"The House of Blue Leaves" at Trustus Theatre - a review by August Krickel

blueleaves2 There's a speech at the beginning of the second act of The House of Blue Leaves, the new show at Trustus Theatre, delivered by Philip Alexander as the son in the story's central family. Speaking directly to the audience, he details a missed opportunity for stardom; as a child, he had the chance to be cast as Huck Finn in a Hollywood film, and so naturally he tried to impress the director by dancing, singing, and cavorting about with a child's typical joyous lack of inhibition. The director assumes he must have some emotional or developmental challenge, and the boy's ambitions, along with his ego, are crushed.

(L-R) Scott Herr, Monica Wyche - Photo by Richard Arthur Király - Photography

That's a fair representation of the themes addressed in the show. Ordinary people aspire to greater things, sometimes with great self-deception, while struggling with the emotional burdens they carry. Rarely do things work out as planned, although sometimes fate seems to give them a break - but only if they are paying attention. Scott Herr takes the lead role of Artie, a mild-mannered New York zoo employee who composes and performs songs, partly as a hobby (which he thinks is his passion) and partly to distract him from his home life. His wife, whom he called "Bananas," suffers from some form of mental illness, which is only getting worse. As Bananas, Monica Wyche drifts in and out of incoherence, sometimes passively crumpling into a ball, sometimes delivering rambling monologues that are occasionally quite poetic, and sometimes giving us glimpses of the well-adjusted wife and mother she must have once been.

(L-R) Kayla CAhill, Sumner Bender - Photo by Richard Arthur Király - Photography

The third principal character is Artie's new mistress Bunny, as loud and brassy a New Yorker as her name implies. Sumner Bender, normally a willowy, chic and sophisticated young actress, somehow manages to play a significantly older and frumpier character through mannerisms and line delivery alone, although costume design by Dianne Wilkins helps. Resembling a younger version of a Far Side lady, Bender dominates the stage whenever she appears, engaging in non-stop chatter. She's annoying, yet ultimately she grows on you, sort of like Snookie. Part of that appeal derives from her (seemingly) genuine desire to help Artie move on to a better place in his life. Unfortunately that involves placing Bananas in an institution, which Artie describes as surrounded by trees full of lovely bluebirds, creating the illusion of the title's blue leaves. All three performers employ every trick in the actor's handbook to create nuanced characters, and their accents, especially those of Bender and Alexander, are just perfect (if a little grating to the Southern ear.)

Sumner Bender and Scott Herr - photo by Jonathan Sharpe

With that inter-personal backdrop, the play begins in 1965 as the Pope is visiting New York. Most of the characters are Irish Catholic, and see this as a potentially life-changing event. Artie's connection is vastly more important, as he not only hopes that he will somehow be blessed/forgiven/vindicated as he prepares to leave his wife, but also that the Pope will somehow convince the country to end the Viet Nam War, in which his recently-drafted son will otherwise soon be involved.  The story I have just described seems quite realistic, but there is a pervasive tone of the Absurd (with a capital A, signifying the dramatic form) as events that technically could happen transpire, but become progressively surreal. Among the visitors to Artie's home in the second act are three nuns (Becky Hunter, Rachel Kuhnle, and Erin Huiett) Artie's childhood friend Billy, now a Hollywood bigshot (Bernie Lee), Billy's girlfriend (Kayla Cahill), and a couple of authority figures (Robert Michalski and Clark Wallace.) Everyone is perfectly cast, and Lee especially looks the part, with simple things like a turtleneck and facial hair instantly defining his character.  Cahill in particular has some incredible moments where she's not saying a word, but her silence and pained expression speak volumes.

"Then, a lot of wild comedy breaks out."  (L-R) Erin Huiett, Robert Michalski, wild comedy - Photo by Richard Arthur Király - Photography

Then a lot of wild comedy breaks out, and there are some good laugh lines, as well as a lot of eloquent ones. Especially poignant is Herr's realization that "I'm too old to be a young talent." If at any time we lose track of a particular character's purpose or motivation, playwright John Guare incorporates a number of revealing and sometimes soul-baring monologues, spoken directly by the characters to the audience. Director Robin Gottlieb is a master of timing, and she has her actors working every possible detail of their roles, making unlikeable characters accessible to the audience.  All of this is significantly enhanced by Heather Hawfield's wide, expansive set design. It's just a realistic interior of a shabby apartment in a big city, but she somehow manages to open the stage up, as if she's taking a dollhouse and unfolding it, allowing us to see every corner. I can think of a half dozen shows or more at Trustus that would have benefited from this type of staging.

Kayla Cahill - photo by Richard Arthur Király Photography

As I have said previously, actors hate it when you review the material, not the performance. After all, they can't rewrite the script. So let me be clear: there is not a single flaw in acting or staging - everything is done quite proficiently and professionally, and I think everyone involved can be proud of their work on this show. That said... gentle reader, I just didn't get it. The play is a famous work from an important author; its original production won both the Obie and the Drama Critics' Circle Awards for Best Play, and subsequent revivals have garnered multiple Tony nominations and wins. Lots of famous people have appeared in versions of this show over the years. It's usually described as a comedy, or a dark comedy. There were certainly funny moments, and funny lines, but to me this was a serious drama that involved some witty characters and some surreal moments where you had to laugh. I'm told the audiences the night before and the afternoon after I saw the show were boisterous and laughing throughout the performance, whereas it was a much quieter house the night I attended.  This may well be. And given the fame and reputation of both the work and its author, I'm inclined to think I just somehow missed something.

(L-R) Clark Wallace, Sumner Bender -  photo by Richard Arthur Király Photography

There is certainly a broader theme of hope vs. reality, and the perils of life's curveballs. At some level I'm sure Artie represents humanity, with Bunny as the voice that tells us "you can do it," even if we can't. Bananas is probably the hurt child within us, the never seen Pope is surely symbolic of the redeeming panacea we all wish for, while the naughty nuns can probably be seen as representations of the random chaos surrounding and affecting us all. But again, let me be clear - while there are some Absurdist moments, this is by and large a straightforward, realistic play with a linear plot.  Possibly my tastes are changing as I get older, because parts of this play reminded me of Pinter's The Caretaker, Fugard's A Lesson from Aloes, even Beckett's Waiting for Godot, all difficult and challenging works which I enjoyed and admired as a young man. But for whatever reason, and no matter how well the cast delivered the author's well-chosen words, it never all came together for me in a way that I could understand, or benefit from some message or realization.  So that probably means it's just me. There are only seven shows remaining, and I encourage anyone who wants to be challenged by thought-provoking drama to go see the show right away.  I want to hear that you loved the comedy and were touched by the pathos, and I want you to tell me what I missed.  And I want you to tell me if the ending is literal or metaphorical. Seriously - we have a "comments" section below that is almost never used. So have at it, and tell me how I completely missed the boat on this one. And either way, enjoy some great actors while sipping on a tasty adult beverage in a cool, intimate performance venue.  The House of Blue Leaves runs through Saturday, May 24; call the box office at 803-254-9732 or visit www.trustus.org for ticket information.

~ August Krickel

Review: In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play

They got chills, they’re multiplying, and they’re losing control, ’cause the power they’re supplying, it’s electrifying. But that’s not Sandy and Danny from the show playing a few blocks away, but rather the characters in Sarah Ruhl’s Tony-nominated play In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play, which opened this past Friday at Trustus Theatre.

While not for all tastes or audiences, this show provides, dare I say, a stimulating and thought-provoking evening of theatrical entertainment, thanks to its talented cast and production staff.

Set in the late Victorian era, a time when scientific advances are outpacing societal ones, In the Next Room focuses on Mrs. Givings (her given name is Catherine, but almost all characters are referred to formally, even among husband and wife) and her husband, a brilliant and dedicated doctor who treats women for “hysteria.” However hard to believe in today’s (relatively) enlightened world, hysteria is basically a catch-all term for “acting crazy, like a woman,” and encompasses moodiness, depression, frustration, argumentativeness, self-doubt, sexual dysfunction, and even standing up for oneself. Dr. Givings nobly attempts to treat women (and the occasional man) via new technology, especially electric vibrators, which he believes relieve pressure, i.e. via orgasm.

This would seem awfully far-fetched, and on the level of burlesque, if it were not historically accurate. As Mrs. Givings, Sumner Bender takes on the complex leading role that she has long deserved. Using a sort of refined, Katharine Hepburn-like delivery, she is both regal and vulnerable, passionate yet repressed. Her rebelliousness manifests as no more than natural doubt as to her maternal abilities, the desire for reciprocal love in her marriage, and occasional “crazy” moments of running outside to make snow angels. In other words, she’s a normal, modern woman who finds herself in the 1880′s.

From the advance press and the set-up above, I assumed her husband would be depicted as a controlling chauvinist. Steve Harley, however, instead portrays Dr. Givings as a clinical and detached man of science, clearly in love with his wife, but a product of both his time and his own nature. Harley’s delivery is quite under-stated and therefore very believable and realistic, especially when the dialogue sometimes becomes very formal and polysyllabic. If that name looks familiar, he was in most of the great Trustus productions in the 90′s, and it’s a treat to see him here.

Among the supporting cast, the standout is Daniel Gainey, who plays a depressed artist who turns to the good doctor for help. “Hysteria is very rare in men,” Harley notes, “but then he is an artist.” Gainey’s bio indicates a background primarily in opera and operatic musical theatre, but he is quite the dramatic (and comedic) performer. He takes the prize for mastery of the flowery, 19th century verbal style, and his general demeanor and appearance really make you think he’s stepped right out of the pages of a Henry James novel.

Alexis Doktor’s costumes, the ultra-realistic and detailed scenic design by Andy Mills, and the detailed (and functioning) props by Nate Herring all contribute to the authentic period feel. I must note that one prop in particular provoked about 20 seconds of increasingly uncontrolled laughter from the audience on opening night (a phenomenon I can’t recall hearing/seeing ever before) and the cast gamely and proficiently held until everything died back down.

Director Ellen Douglas Schlaefer gets kudos for wrangling the script’s fairly intricate dialogue and making it all sound natural, and for creating nice tableaus on stage, when various things are happening in various rooms. In spite of some comic moments relating to the very notion of people using vibrators to solve their psychological problems, some of this play’s themes may be a little over the head of the average theatre-goer, who may just be looking for a good laugh. I was reminded in many ways of some of the social commentary in the work of George Bernard Shaw, and of the lush, period films of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. The first act sometimes drags in between the funny parts, and while Gainey’s entrance in the second act considerably livens up the proceedings, things sometimes get awfully talky; with intermission, the show runs almost two and a half hours, and I would have been happy with about thirty minutes edited out. Still there are some thoughtful and important discussions on the nature of motherhood, marriage, and the inter-connectivity of art, science and humanity. At one point Gainey observes “I have loved enough women to know how to paint. If I had loved fewer I would be an illustrator; if I had loved more, I would be a poet.” You just don’t find more eloquent lines that that, and if someone told me that Oscar Wilde wrote that, I’d believe it.

Ruhl could have turned her play into a more overt feminist statement, or a broader sex comedy, but wisely takes the middle ground, which allows for a more satisfying conclusion. The more one is an enthusiast of history, or literature, or women’s and gender studies, the more one will embrace this production. For me, the attraction and enjoyment was much simpler: Ellen Douglas Schlaefer is back directing and Steve Harley is back acting at Trustus; Sumner Bender and Ellen Rodillo-Fowler (as another patient) get juicy roles on stage; mainstays Elena Martinez-Vidal and Stann Gwynn do their usual excellent work; everything is quite posh and spiffy, from the dialogue to the set itself. Which is more than good enough for me.

In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play runs three more weeks, through Sat. May 26th, including another matinee on Sun. May 20th. Call the box office at (803) 254-9732 for ticket information.

~ August Krickel

Of Ugly Sweaters, Funny Tunes & Smart Fundraising

It's not that Jasper doesn't care for fashion -- he adores a dapper chapeau and a neatly cinched windsor or pratt -- it's just that Jasper doesn't require haute couture of his friends or neighbors and is, in fact, a bit more inclined toward the comfies than the prissies in his own personal trousseau. And, of course, he only wears natural fibers. So the old boy was a bit taken aback Friday last when, in order to attend a night of merry-making at his beloved Trustus Theatre, he was implored to don garb specifically in the category of ugly -- an ugly sweater, to be precise.

It was all part of the plan to raise money for Trustus via their Ugly Sweater Karaoke Night in which lucky patrons paid a mere $10 at the door, filled their cups with $1 and $2 beer, then spent the evening laughing at one another as well as themselves. And while there were many chuckles to be enjoyed over the course of the evening -- both at the sweaters and the singing -- the joke was on the hosts because the impromptu vocals of several of the stage regulars was nothing short of stellar. Special kudos to Kim Harne, Kevin Bush, Terrance Henderson, and Walter Graham -- Jasper even swooned a bit, when the latter took the stage.

Congrats to the young bloods at Trustus for asking for about the only kind of money people can give these days, and giving folks a fun, silly, and easy-going way of giving it.

And now, for a look at those (gasp!) sweaters!

(With thanks to Kristine Hartvigsen for her photography.)



Creating Columbia: An Artistic Experience -- A Guest Blog from Sumner Bender


I have been involved with theatre in Columbia almost all of my life. It is an outlet, which from an early age, has given me more encouragement and excitement than almost any other activity in which I have engaged. After moving away to another country, I was without my theatre for an entire year. That was enough of that I knew. I decided that I would never live my life without the theatre again. One of the main things that I missed while in that foreign land, where I did not speak the native language, was a community. I had other foreigners, like myself, to joke and talk with and on a certain level connect. There is a bond built when you share an interesting situation like living abroad. But there is no community that I have ever felt more alive and involved then that of the theatre community. Upon my arrival back to the States I dove back into my old passion. I was barely in the country a week when I had signed on to do my next theatrical production, Reasons to be Pretty, at Trustus Theatre. And voila, I was back.

As I became more aware of my surroundings, and the reverse culture shock began to wear off I noticed that something had changed in Columbia. Well something had changed, but so had I. My eyes were opened wider than they had been before my departure and noticed this little city, that I had known all my life, opening up for me. All of a sudden there were artists of all variations wherever I went. I found myself traveling in packs of people I had never met before, but who spoke and looked liked the ones I had always known only slightly different.  Somehow this college town that seemed monotonous and trite and something to complain about had become a flourishing venue for the arts and a breeding ground for new experience. Where had they come from, had they been here all along? I don’t know and I don’t care, all I know is that it is here and it is now and it is all happening.

Working as a legal assistant most of my college career I spent plenty of time on Main Street hustling court documents and vying for stamps and certified signatures. Now I stroll down the street dipping in and out of various buildings hoping to see some inspiring work of art, whether an instillation at Anastasia’s or the ever changing scenes at Tapp’s. The first few times at gallery openings around town I noticed a large audience of my peers, people whom I barely recognized as someone who may or may not hangout at that bar I like to go to. In general there just seemed to be a thriving scene of interesting and interested people feeding off this new cultural frenzy taking place in our small southern city. Everywhere you look people are building and creating. It is vibrant and exhilarating to watch and feel.

Having been a part of the creative class of theatre folk that has been pounding on the door to this city for decades, I couldn’t help but want to combine the two. What separates the arts from one another? The genres of course, the performer, the visual artist, the sculptor, the musician…director etc. at the heart of each of these individuals lies the same bit of truth. Creation. Where there once was nothing now there is something, from a blank page, a blank wall or a blank stage each of these creators adds life to the lifeless. So why is it that we keep them all separate, one thing here another there and very little mixed in between. Arts in this climate, political and economical, are something that have to be continuously fought for, but one of the most important things in a community worth the fight.

To begin we must evolve these communities into one. Separately theatre, film and galleries have thriving followers. The would be regulars at the local bars, the ones we can count on to support us no matter what, but how much can we ask of the ones who already give us so much. We need to share with each other. Open our doors to collaboration between the arts. Introduce each other to the enriching beauty this city has to offer. Make it our mission as creators to build a bridge for our supporters to support each other creating a solid base for this city’s artistic class to not only stand on but rely on as well.

This is the 27th season at Trustus Theatre. We have been pushing the creative envelope since the doors opened in 1985. Yet as I stroll down Main Street I will meet many a people who have never set foot in the doors of the theatre, or any theatre in town for that matter. That has to change. Selfishly of course, I would do anything to keep our doors open because I believe in what we do, but at the same time I think we could offer those people a new experience one that they can keep coming back to and counting on. Just as I say that there are plenty of Trustus regulars who have never set foot in a gallery in this town. It would almost never occur to them to do so. It isn’t there style, it isn’t their interest. But isn’t it, really?

Think about it, we are all after the same thing even if we go about it in completely different ways. We are a family and right now we are estranged. That makes for pretty lonely Thanksgiving dinner. Wouldn’t it be much more fun to bring all the quirkiness together, all the eccentricities supporting one another like one big dysfunctional family? I mean it doesn’t get much more dysfunctional than trying to consistently create in a state that thinks the arts should be thrown out with yesterday’s trash. Well one governor’s trash can be one community’s absolute treasure. But it has to be one that we all share. No finder’s keepers, but finder’s givers. Tell us what is working for you and share your successes with everyone else out there trying to keep this cultural class in Columbia on the rise.

We have started off simply, by asking some of these visual artists to hang their work in our theatre. Help us turn our space where we sometimes hang art into The Gallery @ Trustus. So far we have bemet with overwhelming excitement from those involved. Next we are asking the writers who fill notebooks whilst sitting in small coffee shops to write a poem and enter it in our Spring Awakening Poetry Contest. We want you to enhance our audiences with your words, like our actors enhance them from the stage. Our goal is to make Trustus an artistic experience, but it takes you to make that possible. Enter your poetry, hang your art, come see our shows. Tell your friends. In return you can expect them same from us. We will go to your shows and look at, maybe even buy your art. We will listen to you sing and watch you mesmerize us with your dance. But all in all we have to do this together, let’s make Columbia an Artistic Experience.


The Spring Awakening Poetry Contest

 Trustus Theatre, in conjunction with this December’s production of the Tony award-winning Broadway hit musical Spring Awakening and Jasper Magazine, announces The Spring Awakening Poetry Contest. Share your own experiences, your own version of the coming of age experience through poetry. The winning poems will be published and winners will receive tickets to Trustus Theatre’s production of this award-winning play.

Winner of 8 Tony awards, including Best Musical, Spring Awakening celebrates the unforgettable journey from youth to adulthood with power, poignancy, and passion. Although our own experiences are individual, the coming of age theme resonates with all of us.  Whether it was tragic or transformative, the loss of innocence of the power of self-discovery, we all experience coming of age as a kind of awakening.  What did you learn (or not learn), and what can we learn from you?  What does it mean to you to come of age, to awaken, to discover who you are, to become an adult?

The Spring Awakening Poetry Contest will have 3 winners, one each in Adult and High School categories, and a third winner to be chosen as a Fan Favorite on Facebook.  The top 10 finalists will be posted on the Trustus Facebook page and the Fan Favorite selected through Facebook feedback.

Each winner will receive 2 tickets to Spring Awakening at Trustus and will have their poems published in the shows program AS WELL AS being published in the January edition of Jasper Magazine. Besides Fan Favorite the winners will be chosen by Ed Madden, literary editor for Jasper.

Effective IMMEDIATELY the entries are to be submitted online to thegallerytrustus@gmail.com as a Word document ATTACHMENT with the subject POETRY CONTEST. The deadline for entries is November 18 at 5 p.m. On Monday November 21 the Top 10 submissions will be posted on the Trustus Facebook page where voting will open for Fan Favorite. Voting will end at midnight on November 26. The winners will be announced online on Wednesday November 30.

Submission Guidelines: Work can be any form or style of poetry, but the poem should focus on the Spring Awakening coming of age theme.  Poems should not have been previously published in print or online, including personal blogs and internet web pages.  Only one entry per person. If you are entering the High School portion please tell us what school you attend!