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"Evil Dead, the Musical," October 27 - November 11, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.
"Top Girls," October 26 - November 4, USC Center for Performance Experiment, 777-4288.
"Speech and Debate," November 9-12, USC Lab Theatre.
Press Releases for Current Shows
Camden Community Theatre
Chapin Theatre Company
Columbia Children's Theatre
On Stage Productions
Ritz Theatre of Newberry
SC Shakespeare Company
Sumter Little Theatre
Village Square Theatre
Campy Comic Carnage Flows in Trustus Theatre’s Revival of “Evil Dead: The Musical”
Review by August Krickel
Like the comically gruesome undead creatures that wreak musical mayhem on stage, Evil Dead: The Musical has risen again, just in time to thrill Halloween audiences with mock horror, faux gore, silly puns, and a bevy of self-referential in-jokes sure to warm the cockles of any fan-boy's (or girl's) geeky heart. Originally presented by Trustus Theatre in the summer of 2014, this revival features a new design team plus four new performers, and while the humor is squarely aimed at a niche audience, strong performances by all involved ensure for a bloody good time.
It's only appropriate that director Chad Henderson has revived and slightly retooled this production, given the screen history of its source material, Sam Raimi's 1981 low-budget thriller The Evil Dead. Its original incarnation was a 30-minute short shot on Super 8mm film by its teenage director and his school friends. In subsequent sequels, Raimi reshot and retold the original storyline with significant differences, essentially forgetting that certain characters ever existed. In 2013 Raimi produced a remake directed by Fede Alvarez, and in 2015 improbably produced a cable series for STARZ, titled Ash vs Evil Dead, which is a direct sequel to the first three features in the franchise, and which is slated for a third season in 2018. These iterations - as well as multiple video game and comic book spin-offs including Army of Darkness: Ash Saves Obama - all share one common premise: college kids head to a cabin in the woods, and unwittingly unleash demonic forces which can possess both the living and the dead, as well as inanimate objects like severed hands, trees, and stuffed moose heads. Here, fake blood flows freely, often showering the stage in comic excess, much like the dismemberment of Monty Python and the Holy Grail's Black Knight, so if you're already feeling queasy and/or appalled as you read this, then this may not be the show for you.
Armed with chainsaw, shotgun, sarcasm and a square jaw, Michael
Hazin returns as Ash, once again channeling the goofball heroics of Bruce
Campbell, who created the role on screen. At the performance I saw, Hazin
adopted the cocky wiseguy persona that Ash displayed in the second and third
films - the result of the director's intentional turn towards comedy as well as
Abigail Ludwig as bimbo Shelly and Trey Lawson as self-styled "bit part" character Ed from the 2014 cast were joined by Kevin Bush as ornery redneck Jake, Abby Bartman as Ash's girlfriend Linda, and Brittany Michelle Hammock as archaeologist Annie. Musical director Randy Moore on keyboards led a 4-piece band including Daniel Moore, who rocked out on some extended guitar solos. The score (credited to four composers, along with author George Reinblatt) alternated between pastiches of operetta - which the cast embraced with exaggerated gusto and mock-sincerity - and 50's style doo-wop, and that, juxtaposed with the ghastly storyline, led to plenty of humor. Reinblatt’s script quite cleverly melds the storylines of the first two films into one two-hour play, adding in Ash’s one-liners from the third film at opportune moments. A good example of the author’s skill is the way in which Cheryl from the first movie becomes the zombie in the cellar from the second (who was originally “Henrietta,” Annie’s mother, and was played under 70 lbs. of rubber make-up by director Raimi’s little brother Ted.)
Amy Brower Lown’s costumes replicate her design for the previous incarnation, although interestingly, now that she is no longer playing Annie, Annie’s easily-ripped costume becomes more revealing, amping up a running joke from that earlier production. Matt Pound's sound design captured the eerie ghostly voices that were called for, although the show is ultimately a rock musical, and I wish much of the accompaniment had been cranked up a notch or two higher. Scott Vaughn on the sound board ensured precise timing for some vital sound effects. Brandon McIver's set was simpler and more practical than Baxter Engle's original design, losing the steeply raked stage, and relocating the trap door - through which Leitner continually pops up with creepy wisecracks - to the side, allowing for greater maneuverability. He has also incorporated some realistic foliage at stage left that helps establish the remote forest location.
The mad mirth and mayhem as described above is decidedly R-rated, made all the more surreal when characters sing peppy songs while they butcher each other, but that contrast is what made the original films cult favorites and ultimately enduring hits. This revival of Evil Dead: The Musical is a worthy entry into the pantheon of campy adult fun in which Trustus often indulges. The show runs through November 11, for more information or tickets visit the Trustus website or call 254-9732.
“Top Girls” at USC’s Center for Performance Experiment Celebrates Girl Power
Review by August Krickel
Who run the world? Girls! So proclaim the lyrics
to the Beyoncé song, which play as the
executive Marlene (Kimberly Braun) is at the top of her game, preparing to
assume a senior management position at a tony
The conflict between the sisters explodes in the play's final scene, and was as raw, gripping and heart-wrenching as any dysfunctional family battle can be, especially as written by a master prose stylist such as Churchill. Yet there are multiple layers of significance, with the author offering Joyce as a surrogate voice for a more inclusive - if socialist - vision for womanhood. Both Hawkins and Braun are second-year MFA students, and squared off previously as Napoleon and Snowball in last spring's Animal Farm. It was a treat for this writer on opening weekend to see the passion in their facial expressions up close (as opposed to being partially obscured by anthropomorphic pig costumes) as hurtful accusations segued within seconds to casual sisterly chitchat.
Marlene's journey as detailed above is preceded in the play's opening scene by a fantasy dreamscape of iconic women from history and folklore, “top girls” who come together to share their stories at a surreal and anachronistic dinner party. The actresses cast as Marlene's family, colleagues, and clients double as these archetypal figures, each representing some aspect of or metaphor for Marlene's struggle to succeed. Coulter is serene as the apocryphal Pope Joan who rose to the papacy while disguised as a man, but was stoned to death for heresy. Bruce plays Chaucer's Griselda, who allowed her children to be taken from her, only to reunite with them years later. Liv Matthews is appropriately sullen and monosyllabic as Dull Gret, a folk character from a Bruegel painting in which rebellious women mount an assault on Hell itself, while Kelsey McCloskey is reflective and philosophical as Lady Nijō, who endured and even thrived as an Emperor's concubine before becoming a Buddhist nun. As the ladies chat and gossip like any participants in a girls' night out, lines and narratives often overlap, a common technique in Churchill's works. Here Churchill may be suggesting that women’s disparate experiences over the centuries can inform and enlighten us now – but only if women, and we as a society, will stop, listen, and then learn from the past.
Director Lindsay Rae Taylor does a decent job at ensuring that the most significant words and phrases stand out. Still, I'd recommend that one pay attention to Marlene at all times; no matter how fascinating these allegorical ancestors of hers may be, it's her story that we follow through the rest of the performance. The director, working in tandem with dialect coach Marybeth Gorman Craig, has ensured authentic accents reflecting differing levels of contemporary British social class structure, but at times these were so thick as to be nearly incomprehensible. While acknowledging Churchill's consummate skill with the English language, and admiring the cast's proficiency in timing and delivery, I really wish that all involved had cheated a little, sacrificing some verisimilitude in concession to the ears of an American audience.
the cast gave solid performances across the board, special mention must be made
of undergraduates Spencer and Matthews, who convincingly portrayed Angie and
her friend Kit as young teenagers. Their splendidly realized use of uninhibited
body language and vocal mannerisms combined to convey all the awkwardness,
giddiness, immaturity, and histrionics that the roles required.
Carly Sober’s minimalist scenic design incorporates grid-like panels that suggest a private banquet room that doubles as an art gallery, with flanking mannequins of female forms that might be decorative sculpture. The panels then become Venetian blinds in Marlene’s office, with the figures now suggesting people on the outside looking in on the sort of successful careers and lives to which they aspire. But when rotated and adjusted once more, slightly, these components become bars, symbolically imprisoning the mannequins just as British class structure imprisons Joyce, Angie, and their peers. A bevy of 1980’s anthems rejoicing in womanhood are effectively employed before the play’s start and during scene changes, including Donna Summer’s She Works Hard for the Money, Pat Benatar’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation, and Madonna’s Material Girl. Not only do these establish the era, but most reflect some component of the issues that are raised. Due to the author’s non-linear sequencing of scenes – we see events out or order, just like Pulp Fiction – and the fantastical nature of the first scene, the audience at the performance I attended was unsure when scenes began and ended, so I’ll help a little here: when the lights go down and the actors begin moving props and scenery around, that’s the break between scenes – so it’s OK to applaud if you care to. In particular, when Angie stands alone on stage and Sweet Dreams by Eurythmics starts to play, that’s the break for intermission after the first act, and you can feel free to give as huge an ovation as you can. Because the moment is quite moving.
The author has said that Top Girls was written as a
feminist response to Thatcherite Conservatism of the 1980’s, yet the issues
raised sadly remain even more relevant today. One can glean a
number of messages from the material, but for me the true joy was in the
artistry of the cast’s performances, and the thoughtful
attention to detail from director and designer. Top Girls runs
through this weekend at USC's Center for Performance Experiment, which is
like a large black box-style performance space, except the seats are more
comfortable, there’s more elbow room and leg room, and thanks to risers, the
raked seating allows for maximum visibility. The CPE is located at
the Wall” at Trustus Gives Voice to
Review by August Krickel
As I left the Trustus
Side Door production of Robert Schenkkan's ultra-topical new play Building
the Wall, the familiar notes of a popular '70's anthem floated down
Schenkkan created this new work, set in the near-future of 2019
after a period of civil unrest in which Pres. Trump has declared martial law,
in a self-described white-hot fury of creativity and outrage, completing it in
only a week, just before the 2016 election. As the audience enters
the performance space, a sullen prisoner (Rick, played by J.B. Frush-Marple)
sits and broods in a stark jailhouse setting. Ironically, Rick himself
was once in charge of a privatized, for-profit detention center - we actually
have plenty of those already, believe it or not - tasked with processing the
influx of detainees resulting from a widespread round-up of illegal immigrants.
His visitor is Gloria (Lonetta Thompson), a history professor who has gained
access to interview Rick for a book she's writing, promising to give him a
chance to tell his side of what is revealed to be a tragedy of staggering
proportions. He's a white, conservative high school dropout and former Army MP
who speaks with a
Schenkkan has clearly set up this scenario to be a duel of
ideas, and ideals. To his credit, he never demonizes Rick. Gloria, however,
speaking for both the author and likely most of the audience, often interrupts
Rick's narrative to challenge him on points of accuracy. He sees immigrants as
the root of terrorism, and she reminds him that murderers like the
Really, the debate probably should have been between Gloria and a peer - a high-level Dick Cheney or Steve Bannon figure who orchestrated what we learn became crimes against humanity. Schenkkan cheats just a bit by using Rick as both a quintessential and stereotypical Trump voter, but also as an official with authority who carries out some of the administration's most disturbing directives. In the former capacity - and thanks to Frush-Marple's subtly subversive performance that's so nuanced that you don't realize he's endearing himself to you until it's too late - Rick becomes everyman. He enjoys hearing Trump be politically incorrect at campaign rallies, he delights in seeing Trump take down aristocratic "suits" like Jeb Bush, and he admits to the euphoria felt while "being part of a wave, a landslide" of under-educated, working-class white Christians with diminished expectations for their lives. Hearing Trump's promises, Rick confesses "I don't feel little anymore, I don't feel ashamed anymore." Under director Jim O'Connor's capable guidance, the actor does a great job at capturing the character's barely-suppressed anger and rage, both at the modern, multi-cultural society in which he feels like an outcast, and at his criminal conviction for events that he feels were beyond his control. He punches every third or fourth sentence with derision and sarcasm, usually when he's forced to use some politically correct term with multiple syllables - "African-American" in lieu of "black" for example. Yet Gloria starts to accept his self-view as "a regular guy, in extraordinary circumstances, trying to do the best job he can, with very limited resources." Thompson serves in many ways as the straight man for Rick, but her performance is fierce, expressive, articulate, and the best I've seen her give to date.
There's a climactic revelation proving that Rick isn't nearly the good guy he claims to be, and while the character clearly is deeply affected by guilt, he never completely gets past his belief that none of this was his fault. Which broadens the play's message beyond a simple "look what voting for Trump might result in" - although the play's catastrophic future history is entirely and chillingly plausible - and into the realm of "this is the society that we have created for ourselves."
The author is no stranger to politics and history, having been nominated for Emmy Awards and winning a Writers' Guild Award for scripts for the HBO mini-series The Pacific. He co-wrote the screenplay for the Oscar-winning Hacksaw Ridge, and won the Tony for All the Way, which followed LBJ's struggle to pass landmark civil rights legislation. He also won the Pulitzer in 1992 for The Kentucky Cycle. Additionally, he has just a little experience with government conspiracies and malfeasance: in his days as an actor, he appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation as the officious Lt. Cdr. Remmick, who investigated questionable actions by the Enterprise under Picard's command, and was later revealed to be the host body for cockroach-like aliens who had infiltrated Starfleet in anticipation of an invasion. (If you want a kick, just google "Dexter Remmick Tumblr" and click on the first result for an animated GIF of his character's demise from phaser blasts by Picard and Riker.)
In short, this play is an important statement
by an important voice in literature and contemporary theatre. Yet it's by no
means perfect, since there is no real resolution. Even after we come to
understand the details of the play's central tragedy, there's no sense that
Gloria will somehow change the world, nor that other misguided schmoes like
Rick will somehow become enlightened, nor that the real-villains, military-industrial-complex
superiors far above Rick in the food chain, are likely to be held accountable.
The sad reality seems to be that her book will reinforce the beliefs of
like-minded colleagues, while the other half of the country will choose to disbelieve.
Or is the implied outcome that grim? Schenkkan provides no clear answer,
which is why this work is such a great tool to spark discussion, as well as
perhaps some self-reflection and analysis among us all. Either way, O'Connor,
Thompson and Frush-Marple do a great job with the material they have to work
with. Accordingly, recommending a production that will frustrate and exasperate
you as much as entertain you doesn't bother me at all - does your conscience
Building the Wall runs through Saturday, October 14, including an extra matinee performance on that final Saturday, and two performances with Spanish supertitles; visit
http://trustus.org/event/building-the-wall/ or call the box office at 803-254-9732, ext. 1 for details and ticket information.
Clowning, Music and Romance are the Highlights of Swashbuckling, Gender-Bending “Twelfth Night” at USC’s Drayton Hall
Review by August Krickel
Master clown Louis Butelli is at it again. A frequent guest director for productions at the University of South Carolina - including last year's rollicking circus/rock show version of Scapin - the veteran actor, director, and academic expert on the age-old tradition of clowning is an artist-in-residence in USC's Department of Theatre this semester, and the results can be seen in his exuberant take on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, running at Drayton Hall Theatre through this weekend. As expected, genders are bent, pranks are played, and true love wins out in the end, after some inventive interludes of appealing music and swashbuckling swordplay.
Twelfth Night was done just
a couple of years ago at On Stage Productions in
The play's title comes from a Middle Ages festival celebrating the end of the twelve days of Christmas. A combination of Mardi Gras, New Year's Eve, and Hallowe'en in Five Points, festivities included drinking, carousing, singing, dancing, pursuing the opposite sex, and dressing in costume or disguise, all presided over by a Fool. Which is likewise a summary of the action on stage. Shakespeare likely composed this work specifically for such an occasion, naming it with all the creativity of Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson calling their band "The Band," and adding the subtitle "or What You Will." Yes, the English language's greatest writer suggested an alternate title of "whatever, dude." But that ties in with the generally carefree tone of the script, which is neither complex nor profound, but as a result is quite accessible for modern audiences. All one has to accept in advance is that love at first sight is indeed real and genuine, and that a girl will be indistinguishable from her twin brother if she dresses up as a boy.
Nic Uluru's scenic
design is evocative of the Mediterranean setting - the fictional
Shakespeare's original text is full of songs, all sung by the clown Feste (John Romanski), and Butelli takes full advantage of the actor's musical skills on both guitar and piano, as well as his ability to go over the top with tomfoolery while still remaining believable. Romanski had audiences in stitches this time last year with his Shatner-esque portrayal of Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and he's just the performer to step into the baggy pants of classic stage clowns - in fact, the baggy pants he wears, and occasionally drops, might literally be Scapin's, i.e. the ones worn by Dimitri Woods in Butelli's 2016 Longstreet production. Butelli wisely condenses both text and characters, allowing for Feste to be the random islander who rescues Viola from drowning, and then performs basic exposition duties for the audience while detailing island lore and politics to Viola. In doing so, Butelli enables Viola to see Duke Orsino (Darrell Johnston) from afar - which explains her instant crush and her subsequent disguise as a boy so as to secure employment with and thus get closer to the Duke - and also establishes Feste as a de facto narrator and linking device whenever he sings. Matthew Dean Marsh is credited as composer, but the lyrics are all Shakespeare, and the result is part Avett Brothers, part Jump Little Children, and part Simon and Garfunkel, with Romanski capably backed by guitarists Andy Ratliff and Lochlan Angle. Sometimes one plays, sometimes it's two or all three. Angle also performs in a number of smallish roles, demonstrating just how compact an ensemble Shakespeare was working with, and how simply and efficiently his work can be done, while Ratliff turns up as Antonio, the sea captain *cough* pirate who rescues Sebastian, and whose affection for the pretty youth seems a bit more than rugged male bonding when seen from a 21st century perspective.
As per the conventions of the genre detailed above, when Viola dons male attire, she's a dead ringer for her twin brother, and just as attractive. Yet it's her passionate descriptions of pure love and devotion that inflame the heart of the noble Olivia (a stunning and newly blonde Gabriella Castillo), previously in mourning for her father and brother until she catches sight of "Cesario" (Viola's name while in male drag.) The only problem is that Viola is supposed to be talking up her employer Orsino as a potential match for Olivia; meanwhile Orsino is similarly and uncomfortably mesmerized by Cesario's eloquence and passion. I'm not going to say that Shakespeare was making an early 17th-century case for relationship and marriage equality, but here, more than in most of his plays, the author seems to making a statement on the importance of sincere emotions, and how they engage not just our hearts but our minds - with the allocation of gender almost an afterthought, even if everyone then follows suit, with each boy pairing off with the appropriate girl. While the plot twists and resolutions are as contrived as one expects from plays of the era, Butelli's actors really emphasize the agonies and ecstasies of first love, unrequited love, betrayal, and irresistible attraction, lending an unexpected yet welcome gravitas to what could otherwise be stock boy-loves-girl-loves-boy motifs.
Matters are complicated by Olivia's conniving and hard-drinking uncle, Sir Toby (Kaleb Edward Edley), who hopes to marry his niece off to the dimwitted and gullible Sir Andrew (Donavon St. Andre), a drinking buddy who has plenty of money to spend on booze and all-night parties. Interestingly, with the addition of music, and the casting of the young, athletic Edley in a role usually played by an older, portly Falstaffian figure, the alcohol-fueled revelry seems far more innocuous and entertaining, making the complaints of Olivia's chief steward Malvolio (Nicolas Stewart) all the more unreasonable. Malvolio is a Puritan, which to Shakespeare's audience meant not just a perpetual buzzkill, but indeed the dour fundamentalists who eventually came to Plymouth Rock only a few years later. Not only does Malvolio see himself as superior to those around him, going so far as to manhandle Olivia's serving lady Maria (Lindsey Sheehan), but he has delusions of future grandeur, imagining that he will one day wed his employer. Sounds like an excuse for shenanigans, as Maria and her comedic cronies concoct a scheme to make Malvolio look more foolish than usual. Or, as I wrote in reference to the On Stage production in 2015:
... to put this in a modern context, Hawkeye and Trapper enlist the aid of Klinger and Radar to make Winchester think Hot Lips loves him, while Lucy Ricardo dresses up as a man to help Ricky, but ends up having to fend off advances from some starlet. These are timeless tropes of comedy that predate Shakespeare by 2000 years, but their familiarity helps if one is struggling with the flowery Elizabethan language.
Stewart's performances are always imbued with a fluid sort of physicality; I recall spotting his entrance in the dimly-lit opening scene of last spring's Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, and long before he spoke I thought "Oh, that's got to be the pyromaniac from Cosi." The actor throws himself into this role, figuratively and literally, and gets plenty of laughs from antics that the script makes clear cause him to get locked up as a madman. Still, Butelli's concept for the character includes flamboyant line delivery and mannerisms, and a costume and wig reminiscent of Purple Rain-era Prince, and I was never convinced that Malvolio was a starchy conservative, nor that he would be attracted to Olivia over, say, Cesario. But that said, the actor is still a delight to watch, and could use much of this incarnation of Malvolio to make a great Dr. Frankenfurter some day. Sheehan, on the other hand, benefits from a fortunate synergy of costume, hairstyle (unsure if it's a wig nor not) and characterization that instantly establishes Maria as the sassy, sexy maid from every 1930's screwball comedy, and she channels greats like Joan Blondell and Una Merkel with style and flair. Edley is credited as Fight Director, and his non-traditional portrayal of Sir Toby includes some expertly-staged dueling scenes. While unexpected, there's nothing in the script to suggest Toby can't be both a drunk and a master swordsman, in the vein of Oliver Reed in Richard Lester's sublime 1973 version of The Three Musketeers. (Or for that matter, Oliver Reed in about two dozen other films.) Interestingly, these fight scenes play out accompanied by the soaring notes of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," which similarly accompanied Malcolm McDowell and Alan Bates in a memorable brawl in Lester's 1975 film Royal Flash. Perhaps it's an homage to a memorable cinematic moment from an undeservedly forgotten movie, or perhaps it's just great minds thinking alike, but either way, it's a highlight of the production. I'd also be remiss if I didn't praise Romanski's terrific ad-lib of "Opa!" when Sebastian calls Feste a "foolish Greek."
Twelfth Night won't change your life, any more than it did for the revelers who saw its debut in Shakespeare's time. And yet as the director noted in a pre-show address to departmental supporters, the dark times we live in call for things to entertain us with unadulterated joy and laughter; in celebrations like the twelfth night after Christmas, or the shared experience of live theatre, we can perhaps lay aside our differences long enough to enjoy entertainment that has successfully endured for over four hundred years, while maintaining relevance to the modern human condition. Twelfth Night runs at USC's Drayton Hall Theatre nightly through Saturday, October 14, with an additional 3 PM matinee on that final Saturday. For information, visit http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/thea/twelfth-night-drayton-hall-theatre-october-6-14-2017 or call 803- 777-2551.
Town Theatre’s Moving “Hunchback of Notre Dame” Returns to the Story’s Tragic Roots While Retaining Pretty Disney Score
Review by August Krickel
Town Theatre's production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is accurately billed as "based on the Victor Hugo novel and songs from the Disney film," those being the work of composer Alan Mencken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, who have added a number of new tunes for this most recent incarnation, which also features a new book by Peter Parnell. As much an opera as a musical, more Hugo than Disney, more of a dark romance than family fun, and more of a tragedy than anything resembling comedy, Town's opener for its 99th season is as moving, and as slickly and professionally produced, as any show I've ever seen there.
If Victor Hugo's name sounds familiar, it should - his 1862 novel Les Misérables was the basis for the immensely successful Broadway musical staged by Town in 2013, and was full of doomed lovers, tragic deaths, class struggle, divine inspiration, and almost infinite pain and suffering playing out amidst a backdrop of historical turmoil in France. Hugo's earlier work from 1831, Notre-Dame de Paris - which means "Our Lady of Paris," and refers to the famous Gothic cathedral - followed the same model, and is quite challenging for the modern reader, especially this writer, who plowed through its hundreds and hundreds of turgid pages at age 14, thinking that sooner or later there'd be some scenes of hunchback-inspired horror and mayhem. But there aren't. Our modern notion of the horror angle comes from the 1923 silent film, which starred and was co-produced by Lon Chaney, best known for character roles as villains; his grotesque make-up as the titular Quasimodo, along with memorable scenes of the hunchback carrying off a fair maiden, have led to Quasimodo's permanent residence in our collective rogue's gallery of classic screen monsters, right up there with Chaney's Phantom of the Opera, and his son's Wolf Man.
Yet Quasimodo is no villain, and as played by Jeremy Reasoner, he's as tragic a hero as you'll ever find. With a name meaning "as in the manner of" (i.e. he's created in the manner of a man, with hands, feet, etc. but is challenged by serious deformities), the hunchback is a half-gypsy orphan, taken in by his uncle Claude Frollo (George Dinsmore), a priest who rises to the powerful position of Archdeacon of the cathedral in 15th century Paris. The character has been memorably portrayed by some of Hollywood's finest talents, including Chaney, Charles Laughton, Anthony Quinn, and even James Cagney (briefly, in a bio film about Chaney's life), all heavy-set and/or middle-aged at the time. Parnell's script, however, returns to Hugo's notion of Quasimodo as a "boy" of some 20 years, similar in age to hunky Captain of the Guard Phoebus (Augie Gil) and seductive gypsy Esmeralda (Sheldon Paschal on opening night, alternating with Blakelee Cannon.) Rather than relying on any sort of prosthetics to signify misshapenness, Reasoner emerges from the ensemble to smear bold lines on each side of his face, and straps the semblance of a hump onto his back, then covering it in shabby green rags. It's a moment of pure theatricality, straight out of commedia dell'arte or Brecht, which makes it easy for the actor to move and sing freely when necessarily, but also emphasizes the humanity of both actor and character.
When he speaks, Reasoner is the half-deaf bell ringer who stoops, limps, and shuffles across the stage; when he sings, Reasoner is the ebullient and assertive tenor who has captivated audiences as Cinderella's Prince in Into the Woods and as Freddie in last year's My Fair Lady, and when he clambers up and down the imposing facade of the cathedral, he's the limber, athletic leading man who tap-danced while Singin' In the Rain, and madly tickled the ivories while perched atop his piano as Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet. It's an impressive performance, and as he hit and then sustained a high note at the end of his first big solo, "Out There," there was a huge upsurge of applause from the audience, with dozens of "woo-hoos" and other encouragements ringing throughout the interior of the building. This happened twice more after other numbers, and when the actor took his final bow, the audience, already on its feet, cranked the volume up to 11, giving Reasoner a well-deserved and extended ovation.
Director Jamie Carr Harrington's casting results in excellence across the board. She has assembled a fine ensemble of some 40 singers and dancers, at least 15 of whom are new to Town, and many of whom according to their bios have extensive training or backgrounds in choral music. Most are older teens and young adults, the appropriate ages for the gypsies, soldiers, and passers-by in 15th-century Paris. To her credit, Harrington has managed to attract some of her best alumni from previous productions, and her Hunchback cast includes her three leads from last year's Addams Family, and at least five of that show's ensemble. Will Moreau is colorful as the gypsy king Clopin, who sees himself as a wild boar among domestic swine (that's one of many lines taken directly from the novel, by the way) and is surely a spiritual ancestor of his Engineer character from Harrington's 2013 production of Miss Saigon. Paschal makes for a fiercely independent Esmeralda, a modern woman in an age and culture where assertiveness can lead to dire consequences. George Dinsmore gives a complex, multi-faceted rendition of Frollo, making him far more than a cardboard villain. Indeed, we see a number of instances of his compassion, mercy, and dedication to the laws of both God and man. By the limited scientific knowledge of his era, the desire he feels for Esmeralda may as well be sorcery. In one brilliantly staged scene, Frollo prays for guidance, struggling to resist his lust for the young gypsy dancer, and we see a Virgin Mary-like figure appear before him, only to be revealed as a dream-Esmerelda who inflames his passion further. Dinsmore gets one of those audible responses - thunderous applause with plenty of cheering and hurrahs - at the end of his song "Hellfire," after a skillful transition from meditative through conflicted to finally crazed and vengeful. Yet I never found myself hating him, and after his evil machinations lead to multiple deaths, there's still a certain level of sympathy that he projects when he expresses a desire to return to how things were before. All of that said, Dinsmore's low-key, natural style is completely credible but at times a little at odds with the melodramatic tone of everyone around him, and it might not hurt to occasionally chew the scenery a little more.
The Virgin Mary scene above is but one of many visual moments on stage that work well, thanks to the director's blocking, Tracy Steele's masterful choreography for the constant movement of the cast, and designer Danny Harrington's use of lighting at key moments. A good example occurs while Esmerelda is performing at center stage, and clear but subtle lighting illuminates the faces of the three men who are smitten by her beauty. The set is one big unit representing the cathedral, with all of its stone masonry, sculptures, and stained glass. With few if any references in the script to props or furniture, most action plays out in a large open area, established in dialogue and music as a tavern, the courtyard of the cathedral, or the lofty upper reaches of the cathedral's superstructure, where Quasimodo talks to his imaginary friends, statues and gargoyles played by members of the ensemble. Here as in every scene the plot takes a tiny bit from Disney - talking gargoyles - but then drops the comedy, and makes clear that the gargoyles are simply voicing Quasimodo's troubled thoughts like a Greek chorus.
As above, most of the choreography is more movement than dance, but a handful of extremely talented dancers do a great job when portraying carefree gypsy entertainers. A number of action scenes - Quasimodo's famous defense of the cathedral by pouring molten lead on an attacking mob for example - are accomplished effectively via stylized and symbolic visuals and movement, the result of intricate coordination among director, designer and choreographer. Fight choreography, however, could use a little work, even if the actors just get together for beer to watch a couple of Game of Thrones episodes for some inspiration. Musical director Michael Simmons, making a welcome return to Columbia where he was a strong creative presence in the 80's and 90's, elicits a nice, confident, rich vocal sound from the ensemble; a particular treat is the beautiful interplay of trumpet (Brian Lamkin) and flute (Philip Snyder) in a number of songs, especially "Someday." Costumes by Jillian Carey are authentic but relatively simple, enabling actors to segue quickly from gypsy to soldier to congregant to talking statue. Actors playing gargoyles don half-masks in order to free up their lower faces for singing; there probably wasn't time within the quick changes of scene for the statue-portrayers to do more than drape a gray robe over a shoulder to suggest stone, but I do wish there had been a stronger visual statement in their attire.
I mentioned Hugo's Les Misérables above, and it's worth noting again that this newest incarnation of Hunchback may have some songs from the Disney film, but it's surely Mencken and Schwartz's bid to be taken every bit as seriously as the Schönberg-Boublil-Natel score for Les Mis. (Schwartz's son directed this most recent stage revision and reinterpretation, and the usually omnipresent Disney logo is conspicuously absent from program and poster graphics.) In short, this isn't your father’s Hunchback, or more accurately, it's not the cartoon you watched with your kids in the '90's. Rather, this is a dark and moving tragic romance, featuring outstanding performances and scenic design, with production values as rich as you'd find in any touring production at the Koger Center. The Hunchback of Notre Dame runs through Sunday, October 8; call 803-799-2510 or visit http://towntheatre.com/the-hunchback-of-notre-dame/ for ticket information.
“Barbecue” at Trustus Skewers Preconceptions and Stereotypes of Class and Race With Raucous Satire
Review by August Krickel
Robert O'Hara's Barbecue, the season opener running through Saturday, September 23rd at Trustus Theatre, has nothing to do with delicious pulled pork, although plenty was on hand in the theater's adjacent parking lot for a festive opening night block party, thanks to the Bone-In Barbeque food truck. Plentiful beer and wine added to the celebratory vibe, and primed the audience for the raucous fun that unfolded on stage.
O'Hara's script is full of unexpected plot twists and turns, but I won't divulge any spoilers. Let’s just say that the story is told from multiple and possibly unreliable viewpoints, as comically bickering siblings stage an intervention - disguised as a family cookout at a public park - for an out-of-control sister whose volatile nature inspires her nickname, "Zippity-Boom." Some characters are played by more than one actor, and some actors play multiple characters, or alternate versions of the same character. Stereotypes of substance abuse and addiction among lower-income, less-educated demographics, both white and African-American, are satirized mercilessly, although audiences can decide whether it's race, class, and cultural tropes that are the targets, or if it's our own preconceptions that are being challenged. Meanwhile pills are popped, Jack Daniel's and PBR are guzzled, and one bad boy is packin' a Taser, as a plan derived from reality television takes shape, to send Zippity-Boom to rehab, even if she says "no, no, no." Act Two veers into radically different dramatic territory, exploring patterns that addicts follow even when sober, and the hypocrisy inherent in modern, reality-based entertainment.
night, Director Ilene Fins successfully juggled quickly shifting tones and
themes to create a more-or-less cohesive whole, although some may have felt a
little cheated when expected plot developments in O’Hara’s storyline never
materialized, and appealing characters became less so. Devin Anderson was a
scream as an over-the-top pop diva with ambitions/delusions of
Heather Hawfield's excellent scenic design incorporated rugged wooden beams that formed a realistic picnic area, as well as a picturesque painted backdrop of surrounding foliage, rendered in intricate and visually satisfying detail by Hawfield, Richard Király, and Brandon McIver.
Barbecue is undeniable funny, in a take-no-prisoners, R-rated kind of way. While not exactly the profound statement on race and class that advance publicity and online plot summaries might suggest, the play skewers any number of societal quirks and foibles which are ripe for skewering, making for just the sort of entertainment that regular Trustus attendees have come to expect. For ticket information, call the Trustus box office at 803-254-9732, or visit http://trustus.org/event/barbecue/.
Inaugural Full Circle Production of “The Pavilion” Explores the Metaphysics of Second Chances
Review by August Krickel
The Pavilion is all about the lingering consequences of decisions, and the viability of fresh starts and do-overs, with some metaphysical musings on the nature of time and destiny thrown in for good measure. Set in a once-popular party venue in small-town Minnesota where a 20th high school reunion is taking place, Craig Wright's three-actor play takes a stab at exploring the vast mysteries of the cosmos, but it's the all-too-real human component that will likely resonate with audiences long after the cast's final bow.
Disclaimer: by the time you read this, that bow will have already taken place: the initial run of The Pavilion lasted five days only, and was presented last month in USC's Lab Theatre as a partnership between the University and a new professional acting company, Full Circle Productions. The brainchild of Theatre and Dance Department chair Robert Richmond, who directs this production, Full Circle takes its name from its roots: a number of theatre professionals with ties to USC as former students, teachers, or visiting artists, found themselves once again living in the Midlands, and wanted to do some good work together. Last year's campus production of Grounded was a sort of test drive for the operative model of Full Circle, in which small cast, simple-set shows - ones that Richmond describes as "being able to be put into a suitcase" and taken on the road - will tour to other venues, other campuses - both within the USC system and in other states - and possibly even other countries. There's also a good chance that this show will be done again in Columbia, so read on for what may lie in your theatre-going future.
Peter (Andrew Schwartz) and Kari (Lindsay Rae Taylor) were the cutest couple in the senior class. Immature decisions were made, and he dumped her, heading off to college and a subsequent career in the big city as a psychologist, while she remained in drab Pine City, muddling through a humdrum and unsatisfying marriage, and working at a low-level bank job (literally - she's stationed downstairs with the safe deposit boxes.) While we never learn specifics, Peter believes that his own life is a mess, with relationships - the latest is with a woman 14 years his junior - never leading to any sense of fulfillment. His solution? Turn up at the class reunion, and try to reignite that old spark with Kari. One might find this notion awfully far-fetched - although if we think about our own craziest and most dysfunctional friends, acquaintances, classmates, and exes, I suspect most of us have seen or experienced worse - but Peter is equally motivated by genuine remorse, and the desire to seek forgiveness. As Peter and Kari's inevitable confrontation plays out, the resulting effect is alternately poignant, sweet, and thought-provoking.
At the core of Peter's troubled thoughts - and those of the author - is the issue of time, questioned and re-examined in various contexts. Life is too short to be unhappy, there's never enough time to reach all of our goals, one can't go back in time and change the past, but can one essentially restart the clock from zero for a second chance, or is one condemned to live out the ramifications of youthful mistakes? Are we defined by individual actions forever, or can we grow and learn from our mistakes, and move on?
And must we always move on, leaving the results of those mistakes behind? Or can we somehow go back and fix them?
Much of the preceding is expressed by the cast's third actor, Jennifer Moody Sanchez, who begins as an omniscient narrator, but then takes on a dozen or more fleeting character roles as other attendees at the reunion. Most of these are the expected small town stereotypes: the class stoner, the gauche farmer, the local gossip, and the bless-her-heart queen bee who organizes the event. These are written quite broadly, and provide lots of comedy, as Sanchez segues seamlessly from one to the next, and from male to female and back, employing mainly changes in accent or body language. In her narrator persona, however, she stops and re-starts the action, offers commentary on Peter and Kari, and tackles everything from the creation of the universe to some of those time-themed conundrums above. As a fan of the actress, I found these to be a treat, and enjoyed her tour-de-force of creating multiple roles from thin air; yet at times the playwright seemed to lose track of where these poetic monologues were going, and I was reminded of Jim Morrison lyrics at their murkiest, "as hosts crowd the young child's fragile eggshell mind."
For me, the play was nevertheless elevated beyond a "Lorelai Gilmore goes to her reunion" television plot by the eloquence of the author's prose, and by the sincerity of the actors, moreso than by any actual or definitive philosophical conclusions. When Schwartz and Taylor really get going and revisit all the hurt and pain and ugliness from their youth, their lines pop back and forth with nearly visible electricity. Director Richmond and designer Nate Terracio stage the proceedings in three-quarter-round, and the actors use every inch of the available space, constantly moving, crossing and countering, like prize fighters in a ring. It's a textbook demonstration of how to keep the audience engaged with a script that's almost all talk. That said, there's a terrific bit of physical comedy where characters have deep conversation while doing that inevitable reunion staple, the Electric Slide. A few tables and benches, along with an array of festive lights overhead, are all that's necessary to suggest the setting, with the Lab Theatre's dark curtains something that actually might be found in an event venue.
Reviews over the years have called this work an Our Town for a new generation, stemming the device of a narrator, the usually minimalist/non-existent set, and the universality of many of the issues raised. I was more reminded of Brecht, as commonplace emotions and experiences took on huge significance, with the narrator providing explication directly to the audience, and controlling assorted stage conventions. Wisely, there are no explicit references in the script to anything that might date the narrative (smart phones, Facebook, etc.) meaning that whenever the play is done, it can be a reunion of a class from exactly 20 years earlier, with appropriate pop music from the era playing throughout.
While I doubt that The Pavilion will ever find the iconic status given to Brecht or Our Town, it's an excellent selection for the purposes of Full Circle, and not just because of the ease of touring the show. While the script ruminates over choices, it's the choices of the author and the production team that I think can provide almost endless opportunities for discussion. Could the play be done on a detailed, realistic set, and if so, would there be any benefit? Could the supporting cast of characters all be played by individual actors? What challenges does the actor playing the narrator face when morphing quickly into other characters? And while Theatre 101 students delve into those quandaries, those in Psych 101 might ponder what pathologies are at work in Peter and Kari's interactions, budding philosophers might analyze the cosmic implications of time and meaning that are explored, and future playwrights would do well to speculate on whether the story would work better with only the characters of the former sweethearts, and if not, why not?
Long ago, USC used to have a Summer Repertory program, a popular annual event in which professional actors and stage technicians - often current faculty, recent graduates, and alumni - presented a quick summer season of four shows, offering high-quality entertainment to the community, while providing important experience and professional credits for its cast and crew. In that same era, USC benefited from association with the Aquila Theatre Company, who developed shows as artists-in-residence on campus, presented them with plenty of opportunity student involvement and engagement, and then set off on nationwide tours. The concept is the same as professional archaeologists involving students in some important dig overseas, or Physics or Engineering faculty giving students the chance to work on the development of some new technology. I have high hopes that Richmond and company will thrive, making their new company an integral part of the theatre scene on campus, in the Midlands, and all points beyond. Full circle, indeed.
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