming job. Jess is visibly nervous, and Rodillo-Fowler adds several layers of discomfort which deftly inform the audience that she is a woman with secrets to keep and a desperate need for extra income. John is sardonic and somewhat suspicious, but eventually agrees to give Jess a chance. In a scene involving John’s first bath from Jess, Westeren and Rodillo-Fowler offer an alternate set of circumstances to the Eddie/Ani bathtub scene, playing Jess’ uncertainty with the situation and John’s dry responses for some well-timed comic relief. Each scene establishes a new intimacy between caregiver and caretaker, and begin to inspire introspection as to which character is in the power position at any given point. Rodillo-Fowler is well-known to Trustus audiences as a versatile and talented performer, and first-timer Westeren has no apparent difficulty in matching her dramatic and comedic capacities. Clearly at ease onstage and gifted with a stinging sense of delivery reminiscent of Hugh Laurie’s House, I hope and expect to see much more of Westeren in upcoming seasons at Trustus and elsewhere.

By the story’s end, each pair has suffered ups and downs, moments of closeness, a scene of great danger, and one so full of simultaneous sadness and happy anticipation it drew audible gasps at Saturday night’s performance. (Not going to spoil the surprise, but in a superb second-act twist, a misunderstanding leads to one hell of a reveal.)

Brandon McIver’s scenic design and projections are understated and functional, allowing for smooth transitions and more than one multi-use section of playing space. We know exactly where we are at all times, but the design never gets in the way of the story. Frank Kiraly’s lighting design works quite well alongside the set, sometimes using what appears to be but a single instrument to create a locale. One moment that particularly stands out is Rodillo-Fowler’s anxiety-filled phone call to her mother, who lives in the Philippines. (A special nod to Rodillo-Fowler’s ability to convey every emotion and meaning in Jess’ monologue, spoken entirely in Tagalog.) Kiraly has given her the simplest of top-lit streetlight motifs, and the effect is a keen visual representation of the isolation Jess feels. Sound Designer Patrick Michael Kelly embraces the subtlety of running/dripping water as a connecting concept, and allows it to reinforce the overall piece without ever intruding on the point of focus.

Cost Of Living continues its run Thursday through Saturday, with two performances on Saturday, and the show is selling out quickly. Don’t miss your opportunity to experience this timely, contemplative, laugh riot/heartbreaker of an evening in the Trustus Side Door Theatre.


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

 

 

REVIEW: Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Frank Thompson

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There are good kids, there are bad kids…and then there are the Herdman kids. Between community theatre and school productions, most of us are at least passingly familiar with The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, which has long been a holiday staple for young theatre-goers and their parents. It’s a simple tale about a church Christmas pageant which finds itself with a family of uncontrollable hellions in the cast, the less-than-enthusiastic reception they get from the parish, and the travails of a young boy named Charlie Bradley, who despairs at the invasion of the “horrible Herdman” kids into the one place he has always felt safe from them. Along the way, Charlie and his family deal with all the usual Yuletide hustle and bustle, exacerbated greatly by Charlie’s mother, Grace, being roped into directing the show when the original director suffers a broken leg. (I guess she took the traditional “good luck” wish for theatre people a bit too seriously.) It’s a charming little play, which Columbia Children’s Theatre has taken to a new level of engagement and fun by presenting the relatively-new musical version. Director Jerry Stevenson has assembled a tight, well-rehearsed production that retains the sweet simplicity of the original, while adding a glossy layer of professionalism and energy to what could have all too easily been simply another staging of a holiday chestnut. Having directed the non-musical version myself, I can say without hesitation that the revised musical version is livelier and the characters are more developed and three-dimensional. Stevenson and Musical Director Paul Lindley II have obviously cast thoughtfully, with an eye for acting and an ear for singing, complimented by Lisa Sendler’s energetic and creative choreography. Housed in their new location, (still at Richland Mall, but in a much bigger space downstairs, next door to Barnes & Noble) CCT has more room than before to create an impressive set, complete with hinged flats and moving pieces. Kudos to Scenic Artists Jim Litzinger (who serves double duty as Sound Technician,) Sallie Best, Dawn Cone, Gresham Poole, and Alex Walton, whose design combines a dollhouse’s functionality with a Transformers-style “coolness” factor. The perennial CCT duo of Litzinger and Stevenson both wear multiple hats, as Stevenson, along with Donna Harvey, have assembled a delightful costume plot in which a soupcon of each character is reflected in his or her clothing. The expression “a well-oiled machine” may be cliché, but it describes this production perfectly. From the seasoned pros in the cast to the first-timers, there is never a moment of hesitation or uncertainty, yet the audience is led quite successfully to believe that the events of the show are taking place for the first time, with believable moments of surprise and legitimate responses to the events surrounding them.

Much of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’s success can likely be attributed to CCT’s education program, which is quite clearly providing quality instruction to the next generation of stage performers. To put it simply, these guys (cast and production team) know what they’re doing, and do it well.

In what is pretty much an ensemble piece, it is difficult to single out specific actors and moments as standouts, but there are a few. Many of the roles are double-cast, but I strongly suspect the cast I enjoyed at last Saturday’s 2:00pm performance is indicative of the other cast’s aplomb. In both casts, the role of kindly but frazzled Reverend Hopkins is played by CCT regular, Lee O. Smith, who brings his customary goofy jollity to the role while managing to work in several moments of pastoral sincerity. Jordan Harper is hilariously shrill and shrewish as the injured Helen Armstrong, who manages to assert/insert herself into the proceedings, leaving gentle, non-confrontational Grace to try and direct around Helen’s many suggestions and unwanted “advice.” (I especially enjoyed Stage Manager Mary Miles’uncredited silent role as Helen’s nurse. Having seen Miles as the pretty young ingénue in multiple productions around town, it was a hoot to watch her channel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’s scowling Nurse Ratchet.) Despite her character’s passive demeanor, Grace (Courtney Reasoner) gets the opportunity to show off not only her celebrated singing voice, but also a set of acting chops that one seldom finds in younger actors. Along with Henry Melkomian’s Charlie, Sara Jackson’s Beth, and (again, a double-duty pro) Paul Lindley II’s Bob, Grace helps to create a family unit quite reminiscent of the Parkers in A Christmas Story (minus the leg lamp and turkey-snatching Bumpus hounds.) This wink to the film is quite subtle, as are several other in-joke homages to other shows. (I couldn’t suppress a guffaw at Smith’s most frantic moment, when his voice rose two octaves while he ran and flailed his arms in what had to have been a tribute to Kermit the Frog.) Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is referenced, and when all the kids join together to stop the Herdmans from stealing Charlie’s lunch, the steady echo of “take mine!” conjured images of The Hunger Games “I volunteer!” protectiveness. (BTW, the “This Is A Peanut-Free Zone” sign was a nice touch of verisimilitude which immediately established the grade-school lunchroom.)

As for the Herdman kids, (Sarah Krawczyk, Julian Deleon, Annie Varner, Baker Morrison, Cort Stevenson, and Will Varner) each has a spotlight moment or two, but function mostly as a group. At first, this bunch is more of a gang of scroungy street toughs than a set of siblings, yet by the end of the show they have become part of the church family, and seem destined for at least semi-respectability. This transformation always seemed a bit deus ex machina in the non-musical, but an added scene in this version shows us the Herdman home, which is a place of hunger and squalor, with a deceased father and an oft-absent mother who works multiple jobs to (barely) keep the family afloat. When the kids sing in awe over a charity basket of simple food, the audience gets not only an insight to their unhappy lives, but also an explanation for their bad behaviour. To use one of my favourite portmanteau words, the poor urchins are “hangry” most of the time, and have little adult attention or guidance. The gift of food touches their hearts while filling their tummies, which makes the motivation for their softening more understandable.

The score is eclectic and fun, and no matter what your musical tastes may be, you’ll love at least a couple of the songs, which vary in style throughout. (With numbers ranging from country to rock-n-roll to classic musical theatre, and beyond, there’s something for everyone, much in the style of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.) I particularly enjoyed the Doo-Wop 1950s-esque “Take The Job, Grace” and “The Telephone Call,” which could have easily been composed by Lerner and Loewe. Among the handful of adults in the cast are a trio of Church Ladies, who become a quartet when Harper gets the Christmas spirit and lends her outstanding voice to those of Carol Beis, Jill Peltzman, and Kristin Young for a spirited gospel number. Their harmonies are tight, and there’s clearly not a weak singer amongst them.

Stevenson has included several “total immersion” moments, with actors entering and exiting through the aisles, and at one point handing out mini candy canes to the real-life audience, which serves as the church’s congregation. (Having stopped for a coffee on my way to the show, I was especially pleased to receive a peppermint treat.)

With expanded chair-seating for grown-ups and a larger floor-seating area for the little ones, CCT has successfully grown without losing any of the informal warmth of the previous upstairs venue. Stevenson, as usual, greeted the audience with a warm welcoming speech before the show, which always kicks off CCT performances on a cheerful note and informs the audience of upcoming events. (If you have a school-aged daughter who would like to learn stage combat, a class called “Girls Fight” is being offered in the spring.)

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical may never sit alongside A Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker as an immortal holiday classic, but if you’re looking for a fun, upbeat, joyful show for the whole family, head on down to Richland Mall for a sweet confection of a show put on by a dedicated and skilled group of artists. (Tell ‘em the Herdmans sent you.)

Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER, and can be contacted at FLT31230@Yahoo.com

Meet New Jasper Intern Hallie Hayes and Read her First Review of Foxing's New Album, Nearer My God

Hi! I'm Hallie Hayes, a new editorial intern for The Jasper Project. I am a Junior at The University of South Carolina majoring in Multimedia Journalism, where I hope to start a career in an entertainment editorial position post-graduation. Coming from the small town of Pamplico, South Carolina, I am proud to have found my way to the talented city of Columbia where local art is appreciated. My first true love is poetry, but my passion lies in the music, arts, and entertainment industries. You will be hearing a lot from me along these lines of subjects. I look forward to exploring the talent found in this city with The Jasper Project and sharing that with you!

Hallie Hayes

Hallie Hayes

       

For those who have followed the band Foxing through their first two albums, the wait for the third record has been long and highly anticipated. The indie-rock band from St. Louis, Missouri has a fan base that has hung onto their moody melodies, in-your-thoughts lyrics and most importantly, their experimental bravery. As the third album has released, there is one thing that is known for certain: experiment they did.

 

Nearer My God was released on August 10, 2018, and it is a far fetch from the bands prior records, The Albatross and Dealer. Foxing’s prior two records gave fans the self-proclaimed emo hits that the band would become known for. The unique rasp of lead singer Conor Murphy’s voice mixed with soft indie rock tones delivered track after track. The band keeps the moody undertones that fans love, mixing in their own versions of R&B and electro-rock, giving the album a unique twist. Unafraid to mix two genres into one track, in songs like “Heartbeat,” the band begins with a classic instrumental style and transitions into an electro-rock ballad.

 

While Foxing’s first two albums gave us first tracks that are slowed down; almost acoustic, listeners receive a much different take with this album. Nearer My God gives us a first track, “Grand Paradise,” that unexpectedly jumps right into the newly experimental electro-rock instrumental style. It is a bit of an initial shock, but that’s fine. It shows the diversity of the band and their attempt to open new sounds for their fans, while keeping old habits.

 

With their second track, “Slapstick,” the band gives us a sound that combines upbeat electro instrumental music with a low indie-rock tones. They continue to transition their songs in this manner throughout the album. Moving from upbeat, to ballads, to a mixture of R&B with a touch of post-rock. At the same time, however, fans are still given the moody, intimate lyrics that were first brought by the band in tracks such as “Trapped in Dillard’s,” “Nearer My God” and “Crown Candy.”

 

The one consistency throughout the album is that everything is different. The ability to experiment with multiple different resonances is what makes this album a masterpiece. It is like nothing that has been heard from the indie-rock band.

 

Foxing took chances with this album, and it was a chance that truly worked for them and their sound. This is an album for those seeking something new, different, and truly innovative.

 

 

 

REVIEW: Flight at USC is a Needed Addition to American History and Drama

"We are weightless and unbound by gravity ..."

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Flight, conceived and directed by Steve Pearson and written by Robyn Hunt, is not an easy play. To start with, it is an historical drama exploring a subject about which little history has been written. Its fictional characters, who lived lives split between the theatrical stage and the aviation hangar, are based loosely on actual female aviation pioneers whose lives were similarly fragmented. Add to this a deep thematic attachment to the work of Anton Chekov, and top it with a singular character whose place in time and space is hard to peg, and the result is nothing less than a study in complexity. But bear with the play’s construct, lean into its sometimes surprising interludes into dance and theatrics, stay with the play, and, ultimately, the viewer is delivered a simple and straightforward message, which is this: Though women are remembered too often for the performative work they do, (and there is a performative nature to far too much of the work of women), it is the unlauded milestones women have made—the ones accomplished when they were not being watched, critiqued, or directed—that have produced the greatest resonance, not just for the individual women themselves, but for humanity writ large.

A production of the University of SC Department of Theatre and Dance, Flight is making its second appearance in Columbia. First presented in 2009 by department professors Pearson and Hunt, Flight took wing on a national tour during which its script was tightened and refined by the playwright Hunt. It returns to Columbia this month with some of the original cast who also served as original researchers into the history and culture of women in aviation upon which the play is based.

The story of two French actress/aviators and a similarly ground-breaking woman documentarian, Flight takes the audience into an airline hangar in which the women appear to be constructing a plane in preparation for a trailblazing flight from Paris to Moscow. In fact, over the course of the play, the actors actually (re)assemble a ¾ scale replica of an early monoplane called the Bleriot XI, (previously hand-fashioned by Pearson). Always in motion, Madeleine, played by Gabriela Castillo, and Sophie, played by Kimberly Gaughan, create strong supporting roles for one another as their characters are juxtaposed in disposition and delivery, with Gaughan as intensely restrained—think tempered drama just below the surface of her character’s personality—as Castillo is light and optimistic. These women require no sympathy, despite the unaccommodating culture in which they work and live. They are empowered by their own dignity and dedication to their science. Gaughan and Castillo do their characters ample justice and should be proud of their work.

As the documentarian Alisse, playwright Hunt lends a diligent gentility to her character—so composed, so professional in the face of adversity—and her blending of the kind of maturity one can only admire with her easy manipulation of the stage, floating in and out of the machinations of filmmaking and the cultural machinations of womanhood are deliberate and nuanced.

Eric Bultman plays the part of the oft aloft Jean Luc, a prescient and somewhat ethereal combination of mystic and mechanic who seems to represent not only science but a more benevolent patriarchy than the one in which the women operate, offering a fluid form of interactive narration that has a grounding effect for the audience. Bultman is inordinately well-suited for the authoritative presence his character demands and, particularly in his tango with Hunt, which seems to so beautifully marry science to art, exhibits an easy command of the stage.

In the role of Gerard, a good-natured compatriot of the women from the theatre, Nicolas Stewart faces challenges in displaying a sense of comfort with his character’s physical form, lacking variability from the easy-going persona to which he so frequently returns. Still, there is much to look forward to in this young actor’s future.

The gradual materialization of an almost full-sized airplane on the stage aside, the rest of the set, also created by Pearson, is sparse but strong, exhibiting a captivating design element in its color and texture. Even more engaging is the costuming of the characters, designed by Lisa Martin-Stuart and Kristy Hall, which makes no apparent concessions to convenience or cost in the adherence to authenticity. It is satisfying to see period costuming so thoroughly implemented with no tell-tale signs of the 21st century sneaking out from around the edges.  A light and lovely score accompanies the play’s progress.

It is cliché to say that Flight reminds us of how far we have come yet how far we still need to go, but it must be said. These powerful characters leave us with the optimistic words that we, as women, are weightless and unbound by gravity. But until we transcend, or at a minimum reconfigure, the performance of womanhood as culture demands it, we may never fully get off the ground.

Flight is at the Center for Performance Experiment and runs through April 29th.

Cindi Boiter is the executive director of the Jasper Project and editor of Jasper Magazine.

REVIEW: Columbia Classical Ballet's Don Q - by Susan Lenz

 

Audience Needed

 

I’d been looking forward to Friday’s one-night-only performance of Don Quixote by Columbia Classical Ballet all season, especially after seeing portions of it during last month’s Studio Series preview. Why? Well, I’ve only seen the full ballet once. 

 

It was a long time ago, 2005, but a very memorable experience. The Bolshoi, accompanied by its own orchestra, came to Wolf Trap theater outside Washington, DC. At the time, world renown Alexei Ratmansky was the artistic director. Many consider him the best choreographer working in the world today. He’s a MacArthur fellow and current artist-in-residence with American Ballet Theater in NYC. Ratmansky was trained at the Bolshoi, the company for which Don Quixote was originally choreographed back in 1869 by ballet's greatest classicist Marius Petipa. Most performances today are based on Alexander Gorsky’s derivative 1900 choreography, but that was for the Bolshoi too. So, Don Quixote by the Bolshoi, I can pretty much say that I once saw “the best of the best”.

 

Don Quixote is performed in either three or four acts with at least eight scenes of bravura, emotionally charged character dancing, flashy use of fans and capes, a hot Mediterranean aura, and a pumped-up score by Leon Minkus. The story comes from episodes found in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de a Mancha, a tale of unattainable humanity, chivalric romance, and the impossible dream of justice. In the ballet, The Man of LaMancha is really part of the background. The innkeepers’ flirtatious daughter Kitri and her love, Basilio, are are center stage. The ballet is full of humor and lots of variations for the casts’ female dancers plus one of the most frequently performance full pas de deux. That’s why I know the ballet so well.

 

Over the years, I’ve seen parts of this ballet literally hundreds of times. There are at least six female variations performed in international competitions and the wedding scene is generally on every gala program. Odds are, if you’ve been to Columbia Classical Ballet’s annual LifeChance gala, you’ve seen part of the production as well. Thus, when I say Friday night’s performance was wonderful, trust me!  You should have been there! It was undoubtedly the best ballet performance in Columbia this season.

 

Radenko Pavlovich, Columbia Classical Ballet’s artistic director, should be rightfully proud of his talented company. They were so good that even the few flaws were wonderful. A fan was dropped but the dancer showed no sign of concern. She waited for the perfect moment to pick it up, as if the accident was part of the choreography. Dancing to canned music sometimes causes problems too. There are variations in which the movement begins before the music. With an orchestra, the conductor is to watch the dancer and know precisely when to bring down the baton. With canned music, timing is tricky, not always perfect. A missed cue happened, but I doubt most in the audience knew. The dancer in question was so well rehearsed that he was flawlessly back with the music within seconds. 

 

The highlight of the evening was watching Nao Omoya as Kitri. Not only is she a technically brilliant dancer who makes every move look effortless but she’s a lovely actress. Her energy seemed to increase with the physical demands of the ballet. Her double fouettés in the final coda were world-class. Koyo Yanagishima partnered her beautifully and his boyish charm was evident throughout.

 

Now, I know there were lots of other cultural events going on last night, including another opportunity to see dance. But, it is a shame that every seat in the Koger Center wasn’t filled. This was a performance that deserved a full house and a standing ovation. I left the theater wondering about Don Quixote’s unattainable quest for chivalry and a better, more just world. In Columbia, dance companies have their own unattainable quest:  finding an audience to fill the seats. I was happy to occupy one, and I hope my previews and review for Jasper Project might assist in awareness for local dance and filling seats in the future because occasionally, like last night, Columbia’s audience has a chance to see “the best of the best” right here in the Midlands.

REVIEW: A Bright Room Called Day by Frank Thompson

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was

the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the

epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the

season  of  Light,  it  was  the  season  of  Darkness,  it  was  the 

spring  of  hope,  it  was  the  winter  of  despair,  we  had 

everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were

all  going  direct  to  Heaven,  we  were  all  going  direct  the 

other way—in short, the period was so far like the present

period…”

 

-Charles Dickens

“A Tale Of Two Cities”

 

   After seeing Trustus Theatre’s production of A Bright Room Called Day on opening night, I have made it a point to “talk up” the show as much as possible, but (with sincere regret) I have just now been able to write a review. With all due apologies and a promise not to make a habit of late-posting, I would like to now offer my thoughts on what may be the most riveting show I’ve seen at Trustus since August: Osage County, a couple of seasons ago. There are two remaining performances, Friday and Saturday, 2 and 3 February. In brief, you need to see one (or both) of them.

   While a completely different show in almost every way, A Bright Room Called Day does have a quite literal kinship with its predecessor. August: Osage County was the last show directed at Trustus by its beloved founder, the late Jim Thigpen, and his daughter, Erin Wilson, masterfully directs A Bright Room Called Day. This is the first of Wilson’s work I have seen, and it’s quite clear that both her professional training and the lessons she no doubt learned at the knee of her father have come together to create an insightful, skilled directorial eye and style all her own. Wilson’s attention to the small details of movement and human interaction in a confined space creates a pleasantly cozy feeling in the early scenes, which slowly morphs into a trapped, claustrophobic aura by the end of the performance. (Ironically, as fewer people occupy the room, it seems to grow smaller and more prisonlike.) 

   Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner wrote A Bright Room Called Day in the 1980s, outraged at then-President Reagan for his (Reagan’s) lack of any apparent concern over the AIDS crisis. (Indeed, Reagan is invoked in the modern-day side story that serves as a point of comment on the main story. More on that in a moment.)

 

   Though Reagan was the bete noir when the show was penned, Wilson has, without changing the script, clearly suggested that we examine the politics of 2018 and what’s going on all around us. The story, while interesting, is an oft-told one. A group of what might well have been called “undesirables” share good times together, only to be divided both philosophically and literally by the rise of The Third Reich. The scenes set in early 1932 could easily have been played in a contemporary 2016. Liberalism seems firmly established, there’s toasting and optimism (the show opens on a New Year’s Eve celebration), and the charmingly eccentric group of characters we meet are leading happy, bohemian lives and freely share their common views as well as their disagreements without rancor. There’s an opium-addicted film star, a devout Communist, a homosexual man-about-town, a one-eyed film-maker, and a seemingly meek actress of lesser fame, who owns the apartment and revels in their company.
 

   As the scenes and time progress, we sense a growing feeling of unease as Germany begins to undergo a multitude of bad decisions and changes for the worse. Through dialogue and a positively masterful use of projected titles, we follow the Nazi party’s initial defeats, its growing influence, and President von Hindenburg’s eventual hesitant appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor. From there begins the inevitable unraveling of the social fabric, both large-scale and among the small circle of leftists who inhabit the small apartment.

   Without beating the metaphor to death, or even mentioning his name, the “Trump as Hitler” theme rings loud and clear, speaking not only to the skills of the director and cast, but also to the timelessness of Kushner’s script. The 1930s scenes are intercut with a series of 1980s monologues by a young woman of high-school age (remember the side story?), who writes daily hate-mail letters to President Reagan, and offers a great deal of commentary that is just as applicable today as it was in the days of The Love Boat and the Commodore 64 computer.

   The second act brings to the forefront the horrors of Berlin in the early 1930s. The Reichstag fire, book-burnings, and the official opening of Dachau are mentioned, one of the characters suffers a beating, another essentially chooses to collaborate, still another flees for his safety, and Agnes, the owner of the flat, wonders aloud if she will ever leave.

   There are also other visitors to the apartment, none terribly welcome. A pair of friendly-but-don’t-push-us bureaucrats visit Agnes to “encourage” her to rethink her upcoming performance of a skit involving a “Red Baby”, complete with painted baby doll to emphasize the message. There can be tremendous intimidation in ersatz kindness and calm, and the actors in these roles convey just that.

   The story takes two turns toward surrealism in the characters of Die Alte (which, thank you Google, translates to “the old” or “the ancient”) and Gottfried Swetts, who just happens to be Satan. As the representatives of the otherworldly, each is clearly defined as unique in the reality of the main story. Die Alte is wraithlike, eerie, and seems to move freely about within the darkness. Swetts, by contrast, is dressed spiffily in an expensive-looking suit and topcoat. (A word to the wise: don’t pet the Devil’s dog.) At first the inclusion of these characters seemed out-of-place to me, but upon further reflection, what could be more appropriate than vaguely malevolent absurdity in a play about a historically significant collapse of reason and sanity?

   By now you have probably noticed that I haven’t mentioned any actors by name. That’s because director Wilson and her team have produced an almost-flawless piece of ensemble theatre by a cast of top-tier performers. There is no “standout” because this group contains no weak links. The roles are superbly cast, and the chemistry amongst them is clear. Therefore, I offer my congratulations and unfettered praise to Krista Forster, Jonathan Monk, Jennifer Hill, Becky Hunter, Alex Smith, Mary Miles, Frederic Powers, Elena Martinez-Vidal, Paul Kaufmann, and Avery Bateman. Each of you truly disappeared into your characters.

   Danny Harrington does a commendable job with the set, somehow making a pre-war German flat and a 1980s classroom cohesively exist on the same stage. In what may or may not have been a deliberate choice, one of the paintings on Agnes’ wall is partially obscured by what seems to indicate either fallen plaster or water damage. This image spoke strongly to me, and seemed an apt representation of how none of the characters, from the most innocent to the most evil, ever seemed to grasp the larger issues, or “see the whole picture” if you will.

   With one final apology for being so late in turning in my homework, I strongly encourage anyone who hasn’t yet seen A Bright Room Called Day to catch one of the two remaining performances. You’ll leave thinking.

Reviewer Frank Thompson

Reviewer Frank Thompson