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April 10th, 2008

Now that’s how you write an intriguing title. Underneath the Lintel, a one-man show written by Glen Berger and directed by Casey Sams, is the current mainstage offering at North Carolina Stage Company. It stars Terry Weber as a rather obsessive-compulsive librarian in pursuit of a patron who has returned a book – in the overnight drop, no less – 113 years late. Without wanting to give too much away, this quest ends up taking him on a tortuous, personal sojourn through, at different turns, existentialism, faith, and the need for legacy, however small.

The script is well-crafted and well-paced. The review in the New York Times of (I believe) the first production of the show, at the SoHo Playhouse, states: “’Underneath the Lintel’ … is the kind of piece that works harder to be winning than it does to be heartfelt or original. A tale of a picaresque journey that evolves into a spiritual quest, it is, as a script, a writerly muscle-flexer, one in which you can imagine the playwright applying charm and erudition to the narrative as though he were following a recipe for audience-pleasing.” It goes on to critique that “the playwright's ingenuity never ferries the audience into unexplored territory. That the experience of life on earth is characterized by a desperate attempt to leave a mark, that mortality makes every second valuable, that love is our only available salve – these are the various strains of the playwright's message here, and they are delivered without any individuated nuance. They're canned themes.” I can kind of see what the critic is saying; however, I didn’t take the play to be an attempt at a new or innovative perspective on grand universal themes as much as I did an exploration of this individual’s journey. In that light, I found it particularly compelling and a surprising character study. It is most certainly carefully and deliberately written, but I do not find fault in that.

The subtle mood and thematic changes of the piece grab the audience’s attention and truly don’t let it go till the end, no small feat for a 90-minute monologue. Lighting and sound design enrich the experience, as the show becomes more “theatrical” as the librarian’s quest becomes more complex and introspective. Terry Weber gives a fine, multi-layered performance, bringing to full life both the comedy and pensiveness of the character.

April 8th, 2008

Kimberly Akimbo

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Kimberly Akimbo, written by David Lindsay-Abaire and directed by Jason Williams, is currently running at ACT’s 35 Below. The script is a bit like a MadTV sketch run amok, with a little Lifetime Original Movie thrown in for good measure, but the production manages to elevate it at least to entertaining, if not to some of the emotional depth perhaps the playwright hoped for.

Briefly, Kimberly is a 16-year-old girl with a rare condition where she ages four times faster than normal. Add some dysfunctional parents, her ex-con vagrant aunt, and her Dungeon Master anagram-loving uberdork of a potential boyfriend, and you have Kimberly Akimbo. Joyce Wood convincingly plays the title character, aptly embodying the physical and emotional life of a teenage girl without falling into a lot of easy clichés one might expect from an older person trying to behave as an adolescent. The rest of the cast is equally adept at handling and often making better their material, with a particularly stand-out funny first scene from Rebecca Morris as the aforementioned aunt.

Direction from Jason Williams is sharp and attentive, and music choices throughout the play are spot-on. The set is simple and charming, suited perfectly to the space, and is about what I’d expect to see if, say, Napoleon Dynamite were adapted into a stage show. The only small production element that I think could have been a little better was Kimberly’s wardrobe; they got close, but I think a little more time could have been spent observing outside of Hot Topic to get the look just right, which I feel is important given the unusual nature of the character.

I don’t know that this is a must-see, but I’m glad I gave it a chance.

March 21st, 2008

The Lonesome West

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The Lonesome West is the final play in the Connemara Trilogy by Martin McDonagh, and was directed by Lloyd Kay at the Studio Theater at HART. Kay has directed the other two plays of the trilogy as well over the past several years.

Overall I found the play to be quite entertaining and engaging, but there is something a little off. I am inclined to think the problem is scriptural in nature, but I am not sure if these problems could have been fixed, or at least ameliorated, by different direction. (One thing that most definitely could have helped pacing would have been to tighten the unbearably long [and often silent] scene changes. There were mercifully few of them, but each lasted close to a full minute.) The two main characters, brothers Valene (Rick Sibley) and Coleman Connor (Steve Crider), have a quarrelsome relationship to say the very least. Constantly bickering, with the bickering often escalating into physical fights, a good 50-60% of the play is sort of like an Irish episode of Jerry Springer with significantly better written dialogue and many more teeth. They definitely have some hilarious zingers, but after a while, I was wanting and waiting for a point or a purpose, and couldn’t quite find one. They have a slight redemption arc towards the end of the play, but, all told, they end up right where they started for all I can tell. In something like No Country for Old Men, for example, the character’s lack of redemption was a vehicle for social commentary, so it had a larger purpose. It is possible that the same sort of thing was the goal here; I’m not certain. Perhaps the whole play is meant as a Great Gatsby-esque setting snapshot more than as a strict narrative. Perhaps it fits better if you've seen the other two plays of the trilogy, which I've not.

Performances were all solid, stand-outs probably being Crider as Coleman and Trinity Smith as Girleen. I thought the male roles were cast a bit too old, mainly because Coleman brags about an imaginary tryst with Girleen, who is supposed to be seventeen years old. Maybe I'm being stodgy but I found it a little odd, and it took me out of the moment. Maybe it would have helped if they hadn't also put Girleen in pigtails, thereby making her look even more childlike. Michael Boulos as Father Welsh definitely would have been a little more believable as a younger man, as - among other reasons - Girleen comes to have romantic feelings for him. I'm not saying it's out of the realm of possibility for it to have happened, but the tone of their relationship suggested that the role was meant to be played by someone closer to her age. Father Welsh and Girleen do have a rather sweet, poignant scene together at the top of Act 2, though, which was much needed in the midst of all the fighting and “feck”ing. In fact, generally speaking, I found their secondary storyline and characters quite a bit more intriguing than the primary thrust of the play.

March 20th, 2008

More Crown of Shadows

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Apologies for the delay...

Gilgamesh: The Oldest Story Never Told

The second installment of Black Swan Theatre and Junction City Productions’ Crown of Shadows, (a trilogy of plays by David Brendan Hopes that explore the different ways in which one can be royally fucked throughout the ages), is the epic tale of Gilgamesh. It is not nearly as good a play as Edward the King, the first offering of the Hopes festival, nor does the acting hold up as well either. However, the theme of the plays is becoming increasingly clear. In the world of Hopes, it seems that virtually all human relationships are predicated on sex, sexual tension, sexual innuendo, sexual healing, sexual chocolate…I digress. There is historical supposition that Edward II and Gaveston were actually lovers, and that this relationship in some ways led to Edward’s decline and ultimate demise; certainly that is the case in Marlowe’s play about the two, which inspired Hopes’ work. However, the rather clumsy insertion (heh) of a love story between Gilgamesh and Enkidu was approximately as effective and fitting as having Sam and Frodo make out in Lord of the Rings (for the sake of comparing apples to epics), and then never to really speak of it again. It doesn’t create more depth or profundity in their relationship; it feels forced and a distraction. I like to think that human interaction is complex enough to allow for a variety of life-changing bonds without there always having to be a quirky quasi-romance involved; I am a-Freud (mea culpa) that Hopes does not feel the same. I certainly can’t fault him for having a different world-view or literary interpretation from my own, but I disagree with it. It is somewhat unfortunate; I truly believe Mr. Hopes has some serious talent, and the ability to eloquently examine the human condition in his plays, but the stilted relationships tend to detract from the potentially larger experience the works have to offer.

The production elements were lacking at best, although costumes and lights made a worthy effort. The acting for the most part was flat and disconnected, except when it was presentational and disconnected. Almost as soon as any story or character arc (other than the title character’s) began, it was over, so I felt as though I had seen a dramatization of the Cliffs Notes of Gilgamesh.

It all comes down to storytelling. Being effective, creative and specific is what good storytellers do. There is a wonderful story to be told here. It simply wasn’t.

Hat: Not Just a Chapeau

So I’m in the theatre and the set looks ... familiar. Like ... Sumerian.... But I am more than willing to roll with this because I’ve heard that some of the set construction for the other two shows was taking away from rehearsal time, so perhaps they’ve scaled back for acting’s sake.

Enter two goddesses, Ma’at, the Lady of the White Feather, played by Trinity Smith in a suit once owned by Mark McKinney’s Chicken Lady character on Kids in the Hall, and Sekhmet, the Lioness, played by Mickey Hanley in some manner of feline-print suit once owned by Zsa Zsa Gabor. They are performing a resurrection ceremony... or planning a bachelorette party; it’s a little hard to tell from the casual nature of the dialogue and their Laverne and Shirley affectations. They bring Hat[shepsut] (Stephanie Hickling) back from the dead, and shit starts to hit the fan almost immediately, as Hat begins her journey towards a corrupt, egotistical, and self-serving reign.

In addition to the above, the cast is joined by the rather stoic stylings of Ben Marks, as Senenmut (or Mut, as I have nicknamed him in the spirit of the title, and how he shall henceforth be referred). He and Hat have what I think I can most accurately describe as an anti-climax when Hat confronts Mut about his having slept with her daughter, Neferure (Christina McClellan). (Never mind the fact that Hat married her half-brother in order to rise to power rather than remain faithful to Mut.) Hat appears to be, well, somewhat upset, kind of like if Mut ate the last donut, and Mut tries to explain why he didn’t take the trash out like he said he would. Hat then seals him in her tomb - an effect attempted to be achieved by releasing a single curtain - while Mut tries to create the illusion of layers of depth in the tomb by changing his voice’s volume and clarity, kind of like when Goofy falls of a cliff in Disney cartoons. (Oh, Wikipedia, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.)

Mike Coghlan is rather funny as the moronic pharaoh Tuthmosis II, although I am somewhat unnerved by the playwright’s use of “retard” to describe someone in an insulting way, and that we, the audience, are apparently supposed to laugh along with the characters as the word is thrown around on multiple occasions. Darren Marshall, as the teacher and mentor of Tuthmosis III (also played by Coghlan), is a strong presence and delivers a solid performance graced by a nuance infrequently achieved throughout this production.

My primary point of contention, though, is with the play’s lack of conviction and focus in general. Is it a straight-up comedy? Even a black comedy? Sort of. I mean, there were definitely some funny exchanges, but I felt as though I were also expected to care about the fates of the characters, and, in truth, I didn’t. Every time the play got near to reaching any sort of emotional momentum, the lucidity was broken by a smart-aleck remark by one or more of the characters. Sort of a jarring experience in that respect. It is as though the play is afraid to ever take itself too seriously, for fear that we might reject it. Hat breaks up with you before you can dump her to take her hot sister to the prom.

February 25th, 2008

Match

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If you missed ACT’s  recent production of Match at 35 Below, then you should give yourself one serious ass-kicking. Under the sublime direction of Jamie Nicholson, Stephen Belber’s play is a poignant and hilarious journey on the road to self-discovery and forgiveness. The space of 35 Below was successfully turned into an uptown New York City apartment by scenic designer Ariel Vetter. The costumes by Victoria Smith were a perfect complement to the set, and helped to bring the characters to life, especially the lead role of Tobi Powell (Alphie Hyorth), the aging choreographer / reluctant father. Brian Sneeden’s sound design was a perfect underscore to the story. The only design element lacking ingenuity was the lighting design, which was a little too bright, without much definition. It did not detract from the production; it just did not do anything to enhance it.

The performances were riveting, from top to bottom, with only a couple of moments of forced emotion. In a space where everything is under a microscope and the action is almost literally in your lap, the actors were focused, connected, and told the story beautifully.

As mentioned earlier, Jamie Nicholson’s direction was superb. When you can forget that you’re watching a play and get lost in the world you’re witnessing on the stage, then everyone has clearly done their job, especially the director.

At the end, when the audience leapt to their feet at curtain call, only then did I remember I was not at North Carolina Stage Company or Flat Rock Playhouse. I was at Asheville Community Theatre’s 35 Below. Very impressive.

February 20th, 2008

Crown of Shadows, a joint production from Junction City Productions and Black Swan Theatre, is an offering of three plays by local playwright David Brendan Hopes, on three consecutive weekends, from February 15 through March 2, at the Asheville Arts Center.

The first of the three installments is Edward The King, which will enjoy a full production this coming May as part of New York City’s Gayfest. The play, beyond question, is worthy of a full production. It is unfortunate, then, that the play was not afforded the same luxury this past weekend at the Asheville Arts Center.

The script is simply delightful, filled with whimsy, wit, passion and poetry. It tells the story of young Edward Plantagenet before and during his ascension to the throne, and his deep abiding love for another young man that he meets on his secret journey to the underbelly of his eventual kingdom. The play is unique in that it takes place both then and now: in a world from hundreds of years gone by complete with laptop computers and automatic weapons. The dialogue is truly engaging, and some of the acting is good as well, but there is little to no production value whatsoever, which proves to be detrimental to the overall experience. There is no set designer listed in the program, which is painfully obvious when looking at the stage. The landscape is random, flat and does not help to facilitate any kind of flow to either the physical or the emotional life of the play. Since the stage dressing failed to make clear the production's conceptual merging of two time periods, perhaps this could have been achieved with costuming. However, apparel choices seemed to blend together in a hodge podge of non-specific time periods and styles.

The only other production elements present is provided by Brian Sneeden, designer of the sound and lights, both of which, thankfully, help to create and even at times enhance the world of Edward The King, so terribly lacking in any other aspect of the production.

Another saving grace of the evening is the acting from four of the five cast members, who were splendid. Unfortunately, Piers Gaveston, the one character who truly needed to dominate the world with his sexual energy, blow every girl's skirt up, and make every boy question his own manhood, does none of those things, coming across more as simply amusing and cute rather than dangerous and beautiful. To be fair, the actor seems only partially responsible for his performance. We have to look to the higher chain of command to find where truly the fault lies.

After seeing the performance, I expected to see the same credit in the program for director as there was for set designer: none. Alas, no, there were two! There were several choices made, or not made, on various levels, including acting, staging and design, but most of it seemed arbitrary at best. The actors provided some wonderful moments, but the bigger picture lacked any momentum, continuity or vision.

But once again, I must bow my head and curtsy to Mr. Hopes, who has written what I believe to be a wonderful play. I look forward to the next two plays in the next two weeks. It certainly is an ambitious effort, and hats off to Junction City and Black Swan for giving a voice to a well-written play. Despite the fact that the lack of production and direction detract from the enjoyment of the evening, there are some engaging acting moments. And even if you can’t see all the action all the time, (a distinct possibility, given the lay-out of the space), there is satisfaction to be had in just listening to the words.

February 8th, 2008

Wait Until Dark

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With a somewhat overdramatic Hitchcockian violin overture, we are thrown into the first scene of ACT’s production of Wait Until Dark, by Frederick Knott, directed by former ACT artistic director Ralph Redpath. The exposition and set-up process of the opening scene was actually quite slow and drawn-out, leaving me to wonder exactly how long we would have to wait until dark (sorry). Dan Clancy brought strong presence and pretty good “bad guy” attitude as Mike, while Alan Wohl, doing his best Buddy Hackett as the other con artist, Carlino, provided some decent comic relief, although I’m not sure if a bit wherein he wiped fingerprints off of everything in the apartment while simultaneously touching the same things with bare hands was intentionally humorous or not. Charlie Passacantando, as Roat, looked and sounded great in the part, but his performance actually seemed to be a large part of the pacing issue. His laborious delivery of his lines as he moved all over the stage ended up giving this first scene all the tension and urgency of a petting zoo. Sure, the goats might bite, but I wouldn’t sweat it too much.

Fortunately, things picked up as the show went on. Heather Johnson was strong as Susy, immediately likeable and later an incredibly clever, brave, resourceful, and real heroine. Lindsay Salvati, as Susy’s young neighbor, was adorable and precocious, more than holding her own with the adult actors on stage. The climax of the play was built to quite nicely, but fell a little short of being as suspenseful as I would’ve liked. It was good, just not great, and again, similar pacing problems to those at the beginning. (Side note: this is something that it seems can’t be helped, probably for fire code blah blah blah, but I wish theatres could have ALL the lights out: runners, exit signs, everything, for the big black-out scene in this show. Alas.) Overall, though, a satisfying theatre experience.

In which I vent about some purely scriptural grievances that have nothing to do with ACT"s production specificallyCollapse )

January 28th, 2008

Oedipus Rex

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In the second production of NC Stage’s new (For)Play Series, director Ron Bashford took on the widely recognized but seldom actually seen Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles. Charles Flynn-McIver, no stranger to portraying royalty on this stage, brings us the titular role in the emotionally-charged, understated intensity that audiences will have come to expect after seeing Flynn-McIver in such roles as Hamlet and Macbeth. Other notable performances include Michael MacCauley as Creon, aptly handling the future king’s righteous indignation in the beginning of the play and his shift into almost paternal sympathy for Oedipus’ self-wrought plight at the end. Callan White-Hinman did a fine turn as Iocasta; her characterization seemed a little unfocused at first but gained solid momentum along with the events of the play.

Never having seen this (or any play of ancient Greece) actually staged, I’ve always been rather curious as to the logistics and dynamics of the chorus parts. Bashford chose to have the entire ensemble of the chorus speak many parts, but then to break up others into solo or duo voices, which aided in giving variety to a device which could have seemed monotonous. Varying his actors from a fairly young girl (Charlotte Lawrence) to adult males (with assorted ages of men and women in between) produced some really nice tonal shifts and combinations that wove themselves well into the tapestry of the production.

NC Stage really just keeps getting it right, bringing fresh performance ideas into Asheville’s theatre scene. I look forward to the remaining readers’ theatres in this series.

January 5th, 2008

It's a three-fer

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I’m alive, for all of my ... reader. These are the last three plays I saw, in very brief recaps, with very few accurate facts, I’m sure.

Romance

Zealot Productions’ second (?) full-length production was David Mamet’s Romance, a contemporary farce centering around truly absurd court proceedings and a collection of dysfunctional characters spewing forth a veritable symphony of racist and homophobic epithets. I’m not sure if Mamet intended this play as a satire, some sort of bizarre personal catharsis, or just a bunch of nutjobs acting like nutjobs. It came across primarily as the latter for me. Fairly solid performances by all, John Crutchfield being a slight stand-out. A fun show, lots of laughs, a few cringes (at the brashness of the material, not at the presentation), wish the script had a little more apparent substance to it.

Tuna Christmas

Heard about it for years, finally saw it. Flat Rock Playhouse’s holiday cash-cow, Tuna Christmas, by Joe Sears, Jaston Williams, and Ed Howard, starred the fabulous Scott Treadway and Michael Edwards. Both actors are fantastic, playing something like 22 roles of various ages and genders between the two of them. With a nod to the quality in comedies I find perhaps most appealing (found in the greats like Christopher Guest's films), the madcap over-the-top-ness (mm English) of the characters is well-balanced by the truth, sympathy, and simple humanity brought to them by the actors. We get the belly laughs, but we also get the poignancy. I will say the show itself started to drag (no pun intended) a little bit for me, I think due to my limited tolerance of “people from the south are different and funny” and “that man is in a dress” type humor. Or maybe I was just distracted and overwhelmed by the sea of holiday sweaters in the audience.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play

Allow me to preface this review by saying that I’m quite sure that I could watch It’s a Wonderful Life as a remake starring Cameron Diaz and Keanu Reeves, with Chris Tucker as Clarence, and I’d still be crying as soon as he notices his lip’s bleeding again. Okay that might be a slight exaggeration, but I’m a complete sucker for this show. That said, the radio play, adapted by Joe Landry, is a truly delightful take on the classic story, acted adeptly by the cast at North Carolina Stage Company. Willie Repoley reprised his George Bailey, and I really just love him in this role. There is clearly a temptation to do a send-up of Jimmy Stewart’s amazing performance; Repoley manages to avoid an impersonation with still a few hints in mannerism of what we all kind of want to see in the part. Lauren Fortuna and Kathryn Temple were back this year as well and were both beautiful and skilled in their various roles. Joe Sturgeon took on a variety of roles, including the narrator/host, Mr. Potter and Uncle Billy, and was an excellent addition to the cast. Director Hans Meyer made for a very charming Clarence. Last year there was a Foley artist operating all the sound effects, but this year the actors took care of this as well. Always fun to watch, and I noticed the return of the eggplant to make the sound of George’s getting punched. An enchanting experience, as always, and of course my eyes were wet for the last ten minutes or so. Damn you, Zuzu’s petals.

November 30th, 2007

I'm not typing out that title again. I just saw this latest installment in NC Stage's Catalyst Series, written and performed by local comic actor Tom Chalmers, and had the oddly common (for me) experience of feeling like the only person in the theatre who didn't think what they were seeing was particularly amusing. I saw Chalmers his first year in The Santaland Diaries at Asheville Community Theatre and honestly wasn't impressed then, either. Here's the thing: the stories in Harm are funny. Really funny. If one of my friends were telling me about these things happening to them, I would be laughing my ass off. I'm sure this guy freaking kills at office parties. And most of the audience was cracking up. But for me, it just did not translate to an engaging one-man show. I find his comedic timing extremely lacking, for one. He seems strangely compelled to punctuate every single punchline with (1) a pointless and ineffective pantomime, sometimes accompanied by a "funny" high-pitched voice, or (2) some fifteen- to twenty-year-old pop culture reference. Home Alone? Seriously? David Spade called; he wants his shtick back. (And yes, I know. 2003 called, and they want their "So-and-so called" joke back.) I think I will simply conclude by making my own out-dated allusion:


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