"Oklahoma!" opens this weekend at Town Theatre - a preview by August Krickel

Oklahoma

Oklahoma!  - yes, the exclamation point is part of the title - is one of those those shows that everyone knows by heart - or do they?  It's part of our shared cultural heritage, and most of us can probably sing the first line or two of the title song, since it actually begins with the title.  You know, "O-o-o-o-o...klahoma, where the... something something goes something something..." and that's where our memories start to cloud.  It's actually now  the official state song of Oklahoma. A few of us may also connect the familiar song "Oh What a Beautiful Morning," to the musical, and might even know the next line "oh what a beautiful day," and the basic tune. We may even have heard or used the expression about the corn being "as high as an elephant's eye," whether or not we knew its source. Having been a mainstay of high school and community theatre repertoires for decades, Oklahoma! is something we all know backwards and forwards.
Or is it?  I fell into that trap too, realizing only recently that I have never seen the show live, and to my knowledge have only seen the famous film version once, when I was in 5th grade or so.  And in those days I was much more interested in spotting the mom from The Partridge Family  (i.e. Shirley Jones) in the lead, playing opposite the real-life father of one of the girls from Petticoat Junction (i.e. Gordon MacRae, father of Meredith), with Mr. Douglas from Green Acres (Eddie Albert) providing comic relief.  Then I realized that for years, I've been mistakenly thinking one of the big hits from the show, "People Will Say We're in Love," was from South Pacific!  That's not too bad a lapse, though, since the same composers, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, wrote both.  Along with Sound of Music, The King and I, and the tv Cinderella. Wait, the same guys wrote all of those?  Exactly.  Meaning that Oklahoma! may be worth a little more attention than we might naturally be inclined to give something that we think is so familiar already.  Especially since it's opening at Town Theatre in just a few days, featuring some of Columbia's top talent.

(L-R) Zanna Mills, Parker Byun, Sirena Dib, Haley Sprankle, Bryan , Kristy O'Keefe

Would you believe Hugh Jackman - yes, The Wolverine - starred as the lead, heroic Curly the cowboy,  in a London revival in 1998?  Yep, he was doing big musicals long before the film of Les Miserables. When that version transferred to Broadway in 2002, Curly was played by Patrick Wilson.  Yes, the second Nite Owl in Watchmen!  That revival was nominated for many Tony Awards; the Tonys didn't exist yet when the musical first came out in 1943, but it's a frequent nominee and winner whenever it's revived. Harry Groener was even nominated for a Tony as Will (the juvenile love interest in a subplot)  in a 1979 revival, and yes, that's the guy who later played the evil Mayor of Sunnydale on Buffy (well golly!)  so there's that.

Curly sings of the glories of O-K-L...well, you know. — with Joey Florez, Therese Talbot, Helen Hood Porth, Zanna Mills and Bryan R Meyers at Town Theatre

So why is Oklahoma! such a big deal?  The music of Rodgers and Hammerstein is certainly a large part.  This was their first collaboration together, after many hits with other writing partners. How it came into being is fascinating though. The story was originally a non-musical play from 1930 called Green Grow the Lilacs, that wasn't a big hit, even though it was about settlers in Indian Territory only a few decades removed from when that was actually happening, and even though there was serious star power in the cast:  future film star Franchot Tone as Curly,  future country music star Tex Ritter (yes, father of John!) as a cowpoke, and Lee Strasberg (yes, the Method acting teacher, and Hyman Roth in Godfather II !) as a comic peddler.   Producers saw a summer stock production of Lilacs, years later, that incorporated authentic square dancing and folk music from the period/locale, and thought this might make a better musical than straight play.And boy did it.   It ran for more than five years, a  record for Broadway in those days, unbroken for twelve years, and was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize. And this was right in the middle of World War II, when there were plenty of other things on the public's mind, and not a lot of disposable income for entertainment.  The two biggest components that both critics and audiences raved about then, as now, were the way in which the songs and dances became an integral part of the story-telling process - previously musicals often just stopped the action long enough for the leads to break into song, as a chorus entered to back them up - and an unheard-of extended ballet sequence (it's part of a dream that plays out live on stage) choreographed by Agnes DeMille, one of the titans of the dance world in those days.

 People Will Say We're In Love... — with Haley Allison Sprankle and Bryan R Meyers at Town Theatre

So that's the show.  What's special about this production?  I'd say the people - lots of good folks that Jasper loves are in this one.   Frank Thompson directs - he's better known as a prolific comic actor, appearing as everyone from Captain Hook in Peter Pan to Igor in Young Frankenstein,  but he has directed shows like Chicago and A Christmas Story at the Kershaw Fine Arts Center,  Ho Ho Ho at Columbia Children's Theatre, and 9 to 5Stand By Your Man, and South Pacific at Town Theatre.  Plus he brought his Chicago cast to perform at the first even Jasper ever held at the Arcade, back in early 2012.   I had just recently met him, after reviewing him in Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings, and making some wisecrack about how ironic hipsters from the Whig would douse themselves in lighter fluid and look for lighters rather than sit through that show's wholesome Christmas music... and he still thought he got a good review!  Well, he did, after a fashion.  Christy Shealy Mills choreographs, and we interviewed her last spring for this blog; you can still read all about her here. Daniel Gainey is music director, and he's done outstanding work as both actor (in In the Next Room at Trustus and Legally Blonde at Workshop) and as music director for shows like Songs for a New World and Camp Rock the Musical at Workshop. Lori Stepp is costumer,  Danny Harrington is scenic designer, and we profiled  him in the July 2012 issue of Jasper - there's an expanded version of that story here.

(L-R) Sirena Dib, Kathy Hartzog, Haley Sprankle, Rob Sprankle

Then there's the cast. Heroine Laurey is played by Haley Sprankle.  Yep, one of Jasper's new interns, whose work has already appeared on this blog twice in the past week.  The first time I ever saw her on stage was in the ensemble Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; as the curtain opened, she and several other dancers were frozen in place, and her extension went up to Mars.  A few months later I wrote of her in Grease:   "She has one of the stronger voices in the cast (you can always tell where she is in group numbers) and is one of the better dancers as well. Add comic timing to that, and Sprankle is a remarkable triple threat."    Two years after that I wrote this about her performance in Biloxi Blues:  "Winsome Haley Sprankle shines as Daisy, the adorable sort of red-headed Catholic school girl that we’d all go fight Hitler for in a heartbeat."  In other words, I was a fan long before she came aboard the Jasper team.  Bryan Meyers, who was in the cast of Les Miserables (winner of the Free Times Best of Columbia award for best production) plays Curly opposite her.  Will Parker, the second lead, is played by Parker Byun, who's done good work in plenty of shows recently, including playing the lead in Tarzan the Musical last year.

 A yip-eye-oh-eee-aaay... — with Kristy O'Keefe, Bryan R Meyers, Haley Allison Sprankle, Parker Byun, Sirena Dib and Zanna Mills at Town Theatre.

 

 

Will Moreau

But wait, there's more!  Haley's father Rob Sprankle, who joins Jasper as a staff photographer in the issue that comes out in about 48 hours, plays the peddler Ali Hakim.  He's had roles ranging from the King in The King and I  to Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Opposite him (in a triangle with the Will character) as Ado Annie  is Sirena Dib, seen as Fiona in Shrek the Musical this past spring, as the lead in Cinderella at Workshop, and as Martie in Grease when Haley Sprankle was playing Frenchy, and Frank Thompson was Vince Fontaine.   She too will be joining the Jasper staff, plus we featured her in the centerfold of the November 2012 Jasper,  along with some other talented young performers.  That same issue also profiled Will Moreau, who plays Annie's father. Other principal roles include Kathy Hartzog as Aunt Eller,  Kevin Loeper as Jud Fry, and Kristy O’Keefe dancing the ballet role of Dream Laurey.

And that, parders, is why I think Oklahoma! is worth checking out. Good people, good material, and the chance to see it done live.   Oklahoma! opens this Friday, September 19 and runs through October 11;  Thursdays through Saturdays are at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.  Tickets are $15-25 and may be purchased by calling the box office at 799- 2510. For more information, visit www.towntheatre.com.

 ~ August Krickel

 

 

 

 

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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.

One of 2013's best events - Jasper went to the 27th Annual Chili Cook-Off in Five Points

As 2013 draws to a close, we recall the many fun times, the huge number of cultural events, and all the seasonal festivals that we enjoyed in the Midlands this past year.  For my money, one of the very best was the 27th Annual Chili Cook-Off in Five Points last month. So before all the fireworks and champagne tomorrow, join me as I reflect on the day that Jasper went and ate some chili!

5ptCCO13_flyersPhotojournalist and Jasper staffer Thomas Hammond has braved the dangers of Lebanon and Syria in the middle of that region's worst conflict in years.  (You can see photos and excerpts from his account in a recent Free Times cover story, as well as here and here.) My only question was:  could he face down the fiery heat of a habanero pepper?

To that end, Thomas and I ventured into the heart of Five Points, to take part in and to document the judging of the chili as part of the 27th Annual Chili Cook-Off.  Founded as a festive fundraiser by the original owner of Group Therapy and situated in the early years in that popular bar's parking lot, the Chili Cook-Off has grown to be an annual event of the Five Points Association, stretching across several blocks along Greene and Pavillion Streets, and raising thousand of dollars for Camp Kemo and the Hope Center.  Scott "Hollywood" Fleming, the current owner of Group, serves as the Festival Chair, while his wife Christina Fleming coordinates the judges.

Arriving at noon, I took a stroll around the newly expanded festival area. The event now encompasses not  just the small block between Group and the Post Office, but also two blocks of Pavillion Street, which runs perpendicular to Greene, along side the park, where the annual Blues Festival was conveniently running simultaneously. It made for much more elbow room, and an easier flow of foot traffic, especially for the youngest and the oldest of attendees. Live bands, plenty of beer, and lot of college students notwithstanding, the Chili Cook-Off is unquestionably a family-friendly event, and there were plenty of grandparents with their grandchildren, and not just at the "Little Peppers" children's play area. Indeed, baby bjorns and buggies were everywhere, and in particular it was a pleasure to see new mom Lindsey Burns, a Group Therapy bartender/manager, out with her newborn baby daughter Augusta.  OK, OK, daughter Annelee Charlotte ... although I still think Augusta would be an awesome name.

There's a prize for "best set-up," i.e. how a contestant's booth/tent is arranged and decorated, and so some teams go all out.  One group was called "Breaking Wind," and wore  haz-mat suits; someone told me they had some type of blue rock candy on hand too, in a nod to the AMC series Breaking Bad.  Another team's members were dressed in Ninja attire, and were working on a "Sweet Ninja" vegetarian chili. A number of teams also had creative names; one of my favorites was a group of co-workers from Providence Hospital, whose chili was called "Holy Ghost Pepper." One of the guys joked that that they hadn't gotten permission from the sisters, but figured that if necessary, they could get forgiveness later. Budweiser had set up a gigantic, two-story mobile bar, the sort of contraption that looked like a Decepticon just waiting to transform into its true nature.

Thomas had not arrived just yet, so I checked out the VIP area, i.e. the front bar of the nearby Pour House.  Or in Columbia-speak, "where the old Frank's Hot Dogs used to be." I'm significantly less than a very important person, but the designation applied to judges and event sponsors, and Five Points Association Director Amy Beth Franks had graciously hooked us up with access-granting wristbands and event T-shirts, so I wandered in.  A friendly volunteer named Gloria welcomed all who passed in with a festive red pepper necklace and a hug. Gloria and I discussed other events where she has volunteered, often through COR, the Columbia Opportunity Resource, including the Crawfish Festival, the World Beer Festival, and St. Patty's Day in Five Points.  Inside, believe it or not, was more food, most donated by local businesses like Jimmy John's, Insomnia Cookies, Chick-Fil-A, Village Idiot,  Zorba's, and many others.  Budweiser had some Shocktop Pumpkin Wheat Beer available, and naturally I had to sample a pint.  It wasn't half bad, even though I'm normally not impressed by Shocktop, and really have to be in the right mood for a wheat beer.  Unless it's roasted dark into a dunkel weiss, a wheat beer often has an odd tang that people usually try to cut with something fruity,  either in the beer, or by way of a lemon or orange slice floating in it. In actuality, something bland works much better, like watermelon (in Skull Coast's wheat beer) peaches (in R. J. Rocker's "Son of a Peach") and now pumpkin. There wasn't any extra nutmeg or cinnamon or coriander like so many of the seasonal pumpkin microbrews, just a vague sweet richness, which along with the amber color was reminiscent of a Yuengling, even though that's a lager and this was an ale.

It was time to meet up with Thomas. The first band, The Other Brothers, were playing a languid acoustic arrangement of the classic Drivin' 'N' Cryin' song "Straight to Hell"  on a stage with its back to Harden St. and the Five Points Fountain. The weather was just as cooperative as one could wish for in mid-November, a balmy Indian Summer afternoon.  People were already sampling plenty of chili, donating a dollar or more for each cup, and the water bottle table, staffed by Kathryn Daughtry and her friend Felicia, was doing brisk business. (Kathryn is not only a popular and proficient Group Therapy bartender, but also Jasper's downstairs neighbor in the Arcade, where she works at the Over the Top Boutique. Also raking in the dollar bills was Emmy, the jello shot girl inside Group, where we headed for the judging.

Emmy, with jello shots, on Group Therapy's back patio

Christina Fleming  and Gretchen Lambert met us at Group's back bar, where the judging took place.  This is the L-shaped annex off the pool room area, where you can still meet someone "under the moose."  Starting around 1:15, cooks bought in samples of their chilis in uniform styrofoam cups, appearing to contain 16 oz. each. Christina and Gretchen then assigned each a number, and noted if there was anything special, i.e. if it was a vegetarian or extra-hot chili.  A few cooks had extra containers, with garnishes like sour cream or shredded cheese, so that those could be sprinkled on if desired.  I was fascinated by how incredibly organized the process was - after a number of years of experience, Christina has perfected this down to a science.  Tasting was blind - all the judges knew was a number, and if the chili was (intended to be) regular, extra-hot, or veggie.  Therefore, afterwards, when people said "Hey, which did you enjoy?" all I could say was "Umm... number 17, the one that seemed to have some curry in there."

Gretchen Lambert (L) and Christina Fleming prepare the samples of chili to be tasted - Copyright 2013 Thomas Hammond Photography

Since the judges were primarily volunteers from the community, event, and supporters of the bar, the Five Points Association, or all of the above - but not professional chili connoisseurs - all we did was give a score, from zero to five, to each chili in turn.  A judge or two in past years has griped that they were given no guidelines to follow, but honestly, chaos would have ensued if we had taken time to follow some official definition or set of parameters for  48 different chilis.  Instead, we simply graded them based solely on personal taste and preferences, and scores were added up at the end. Therefore, if someone was a hard-core traditionalist and felt that chili should contain only meat with no beans, or only beef with no other meat, they could judge and grade accordingly, but everyone followed their own agenda.  Which, realistically, seems to me the best and fairest way to do it.

You read that correctly, however.  48 different chilis!  There were some 12 or possibly 14 judges. 10 were listed in the festival brochure, but that didn't include me or Thomas, and at least one more didn't get his bio back to them in time.  Ten places were set up around the bar, with scoring sheets, but eventually there were four judges at a nearby booth... but I think two people switched from the bar to the booth.  So let's say 12.  Thomas wanted to stay mobile so that he could take advantage of good photo opportunities as they happened, so he stood next to me, but sampled everything as well, while I actually wrote down my/our score on the tally sheet.  I say "our" since we agreed on just about every chili. Although I think he might have been a little more generous than I - I gave mainly twos and threes, very few fours, and not a single five. But no zeros or ones either.

Copyright 2013 Thomas Hammond Photography

I've been around many photographers over the years, including being photographed by Thomas, but I never really paid attention to how they do it.  Thomas fascinated me - he'd be chatting casually about something, and then suddenly like a puma he’d pounce on specific photo opportunities, sometimes moving quickly and leaning in, shooting 3 or 4 pics in quick succession.    Christina and Gretchen provided an endless supply of plastic spoons.  The rules were simple:  one spoonful of each chili, no double-dipping, mark down your score, and pass the container to the next judge. You discarded your spoon, took another one, and repeated the process.  This made for a completely germ-free experience. (And just to be clear - Scott and Christina are among Five Points' greenest, most environmentally-friendly business owners, so I'm sure those spoons were appropriately destined for recycling.)

(L-R) Judges Katie Atkinson, Will Green, Jason Broome, and William Corbett. Copyright 2013 Thomas Hammond Photography

Among the judges were Katie Atkinson, Jason Broome, Will Green from The Whig, and my friends William Corbett (a Budweiser employee but long time Group regular) and Moffatt Bradford (who competed in the very first Chili Cook-Off in 1986.)  I wasn't there in 1986, as I was still living in Georgia before moving back to Columbia just a few months later, and I'm pretty sure I missed the next few years due to rehearsals.  I know for a fact I was at the 1995 installment, as I have photos, in which I was wearing the same denim jacket I realized I was now wearing 18 years later.

It was a really fast pace.    Those little plastic teaspoons were generally overflowing, so perhaps they were really closer to a tablespoonful.   By that reckoning, with 48 chilis to try, each of us ate anywhere from one (48 teaspoons) to three (48 tablespoons) 16-oz. cups of chili over the course of perhaps 45 minutes. A number of people later in thee day asked if I had heartburn or a stomach ache, as if I were one of those competitive Coney Island hot dog-eaters, but really it wasn't that much chili to consume, and within a few hours I was in fact noshing on some of those subs and sweets in the VIP area.  Thomas was on my left, and the cups of chili to sample started with him, then passed to me, and so on to each judge's right, then around to the back table.  In other words, were there any question about how hot something might be, Thomas was my go-to for "Hey Mikey" moments.  Moffatt arrived last, and so brought up the rear.  Although as you will see below, even those labeled hottest of the hot were really relatively innocuous.   Most 16 ounce cups were still 1/3 to 1/2 full after being sampled by everyone. Christina and Gretchen made sure everyone had a beer or two to help cleanse our palates, courtesy of Group, and I enjoyed a nice cold Yuengling Bock. Bock is defined variously as "a dark, malty, lightly hopped beer," "a strong lager of German origin, " and "a very strong lager traditionally brewed in the fall and aged through the winter for consumption in the spring."  It's one of my favorites, and if you like regular Yuengling, this is similar, just moreso.  More rich dark malt taste, but also more hops.

But how was the chili, you ask?  Nothing was bad although Moffatt grumbled, only half-jokingly,  that all were bad.  What he meant was that none were remarkably tasty, and none were particularly hot or spicy.  A few had some interesting seasoning, but often were undercooked, or were not technically chili at all.  About halfway through the process, several of the judges began to joke that certain entries were really just spaghetti sauce, or stew, but not chili.  Jason observed that so many chefs essentially "forgot what the hell salt is!"  i.e. all they needed was a little more seasoning to enhance decent selections of meat, chili peppers, and beans.  I suspect one could have improved almost every entry with a pinch to a dash of salt, pepper, chili powder and/or curry powder, cumin, garlic, and a dash of the hot sauce of your choice.

Presentation helped - the addition of cheese and sour cream certainly helped a few.  Feta cheese crumbled on top of one entry looked ridiculous but was an interesting taste - I'd love to be able to savor that dish more some day.  A number were either burned, or the chefs may have poured in way too much Liquid Smoke, or as one judge observed, possibly they burned the chili, then poured in Liquid Smoke to disguise it.  Some included interesting veggies beyond the customary peppers, beans and onions.  One featured bacon, although it wasn't crispy crumbled bacon but rather a strip or two floating in with everything else, and therefore it seemed a little  undercooked, and you could see grease floating to the top.  Another clearly incorporated sausage.  A few boasted venison which you couldn't necessarily distinguish, if for example the venison had been ground up along with the beef.

Several inventively used pulled pork, which is perfect for slow cooking with added spices, and soaks up hot sauce perfectly...but by definition, it's long and stringy and hard to eat with a spoon out of a small cup.  One chili improbably sported marshmallows on top, which added nothing taste-wise, and led to more than a few derisive comments.  One (almost certainly Joe Turkaly's chili, because I tried some at his booth later) featured brisket, which was tasty but, like many of the entries we sampled, could have been cooked longer. (A number of folks noted however that Joe got a late start.) That would be one lesson and recommendation I would pass along to all future contestants:  get started just as early as you can, so as to allow for the heat of the peppers and seasonings to be absorbed into the meat, and for the diverse flavors to meld together better.  One memorable chili towards the end, which turned out to be the Festival's overall winner, Chef Gary Uwanawich's Sizzle, included pulled pork, and was topped with a  bacon-wrapped poblano chili.

At some point during the judging, long-time friend and supporter of Jasper Rob Sprankle showed up. Rob, an accomplished local actor as well as photographer, was looking for a way to get access to the roof. While we suspect that more than a few Group patrons have tried to do that over the years, Rob's interest was legit, as he was taking photos for Camp Kemo, one of the beneficiaries of festival proceeds.

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Rob's friend and high school classmate Dan Lowe is a frequent competitor and often wins the People's Choice award, i.e. the most money raised; his wife Fauni is a nurse manager at Children's Hospital, and according to Rob they are "very cool people and really care about the cause. They are such incredible unsung heroes in this community."  In fact, a number of Palmetto Richland staff comprised the cooking team.  Rob has graciously allowed us to use some of his photos here.  Later in the day I ran into his daughter Haley, and I took great delight in introducing her around as "quite possibly Columbia's most gifted teenage babe actress, singer and dancer."  Which is true, but more importantly mortified her, which was the goal.

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Once judging was done, Kristina and Gretchen tallied the results, and our judging duties were complete. Thomas took off to document the spirit of the event via more visuals. (Thomas's photos can be seen at the Jasper Facebook Page.) Jason, Moffatt and I chatted with musician/actor/bartender Stanford Gardner inside the VIP area for a while, after which Moffatt and I took a stroll through the festival.  Local brewers Conquest Brewing had a tent, and I enjoyed a nice, rich, coffee-tasting Medusa Stout.  Other bands played, including Bossman, Atlas Road Crew, and Calvin and Friends. When word came down as to the winners, we congratulated Joe Turkaly, and were happy to meet his mother, who who introduced us to Slivovitz, a Croatian schnapps flavored with plum and juniper. The one question we forgot to ask her was if she had ever met Frank Zappa in the 1970's, which could explain much.  Joe has been competing in the Chili Cook-Off (and often winning) since the early 1990's.

This was the official roster of winners (the numbers refer to booth number) :

• Best Overall Set-Up:  Sweet Ninja Chili (#29)

• Best Vegetarian:  Team #45 (Jake’s on Devine)

• Best Bar/Restaurant Chili:   Riunite and Chili Rocks (#48)

• Best Edible Hot:  Nuclear Meltdown (#23)

• Most Money Raised (“The Silver Spoon Award” Winners) : Porky’s Revenge Pulled Pork Chili from Lowecountry Cookin’ (#37)

• Overall 3rd Place:  Texas Heat Carolina Sweet (#43)

• Overall 2nd Place: Killah’s Redemption (#7)

• Overall 1st Place:  Chef Gary’s Sizzle (#46)

The sun was starting to set as the official festivities slowly wound down around 6 PM. Many attendees took the occasion to head over to the adjacent Blues Festival, where    later slide guitar legend Sonny Landreth performed, followed by an all-star tribute to Frank Smoak.  It had been a delightful afternoon.

Why was this one of the most enjoyable events I attended all year? Simple. It was well-planned, and well-attended. Thousands of people were on hand, but there was never a sense of claustrophobia, and you could always move around freely.  There was plenty of food, not just chili; there were plenty of beverages for every taste. Everything went to a good cause. People of all ages and colors (and colors of hair, including assorted shades of Day-Glo) were in attendance.  Same-sex couples milled about holding hands, as did those of opposite genders.  There were plenty of silver-haired grandparents, but many were wearing denim jackets, and enjoyed a beer or two along with their chili. There were plenty of college students, but they enjoyed the vintage roots, rock, funk, and blues music that was being performed.  There were plenty of little children with parents and older siblings, and this was like another State Fair for them.  As far as I could tell, there was not a single "incident" anywhere, and indeed the whole experience was as safe as a school Maypole dance.  The entire day was simultaneously wholesome, and yet still a fun, throwdown party with beer and chili and rock-and-roll.  And that's about as good as it can get.

~ August Krickel

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Memorable Theatre Moments from 2011 by August Krickel

Theatre for me is sometimes not about the final product, but rather individual moments that move me, make me smile, or stay with me long after the show is done.  While I didn't see every show in the Midlands this past year by a long shot (and sadly didn't see a single one at Chapin or USC) I can say that I saw the majority of the new, regular-season shows at the three main local theatres (i.e. I missed most of the summer shows, holiday shows, children's shows, and revivals/holdovers from the previous year) plus two shows at Columbia Children's Theatre and another in the Trustus Black Box.

Here then were the best, funniest, and most memorable theatre moments for me from 2011:

- Rob Sprankle's mastery of broad physical comedy, as the vision-challenged Smudge in Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings at Town Theatre.  Drifting aimlessly without his glasses, Sprankle first took a daring plunge off the stage and onto the floor, and that stage has got to be 4-5 feet off the ground at least.  Sure it was choreographed, and a big mattress was stashed there in advance, but still a bold move. Hilarity ensued as he later wandered off stage and out into the parking lot, then knocked on an outside door until an audience member let him back in.

- Chris Riddle's deadpan barbs as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Columbia Children's Theatre's production of The Somewhat True Tale of Robin Hood.  When asked by the evil Prince what punishment Robin deserves, Riddle anachronistically replied, "I say we should whip him.  Whip him good."

- the send-ups and spoofs of conventions of musical theatre in The Drowsy Chaperone at Town Theatre.  As Larry Hembree paused or replayed favorite moments from an original cast recording of the titular musical, we saw the performers actually freeze in place, often precariously, or repeat their lines or lyrics from seconds earlier.  None took it better than Chad Forrester, a stoic butler on the receiving end of the classic "spit-take," replayed nearly a dozen times. Other highlights included Kathy Hartzog's entrance while reclining on a descending Murphy bed, martini firmly in hand, the cast's reaction when Hembree realizes he has been playing (and they have been performing)a number from the wrong show entirely, and a ridiculous, extravagant  production number accurately described as part Busby Berkeley, part Jane Goodall.

- the dancing skill, glamour, and va-va-va-voomish poses of Maria Culbertson, Grace

Fanning, Katie Foshee and Addie Taylor as the Angels in Workshop Theatre's Anything Goes.  While all quite young, their chic style and professional performances livened up what could have been some middling musical numbers in an 80+ year-old musical.

- the sassy and quotable one-liners from women of a certain age in The Dixie Swim Club at Workshop. Some of the best came from Barbara Lowrance, like how she gave her ex "the thinnest years of my life," or "Just because I'm vain and frivolous doesn't mean I'm shallow." Drucilla Brookshire got her fair share too, such as "I never knew true happiness until I got married, and then it was too late,” and "I traded in my treadmill for stretch pants and a deep fat fryer!"

- Elizabeth Stepp's moonstruck portrayal of Paul, a little boy with a crush on one Lizzie Patofski, of whom he just can't get enough-ski, in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day at Columbia Children's Theatre. Was Paul from Queens?  Brooklyn?  Down the shore? Who knows, but the accent was adorable.

- the feather boa-clad Jocelyn Brannon, channeling performers like Eartha Kitt as a vamp, a camp and a bit of a scamp, telling off a would-be Don Juan in Smokey Joe's Cafe at Trustus. Her sultry delivery was enjoyable enough, but one appreciated it all the more when comparing it to her harsh, tragic portrayal of the long-suffering title character in Caroline, or Change just a few years back.

- individual moments that transcended the material in Spring Awakening, still running at Trustus Theatre through January 21st. Some of my favorites included:

  • the vocal strength of the female cast in the opening "Mama Who Bore Me" number. Whoever was hitting those high notes, they sent chills down my spine when I saw a preview at Tapp's Art Center during November's First Thursday event, and again when the show opened a month later.
  • Patrick Dodds breaking your heart as a boy losing it step by step, moving from comic relief to tragic victim in little more than an hour on stage.
  • the energy of the male cast in The Bitch of Living, managing to depict repressed vitality and sexuality while constricted by the mores of their society. Their explosive, foot-stomping choreography was a sight to see.
  • Avery Bateman and Adrienne Lee, adding a subtle and empowering touch that one could easily overlook. Each character sings about unspoken abuse from her past. Each is essentially revealing this secret to the audience, not to each other or any other character.  When Bateman moves over to Lee's side as they sing, it's the actresses, not the characters (who are miles apart, referring to events years apart.)  There's plenty happening onstage, but I realized that very subtly, the actresses were holding hands, as if to allow the characters to give each other strength and support that they never actually find within the story. I cannot fully express what a touching and moving moment this is.

- an extended seduction stretched out over two separate scenes in Third Finger, Left Hand at the Trustus Black Box, and featuring Kristin Wood Cobb and  Ellen Rodillo-Fowler. At first you're not sure which girl might be gay, and which might be hitting on the other...then it reverses, and then switches back again, literally climaxing in a nod to "Paradise By The Dashboard Light," by way of the "I'll have what she's having" scene from When Harry Met Sally.

- alternating vignettes of dark drama and dysfunctional comedy, brought to life by a dream cast, in August: Osage County at Trustus:

  • Ellen Rodillo-Fowler, brassy and aggressive (and at one point wearing about a quarter inch of black lace and some stiletto-heel boots) just a few weeks earlier in the show above, here playing soft and demure and stoic.  Add that to her histrionics as the drama teacher in High School Musical a few summers ago, and her carefree and saucy chorus courtesans in recent musicals like Evita and Best Little Whorehouse, and you just want to shout "Somebody give this lady a lead role NOW!"
  • Stann Gwynn's yuppie slime character, perving on a 14-year-old girl, with the excuse: "She told me she was 15!"
  • Dewey Scott-Wiley staging a family dinner table coup, overthrowing her mother's reign in an electric Act 2 curtain-closer.  As well as her third act attempts, in vain, to make her mother (Libby Campbell) have something to eat, culminating in a shrieked "EAT THE FISH, BITCH!"
  • Gerald Floyd slyly sneaking in the best lines in the show, as when he deflates Elena Martinez-Vidal's rant on how she would never take him back if he left her, repeatedly shutting her down with "But I'm not going anywhere." Or when he simultaneously teases/mocks a vegan, and tries to diffuse a tense confrontation by faking illness, then revealing that he simply bit into a big piece of "fear." Or his surprising assertion to his wife that she must show some iota of compassion to their son.

- the perfect timing of frenetic slapstick and chaotic physical comedy in Workshop's Victor/Victoria, including:

  • a big madcap brawl involving 20+ cast members that concluded the first act
  • a necessary "reveal" towards the end where four separate groups of performers are each doing something funny, punctuated by Matthew DeGuire's appearance at a window, back-lit as if by a lightning bolt, looking for all the world like Wile E. Coyote about to take a long fall.
  • Giulia Dalbec as the quintessential blonde bimbo, doing things with her legs I had never thought possible. When she sang how she tried Toronto, but departed molto pronto, then saw Geneva, but it was hardly jungle "feva," you know you're in for a double entendre rhyming tour of the world.

This was for me overall the most entertaining show I saw this past year, indeed in several years, and makes me wish that Henry Mancini and Blake Edwards, so successful in films for decades, had tried Broadway earlier in their careers.

So those were for me the most memorable moments that I saw on Columbia stages in 2011.  What were yours?

In addition to writing for Jasper Magazine - The Word on Columbia Arts, August Krickel is a native Columbian and theatre buff who has performed at Town, Workshop and Chapin Community Theatres, directed at Act One, and narrated the touring Road to Victory shows. He has done everything from fundraising and PR for universities and non-profits to teaching Latin, but probably enjoys acting and writing best. His reviews, articles and interviews have appeared in Briefs Magazine, Free Times, and at OnstageColumbia.com.