REVIEW - Trustus's Silence! The Musical is a Hilarious Respite from a Weary World

“A little nonsense, now and then, is relished by the wisest men.”

-WillyWonka - Charlie And The Chocolate Factory

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Members of the Silence! cast Sam McWhite, Mike Morales, Kayla Machado, Latrell Brennan, and Abigail McNeely

 When one thinks of The Silence Of The Lambs, words like “hilarious” and “side-splittingly funny” don’t generally come to mind. The classic film, starring Jodie Foster and Sir Anthony Hopkins, sent chills up the spines of movie-goers worldwide, but other than one or two cheeky asides from Hopkins, the movie was a straight-up crime drama/thriller without much comic relief. Such is definitely NOT the case with Trustus Theatre’s season-opener, Silence! The Musical, which serves up an affectionate but irreverent parody of the original.

The plot of the musical follows that of the film fairly closely, but takes advantage of every opportunity to play the situations and characters for laughs. Inside jokes abound, and sassy references to other pop culture staples can be found…if you know where to look. I am going to try and see the show again, as I was so busy laughing and scribbling down notes, I’m sure I missed a few things here and there. Director Jonathan Monk clearly had great fun in using his own celebrated sense of  humour to enhance an already outrageous comedy. Kudos  are also due to Monk for his superb casting, which made the show damn near perfect. (My only caveat is that the script is quite vulgar in spots, which I find delightful, but if sexual slang and twisted characters aren’t your thing, beware.)

As Clarice Starling, Kayla C. Machado is the only character to do a full-out imitation of her film counterpart. In her early-90s bobbed hairdo and makeup, she bears a striking resemblance to Jodie Foster, but the verisimilitude doesn’t stop there. Without ever breaking character, Machado delivers a brilliant rendition of Foster’s distinct dialect, complete with pronouncing her “s” sounds with “sh.” For example, she consistently refers to herself as “Agent Shtarling,” which simply got funnier as the show progressed. I will admit to having feared at first that the convention would get old, much like an SNL skit that runs several minutes too long, but I was wrong. To use another subversive pop culture example, it’s like a running gag on Family Guy that’s funny at first…then it starts to get old…but then it crosses over into hilarious, and you laugh until it’s over. Machado is, ironically, given the number of insinuations about Starling’s (and Foster’s) sexuality, the “straight man,” yet she gets some of the biggest laughs of the evening. One of her finest moments is when she gives a lengthy, incomprehensible, monologue about her detective work, only to be met with a response of “I have no clue what the fu*k you just said” from Robin Gottlieb (more on her in a minute,) and Machado manages to keep a perfectly straight face. (To her credit, Machado and a couple of the other actors did have one “Harvey Korman Experience,” when they all cracked up at some uproariously crude witticism. Rather than being a distraction, this was a positively golden moment when the actors simply couldn’t contain their hilarity, which strengthened the already-solid connection with the audience. Harvey would have been proud. ;-)

Machado and Morales with Robin Gottlieb

Machado and Morales with Robin Gottlieb

As Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Hunter Boyle is at the peak of his game. I attended the show with my friend, local actor Bill Arvay, who declared Boyle’s performance “the best thing I’ve ever seen him do.” While this may have been a bit hyperbolic, given Boyle’s rich resume of memorable characters, I understood the sentiment. Boyle’s Lecter isn’t quite as menacing as Hopkins’, which illustrates the understanding Boyle and Monk had of the character as he fits into this somewhat Bizzaro-World spoof. Boyle is less genius cannibal, and more smartass intellectual, and it works. One of the many tips of the hat to other theatrical works is his prison suit number, 24601. (Les Mis fans, admit it, you were mentally singing it once you noticed the number.) Boyle is still the “Hannibal The Cannibal” from the movie, but he deftly takes the lighter script to heart.  Straight lines are played for laughs, and Boyle had to hold for laughter for at least thirty seconds when Lecter corrected S(h)tarling on the famous “Fava beans and a nice Chianti” line.

Patrick Dodds, whose considerable talent seems to grow and develop with each role he undertakes, manages to create a frightening Buffalo Bill who still fits in with the MAD Magazine atmosphere of zaniness. While making the part  his own, Dodds winks at the character with a few straight-from-the-film bits. Fans of the movie will remember the odd tic of a laugh Buffalo Bill tries to suppress when asking Starling about a missing woman she is seeking. “Was she like, a big, fat, person?” isn’t a funny line per se, but when Dodds adds the brief snicker to his query, the result is a cascade of knowing laughter from the audience. While Dodds is younger and a bit more manic than his screen counterpart, he is a perfect fit (see what I did there?) for the demented lunatic of the stage adaptation.

Dressed in all black, with white floppy ears, the other five actors play “everyone else,” including a flock of lambs, establishing individual characters by adding a jacket, hat, or comparably simple garment. Costume Designer Amy Brower Lown succeeds in maintaining  a specific, cohesive, style without ever compromising the ersatz reality of the script. Lown’s concept is brilliantly supported by LaTrell Brennan, Robin Gottlieb, Abigail McNeely, Samuel McWhite, and Mike Morales, who transition seamlessly from character to character.

As Ardelia, Starling’s roommate and is-she-or-isn’t-she girlfriend, Brennan not only develops a three-dimensional character, but also displays great facility at  delivering a punchline, often remaining perfectly serious during her funniest moments. Gottlieb brings her customary stage presence and overall panache to playing a series of all-male characters. (Another inside joke is set up when Gottlieb appears as Starling’s deceased father, prompting Starling to plead “Papa, can you hear me?” with Yentyl–like wistfulness.) In an uncredited cameo as mental patient Miggs, Gottlieb hilariously re-creates the (in)famous moment when Miggs masturbates and flings the resulting *ahem* substance at Starling, substituting a can of Silly String at a decidedly seminal moment in the show.

Working double duty as Buffalo Bill’s victim, Catherine, and her US Senator mother, McNeely demonstrates an almost chameleon-like ability to morph into completely different appearances. I honestly didn’t realize the roles were done by the same person until well over halfway through.

McWhite’s primary alter-ego of Lecter’s keeper, Dr. Chilton, is less pathetic than the film Chilton, interpreted more as a fast-talking pickup artist than a socially awkward nerd. While we can easily imagine the movie incarnation moping in depression after failing to seduce Starling, McWhite’s Chilton has probably had more successes than failures with women, and displays a delightful “your loss, baby” attitude, likely moving on to his next potential lover.

Morales was the most difficult actor to track, as he, like McNeely, apparently has the ability to shape-shift. I suspect it was he who played the geeky entomologist who also fails to woo Starling with his offer of “cheeseburgers and the amusing house wine.” ( This line is pretty much a throwaway in the movie, but takes on great hilarity when placed in the world of Silence!) Morales also has a most amusing death scene as the ill-fated Officer Pembry. As with the rest of the show, what was frightening and/or grotesque on the silver screen becomes fodder for hilarity onstage.

Sam Hetler’s scenic design is both functional and visually intriguing, creating a unit set that serves as over a dozen locations. Hetler’s work is showing up with growing frequency on Columbia stages, and he never fails to deliver a professional-quality set with a few unexpected flairs. Marc Hurst’s lighting design reinforces Hetler’s fun-house set with dramatic changes in intensity and color, never letting the audience forget that this is a bizarre alternate reality. Particularly impressive were his use of lighting Buffalo Bill’s lair from beneath the playing surface (blending perfectly with Hetler’s dungeon-wall motif,) and a sudden full-stage switch to fuzzy black-and-green to simulate the view from a pair of night-vision goggles. Hurst also helps create locales with projected establishing texts such as “Baltimore Nuthouse” and “Mr. Belvedere, Ohio,” among others.

Machado and Hunter Boyle

Machado and Hunter Boyle

Musical Director Randy Moore lives up to his customary professionalism, making piano, keyboard, and drums sound like a full orchestra. Bravo to Trustus and Moore for utilizing live musicians in a time when far too many theatres are opting for “canned” pre-recorded orchestration. The freshness and obvious communication among the four instrumentalists added another layer of connection to the show, as well as the audience.

Lest there be any doubt, I found Silence! To be a laugh-a-minute roller coaster ride of naughty satire, and left with my sides aching from constant guffawing.  It’s definitely for grown-ups, and never blinks or shies away from that fact, so be prepared. Never before have I seen a dancing vagina ballet, bubble-wrap bulletproof vests, the “Manamana” song used as a diversionary tactic, an imitation of Jodie Foster reciting “she sells seashells by the seashore,” or Hunter Boyle in a fabulous hat and caftan ensemble. (Okay, that last one was a lie.)

Silence! runs through 3 November, and tickets can be purchased online at Trustus.org, or by ringing the box office on (803) 254.9732. Word is spreading, and tickets are likely to be going fast, so reserve your seats soon for this delightfully macabre, oft-profane, “egregiously misrespectful” piece of  theatre that maintains Trustus’ commitment to professional and well-produced art.

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

Patrick Dodds as Buffalo Bill - all photos courtesy of Trustus Theatre

Patrick Dodds as Buffalo Bill - all photos courtesy of Trustus Theatre

Review -- Passing Strange at Trustus

  Passing Strange is one part rock concert specifically tailored for theatre aficionados, and two parts Broadway play that's particularly accessible to artists and musicians.  Incorporating elements from both forms, the show is an autobiographical reminiscence of one young man's search for artistic, ethnic and spiritual identity.  Raising some interesting points and issues, the new production at Trustus Theatre never forgets to keep the audience rocking, even as they may ponder larger questions.

The show was written by Stew (the stage name of musician Mark Stewart, i.e. like "Bono" or "Sting"), who also composed the score with Heidi Rodewald; both worked with original stage director Annie Dorsen (who gets an "in collaboration with" credit) to realize Stew's vision. In addition to Stew the real-life author, there is Stew the narrator, played by himself on Broadway and here by Samuel McWhite, and Stew the Youth, played by Mario McClean. The Narrator alternately sings and tells of his formative years as a teen and young adult, as the Youth brings them to life on stage. Sometimes the Narrator, with the perspective and wisdom of a mature adult, explains what the Youth was really thinking; at other times he makes jokes about his younger self's naiveté, or wistfully shares an insight realized too late.  Just as often, McClean shows the audience the depth and intensity of a sensitive artist's sorrows, hopes, and joys, as McWhite, backed by a capable 5-piece band (led by Musical Director Tom Beard on keyboards) sings Stew's often witty and self-deprecating lyrics. It's an inventive narrative technique, since one is never quite sure whose perspective is the more accurate.

Both McClean and McWhite (and you couldn't find a more fortuitous combination of names to play different aspects of the same character!) have pleasant, rich voices that easily adapt to the show's meandering journey through musical styles, from rockers to ballads, and McClean displays an impressive vocal range.  McClean also captures his character's utter innocence in his mid-teens, then convincingly grows into a gifted, if fairly cocky, young intellectual; meanwhile the world-weary Narrator reminds the audience of the choices he might have made along the way.  Towards the show's end, the suffering on his face is palpable McWhite attempts to relay difficult truths; without saying a word, he conveys both reluctant acceptance and defiant denial of the lessons his older self strives to teach.

Stew the composer is a rock guitarist, but shows an impressive mastery of just about every musical form. Some songs, especially those set in the earlier part of his life, are smooth soul, and recall acts like the 5th Dimension.  Others are bluesy, with McWhite channeling artists like B. B. King. Later numbers reflect anarchist metal and punk influences; quite a few reminded me of Pete Townshend's softer, piano compositions from his solo projects, and from the classic Tommy, songs like "Welcome" and "Sally Simpson."  Stew won a Tony for his book, but not for his score, however, and while all the songs are pleasant enough, there are no "Let the Sun Shine In" anthems to be found.  I must note that often his rhymes, while amusing, border on the obvious, and at times can be almost Dr. Seuss-like in their simplicity. Still, that too can be used for good comedic effect, as when every possible rhyme for "keys" is used to describe how a generous, trusting European offers her apartment to the Youth; he compares that with the way a snobby American might reject him, concluding "bitch, please - she gave me her keys."

Katrina Garvin, as Stew's mother,  makes the most of her moments on stage. Her voice is just as beautiful as it was in last summer's Smokey Joe's Cafe, and here she gets to show off her acting skills, alternately stern, loving, comical, or a combination of all three.  Four performers depict every other character, and one might think there was a hidden ensemble of another dozen singers somewhere.  It's just the four, however, and each has one or more meaty character parts. Terrence Henderson, who doubles as choreographer,  chews the scenery shamelessly and hilariously as an over-the-top performance artist, while Kanika Moore is at first scary and authoritarian as a nihilist/revolutionary/Bohemian, then softens as we see her genuine affection for the Youth.  Her demand that he "have a conversation with the hand!" is just priceless.  Avery Bateman gets lots of laughs as a suburban, church-choir princess, then is sweet, appealing and vulnerable as the Youth's Dutch girlfriend, while Kendrick Marion does fine supporting work as assorted friends and colleagues in each of those settings.

One of the show's many ironies is that in a theatre world, and a local theatre community, where good roles for actors of color are hard to find, all of the performers are African-American, yet they spend much of their time convincingly playing Dutch and Germans. And that is another irony: although the search for meaning in life and art is universal, Stew's journey is different than one might expect.  A baby boomer born in Los Angeles, he might easily have been one of the children answering James Brown with "I'm black and I'm proud!"   Stew, however, is black and ambivalent, verging on (but not quite) self-loathing. Growing up in a traditional, religious, middle-class home, his rebellion is not against 'the man," but against his mother's church, and the societal expectations placed on him by his peers, that as an intellectual, he will naturally gravitate into a Cliff Huxtable-style respectability. Instead, he forms a punk band, then flees first to Amsterdam, then Berlin, where he can find his musical voice.  The supreme irony, however, is that in a culture oblivious to his color, the Youth affects an oppressed background that he hasn't completely experienced, compelling his German peers to concede "his ghetto angst is far superior to ours."  It's quite a courageous move for the author Stew to admit that to some extent he exploited his own heritage for artistic acceptance, and when the Youth asks (paraphrasing from memory here) if anyone really understands what it's like to struggle on the streets of South Central, the Narrator stops the action, wryly observing that no one in the show, characters or performers, really understands that.  The show's title, a quote from Othello that refers to a fascinating, exotic tale, also is a reference to an accusation that just as African-Americans once tried to "pass" for white, for acceptance, so the Youth is passing for ghetto, to be accepted as a performer.

Director Chad Henderson wisely emphasizes the non-theatrical aspects of the play. Bland white drapes suggest the sheltered and clean-cut background of the youth, then open to reveal a Europe represented by vivid abstract paintings, exploding with color and vitality.  (Full disclosure: Jasper - The Word on Columbia Arts  partnered with Trustus on the original art featured in the production, and all works can be bid on via silent auction though the run of the show. Most of the artists as well as Henderson have been featured in the magazine, and we heartily encourage you to support local art and artists this way.  This writer's involvement with all of that, however, has been limited to drinking a beer or two while looking at the paintings, and saying "Wow - cool art.") There is no set, nor is one needed; all action plays out naturally in front of the live band, with the occasional table, chair or hand prop used when necessary.  When characters are on stage but not directly involved in a scene, they behave naturally, listening to music on headphones, writing some private composition, or occasionally sharing a joint with the band. Yet when the time comes for a choral number, often you hear their voices while they remain focused on their personal business, seemingly uninvolved in the action. It's a technique we also saw in the recent Spring Awakening, and the result is quite effective.  Director, Musical Director, and Choreographer reunite with cast members Bateman and Marion from that show, which explored similar dramatic territory: intellect searching for truth in the midst of youth and sexuality (and Germany!) set to contemporary rock music, and performed by an energetic and talented young cast.

At the recent Jasper release party, I joked with a friend about a review he once got where the critic didn't realize how much she enjoyed the show. She detailed how good the performances were, but griped about the play itself.  So skip to the next paragraph if you are interested solely in this specific production's qualities, which are excellent.  I must commend Trustus for yet again taking a risk, being adventurous, and producing not one but two bold musical choices in quick succession, both tackling controversial themes via non-traditional storytelling and contemporary rock music.  (The composers for both Passing Strange and Spring Awakening were respected but non-mainstream rock artists who transitioned to musical theatre, and both shows premiered within months of each other in New York.)  Yet for me, the universality of this show's themes was severely undercut by an unsatisfying conclusion, or lack thereof, a gripe I also made about the generally enjoyable Spring Awakening.  The Youth asserts that "life is a mistake that only art can correct," while the ostensibly wiser Narrator cautions him that "song is a bong" (again, those witty but nursery rhyme-ish lyrics) and that what the youth is looking for in life can only be found in art.  Which are two sides of the same coin, in a way.  The Narrator maintains that love is the highest power of all... but what I longed for was a stronger declaration.  Either an extra scene showing wisdom that led the Youth to mature into the Narrator, or a song channeling The Faces'  "Oo La La" that clarifies how the Youth will have to learn it all on his own, or an admission that even now, the Narrator doesn't have all the answers.  In many ways, I was left with the impression that his former girlfriend, the German nihilist, might still see the author falling prey to the same weakness: mining his own history for immediate effect, in lieu of finding a deeper emotional truth. The ground he covers has been done before, and better, in everything from Tommy and Quadrophenia, to Purple Rain and Pippin. Still, if this was Stew's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I look forward to whatever next project becomes his Ulysses.

That said, the less one has seen the artist's struggle to find his identity depicted on stage before, the more one will marvel at this show's existential themes, acted out live with an accompanying rock band.  As above, Passing Strange is theatre for non-theatre-goers, pop music with an intellectual edge, an art exhibition with music and lyrics. Go for the art,  go for the talented cast, and go because this sort of show, one that addresses timeless yet intangible questions while actually entertaining you, just isn't done often enough in Columbia.  Passing Strange runs through April 14th; call the Trustus box office at 254-9732 for ticket information.

~ August Krickel

8 Questions with Sam McWhite of Trustus Theatre's "Passing Strange"

Jasper first met Sam McWhite when he and the great storyteller and actor Darion McCloud performed an audience engaging couple of songs at the Studios in the Arcade building for the release of the third issue of our magazine. We told him then that we wanted to spend some more time with him soon, and we got that opportunity on Friday night when Jasper attended the opening night of Passing Strange at Trustus Theatre. Sam plays the lead role of Stew in the play, singing, dancing, cavorting, and drawing all kinds of depth and emotion from his brother and sister characters. It's always nice to get to know the person behind the character, especially when that character is as powerful as Stew is.

To that end, let's spend a few moments getting to know Sam McWhite.

 

1. You are acting as the narrator in the Trustus play, Passing Strange. What about the part felt natural to you?

I feel connected with Stew's external conflict with artistic conformity. His expressions seem both primal and sophisticated. I think Stew and I are both ferocious and gentle artists with a sense of when to wax and wane in between. To me, he is more of a griot [a West African storyteller - ed.] than a singer or musician. I try to tap into to that energy when I become him.

~*~

2. What felt unnatural or uncomfortable and how did you overcome it?

I felt uncomfortable with my inability to play guitar. I thought that would be a detriment to the production. I know it seems trivial but that bothered me a lot! But as I did more and more character study, I realized that the guitar does not make the rock star, the rock star makes the rock star. It would have probably got in the way anyway. Knowing me, I probably would have waved it around like a battle-axe not having played a single note! (Chuckles)

~*~

3. Your vocals are impressive. Where did you get your chops?

Thank you so much! Truthfully, I am not really satisfied with my singing ability yet. I grew up singing parts, not solos, in church choirs. That became a bit boring to me. Things really got interesting when I joined the high school band. Being in the band allowed me to listen to an ocean of textures and forms. I learned to listen to how a song develops emotion without words. When I got to college I joined the concert choir as well the wind ensemble. I was a trombone major. Because I was not technically a vocal major, I had to study vocal pedagogy on my own. I would spend nights in the practice rooms listening to vinyls over and over again. Sometimes I got locked in! Then my band director gave me an opportunity to be a lead singer in the college's big band. That's where I got staging techniques from. I sang jazz, blues, soul, country, you name it. For the past year I have been studying blues and American folk music. I incorporate a lot of those elements in my singing.

~*~

4. Where were you born, raised, and where did you go to school?

I was born and raised in Florence, SC. I went to West Florence High School. I started at Claflin University but later transferred to South Carolina State University.

~*~

5. Other than Passing Strange, what is your all-time favorite play?

August: Osage County is my favorite play.

~*~

6. Other than Passing Strange, what has been your favorite role that you have played?

Other than Passing Strange, I loved playing "the Man" in Crowns. I played different manifestations of the spirit Esu/Elegba of the Orisha pantheon. I was brother, a father, a preacher and suitor.

~*~

7. Passing strange boasts an amazing cast of characters – who is your favorite character and why?

My favorite character is Mr. Franklin. There was a person very dear to me who was just like him. He was the director the community youth choir I sang on and played trombone for when I was growing up. Growing up as a latch-key kid in a single parent household, my mother saw to keeping me active in community organizations to keep me out of trouble. My father died before I knew him so the youth choir director was one of my paternal substitutes. He was so dynamic and charismatic. He could play, sing and electrify an audience! There was about two hundred kids from 5 to 18 years old on that choir and man could we sing! He was like a firecracker lit inside of paper box. His name was Kenneth "Jab" Windom. He died a couple of years ago. I miss him a lot. Often, when I am singing, I imagine his voice of correction and laughter so I can harness untapped energy reserves. He was relentless.

~*~

8. If it’s Friday night in Columbia and you aren’t in a play or attending a play, where are you most likely to be?

If it is Friday night...., see here is the thing. I am not very good a predicting where I'll be or what I'll be doing. It might be anything from listening to Dean Koontz audiobook to sitting in on trombone or singing with a band. It just depends on my mood I guess.