REVIEW -- Workshop Theatre Raises the Bar with Other Desert Cities

“In a bold step outside of musicals and light comedies, Workshop has taken a chance with a more serious dramatic piece, and the payoff is a moving, thought-provoking, and occasionally unsettling production which closes on a hopeful note.”

Marshall Spann and Dell Goodrich

Marshall Spann and Dell Goodrich

As always, I will open by disclosing that I am a frequent director and member of the Board of Trustees for Workshop Theatre, which is of particular importance in the case of Other Desert Cities. Organizational affiliations aside, I strive for neutrality and objectivity with all of my reviews, and do my best to put on blinders concerning friendships and professional connections with cast members, performing companies, etc. That said, here’s my take on the production, which runs through Sunday afternoon at Columbia College’s Cottingham Theatre.

Wow.

Under the skilled guidance of Jefferey Schwalk, who makes his Columbia directorial debut, this finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama comes to glorious, heartbreaking, and oft-hilarious life through the work of a uniformly strong and experienced cast. While known for quality and high production values, Workshop has set a new standard for itself and its audiences with this distinguished and compelling drama/comedy which spends the first quarter of the show providing subtle exposition through a series of intelligent wisecracks and bitingly witty exchanges, gradually morphing into a dystopia of family secrets and suppressed resentments. Unless you were lucky enough to grow up in an extremely happy and conflict-free home, you’re likely to recognize at least some of the dysfunction, which makes Other Desert Cities relatable to almost everyone. (Seriously, while the script is brilliant, it could be mildly to moderately triggering to those with unresolved family-based emotional wounds. There’s no physical violence onstage, but as far too many of us know, words can sting much more than a slap to the face.)

The plot is a straightforward one, so I won’t risk creating spoilers with an in-depth synopsis, but the basics are that Brooke Wyeth (Dell Goodrich) is a writer from NYC, visiting her childhood home in California for the first time in six years. There she encounters her acerbic mother, Polly (Debra Kiser), who openly criticizes Brooke’s liberal politics and presumably humble lifestyle. Brooke’s father, Lyman (Bill Arvay), is a former B-list cowboy/detective film star who has made a name for himself as a GOP politico representing the “old guard Hollywood” brand of conservatism. Clearly based on the Reagans, Polly and Lyman both reference time spent with “Ron and Nancy,” and drop a few more right-wing names throughout the script, with Lyman presenting himself as the more reasonable and decent parent while Polly revels in her dragon-lady persona. Polly’s brother, Trip (Marshall Spann), and fresh-out-of-rehab aunt, Silda (Resi Talbot) complete the family circle, as the quintet attempt to spend a pleasant Christmas Eve together despite their differences. Looming over the holiday is the shadow of Henry, the deceased third Wyeth sibling. As with most families thrown together at the holiday season, age-old irritants quickly surface, and resentments are only somewhat tempered by the Yuletide spirit. While substance abuse doesn’t directly drive the plot, drugs and/or alcohol are frequently consumed, subtly contributing to the aura of desperation each character brings to the situation. Through the course of the show we discover more than a few hidden psychological scars, a couple of turnabout motivation revelations, and a second-act reveal that forces the audience to rethink prior assumptions about the entire family. If you’re looking for a morality tale with clearly-defined “good guys and bad guys,” you won’t find it here. Each of the Wyeths has secrets, and everyone shows the capacity for cruelty and kindness, often within the same sentence or two.

The performances are uniformly solid, with Goodrich’s Brooke as a particular standout. The events unfold from (presumably) her point of view, and Goodrich wrings pretty much every emotion out of her character as the story progresses. (Having seen and admired her work for years, I must say that this is one of her strongest roles to date.) Brooke is the adult child who never fit in with her family, which Goodrich clearly conveys without ever resorting to melodrama. Part of what makes Other Desert Cities so impressive is its commitment to stark realism, and the cast never flinches or sugar-coats the subject matter. Arvay’s commanding stage presence and imposing physique lend themselves perfectly to the ascot-sporting benevolent patriarch whose explosions are few and far between, but Vesuvius-like when they do occur. Kiser’s performance dovetails nicely with Arvay’s, bringing a constantly nagging but easily dismissed balance to the parental team. One can easily envision them having (perhaps unknowingly) having raised their children by the “good cop/bad cop” technique. As Silda, Talbot creates a sassy, aging peacenik with flower-child sensibilities. While battling her own demons, Silda serves as an advocate for Brooke, yet holds a few of her own cards out of sight. Having seen her in mostly musicals and comedies, I was most impressed with Talbot’s dramatic acting chops. As does Goodrich, she takes on a character that could easily drift into caricature, and portrays a three-dimensional human being whose life choices took her down a different path than the one her sister chose. Spann’s Trip, who exudes a friendly enough persona, is arguably the only glue binding Brooke to the rest of the clan. At times cynical, and at others genuinely hopeful, Spann artfully captures the spirit of a young man who has accepted his mundane yet lucrative life as the producer of a courtroom reality show. Given that Lyman’s film career was financially rewarding but undistinguished, it makes sense that Trip would see himself as having similarly “succeeded” in show business, and Spann subtly incorporates touches of Arvay’s aura of undeluded self-satisfaction. The script has each of them acknowledging that his work is anything but high art, yet neither approaches this admission with shame or resignation.

On the technical front, the unit set, designed by director Schwalk and Patrick Faulds, is fully realized and realistically furnished. Not only does the family room appear cared for and complete, it features various books, works of art, and bric-a-brac contributed by the cast (including a painting by the late Gerald Floyd, a Columbia theatre icon.) This touch of personalization will likely go unnoticed by most, but I suspect it provided an extra element of actor familiarity with the space, which added a layer of believability to the performances. Another nice touch is a series of framed movie posters depicting Lyman’s silver screen days. Costume Designer Alexis Docktor brings her well-established skill to the production, with an outstanding use of color, dressing Brooke in shades of grey and black, with the rest of the cast in bright pastels and primaries. Brooke is the only family member not living behind some manifestation of a façade, and freely admits to having been hospitalized for depression, while the others (at least initially) suppress and hide their respective dark experiences. Lighting and sound are ably handled by Dean McCaughan, who does a particularly nice job of side-lighting the small section of the outdoors glimpsed through the room’s French doors, and Stage Manager Jeff Morris keeps everything moving at a steady pace while coordinating a prop-heavy show.

Other Desert Cities is almost flawless, but I would be remiss not to mention the minor issue of occasionally having found the more intimate moments of conversation a bit difficult to hear. Cottingham Theatre’s acoustics are not ideal, and the actors perform without mics, so if you want to catch every word, I would suggest taking a seat somewhere around audience center or closer.

In a bold step outside of musicals and light comedies, Workshop has taken a chance with a more serious dramatic piece, and the payoff is a moving, thought-provoking, and occasionally unsettling production which closes on a hopeful note. It may not be “happily ever after,” but by the epilogue, it looks as if the Wyeth family may finally be at peace with itself.

Tickets for Other Desert Cities may be purchased online at Workshoptheatre.com, or by calling the box office at (803) 799-6551.

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

We Welcome You to Munchkinland—Elisabeth Gray Engle on Directing This Summer’s Children’s Musical The Wizard of Oz

wizard  

Lions, and tigers, and bears! Oh My!

Sixty-five children of all different ages from the Columbia area came together this summer to bring you the youth edition of a beloved classic, The Wizard of Oz through Workshop Theatre.

“We are very excited to be doing The Wizard of Oz this summer! There are so many magical elements to this show already, so that is really fun to explore. But the real magical feeling comes from the cast members. We have a very large cast of kids of varying ages and schools who come together to create this show. They form bonds and friendships, and the excitement and energy that they bring to rehearsal is the real magic of the show,” director Elisabeth Gray Engle says.

The range of experience and ages might often lead to complications in the directing process, but Engle uses each child’s unique talents and personalities to create their own interpretation of such a well-known show.

“…Many of our roles are double cast, so there are two actors who alternate the role. This is really fun because you get to watch these two young actors create two very different characters from the same material,” Engle explains. “So much of the humor of our production has come from the actors, and I think that is what makes our production unique. We have a very talented group of kids who each bring something different to their characters.”

While the 4 to 18-year-olds bring a lot to the theatrical table, the production team has also put their own spin on things. With people like Alexis Doktor doing costumes and Baxter Engle doing set, the wonderful land of Oz is sure to excited audiences aesthetically.

“I cannot say enough good things about our Oz Team. Katie Hilliger (Choreographer), Jordan Harper (Musical Director), Jeni McCaughan (Producer), Braxton Crewell (Stage Manager), just to name a few, make this experience so positive and meaningful for our kids. We have high expectations for our cast, but we have a lot of fun along the way,” Engle affirms.

Engle, herself, is no stranger to the stage or directing. She is a company member at Trustus Theatre where she has taught, performed, and will be seen next in the world premiere of Big City. On top of all that, this is Engle’s 5th summer production through Workshop, her 11th year directing youth theatre, and she continues to teach theatre at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School.

“I love working with kids in the summer because it is such a joyous time of year in their lives. The summer musical is different than a school musical or a show during the year because the kids (and adults!) have that special energy that can only exist during the summer,” Engle elaborates. “…They come together during the summer to create this show, so that [in] itself sets the experience apart from school year productions. It’s really exciting to see so many kids from so many different schools who love musical theatre come together. They get along so well, and they love being with ‘their people.’”

The show runs June 25 through June 28, with both evening and matinee performances at the Heathwood Hall Episcopal School auditorium. Go to workshop.palmettoticketing.com for times and tickets!

“Theatre always has a unique way of bringing people together, and we have certainly seen that this summer with our cast,” Engle endearingly states. “Our cast is made up of kids from varying backgrounds, schools, locations, and experiences, and we have loved seeing them come together to create art.”

By Haley Sprankle

Eugene Strikes Back! "Broadway Bound" at Workshop Theatre Completes Acclaimed Neil Simon Trilogy

bwaybound "Being in love can be a real career killer.”

That's a classic quote from the beloved Eugene Morris Gerome, the protagonist of Broadway Bound, the final play in Neil Simon’s autobiographical trilogy, which opens this Friday, January 16 in The Market Space at 701 Whaley.   University of South Carolina professor David Britt, who directed both previous installments for Workshop Theatre, returns to finish out the series.

USC senior Ryan Stevens steps into the lead role to complete the Eugene trifecta.  “First and foremost, it’s a real honor to get to step in and be the culminating Eugene," says Stevens.  "Jared Kemmerling, who played him in Brighton Beach Memoirs, really created a very youthful, energetic portrait of Eugene as a kid.  Jay Fernandes, whom I’ve gotten the pleasure of working with personally, carried him through into young adulthood in Biloxi Blues.  They both, in their respective shows, had to show Eugene growing up and adapting to different things - to the Depression, to the War, etc.,” Stevens says.  "For me, in Broadway Bound, he’s older now - he’s starting his proper adult life. He’s got a chance here, a chance for efficacy. In the previous two plays, Eugene was really more observant, of family drama, of drama in his unit. With his career here, with the chance to become a writer, he’s getting an opportunity to actually do something for himself, for everyone to see.”

As a member of USC’s improv troupe Toast and a playwright himself, Stevens is no stranger to comedy and to the trials that a writer such as Eugene may face.

“I’m about his age, and as a senior here at USC, I’m about to be in a pretty similar career situation.  I know how he feels, absolutely!  When you’re writing, you want to believe what you’re writing in, and sometimes that carries over into a sort of syndrome where you just decide ‘This first draft? It’s flawless. Final draft. Done.’   Eugene’s brother, Stanley, in a lot of the scenes they share, is poking holes in the logic of what Eugene writes. Every critique he has is valid, but for Eugene, it’s infuriating!  Any writer, in having their work reviewed, has that feeling of ‘Dammit, I know the logic is weak and this joke didn’t land and there’s a huge plot hole there, but I’ll be DAMNED if someone who isn’t me is going to tell me!’ I like to think that I, as Ryan, have gotten better at taking critique, but Eugene still bristles a little when he has to do the dreaded thing that haunts all writers’ dreams: edit,” Stevens elaborates.

 

William Cavitt as Stanley and Ryan Stevens as Eugene

 

Alongside all these comedic moments there is still a serious story to be told.

Simon is “very deft at handling all the clashing moods that happen inside this little house," Stevens explains. "David Britt has been great at reminding us that all of the humor comes from the same place as the drama, because it comes from us, the characters, the people and our relationships to one another. Neither humor nor drama really occur in a vacuum -- there has to be the human element to tether it, to make it feel real (and) relatable,”

While the story may be set in a decade different to our own, audiences today can still cherish the lessons learned through the eyes of a young writer similar to Stevens himself.

“Right now, these days, there’s all this talk about how this generation is the worst generation ever, that we’re lazy and entitled, and all this nonsense, which I really think is nonsense, because we didn’t do any of this! We didn’t create the world’s problems - the generation before us did, and we’re just the ones footing the bill. But by the same token, we’ll stand a much better chance of solving our problems and closing this hostile generation gap if we quit believing it ourselves. A lot of people my age have heard it so much that they’ve started believing it themselves,” Stevens says.  "Broadway Bound is very clear in the fact that the previous generation of adults is always just as backwards and screwed up as the current one. It was true in the 1940’s, it’s true today, and it’ll be true in the future. There are always generation gaps. Broadway Bound wants the younger generation to realize that their parents are fallible, yes, and fallible because they’re people too. The age range in the play is at the point where the youngest character is 23, and therefore, nobody is a child anymore. Everyone is sort of on an equal playing field. Which is how it should be, for young and old. There’s no talking down in this play, there’s no pretension or condescension to anyone. The kids and the parents are on the same plane. Does that level of emotional honesty have some blowback? Of course. But it’s still better than acting like the people of yesterday, today, and tomorrow are too divided to communicate.”

Broadway Bound's cast includes Samantha Elkins and Lou Warth Boeschen, returning from 2013's production of Brighton Beach Memoirs, again playing Eugene's mother Kate and her sister Blanche respectively.  William Cavitt,who appeared in Britt's 2014 production of Biloxi Blues in a different role, will portray older brother Stanley, while Chris Cook, last as seen as Lear opposite Cavitt's Edgar in this past fall's SC Shakespeare Company production of King Lear, plays father Jack. David Reed, who performed with Cook and Cavitt in the 2013 High Voltage production of Dracula, rounds out the cast as grandfather Ben. Reed in a way comes full circle with this performance, having played Jack in a 1990 incarnation of Broadway Bound at Town Theatre. The original Broadway production ran for over two years, and was nominated for four Tony Awards and four Drama Desk Awards, winning two of each, and was a 1987 Pulitzer finalist. The original cast included Jonathan Silverman, and Jason Alexander (who went on to star in The Single Guy and Seinfeld respectively) as Eugene and Stanley, with Linda Lavin (a Golden Globe winner for the long-running tv series Alice) as Kate.

Workshop Theatre's new production of Neil Simon's Broadway Bound will run January 16-25 at The Market Space at 701 Whaley. Tickets can be purchased through the Box Office at (803) 799-6551, or online at www.workshoptheatre.com .

~ Haley Sprankle

Five Guys Named Moe: Workshop Theatre Opens New Season at 701 Whaley - by Haley Sprankle

New beginnings spark for Workshop Theatre as they open their 2014-2015 season with the  jukebox musical Five Guys Named Moe.   The biggest change the company is facing is their new  performance location in The Market Space at 701 Whaley Street. guysnamedmoe3

"Five Guys Named Moe is the first production in this new space," says the show's director, Lou Boeschen.  "No precedents have been set indicating how we should transform this completely empty space into an intimate theatre. This  can be both good and bad. You are open to think outside the box and set the stage any way you  like, but you don't have the experiences of a prior production to show what works or doesn't  work in the space.”

This new space opens up vast opportunities for inventive, fresh new staging opportunities, which add a new level of artistry that audiences may not have seen at Workshop before. Each director is able  to completely create his or her desired environment, allowing a lot of liberties with blocking and  staging.

“When I first started to visualize Five Guys Named Moe, it was difficult not to see it in the  familiar setting of Craft Auditorium at the corner of Bull and Gervais Streets," said Boeschen.  "After meeting with  set designer, Lee Shepherd, I was able to quickly adjust my thinking. I came to Lee with several  ideas about how I wanted the stage area to be arranged with different levels and a dedicated  place for the band. He took those ideas and, using his expertise for building a set off-site and  moving it into a performance space, came up with a fantastic design.”

The front porch at the Market Space at 701 Whaley

Not only will the new space be created to fit the musical and the vision that Boeschen has, but it also  must accommodate a live band, which is not always the case with every theatre.   “There will be a live band led by our musical director, Roland Haynes, Jr. He's assembled a quintet of  talented musicians, a few of whom he plays jazz gigs with regularly," explained Boeschen. "The music is the core of this  piece, a character in a sense. It is important to me that the band be a part of the action on stage.  From their bandstand on the right side of the stage area, the cast members are able to interact  with Roland and the other musicians.”

The cast has been rehearsing in the Workshop Theatre rehearsal space on Elmwood Avenue, and will be able to  move into the theatre just a short four days before they open.

fiveguys2

“Throughout the rehearsal process, I referred to the ground plan design often when explaining  blocking and spacing to the cast," Boeschen recalls.  "The cast is using some of the smaller set pieces already in the  rehearsal space, which is not much smaller than the area that will be set as a stage at 701  Whaley.  Joy Alexander, the choreographer, has worked hard to create perfect choreography for  this style of show, but she has also kept it very flexible. The first night on the set, Sunday, will  be used for blocking and adjusting choreography spacing. I am anticipating needing to  make a few adjustments, but nothing major,” said Boeschen.

Along with all the adjustments and accommodations that the theatre faces as they debut in their  new performance space, Boeschen will also debut as a director.

fiveguys1“I felt it was time to get my feet wet and direct a show. I didn't want to tackle a huge musical  production my first time at the helm, however, so a small revue-style show seemed like a good  starting point. I submitted my interest to direct and was chosen by the play selection committee  at Workshop to direct Five Guys Named Moe. I love Louis Jordan's music, and the story written  by Clarke Peters that connects the songs is genuine,” said Boeschen.

fiveguys3Although Workshop has produced Five Guys Named Moe before, this new cast brings a fresh  take on the musical.  “There are a couple of names and faces in the cast that audiences will recognize from previous  productions at Workshop, Town Theatre, Trustus and even Opera USC, but we have some  newcomers as well. The guys all have rich musical backgrounds, which is a blessing for a show  like Five Guys Named Moe. I've enjoyed working with both the seasoned performers and the  first-timers, as they each bring a distinct energy and eagerness to the process,” Boeschen said.

Five Guys Named Moe runs September 18-21 in The Market Space at 701 Whaley. Regular priced adult tickets are $22, senior and active military tickets are $20, student tickets are $16,  and children (12 & under) are $12.  Come out for a new experience at a new location with an old friend, Workshop  Theatre.

~ Haley Sprankle, Jasper intern

From press material:

The Story: His woman left him, he’s broke, and it’s almost five o’clock in the mornin’. But don’t be worryin’ ’bout our hero, Nomax. Out of Nomax’s ’30s-style radio pop Five Guys Named Moe. They cajole, wheedle, comfort and jazz him with the whimsical hit songs of Louis Jordan, one of the most beloved songwriting talents of the twentieth century. With more than fifty top ten singles on the rhythm and blues charts, this great composer and saxophonist brought a popular new slant to jazz that paved the way for the rock-and-roll of the 1950’s.

Five Guys Named Moe show dates and times: Thursday, September 18 @ 8 pm Friday, September 19 @ 8 pm Saturday, September 20 @ 3 pm and 8 pm Sunday, September 21 @ 3 pm and 8 pm

Go to workshoptheatre.com to purchase tickets online or call the Box Office at 803-799-6551 between noon and 5:30 pm. Workshop Theatre’s Box Office is located at 635 Elmwood Ave., Columbia, SC, 29201. Box Office hours are from noon to 5:30 pm. Reservations can be made online 24 hours a day through the website.

 

In Jasper Vol. 3, No. 4: Curtain Call: Workshop's Leading Ladies Look Back

"'All we are trying to do is to present good theatre.' So said unnamed 'leaders' of Workshop Theatre, in a 1968 newspaper article which assessed their first season and promoted the second. It's almost impossible to imagine that the group often referred to the upstart or breakaway theatre, founded by rebels or young Turks, is nearing the half-century mark, and harder still to imagine that soon the curtain will fall on their familiar location at Bull and Gervais Streets. Still, audiences know that a second act always follows that curtain, and that a theatre is far more than a building, however beloved that building may be. In keeping with this issue's theme of women artists, we thought it only appropriate to consider all that Workshop has meant to so many people over the years, and to tell its story through the eyes, ears, and memories of some - only a handful out of dozens, hundreds even - of its most distinguished leading ladies. ..." - August Krickel For the full story and photos, check out page 30 of the magazine below:

"Biloxi Blues" at Workshop Theatre - a review by August Krickel

biloxi1 Last spring, Workshop Theatre audiences were introduced to the young Eugene Jerome, a horny, wisecracking, young teenager with a sensitive, intellectual side in Brighton Beach Memoirs. The alter-ego for playwright Neil Simon in his acclaimed and semi-autobiographical "Eugene trilogy" (also referred to as the "BB trilogy"), Eugene has now matured. Into a horny, wisecracking older teenager with a sensitive intellectual side. It's 1943, and he's in boot camp in Mississippi, experiencing Biloxi Blues. Director David Britt returns with a strong and age-appropriate young cast to track this next step of Eugene's journey. The tone is intentionally uneven, alternating between classic sketch comedy, sweet romance, and intense, character-driven drama, and the language and themes are at times as R-rated as you'd expect from the setting, but it's an amazingly honest memoir from Simon.

As Eugene, Jason Fernandes strikes the perfect tone as a young man in the process of finding himself. He still has an incredible gift for wordplay and funny observations about life, which, as in the earlier play, he often delivers to the audience directly, narrating the play's action which stops long enough for him to break the fourth wall. Yet Eugene now knows he wants to be writer; he's read all the great authors whom he hopes to emulate, and in his journal, his observations on life and human nature are fairly deep and insightful. Matthew Broderick played the role on Broadway to great acclaim just before filming Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Eugene is a wittier (if less mischievous) Ferris, if Ferris were a Jewish New Yorker. (In one of those "Awwww" moments, Broderick evidently brought cast mate Alan Ruck, who played Pvt. Carney on Broadway, along to Hollywood, where Ruck played Ferris's best friend Cameron.) Fernandes's bio indicates he is from Long Island and a freshman in college, so he already has the accent and age down pat.  Resembling a young Adam Sandler, he successfully navigates the tricky jumps in tone from wisdom to naiveté to working the crowd like a Borscht Belt comedian.

biloxi3Another standout in the cast is William Cavitt as Wykowski, ostensibly the gung-ho bully in Eugene's platoon. Unrecognizable from the dapper British gentleman he played in High Voltage's Dracula last fall, Cavitt also excels at revealing the humanity in what could have easily been a stereotypical stock character. Stephen Canada also has some good moments as sad sack Carney, and like Cavitt, does a great job with capturing the Northern accent. Canada and Fernandes have a surprisingly touching scene which shows how clearly, yet simultaneously subtly, Eugene is growing up.  Seemingly insulting Carney as untrustworthy due to his constant vacillation, Eugene explains that they are both about to be in combat situations where decisiveness can save their lives, which is a very mature observation for a kid just a few weeks into basic training.

As local hooker Rowena, Jennifer Moody Sanchez is appropriately sexy and vampy, biloxi2showing trace elements of compassion as she realizes that she will be Eugene's first. (As above, part of the honest nature of this play is that we find ourselves rooting for an innocent kid to lose his virginity to a hooker.) Her Southern accent drips with magnolia blossom honey, much like Park Overall's film portrayal, and almost seems too extreme, but we've all known ladies from that era who drawl with great pride, plus this is a memory play, and that's surely how all Southern accents sounded to both Simon and Eugene.

biloxi6Winsome Haley Sprankle shines as Daisy, the adorable sort of red-headed Catholic school girl that we'd all go fight Hitler for in a heartbeat. Her scenes with Eugene are a great example of Simon's excellence with dialogue:  Eugene, as the surrogate for the playwright, has the advantage of a middle-aged Tony-winner from the 1980's writing his snappy lines, while Daisy speaks like the heroine of a 1940's war movie.  The way they flirt at a USO dance by bonding over literature is just incredibly well-written, and well-acted by these young performers: he is familiar with Fitzgerald's Daisy Buchanan and Henry James's Daisy Miller, she counters that she also likes Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and O'Neill's Anna Christie, and of course he points out that he likes writers named Eugene. That's the basis for true love right there, or what passes for it when millions of young men were shipping off to war, with no guarantee of return. Fernandes, Cavitt, Canada, Sanchez and Sprankle are also uniformly strong with projection.

A pivotal subplot involves misfit Pvt. Epstein (Colby Gambrell) and the harsh discipline biloxi5of Drill Sgt. Toomey (Lee Williams.) Eugene acknowledges Epstein's criticism that he is too much of an observer, recording his life experiences with a writer's skill, but rarely taking the lead. Both characters suffer from the anti-Semitism of the era, but Eugene finds a way to blend in via his wit and social skills, which is a recurring theme, and source of guilt, for many Jewish authors. Eugene rarely jokes in his diary entries, and writes that he admires Epstein, but suspects that he is a homosexual, which bothers him - and it bothers him that it bothers him. Which is about as eloquent and honest a line as I can imagine.

Toomey goes through the expected tyrannical procedures familiar to us from a hundred movies, and from the war stories of our fathers and grandfathers, but again, Simon shows his dramatic gift via tiny nuances of characterization: no matter how harsh Toomey is on his men, the one time he will come to someone's defense is if anyone within the unit is anything but supportive of his fellow soldiers. And sure enough, halfway through the play, no one is complaining about the physical rigors of boot camp any more, and the aggressive barracks-room banter has acquired a sort of rough camaraderie and acceptance. Epstein is often called the central character of the piece, but Gambrell rushes a lot of his lines, and more often cedes focus to Fernandes. Williams likewise has got the right anger and aggression for Toomey, but I never quite accepted him as a tough non-com, although he'd make a terrific rigid captain or major. That said, he is quite convincing in an unexpectedly tender moment when the platoon loses one of their own, calling the youth "son" as only a leader can.   Williams has had a baptism by fire in his first two years of local theatre, tackling challenging roles in works by Henley and Albee, and I look forward to more from him in the future. I also suspect that a few run-throughs with a live audience by the time you read this will have given Gambrell the opportunity to even out a little of his delivery.

biloxi4As above, several scenes are Simon's chance to lend his considerable comedic talent to vintage skits about fresh recruits bantering with their drill sergeant, and GI's with a weekend pass at a whorehouse. Other scenes, however, are genuinely moving drama, with Simon demonstrating that his career could have gone in the direction of his idols like Fitzgerald, had comic genius not been his meal ticket to fame. Simon is of course famous for his comedies, but we need to remember that he has more Tony and Oscar nominations than any other writer in the world. He has won the Pulitzer, and four Tony awards, including one for this very play, which beat out  Tracers, As Is, and new works from August Wilson and David Rabe, for best play in 1985.  The juxtaposition of jokes and raw emotion may be a little unsettling for those looking for The Odd Couple, as will the language and frank sexuality, but the pay-off is worth it.

A couple of random notes: I commend the male cast for fully committing to their roles - all sport military buzz-cuts, significantly helping the show's authenticity, and all manage to do some intense push-ups on stage while not dropping a single line.  Also, full disclosure, I may not be entirely impartial here, because a lifetime ago I played Eugene's older brother in the third play in this trilogy, and when Eugene declares that there must be at least 52 sexual positions, since he once saw a pack of dirty playing cards, I instantly thought "Well, his brother had to have given him those!"

Biloxi Blues runs through Sat. March 29th at Workshop Theatre; call the box office at (803) 799-6551, or visit http://www.workshoptheatre.com/BiloxiBlues.html for ticket information.

~ August Krickel

 

 

Brian Childers plays Danny Kaye this weekend at Workshop Theatre, and talks about his roots in local theatre

image This weekend, award-wining professional stage performer Brian Childers brings his critically-acclaimed one-man performance as Danny Kaye to the stage of Workshop Theatre for two shows only.    An Evening with Danny Kaye is co-sponsored by The Katie and Irwin Kahn Jewish Community Center as a fund raiser for the theatre. Show dates and times are: Sat. December 7 at 8 pm, and Sun. December 8 at 3 pm.

Childers, a Columbia native and veteran performer on local stages, took time recently to talk with Jasper about his career and this special production.

Jasper:  Tell us a little about your background, and how you became involved in theatre locally.

Childers:    I was born in Columbia, SC, and graduated from Irmo High School.  My first "role" was in a production at our school assembly. I played the Narrator, and my mother says there was no stopping me. I was singing from the time I was able, and sang in church and school all the time. I did my first children's theatre rroduction with (Bette Herring's) Upstage Children's Theatre in Columbia many years ago, but I really cut my teeth on working with such theatres as Workshop Theatre, Town Theatre and the Lexington Arts Association.

Jasper: What were some especially memorable shows at Workshop, and some people you really enjoyed working with?

Childers:  Growing up in Columbia, I always wanted to be in a show at Workshop Theatre, and I got the privilege to be in several shows there.  I did And the World Goes Round, a play called Scotland Road, Scrooge, the Stingiest Man in Town, and one of my all time favorite theatrical experiences was playing John Adams in 1776 at Workshop. I worked with such directors as David Swicegood, Cindy Flack, and Clarence Felder. I loved every set I have ever seen built by Randy Strange. I really love the staff and crew at Workshop.

Jasper: At what point did you make the transition into acting professionally?

Childers:    I finished college, and came back home for a year and a half, not sure what was the next step to take. I actually did a full season and a half of back-to-back shows at Town Theatre and Workshop Theatre. Those were some of the best times that I can remember. After that season I decided it was time to head up north and try my wings in show business.  I decided not to move directly to New York. I had many friends who had up and gone to the Big Apple and had not worked since!  Instead, I decided to move to Washington D.C.    There was, and is, a thriving theatre scene there. I thought that if I couldn't get cast in Washington, I certainly was not going to get cast in New York. I was incredibly lucky in Washington:  I worked constantly for the next 5 years.  (After) my first audition, I landed the role of Emory in Boys in the Band at my first professional theatre company, The American Century Theatre. It was this theatre that brought about the life changing role of Danny Kaye.

Jasper:  You first played Kaye in Danny and Sylvia; how did you initially get cast?

Childers:  I was in a production of Hollywood Pinafore with The American Century Theater.  I was playing the role of Raif Rackstraw. When Jack Marshall (the show's director and the artistic director of the theatre) and I discussed what to do with this character, unbeknownst to us at the time, we really shaped him as a Danny Kaye-type without meaning to. There was one scene in particular that Jack saw me play and apparently the lightbulb went on.  Jack had had the script on his desk of Danny and Sylvia, but was convinced he needed someone who really could be Danny. So when Jack saw the scene in the show he ran back to me at intermission and said, “You are going to play Danny Kaye, and I have a script on my desk.”  I immediately said "Oh, I love Danny Kaye", but the truth was I knew very little if nothing about him. I went home that night and googled Danny Kaye... and then I thought "WHAT HAVE I GOT MYSELF INTO??"   Once we started rehearsals with Jack Marshall, I knew all was going to be fine. He directed me and taught me how to play Danny Kaye.  And that was the start of this incredibly long wonderful journey. I have been playing Danny Kaye on and off for over 13 years.

Brian Childers as Danny Kaye

Jasper:  Kaye was a huge star at one point, but perhaps not as well known now to modern audiences, apart from his iconic role in White Christmas. What do you think about him as a performer, and then as a character to play?

Childers:  Danny was really a genius. He could sing, dance, act, clown, and hold an audience in the palm of his hand. He was a true entertainer. That word isn’t used much these days. You have a singer, or a dancer, or even a triple threat, but Danny was much more than all those things. At one point he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood.  Danny conducted symphony orchestras, was a professional Chinese chef, a pilot and was fascinated by surgery of any kind. Versatile was definitely a way to describe Danny.

Playing Danny as a character has been one of the greatest challenges and most fulfilling things I have ever done as an actor and performer. Danny was complicated offstage and yet was so wonderful with an audience onstage. It's a dream for any actor to dive into a role like that.

Jasper:    What are some particularly enjoyable roles and shows that you have done?

Childers:  Of course playing Danny Kaye Off-Broadway for three years was pretty spectacular. Danny still remains my favorite role. When I first arrived in DC, I landed the part of Emory in Boys in the Band. Perhaps because it was my first real professional experience,or just the great character that it is, I loved that role. I was fortunate to be cast in a brand new musical called 90 North at the Kennedy Center, which made me a member of Actor's Equity, the theatrical union. I played Tom Sawyer on the National Tour of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and loved the cast and the role.  And starring in a national tour was a very big learning experience.   I actually loved playing John Adams at Workshop Theatre in 1776. When I got the call that I was cast, I was floored.  I told the director I was entirely too young, and I was performing with some terrific actors in the theatre scene there at the time. He told me trust him, and it would be fine. I did, and I loved the role and the cast of that show.

Jasper:  What can audiences expect from this performance in Columbia?

Childers:  An Evening with Danny Kaye is just as it sounds. I have been in several different book musicals of his life, (including) Danny and Sylvia and another very successful show I did called The Kid from Brooklyn. Both covered his life story. This show is not that.  Danny used to perform one-man concerts all over the world. Many people over the years came up to me and said "Why don't you do a show that was like the concerts he used to do?" So I put together this show. The idea is that the audience is coming to see Danny in his one-man concert.  There is nothing but music and stories. I perform some of his greatest material, from  "Tchaikovsky", "Minnie the Moocher" to  "Hans Christian Andersen" and of course "White Christmas". The show is filled with great music and laughter - a fun and exciting evening at the theatre. My hope is that it will bring nostalgia to some and for others (introduce) this great performer to a new generation.

Brian Childers

Jasper:  Finally, why do you feel organizations like Workshop Theatre are important to a city like Columbia?

Childers:  I believe that theatres such as Workshop play a vital role in both the community and in the cultivation of young talent. Community theatre enriches the lives of those who take an active part in it, as well as those in the community who benefit from live theatre productions. On either side of the footlights, those involved represent a diversity of age, culture, life experience, and a strong appreciation of the importance of the arts. Places like Workshop Theatre are essential and must be preserved and nurtured. I know that I would not be where I am without actively taking a part in Workshop Theatre. It is a privilege to be able to return and perform at Workshop Theatre.

...................

Brian Childers won the Helen Hayes Award for Best Actor in a Musical for  Danny and Sylvia: A Musical Love Story, as well as the Mary Goldwater Award for his portrayal. The  New York Times wrote that this was "an outstanding performance by Brian Childers as Kaye," while Talkin’ Broadway said: "Childers makes you feel as if you are watching the real Danny Kaye. Every gesture is perfect and he has mastered the mimicry and dialects that were such a great part of Kaye's performances."  In 2014, Childers will play the title role in The Jazz Singer Off-Broadway.  You can also learn more about his career at http://www.brianchilders.net.

Details on this special performance can be found at the Facebook event page  and at the Workshop Theatre site.  Tickets are available online,  or call the Workshop box office at 803-799-6551.

~ August Krickel

 

Review -- Songs for a New World at Workshop Theatre

Songs for a new world Workshop Theatre’s latest production, Songs for a new World is a dialog-free series of songs by Jason Robert Brown.  Each song transports you to a single moment in a character’s life where they have to make a decision, make a first step, or move forward in a way that will change their life forever.  There’s no singular story being told, but each of the songs are meant to form a sort of story arc nonetheless. Brown says, "It's about one moment. It's about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.”

Songs for a New World was originally intended for a four person cast.  In this production, the cast has been inflated to 9, plus 4 dancers.  This leads to several issues.  First off, there are differing levels of vocal talent and range among the actors in this show.  The actors who are capable of making their brief vignette powerful and moving stand in sharp contrast to those who are working outside of their vocal range, some of whom seem to struggle to hit the right notes. Another addition that detracted from this production [for me] was the dancers.  Wayland Anderson’s choreography was beautiful, thoughtful, and well-executed, but didn’t belong in the world of this show.  There is a beauty in simplicity and that is what this production needs.  The blocking was visually interesting, but less would have truly been more. It’s difficult to concentrate on the character bearing their soul in front of you when you’re surrounded by visual clutter.

Don’t think I’m saying this production is without merit.  There is too much talent involved in this production for that.  While I don’t agree with all of the decisions he’s made here, Chad Henderson (director) has choreographed some of the most striking scene transitions I’ve seen, all in keeping with a theme of traveling across the ocean to some unknowable land.  There are some amazing performances as well.  Vicky Saye Henderson makes a hilarious Park Avenue matron who threatens her husband from the ledge of their penthouse apartment—deciding whether or not to jump into the crowd below (Song:  “Just One Step”).  With a strong voice and a powerful presence, she steps into the shoes of her many characters and takes you with her.  Kendrick Marion’s determination and vigor inspires and moves from his first number ("On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492.") until the very end.  I would have liked to have seen and heard more from Kanika Kay Moore, whose strong soprano would have been an asset in several pieces.  Andy Bell was another surprisingly underused talent.

Vicky Saye Henderson; photo courtesy of Jeni McCaughan and Workshop Theatre

Songs for a New World is a bold choice for Workshop, and I applaud them for choosing something this unique and difficult.  Theatre shouldn’t just be about making safe bets.   I eagerly look forward to the rest of their season.

 

-- Jillian Owens

Cynthia Gilliam reflects on her upcoming production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at Workshop Theatre

Veteran Midlands director Cynthia Gilliam, one of the founders of Workshop Theatre, recently took time to chat with Jasper Theatre Editor August Krickel about her upcoming production of an Edward Albee classic. Jasper: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is currently being produced on Broadway in a very high-profile revival - why do you think it still resonates with audiences?

Cynthia Gilliam:  For me, Albee's script is as timeless as Macbeth. Delicately balanced between comedy and tragedy, I believe this play will be staged again and again, right on into the foreseeable future. While George and Martha are bickering, disappointed, aging, alcoholics, they are deeply in love with each other. Their marriage, like the play, is a tightly wound tragicomedic concoction bound to endure. While (the) script is incredibly heavy lifting for actors, it is a different experience for the audience, when it is well played.  First-timers are as amazed and delighted at the rich comedy in the script as they are raked by the anger and vitriol there.

Jasper:  Albee has said that he wants audiences still to be completely entranced by and caught up in his shows even as they leave the theatre.  What sort of ideas/themes/messages do you hope audiences will take from this show?

CG:  However they are wounded, most people manage to make their way through life as best they can. Those with scars seek others similarly wounded, and they accommodate each other, often with made up games, hearty laughter, and a good sex. The cards we are what they are. We must deal with what we are dealt.

Jasper:  This is the 50th anniversary of the original Broadway premiere of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  However, you've done this show previously in Columbia?

Cynthia Gilliam:  This marks my third, and most likely final, encounter with (this) play. I produced and directed it the first time with Milton Dixon as George, and Bette Herring as Martha at the Playbox Theater, housed in an old Postal Office in Eau Claire. Years passed, and Russell Green, former head of the Theater Department at USC and an incredible director, cast me as Martha opposite Bob Hungerford’s George in a production staged at Charlton Hall Antiques Gallery on Gervais Street.   Acting with Hungerford was a stellar experience, and Russell was a whiz, with a very firm hand. We were gypsies back in those days, but we managed to stage credible productions, get decent reviews, draw good crowds, pay our bills, share what was left over, and do exactly as we pleased. Adding up the days and nights spent on these first endeavors would likely equal five months of living inside this script. Martha was my very last appearance as an actress.

Jasper:  Stann Gwynn and Elena Martinez-Vidal (profiled in Jasper 004 as one of Columbia's "leading ladies") play George and Martha in this production.  Just like with the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor film version, it may be hard for local audiences to realize that Stann and Elena are old enough for these roles.  Have you worked with them before?

CG:  This production is my first opportunity to work with Stann, although I have admired his talent on many occasions.  He and Elena cast me as their director, and I responded to their call!  Elena and I go way, way back. We have been talking for several years about working together again.

Jasper:  We've followed the career of Giulia Dalbec-Matthews for a number of years, and are so impressed with the increasingly complex and challenging roles she has taken on in the last year.  Still, the vulnerable character of Honey is very different from anything she has done on stage previously - how did you come to cast her?

CG:  I have made a point of trying to see everything (on stage) I can this year, as I want to do more, and need to know what everyone is doing, and how well. Lucky for me, I saw Legally Blonde at Workshop, primarily because my daughter, Liz, is involved in producing the show at Dreher High School, and she wanted to see it.  I was struck with the incredible energy and focus coming from Giulia, (and so) I cast Giulia based on her performance in Blonde.  I believe Giulia is very serious about growing herself as an actress.  Wise beyond her years, her intuition tells her that the more roles she tucks into her resume, the more she can widen her range of opportunities. To become the best actress you can possibly be, you have to practice the craft regularly, stay on the lookout for roles that will give you growing pains and lengthen your reach. I admire her for taking on this part, and she is making it all her own. She is very “directable.”

Jasper:  We profiled veteran Workshop Theatre set designer Randy Strange this summer in Jasper 006. How is he to work with?

CG:  To borrow from Mr. Albee, Randy is “a beanbag”. He is the perfect collaborator. Because of Randy, this cast will have more than ten days to rehearse on a complete, furnished, and finished set. He has made a very challenging prop called for in the show, and I tested it three days ago. I irritate the snot out of him, but he endures and produces just what I need. Who could ask for more?

Jasper:  Big-budget musicals are always a hit locally, and sometimes so are new, name-brand dramas, but this show is 50-yrs. old, and touches on issues not everyone might relate to (academia, middle-age, upper-middle-class malaise, etc.)  Why should a Columbian theatre-goer come see this show?

CG:  Theatre-goers should come to this show for the same reason they would attend a fine production of Hamlet. Virginia Woolf is an American classic, and, as you said, it is over 50 years old. Yet, people are still putting it up on the stage all over the country. It is worth hearing and seeing every decade or so.  Were I in Chicago next week and a production was running there, I would book tickets as soon as I got to my hotel.   I do not believe it will wilt with time or fall from favor. There is so much in this script that is yet to be mined and put on display.

........................

Ticket information can be found at http://www.workshoptheatre.com/ or by calling the box office at 803-799-6551 from noon to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.  Show dates are Nov. 9-11, 14-18, and 23-24.  All performances are at 8:00 PM, except for matinees on Sunday Nov. 11 and 18.


 

The Men Behind the Curtain

{The current issue, #6, of Jasper - The Word on Columbia Arts, features a number of profiles of people who work behind the scenes - costumers, lighting designers, board members, and more. We are pleased to offer you this online extra, an expanded version of the piece focusing on Danny Harrington, Randy Strange and Albert Little, backstage craftsmen extraordinaire.} ___________________________________________________________

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," Oz told Dorothy.  Yet through smoke, mirrors, rigging and a little moxie, that wonderful Wizard managed to rule an entire land, keep wicked witches at bay, and hoodwink an entire population. If acting is believing, stagecraft might well be deception, and a well-designed set with effective lighting makes all the difference in the world.  Jasper talked with three of those men behind the curtain, to find out how it all comes together.

Danny Harrington remembers his mother being involved in theatre on military bases, and after the family settled in Fayetteville, NC, he acted at school, and at the Ft. Bragg Playhouse.  "The two things that interested me in high school were drama, and soccer," Harrington recalls; at Methodist University, he made first string for the soccer team, but a series of away games caused theatre to win out.  “At a small liberal arts school you do it all, acting as well as design,” Harrington says.  His scholarship required him to work on all shows, and he experienced a hectic senior year as tech director for one class, while stage managing the same show for another.  Summer jobs through the Southeastern Theatre Conference pointed to  technical work as viable career option, and he fondly describes the day after junior year when he officially quit Domino's, since when he has always been able to make his living through theatre.

After a year of graduate school in scenography at UNC-Greensboro, he knew he had a talent for design, but experienced some burn-out. By now he had met his future wife Jamie, who was working on a national children’s theatre tour, and the two began looking for projects where they could work together. Summer stock, regional theatres, and other opportunities took them to Ohio, Louisiana, Virginia, and finally Columbia, where Harrington is the Technical Director for the nation’s longest-running community theatre organization, Town Theatre.  He notes that in this field, "you have to be willing to move anywhere; it’s all about supply and demand." Additionally, he has designed sets for Trustus, Columbia Children's Theatre, and the Chapin Theatre Company.

Harrington thinks people would be amazed if they saw "how backstage is way more complicated...or way simpler than they realized," noting that it's all about illusion, and that amazing effects can be accomplished solely by inventive lighting.   Sometimes he will follow a production's original design from Broadway, but the internet makes research on alternate choices easy, and for the upcoming Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Harrington is creating something very different of his own.  He enjoys challenges, mentioning Something's Afoot, where he got to kill off cast members one by one via set pieces - falling chandeliers, exploding staircases, etc.  He also had fun with the special effects for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, working out the logistics of a flying car.

He has been pleasantly surprised at the core group of backstage volunteers, many quite young, that he has developed. Half a dozen or more work on set construction, and as many as a dozen alternate on the running crew for a show (where he often feels like a choreographer himself, coordinating everyone's movements.) Sometimes a father and son may be hanging around the theatre while a mother a daughter are rehearsing ; they see the lumber and tools in the shop, and ask how they can help. Others come from summer theatre camps that he and his wife teach, where they learn the camaraderie that develops among a backstage crew.  One such student, now heading into high school, has been with him a number of summers, and Harrington has been able to train him, entrusting him with more responsibility each year.

Harrington gives the play selection committee crucial input on the feasibility of specific productions and effects, although one imagines that his enthusiasm and gee-whiz attitude might lead him to say "I think we can make that work" to just about anything. He seeks the director's input at least 4-6 weeks in advance, if not earlier, then always fashions  a 1/4 inch model. He tries to make every set as solid as possible, capping platforms with Masonite instead of just raw plywood; he appreciated one actor, an architect by profession, complimenting him on how safe and actor-friendly a particular structure was.  Extra hands are always needed, but what  he could really use right now is some expertise with welding, launching into a complex description of a hydraulic lift for an entrance through a trap door in Joseph.  There's no question that the possibilities of new technology fascinate him, and he adds that he's experimenting more with projection and film effects.  Still a relative newcomer to the Midlands, Harrington remains impressed at the level of support for the performing arts in Columbia, and that even in a tough economy, everyone locally is staying afloat.

 

Workshop Theatre's Technical Director, Randy Strange, grew up in Columbia, attending A.C. Flora, and dabbling a little in theatre - he remembers playing a "man in a white toga" in Julius Caesar.  Intending a career in commercial art, Strange spent two years on an art scholarship at USC. While excelling in his art classes, Strange was distracted from academics by the rest of college life, and within a week of leaving school, "Uncle Sam came calling."  Strange served two years in Viet Nam as a technical maintenance inspector for Chinook helicopters.  He considered a military career, and had qualified for pilot school, but would have had to train "in-country," and opted to return home, working at Southern Bell as a maintenance administrator for field personnel.  When Bell added its own graphic art division, he made the transition.   He is especially proud of a number of telephone directory covers, and portraits that he designed for the African American History calendars and promotional materials.  After 32 years with Bell, his department shut down during a period of downsizing, and Strange opted for early retirement.  By then he was heavily involved as a theatre volunteer, however; a chance meeting at a party in 1975 with Town Theatre's Technical Director Walter O’Rourke led to an offer to put Strange's creative skills to work on set design and construction.  When O’Rourke moved over to Workshop in the '80's, Strange followed, and has been there ever since - 37 years of community theatre in all, and almost 200 sets he has designed.  He and O'Rourke would split up duties, one designing, the other "figuring out how to make it look real on stage." Strange remembers that "Walter always griped that he'd be working until the day he died," and when O’Rourke passed away unexpectedly, in 2007, the Workshop board offered Strange the job,  which he feels "Walter would have wanted, and I think he had been grooming me for that all along."

Like Harrington, Strange advises on play selection, and meets with each director.  His sets often feature intricate detail and subtle touches that silently but clearly define a particular location or moment in time.  He is likewise detailed in person, soft-spoken, already anticipating components that will be needed in six weeks, and fretting over 17 scenes in the first act of next fall's Legally Blonde.  Strange  doesn't mind the challenge, but always worries that scene changes may slow down the pace of a show.  He tries whenever possible to reduce the scope and complexity of a set.  "It has to be actor-proof," he grins.  "If there's a way of breaking it, they will."  He too suspects that viewers may have no idea how tiny the available space may be.  "I think we pull miracles off quite often,"  he says.  "The fun aspect of theatre is that you meet a lot of wonderful people.  This wonderful artistic outlet has kept me out of trouble - for the most part - and is very rewarding,” especially when the hard work of so many people comes together just in time.

He sees theatre, and volunteering, as "something that can hook you, and that you develop a passion for." At first he was the youngster, working with most of Workshop's original founders, but now he's the veteran:  "There's a whole new world of opportunity, to meet a variety of friends that you'd have never met in any other venue, much younger people you wouldn’t meet in a normal job." The biggest thing he needs currently is some strong young bodies to help with actual construction. Students from USC and from youth theatre classes have been traditional sources, but currently Strange doesn't see as much passion among performers who in years past might have come out for auditions, then stayed to help build the set. "There are so many avenues of entertainment in Columbia, that theatre sometimes suffers," and there's great competition with other venues for talent and manpower backstage. Harrington agrees, finding that ironic, given that theatre in fact can combine many art forms: music, dance, performance and visual art simultaneously. Strange can round up 4-6 volunteers in a pinch, but often it's just him and one or two of the "hard core." "Thank God we have the Alberts of the world," he concludes.

Albert is of course longtime Workshop volunteer Albert Little.   When Little joins the conversation, an impromptu cast party of two breaks out, as both men rib each other, reminiscing over old shows, old stories, and old pranks played.  "That was Walter," Strange interjects.  “I would tell them they would burn in hell," Little teases. "We worked hard, and had lots of fun along the way,” even if that meant painting the floor at midnight in advance of opening night. Referring to O’Rourke, but by transference Strange too, Little acknowledges that "he wanted me to grow as a technician, and a carpenter.  Walter would always take suggestions; they would let you try to build something on your own. Whenever I was ready, they'd teach me more,” even if he ended up wearing more paint than made it to the wall.  During Into the Woods, foliage moved rapidly on and off stage, flying in and out, and Little appreciated the free rein he was given to do rigging some 25 feet in the air, a much-needed niche he has continued to fill.

Like Harrington, Little grew up in a military family that eventually settled in Sumter, SC.  Three of his school band directors were involved in the Sumter Little Theatre; soon after graduation, he saw a couple of productions there, and felt compelled to get involved.  "I had seen movies...and knew that it takes numerous shots.  Unlike film, live theatre is right there in your face, and that intrigued the hell out of me: making the best out of you never know what. Someone could trip, or forget an entrance, and I said 'I’ve got to be a part of this.'“

After a year at USC-Sumter, he drove a milk truck for Sumter Dairy, and volunteering onstage and behind the scenes became his passion. A move to Columbia with a partner, who was working on an MFA, led to backstage work, "or occasionally filling in as a spear carrier" at USC. Little drifted among assorted temp assignments and odd jobs (including, like Harrington, a stint delivering for Domino's)  before landing a job as a driver for the city Sanitation Dept.  After his partner moved to California, Little recalls that "I was lost.  The itch was driving me crazy," and he knew "I have GOT to do more theatre."  As soon as his work schedule with the city became stable, he showed up at Workshop.  Connections made there led to a job for 11 years as a runner at Chernoff-Silver, and now Little works for the Richland County Dept. of Public Works as an Engineering Technician for Storm Water Management. "My life is a happy accident," he concedes. “They made it fun - they are my best and longest lasting friends,"  Little says of his theatre colleagues. "When I came to Columbia, it scared the shit out of me," he laughs, discussing with Strange the wealth of talent found locally.  "We are blessed to have so many people, who are willing to give so much time."

Little offers a possible explanation:  in countless little rural towns in the state, there are a few artistic types who have greater aspirations. " Smaller communities may place a stigma on creativity - you know, 'that child just ain't' right,' " he jokes. "So kids move here, to a bigger town, and explore different possibilities with regard to the arts.  Columbia became a really great mecca, where you can see opportunity.  It’s a magnet for people to migrate here, and show off their wares.  They may not want to move to New York or even Atlanta, so they will come to Columbia, to see what works out for them. "   It becomes quite clear that Little isn't talking about just theatre volunteers, or even artists in general, but also about himself, and about finding oneself in ways beyond just a hobby.  It’s an unexpectedly moving and profound moment, as he describes that yearning that so many young people in creative fields experience.

Harrington, Strange and Little all turned to theatre as a fun activity.  For Harrington, stagecraft became a career for a young professional just now hitting his creative stride.  Strange discovered an outlet to develop his artistic skills, and now carries the torch that was handed to him from his mentor. For Little, volunteering backstage has become a calling.  Arthur O'Shaughnessy wrote "we are the dreamers of dreams...we are the movers and shakers of the world for ever, it seems."  These men behind the curtains of local theatre in Columbia make the magic, helping us to dream those dreams.

~ August Krickel

Photography by Jonathan Sharpe

St. Paul's Players Present The Living Last Supper

Ever wonder what it might be like for Leonardo da Vinci's classic image of The Last Supper to come to life, just in time for Easter? Wonder no more, as the St. Paul's Players present The Living Last Supper at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, corner of Bull and Blanding Streets, starting this Tuesday, April 3rd, and running through Thurs. April 5th. Shows begin at 7 PM, admission is free, and seating is on a first-come basis.

Director Paula Benson and Producer John Henry (if you've gone to Workshop Theatre in the last 20 years, he's probably given you your tickets) helped revive the St. Paul's Players some six years ago after a 30-year hiatus, and have mounted a number of shows ranging from The Littlest Angel to Oliver!  The Players are a ministry of the church, offering family-oriented productions for people to enjoy as participants and/or as audience members. You don't have to be a church member to get involved, and volunteer opportunities include set building, costuming, makeup, hair, and of course acting.

The play runs approximately an hour and a half, and concludes with the chance to take communion.  Veteran local actor Scott Stepp plays Judas Iscariot, and St. Paul's Pastor Tony Metze plays Jesus.  You've seen Stepp in any number of shows, including Elephants' Graveyard (he played the town Sheriff) at Trustus a few years back, plus Annie Get Your Gun (as Frank Butler) and The Odd Couple (as Oscar) both at Town Theatre. Included in the performance is an original song, "World Without End," written by Paula Benson and Frank Fusco, performed by soloist Nancy Jane Stock, and  accompanied by Frank Fusco on guitar and Rachael Hebert on cello.

St. Paul's is located at 1715 Bull St., corner of Bull and Blanding. Call 803-779-0030 for more information.

-- A. Krickel

 

 

Review -- Workshop's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

As far as I'm concerned, places like Workshop Theatre exist to perform the works of writers like Tennessee Williams.  Colleges will always revive the classics from Shakespeare's era and earlier, high schools will keep alive the great family musicals and comedies, and regional theatre can be counted on to perform the latest cutting edge shows from New York.  For the better part of the 20th century, however, serious dramas by the great writers of contemporary theatre were the big Broadway hits, and none were bigger than Williams.  The first show I ever saw on my own as a teen (i.e. not taken by a parent or a friend's family, or as part of a school field trip) was William's Glass Menagerie, at Workshop, back when you could prop your feet on the stage if you sat in the cramped first row.   Workshop’s latest production of Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  is a serviceable rendition of the author's account of a Southern family best by "mendacity;" while not exactly forging any new dramatic territory or uncovering any new meaning, the show is a nice reminder of why we still revere the playwright.

 

Williams takes many of his favorite themes (greed, manipulation, sexuality - both repressed and overt - class struggle, alcoholism), divvies them up among some stock character types (forceful older man, brooding and tortured younger man, vivacious beauty) and sets them loose on a hot summer night in the Mississippi Delta, when passions run high and secrets are revealed.  Which sounds a lot like a typical episode of Dallas (which ironically featured the original Maggie actress, Barbara Bel Geddes, as the saintly Miss Ellie.) But that was how influential Williams has been: just about every tale of Southern Gothic family dysfunction owes something to him.  Matters come to a boil on this particular night due to a convergence of circumstances: the Pollitt family is gathered for the 65th birthday of patriarch Big Daddy (Hunter Boyle), who thinks he has finally been given a clean bill of health. His children know the truth, that he’s dying of cancer, and has made no will.  Younger son Brick (Jason Stokes), a brooding, alcoholic ex-athlete, is particularly vulnerable, one foot in a cast due to a drunken attempt to recapture former glory on the track of the local high school. Older son Gooper (Charlie Goodrich) and wife Mae (Jennifer Simmons) see this as an occasion to make sure Big Daddy's estate (over $10 million, and "twenty-eight thousand acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile") ends up in their hands.  The "cat" of the title, Brick's wife Maggie (Elisabeth Gray Heard) is exhausted from keeping up the pretense of a happy marriage. We see her cattiness when she observes that Mae and Gooper’s children all have names like dogs (Dixie, Trixie, etc.) yet just like cat chased up a tree by dogs, Maggie is at wit’s end as her adversaries close in.

 

Maggie is one of the great stage roles for any actress, and Heard doesn't disappoint.  I had forgotten how much Maggie dominates the first third of the play, her lines almost a continuous soliloquy only occasionally punctuated by Brick's occasional, terse comments. It's awfully hard to root for a woman whose main goal is for her undeserving husband to inherit his father's wealth, but root for her you do, since she has Williams writing her lines. As the supporting cast enters, one by one, taking focus, we feel Maggie's growing frustration and isolation, until at the play's end she makes one last crazy gamble to take back control of the play, and her life.  Heard looks more than a little like the young Kathleen Turner, one of many stage Maggies over the years, and she's a treat to watch. Note: she alternates in this role with Samantha Elkins, who will be featured in the final week of the show's run, starting Sun. March 25th, so the 23rd and 24th are the last nights to catch Heard.

 

Boyle brings an interesting and non-traditional interpretation to the role of  the coarse, forceful, self-made millionaire Big Daddy.  (While the character's name is certainly symbolic, the reality of Southern nicknames is probably simpler: when the first grandchild was born, he surely became "Big Daddy," i.e. grandfather.)  Boyle uses a faster-paced, higher-pitched delivery than one might expect; it's the same voice in which we recall Strother Martin drawling "What we have he-yah is a fail-ya to communicate..."    Big Daddy has a lot of laugh lines, ones that might have been missed had Boyle used a sterner, gruffer delivery.  Instead,  Boyle intimidates with sudden outbursts of anger and peremptory commands rather than sustained bluster.  As Brick, Stokes is like a poster child for the axiom "depression is rage turned inward."  Much of the time he has few lines, and instead must yield focus first to Heard, then Boyle, but nevertheless carries his half of the scene, even if largely in silence.  A friend seated closer to the stage than I noticed the physicality of his performance, such as the veins in his arms protruding at moments of anger. The character is somewhat one-note as written, and basically has to suffer and smolder for over two hours, but Stokes really commits to his role; you can follow the other characters for five or ten minutes, then glance back at Stokes on the sidelines and know that he will being doing exactly what you expect.  He and Heard manage to bring out many of the complexities and subtle contradictions found in Brick and Maggie: they claim to hate each other, yet, there is still clearly affection, admiration, and a sweetly disturbing co-dependence. There's no question that Brick's last-minute realization/declaration that he is still alive is directly inspired by similar bursts of vitality from his wife and father.

 

Some of the show's symbolism may seem a bit heavy-handed by today's standards: Bricks staggers falls and repeatedly cries for his crutch; he means the wooden one, but he's heading towards the bar, for another glass of the crutch that gets him through each day. Cancer is eating away at Big Daddy just as greed and lies eat away at the soul of his family.  Fireworks go off in celebration of Big Daddy's birthday, just as verbal fireworks explode on stage. Characters often navigate a long curving porch that surrounds the set to make an entrance, just as the Pollitts often take great pains to skirt around unspoken issues. Set in Brick and Maggie's bedroom, most of the action is centered around a large bed which dominates the stage, just as marriage and family life is ...well, you get the idea.

 

Director Amy Boyce Holtcamp's main challenges are to keep the action running at a lively pace in a show confined to one small space, and to make sure that nothing seems too dated, both of which she accomplishes.  Randy Strange's set is the type at which he excels: ultra-detailed and realistic. I especially liked how even the corners of the stage are used effectively, with an exterior upstairs porch/gallery located diagonally, suggesting the huge plantation below.  The great Williams sets in the 50's made use of translucent scrims in place of actual walls, so that the audience can see what's going on outside a door or window, and that effect is recreated here.  Whoever did the actual set dressing has quite the flair for interior design, with dark sturdy wood, rich red patterned upholstery and fabric, all emphasizing the wealth and seeming genteel respectability of the Pollitt family.  Even little things, like ornate half-moon windows over some doors, transoms over others, and Chinese lanterns out on the gallery, make for a believable Southern mansion.

 

Modern audiences may find this play a bit static, as there is mainly talk, minimal action, and no real resolution to many of the issues that are raised (especially a tragic love triangle from years earlier,  involving Brick's best friend, that could be an entire play on its own.)  Dr. Phil and Oprah could resolve most of the central conflicts in minutes, splitting the estate between the brothers, sending Brick off  to the Betty Ford Clinic (where he might also confront his sexuality) and encouraging the resourceful Maggie to strike out on her own.  Still, the point of this or any Williams play is not so much action but rather emotion, brought to life on stage through the incredible poetry of his language.  No actual person could ever be as vivid and eloquent as Maggie or Big Daddy, but Williams manages to replicate just enough of the rhythms and vocabulary of normal speech to make everything believable.  Ultimately, Workshop’s revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof   is a faithful and straightforward production of one of the great works of modern theatre, from one of its greatest authors.

 

The show runs through Sat. March 31st; contact the box office at 799-4876 for ticket information.

~~August Krickel

Reach August at AKrickel@JasperColumbia.com

and visit us at Jasper Magazine.

 

Welcome August Krickel, Jasper's New Theatre Editor

Jasper is delighted to announce that local theatre arts authority August Krickel has agreed to take a position at the helm of our fare ship as our new Theatre Editor!

August began writing for Jasper from the very beginning, first crafting a detailed look at the history of Jim and Kay Thigpen's time at Trustus Theatre in issue 1 and, in issue 2, profiling local stage star Bobby Craft and joining the gang as a staff writer.

By issue 3, August had his hands in the making of the magazine as much as every other editor, logging in the word count to prove it. His cover story on Tish Lowe garnered praise from unlikely corners of the arts community, and his articles on the Arcade Mall, NiA Theatre Troupe, and his short Fancies piece on Workshop Theatre's practice space are indicative of August's familiarity with the intricacies of the Columbia theatre arts community.

A comfortable blogger, August holds the record for post views with his blog on Memorable Theatre Moments from 2011, posted on January 10th, 2012. A fair, informed, and grounded reviewer, August frequently reviews theatre performances for Jasper, as well as  Onstage Columbia.

Often seen with a stack of Jasper's in his arms, ready to spread the ever growing and exciting news of Columbia arts, August has become indispensable to the Jasper crew, demonstrating a kind of devotion to his craft and dedication to his subject matter that makes him not only a pleasure to work with, but a beloved member of the Jasper family.

Welcome, August. Jasper will be a better magazine because of you and your good work.

 

 

 

Review -- August Krickel on Workshop Theatre's The Dixie Swim Club

Jasper has a thing for feisty women of a certain age, especially when they periodically reunite to do some female bonding, and to recharge their collective vitality.  The reunion going on at Workshop Theatre isn’t just the one we see on stage in The Dixie Swim Club, which opened to a packed and appreciative house this past Friday, but also the reunion of veteran director Cynthia Gilliam and some of Columbia's favorite actresses.  Depicting four girls-only beach weekends stretching over several decades, Workshop's new production is strong on laughs and characterization, a little bit less so on depth and substance, but you enjoy the performances of the five leads so much, that's all that matters.  

The script (by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten, i.e., the team responsible for numerous down-home community/regional theatre favorites like the Dearly Beloved/Futrelle Family trilogy) introduces us to five gal pals who have kept their friendship going long after the heyday of their championship college swim team.  Once a year, all spouses, children and telephones are banished, and the quintet meet at a beach house in the Outer Banks, with the expected results. The framework is part Same Time, Next Year, part Big Chill, with liberal doses of Designing Women and Steel Magnolias, but it works, thanks to excellent casting and direction.

 

Four of the five are recognizable types:  Barbara Lowrance plays the flirtatious and often-married Lexie, Leigh Stephenson plays the former team captain Sheree, Andi Cooper plays the career woman Dinah, and Drucilla Brookshire plays the Southern-fried Vernadette. Tracy Rice has the biggest challenge as Jeri Neal, who reinvents herself several times in the course of the play. In the hands of less seasoned actresses, these roles could be quite stereotypical and derivative: Lexie is a more vulnerable version of Sex and the City's Samantha, attorney Dinah is basically Miranda, preppy and optimistic Sheree is a variation on Charlotte, while long-suffering yet wisecracking Vernadette is more like Roseanne's sitcom character.  (That three fairly collegiate types would be this close to two fairly rural country girls is a bit of a stretch, but not overly distracting.)  Likewise, the plot doesn't forge any new territory; you can pretty much guess in advance what sort of challenges five friends will face as they age from 44 to 77.  There will be marriages and divorces, children and grandchildren, issues with careers and health, and ultimately, as with any group of friends, someone will be the first to pass on.  I doubt I'm giving away any plot spoilers when I reveal that through it all, their friendship is the one rewarding constant on which they can depend. Thankfully, Gilliam has cast the right performers to make the evening a showcase for their acting skills.

 

A few weeks ago, I noted that many of the Midlands' finest performers from the past few decades were gathered together for Jim Thigpen's swan song at Trustus; just about everyone who missed out on being in that cast turns up here.  (In fact, Gilliam directed a number of these actresses in a similar show, Ladies of the Alamo, several decades ago at Workshop, and the only Alamo alums not in this were onstage a mile away down at Trustus!)   Top honors have to go to Brookshire, who takes what could have been a stock, down-home comic relief character and makes her believable, while getting some of the biggest laughs of the evening.  While the storyline is fairly thin, the script is replete with classic, quotable one-liners, as when Vernadette declares that she "never knew true happiness until I got married, and then it was too late," or when Lexie reveals that she gave her ex "the thinnest years of my life." Actually, this is the sort of show where, believe it or not, references to divorce, infidelity, even early-stage dementia can become jokes. For me the tenderest moment was when Stephenson's eternally youthful ex-athlete breaks into tears not because of some tragedy, but upon realizing that she's going to be a grandmother.  Another highlight (and a perfect audition piece or monologue for someone looking) is Vernadette's defiant and hilarious defense of biscuits, deep fat fryers, and the Southern way of life - this actually got a huge round of applause in the middle of the scene on opening night.  All five play a tad younger than their actual age as the play begins, and define their progression through the years more with their voices and physicality than actual make-up (although Cherelle Guyton's wigs are extremely believable and help to define both age and personality.)

Randy Strange's ultra-realistic set is one of the best I can recall in recent years at Workshop. The show wisely avoids too many references to specific times or places (in fact, it could probably be done fairly well on a bare stage with a few chairs) but Strange has gone all-out, crafting a believable beach house setting.  Something that I really admired was the detail lavished on a screened-in porch at stage left, which doesn't really figure into any plot elements, but makes for a familiar and credible feel.  Chuck Sightler's sound design is subtle and effective, with passing noises (thunder, rain, a car horn) coming from the right direction, and often muted, not distracting from the dialogue.  A minor quibble would be a lot of wasted space above the set, which could have been used for projected images of sand dunes and sea oats, or perhaps to suggest changing climate (clouds, storms, the sun, etc.)

In the program, Gilliam notes that this production is not great dramatic literature, but I'd say that she and the cast nevertheless give it their all, as if it were.  The Dixie Swim Club, as above, is a showcase for the skills of its cast and director, and Columbians who have followed them over the years will enjoy seeing the team back together again.   The Dixie Swim Club runs through Sat, Dec. 3rd; contact the Workshop Box Office at 799-6551 for ticket information.

 

~ August Krickel

 

 

For Your Consideration -- Jasper's take on three plays opening in Columbia this week

Jasper loves going to the theatre. On rare occasions, he'll just show up and be surprised by what he gets. But most of the time, he does his homework. There are three shows opening in the city this week. One you should just show up for and have a good time. One you might want to do a little planning for. And another that you need to know what you're getting into so, you know, you can really get into it. Anything Goes, opening at Workshop Theatre on Friday night and running through October 1st, is like an ice cream sundae. You really just have to go for it. Other than knowing it's Cole Porter and how, like ice cream and chocolate syrup, it's brilliant in its simplicity, you don't need to over-analyze it. Just have fun. And, given that Cindy Flach is directing it, yeah, you will have fun. Flach has a way, not only with execution, but with space. Her shows conjure up words like pizzazz, and sizzle, and flare. She's another one of Columbia's treasures who asks for little attention, but always gets the job done and gets it done well.

On Wednesday night, in some wild configuration of the Trustus Black Box and Late Night series, our boy Larry Hembree opens Randall David Cook's play, Third Finger, Left Hand. The show plays Wednesday nights at 7:30 and Friday and Saturday nights at 11, for two weeks. Cook is a hometown boy who has done well so, in our book, that would be reason enough to go out and support this show with your patronage. But there's more -- well, first of all, you know Larry Hembree and the kind of weird and magical spells he tends to put on a stage, so, there's that. But the bottom line is that the play has been described as both "Southern gothic" and "twisted" -- terms that makes Jasper's pulse absolutely race. (Jasper likes weird -- why hide it?) But here's the thing -- Cook and Hembree are also presenting a little bonus, next Tuesday the 20th, when they give a staged reading of another little something from Cook's box of tricks, a play called Southern Discomfort. In an effort to construct something of a study of Cook's work, we'll be seeing both the reading and the play next week. Then we're going to sit down and decide what we really think of Cook's work and talk about it. We invite our lovely readers to join us in this online discussion next week. Come back here -- right here -- and share your comments below. We look forward to getting your views.

Finally, a third play opens this week that already has us wiggling in our seats. We've never seen David Mamet's Oleanna, but we've seen David Mamet's Race (with David Spade) and his Glengarry, Glen Ross (with Alan Alda), and we've seen his films, Wag the Dog, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Verdict, to name just a few. So we know that when David Mamet writes for us, we have to prepare ourselves to be receptive. Mamet's use of language and delivery (called "Mamet speak") is unique and edgy and a little scary. Rather than enjoying a little vino or a draught of bourbon before a Mamet play, we recommend you dose up on caffeine -- not to help you stay awake, but rather to help you keep up. Mamet is unrelenting. That said, the subject of Oleanna is sexual harassment in the academy. A subject far too serious to trivialize or present solely for entertainment value. Mamet doesn't - it will be interesting to see what director, Ait Federolf, a senior in the department of theatre at USC, does with his production. It opens at the USC Lab Theatre on Thursday night, the 15th -- but you'll be busy then attending the Jasper Magazine Launch Party at Speakeasy -- and only runs until the 18th. All shows are at 8 pm and cost $5 -- with tickets available only at the door.

For more information on all three plays, visit the following websites or addresses  respectively:

Anything Goes - workshoptheatre.com/11-12season_AnythingGoes.html

Third Finger, Left Hand - Trustus.org

Oleanna - bushk@mailbox.sc.edu

 

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