REVIEW: Trustus Delivers a Sweet, Funny, and Honest Motherhood Out Loud by Frank Thompson

The time does speed by, so enjoy every moment.”

Felicia Bulgozdy, Joseph Eisenreich, Katrina Blanding, and Becky Hunter

Felicia Bulgozdy, Joseph Eisenreich, Katrina Blanding, and Becky Hunter

I was curious as to why Trustus decided to go off-site for this production, which is being performed on the Columbia Children’s Theatre stage at Richland Mall. CCT is currently performing Mary Poppins at Eau Claire High School, so I figured it was simply a neat idea; a cute wink at the subject of motherhood, as well as an opportunity for two prominent arts organizations to partner and cross-promote. While these considerations and more were most likely part of the decision-making process, I must admit to having not considered the impact of place-association in creating the world of Motherhood Out Loud.

Having attended many performances at CCT, I have come to associate it with child-oriented entertainment and education. There’s a specific energy to the space, defined through the group’s signature décor of costumes and props, the openness of the seating, (sorry, folks, the front row is only a few feet from the stage, so there’s no sitting on the floor this time) and an overall feeling of being in a room that knows and welcomes the company of large groups of kids. I found myself smiling and looking around the audience space, as if I expected to see a laughing runaway toddler chased by a cheerful-but-weary mom, or a group of fidgety children eagerly awaiting the show. I was, that is to say, put into the perfect mindset for this little gem of a production.

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Motherhood Out Loud is a series of vignettes created by fourteen different playwrights, presented in a mockumentary style, with the characters frequently speaking directly to the audience while remaining in character. As the title suggests, the theme is that of motherhood, but this is more than a series of antique Erma Bombeck mom jokes or a retread of Kids Say the Darndest Things. While primarily a comedy, the script touches on timely and important topics such as same-sex parenting, gender identity, raising children with special needs, and how families deal with aging parents. Not having any kids of my own, I wondered if I would grow weary of the subject, but the writing is uniformly engaging, and requires no experience with parenting to appreciate and enjoy.

There’s a nicely-defined arc throughout Motherhood Out Loud, which opens with three pregnant women in various stages of agony and ecstasy, each ready to give birth. In their midst is a male OB-Gyn, doing his best to keep things normal while the three mothers-to-be expound on their hopes, dreams, and fears for the upcoming arrivals. There’s plenty of classic kidding-on-the-square about the physical pains of childbirth, but great sincerity and warmth shines through the vaudevillian “I’m giving birth to a bowling ball” humour, launching the stories of the numerous babies, children, and young adults about whom we will soon be hearing. As the show progresses through five “chapters,” these offstage offspring grow up, a process reflected in the monologues and small scenes we witness taking place among their elders. It may be cliché to wonder where the time went, but Motherhood Out Loud is only slightly over ninety minutes long (and quite entertaining) so I was actually a bit surprised when I realized it was over. The show runs without an intermission, adding another layer of audience relation to the text’s overall message. The time does speed by, so enjoy every moment.

The cast is strong and experienced, and even a Columbia theatre first-timer would know within the first few minutes that these folks are all A-list performers. Katrina Blanding, Felicia Bulgozdy, Joseph Eisenreich, and Becky Hunter each play about a dozen different characters, all fully developed and unique. They change the simple set pieces of oversized building blocks themselves, often while dancing along with a collection of 1960s and 70s pop classics ranging from “Ooh, Child” and “Baby Love” to “It Takes Two” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” (The scene change music would make an excellent road trip playlist.)

While this is a true ensemble piece, each actor has more than one opportunity to shine. No spoilers ahead, but definitely keep an eye out for Hunter’s delightfully less-than-perfect mom doing her best to live up to the standards of two idealized, by-the-book clones during a day in the park, Blanding’s hilarious and bittersweet monologue about the recent visit of her hovering, Carribean-accented helicopter mom, Bulgozdy’s second-act tour de force as an elderly grandmother who lays out some bare facts about child-raising, and Eisenreich’s funny, heartwarming, sweetly melancholy, yet ultimately empowering editorial about raising his child with another man. These were my particular faves, but without a clinker in the bunch, you may well discover yours in some of the other scenes. For a show with this structure to succeed, all the players must completely buy into the shifting realities from scene to scene and character to character, and this quartet succeeds with room to spare.

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Director Martha Hearn Kelly has cast with an expert eye, creating a team that works extremely well together, and could easily be envisioned as four parents having a grown-ups night out together, laughing and crying over the latest exploits of their kids. Kelly also serves double-duty as Sound Designer, so I may be hitting her up for a CD of the above-mentioned soundtrack. A well-supported and sustained theme clearly runs through both direction and sound , with congratulations due to Kelly for managing to excel at doing two challenging jobs at once.

Scenic Designer Sam Hetler, who recently began his new job as Trustus’ Technical Director, has done an admirable job, giving Motherhood Out Loud a bright, multi-colored, minimalist set, with simple cubes hung on the wall and scattered around the stage, occasionally functioning as storage units for the eye-catching accent pieces provided by Costume Designer Abigail McNeely. The actors are all dressed in basic black, with such things as scarves, ties, headdresses, etc., appearing from various cubbyholes and closets within the building-block structures to create various characters. Small though they may be, these transitions are all done with choreographed precision and nary a wasted movement, allowing the show to flow without interruption.

Motherhood Out Loud continues its run this weekend, with performances Wednesday – Sunday at 7pm, with a 2pm Sunday matinee. Whether you’re a parent or childless-by-choice, you’re sure to get some good laughs and a moment or two of sentimental warmth from this charming set of tales from the front lines of parenting, told by some of Columbia’s best storytellers.

 

-FLT3

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

REVIEW: Chapin Theatre Company's Shrek: The Musical is an Ogre-Sized Delight by Frank Thompson

 

As the song goes, “it’s not easy being green,” but Clayton P. King manages to make it look effortless. Surrounded by a large cast of veterans and newcomers, King’s portrayal of the grumpy and reclusive title role in Chapin Theatre Company’s Shrek: The Musical is not only enjoyable, but also could serve as an unofficial master class for aspiring character actors. Expertly costumed and clad in full body padding, latex hands and headpiece, and a thick layer of makeup that would make The Wicked Witch Of  The West pea-soup hued with envy, the well-known local singer/actor is almost unrecognizable, but brings his usual flair and knack for interpreting a part to the Harbison Theatre stage. There’s a hint of Mike Meyers’ original screen incarnation in King’s portrayal, but he definitely makes it his own, presenting the audience with a slightly gentler, yet still comically fierce Shrek, who never relies on imitation. While some cartoon characters work splendidly when embodied by real-life actors, others falter somewhere in translation. (For every You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, there’s a Doonesbury, which proves that simply plonking down the inhabitants of a successful ink-and-paper universe onstage isn’t a guaranteed recipe for success.) Luckily, Shrek: The Musical makes the leap with room to spare, with its charm and middle-school affinity for the hilarity of flatulence fully intact. Indeed, one of the show’s highlights is a belch-and-poot contest duet between Shrek and Fiona (Korianna Hays.)

As Fiona, Hays matches King’s expertise with a skill set honed through years of experience ranging from Shakespeare to Something Very Fishy, an original musical for children which teaches marine conservation through song and dance. Though she may have grown up in a tower, awaiting her knight, this Fiona is no fragile flower, and Hays artfully creates a spunky, self-sufficient young woman who can clearly handle herself in any situation. On a side note, the next generation of stage performers is well represented, with adult Fiona singing a trio with herself (herselves?) in childhood and teenagerhood. Katy Grant and Abby Tam play Young and Teen Fiona respectively, and are in fine voice, blending perfectly with Hays in their musical growing-up montage. Carter Tam makes a brief but noteworthy appearance as Young Shrek, as well.

The supporting cast is uniformly strong, with Major McCarty handing in a hilarious and over-the-top camp turn as the diminutive tyrant, Lord Farquaad. As he clearly revels in the distinction of being one of the only characters to break the fourth wall, McCarty’s performance brings to mind the delightfully shameless mugging of a young Paul Lynde or Charles Nelson Reilly, complete with demands for applause and cheeky asides to the audience. Along for the ride is first-timer Gerrard Goines, who keeps up with his more experienced co-stars in the role of Donkey. As does King, Goines takes a pinch of the film character (voiced by Eddie Murphy) and then puts his own spin on Shrek’s ever-faithful, if beleaguered best friend and traveling companion. A splendid singer with a natural comic’s timing, Goines will most certainly be seen again on local stages.

Other standouts include powerhouse vocalist Jas Webber, who brings the Dragon to saucy, sassy life, and Michelle Strom as Gingy, the Gingerbread Man of nursery-rhyme fame, whose scene with McCarty veers rib-ticklingly into the waters of British pantomime as they transform the lyrics to “Do You Know The Muffin Man” into mock-serious banter. Similar nods to multiple pop culture phenomena throughout the ages, from Monty Python to Friends, are peppered throughout the show, including a second-act opener featuring Busby Berkeley style tap choreography, a trio of Motown-esque Blind Mice, and a final line plucked straight from the pages of Dickens. (There are other Easter Eggs as well, but I’ll let you enjoy looking for them.)

The ensemble is the backbone of any musical, and this one does not disappoint. There isn’t a weak link to be found, and the script provides plenty of opportunities for all, with pretty much every cast member having a spotlight moment or two. The commitment to the wacky reality of their world is clear, and in-jokes abound, from a mid-thirties Peter Pan needing a shave to a wisecracking, beehive-haired Sugar Plum Fairy. There’s no official Costume Designer credited, so I’ll offer kudos to the show’s Co-Directors, Tiffany Dinsmore and Meesh Hays, who managed to bring just about every character from the Mother Goose canon to the Harbison stage, in authentic and easily identifiable outfitting, with a color palette of bright primaries and soft pastels that perfectly reinforce Shrek: The Musical’s cartoon pedigree.

A wide swath of choreographic styles, from traditional “old school” musical theatre to contemporary, intertwine throughout, courtesy of Choreographers Meredith Boehme and Katie Hilliger, who have taken a group with varied levels of experience and made them all look like trained pros. While some routines are more complex than others, there’s no hint of anything being simplified or watered down. Boehme and Hilliger have obviously choreographed to the strengths of their cast, allowing dancers and non-dancers alike to move with what looks like effortless ease. Musical Director Mary Jo Johnson has clearly worked the vocals well, with soloists and group numbers both coming in strong and solidly supported.

On the technical side, Danny Harrington’s set design is whimsical and fully realized, often operating in an almost Transformers style, with a series of hinges, individual pieces, and large units blending nicely with flown-in backdrops. All scene changes are done in full view, allowing the show to progress uninterrupted, which adds a touch of magic to an already enchanting production. Laura Anthony’s light design is subtle and most effective, utilizing shadows and isolated sections of the stage to create everything from the suggestion of overhead foliage to a starlit night, blending nicely with Harrington’s set.

Flaws are few and far between in this production, but if one must be nit-picky, there were a couple of  less-than-perfect moments in Sunday’s matinee performance. The show moves at a comfortably brisk pace, but the trade-off is that a few lines and bits seemed rushed, and a couple of the higher-pitched speaking voices were slightly difficult to understand, especially with the added challenge of using distinctive speech patterns to create fairy-tale characters. The large ensemble numbers in the first act seemed a bit vocally muddled, but clear diction prevailed by act two, so perhaps it just took a little time for my hearing to adjust to the combination of character voices and sometimes- intricate wordplay within the lyrics.  The set, while sumptuous, has clearly been nicked and scratched in a few spots during what must have been a demanding tech week, but there’s nothing that a couple of dabs of paint here and there wouldn’t fix.

Shrek: The Musical is a massive undertaking, and Chapin Theatre Company has risen to the challenge with high production values, a sleek and streamlined visual quality, and a uniformly talented and capable cast who are clearly having great fun with the material. This isn’t a deep, thoughtful, drama, but it never pretends to be anything it isn’t. It’s a funny, lighthearted, and joyful confection which doesn’t take itself too seriously. Get ready to laugh, enjoy the inherent goofiness of it all, and make the short drive out to Harbison Theatre at Midlands Technical College for a winning performance. The production continues its run with shows this Thursday and Friday at 7.30pm, and 3.00pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday.

-          FLT3

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

 

REVIEW: Fierce & Fabulous Cabaret - an Entertaining Concert with Potential for Growth

by Frank Thompson

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   (As always, I open with the disclaimer that I am a frequent director and a member of the Board of Trustees for Workshop Theatre.)

   The Fierce & Fabulous Cabaret, running through Sunday at Workshop’s new home at Cottingham Theatre on the Columbia College campus, bills itself as “celebrating the women of Broadway,” and there’s certainly no shortage of celebrated talent onstage. Featuring several well-established Midlands-area chanteuses alongside a few new faces/voices, last Saturday evening’s performance brought the audience to its feet more than once with multiple show-stopping bravura turns by some of the best female vocalists in town.  The acoustics at Cottingham are nice and hot, and while live mics are utilized, I doubt if even half the cast needs any amplification. These ladies know how to project and sell a song, and if you’re looking for a showcase of outstanding music plucked from Broadway hits from the 1950s to today, you’ll find it at The Fierce & Fabulous Cabaret.

   Following a full-cast rendition of  “I’m A Woman” from Smokey Joe’s CaféRegina Skeeter sets the bar high with “Home,” one of the lesser-known but most vocally powerful ballads in The Wiz. (This was my first time seeing Skeeter perform, and she delivers strength as well as a sense of dreamy wonderment to her turn in the spotlight.)  Columbia legend Valdina Hall absolutely soars with Sondheim’s  “Send In The Clowns,” and Robin Gottlieb’s signature number, Cabaret, quite literally had the crowd shouting for an encore. The second act rocks open with Katrina Blanding  delivering  Dreamgirls  “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” with her usual powerhouse voice and innate storyteller’s gift for conveying a song’s emotional foundation. On Jason Robert Brown’s  “I Can Do Better Than That,”  Emily Northrop engages the audience from intro to post-applause, demonstrating  not only impressive vocals but also an understanding of  true cabaret technique, and Mandy Applegate Bloom’s  “She Used To Be Mine” from Waitress brings down the house in classic eleven-o’clock-number style.

   The rest of the cast offers solid work across the board, and there truly isn’t a weak link, though those mentioned above are particular standouts. While watching the performance, I began to realize that I was missing the sense of an overall emotional arc, framing piece, or central theme to segue the audience from each number to the next. Some of the performers simply took the mic and started singing, others utilized a few lines of dialogue, and a few (see above) took a moment to connect with the audience. If this sounds nit-picky, it’s because The Fierce And Fabulous Cabaret is of such high quality, I truly hope it comes together as a more thematically cohesive piece. Who are these women? Are they the actual people we see onstage? If so, great! I would suggest having each song tied to the singer's life experience, allowing a glimpse of the real-life woman known to many only as her onstage personae.  (Gottlieb and Northrop are particularly skilled at bonding with the audience, as is Emily Clelland, who relates a personal experience that motivated her as a performer, followed by an enthusiastic song-and-dance rendition of  “If They Could See Me Now” from Sweet Charity.)  A few of the pieces, while quite splendidly performed, seemed randomly inserted. Kathy Seppamaki’s  “Christmas Lullaby” (Songs For A New World) is one of the best-sung ballads in a show full of A-list talent, but feels somewhat out of place between two comedic bits, and without context . Lou Boeschen’s  “On The Steps Of The Palace” (Into The Woods) is lovely, and dovetails nicely into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s  “Stepsisters Lament,” yet nothing is said about the Cinderella myth. This would have been a perfect opportunity to comment on any number of themes relevant to modern womanhood. Once I realized that I was seeing a sort of hybrid concert/cabaret, I just sat back and enjoyed the music, all the while thinking how interesting it is to watch the artistic process unfold. With a stronger sense of identity and a commitment to one specific reality/style, The Fierce And Fabulous Cabaret could easily tour as a professional show. The talent is there, the music is solid and representative of classic and contemporary Broadway, and the basic structure is in place. All it needs is a more defined sense of identity and an answer for “why is each song in its particular spot?”

   The set is simple and sleek, designed by Patrick Faulds to provide tiered seating for the cast, who stay onstage the entire show. As usual, Dean McCaughan’s steady hand keeps sound well-balanced and smooth, though I was disappointed to see that the production utilizes pre-recorded music tracks instead of live accompaniment. For future gigs, I would suggest a single pianist who could also serve as a narrative voice, presenter, and general point of connection between the singers and their audience.

   The Fierce And Fabulous Cabaret is well worth your time and money exactly “as is,” and I strongly recommend you see it now. With a little scripting revision and specific motivation behind each number, it could have a significant future, and you’ll want to catch this act from the very start of its evolution.

   There are only three performances left, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets can be purchased by calling (803) 799.6551 or visiting Workshoptheatre.com

-FLT3

REVIEW: Workshop’s Jake’s Women an overlooked gem in Neil Simon’s Oeuvre

 

“He said, I got tongue-tied by a teacher in Tallahassee

I got french-fried by a waitress in Idaho

I got way-laid by a widow in Wyoming

Oh Lord, he said, women gonna be the death of me but what a way to go.”

Dr. Hook – “What A Way To Go”

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by Frank Thompson

Hello, friends! Happy to be back in the saddle, following a nasty couple of weeks under the weather. (Drink your juice, get a flu shot, and dress warmly!) My first review of 2019 requires that I play “Full Disclosure” (see The Addams Family: The Musical for the reference.) I am a frequent director with Workshop Theatre, and serve as Vice-President of the Board of Trustees. I do my best to remain completely objective, but feel it only ethical to establish the relationship up-front. That said, let’s talk about the show.

Jake’s Women, the first official production in Workshop’s new “home” at Columbia College’s Cottingham Theatre kicks off a new era, a new venue, and a new optimism for all involved. Last season saw “guest appearances” at Cottingham, with a show-by-show arrangement. Without revealing anything classified, I can say that Workshop and Cottingham have come to a more substantial relationship. With a full-sized, legitimate theatre space, and the amenities and advantages that come with it, Workshop is poised to re-establish its position as one of Columbia’s premiere performing houses.  I say this in my capacity as a critic, not as Workshop “family,” but the venerable theatre group seems strongly poised to re-capture the glory days of Bull Street. Special props to Executive Director, Jeni Decamp McCaughn, for steering the ship through a few stormy years, yet holding a steady hand at the helm, with husband Dean McCaughan dedicating countless hours to helping his wife weather the storm, and a mostly-volunteer staff and crew devoting their talents to resurrect Workshop’s past identity. We’re straying into promotional territory, so I will shift my focus to the show, not the organization.

“With a full-sized, legitimate theatre space, and the amenities and advantages that come with it, Workshop is poised to re-establish its position as one of Columbia’s premiere performing houses.”

Jake’s Women tells the story of a widowed and remarried man, Jake, who is struggling with the devastating loss of a beloved spouse, attempting to re-build his life by dating and falling in love with Maggie, his second wife. Maggie is loving, pretty, and embrace’s Jake’s daughter with sincere affection. Throughout the performance, the all-female cast (minus Jake) remain far upstage, watching, ignoring, and occasionally reacting to his experiences. While hilarious, Jake’s Women jumps between reality, (possible) dreams, and manages to work in a couple of tear-jerking moments internal to the hilarity. The plot is somewhat meta-on-meta, and it takes a few minutes to understand the structure and symbolism of the ever-present women in his literal and figurative background.

Another confession: I am not a huge Neil Simon fan, with the exceptions of Barefoot In The Park and Murder By Death, a mid-70s TV film that BEGS for a stage adaptation. Director David Britt is, however, a Simon aficionado, and his love of the material shines through in every scene.

Without dropping spoilers, I can say that Jake encounters various women in his life, including his daughter, his shrink, his deceased ex-wife, and his potential new wife, should he and Maggie divorce. Through a series of flashbacks, we meet ex-wife Julie, who hasn’t let death remove her from the realm of the living.

If this sounds Quentin Tarantino-esque, that’s because it is. Realities and perspective frequently swap places, and, (again, no spoilers) and it takes a few minutes to understand the conceit. For anyone who knows Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Simon’s Jake’s Women provides a similar feeling of “eureka!” when the structure becomes obvious. Trust me, you’ll have a difficult time not shouting “ah-ha!” when things become clear.

“If this sounds Quentin Tarantino-esque, that’s because it is.”


Re the cast, Director Britt has assembled an A-plus group of performers. In the eponymous role, and as the sole male perspective, newcomer Damian Garrod displays a level of skill that will likely place him at the forefront of casting calls, should he continue in the Columbia theatre community. Jake is clueless and mildly chauvinist, but tries to be a genuinely nice guy, and Garrod nails the role. In my notes, I wrote “Young George Clooney,” “Jimmy Stewart,” “Joey Tribbiani,” (Friends) “Charlie Brown,” and “Mark Hamill in Star Wars.” Garrod channels these, and other actors/characters with seeming effortlessness , never allowing himself to slide into caricature, or shatter the illusion of his own interpretation of the world surrounding him.

As Maggie, Jake’s second wife, Lou Boeschen shines while demonstrating dramatic acting skills that I had never before seen, knowing Lou from “big, happy, musicals.” While she is certainly adept at roles in shows such as Anything Goes and The Marvelous Wonderettes, she also has the chops to believably portray a hopeful but world-weary Maggie. I was quite impressed with this new discovery from someone whose musical talent I have always admired.

The rest of the cast is uniformly strong, featuring Dee Renko as Jake’s funky-meets-hip sister, Karen, who truly wants the best for her brother. H. Loretta Brown provides a sympathetic gravitas as psychiatrist Edith, while Riley Campbell and Raelyn O’Briant share the role of Jake’s daughter, Molly, with Campbell taking the role as a young girl, and O’Briant picking up as the older Molly. As the deceased Julie, Jennifer Lucas O’Briant straddles the line between dream/hallucination and corporeal presence. Rounding out the cast is Melissa Frierson as Sheila, the new girlfriend we meet in act two. Each of the above presents a fully-developed, serious, yet entertaining character in Jake’s life. There’s not a weak link in this ensemble cast, which makes it a pleasure to enjoy.

The set, designed by director Britt, is minimalist without seeming skimpy, and fits the shifting times, perspectives, and realities of the story. Alexis Doktor’s Costume Design perfectly fits both the characters and period. Stage Manager Caleb Carson does an excellent job of keeping the show moving. Though Jake’s Women is almost two hours long, counting the interval, I was shocked when each act ended. Britt has clearly emphasized pace, which is always a good idea with Neil Simon. Dean McCaughan, as always, runs a tight sound/light board, and Columbia College’s Patrick Faulds delivers an effective and creative lighting design, which moves the show along while enhancing specific moments.

Jake’s Women is not the most well-known of Simon’s work, but it is one of the most engaging and entertaining shows I’ve seen in some time. The entire cast is onstage for the full evening, with the actors playing semi-detatched, yet still-aware figures in Jake’s psyche.

As for the drawbacks, they are few. A couple of actors need to project more, which shouldn’t  be difficult, and (as much as I love minimalism,) I’m ready to see the newly–rebranded Workshop bring us a fully-realized set. The script, while clever and enjoyable, is benignly surreal. Fans of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction will enjoy a Tarantino-esque gradual reveal, which lets us know that various time periods and flashback sequences prevent approaching the work as a linear timeline. It takes a few moments to catch onto the conceit. If you’re confused at first, just give it a few minutes.

Jake’s Women is a bit of a mind-bender, and (quite honestly) not quite up there with Simon’s absolute best, but it’s a charming, enjoyable show, performed by a talented cast. There are, as the saying goes, worse ways to spend an evening. It didn’t change my life, but I laughed, I cried, and I had one hell of a good time. Jake’s Women runs Thursday-Sunday, so don’t miss your chance to see this hilarious, heart-warming, and occasionally tear-jerking “sleeper” show by the master of urban comedy.

On a final note, I couldn’t suppress a guffaw when the twenty-something “ghost” of Julie, misunderstanding the timeline, shouts at Jake with “EEEEW! You’re 48 and I SLEPT with you last night?”

I will be 49 in June. Ouch.

Make sure your weekend plans include Jake’s Women. It’s a lighthearted show that has moments of sincere pathos and seriousness, and a lesser-known work by a master of American comedy. You’ll be glad to have “discovered” it, and have a delightful time laughing at the mirror-image of life that Simon artfully crafts.

-FLT3

Jake’s Women continues its run Thursday-Sunday at Collingwood Theatre, Columbia College. Tickets can be reserved by ringing the Box Office on (803) 799. 6551, or by visiting WorkshopTheatre.com

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!

 

 

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REVIEW: Trustus Theatre Provides a Hauntingly Delightful Ride with Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol

 

“Marley was dead to begin with…”
Charles Dickens – “A Christmas Carol”

L to R — Richard Edward III, Kevin Bush, Krista Forster, Jeff Driggers

L to R — Richard Edward III, Kevin Bush, Krista Forster, Jeff Driggers

These six words are well-known by just about anyone who has ever read or seen a production of Dickens’ now-immortal (pun intended) holiday classic. The undeniability of Marley’s having left the realm of the living is also the first point established in Tom Mula’s Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, running through 22 December at Trustus Theatre. As a huge Dickens fan, as well as a Christmas nut, I eagerly anticipated seeing this production, and was not at all disappointed. Time, finances, and practicality usually prevent me from seeing local shows more than once, but I’m going to do my best to catch this gem again before it closes. Like its inspirational predecessor, this is a story with many layers and subtleties beneath the deceptively simple plot, and the combination of acting and directorial skill lives up to Trustus’ long-cemented reputation for professional and artfully crafted work. For those familiar with the BBC series, Dickensian, this script takes a similar approach to the world(s) created by Dickens well over a century ago, and turns perspective on its ear, giving us a glimpse of how certain events came to be, and an intriguing semi-prequel as seen from the viewpoint of a secondary character. (On a side note, if you haven’t seen Dickensian, look for it online. By coincidence, the plot centers around the murder of Jacob Marley, and characters from multiple Dickens novels are interwoven throughout.)

…but, I digress. I’m here to discuss what’s being presented onstage at Trustus, so let’s get to it. As Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol opens, a recently-deceased Marley has arrived in a posthumous waiting room, where he encounters a sort of eternal book-keeper who has tallied up Marley’s good deeds and his sins, with the latter taking up the lion’s share of the ledger. As he is assigned, as Dickens described them, “the chains he forged in life,” Marley realizes that each condemned soul experiences his or her own personal Hell, where a manifestation of one’s particular sins serve as the tools of eternal torture. Marley’s punishment for his heartless greed and miserliness arrive in the traditional form of literal chains, bearing heavy cash boxes and other tools of his ruthless pursuit of wealth as a money-lender. With assistance from a damnation-borne, yet playfully charming sprite called Bogle, he is offered a single chance for escape from his fate; to redeem his partner, Ebenezer Scrooge, whose avarice and cruelty exceeded even Marley’s. (In a cheeky aside, Marley refers to Scrooge as the only man in the world worse than himself.) At first he is reluctant, but a shot at a reprieve is too tempting to resist, so Marley sets out, with Bogle in tow, on what seems an impossible mission. From here, the story takes on a sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque quality, with familiar scenes and experiences seen through Marley’s eyes. His backstory is provided, and we discover that his childhood was as traumatic and depressing as Scrooge’s, with the two first meeting as teenage employees of Mr. Fezziwig, whom they eventually betray and drive out of business, taking over the firm for themselves. As the show progresses, we realize that Marley was actually all three of the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet-To-Come, taking on different forms, but all the while witnessing Scrooge’s life choices and literally watching him turn into the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” of A Christmas Carol. Throughout the long night’s journeys, Marley softens on Scrooge, whom he actually despised in real life, and gradually replaces hatred with pity. To avoid a significant spoiler, I will simply say that Marley’s animus was well-placed, as we learn in his death scene, which makes his journey toward compassion all the more effective.

The script makes ample use of Dickens’ dialogue, and tosses in a few subtle references that die-hard fans of the original will enjoy. (“Easter eggs” in a story of Christmas, if you will.) Here I will give away one plot point that is not only clever, but completely changes the context of one of Scrooge’s lines in A Christmas Carol. Another apprentice at Fezziwig’s, Dick Wilkins, is seen cruelly bullying Marley, and it is Scrooge who comes to his defense, eventually leading to Wilkins’ fall into disgrace and penury. While taking Marley’s part in matters, Scrooge explains that he, too, has been bullied by Wilkins, and suggests that the two of them can bring an end to his cruelty as well as his situation. Devotees of the original will recall Scrooge seeing his tormentor in the Christmas Past flashback, and shouting ““Dick Wilkins, to be sure! Bless me, yes. There he is. He was very much attached to me, was Dick. Poor Dick! Dear, dear!” (As he was yet to have been reformed, Scrooge’s seemingly affectionate comment takes on a sinister tone when Wilkins’ true nature is revealed in this version.)

The rest of the show follows along fairly closely to the events of the original, with Marley growing more human as he watches Scrooge grow into the ogre he knew in life. It’s certainly no secret that Scrooge eventually repents and changes his ways, so we can assume that Marley manages to escape his torment.

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As for the performances, there isn’t a weak link (pun once again intended) in the show. Kevin Bush, well-known to Columbia audiences, steps outside his usual wheelhouse of lovable and/or sympathetic characters to portray Marley as an absolute scoundrel and hard-edged “bad guy,” retaining a definite gruffness even as his humanity blossoms. Having always been impressed with Bush’s talent, my respect and admiration for his versatility cannot be understated. This is a role unlike any I have ever seen him tackle, and he succeeds as only a true master of his craft can. (He’s also a very nice guy in real life, which made it even more darkly delightful to watch him channel a hateful old bastard like Marley.)

All the other characters are played by three actors who match Bush’s skill and stage presence. Krista Forster’s Bogle manages to be otherworldly, cute, menacing, and fun simultaneously. Her physicality and use of the playing space often suggested the movements of a spider, yet her vocal and facial expressions maintained an undercurrent of saucy friendliness. Bogle is sassy, playful, and hilarious at times, yet always clearly in command of the situation, as well as Marley’s trip through his memories. Forster approaches it subtly, but leaves no doubt that Bogle is in charge and fully at ease, which provides a nice contrast to Marley’s initially stern (but eventually pointless) resistance to his task. Richard Edward III delivers an appropriately nasty and duplicitous Scrooge who is somehow even more tyrannical than Dickens’ character, yet never crosses over the line to caricature. While definitely making the character his own, Edward embodies his role with several Spirits of Scrooge Past (that was the third one, so I promise, no more puns.) Hints of George C. Scott’s interpretation are there, as well as a dash of Albert Finney’s and a moment or two of Kelsey Grammer’s, all connected by the fresh work of Edwards, who obviously did his research and then added his own vision. Jeff Driggers’ Bob Cratchit is as endearing as one would expect, but Driggers somehow makes him more three-dimensional than the too-kindly-to-be-true Cratchit often seen in A Christmas Carol. This Cratchit comes across as more of a decent fellow who has accepted the fact that he must take whatever his employer dishes out, as opposed to a simpering innocent. One of the things that has always perplexed me about Cratchit is his loyalty to Scrooge. Even in 1840s London, demeaning, low-paying jobs were not impossible to find, so why did Cratchit work for the worst employer in the city? Driggers artfully justifies this by adding a slight resignation to his fate, leaving the audience with the impression that while he could likely do better, it just isn’t worth the risk of missing even a few day’s pay, and he has decided to just make the best of his lot. Without giving away which plays whom, which would ruin the fun, I must emphasize that Forster, Edward, and Driggers all bring the same artistry to each of their additional roles.

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On the technical side, Curtis Smoak’s lighting dovetails perfectly with Sam Hetler’s set, which is somewhat minimalist, but definitely evocative of the early Victorian era. As we follow Marley and Bogle, we visit a myriad of locales, which Smoak and Hetler manage to believably create. Costume Designer Jean Lomasto has, as usual, done outstanding work in dressing her actors in period style while maintaining the script’s eccentric nature, and Christine Hellman’s Hair Design deftly supports all of the above. This is a production crew that has obviously communicated well and brought the same sensibilities to each of their creations.

Director Patrick Michael Kelly has cast his show well, assembled a highly-skilled production team, and paced the show briskly, yet allows the actors to take the time they require in the moments where the audience needs to ponder and process what’s happening onstage. The smoothness of the production’s flow, and the undercurrent of suspense in what is, even in forced perspective, a well-known story are testimonials to Kelly’s vision and commitment to treating Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol as the fresh, new(ish) piece that it is.

There are quite a few dark moments, even more so than in the original story, so this may not be the show for pre-teens who still enjoy Frosty and Rudolph, but should delight both Dickens aficionados and those encountering Marley, Scrooge, and the Spirits for the first time. Tickets are sure to sell quickly, so don’t delay in making your reservations for this splendid addition to the holiday canon. (And yes, there’s always wine and popcorn.)

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Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER, and can be reached at FLT31230@Yahoo.com

Chapin Theatre Company Scores Yuletide Points with "A Charlie Brown Christmas"

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“If I were given the opportunity to present a gift to the next generation, it would be the ability for each individual to learn to laugh at himself.”

-          Charles M. Schulz

 

Ah! The Christmas season! A time for frantically shopping, decorating the house, attending holiday pageants and concerts, and generally working one’s self into a frenzy over creating the “perfect” Christmas experience. In our quest to achieve these goals, we often lose sight of the joy, warmth, and simple times that can bring us the greatest satisfaction. PEANUTS  creator, Charles Schulz, understood that the foibles and absurdities of human behaviour are universal, and that laughing at one’s own folly is not only good for the psyche, but also for the soul.

On 9 December, 1965, television viewers were introduced to the first animated special featuring Charlie Brown and the gang. A Charlie Brown Christmas was an immediate hit, and the cartoon has become a staple of “gather-the-family” holiday viewing. Though most of us will watch the TV special at least once this year, I encourage anyone who loves it (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) to check out Chapin Theatre Company’s live-action adaptation. The stage play is almost identical to the original, with maybe a few lines changed here and there, but very few. Purists will be pleased, and others (like yours truly) will feel the excitement of a scavenger hunt when catching the occasional rewrite or added dialogue.

The story is so well-known, it hardly bears repeating, but just in case, here’s the plot in a nutshell: Charlie Brown is depressed at his mid-December inability to find the Christmas spirit, so he turns to his friends, most of whom are caught up in the commercialism and benign greed that was, over 50 years ago, already beginning to overtake the holiday. After an unsuccessful visit with Lucy at her Psychiatric booth (“five cents, please,”) Charlie Brown finds hope when he is invited to direct the annual nativity play. Tasked with finding a tree, Charlie Brown and Linus set out for the market, where they come across a sad, droopy, little tree. Recognizing a fellow outcast, Charlie Brown brings his glorified pine branch back to rehearsal, where it is ridiculed by the rest of the cast. Linus speaks a few words from the Biblical account of the birth of Jesus, and then further lifts Charlie Brown’s spirits by bringing everyone together to decorate the tree, which miraculously becomes a vision of beauty. (And yes, they all sing “loo loo loo, loo loo loo loo loo” at the end.)

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Directors Meesh Hayes and Beth Strickland have created a beautiful homage to Schulz’s distinctive style, yet bring a few touches of their own to keep the story fresh. Kudos also to Costume Designer Tiffany Dinsmore for her nigh-upon-identical costumes that immediately evoke the cartoon, and Scenic Designer Bill Botts, who clearly went to great lengths to honour Schulz’s signature slightly wobbly line-drawing style, on everything from Snoopy’s doghouse to the 60’s “mod” holiday trees on display. This show and its spirit clearly aim to celebrate what inspired its creation.

An interesting side note: when auditions were held, all ages of children and adults were encouraged to audition, as Hayes and Strickland were open to a grown-up cast as well as a youthful one. In the end, the “teens and tweens” were chosen; a decision with which I heartily agree, having seen more than one fifty-something Linus dispensing wisdom to a Charlie Brown with slightly greying facial hair in various productions of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. This is not to suggest that adults can’t present an enjoyable evening with the PEANUTS kids, but seeing actors at or relatively near the characters’ ages added a specific twinkle of holiday cheer to the show.

The performances were uniformly solid, and I honestly bought into the show’s reality, essentially forgetting that these kids were born well after I graduated college. Audrey Thomas (Charlie Brown) and Michaela Grindstaff (Linus) make their trouser-role casting work beautifully, and while neither disguises the fact that they’re girls in real life, they embrace the characters with honesty and sincerity, making their actual genders immaterial. I saw Charlie Brown and Linus, period. They acted the roles as written, and succeeded. (I particularly loved the nod to the TV special, when Linus pronounces “…and they were so afraid” as “…and they were sore afraid.”) Lauren Bailey’s Lucy is just as cynical and hard-boiled as her comic strip counterpart, yet allows a touch of humanity to shine through. Juliana Mays (Sally) has only a few lines, but brings down the house when she asks Santa for money for Christmas, “preferably tens and twenties,” to be exact, and Skylar Raynor clearly has a blast in the role of Snoopy, with ever-faithful Woodstock (Ellee Burrows) in tow. The rest of the cast is talented, well-rehearsed, and maintain character(s) throughout.

By now you may be wondering “why go and see it if it’s the same as the cartoon?” To this I would answer that the stage play is professionally presented by an extremely talented group of young actors who deserve to be seen; a sentiment many seem to share, as a few upcoming performances have already sold out. It’s a bit of a drive out to the Firehouse Theatre (about half an hour from downtown Columbia,) but worth the trip.

On a personal note, I will add that the folks out at Chapin Community Theatre are welcoming, friendly, and proud of the work they’re doing. Before the show, I went to buy a hot chocolate, only to learn that credit/debit cards are not accepted. At the interval, a very kind lady asked if she could buy me a hot chocolate, apologizing for the lack of a credit card machine. That’s hospitality. That’s Christmas.

A Charlie Brown Christmas runs through this weekend, but you’d better hurry if you want tickets, as they’re going fast. Perhaps that’s because it’s not only a good production, but one that allows adults (and even some kids) to laugh at the qualities they share with Charlie Brown and the rest of Schulz’s assemblage of mini-adults. Merry Christmas, Mr. Schulz. You got your wish.

To reserve tickets, you can ring CCT on 803. 240. 8544, or email ChapinTheatre@att.net. . I saw “Cast Snoopy,” which features a few double-cast roles with “Cast Woodstock,” so if you’re going to see a specific actor, you may want to double-check the schedule.

 

Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER, and can be reached at FLT31230@yahoo.com

Better Late Than Never Review - Shakespeare in Love from USC

“I am very sorry, sir,” said Bob. I am behind my time.

-          Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Much like Bob Cratchit, I must apologize profusely to the cast and crew of USC’s outstanding production of Shakespeare In Love. After seeing last Sunday’s matinee, I planned to have a review ready within a couple of days. A series of storms, both literal and figurative, got in my way this week, and I’m afraid my review will serve more of an archival purpose than a promotional one. Nonetheless, the show deserves the accolades I have been carrying around in my head for six days, so here goes:

~~~

Based upon the Tom Stoppard film of the same title, Lee Hall’s Shakespeare In Love retains “about 90%” of Stoppard’s film dialogue, according to Kevin Bush, Marketing Director for USC’s Department of Theatre and Dance. The old adage of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is wisely heeded by Hall, who still manages to bring a freshness and slight opening-up of the film to his stage adaptation. Also impressive is the Elizabethan-meets-Techno music by composer Paddy Cunneen, which underscores (pun intended) the timelessness of not only Shakespeare’s works, but also the message that tumultuous love affairs existed well before gossip tabloids and tell-all books. Having live musicians onstage, augmenting the recorded bits was an excellent choice, and the overall aesthetic was that of an Elizabethan love story that could just as easily happen today.

Staying faithful to the movie’s plot, the play, a young William Shakespeare is having difficulty finishing his “comedy” of Romeo and Juliet. With opening night creeping ever closer, Shakespeare’s anxiety and frustration put production of the show into increasing unlikeliness, until he finds his muse in Viola, a young woman of the upper classes who disguises herself as “Thomas Kent,” and manages to land the role of Romeo (ironically, opposite a boy in female dress as Juliet, given the era’s ban on women performing onstage.) A romance quickly blossoms, despite Viola’s engagement to a nobleman whom she neither loves nor understands, and who  seeks her dowry to prop up his estate in the Colonies. As in the film, mistaken identities, double-and-triple layers of deception, and Shakespeare’s Cyrano-esque courtship of Viola (with his friend, Kit Marlowe, supplying romantic dialogue from a nearby hiding place,) propel the plot. As one might presume, chaos obviously ensues, but to paraphrase the title of another of The Bard’s works, all’s well that (almost) ends well, and though Viola does, indeed, depart for The New World, the ensuing heartbreak prompts Shakespeare to reconceptualize Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy, overcoming his writer’s block, and finishing what eventually becomes one of his most celebrated and oft-performed plays.

As Shakespeare, John Romanski is less the dashing Bard of legend, and much more an ordinary young artist, struggling to find fame and love. Bravo to Romanski for taking a role that could have been played as a whinier version of Charlie Brown mooning over The Little Red-Haired Girl, and embracing the joy and enthusiasm he has for his writing and performing troupe. Though not a doppelganger, Romanski’s look definitely offers a reasonable approximation of what Shakespeare may have looked like as a young man. I particularly enjoyed Romanski’s layering of emotions and reactions to the series of successes and failures his character faces. To say that his fortunes swing like a pendulum is an understatement, yet Romanski never makes his transitions from happiness to despair to fear to ecstasy jarring or overly sudden. He plays the subtlety of Shakespeare as expertly as the bombast, and never allows himself to veer into a parody or exaggerated comic version of the role.

Olivia Hensley’s Viola is another “perfect fit” for her role, with her pluck and determination paired with softness and genuine care for the playwright with whom she finds herself falling in love. Hensley’s look is gently beautiful, with the flowing hair and stylish dresses of an Elizabethan lady of means and stature, which makes her successful disguise as a boy even more impressive. As with Romanski, she never falls victim to caricature, but does change her voice and bodily movement to create both an elegant ingénue and a male commoner who is honestly believable. Her final letter to Shakespeare is a mini tour-de-force, and Hensley is spot-on with her delivery, mixing resignation, sadness, and “smiling against tears” into a brio of emotions that provide one of the show’s most touching moments.

Wessex, the “designated baddie” of the show, is brought to life by William Hollerung, who combines a scheming con man’s superficial charm with a few moments of genuine menace. You don’t like him very much, but you can almost feel sympathy for him, despite the atrocities he commits against Viola, and his overall pomposity and conniving. I would stop short of describing him as a comedic villain, but there is a sprinkling of bumbling humour underpinning his rogueish misdeeds, and Hollerung plays the laugh moments (an especially funny bit involving rotating clothing racks brought the house down Sunday afternoon) perfectly straight, which makes them even funnier. As the most ill-intentioned character in the show, he is ironically dressed in all white, reinforcing his outer layer of respectability. (Nice choice, Costume Designer Molly Morgan.)

The rest of the cast is uniformly solid, which speaks volumes of Director Andrew Schwartz’s skills at casting and direction, as well as the quality of education USC Theatre students are receiving. This was a good play, period; not just a “good college show.” I would personally place it in competition with most professional shows I have seen. The cast was well-rehearsed, the timing and delivery were impeccable across the board, and was over long before I wanted it to end.

Scenic Designer Nate Terracio’s set is semi-minimalist, with a few flourishes of grandeur, which perfectly reflects the events and encounters Shakespeare experiences throughout. I’m not sure whether or not that was the motivating force behind his design concept, but it was most effective in tying together the physical locations and the mindset of the protagonist.

Again, I offer my mea maxima culpa for my tardiness to all involved with this most enjoyable production. Yours faithfully promises to be Johnny-on-the-Spot with getting his job done next time. Bravi, Shakespeare In Love company! You truly created a work of which you can be quite proud.

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

 

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

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

-WillyWonka - Charlie And The Chocolate Factory

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

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

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

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

Machado and Morales with Robin Gottlieb

Machado and Morales with Robin Gottlieb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Machado and Hunter Boyle

Machado and Hunter Boyle

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW -- OnStage Production's Hairspray is a Jewel Worth the Trip

“…your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them.”

-Obi-Wan Kenobi,
“Star Wars: A New Hope”

Tracy sends a cheerful "Good Morning, Baltimore!" to her hometown.

Tracy sends a cheerful "Good Morning, Baltimore!" to her hometown.

Okay, I will freely admit that the first couple of times I attended a show at OnStage Productions, my eyes concealed a perfect gem, literally at my feet. When one arrives at The Old Mill in Lexington, it looks like someone converted a couple of ancient warehouses into an upscale brewpub, added a small shop or two, then called it a day. While these establishments do exist, there’s also something quite special just a few feet underground.

Housed in a renovated downstairs area, OnStage has created  the look, feel, and atmosphere of a cozy, hip, Off-Broadway house. The space is a bit cramped, and has a slightly “rough at the edges” feel, as I firmly believe all good playhouses should. Be prepared to sit close to your seatmates, but that’s all part of the aura and style OnStage has created in building what could easily be a 100-seat, upstairs, Greenwich Village theatre. Just set your personal space requirements to “NYC mode,” and you’ll have a blast.

 

Speaking of blasts, Director Robert Harrelson truly blew us away with Saturday night’s performance of Hairspray, The Musical, which continues its run this Thursday-Sunday. With a cast full of talent, and some most innovative staging, Harrelson makes the show work like a well-oiled machine. The set, though simple in design, effectively creates the show’s various locales through a quartet of four-sided columns, outstanding use of lighting to suggest a specific space, and a never-ending flow of kinetic energy from the cast, who all move things around just in time to be perfectly in place for the next scene. The action of the play never wanes, nor does the seemingly boundless energy of the cast. One of the highest compliments I can give a musical is that it “never stops moving,” which perfectly describes this version of Hairspray.

 

And of the performance, itself? Well, it had me singing along with half the score, and laughing uproariously, often at the most inappropriate jokes and one-liners. Again, I must sing Harrelson’s praises for DOING THE SHOW AS WRITTEN. Hairspray, the John Waters film which gave rise to the musical, was subversive as hell, made fun of cultural stereotypes, and embraced the taboo with mischievous glee. The musical has toned down a bit of Waters’ signature vulgarity, but keeps its norm-shattering and cheeky storyline intact. Harrelson has not altered the script in any way, nor has he “bleeped out” a single potentially-controversial line. This is Hairspray as it was written to be played, not a sanitized-for-grandma production. (Incidentally, I saw several grandma-types laughing and enjoying the show right along with me.) Bravo for Harrelson for his faithfulness to the work, and the ensuing quality that comes with that integrity.


Charity Gilbert, Laiyah Smith, and Jamila Wicker raise the roof as "The Dynamites."

Charity Gilbert, Laiyah Smith, and Jamila Wicker raise the roof as "The Dynamites."

The cast has some double-casting, with about half the roles being played at all performances, with others alternating between two actors. My friends and I saw “Cast A,” and they delivered a fast-paced, turbo-charged, roller coaster of a ride that I’m sure is matched in quality by “Cast B.”

Leading the cast as Edna Turnbladt is Bradley Watts (who shares the role with Jeffrey Sigley.) Watts is great fun to watch, and throws himself enthusiastically into the part. There’s a definite nod to Harvey Fierstein’s Edna, but Watts makes the role his own, not only vocally, but also through the creation of a slightly softer, somewhat less acerbic Edna than we’ve seen from other productions. Without ever losing the comedy or the no-nonsense personality, Watts gives us an Edna that retains her strength, but never at the cost of her femininity. Her rapport with husband Wilbur, played in both casts by Theodore Reynolds, is spot-on, and the two clearly trust each other as scene partners, creating a snapshot of the trust and affection between Edna and Wilbur. Reynolds is appropriately goofy without ever resorting to mugging for the audience, and makes Wilbur the lovable doofus with great success.

As Tracy Turnbladt, Whitney McDonald shines in a role she is clearly delighted to be playing. Her talent is undeniable, and she’s clearly confident in the character choices she has made. A “plus-sized” social warrior and crusader for justice, McDonald’s Tracy is also quite lovely. (Think Nigella Lawson meets a Designing Women-era Delta Burke, with a dash of Adele thrown in,) and serves as a perfect example of how beauty not only comes from within, but also that outer beauty can take many forms. McDonald allows Tracy a sweetness that never compromises her commitment to equality and progress. As for her vocals, one word. Wow! Harrelson has clearly followed the old theatrical adage of “cast the best singers first,” and McDonald can deliver on a ballad or belt the paint off the back wall, without ever losing pitch or sincerity. (Tracy is played on alternate nights by Katie Edelson.)

As foils for the Turnbladt women, we meet Velma and Amber Von Tussle, a former pageant star, and her beauty-queen daughter, Lisa Baker and Zanna Mills, respectively, who share the roles with Leslie Dellinger and JoJo Wallace. Baker brings down the house with her “Miss Baltimore Crabs” number, and Mills, who demonstrated her skill at playing sweet and innocent as Mary Ann in last season’s Gilligan’s Island: The Musical, shows that she can play “mean girl” Amber with equal aplomb. Mills also makes her debut as a choreographer in this production, and the result is a series of well-rehearsed, toe-tapping, fun choreography that almost pulls the audience members into the aisles to boogie down.

As David LaTorre performs with both casts, I can quite literally say that there isn’t a weak (L)ink in the show. (Thanks, folks, I’ll be playing here all week.) In what could easily be a standard, Richie Cunningham-esque boyfriend role, LaTorre find’s Link’s humanity in every sense of the word. Neither Superboy nor “bad boy,” Link finds himself at several personal and ethical crossroads, and LaTorre conveys well his sense of conflict, as well as his desire to do what is right, even if it costs him. Ara-Viktoria Goins is a somewhat sexier Motormouth Maybelle than devotees of Hairspray may be used to, but it works brilliantly with the character’s believe-in-yourself philosophy. Goins, like McDonald, has a huge voice that can shake the rafters, as well as purr seductively, as she demonstrates in her performance of “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful.”


Ara-Viktoria Goins as Motormouth Maybelle.

Ara-Viktoria Goins as Motormouth Maybelle.

Much of the social statements in Hairspray center around the budding romance between Seaweed Stubbs (Joshua Wright) and Penny Pingleton (Camryn Harsey, alternating with Kari Tilghman.) Seaweed is black, Penny is white, and it’s 1962, so there’s plenty of era-based controversy over their relationship. While never preachy or heavy-handed, their story strikes at the core message of the play, which is that what’s on the outside doesn’t matter. Both performers approach the material with a light touch, but their message of social justice, equality, and the strength of unity comes through loud and clear. Wright and Harsey both bring strong voices and considerable stage presence to their roles.

Debra Leopard and Mark DiNovo, as usual, turn in memorable, fully-realized, enjoyable characters. While Leopard is a hoot as Penny’s religious-fanatic mother (and also shines in a smaller role as the High School principal,) DiNovo had me doubled over with laughter every time he took the stage. His two “bonus” roles in “Good Morning, Baltimore” and “The Big Doll House” are absolute side-splitters, and his lame-clad Mr. Spritzer is a delight. Linda Lawton Brochin serves up a couple of hilarious cameos, and Karlton Timmerman’s Corny Collins hits all the right notes as a smarmy-but-charming dance show host, and manages to show off a very nice singing voice, as well.

Were there a few negatives? Yes, but none that marred the experience. The musicians (yes, Hairspray utilizes live musicians, which I strongly support) could be a bit overpowering at times, but to be fair, we were seated fairly close to them. A couple of the soloists had to struggle with a note that was too high or too low, and I occasionally missed a lyric or two. There was one small glitch during a scene change, but by the time I even noticed, it had been corrected.

OnStage Productions is a short, 20-minute drive from Downtown Columbia, and I strongly encourage everyone to make that drive. Hairspray is slick, polished, well-paced, and provides a subtle reminder of the importance of equality and acceptance in society.

 

Hairspray concludes its run this Thursday-Sunday. Tickets can be purchased by visiting www.onstagesc.com

Frank Thompson is Theatre Editor for Jasper.

Next up for the Jasper Project?

Keith Tolen is our first featured artist in the

Tiny Gallery Series

Thursday, October 4th in

Studio #7 of Tapp’s Arts Center https://www.facebook.com/events/975033929365281/

Something like a review - Cassie Premo Steele's Tongues in Trees, poems 1994 - 2017

"... Coin by coin, drop your worth into the jar of your heart and feel the equity begin. You are not a commodity...."

from Trust, by Cassie Premo Steele

 

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I’ve been enjoying spending some time the past week or so with Cassie Premo Steele’s newest collection of poetry, Tongues in Trees, poems 1994 – 2017, published by Unbound Content in 2017. I nabbed a copy from Cassie on First Thursday when Cassie, along with Randy Spencer, so generously read for Kathryn Van Aernum’s opening of Common Ground at Anastasia & Friends. Kathryn’s show will be up for the rest of August, by the way, if you missed this lovely look at the places where we put our feet on a daily basis.

Cassie’s collection is divided into three sections—1994-2004, 2006-2016, and 2017. I met Cassie during the second section of this book when she taught me two classes in the women’s and gender studies graduate certificate program at USC – theory and methods. It was an interesting experience to learn theory and methods from an instructor who was not a social scientist. My first two degrees were in sociology and sociologists live and die by theory and methods. The scientific method validates our work when novices want to compare our work to the findings of Oprah. I was all about the N.

But one of the things Cassie taught me was that there are other important ways to validate reality in addition to statistical significance. And her point was well taken. Just because a person’s reality does not reside within the safe neighborhood of the majority does not negate their reality. Of course, I knew this already but her way of reminding me this, after the fully immersive experience of being a survey research wonk, changed my world. And I thank her for that.

 

Cassie Premo Steele (photo by Suzanne Kappler)   

Cassie Premo Steele (photo by Suzanne Kappler)

 

In reading Cassie’s collection, I’ve become aware of how much the author’s world has also changed in the time I’ve known her. Without going into personal details, Cassie’s paradigm shifted in several ways over the course of our friendship. And it shifted beautifully to a place of fulfillment and authenticity. Her collection of poems and their shifting persuasions are elegantly emblematic of her growth as a scholar, an artist, and a human being. The nature of this book continues to teach me (remind me) about the importance of fluidity, of being in the moment, of keeping my feet close to the ground but still floating gently enough above it that I can still move easily and purposefully, exploring places and realities from many perspectives, even the most lonely and quiet.

I don’t know how to thank this poet, this friend, for such an important and powerful lesson.

But I can share with you my favorite poem from this lovely collection which is, probably not coincidentally, the next to last poem in the book. This poem tells me that patience should not be so exalted that it becomes a bog of our best intentions, and it reminds me once again that constructs, when they are first born, are made of wishes and fumes. We add the bricks and mortar. And we can tear them down. - CB

 

World

By Cassie Premo Steele

 

I see your boots by the bed and I shed years of straightening

up not sitting till it was right the spoon out of the sink the towel

on the rack the peanut butter capped the coat in the closet the plants

watered and animals fed but none of this straightened me so I threw

spoons until a visitor came and it was you and we threw towels

on the floor ate everything with our fingers took boxes from the

closet and let a spring come up to feed and water the world.

 

~~O~~

www.cassiepremosteele.com

 

Cindi Boiter is the founder and executive director of The Jasper Project and the editor of Jasper Magazine.

 

The Jasper Project is a non-profit all-volunteer organization that provides collaborative arts engineering for all disciplines of arts and artists in the South Carolina Midlands and throughout the state. Please help us continue to meet our mission of validating the cultural contributions of all artists and growing community within the arts by becoming a member of the Jasper Guild .  We'll print your name in the magazine, thank you on social media, and love you forever!

www.JasperProject.org

 

 

Review: Workshop Theatre's String of Pearls

Frank Thompson is a frequent theatre critic for JASPER, who is reviewing for his "home theatre.” Mr. Thompson wishes to freely disclose that he is employed as Box Office Manager for Workshop, is a frequent director with the company, and serves as Vice-President of the Board of Trustees. He has put on his blinders for what he thinks is a fair and unbiased review, and will do his best to deliver.

string of pearls.jpg

 

STRING OF PEARLS

 Presented by Workshop Theatre at Columbia College’s Cottingham Theatre, runs this Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets can be purchased by calling (803) 799.6551

 

****

 

   A “McGuffin” is a term used mostly in film, to describe a single object or event around which a story revolves. The titular jewels in Workshop Theatre’s String Of Pearls serve just such a purpose, as a bevy of female characters find their disparate lives impacted by the temporary stewardship of a string of perfect pearls. Through the passing of several decades, we see the pearls elicit joy, sorrow, confusion, and hope, along with a multitude of different emotions and reactions from twenty-seven women, played by an ensemble of six actresses. Ellen Rodillo-Fowler, Cathy Carter Scott, Christine Hellman, Krista Forster, Sandra Suzette Hamlin-Rivers, and Alyssa Velazquez, each at the top of her game, manage to create believable, three-dimensional characters, some of whom we get to know quite well, and others we glimpse for only a moment or two. Each, however, helps to move along the plot, and there is scarcely a wasted word in the script, which makes for a streamlined, well-paced production.

  Director Zsuzsa Manna has obviously put a great deal of thought and research into bringing each character, no matter how minor, into her overall vision. Watching the chameleon-like changes each actress made physically, vocally, and stylistically, truly created the illusion of a much larger cast. (Having known, and/or worked with most of the cast, even I had to occasionally squint and ask myself “now which one is that?”) Special commendation to Costume Designer Alexis Docktor, who created multiple eras and class levels, each of which were appealing and period-appropriate. Helping her create the magic is Wig Designer, Christine Hellman, whose skills clearly are not limited to performing. At one point, Velasquez, a natural brunette, sported thick, flowing, blonde locks that could have easily passed for a 1970s’ Farrah Fawcett hairdo, and Rodillo-Fowler’s scruffy pink punk ‘do is a true work of retro art.

   The set is simple, but effective. Two small platforms, a handful of moderately-sized props, and two elegant sheer curtains provide the representation for dozens of locales. Minimalism works well with this script, allowing the acting to shine as the central focus. Scenic and Sound Designers, Zsuzsa Manna and Dean McCaughan, respectively), have taken a subtle and most effective approach, with minor changes of lighting and/or the tiny ding of a single bell completely transforming the scene.

   Lest I seem completely biased, I will say that String Of Pearls is not flawless. At Sunday’s matinee, a line or two got dropped, but quickly corrected, and the occasional entrance seemed a bit late, most likely due to costume change issues, which tend to smooth out by any show’s second weekend.

   A word to parents, the extremely conservative, and the easily-offended. String Of Pearls contains a fair amount of grown-up dialogue, some of it extremely straightforward, and several adult situations. And yes, the pun you’re probably chuckling about right now is, indeed, mentioned in detail. (You may want to leave the pre-teens at home for this one, and let them enjoy Workshop’s June production of Shrek, Jr. )

   Columbia College’s Cottingham Theatre is a comfortable, easily-located facility (just GPS 1301 Columbia College Drive, and you’ll be able to drive straight to the door), and the acoustics are top-notch. Even stage whispers could be easily heard. The sight lines are clear, and the seats a bit small, but comfy. That said, it’s an older building without all the fancy bells and whistles that have now become industry standard, and has a slightly-frayed-at-the-edges feel, though I personally find that to be a charming asset to any theatre.

   String Of Pearls is a perfect show for those seeking an intelligent, funny, grown-up look at life. It made me think of the internet meme with words for familiar, but difficult-to-describe, feelings, specifically sonder, which is "the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own." Originally from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, sonder has now entered the vernacular, and it was sonder that I felt while watching the show. One object, twenty-seven complex individuals, and one hilarious, poignant, thought-provoking trip through a cornucopia of human experiences.

-FLT3

21 May, 2018

REVIEW: The Restoration's Constance - An Original Musical

by Jon Tuttle

Constance for Trustus.jpg

Eight years and several iterations after its 2010 debut, the Restoration’s Constance is finally and fully on its feet at Trustus, and it is a monolith.  

 

A fictional musical saga set in Reconstruction-era Lexington, the play defies summation except to say they’re all there, all those primal southern tropes, like bigotry, miscegenation, old money, zealotry, revenge, hypocrisy, and violence.   It’s unwieldy and exhausting and overwhelming and an excellent example of what theatre is for. 

 

It’s elemental, is what it is.   It begins with fire—the actual fire set by Sherman’s troops in 1865 at St. Stephen’s Church—and ends in flood, the drowning of an entire town by an embittered native son.   It is earth, in its emphasis on home and land and the genius of place.    And it is air, or rather ayre, an aural palette of (how to describe it?) Americana/heartland/folk balladry. 

 

That Constance is a protracted labor of love between two old friends--Trustus Artistic Director Chad Henderson and The Restoration founder Daniel Machado--becomes obvious in its attention to detail and commitment of resources.   Henderson wrote the book, quilting together Machado’s songs with dialogue so assured you can’t hear the writing.  In directing it, he deployed many of the theatrical gadgets in his Swiss Army knife.  And he hired Tom Beard, always a pro, as musical director, and Jessica Bornick, whose costumes are terrific.  The result is a multi-media, multi-modal theatrical tsunami, more akin to Bernstein’s Mass than to the last musical you saw.

 

The flood scene, for instance, is magnificently effectuated by the “floating” of church pews by members of the ensemble.   The fire is a combination of lighting mayhem, percussive stomping, urgent strings and

choreography.   Virtually every scene introduces a fresh visual element--Brechtian projections, newsreel footage, scrim silhouettes, a cascade of flying paper, and (this was brilliant) an unruly mob armed with creepy flashlights marauding the auditorium.  Meanwhile, hanging ominously on the back wall: heavy ropes, impossible to ignore in a play about race.

 

And there are unmistakable references to Our Town, appropriate in such a panoramic homage to our town, such as the adult Constance’s observation of herself at different ages, or the funeral scene, or in Paul Kaufman’s (riveting) Reverend Harper, at first a unifying and benevolent consciousness presiding over these affairs like Wilder’s Stage Manager,  later reduced by time and tribulation to a ragged, wild-haired, raging alcoholic howling about the “Werewolf of Ballentine” and looking as horrifically grizzled as Steve Bannon on a good day.   

 

The cast itself is colossal, consisting of twenty-five actors led by Trustus veterans Kaufman and, in the role of the adult Constance Owen, Vicky Saye Henderson, whom I cannot review fairly because her singing beguiles me.   I think, however, she might be magnificent because what I wanted most was more of her.  

 

And here begin my apprehensions.  

 

The play is actually two, each its own act.  In the first, we meet teenage Constance (played by Brittany Hammock) and her love interest, the mixed-race Aaron Vale (Mario McClean).  So convincing is their chemistry, so harmonious their voices, so solid their performances, that the play is never better than when they are on stage.  Indeed, their scenes together provide the evening’s best moments and melodies (like “I Can’t Stop Wanting You”).  If such actors are the inheritors of Trustus’ reputation, then the theatre is in excellent hands. 

 

But the first act is so long as to test the limits of the even the most heroic middle-aged prostate.   This being a work-still-in-progress, further pruning is likely to be done.  A good place to start, so say I, would be the subplot involving a local troupe’s production of Othello, which seems to ape Waiting for Guffman and features the embarrassing caricature of a flaming primo uomo.  Or perhaps the glimpses we are given into the troubled marriage of Col. and Mrs. Palmer, he a pompous developer with an eye for the colored help, she a pious shrew competing for his attention.   To be fair, their story is actually quite compelling, particularly as it is embodied by Stan Gwynn and Len Marini, but it tries to compete with the real story here, that being Constance and Aaron’s, whose secret wedding in a short, lovely benedictory would have made an excellent act-closer.  And should have.  

 

Better there, so say I, than much later, at Aaron’s death scene, and for two reasons.  One is that it’s odd.  No sooner has he suffered an infarction than he calls for his guitar, sits up, and begs Constance, through song, not to “let my music die with me.  Don’t let it go into the ground with me.  Write it down, write it down, write it down for me.”   It’s a fine piece of music, but it would have made more sense had it been sung a capella, since he’s, you know, dying.  And until that point he hadn’t really identified so strongly with his music.  He took more pride, or so I thought, in his skills as a builder.   

 

At any rate, I was sorry to see him go, partly because I really liked him, but mostly because I knew the play had just created for itself a considerable structural challenge.  Conventional Dramatic Wisdom dictates that a second act must trump the first; it must quicken the themes and conflicts already established and more deeply develop its characters.   But now a romantic lead was dead, so that story was over.  Where to now? 

 

Conventional Dramatic Wisdom can be wrong, of course. Witness Robert Schenkkan’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Kentucky Cycle, a play very similar in texture and scope.  It’s actually nine different, barely-connected plays spanning two-hundred years and running six hours.  It shouldn’t work, but it does, and Constance shares its DNA.   And it attempts the same sort of narrative teleportation:  in Act II we are introduced to Thomas Vale, Constance and Aaron’s quadroon son, who now becomes our protagonist because Constance is glimpsed only rarely.

 

In an opening duet, ten-year-old Thomas (Henry Melkomian) and his friend Henry (Christopher Hionis) sing (quite well) that “I don’t understand” why race would separate people, and that refrain interweaves gracefully through the rest of the play, which is essentially a catalogue of young Thomas’ frustrations. These are (a) the death, in war, of Henry; (b) unrequited affection for Willodean, on account of the one-drop rule; (c) the foreclosure on the family home, and (d) there’s this hooker.   And so the stage is set for the violent climax, and when it comes, it’s a cathartic sensory spectacle played out before Constance’s eyes so that the full measure of her loss can be realized.   The whole act has the shape of a perfectly plausible plotline, the closing of a long and vicious circle, really the story of the South itself.

 

And yet….

 

Perhaps there are again too many distractions.   At one point, for instance, two of Colonel Parker’s mill hands interrupt a New Year’s Eve party bearing a bag of bloody cotton testifying to the death of Flora, the object of his unreconstructed lust.   But because the contents of the bag better resemble the offal of a difficult liposuction, his grief seems comical.  And then, for instance, there’s a song about Little Round Shoes, which “I don’t understand.”    And the cast turns over almost completely, as generations do, and I get that, but I kept wondering where Constance went.   When in the coda she is discovered, years later, recounting her story to a stranger on a train, she feels like a stranger on a train. 

 

And yet, and yet.

 

“Constance” means fidelity, commitment, perseverance, which perhaps explains the sensation of comfort attendant to our last encounter with her.   It is comforting, at play’s end, to look back upon her life and see so many familiar stories there, and so much sorrow, and more than that, so much goodness. 

 

The theatre’s purpose is tell stories of other people so that we can find designs for living our own real stories—which are unwieldy and exhausting and overwhelming.  They are epic poems, is what they are, and one ought to appreciate a piece of art that sings one.   

 

Constance may become a permanent part of Trustus’ repertoire, a play it can return to in years to come, and it ought to, because it’s uniquely theirs, and it’s ours, and it’s really quite extraordinary. 

 

Jon Tuttle is Professor of English and Director of University Honors at Francis Marion University and former Literary Manager at Trustus Theatre, where his play BOY ABOUT TEN will premier in August.

 

 

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

by Connie Mandeville

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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: Columbia City Ballet's Cleopatra featuring Ballerina Regina Willoughby's Retirement Performance

by Susan Lenz

Regina Willoughby taking her final bow for her performance in Cleopatra on March 24, 2018 (photo courtesy of Julia Gulia)

Regina Willoughby taking her final bow for her performance in Cleopatra on March 24, 2018 (photo courtesy of Julia Gulia)

Last night, Ballerina Regina Willoughby couldn’t hold all the flowers presented at the conclusion of her farewell performance of Columbia City Ballet’s Cleopatra. She carefully laid those in her arms atop the mound of roses company dancers had placed at her feet. She gracefully stepped around the pile for one last bow. Artistic Director William Starrett addressed the standing ovation with words of praise for her long career and sparkling personality, and Mayor Stephen Benjamin presented the Key to the City. Many in the audience wiped away tears as the curtain was lowered. 

 

I hadn’t seen such an emotionally charged scene since Prima Ballerina Mariclare Miranda’s 2006 retirement performance of Giselle. Here in Columbia, the audience seems to know how to respond to the last show in a principal dancer’s life and to the talent they just witnessed. Regina Willoughby was certainly the star in the production. The title role was set on her in 2008 and reprised in 2010. I remember these evenings rather well.

 

Regina Willoughby was brilliant as Cleopatra in all three seasons, dancing as if she’d already found the Egyptian secrets of an ageless afterlife. Her blunt cropped coiffure by Brittany Mocase Luskin of Studio B at the Old Mill was again perfect. It is little wonder that Regina selected this production for her final appearance. Unfortunately, her Act I partner was not as convincing as past years when Robert Michalski (2008) and Peter Kozak (2010) danced the role of Julius Caesar. Also missing was the excitement and technical abilities seen when William Moore, Jr. danced the part of Ptolemy, Cleopatra’s scheming younger brother. Frankly, the male roles were lack luster until principal Bo Busby stepped onto the stage as Marc Antony. Then, the partnering seamlessly sizzled. Their pas de deux was the highlight of the evening and lived up to a performance worthy of the retirement hype.

 

Otherwise, much of the choreography was to be in unison or to feature corp de ballet dancers racing across the stage, one-after-the-other in a strong diagonal line. In these instances, it is too easy to see lack of synchronization. Much of the ballet appeared to need additional rehearsal time. The canned music was also problematic. It seemed to need a bit of professional mixing for smoother transitions from melody to melody.

 

Problems aside, the evening was a lovely way to celebrate a ballerina’s retirement. Columbia City Ballet and local audiences will undoubtedly miss Regina Willoughby but will happily welcome principal Claire Richards and newly appointed principal Bonnie Boiter-Jolley into leading ladies. As Cleopatra’s handmaidens, they complimented one another perfectly. I look forward to seeing them during the 2018-19 season’s productions of Dracula: Ballet with a Bite; The Nutcracker; Sleeping Beauty; and the world premier of Beatles: The Ballet.

 

My recent interview with Regina Willoughby included well wishes and fond memories from dancers who have moved away or retired. Since then, I’ve received a few more quotes.

 

Pat Miller Baker wrote: Only once in a blue moon does a ballerina like Regina come along. She made her mark in every role she danced and the memories of her portrayals along with her physicality and artistry shall remain in all of our minds and hearts forever. I have loved being her teacher, coach and friend.  (Pat Miller elegantly appeared in last night’s production as Calpurnia, Wife of Caesar, a character role demanding exquisite dramatic acting.)

 

Journy Wilkes-Davis wrote: Some of the first big roles in my career I danced with Regina and it was her confident experience that allowed me to grow as a partner. She is a daredevil in the studio and onstage and the intensity she brings to every role pushed me to take risks as a partner where I had previously would have played it safer. I have great memories of dancing Arthur opposite her Lucy in Dracula or Romeo to her Juliet where it was inspiring to match the commitment she brought to her character and build a believable story for the audience. She taught by example how to throw caution to the wind and live in the moment onstage, a gift I will carry with me the rest of my career.

 

William Moore, Jr. wrote: I will start off by saying that it was a pleasure sharing the stage with Regina for several years! Notably our performance of Cleopatra was an unforgettable process and I am honored that I had that awesome opportunity early in my career. Love Regina dearly and I wish her the best in her retirement!
Love, William Moore Jr, former dancer, current music producer

REVIEW: Anatomy of a Hug at Trustus Theatre

96782e2e6608539536c186e458b4b0f1 By Jon Tuttle

You know how this will end.  You know when you meet her that Amelia, a thirty-something emotional shut-in, will journey from estrangement to engagement.   And still, in the closing moments of Anatomy of a Hug, when all of the obvious signs have directed you to that inevitable conclusion, you are thrilled.   Kat Ramsburg’s original script is the most engaging Trustus Playwrights’ Festival winner in recent memory and makes for a powerful evening of theatre.

The play ends, as it must, of course it must, with an embrace. But not the one you think, and not the one on the playbill, where Dewey Scott-Wiley, as Sonia, a dying ex-con, hugs daughter Amelia, played by Rebecca Herring. The play begins as these two are reunited through a Compassionate Release program, owing to the former’s late-stage ovarian cancer. Sonia functions through the rest of the play as an hourglass: we sense, as her condition diminishes, the denouement quickly approaching.

And so there is an urgency to the action: the play, you feel, must hurry up to solve the riddle of Amelia.  But it doesn’t. Instead, Ramsburg exploits that urgency by patiently and methodically assembling her characters, and Herring quite marvelously inhabits a young woman suffering from technology-induced autism. Her mother having spent twenty-six years in prison for killing her father, Amelia has been shunted from one foster home to another. Along the way, she has counted on television to provide her with a social circle and a recognizable (or at least predictable) plotline. Her extensive DVD collection is full of friends she can “check in with” and who are “always there when you need them.” In a particular touching revelation, we learn that it was TV’s Roseann who told her about menstruation and that Sex and The City’s Aidan was her first boyfriend.

As a Save The Children-style telemarketer, Amelia is quite adept at constructing compelling narratives that convince strangers to “adopt” children in Burundi for only $35 a month. She is so earnest and knows so little of real emotional intimacy that she can, without the slightest sense of irony, peddle children half-a-world away.   It’s only when a co-worker, Ben, begins courting her that we see how lost she is. Her problem is not that she has walls; she has nothing to build them with.  She simply doesn’t know how to be. As she tells Ben, “I don’t have any other stories” than the ones she lives through on TV.

Ben is played here by Patrick Michael Kelly in an affecting return to Trustus’ stage after several years in New York, and in Ben’s trajectory we sense the underpinnings of the production itself. In the early going, he bumbles onstage like The Honeymooners’ Ed Norton. He is, well, cartoonish—or as Amelia calls him, “like someone in a sitcom—there’s something not quite real about you.”  And that’s because there’s nothing quite real about the staging.

Director Chad Henderson, along with some inventive scene, sound, and lighting design by Baxter Engle and Marc Hurst, plays Brecht for us. The backdrop is a test-pattern, the lights are exposed, and we assume the role of a studio audience even to the extent that we are instructed (by electronic light boards) when to applaud and laugh. At first, that conceit doesn’t work.  It pushes us—Brecht would say alienates us—out of the play itself. We are asked to laugh at lines that aren’t that funny, to applaud beats that don’t deserve it. We are placed, that is, in an emotionally-manufactured setting where we simply don’t know if our responses are appropriate.

Just like Amelia.

Along the way, though, the production changes just as Ben does. Kelly plays Ben as two people: an irritating, schmaltzy showman protecting someone much more wounded and sincere.  About the time we discover ourselves warming up to him, we notice also that our responses aren’t being coached anymore: all the studio trappings have fallen away, and we have been allowed into the world of the play.

Sure there are problems, there must always be problems. Some may find the television studio elements too intrusive. While Brecht insisted that we must always be shown that we are being shown something, his best plays often ignored that advice. As Sonia, the catalyst for Amelia’s ultimate emotional re-integration, Scott-Wiley’s not given much to do except break the damned TV and die (which she does quite movingly. The woman sitting next to me was downright weepy.) And the story she tells about the murder charge that landed her a life-sentence doesn’t quite add up; it sounds more like vehicular manslaughter, the sort of thing you could plea-bargain out of, particularly if you have a daughter who needs you.

And there are times when Ramsburg forgets the thing she does best: knowing what to leave out. She is very good at minimizing exposition and keeping us Here In This Moment, but through the latter third of the play—as Amelia finds her voice—I felt I was once again being coached on how to feel and respond.   Still, the writing here is very assured, and Ramsburg’s play is a threnody for those like Amelia crippled by a culture that artificializes family and belonging and what Arthur Miller called the congealments of warmth.

If the opening night standing ovation is any indication, Trustus’ production has done it considerable justice. Herring’s Amelia is someone we know better than she knows herself, and that’s some trick.  As a woman destroyed by disease and hallucinating on painkillers and flashbacks, Sonia is lucky to have Scott-Wiley. Kelly’s Ben shows us a broken man trying hard to be someone more charming and charismatic than he really is.  And Iris—well, Iris is difficult in that she is a primarily just a functionary, equal parts social worker, DOC case manager, and hospice nurse.  But Annette Grevious ably humanizes her and establishes a presence that quilts these torn pieces together.

At bottom, Anatomy of a Hug is a boy meets/gets/loses/gets girl story.  Like many modern plays, this play gives us two quirky lovers fighting through the obstacles within and without and arriving at last in each other’s arms. And yet it feels new. It allows us to identify with that part of our psyche that is permanently awkward or stunted or doesn’t know what to do with its hands, and, in the end, it grants us compassionate release.

Jon Tuttle is Professor of English at Francis Marion University and former Literary Manager at Trustus Theatre, which has produced five of his plays.  

Review: Justin Townes Earle @ Music Farm 2/20/15

Photo Credit: Joshua Black Wilkins Singer/songwriter Justin Townes Earle arrived in town hot on the heels of the release of two new albums, the tandem pair of Single Mothers and Absent Fathers, both of which take a leaner approach in terms of sound and arrangement than the genre hopscotching of Harlem River Blues and the soul turn of Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now.

Fittingly, then, he took the stage with just one sideman—the sturdy pedal steel and electric guitarist Paul Niehaus, a prolific session player whose solos shined bright but never overtake the spotlight. And even though Earle is a gifted guitarist in his own right, much of the night’s focus was on his inimitable vocal delivery, something which has become increasingly more pronounced in recent years. He's formidable even when he's singing straight, but its the masterful, swooping shifts in volume and timbre that are his secret weapons, livening up even the most plainspoken of tales with melancholy ache and longing. Often during the set it seemed as if he was deliberately slackening the tempo in order to wring even greater nuance out of his singing, something which suggests a certain joy in the act of performing that feels cozy and comfortable even in the cavernous walls of the Music Farm.

And while the music had an almost reverential quality to it—Earle seems to be downplaying some of his more humorous and ribald material this time around—his between-song banter with the crowd more than made up for it, as whimsical asides provided new perspectives on tunes like “Christchurch Women” and “Am I That Lonely Tonight?” while he turned tender in introducing  “Learning to Cry” as his wife’s favorite tune followed by what he said was his mother’s, “Mama’s Eyes.” While those moments were poignant, he also tacked on to the latter that “Nashville spreads bastard children like sprinklers.” The combination of emotional openness and hardened wit that serves his songs so well was quite apparent.

Earle appeared to be working without a set list for much of the night, and the show pulled fairly evenly across his albums save for his twangy debut LP. Highlights abounded, particularly when Niehaus was at his most effective, like on “Memphis in the Rain” and “Burning Pictures,” but workhorses like “Harlem River Blues” and Earle’s familiar take on “Can’t Hardly Wait” were clearly the biggest crowd pleasers.

The only thing lacking was one of his bruising confessional ballads (“Won’t Be the Last Time,” “Who Am I To Say”), but that could be chalked to an increasingly large catalog of songs to pull from. Here’s to hoping the presence of the Music Farm means we’ll be seeing Earle here again soon.

Indie Grits Review: The Great Flood, Screened at The Nick on Monday, April 14, 2014

cover One of the things that I have always loved about the film selections at Indie Grits is their desire to tell the stories about the South that have been pushed to the margins or swept under the rug, stories that can often feel jarring alongside the version of the region romanticized in Gone with the Wind or mocked in Bravo’s Southern Charm reality series. It’s a braver, weirder, and more exciting version of the South that Indie Grits is interested in, with a no-holds-barred examination of its past.

It’s fitting, then, that the first screening of the 2014 festival is of Bill Morrison’s The Great Flood, which looks at the devastating flooding of the Mississippi River over the course of the spring of 1927. It’s a beautiful and evocative film comprised almost exclusively of archival footage, much of which was pulled from the Fox Movietone collection housed at the University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collections. Morrison manages to tell a painterly version of the disaster, with no voice over and spare use of placards, that subtly yet powerfully captures its social, political, and racial effects.

The film begins with a CGI version of the flood that interlaces recreated overhead shots and maps before cutting to the newsreels, where there are dedicated sections to sharecroppers, the 1927 Sears Roebuck catalog, levee construction, evacuations, politicians exploiting the tragedy, the unnecessary dynamiting of the levees in the Poydras area, the aftermath, and the migration of African-Americans into northern cities. While Morrison elegantly constructs a compelling narrative from his occasionally disparate material, it’s the extensiveness and poignancy of the footage itself that really inspires—the different approaches these cameramen take when documenting the sharecroppers (some of which was surprising humanizing, although other moments felt like outtakes from Birth of a Nation), the deteriorated film from long takes shot shot from rescue boats, the repeated looks of bewilderment from folks, black and white, who are losing everything and being filmed as it happens. Much of it has a surprising aesthetic beauty and humanity that recalls the work of the best photojournalists, although there's often a sense of distance and objectivity that can be equally heartbreaking. At times it is difficult to tell whether the original takes have been manipulated a bit, as the water can seem too slow or too fast to be real, and the quality of the footage varies from remarkably detailed to quite grainy. Regardless, the constant shifting of material keeps the audience on their toes and fully engaged.

The film also benefits in large part, given the lack of words and explicit narrative, from the arresting score composed by guitarist Bill Frisell, which was worked out over a series of rough cuts shown in advance by Morrison and ultimately recorded live at a screening in Seattle. Mostly featuring Frisell’s signature tone manipulations and the languid trumpet and cornet playing of Ron Miles, as well as Tony Scherr on bass and Kenny Wollesen pulling double-duty on drums and vibraphone, the quartet mainly focuses on capturing the haunting spirit of much of the footage, although they build to more distorted and fiery climaxes when the physical film itself begins to get too degraded or stark, and they also provide a couple of sprightly jazz during two appropriate sections (the jauntily cynical politicians section and the rapid-cut sequence on the Sears Roebuck catalog).

While the film’s experimental nature means it likely won’t be for everywhere, it’s hard not to think about the power it holds as historical documentation and social and political argument. Whether paired with the study of literature from that time period like William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms or William Alexander Percy’s autobiography Lanterns on the Levee, or with the modern-day explorations of Hurricane Katrina or the impacts of global warming, Morrison’s work deserves a wider audience and further interrogation. –Kyle Petersen

Jasper Literary Editor Ed Madden Reviewed in The State, Salon on Thursday, April 10 @ 7 pm

NEST Join Jasper Magazine - The Word on Columbia Arts on April 10 to hear Columbia poet and Jasper literary arts editor Ed Madden read from his new book of poetry, Nest, just published this spring by Salmon Poetry of Ireland. This will be Ed's first reading from the new book in South Carolina, which was recently reviewed in The State newspaper. Celebrate National Poetry Month with Jasper by joining us for this debut reading!

Join us for drinks at 7 with a reading starting at 7:30 followed by a Q & A with the author. Free.

Nest Snip