REVIEW: Company at Trustus Theatre by Jason Craig

Walter Graham plays Bobby in the Trustus Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company

Walter Graham plays Bobby in the Trustus Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company

Full Disclosure -- I happily went to see Trustus Theatre's production of Company last Thursday night (running through Oct. 26th).  If given the chance (and a sitter) I will always go and see a live theatre event – stories shared together in public continually make my life richer.  So, read on with the knowledge that this post is biased!  If you know Sondheim’s music, or know the performers, then you probably don’t need any more reason to spend a nice evening out at Trustus; however, if you are on the fence about how to spend your precious hours, then I hope I can shed light on some of the ways this production was worth my time.

 

Ear Candy 

First off, it’s Sondheim and for whatever reason, live Sondheim has become a rare treat.  Stephen Sondheim has a talent for honing into the heart of life’s dilemmas and cleverly bringing clarity to the nuances of those dilemmas.  The rich harmonies and catchy melodies are joyful, moving, enlightening and complex.   For these reasons, Sondheim can be a challenge for regional theatres. Bringing together 19 actor-singer-musicians without a Broadway-sized-budget is no easy feat, but the folks at Trustus Theatre put together a tight ensemble of talented performers.

 

Fun Fact: There is a nice cast recording from the 2007 Broadway revival that can be streamed free through Hoopla – Thanks Richland County Public Library!

 

Soul Food 

I appreciate the way Sondheim explores the tragic-comic nature of human experience.  At first glance, this dilemma appears to be embodied in Bobby (played by Walter Graham), who is turning 35 and at a crossroads of whether to pursue marriage or continue on with his seemingly content life as a New York City bachelor.  However, after watching the entire show, I found one song in particular nicely put the rest of the scenes and songs in perspective.  Toward the end of the first act, one of Bobby’s eligible bachelorettes, Marta (played by Hillary Scales-Lewis), beautifully sings what appears to be an ode to life in the City.  In Another Hundred People Sondheim describes life in a “city of strangers,” where it doesn’t matter whether a person is getting off the train or going to a party, they are always one person in a crowd of strangers – always crowded AND, always alone. 

 

Seen in this light, every relationship -- marriage or friendship offers another variation of New Yorkers trying to negotiate life’s decisions in the cauldron of these two fears – the fear of being over-crowded vs. the fear of being lonely.  Each scene, each relationship, and each song offers sometimes amusing and sometimes poignant glimpses into this cauldron. 

 

Side by Side…by Side 

It’s important to note that this show is structured in vignettes. In place of a major story arc with rising action, primary and secondary conflicts, etc., there are variations on a theme.  The main character is less of a protagonist and more of a cruise director and Graham does an excellent job, charismaticly and confidently guiding us through these variations. 

 

One of the unique qualities (and most fun for me personally) was that each marriage relationship was somehow made richer, more complete, when the best friend came to dinner.  The best friend in this case is Bobby, and so we see that not only do these couples appreciate the opportunity to show off the uniquely amusing way they’ve learned to negotiate their fears, they actually need Bobby.  It turns out that marriage is not necessarily a solution to loneliness and crowdedness – in fact, the act of marriage seems to make these fears more complicated, and the couples a bit crazy.  Bobby is not only a witness, he is also the glue that somehow makes the marriages work – one part confidante, one part therapist, one part distraction, one part mirror. Bobby’s presence in these many lives is both appreciated and necessary.

 

Sondheim celebrates this phenomenon in the number Side By Side By Side.  This number was fantastic to watch. Terrance Henderson choreographs this piece in a way that harkens back to blockbuster shows of the ‘30s and ‘40s – canes, imagined top hats, soft-shoe dance breaks.  It felt like a celebration of the “threesome” -- not the kinky kind, but the mutually appreciative kind where the idea of family starts to extend into deep, lasting friendships.  I loved getting to think back to all of the many couples I kept together as a single person in my twenties and early thirties, as well as the ways in which these couples welcomed me into their homes and their families.  And now, after having been married with children for 10 years, I love having the opportunity to appreciate the single friends that extend our family and keep us a little saner.

 

Fun Fact: The Broadway debut took place 4 days after the first Earth Day Celebration. 

 

The Better World We (can) Imagine 

The Show originally opened on Broadway almost 50 years ago and was based on one-act plays by George Furth.    Written about and for New York’s upper-middle-class, as Sondheim has noted, the problems are those of the very demographic most likely to attend a Broadway musical at the time.  This is art as a mirror to life, and that mirror reflected white, ivy-league educated, urban professionals.

Even if the demographic is limited, the issues or problems that arise are universal. Social acceptance and stigma associated with alcohol and food addiction, drug use, racial disparity, homophobia, and conspicuous consumption, are some of the topics that get touched in the midst of singing and dancing.

 

When directing shows written for another place and time, directors make choices about how and when to highlight or alter elements that keep the show fresh and timely – connecting the original themes to modern ears and eyes.  Sondheim, himself has worked with directors over the years to make some of these scenes timely, and most recently he worked to update the 2018 London revival that included a female protagonist as Bobbie, as well as a same sex couple about to embark on their own wedding day.  One can imagine how such changes might offer new insights into our modern lives.

 

Director Dewey Scott-Wiley chose to stick with an earlier variation of the script, and it is easy to see why she might make this choice.  Life in Columbia, South Carolina offers a unique mix of old and new sentiments and although same-sex marriages are openly celebrated in many circles, there is still a very real possibility that one could be confronted with direct or indirect homophobia.  This production gives us an opportunity to witness someone struggle with the fears of homophobia, and then find the courage to overcome those fears, speaking quietly, behind closed doors without the security that what is revealed will be accepted.  This is a well-performed scene and one that will likely spark interesting dialogue.

 

Another choice that seems worth noting is the choice to cast in a way where talent, not race or age, is the primary casting consideration.  When Sondheim references the audience of the 1970s, he might as well be referencing a structural racism embedded in the art form itself.  Many theatres are working to change these dynamics and it is fun to see how well it works to portray these 50-year-old, upper-middle-class stories with the kind of diversity this cast brings.  It is also fun to see how these choices might bring further insights or springboard conversations around other ways our community can work together to address structural inequality.

 

A final update, and one that works very well with the theme is the constant presence of cell phones in the lives of the characters.  If Marta’s ode to life in New York sets up a primary theme -- forever crowded and always alone – then the choice to highlight the central role that cell phones play in communication becomes an important way to see how these devices might help us deal with the loneliness and simultaneously make us feel more crowded.

 

Shout Outs

 This show is designed for a talented ensemble and it was a joy to see so many people working to generously support each other toward this end.   This is important to note because Sondheim did write some very catchy, well known songs – show stoppers – and it would be easy to focus too much on some of the individual talents that performed these numbers while ignoring the equally talented individuals who offered their voices in more supporting roles.

 

Thursday night’s crowd was particularly pleased and primed to enjoy those numbers originally performed by the late Elaine Stritch.  The character Joanne has attracted some big name musical stars over the years and Sheldon Paschal did a great job performing the The Little Things You Do Together and The Ladies Who Lunch. I didn’t know this latter song in advance, but there was a fairly good sized audience who did, and who seemed to treat it as a personal anthem. 

 

Another song that stands out for its surprising cleverness is Getting Married Today. Brittany Hammock, who portrays Amy, sang this lightning-paced song with clarity and precision while embodying the particular kind of craziness a person might feel on their wedding day.

 

Final Pitch

 There are many ways to enhance your experience seeing this show before it closes Oct. 26th, and here are a few recommendations.  Before the show, use Richland Library’s audio streaming services to stream the cast recording so that you can mouth along with the words.  If you are single, go on a date with your favorite couple; if you are coupled, bring your favorite single friend.   If you like to be a part of community dialogue, plan to see the show before attending an “On The Table” (Oct. 24th) event hosted by Central Carolina Community Foundation -- the discussions will only benefit from theatre-infused insights.  

 

 

Jason Craig

(he, him, his)

Sustainable Midlands

Columbia Resilience

Raconteurs Storytelling Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

 

REVIEW: A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time -- Trustus' New Production Proves That What Makes Us Different Only Makes Us Stronger by Christina Xan

“Chandler’s portrayal of Christopher is remarkable, his embodiment of the character and commitment to his role is evident, and his passion leaks through every word he speaks.”

Last Friday night, Trustus Theatre opened The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, their interpretation of the 2015 Tony Award winning Broadway play.

 

The original play itself is an interpretation of Mark Haddon’s 2003 book, making this performance, essentially, an interpretation of an interpretation – and a good one at that.

 

For those who don’t know, the play surrounds a 15-year-old boy named Christopher, who although not directly stated, is implied to have Asperger’s, a syndrome that previously fell on the autism spectrum and now is under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The play opens on Christopher cradling the body of his neighbor, Mrs. Shears’, murdered dog. While Mrs. Shears blames Christopher for the death of her dog and calls the police on him, Christopher asserts that he did not kill the dog and that he is telling the truth because he “cannot tell a lie.”

 

Once being released from police custody, Christopher makes it his mission to find the dog, Wellington’s, true killer, despite strict orders from his father not to. The majority of the play, then, follows the path Christopher travels to discover who killed Wellington and the fallout from what else he discovers along the way (all while trying to ace maths on the way to being an astronaut! Phew!). Any mention of the play’s further details might spoil it for those who have not seen it, so I will end my little summary here, but know that this is a play full of important ideas like understanding what family really means, why people make the decisions they do, and how we become the people we are today.

 

The play is told in two acts and is told in mostly present time with some flashbacks. However, the play is technically told through stories Christopher is writing about the experiences we are seeing. His teacher, Siobhan (played by the wonderful Libby Hawkins), has encouraged Christopher to write his experience in a book and to even turn it into a play. The play we see, thus, is not only what is happening to Christopher as he and Siobhan read from his book, but in the end, is the play itself, even breaking the 4th wall at times. All these transitions are done fairly smoothly, but one wants to make sure to pay close attention to not miss important details! 

 

I, myself, have never seen the original Broadway play. Though I knew the plot generally beforehand, I knew nothing about the set up or staging of the original play and thus cannot speak to how faithfully this was interpreted. However, I genuinely enjoyed the staging of this play and felt as if all creative decisions made by the director, Chad Henderson, and the cast brought the story to life in such a way that I couldn’t imagine it any differently. (Full disclosure - Chad Henderson is the son-in-law of the executive director of the Jasper Project.)

 

The set design and costuming were minimal, which fit the tone of the play. The lighting, which paralleled the design in its simplicity yet also was complex enough to fit the rapidly changing emotions presented in every scene, was done by the fabulous Baxter Engle, who came back from NYC just to do this design. The show itself follows a plot with twists and turns and a plethora of emotions, so the clean set literally and figuratively set the stage for these emotions to be felt without becoming muddled with distractions.

 

The stage, which appeared completely flat, was actually comprised in areas of many “boxes” that could be pulled out of the stage at ease and slipped back in just as quickly. These boxes, though always appearing the same, easily became briefcases, suitcases, chairs, rooms, trains and more with just a switch of the imagination. The fluency with which the characters switched scenes and the poise with which they held themselves filled in any missing spots.

 

A screen behind the characters acted as a literal window into Christopher’s mind and would show us answers to mathematical problems, letters he read, and more, both giving us insight into the plot of the play and into the mind of an autistic individual. Additionally, characters dressed in black, who acted as voices in some scenes, also acted as elements of Christopher’s mind, being choreographed to move around him and appear, say, threatening or even to become stage props themselves, picking up and propelling Christopher into “space” in one scene.

 

While the staging was innovative and the production sound, genuinely, the acting is the highlight of this play. Every character fills their role stunningly well. I wish I could speak to the passion and truth of every player in this wonderful team. Scott Pattison perfectly embodies the caring but lost dad whose few bad decisions snowball out of control. Raia Jane Hirsch’s flashback scenes in the first act make us feel the tension of having to decide between the elusive freedom the world offers and the simultaneously bright but restrictive path of motherhood. (Full disclosure - Hirsch is a member of the board of directors for the Jasper Project.)

 

However, the star of the show truly is Beck-Ryan Chandler. Chandler, who plays Christopher, is the first autistic person to perform the role in the entire Southeast, and he delivers a truly remarkable performance. His embodiment of the character and commitment to his role is evident throughout, and his passion leaks through every word he speaks. As you sit in the audience, you feel scared when Christopher feels scared, confused when he is confused, and happy when he is happy.

 

It fills me with pride to see Trustus has taken the strides to find an autistic actor to fill an autistic role. Too often in our society, whether on a small stage or the big screen, roles are given to actors based on ease of finding them or based on money and rarely on the representation they call for. We live in a society where roles are whitewashed, where cisgender individuals take roles of the LGBTQ+ community and where talented actors and actresses like Christopher are overlooked for people who have no idea what having autism is like. This coupled with the fact that mental illness and syndromes like autism are terribly stigmatized and awfully misunderstood, makes this exploration of a teenager with autism navigating his everyday life so, so important. I am so thrilled to say this has happened in our city and should be seen for this if nothing else.

 

In the end, this show will put you on a roller coaster of emotions. I laughed, fumed, gasped, and cried – definitely cried. The people in this show are doing such important work in our community and in our world, and fortunately, it’s also just a damn good show – clever, interesting, well-done, and endlessly important.

 

Christopher asks us in the last line of the play, “Does that mean I can do anything?” to which there is no response. This lack of a response, this empty space is for us to decide, yes, that not only can he do anything, but this is the possibility for all of us. We are all capable of facing our fears and using our unique strengths to launch ourselves (pet rat included or not) into the stars.

 

Catch The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time until February 9th at Trustus Theatre: https://trustus.org/event/the-curious-incident-of-the-dog-in-the-night-time/

 

Follow The Jasper Project on Facebook and on Instagram @the_jasper_project

for more updates on local artists and events!

 

 

theatre review.jpg

REVIEW: Misery is Optional at Trustus Theatre

"Rest assured there isn’t a weak or underdeveloped character or a wasted moment." - Frank Thompson

Director and Co-Writer Dewey Scott-Wiley

Director and Co-Writer Dewey Scott-Wiley

Words were spoken, hearts were broken, but now I hope you see it was the whiskey talking, not me.”  - Jerry Lee Lewis

--

Though The Killer’s famous ditty about the perils of drinking was considered humorous in the 1950s (and still has a great tune), it’s no longer acceptable to laugh at alcohol/drug induced misbehavior. That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised at how much I laughed during Misery Is Optional, running tonight through Sunday at Trustus Theatre. Developed through the Midlands Tech-based Harbison Theatre Incubator Project, Misery Is Optional is a collection of vignettes and short monologues, taken verbatim from interviews with those suffering from chemical addiction. Their stories are often tragic, but Director Dewey Scott-Wiley wisely includes moments of hilarity throughout the show, without ever abandoning the seriousness of the disease or its impact on its victims and those in their personal orbits. Scott-Wiley’s staging is simple and minimalist, placing the focus squarely on the people and their experiences. While often colorful and eccentric, the many characters embodied by the cast of four are never lampooned or made into cartoonish figures. Scott-Wiley adds a glaze-thin layer of heightened reality at just the right moments, and at other times deals with stark reality head-on. The result is an immersive, emotionally engaging, and accurate-yet-respectful look at the world from the addict’s perspective. Character changes are done seamlessly onstage, with a simple change of hats or donning a pair of glasses, etc.
 

Co-Writer, Christine Hellman

Co-Writer, Christine Hellman

The cast is uniformly strong, and features Scott-Wiley, alongside Christine Hellman, Arischa Conner Frierson, and Jason Stokes. This ensemble of four well-known Columbia actors flows seamlessly from one character to the next. Many are recurring, while others we glimpse only once. From well-heeled society alcoholics to homeless heroin addicts, the entire socio-economic spectrum is explored, subtly driving home the point that addiction cuts across all cultural lines. There is no linear plot, per se, but there is an unmistakable thematic arc, taking us from the darker, hopeless stories through the process of intervention and treatment, and ending on a bright note of hope.

Each of the four performers presents a chameleon-like ability to seamlessly navigate the waters of dialect, social class, education level, and a spectrum of emotions, which will likely leave each theatre-goer with his or her favorite characters, so I won’t prejudice anyone by sharing mine. Rest assured there isn’t a weak or underdeveloped character or a wasted moment. Scott-Wiley utilizes a circular-pattern style of blocking throughout the show, which creates a perpetually kinetic atmosphere. Whether physically or emotionally, there is always motion, and the overall pacing and fluidity of the show are clearly well-rehearsed and perfected.

Misery Is Optional is a non-season special event, being hosted by Trustus, so there are only three more chances to catch it. I would urge anyone who enjoys good theatre to experience this production. This isn’t a “Hey kids, don’t do drugs” Afterschool Special, nor does it speak only to those in recovery. It has a message, but it’s also a fascinating, funny, and enjoyable show.

A Conversation with Heathcliff

Jasper noticed a new face on the performance art scene and thought we should remember our manners and give him a proper welcome and introduction. Here's a peek at a conversation we just had with this lovely older gentleman, Heathcliff.

jonathan Monk as Heathcliff.jpg

Hi Heathcliff! We understand that you’re having a show this weekend at Trustus Theatre and we thought you might want to introduce yourself to the Jasper readers. Would that be OK?

 

JASPER: Can you tell us how old you are, where you’re from, and how you ended up in Columbia, SC?

HEATHCLIFF: Absolutely. Now, Cindi, most of my pictures make me seem younger, but I am actually 78 years old and have the wig to prove it. I don’t want to give away the particulars of my birth as my show will elaborate on that topic via shadow puppetry. I try to explain everything with shadow puppetry if I can help it - you should see the first draft of my answers to these questions! As for how I ended up in Columbia, my accompanist Wanda has spoken of its smiling faces and beautiful places for quite some time. I had to come see what all the fuss is about!

 

JASPER:  What line of work are you in and what do you like most about it?

HEATHCLIFF:  I suppose it could be considered more of a square and less of a line, but I am in the storytelling and empathy business. I think we are all young at heart, and I love giving people permission to exist in a ridiculous world for a time. Right now more than ever, we need to be reminded of our unique capacity to enjoy each other’s company.

 

JASPER:  As a gentleman of advanced age you must have some great memories. Will you share a little something special with our readers?

HEATHCLIFF: Yes, there was this one time…(falls asleep)

 

JASPER:  You also must have met lots of famous people – do you know Diane Keaton perchance? What do you think about her?

HEATHCLIFF: Oh my goodness, yes. Diane is an old friend - we share a mutual love of clown paintings, and she is directly responsible for my leaving the business for a decade. I don’t hold it against her because she was trying to help - I will go into more direct detail in my show. Diane, if you’re reading this, no hard feelings.

 

JASPER:  Now, who is Wanda and why is she horning in on your show?

HEATHCLIFF: I actually play the horn in the show! Wanda is the lovable green squeak toy with a smile in the picture. She is my accompanist and soul mate, and she can play any instrument in the world. She is shy so she normally pre-records everything for our shows. She also was rumored to have had a secret affair with Tom Jones in the 70s, but I’ll let her tell you about that.

 

JASPER:  On a scale of 1 – 17, with 1 being boring and 17 being whoopee, how naughty will your show be this weekend?

HEATHCLIFF: I leave the math to my team of accountants, but I will say that I believe humor is the best medicine. If you weaponize humor or constantly go for the low hanging fruit, it turns into something that can actually make you unhealthy. But since I’m old, I have to occasionally reach for the apple that’s in front of me. Now I’m hungry. The short answer is, there are no swear words or “blue humor” as we used to call it. I’d rate it PG: Probably Good.

 

JASPER:  I think we may have some mutual acquaintances. Have you ever heard of a fellow who goes by the name of Jonathan Monk and a lady named Krista Forster? What do you know about these folks?

HEATHCLIFF: Oh my goodness! Jonathan Monk is my manager, though we never seem to be in the same place at the same time. Krista Forster looks shockingly similar to my distant relative Sheila Murphy of Janitorial Services. These two, I’m told, have been working to devise a new comedic piece in town - I can’t wait to see it.

 

JASPER: Anything else you’d like to tell our readers about your upcoming show?

HEATHCLIFF/JONATHAN MONK: Hi Cindi, this is Jonathan Monk. Heathcliff had to make an emergency trip to Zesto’s. Regarding the show, I’d like to say this is a fantastic opportunity for me to continue to explore a character I created in 2003 during my time as a Musical Theatre major at Carnegie Mellon. While Heathcliff the character is known for his embellishments regarding the truth, I have been fortunate enough to perform as Heathcliff in Pittsburgh at The Andy Warhol Museum, in NYC at Emerging Artists Theatre, Don’t Tell Mama and 54 Below, and in Martha’s Vineyard at the Grange Hall Theatre. What’s exciting to me about this new show is this is the first time Heathcliff has incorporated other human characters. Wanda (his accompanist) is a puppet, so it’s refreshing to be able to discover and interact with other characters in Heathcliff’s world: a mix of Mister Rogers, Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Andy Kaufman, with a dash of Red Skelton. I am thankful and excited to be able to premiere a new Heathcliff show here in my hometown!

 

Shows are this Friday at 11:15pm, Saturday at 3pm, and Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are $10 / each and will be sold at the door.
http://trustus.org/event/healthcliff/

 

Cindi Boiter is the executive director of the Jasper Project and a big fan of new performing arts. Reach her at Cindi@JasperColumbia.com

Black AF - And Why Columbia Deserves More New Performance Art And Why That Art Must Come from Everyone

"Nothing is more empowering than being able to speak your truth."

Preach Jacobs - photo by Brodiemedia

Preach Jacobs - photo by Brodiemedia

One of the most telling signs of a healthy arts scene in a city is when performing artists and arts organizations no longer rely solely on art being fed to them from the outside or from a canon of tried and true productions, and instead look within themselves and to their own resources to create new art and make unique contributions to culture. While we rarely see performances of new works from our more heavily funded Columbia arts organizations who seem to be more incentivized to put butts in the seats of the expensive Koger Center than to challenge, stimulate, and yes, grow their audiences, it is the smaller venues and organizations – think Tapp’s Arts Center, Harbison Theatre’s Performance Incubator, and local bars – where we most often find new work being created and performed.

Thankfully, Trustus Theatre has a history of encouraging new performing arts via their Playwright’s Festival and sketch comedy programs and, this season, they brought it all home by presenting Constance, a new musical theatre production composed by Daniel Machado, Adam Corbett, and the Restoration and written by Chad Henderson, all Columbia-based artists. Interestingly enough, Constance sold out and came close to selling out on most nights, challenging the assumption that Columbia audiences are content with the same plays, compositions, and ballets their parents grew tired of decades ago.

Now, just one week later Trustus Theatre offers a brand new one-night-only original production written and performed by Preach Jacobs and directed by Kari LebbyBlack AF.

Black AF originated with Preach Jacobs who, at 34 is a well-known member of Columbia’s local music scene. “My grandmother passed away last year and it took a toll on me,” Jacobs says. “She came from a generation where black folks … didn’t talk about their lives. …But there would be moments where she would begin to talk and those were jewels for me. Her stories were fascinating and she gave me the understanding that everyone deserves to tell their story. Black AF is paying homage to my granny and ancestors because by telling my story I’m telling their story. Unapologetically black. Black as fuck.”

Jacobs enlisted the help of Columbia native actor/director/musician Bakari Lebby, 27, whose previous directing work has included Sunset Baby at Trustus and Some Girls at Workshop, who readily jumped on board. “We had talked about how we wanted to work together on something,” Lebby says, "and Preach said he had this theatre project that he wanted to do that was ‘part TED talk, part stand up, and part hip hop show.’ That sounded dope and innovative to me, and then he told me he wanted to call it Black as Fuck, which also appealed to my interests. Then we started really fleshing out the concept and content together.”

Both artists identify the importance of supporting black art and new art from traditionally marginalized voices as being integral to their decisions to go forward with this project. “Life is scary. Shit is cray. We need art to be able to confront, explore, and express our feelings as well as the feelings of others,” Lebby says. “Any art that is not ‘mainstream’ is critically important right now. Representation. Real representation.”

“It’s important as black people in America to not just have our stories told, but in fact we be in charge of telling our stories,” Jacobs adds. “It may seem like a simple idea but it’s something that we’ve been deprived of. In this current climate it trickles to other groups of people that haven’t had their voices heard. The Me Too movement is proof of generations of women that are finally being heard and able to tell their stories. Nothing is more empowering than being able to speak your truth.”

With any new performance art audiences may be uncertain of what to expect and whether to invest in the not-inexpensive ticket price of $25, but Lebby has faith in the format and the gifts Jacobs brings to the stage. “This show is not the average ‘one-man show.’ Yes, Preach will be occupying the stage the whole time, but there is a DJ. There will be some visual supplements. There will be musical performances and dialogues. The show is funny. The show is darkly funny. It’s also a bummer at times. It is also ceaselessly honest and in Preach Jacobs’s voice. He carries the show confidently.”

Jacobs emphasizes the role of “raw honesty” in the performance, adding that the show is “a love letter to my ancestors.”

With the title of the show being Black AF (Black as Fuck) it’s reasonable to question the audiences to whom the show might most appeal, so we asked both gentlemen why both black people and white people should show up, or even if both black people and white people should show up.

According to Lebby, black people should attend “because supporting black art is lit. It’ll be a good time. The more that we show up, the more opportunities that we can get and give to more artists of color. … These are conversations we need to be having with each other.”

Jacobs says, “Hopefully the black folks that show up can relate to what I’m saying. Having a shared experience is a type of emotional bonding that I look for with my art. Watching Black Panther resonated so much because of that fact. Black folks could relate.”

As for white folks, Jacobs hopes they will “come with an open mind and really hear what I believe are things that could help with dialogue about race relations. There’s not much in the show about black and whites dealing with each other per se, as much as it is embracing and loving myself. To learn that being black isn’t a curse is life changing but also a process. Some of these things might surprise them.”

Lebby adds, “I think checking out perspectives that you haven’t seen on stage before is cool. If you’re a white theatre person, yes, come see this show. It’s important. You don’t get to ‘support black art and then not actually support it.”

 

Black AF is a one-night-only event coming up Sunday, May 27th at 8 pm at Trustus Theatre and tickets are available at http://trustus.org/event/black-af/.
A free accompanying art show will also be held May 26th at Frame of Mind (142 State St., West Columbia, SC).
***
- Cindi Boiter is the executive director of The Jasper Project and the founder and editor of Jasper Magazine

REVIEW: Longing and Losing in Trustus's Fun Home by Alexis Stratton

 

 

There must be some other chances /

There’s a moment I’m forgetting /

Where you tell me you see me

                        --Alison, “Telephone Wire,” Fun Home

 

It can seem a little screwball at first—this Pennsylvania family with a perfect house and a demanding father, kids running around to clean up crayons and polish the silver, and a song-and-dance number performed by three kids on (and in and under) a casket. In fact, within the first few scenes of Trustus Theatre’s production of Fun Home, I wasn’t quite sure what kind of story I was stepping into.

Yet, as the production progressed, it became clear that these seemingly lighthearted and sometimes darkly humorous moments were just the first steps down a complex, moving narrative of memory, loss, and coming of age.

Based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, the Tony-award-winning musical of the same name was adapted and brought to the stage in collaboration with Bechdel in 2009 by Lisa Kron, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Jeanine Tesori, who composed the music. It opened on Broadway in 2015 and was hailed for being the first Broadway musical to feature a lesbian protagonist.

Having read Bechdel’s Fun Home (as well as her popular comic series Dykes to Watch Out For and her second graphic memoir Are You My Mother?), I was aware of both the story of Fun Home as well as the politics surrounding it in South Carolina. In 2014, the South Carolina legislature cut funding for the College of Charleston when the university assigned Fun Home as part of its first-year reading project. The controversy resulted in months of protests, ongoing budget cuts, and rising fears regarding academic freedom among university programs and departments. (The university only had funding restored with the promise to use the money to teach the Constitution and other founding documents.)

Yet, while the controversy surrounding the memoir Fun Home grew out of its a portrayal of a young lesbian coming of age in the 1970s and 80s, at the heart of the story of both the book and the musical is Alison’s struggle to understand her father, Bruce, a controlling, emotionally abusive, closeted man who died suddenly when Alison was 19 (as we learn during the first few minutes of the production).

Directed by Chad Henderson, Trustus’s production of Fun Home brings us on a nonlinear journey through memory with adult Alison, played with a masterful mix of humor, pensiveness, and compassion by Robin Gottlieb. Accompanied by the skillful performances of an on-stage band (directed by Randy Moore) and with her narrative tied together by beautifully choreographed transitions, Gottlieb’s Alison invites us into the intimate spaces of her past where we meet her family, her first lesbian love interest, and, most notably, Alison’s younger selves, including the college-aged Medium Alison and the elementary-school-aged Small Alison.

In Trustus’s production, the most delightful moments of the story come through the performances of Small Alison and Medium Alison. As Small Alison, Clare Kerwin brims with a budding sense of self in songs like “Ring of Keys,” which details Alison’s initial recognition of an “old-school butch” in a small-town diner (“It's probably conceited to say / But I think we're alike in a certain way … / Do you feel my heart saying ‘hi’?”). And in practically every scene she appears in, Cassidy Spencer portrays Medium Alison with a comedic and endearing awkwardness, abounding with the nerves and excitement that come with coming of age—and coming out. (Most notable is Spencer’s performance of the song “Changing My Major,” in which she opines about her newfound love Joan, played with gentle confidence by LaTrell Brennan).

Yet, these lighthearted moments only serve to underscore the losses that adult Alison faces, as they are contrasted with escalating conflicts between the mercurial Bruce (deftly portrayed by Paul Kaufmann) and his wife Helen (whose strength and fragility are impressively captured by Marybeth Gorman), as well as his three kids (Clare Kerwin along with Christopher Hionis and Henry Melkomian, who play Small Alison’s brothers). Indeed, the most poignant moment of the musical emerges from this: While adult Alison acts as a sort of narrator of her own experiences throughout the production, she finally enters into one memory that leads to a heartbreaking duet (“Telephone Wire”) between Gottlieb and Kaufmann—and perhaps the most powerful performance of the whole production.

There is a sense of loss that pervades the musical—of a father’s image, of a family’s relationships. In the end, we sit with Alison in her joy and her grief, and we long with her, too—just one more moment, just one more—

It’s in that tension between memory and reality, adulthood and youth, longing and losing, that the impact of Fun Home is truly felt.

 

Alexis Stratton is a writer, editor, and film maker from Columbia, SC whose work has been published in a range of publications; they love bowties, social justice, and good art, and they think heaven must be a kind of library.

 

What: Fun Home

Where: Trustus Theatre, 520 Lady St. (www.trustus.org)

When: Thurs.-Sun. through April 14

Cost: $30 Thursdays and Sundays; $35 Fridays and Saturdays; $25 students (group discounts available)

Contact: 803-254-9732

REVIEW: Fun Home - The Queer Musical I Did Not Know I Needed

by Connie Mandeville

fun home banner.jpg

When I told my partner she was lucky enough to be my date to a musical that had a lesbian lead character, she was less than thrilled. “A musical?” she asked. Her skepticism was understandable. Accurately portraying the complexity of coming out on a stage through song and dance seems farfetched. But as we watched Alison Bechdel’s story unfold, we both saw parts of our own stories, our own struggles, but also our own victories in her experiences.

 

Fun Home depicts the story of a queer woman who grew up in a rural Pennsylvania town during the 1960s and 1970s. It also follows her journey of discovering her sexual orientation as a college student at Oberlin College in the 1980s. Based on the tragicomic memoir, the story is told by an adult Alison (performed by Robin Gottlieb) while she forces herself through both the happy and painful memories of growing up and coming out of the closet ultimately to write her book. These memories are portrayed through flashbacks with a small Alison (performed by Clare Kerwin) and a college-aged Alison (performed by Cassidy Spencer), and as revealed in the opening scene, these flashbacks are clouded by her father’s (performed by Paul Kaufmann) suicide. Although Alison is the center of the narrative, Fun Home is also the story of her parent’s tumultuous relationship because of her father’s bisexuality and extramarital affairs which led to his death. Her father’s experience living in the closet is touching, but her mother (performed by Marybeth Gorman) triumphs as the tragic hero of the tale because of the sacrifices she made not only to maintain appearances of a perfect nuclear family, but also to keep her family together.

 

What is so refreshing about the coming out story and queer experience in Fun Home is the balance of both the blissful excitement and the excruciating heartbreak of discovering one’s sexual orientation. It is not an exploitation of queer pain, but instead a celebration of self discovery which is emphasized by solos wonderfully performed by Kerwin and Spencer. From Alison’s nervousness and excitement to attend her first Gay Straight Alliance meeting, to her feelings of validation at her very first sighting of a butch woman, this is more than just the story of her parent’s rejection when she first came out to them. Alison even has a moment of complete ecstasy the first time she sleeps with another woman, a moment so groundbreaking she burst out into song about changing her major to sleeping with her new girlfriend. Although the pains and pleasures of coming out are weaved together to create an accurate representation, Alison’s masculine gender expression is often conflated with sexual orientation which is inaccurate and borderline transphobic. A young girl rejecting dresses and other gender stereotypes does not always lead to a lesbian identity, and there are many transmen who date men.

 

In the wake of the MeToo Movement, there were aspects of Fun Home that were problematic. Her father is a teacher who had sex with male students who were underage, which is not only statutory rape, but it also perpetuates the stereotype of gay men preying on young men. Her father’s predatory behavior is never fully addressed except for one flippant comment from her mother. It is understandable to overlook her father’s abuse of power not only because of the circumstances of his death, but also because it is difficult to fairly judge someone you love so much. Additionally, Fun Home, both the tragicomic and musical, was created before the MeToo Movement went viral so the writers most possibly lacked the social context to delve into Alison’s father’s crimes.

 

Despite the tragedies of Alison’s life, Fun Home is not a depressing tale. Instead, the brutally honest depiction of coming out as a lesbian in a rural area was the queer musical I did not know I needed. 

REVIEW: A Bright Room Called Day by Frank Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

period…”

 

-Charles Dickens

“A Tale Of Two Cities”

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewer Frank Thompson

Reviewer Frank Thompson

REVIEW: Trustus's A Christmas Miracle at The Richland Fashion Mall by Frank Thompson

“ Why is this important? Well, the only way to create unique theatrical experiences here in Columbia is to create them ourselves. Otherwise, everything being produced in town would be a restaging of an already produced work.” - -Trustus Artistic Director, Chad Henderson

 

 

While I will admit to loving the classics, even I sometimes want something newer than A Charlie Brown Christmas or Miracle On 34th Street. Let’s face it, there hasn’t been a new addition to the Holiday canon since A Christmas Story got adapted for the stage, and even then, we could all recite along with Ralphie and The Old Man. Well, leave it to the good folks at Trustus to present a fresh, hilarious, and oft-heartwarming story with A Christmas Miracle at The Richland Fashion Mall. Along with the “God bless us ev’ry one” moments, A Christmas Miracle At The Richland Fashion Mall contains just enough salt and vinegar for those of us who have seen too many saccharine-laden Hallmark movies or grade-school Christmas concerts.



Much of this salt and vinegar comes in the form of Mandy (Clayton P. King) and his partner (both business and personal), Laurel, played by the venerable Gerald Floyd, who celebrates his 72nd role with …Richland Fashion Mall. They bicker, they snipe at each other, and only occasionally does the act give way to a legitimate moment of tenderness. Their banter is flawless, and their stage chemistry undeniable. I do hope to see King and Floyd opposite each other soon.

Another excellent pairing by director Abigail McNeeley is that of Krista Forster as cynical Noelle, and Alyssa Velasquez as the optimist who thinks the mall can remain open. As with King and Floyd, they often argue, but their sense of friendship is undeniable. (Okay, weird and undeniable.) As much as they all deny it, this group of employees in a dying mall (kept open only by a bookstore/monolith “Farnes And Floble”) share a connection through their shabby, much-maligned workplace.

Preach Jacobs shines as the mall custodian/narrator, who may just be the wisest man in the place. His character doesn’t interact very much with the others, providing a sort of detached, Everyman’s perspective. Jacob’s soothing baritone and gentle nature immediately establish him as a voice of calm and reason.

Jared Rogers-Martin (Darrell), Allison Allgood (Player 1), and Samuel Traquina (Player 2) , all turn in excellent performances, but to say too much about them would be to ruin the Deus ex Machina ending. Just please take my word for it. These three manage to keep up with the rest of the cast, in smaller roles. EVERY performer onstage in …Richland Fashion Mall is a consummate professional.

The set, costumes, and production values were certainly up to Trustus’ high standards. As always, the popcorn is on hand, good cheer fills the room before and after the show, and there’s a feeling of a family assembling as patrons take their seats.

And the script, itself? Written by local comedy troupe, The Mothers, A Miracle at Richland Fashion Mall is full of my type of humour (irreverent and a little inappropriate), and I found it delightful. It does, however, toward the end, feel a bit like an SNL skit that went on too long. All ends well, but if it had so done twenty minutes sooner, it would’ve been perfect. A bit of editing here and there, and this show would be the ideal antidote for those in sugar-shock over the last five Rankin-Bass Claymation Christmas tales broadcast every ten minutes.

A Christmas Miracle At The Richland Fashion Mall is a hilarious, well-crafted, and oftentimes touching holiday treat. Like salted caramel, there’s just enough spice to cut through the sugar. Make it a part of your Yuletide this year! You might even want to follow Gerald Floyd’s wise advice:

“Less talkin’, more drinkin’! I wanna get my nog on!”

See the show. I promise you’ll have fun.

Clayton King and Gerald Floyd - photo courtesy of Trustus Theatre

Clayton King and Gerald Floyd - photo courtesy of Trustus Theatre

REVIEW: Building the Wall at Trustus by Frank Thompson

“Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.”
- Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi, Star Wars

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  As is often the case in my experience with Trustus Theatre, I left Saturday night’s performance of Robert Schenkkan’sBuilding The Wall with a completely different story in mind. Just as their recent production of Barbecue had me humming a tune from Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical as I walked to my car, Building The Wall  left me contemplating the Star Wars saga, specifically the themes of redemption and the oft-blurred lines between good and evil.  This speaks well to the universality of the themes being examined this season at Trustus. If a new piece of work can activate the emotions and associations of the audience member, there’s an immediate sense of connection with the story. Not to get overly existential about it, but (with only a slight wink at the company’s name) it creates an immediate sense of trust in the script. Part of Trustus’ overall philosophy is that theatre is storytelling, and the story in Building The Wall is tightly and unapologetically told through two characters, each of whom is much more than our eyes reveal.

 

   Staged in Trustus’ “Side Door” black box theatre, Building The Wall is a touch claustrophobic and uncomfortable, especially pre-show, when one of the play’s two characters sits and waits for someone to arrive, for something to happen, or perhaps simply passes the long, boring day of a prisoner in solitary confinement. Rather than being drawbacks, the forced intimacy and uncertainty about the silent, orange jumpsuit-clad man onstage establish an overcrowded jail atmosphere, enhanced by subtle sound effects that go from barely audible to noisy and back to near-silence in no particular order or pattern. Director Jim O’Connor puts a masterful touch on establishing place and theme well before the show begins, and his skill remains on display through the next 90 minutes, which leave the collectivemoral vision of the audience inside a fun-house mirror room.

   The story is a simple one, but chilling in the way only a “this could actually happen” cautionary tale can be. Security guard Rick, played by J.B. Frush-Marple, is in prison in 2019, for crimes against humanity, and he is visited by a History Professor, Gloria (Lonetta Thompson), who seeks to understand his actions. Their initial meeting provides a stark contrast in visual types, with Frush-Marple bearing a strong resemblance to a taller, slightly leaner Hugh Laurie of House fame, complete with requisite stubble. He slouches and paces, as his emotions motivate him, and his jumpsuit immediately establishes “criminal.” Thompson, by contrast, is very put-together and professionally dressed. Given the sophistication of her vocabulary compared to Rick’s, there is clearly an education gap, but once again, the eyes (and ears) can deceive. Rick turns out to be far from the cornpone stereotype he first seems, and Gloria has much more to her than a “liberal female academic” stock character.

   During the interview, Rick tells Gloria a story many of us fear is all too possible. Following a terrorist attack on Times Square, the president declares martial law, and begins rounding up immigrants from multiple countries for deportation. Not understanding the incredibly challenging logistics of such an operation, the government sets up holding stations…which become tent cities and worse.  As this gruesome progression continues, Rick is all too aware of what’s happening, but needs his job for the insurance to care of his two children, at least one of whom has serious medical difficulties. Rick is a man caught in a place of terrible conflict.  Rick speaks with sincerity about his black friends, and the audience actually feels a touch of sympathy for this most unsympathetic (at first glance) character. Even when pressed about Muslim friends, he admits to not having any, but says he’s “got no problem” with them, commenting that “they kinda keep to themselves”. Don’t misunderstand – Rick is still a shitkicker Texan, and unlikely to join the ACLU, but there’s no hate in him, and certainly not homicidal tendencies. The more we get to know him, the more we understand his plight, and feel a begrudging sympathy for this lower-middle-class Sad Sack who seems to have caught every bad break life could offer, including taking the fall for “just doing his job”. Frush-Marples manages to capture the conflict between what one would imagine to be prejudices learned from the cradle, and new perspective brought about through the horrors he has witnessed.

   As Gloria, Thompson brings her signature coolness and poise to the role. One of the things I admire about her acting style is that she always seems to be the person in control of the situation, even when she isn’t. As mentioned above, Gloria’s use of academic terminology and an advanced vocabulary suggest a well-to-do, Ivy League type, yet she mentions her Ford Fairlane which has needed a full engine rebuild for at least a year, indicating that she is not as affluent as she may appear. This could easily have “knocked her down a peg or two,” but Thompson’s most effective combination of full acceptance of what we now know to be the life of a struggling teacher, combined with her utter calm (well, practically utter) at the raging, doubletalk, and moments of true sincerity from Rick establish her as the voice of calm and reason. It is Gloria with whom we naturally sympathize, yet even she loses her cool for a second or two here and there. Neither the demon nor the saint is fully without a drop of the other’s virtues, which kept bringing me back to the light and dark sides of The Force. I won’t beat the Star Wars comparison to death, but some strong thematic parallels are there.

   The set is simple, slightly cramped, and a bit harshly lit, as would be the case in a prison interview room. Props to Brandon McIver and Frank Kiraly, respectively, for these nice touches of verisimilitude.

   Building The Wall is a thought-provoking, frightening, and realistic play that will leave you thinking. Also, the entire show is performed in one act, so if you order an interval drink before the show, you’ll wind up hanging out and drinking it, chatting away to various production team members, while the company closes up shop for the night. I speak from experience.

   When I was a kid, one of my favorite comic books was a Marvel title called What If…, an anthology series, which featured monthly stories on how changes to canonical history would have changed the outcome. (“What If Spider-Man Had Joined The Fantastic Four”, as I recall, had a fairly tragic ending, and the writers weren’t afraid to make a hypothetical turn out badly from time to time.) In many ways, Building The Wall is a real-life version of that comic book. This is a What If… that has the potential to come true.  I responded to it both as a piece of political theatre and as a master class in textured acting from two talented, experienced, pros.

   It isn’t a night full of laughs, nor should it be, but Building The Wall is an important work with a message that needs to be heard. Bravo to Trustus for once again being unafraid to address controversial and sometimes disturbing situations and themes. This is “Grown-Up Theatre” at its best.

-FLT3

REVIEW: Barbecue at Trustus Theatre - Frank Thompson

“There’s a face that we wear in the cold light of day.
  It’s society’s mask, it’s society’s way,

  But the truth is that it’s all a façade…”

 

-Jekyll And Hyde: The Musical

 

   When Frank Wildhorn penned the above lyrics for his adaptation of the classic tale of The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde over two decades ago, he probably didn’t anticipate them being used in the introduction of a review for a yet-to-be-written play about a family staging an intervention, but the song has been stuck in my head since seeing Friday night’s performance of Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue. As usual, Trustus Theatre has selected a multi-layered, thoughtful, and well-crafted piece of work to open the 2017-2018 season. It also happens to be hilariously funny at times, especially early on, as we are introduced to a series of social misfits gathering for a cookout/confrontation in hopes of persuading the meth-addicted Barbara (Christine Hellman and Devin Anderson) to get the help she desperately needs. Known also as “Zippity-Doo”, Barbara is the loosest cannon on a full deck; her would-be rescuers each have substance and/or personal issues, and the family is a nigh-stereotypical dysfunctional, lower-middle-class bunch.

 

   It would be impossible to adequately review the performance without revealing a few spoilers, so if you want to go in completely blind, stop reading now and take my word that Barbecue is well worth your time and money.

 

   If you’re still reading, I promise not to give away all of the surprises, but to avoid confusion, I’ll go ahead and say that each role is double-cast, with one family entirely African-American, the other entirely white. The two families are identically named and costumed, with only minor (or so it seems) differences between them. Both Barbaras are addicts, and the set-up for the intervention, etc., utilizes almost identical dialogue, with a few cultural colloquialisms and stylistic choices unique to each group. The first act alternates scenes between the groups, with a fairly close-to-real-time overlap until a big reveal at the end of the first act, at which point we realize that we’re watching a reality show onstage. (The TV series Intervention is actually mentioned several times). But which “reality” is real? Over drinks at intermission, several friends and I guessed what would happen as well as what was going on. We were all incorrect, which illustrates the artistry of the playwright in avoiding the obvious in a play populated by what seem at first to be two-dimensional characters.

   The show opens with a laugh-riot, profanity-laden, monologue by Christopher Cockrell as Barbara’s n’ere-do-well brother, James T., who wants nothing to do with any of it, yet is forced to set up for the party alone. Having seen Cockrell mostly in dramatic, serious roles, I was most impressed with his flawless comedic timing, as well as his ability to convincingly play a lowbrow redneck. It’s always enjoyable to see familiar faces in roles outside their personal norm, and Cockrell’s James T. is just that. Matching Cockrell’s stage presence and skill, Kendrick J. Lyles appears as the black James T., who, while slightly more laid-back, is the same scruffy, beer-swilling schlub as his white counterpart. One has a mullet, the other dreadlocks, but they’re both reluctant, unimpressed with the plan, and would rather be anywhere else.

 

   Krista Forster and LaTrell Brennan share the role of Barbara’s sister, Marie, who has plenty of her own secrets. As with Cockrell and Lyles, both performers manage to create the same character with just enough differences to keep things interesting. While each Marie is self-serving and hypocritical, Forster’s is a bit more aggressive somehow, with Brennan’s interpretation bringing out a slightly softer side. Rather than being a distraction, this adds another layer to the almost-but-not-quite-identical nature of the two families. One gets the idea that Marie is following fairly closely in Barbara’s footsteps, which is supported by slight differences in the two Barbaras that mirror the personality of each Marie. Kudos to director Ilene Fins for weaving such subtleties into the parallel universes.

   Trustus mainstay Elena Martinez-Vidal plays the white incarnation of Aldean, a chain-smoking opioid addict who is battling breast cancer. With her edgy, crass, and selfish nature, Aldean could easily be the most-disliked of this crew of undesirables, but Martinez-Vidal brings a raffish lovability to the role. She’s the cranky old aunt or neighbor lady whose nastiness is somehow endearing. Her counterpart, Mahogany Collins, is just flat-out hateful, with hilarious results. In the hands of a less skilled actress, this approach could have fallen flat, but Collins brings such sincerity to Aldean, you can’t help cracking up at her most venomous lines. This was my first time seeing her onstage, and I certainly hope it won’t be the last.

   Two more familiar faces on the Trustus stage, Dewey Scott-Wiley and Marilyn Matheus, provide what semblance of stability the family has in Lillie Anne, the harried organizer and driving force behind the intervention. It goes without saying that each of these seasoned pros turns in a solid, well-developed performance, but as an added layer to an already complex set of circumstances, the two Lillie Annes also helped define each family. Each has seen tragedy and loss, but seemingly from different directions. With Scott-Wiley’s Lillie Anne, there’s a slightly frantic quality which suggests a family in decline, while Matheus’ solid, no-nonsense Lillie Anne has the aura of someone who has pulled herself up beyond her beginnings. The script does not address the issue, but the performances suggest one person who is desperately trying to fix something broken, while the other is calmly determined not to let things get any worse.

   And of Barbara, herself? Well, that’s where things get complicated, and (SPOILER ALERT!!!!) once we discover that Hellman’s is the actual Barbara, the story splits open, and we see Anderson in her true identity: a successful singer who plans to conquer Hollywood by bringing Barbara’s story to life onscreen. (While in rehab, Barbara wrote a best-selling book about her experiences). In one of the show’s strongest scenes, the two play a game of cat-and-mouse over identity and reality, with Barbara claiming to have made up the entire story, which doesn’t seem to matter at all to the singer, who has her eyes on the Oscars and nothing else. Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that everything from race to sexual identity is addressed in the scene, with the overwhelming message being that reality is subjective and what you see isn’t always what you get. By the end of the scene, the two have merged in a way, and the audience is left wondering how many layers of deception and fakery just occurred, and if a “real” Barbara has faded into a pastiche of lies and re-writes. Hellman and Anderson manage to create just enough doubt about…well, almost everything. Watching their interaction and the game of one-upsmanship literally had me on the edge of my seat and figuratively doubting my sanity as each “revealed” something that may or may not have been true.

      By the end, all is made clear, but the path takes several more twists along the way, dropping in one or two more revelations that tie the two worlds together. The final moment of the show (which I won’t reveal) brought laughter from some, gasps from others, and a whispered-but-distinct “daaaaaaaamn” from someone in the row behind me. For a script which addresses and bases itself on relativism and skewed perspective, I can think of no better reaction. Barbecue is a fresh, thought-provoking, mind-twisting, funny, vulgar, and intelligent piece of theatre, with a strong cast and ambiguous storyline that leaves you scratching your head a little. It’s a perfect show for Trustus, and Artistic Director Chad Henderson is clearly committed to continuing the theatre’s goal of bringing new works of high quality to the stage. His opening night welcome to the audience included a tribute to his mentor, the late Jim Thigpen, whom I have no doubt would have taken great pride in Barbecue.

 

Frank Thompson is a graduate of The University of Alabama and Cumberland School of Law, who has made his home in Columbia since 2010. He has performed, taught classes, and/or directed with several local theatres, and co-writes a column for "The Good Life" blog for Goodwill Industries, along with his wife, Laurel Posey. His essay, 'Que, was featured in the 2014 edition of Fall Lines by Muddy Ford Press.

 

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REVIEW: Rock of Ages at Trustus Theatre

Rock of Ages is a musical devoted to the idea of Rock Music as a distinctive character, or caricature, in the popular imagination. And while the actual story of rock ‘n’ roll may be a complicated, complex, and contradictory one, our idea of it is not—it’s sleazy, loud, showy, and, above all, gloriously debauched. It’s about Sunset Strip sleaze, leather-clad excesses, and arena rock choruses that thud through your head no matter how much beer, booze, or other substances threaten to overwhelm. It might occasionally be dumb, but it’s often with a knowing wink and rarely without a double dose of fun.

That, in a nutshell, is what the musical, which was a massive success during its lengthy run on Broadway, and the particular version of it that Trustus is offering, is all about. Artistic director Chad Henderson, who also plays the grizzled club owner Dennis Dupree, points this out explicitly in his program notes, that the troupe’s primary endeavor here is to offer “Nothing but a Good Time,” and they are hell-bent on delivering. How much they succeed though depends, to a certain extent, on how much you are willing to revel in the poppy glam metal songs that are the bulk of this jukebox-style musical. The narrative is more than a bit thin, to the point where the comedic meta-narrative commentary is the only thing that can save it, and it never rises above a sort of rote sense of genre. But that’s not the point—it’s the nostalgic power of these songs, their sound, and their mythos, all of which is difficult to deny.

Luckily, the usually capable casts of Trustus have always boasted standout singers (and crack stage bands), and Rock of Ages is no exception. Songs like “Don’t Stop Believin,’” “Here I Go Again,” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” prove they were almost built to double as great musical numbers, and when the full cast launches into one of these familiar choruses it’s hard not to feel like things are right with the world. Individual performers may shine or falter at certain moments, but Trustus company standouts like Katie Lietner as the female lead Sherrie or Michael Hazin as the bar manager/ostentatious narrator, make it abundantly clear why they are familiar sights on the Thigpen stage.

But while Leitner is great in her role and the kind of powerhouse singer the part needs, she and the male protagonist Drew (played by Rory Gilbert) end up a little sidelined despite being ostensible leads. The weakness of their romantic plot line—she arriving in L.A. to be an actress but ending up as a stripper, he as an inspiring rock star-turned-fledgling boy band hopeful—makes them a little less memorable compared to the purely humor-driven B and C plots. It’s in those where the real chemistry and spark of the show happens. Henderson and Hazin obviously have some stage chemistry and comedy chops in their bromance friendship and constant fourth-wall-breaking commentary that the fact that they are trying to save Dennis’ rock club almost gets lost in the mix. Similarly, Kayla Cahill’s performance as the protest-leading Regina and Cody Lovell’s German businessman-turned-candy-purveyor sparkle in their own budding romance and brief stage time. Too, Jason Stokes’ turn as the spoiled rock star gone to seed, Stacee, is also quite winning.

But again, focusing on individual performances is a bit of misdirection here, for any lengthy attention to the plot detracts from the blown-own spectacle of the music itself. Director Dewey Scott-Wiley wisely puts the band in serious costumes and places them prominently right up front on stage, so even when not performing the need to keep the music central was apparent. Music Director Chris Cockrell brings plenty of the necessary glam and pizazz to fit the part, and his crew cranks through these tunes with glee. The scenic design itself was also quite clever, utilizing some scaffolding, and a few stairs, doors, and curtains to conjure up a number of different settings in a blink of an eye. So while not strictly necessary, the production notes here rang gracefully.

In the end, though, this is about as critic-proof a play as you can get, with the pure, unfettered (guilty?) pleasure of the songs themselves in the driver’s seat. Henderson notes that there are some parallels to a seedy rock club being challenged by a more bland business takeover has some interesting parallels to the history of Trustus in the now-sleek Vista neighborhood, and it’s tough not to draw some connections between our current growth-hungry (although also arts-supporting) mayor and the one in the play, but leading you down that road won’t be particularly fruitful. Spray that hair up, throw some glitter in the air and, uh, “come on feel the noise?” – Kyle Petersen

Disclaimer: Chad Henderson is married to the reviewer’s sister-in-law. This made his depiction of Dennis no more nor less ridiculous, although it’s not clear whether the same can be said of his ultimate fate.

Rock of Ages runs through July 1—for times and ticket information head to trustus.org.