Tuesday, September 26, 2017

What Happened

Better Strangers by Lucia Del Vecchio
Through October 7, 2017, at Magnetic 375, 375 Depot Street, River Arts District

Andrew Gall and Emily Tynan McDaniel in Better Strangers
Eight characters are confined in the office of a college English professor and failed novelist in Better Strangers, Lucia Del Vecchio’s taut drama premiering at the Magnetic Theatre through October 7.  But only two of them are actually on stage.

John Lambert is about to leave his office at the end of a long day at the end of an even longer spring semester when Joanna Tilley, a student from twenty years ago, appears at his door.

She is hesitant, ingratiating. She offers a bottle of expensive whiskey.  A business gift to her husband, she says.  Lambert, she recalls, always ended his Friday class announcing he was retiring to weekend festivities centered on a good glass of whiskey.

Lambert barely remembers her out of the 3,750 students he’s had over the past twenty-five years.  (He figured up the number the other night.)  But he sees himself as a caring teacher, so he indulges her in small talk.  And he indulges himself generously in the whiskey.

It’s not clear to Lambert, or to us, why Joanna has come to see him.  Soon, however, menace emerges. “I really do have to go,” he tells her. “No, I don’t think you do,” she replies. “You want to go, and your wife texting you is a convenient excuse, but it’s two days until graduation, your grading is done, your kid is grown and in college, and I’m making you uncomfortable.”

Out of the cupboard

And that’s when all those unseen characters start to tumble out of the cupboard: the wife, the son; another former student, a woman who has become a highly successful novelist; the new female chair of the English department, also a successful writer, who is changing everything Lambert put in place; a recently deceased male professor notorious for his affairs with students; a long-ago male professor who also preyed on his female students. 

For the next two hours, we watch in real time as Joanna and Lambert battle over how these people from their past impinge on their present.  Joanna, we gradually learn, blames Lambert for a transgression when she was a student.

The battle starts with feints. Joanna is coy about exactly what happened. Lambert is baffled and then annoyed that she won’t tell him what he did.  As the truth—or each combatant’s version of the truth— comes out, the thrusts and parries become more deadly until a shattering confrontation in the second act.

He said, she said

Del Vecchio keeps the “he said, she said” tension tight, and her director, Callan White, choreographs the action of this duel smartly. An accomplished actor herself, White has clearly guided her actors to find both the whirlwind and the temperance in their passion.

Playwright and director are well served by Nathan Singer’s simple, monochrome set.  A few well chosen pieces of furniture in shades of brown convincingly arranged in a black surround are all this field of honor needs.  The uncredited costumer matches Singer’s pallette for one of the most visually harmonious production’s I’ve seen at this theatre.

Andrew Gall as Lambert really gets this schlumpy professor who pontificates too much and airs his academic grievances too easily. Emily Tynan McDaniel as Joanna radiates so much sweetness that her character’s passive aggressiveness may be less off-putting to us than it is to Lambert.

Del Vecchio takes her time in letting the secrets spill out.  We might wonder why Lambert hasn’t called campus security to relieve him of this ominous former student. Or we might wonder why the playwright didn’t wind the tension even tighter by keeping her play to an intermissionless 75-minute sudden-death playoff.

Del Vecchio bravely risks comparisons with David Mamet’s Oleanna and Simon Gray’s Butley as portraits of fraught faculty-student encounters. Her ear is well-pitched for the sourness that can infect an academic whose small-town career hasn’t lived up to his ambitions. Whether Joanna’s sense of female victimhood is justified will depend on which side of the male-female divide you stand.  My female companion and I had an intense discussion about who did what to whom after the performance.  And that may be just what Del Vecchio intended. 

Arnold Wengrow is the author of The Designs of Santo Loquasto, a chronicle of the set and costume designer's work on Broadway, Off Broadway, for dance, opera, and the movies, including thirty films by Woody Allen.

Info at www.themagnetictheatre.org/  

Photograph by Rodney Smith

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Ruffles and Flourishes

Asheville Community Theatre
The Producers
Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan; Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks
Through September 10, 2017
Asheville Community Theatre, 35 E. Walnut St. Asheville, NC 28801

Max Bialystock is a flamboyant but failing Broadway producer whose latest disaster, Funny Boy, a musical based on Hamlet, closes the night it opens. The next day, a nebisshy accountant, Leo Bloom, comes to audit his books and makes an offhand remark. Financial discrepancies on Broadway, he says, are less likely to be discovered with a failure than a success.

Inspired, Max concocts a cockamamie scheme.  Find a play guaranteed to flop after one night.  Lure investors to put up more money than needed. Instead of returning the overage, the new team of Bialystock and Bloom will abscond to Rio with the cash.

But the plan backfires when their show, a tasteless musical called Springtime for Hitler, is a hit.  The duo end up in prison, where they’re at it again, producing another tasteless musical with the inmates, Prisoners of Love.

That was the zany premise of Mel Brooks’s The Producers, his 1967 cult classic film with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. Brooks later took the zaniness to inflatio-ad-ridiculum proportions in the  2001 Broadway musical, also The Producers, with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.

Now Asheville Community Theatre is inaugurating its renovated auditorium with its homegrown version of The Producers through September 17. It’s a spanking start for its snazzy new space.

Sticking pins

Brooks’s writing strategy with The Producers was to impale every convention of the Broadway musical as he did with his movie genre satires Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.

And he would stick giant comedy pins in the biggest voodoo doll of all time, Adolph Hitler.

The show was giddy with Broadway musical clichés.  Fast-talking con man, dirty old ladies, blonde bombshell secretary, the worm who turns to wolf, comic partners-in-crime, mincing theatre director, mincing chorus boys, butch lady techie, overbearing capitalist boss, beaten-down worker cogs-in-the-machine, Irish cops. 

And enough Jewish jokes to reopen Grossingers.

The entire package was wrapped in a lascivious leer of such exuberance that it attained an innocent charm. “The Stripper” played by harp, celeste, and kazoo. 

The staging strategy of his Broadway crew—director, designers, choreographer—was likewise over the top.  The production’s motto was clearly Oscar Wilde’s “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.”

The characterizations, sets, costumes, and dances were Macy’s Thanksgiving Day inflatables blown so tight they could either explode in confetti and fireworks or break loose from earthly ropes and float to heaven.  On Broadway, they sometimes did both.

The creative team crammed in so many allusions to Broadway and Hollywood it would take a theatre historian a week to footnote them all:  Follies, Gypsy, Auntie Mame, Fiddler on the Roof, A Chorus Line, Cabaret, 42 Street, The Music Man, Busby Berkeley, the June Taylor Dancers, the Ziegfield Follies, Hellzappopin’, Olsen and Johnson, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Judy Garland, vaudeville, burlesque, all the way back to The Black Crook.

A-team ensemble

Without a Broadway-size house and a Broadway budget, ACT and the director of The Producers, Asheville’s formidable musicals maven Jerry Crouch, had to be selective in what he stowed in the overhead compartment. He couldn’t pack, or unpack, all the inside gags that Brooks stuffed into his script. Fortunately Crouch had an A-team of comics, singers, and dancers to take onboard.

Crouch, his choreographers, Shari Azar and Tina Pisano-Poor, and his music director, Lynda Shuler, meld this cast of twenty-seven community theatre veterans, professionals, and professionals-in-training into a tight, bright ensemble. This is one of the best talent-and-experience mixes I’ve seen at ACT.  Like artists blending paint, Crouch and collaborators let the company’s verve feather out individual rough edges.

Shuler gets a big Broadway sound from her ten-person orchestra. It’s a shame we don’t see them. They were out of sight in a covered pit. I first thought we were hearing a recording. What’s the point of live theatre, if we don’t see the performers live? This is a place where those awkward side-stages could have been used to some advantage. Otherwise, they’re a neck-craning nuisance.   

It doesn’t help that ACT’s new sound system still hasn’t solved the problem of tracking the performers' locations on the stage. 

There were some stand-outs in this energetic group (not all of whom are well identified in the program). Alix Likens is a gangbusters Ulla, the sexpot Swedish showgirl-secretary, who manages to paint Bialystock and Bloom’s shabby office completely white during a long intermission. Jeff Stone is
übertrieben as Franz Liebkind, the pigeon-raising, gun-totin’, accident-prone German immigrant playwright who has written the love-letter to Hitler that B&B aim to produce.  (He claims never to have been a Nazi: “I vos only following orders,” he tells them, “I didn't even know there vos a vor on. Ve lived in the back, right across from Schvitzerland.“)

With some solid show-biz background, Likens and Stone radiate polish and pizzazz.  Cord Scott as the shamelessly camp Carmen Ghia, “common-law assistant” to the just as shameless Roger de Bris (Corey Link), the Springtime for Hitler director, gets to show off his accomplished jetés.  And Frank Salvo, as an uncredited secretary to the head of Leo’s accounting firm, should get jail time for serious scene-stealing.

Matthew Harper, a theatre student at Warren Wilson College making his ACT debut, sweetly embodies Leo Bloom’s ingratiating schlemiel. He makes us yearn for him to go full out as a comic performer and a song-and-dance man when Bloom blossoms into a producer and Ulla’s beau. As Max might have sung, “He can do it.”  

Zacary Landolt as Max appears to be channeling Grouch Marx.  I hope as the production moves along (I saw it the second night), the dialogue coach, Carole Saich, can help him get the mush out of his mouth so we can understand his words. The costume designer, Carina Lopez, can also help by figuring out how to keep his pants up and his shirt tucked in. 

Despite this and a few other easily corrected  lapses in costume technique, Lopez’s wardrobe has a finely-tuned palette and snappy silhouettes. She gets the big costume picture of subtly coordinating colors, patterns, and textures. If her Springtime for Hitler chorines don’t have the outrageousness of North Carolina native William Ivey Long’s showgirls on Broadway, whose could?  (Ida Bostian, on the costume construction crew, knows Long from the honorary degree awarded to him by UNC Asheville, Lopez’s alma mater. She might have given Lopez some hints about ramping up the ridiculous.)

Another UNC Asheville alum, Jill Summers, ACT’s accomplished technical director, deftly maneuvers eleven locales on and off ACT’s shallow stage. Despite the renovation, the stage hasn’t been given a better configuration and still appears to operate without much in the way of wings and flies.  Will this be a continual hindrance to a theatre which plans to dedicate its main platform to musicals? 

As Summers gets accustomed to her new stage, her college mentors, Rob Berls and Rob Bowen (the lighting designer for The Producers) may encourage her to think beyond travelers and painted flats strung out along that long horizontal.

In the end, however, audiences will rightly overlook these fluffs and focus on the flourishes. This Producers flourishes indeed. It is an ACT triumph that will have theatregoers, as it did me, sitting back and beaming.

Arnold Wengrow is the author of The Designs of Santo Loquasto, a chronicle of the set and costume designer's work on Broadway, Off Broadway, for dance, opera, and the movies, including thirty films by Woody Allen.

Info at http://ashevilletheatre.org/

Photograph by MISHA Photography

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Motley Crew
Mike Coghlan, Julia Cunningham, Lisa M. Smith, Jamie Knox, Christine Eide, and Jeff Messer in Six Knots

The Magnetic Theatre
Six Knots by Travis Lowe
Through August 19, 2017, at Magnetic 375, 375 Depot Street, River Arts District

Confine a cast of unsavory characters in a enclosed space.  Raise the stakes for escape. Wait to see whose primitive survival instincts kick in first. 

It’s a classic thriller formula with many variations to charge up a writer’s imagination.  And lots of opportunities to probe dark places of the soul. 

Jean-Paul Sartre may have given this storytelling device its ultimate expression in the 1944 one-act No Exit, with its famously bleak conclusion, “Hell is other people.” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 movie Lifeboat probably gave the formula its best known adrift-at-sea setting.

Now Asheville actor and fledgling playwright Travis Lowe is offering a contemporary take with Six Knots, premiering at the Magnetic Theatre through August 19. Lowe isolates a crew of six sailors, two men and their wives and two women who are about to be married, on a luxury sailboat moving slowly off the British Virgin Islands.  He gives all but one of them seriously sinister intentions.

Lowe may be as slow as his drifting vessel to unmask their unsettling plans or even make us suspect they have them. But he brings his knotted plotlines together in a walloping second act of comic mayhem.

About to go under

The boat belongs to Randy Lowell, the owner of a company that operates prisons under contract for state governments.  He and his wife are entertaining Randy’s former software developer, Todd Reynard, and his wife, Kyra, who still works for the company as bookkeeper.  Todd now runs his own software company.

Arriving by dinghy will be Deborah Fulton, who owns an investment firm. With her is her fiancée, Dyan Grove, known as Pippi, a writer of pop fiction.

Neither Todd nor Randy know that each other’s company is about to go under. Randy needs new software to run his prisons with fewer guards and less paperwork, and he wants Randy to come back to work for him. For his part, Todd hasn’t come up with a successful new software package to replace one he sold to another company.
Randy also wants to lure Deborah into injecting new capital into his company. Todd and Kyra, we learn in the second act, have their own financial bailout plan.  It isn’t pretty.

After Deborah hauls herself up over the boat’s gunwale, she is soon revealing to Todd that she aims to buy a controlling interest in Randy’s company. She will have Randy fired, strip the company of its assets, and move on for the next kill.

Pippi, meanwhile, quickly confides to Randy that she isn’t a very good writer. She doesn’t mind if Deborah has other fiancées in other cities, as long as the food is good and the booze is plentiful and she can get on with her writing.

In fact, all the people are more hasty in explaining their motives to strangers than such devious characters probably would be.

The playwright spends the first act setting up his characters’ backstories. We don’t get the hints we need to keep us in suspense about where his story might be going.  When Todd, played engagingly by Mike Coghlan, denounces Randy for running his for-profit prisons on the backs of his inmates’ slave labor, we might wonder if we’re in for an Ibsenite drama on the evils of capitalism.

Gleeful villainy

Randy is a vulgar, sexist blowhard.  As played by Jeff Messer, he is also curiously mild-mannered. He readily acknowledges he’s an asshole. He claims to have hurt feelings being called a slave owner.  But his little pangs of conscience don’t make this unpleasant character appealing.  Either the actor or the playwright hasn’t applied the Drama 101 lesson: the more villainous the villain, the more we like him.

On the other hand, playwright and actor perfectly capture the gleeful villainy of the vulture capitalist Deborah. From the moment she appears over the side of the boat, hoisting a sack of belongings, a bag of limes, and her partner with her, Deborah, as played by the irrepressible Julia Cunningham, has us in tow as well. By the time she reveals her plan, we’re rooting for her to succeed.

Nautical wild bunch

Cunningham is well matched by Lisa M. Smith as Pippi.  With her shapely shaved head, languid beauty, liquid dark eyes, and throaty voice, this actor could have been in the playwright’s mind when he has Deborah describe her lust-at-first sight. It was at a bookstore, and Pippi made her sweat so much she soaked the book she was holding to have signed. 

It’s a vivid bit of imagery at which this playwright excels.  He's also deft with some witty repartee. There's fun with the state of Georgia and illegal lesbians.

Later, Lowe gives Pippi a monologue suggesting what this nautical wild bunch is all about. “I find the fishes jumping particularly fascinating,” she says, gazing into the horizon. “I mean, why do they do that?”

It's one of two things, she surmises. “Either they are being pursued, or they are doing the pursuing. But one can't be the predator forever. There's always a bigger fish. Down there, under the surface, something horrible.” 

But there's a third option. “Maybe some just do it for fun. Most fish live their lives down in the silent grey, where the colors drop away in feet. Where the sound is everywhere, but hollow, like nothingness.”

So  we’re all one of three fishes, Lowe is saying. One is happily lost in “life’s haze of coral beauty.”  Another is “wary, uncontent,” constantly aware of “dull death creeping 'round your fins.” A third is “an oddball, a freak, bent and irregular, curious or bizarre. You don't care for drifting, and you have little need for fear. You jump for fun. In triumphant revelry of your, perhaps short, fishy life.”

Pippi is a better writer that she gives herself credit for.

This overt statement of a play’s theme could have come across as fine writing, but Lowe pulls it off by staying metaphorical.  He’s aided by Smith’s hypnotic delivery. 

Things don’t work out so well a little later, however, when Kyra denounces Randy and his wife for treating people like numbers.  Jamie Knox is properly passionate, but here Lowe argues literally rather than poetically. 

Figuring out the recipe

Part of the fascination of the Magnetic Theatre’s mission of bringing new plays to the stage is watching new, and not so new, playwrights at work.  Most producers give embryo scripts a process of development, with workshops, feedback, and revision.  Even more-stage-ready products often undergo lengthy previews.  Tales of late-night post-performance rewriting before a morning rehearsal followed by frenzied memorizing before that evening’s performance are theatrical legend.

The Magnetic’s indefatigable producing artistic director, Steven Samuels, sometimes brings his audiences into the kitchen while the chef may still be figuring out the recipe.  It’s a daring choice.  For theatrical gourmets, the meal may not always be perfectly cooked, but when the playwright is as promising as Travis Lowe, it’s worth looking over his shoulder as he learns to wield his utensils.   

Arnold Wengrow is the author of The Designs of Santo Loquasto, a chronicle of the set and costume designer's work on Broadway, Off Broadway, for dance, opera, and the movies, including thirty films by Woody Allen.
Info at www.themagnetictheatre.org/ 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Who You Gonna Call?

 Darren Marshall, Andrew Gall, and Laura Tratnik in Malverse

The Magnetic Theatre
Malverse by John Crutchfield
Through June 3, 2017, at Magnetic 375, 375 Depot Street, River Arts District

Malverse, John Crutchfield's new play, is a puzzle piece. From its faintly ominous title through its ghost-story first act to its disturbingly ambiguous ending, it teases us with little mysteries.

The play is  premiering at the Magnetic Theatre in the River Arts District through June 3.
Like all good ghost stories, Malverse starts in everyday reality. A young husband and wife, Tom and Jennifer, are finishing breakfast in their kitchen. They chatter about the best way to get rid of the woodchucks which are destroying their newly planted garden.

Jenn favors humane trap-and-relocate. Tom is ready for a gun. "Never trust the Animal Kingdom," he says. "They have no character. They have no morals. Time for a little good old-fashioned frontier-style genocide."

Tom, played by Andrew Gall, is an affable loudmouth, a little volatile, convinced he knows what's best. He is a bit of a bumbler, prone to misplacing his smartphone. Laura Tratnik's Jenn, seriously pregnant, is the patient, even passive wife. "Do what you want," she says. "Just don't let me see it. Don't let me hear it, don't tell me about it, I don't want to know."

Gall and Tratnik portray Tom and Jenn with an easy, quick rapport. We first see them in their construction-site kitchen—tools piled in one corner, doors only roughly framed, paint swatches on unfinished walls. A tiny refrigerator and a microwave are apparently the only working appliances. (The playwright also designed the set.)

We soon learn that the house is a bank foreclosure with leaning walls and a sinking foundation. The playwright gives this attractive couple some well-crafted, amusing banter that might be the lead-in to a comedy like The Money Pit

But this house may also have a ghost. Jenn keeps hearing a coughing sound she is convinced is coming from the basement. Sure enough, they discover a murder was committed here. Is this Amityville meets Money Pit?

Crutchfield, a Western North Carolina native, who works from both Asheville and Berlin, is a philosophical playwright, as well as a very literate one. (In his non-playwriting life, he's a poet and a translator of German literature.) He wraps his ghost story around a social drama. This wrecked house is in a deteriorating African American neighborhood. These urban homesteaders see themselves as pioneers of gentrification. White gentrification. 

Hefty issues

Crutchfield threads hefty issues into his story: gun rights and wrongs, racial prejudices among both blacks and whites, PTSD, the criminal justice system, Mexican immigrants, even bank predatory lending practices. Two characters carry these dark matters: Tom's contractor buddy, a gun-totin' racist and Iraq veteran named Dave, and an amiable elderly African American neighbor, Mrs. Wilkins.

Occasionally, you may feel that neither they nor this slender story can support all this thematic weight.

Both have their own parts in the puzzle. Is the kindly Mrs. Wilkins up to no good by telling Jenn about the murder in the house and about her black neighbors' resentment?

And when Dave pulls out a concealed pistol and later gives Tom lessons in using a shotgun, is the playwright following the Chekhov rule that a weapon displayed in the first act must go off by the end of the play?

The accomplished Darren Marshall gives Dave a cuddly menace that is both appealing and abhorrent. He energizes every scene he's in. Valeria Watson's Mrs. Wilkins signals us with her eyes a little too much that she may not be what she seems, but the second act vindicates her and deepens her humanity.

The playwright invents a cliffhanger for the end of the first act, when an African American character he calls The Stranger, played by Gary Gaines, makes his first appearance. It's reminiscent of a startling moment in Shining City, a play by the Irish master of spooky playwriting, Conor McPherson, and it's almost as effective.

Full social drama mode

The ghost story that intrigued us in Act One, however, disappears in Act Two. I would reveal too much of the clever plot to say more, except that Crutchfield shifts to full social drama mode. He tries to turn his conflicts of ideas into character conflicts. If he hasn't yet found the magic that makes worthy ideas seem to bubble up from the lives and souls of his people, he definitely makes us think.

Gary Gaines, as The Stranger, shoulders the fundamental puzzles Crutchfield wants us to ponder. Why can't Americans of different races just all get along? Can they even live in close proximity? Gains gives his Stranger a dignified, childlike innocence as he makes a stand for his black privilege against Tom's white privilege.

At the critical moment, Jenn tries to bridge the divide between her husband and this ghostly intruder. Tratnik, an actor of great presence, persuades us with Jenn's goodness of heart, rather than a convincing argument from the playwright. It's a puzzling lapse for a play of ideas.

The trap for an idea playwright is too much talk. As directed by Steven Samuels, the Magnetic's artistic genius loci, the people in Malverse sit and talk a lot. Samuels doesn't give them much lifelike activity to show they really do live here.

And a lot of the talk reads as filler. "Did you ask him? . . Huh? No. . . I think you should. . . .What? . . .There's something . . . Come on. It's not even worth talking about. . . .Well, I think it is. . . . There's something we've been meaning to ask you about, and it's kind of hard to, well . . . it might sound a little. . ."

Crutchfield should take to heart some smart words from a skilled, prolific playwright. "Language is dramatic when spoken in the . . .desperate attempt to make something happen. If something important is riding on the elocutionary outcome of an utterance, if someone stands to win or lose something of great value as a consequence of speech, then we will listen with particular interest . . . When such speech is also compressed, such that the maximum meaning is expressed in the minimum 'space' . . . we have language that is both dramatic and poetic." 

The climactic confrontation between Jenn and Tom might have been the place where sitting and talking would be just the thing. Ibsen showed us how to meld tightly coiled drama with tightly argued debate. “Sit down, Torvald,” Nora says to her husband at the end of A Doll's House, “we have a lot to talk over.” Crutchfield opts for melodrama instead and has the pregnant Jenn collapse.

But just when he appears to be tying up all his plot lines with a sentimental "In spite of everything, people are really good at heart" ending, the playwright pops another puzzle piece. You may like it, if you liked the ending of The Sopranos.

Not the playwright's friend

The set designer hasn't been the playwright's friend. Squeezing a realistic kitchen under construction, a bedroom, a garden, a hospital waiting room, and a strong entrance to a basement onto the Magnetic's shallow stage would flummox even a seasoned designer.

And when the crux of the last scene is a kitchen transformed into a finished showplace  ("I can't imagine ever wanting another kitchen," Jenn says), you know Crutchfield's set designer self wasn't paying attention to what his playwright self was saying.

Full-scale realism in a tiny space on a tiny budget simply doesn't work. It's a lesson the artists at Magnetic Theatre should have learned from their production of Terry Tempest. For a lesson in what does work, they have only to look at the efficient, effective, less-is-more design of their own recent Stupid Fucking Bird.

The others on the design team—Jason Williams for lights, Elisabeth Evans for costumes, Mary Zogzas for sound—give the play and the small stage just what they need: moody lights and music and believable, detailed clothes that change with the passage of time.

So what does the title Malverse mean? "To act in a dishonest or corrupt manner, to commit a breach of confidence; to make a wrong decision," says the Dictionary of the Scots Language. "To act corruptly in a position of trust," says the Oxford English Dictionary. A playwright as word-wise as Crutchfield must know this. But why he uses it for his play we have to puzzle out for ourselves.

Arnold Wengrow is the author of The Designs of Santo Loquasto, a chronicle of the set and costume designer's work on Broadway, Off Broadway, for dance, opera, and the movies, including thirty films by Woody Allen.

Info at www.themagnetictheatre.org/  

Have you seen Malverse?  Tell us what you think.Comment below or email: awengrowresearch@gmail.com
Photo: Rodney Smith@ tempusfugitasheville


Friday, April 21, 2017

Whose Line Is It Anyway?

 Samantha LeBrocq and Dwight Chiles as Mash and Dev in Stupid Fucking Bird

The Magnetic Theatre
Stupid Fucking Bird
by Aaron Posner
Through May 2, 2017, at Magnetic 375, 375 Depot Street, River Arts District

 Playwrights have been riffing on other playwrights since the Greeks invented theatre.

Sometimes they do it for comic effect. Aristophanes sent up Aeschylus and Euripides in a Battle of the Bards he called The Frogs. He poked fun at stage conventions and his fellow writers by having Dionysus, the god of theatre himself, balance pages of their scripts on a giant scale to judge who was the heavyweight champion of poets.

Sometimes the playwright has philosophical issues. Shakespeare borrowed plots and characters freely from fellow dramatists to meditate on life's questions. You know the ones: to be or not to be, what's in a name, and If you prick us, do we not bleed?

Along the way, he grabbed the idea of a play-within-a-play (as well as the whole set-up for Hamlet) from Thomas Kyd. When we watch actors play characters who are watching other actors playing actors who are playing characters. . .well, maybe we'll think about trying to peel the onion of reality and discover what's behind the Matrix.

Those big questions—What is Art, Why are We Here, Who Are We, What is Realty, Why Do Fools Fall in Love—also interest the playwright Aaron Posner, a founder of the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia. To tackle them, he appropriated Anton Chekhov's 1896 play The Sea Gull as a template for a 2013 comedy with the in-yer-face title of Stupid Fucking Bird.

The Mountain Art Theatre, which usually works with HART Theatre in Waynesville, is giving Stupid Bird a high-octane production, in association with Asheville's adventurous Magnetic Theatre, which usually focuses on new works by local playwrights. It's at the Magnetic's home in the River Arts District through May 6.

Abundant guffaws

Chekhov wonks get to see a favorite play deconstructed the way Picasso rearranged a human face. If you're not a Chekhov groupie, you may recall him as that Russian writer whose enervated aristocrats and intellectuals sit around drinking tea from samovars, strumming guitars or balalaikas, musing on the meaning of it all, and pining for better days, past or future.

Whatever your view of Chekhov, or if you have none, you'll recognize—and enjoy—a sophisticated hit-job on a theatrical classic. Chekhov famously described his Sea Gull as a comedy, although his moody characters and their melancholy fates were never meant to be laugh-out-loud funny. Mountain Art, Magnetic, and Aaron Posner, however, are going for guffaws and getting them in abundance.

As directed by the talented Henry Williamson, this production of Stupid Bird has the zaniness of Saturday Night Live and Monty Python filtered through Woody Allen in his New Yorker mode, with a dash of John Stewart's knowing smirk. Williamson gets a big assist from his choreographer Kristi DeVille, who gives the ensemble a hilarious scarf dance. It's worthy of a Fiddler on the Roof with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca playing Tevye and Golda.

Having actors interrupt Chekhovian philosophizing to break into song or step out of character to address the audience is Posner's (and Williamson's) way of reminding the audience, in good Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt style, "Hey, it's only a play, and these men and women are merely players. And aren't we all."

Good company

Posner is in good company adapting Chekhov. There's a lot of it going around. Steven Dietz replayed a climactic scene from The Sea Gull forty-three times in The Nina Variations. Christopher Durang mined major commercial success with his 2013 Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. He shmushed together plots and characters from all of Chekhov's plays (Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Sea Gull, and The Cherry Orchard) and thrust them into contemporary situation-comedyland. And Irish director Gavin Quinn recently made a theatre piece he called The Sea Gull and Other Birds.

Whether Posner's title is in good company with other in-yer-face playwrights like Mark Ravenhill (Shopping and Fucking) and Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Motherfucker with the Hat) is another question. Your answer may depend on whether you think saying the F-word over and over and over—and over—makes you a hip grown-up or just a potty-mouth. At least the title warns you what to expect.

Posner was tapping into the Chekhov-homage Zeitgeist at about the same time as Christopher Durang. Stupid Fucking Bird premiered in Philadelphia two months after Vanya and Sonia hit Broadway, and Posner's play joined Durang's on American Theatre magazine's top ten list of plays produced at regional professional theatres during the 2015-16 season.

Chekhov love

Why all this love for Chekhov? Playwrights and directors and actors worship him because he taught the modern theatre almost everything it knows about constructing plays that are both searingly realistic and achingly poetic.

He also foreshadowed our contemporary sense of irony. His people say one thing but mean another. He showed us the silliness and the sadness of people reaching for profundities a beat before they slip on the banana peel. He was the progenitor of Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett, and Tom Stoppard.

Chekhov was also a playwright of indirection. Nothing much seems to happen, but, boy, are there volcanoes bubbling inside these folks living their everyday banalities. On stage, they drink vodka, play cards, and chat about the weather or the books they are reading. Offstage, men and women conduct torrid affairs, innocence is lost, young love is thwarted, infants die, fatal duels are fought, mortgages are foreclosed, families break apart.

In Stupid Bird, Posner (and Williamson) turn Chekhov and The Sea Gull inside out. What was hinted becomes explicit. Passion that simmered in glances and fleeting touches here bursts into heated groping. Anger that flared and was quickly smoothed over in Chekhov blazes into lengthy tirades in Posner. (Sometimes those tirades are too lengthy.)

Posner retains most of Chekhov's intricate, daisy-chain plot about the unblessed ties that bind families into knots: love, resentment, jealousy, and ambition. A girl (Masha in the original, Mash in Stupid Bird, played by Samantha LeBrocq) loves the boy next door (Constantine/Conrad), who doesn't love her. Con (Allen T. Law) loves Nina (Josephine Thomas) who doesn't love him as much as he loves her.

Nina, meanwhile, falls for Trigorin (David Anthony Yeates), the lover of Con's mother (Irina in Chekhov, Emma in Posner, played by Tracey Johnston-Crum). Trigorin doesn't love her back but succumbs when Nina does something she'd never do in Chekhov. She takes off her clothes and tells him what she has in mind.

Chekhov's people are buttoned up. Posner's people let it all hang out. Well, not all of it.  Williamson and his actors have decided Asheville isn't ready for what the English call "the dangly bits." 

Making these family knots all the knottier, Con, Nina, Trigorin, and Emma are artists or would-be artists. They have the obsessive and combustible temperaments that go with the madness of art.

Trigorin, a writer, is the most successful. His gifts are modest. He knows it, and he floats comfortably on popular acclaim. Con yearns to be a great writer who breaks molds. But most of all he yearns for his mother's approval.

Emma is a B-list movie actress who had Con when she was eighteen. She's painfully aware that a twenty-something son means she is no longer a credible ingenue. Now Nina is a threat both as the new ingenue on the block and a rival for Trigorin.

Nina wants to be an actress, but  she doesn't want to take the time to learn her craft. Mostly she just wants fame, and Trigorin is the ticket to take her there.

These lovers aren't just star-crossed. They are asteroids on orbit to collide. Revolving around them are two lesser lights: Emma's world-weary but sympathetic brother, Dr. Sorn (Steven Samuels), and Mash's hapless suitor, the nebbishy Dev (Dwight Chiles), who scrapes out a living tutoring high school students.

Sorn feels everyone's pain and regrets he hasn't followed his bliss or even discovered if he had one. Steven Samuels, the artistic director of the Magnetic Theatre and its driving visionary, plays Sorn looking a little like a Barney Google-Eddie Cantor hybrid. He's a bit of a  schlemiel but an appealing one who offers kind words and life-savers for life's awkward moments.

Dev, in a wonderfully understated performance, is the only one happy with who he is and just wants to settle down with Mash and live in quiet nebbishdom. 

Emotional minefields

Williamson guides his actors deftly through these emotional minefields on a masterfully simple set. Like the play, the set doesn't want us to suspend disbelief that we're seeing anything other than actors on a stage.

The bare walls of the theatre itself are painted black. There are some white graphic scribbles, a mural-size face of Anton Chekhov himself off to one side, a raw wooden platform that the actors move around, and a grab bag of furniture and props that might have come from a garage sale. It's designed by Dwight Chiles, who is also playing Dev.

Williamson pumps the energy of the first act forward and draws absorbing performances from a tight ensemble. His actors have drilled down into these people, although some have drilled less deeply than others. 

Sometimes the director lets Allen T. Law as Con and Tracey Johnston-Crum as Emma step on the IED that lures every actor, playing anger, the easiest emotion. When they stamp their feet and shout too much, they might have wandered in from a bad amateur production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

As conceived by Posner, Con and Emma are both self-dramatizing egotists. By the second act, their histrionics are as tiresome as any relative who uses every holiday gathering to rehearse old family grievances. If the second act drags a bit, it may be Posner who can't tell us anything he hasn't already told us about these people. Or maybe the actors haven't found anything new for them.

Law and Johnston-Crum, however, have the best secret weapon to portray unlikable characters like these. They are likeable actors. They really know how to get an audience on their side.

Since Posner is going for the Brechtian actor who comments on, as well as enacts, the character, this might be Williamson's cue to temper some of the mother-son Who's-Afraid-of-Virginia-Woolf shouting matches. Should Law and Johnston-Crum let us see they know how unpleasant Con and Emma can be, just as we do?

Another solution to second act longueurs: judicious script cutting. 

While Law and Johnston-Crum get overheated, Josephine Thomas and David Anthony Yeates hadn't found the ignition for Nina and Trigorin by opening night. This is one of those times when I can only hope a director and his clearly talented actors keep digging during an extended run until they strike sparks.

It isn't sparks for Samantha LeBrocq as Mash and Dwight Chiles as Dev. It's intensely glowing embers. These two actors have realized that while everyone else is going for full-frontal catharsis, their best tactic is implying more than they say.

With her black-tinted lips, blue-streaked black hair, and sloganeering black t-shirts, LeBrocq makes Mash look like a refugee from a My Chemical Romance video. Her pink ukelele and her sardonic songs tell us she knows her goth is a pose. Chiles's Dev is a lovable schlump who knows how to play his schlumpiness to get the girl.

LeBrocq is also the costume designer, and her own attire and the laugh-provoking Eddie Bauer gear she gives Dev show she understands all of the characters as well as she does her own. Emma's plunge-bra neckline in the first act is inspired. (Emma's red slip and Trigorin's blue boxer-briefs in the second act are not  inspired.)

LeBrocq and Chiles have one of the best moments in the show. Dev is telling Masha about a flock of geese he saw waddling down the road. As he does a Ministry-of-Silly Walks imitation, a tiny smile breaks the perpetual scowl on Mash's face. In that flash,  she realizes she can find something endearing in him. We understand why she will marry him despite her broken heart over Con.

The playwright knows a man doing a goose walk to win his sweetheart is pure Chekhov. And these two actors know how to do Chekhovian big time. 

Now, if LeBrocq had just changed that black lipstick for something warmer when she comes back three years later as a wife and mother of three children, her character's arc would have been complete. 

Risky question

Towards the end of Stupid Bird, the playwright has Con, his playwright character stand-in, ask a risky question. The play he has written (and maybe it's  the play we're watching), Con says, doesn't have "an original thought in it. It's . . . full of people just angsting and whining and going on and on endlessly . . .I mean, new forms? Why? Why? Why new forms?"

Directly addressing the audience, he asks, "How about this for an idea: Just do the old forms BETTER! Who am I to change them? I mean, aren't there reasons that protagonists and antagonists and rising action and climaxes and dénouements have been around for thousands of years?"

One of the fallacies of audience-participation theatre is that  the audience will actually participate. The night I was there, no one shouted, "Good question! Just do The Fucking Sea Gull as Chekhov wrote it, for god's sake."

That's one answer. The other answer is, "If a clever parody, as knowing and adoring as this one, will lead audiences back to the original, go for it."

Arnold Wengrow is the author of The Designs of Santo Loquasto, a chronicle of the set and costume designer's work on Broadway, Off Broadway, for dance, opera, and the movies, including thirty films by Woody Allen.  It is profusely illustrated with almost 100 renderings, models, and production photographs and includes a complete design chronology, as well as a listing of Mr. Loquasto's awards and honors.  Published by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT).

Comments? Email: awengrowresearch@gmail.com 
Photo: Rodney Smith@ tempusfugitasheville

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Did The Devil Make Her Do It? A Florence Foster Jenkins Souvenir

Image result for "Florence Foster Jenkins"+"Asheville"

NC Stage Company
Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins
NC Stage Company, 15 Stage Lane, off Walnut St., downtown Asheville

Through April 2, 2017

The actress Callan White hits all the right notes as Florence Foster Jenkins, the amateur operatic diva who became a celebrity for hitting all the wrong notes.

A sweet tenderness infuses her portrayal of the woman so eager to be an artist, so oblivious to her lack of talent and technique, and so wealthy that she could display her off-key, off-pitch, off-rhythm singing in private concerts from 1912 to the early '40s. She captivated New York's high society and musical elite. Audiences came to laugh, but many went away admiring "Lady Florence," as she liked to be called, for her unsinkable spirit. Caruso and Cole Porter were fans.

Laughter, followed by sympathy for Jenkins, and admiration for White, will likely also be your reaction to Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, Stephen Temperley's two-character, squeezed-down biodrama now at NC Stage Company in downtown Asheville through April 2.

The playwright skims so lightly over Jenkins's story that you may need to visit the theatre's helpful website to pluck out more of what it rightly calls her "history and mystery."

Was Jenkins deluded, perhaps clinically so? Was she a monumental innocent, so lost in her love of music and performing, that she was unaware of what a laughingstock she was? Was she more self-aware than she let on?

Give credit to White's absorbing performance, more than the script, for raising some of these possibilities. Neither she nor the playwright fully answer the question his narrator, the singer's accompanist, asks us at the beginning: "Why did she do it?"

There are two moments that may come close. The first happens when the accompanist, Cosme McMoon (yes, that was the name the real person used), loses patience and shouts, "You silly woman!"   Jenkins appears to drop her mask of complete self-confidence. Many in the audience gasp audibly, as she retreats to a chair.

"I am not a silly woman," she says after a painful silence.

When I saw the performance preview night, the actress was seated turned away from me at  the stage left corner of the theatre's small, three-sided thrust. So I could not read her expression. But her still-straight back spoke volumes.

Maybe the director, Charlie Flynn-McIver, could let Callan cross stage right briefly to a side of the platform he never uses. A third of his audience should not miss her what her eyes have to say.

As White settles into the role, this skillful actress may discover more ways for the mask to drop. In an already deeply felt performance, she may uncover more nuances and some answers to that "Why did she do it?"

Flynn-McIver has White play Jenkins more gently than Judy Kaye apparently played her on Broadway. Kaye went for a full-out Imogene-Coca-opera-parody diva.  Flynn-McIver goes for giggles over guffaws, pathos over parody. It's not the obvious choice, and it calls for a deeper psychological probe than the playwright may have intended.

The character of Cosme McMoon, played by Jono Mainelli, is Temperley's narrator for the events. He first appears seated at a grand piano, playing and singing popular songs of the day, like a down-on-his-luck bar pianist in a really bad suit. "I don't take requests until I know you better," he says.

The playwright tells us more about Cosme than we probably want to know. He lets the musician drop nuggets about his own life—a roommate-partner who didn't share his views on monogamy, his frustrated efforts to make a career of his own as a composer of art songs.   He's just not as interesting  as Jenkins.

The pianist, at least as Mainelli plays him, is little more than a device connecting one episode to another. While the popular songs he sings are moody and ingratiating, they're fillers to give White time to change her costumes. Mainelli, a New York-based pianist and music director, doesn't hint at Cosme's soul the way White does at Jenkins's.

Cosme's bad suit, with its too-long coat, is one of the costume designer Anna Hazen's witty subtleties. She manages to suggest Jenkins's haute couture on a small theatre's budget by overlaying luxurious-looking gossamer over basic gowns. Surprisingly, she cuts a corner by letting Jenkins reappear in her first dress, when the narrator clearly tells us it's twelve years later.

Hazen does pull all out the stops in the second act, as Jenkins makes her debut at Carnegie Hall. It turns out to be her final concert. 

The singer appears in a rapid succession of increasingly outrageous costumes, culminating in . . .well, I won't spoil the surprise, one of the biggest laughs of the show. It's a tour de force for the actress, the designer, and especially for the quick-change artist offstage,  Caleb Kirkland, who is her dresser.

Equally canny on a small budget is the scenic designer, Julie Ross. She backs the stage with a simple architectural facade containing arches on either side. She paints it a subdued gray with a faint stenciled pattern. This less-is-more approach is more successful than the over-stuffed garden with garish green AstroTurf used in the theatre's previous production, Jeeves in Bloom. Ross may have even recycled the architecture from Jeeves. If so, she did the set and the theatre's budget a favor by calming it down.

The best answer to "Why did she do it?" comes at the end. It's also Mainelli's best moment, and he makes us see Jenkins through Cosme's eyes.

This finale is another surprise that shouldn't be spoiled. Callan White takes a theatrical risk here, and she takes it fearlessly. A sentimental ending, perhaps, but a thoroughly satisfying one.

Arnold Wengrow is the author of The Designs of Santo Loquasto, a chronicle of the set and costume designer's work on Broadway, Off Broadway, for dance, opera, and the movies, including thirty films by Woody Allen.  It is profusely illustrated with almost 100 renderings, models, and production photographs and includes a complete design chronology, as well as a listing of Mr. Loquasto's awards and honors.  Published by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT).

Comments?  Email : awengrowresearch.gmail.com