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Now Playing:
"Bunnicula," February 20 - March 1, Columbia Children's Theatre, 691-4548.

"Translations," February 20-28, USC Longstreet Theatre.

"The Tongue of A Bird," February 22-28, USC Center for Performance Experiment.

"The Trojan Women," February 26 - March 1, USC Lab Theatre.

"You Better Sit Down: Tales From My Parents' Divorce," February 27 - March 14, Trustus Side Door Theatre, 254-9732.

"Funny Little Thing Called Love," February 27 - March 7, Chapin Theatre Company at Harbison Theatre, 800-838-8006.

"Sugar," March 6-21, Town Theatre, 799-2510.

"Four Forgotten fairy Tales," March 13-15, Ritz Theatre of Newberry, 276-6264.

"Beauty and the Beast," March 19-29, Sumter Little Theatre, 775-2150.

"The Odd Couple: Female Version," March 20-29, Vollage Square Theatre, 359-1436.

"Godspell," March 20 - April 11, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.

"Hairspray, Jr.," March 20-22, Columbia Children's Theatre, 691-4548.

"Stickfly," March 27 - April 4, Workshop Theatre at 701 Whaley, 799-6551.

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Columbia Children’s Theatre ‘s “Bunnicula” Is One For the Kids

Review by August Krickel.

There are creepy goings-on in the hitherto complacent, suburban Monroe household. A strange creature with long teeth sleeps by day, but prowls with glowing red eyes by night. Vegetables are found in the refrigerator, drained of their juice. This can only be the work of (cue pregnant chord of music) ...Bunnicula!  Columbia Children's Theatre's revival of Bunnicula  is based on a popular series of children's books by James Howe, and features music and lyrics by Chris Jeffries and Jon Klein.  Yes, this is a musical about a vampire bunny, and while not quite the madcap romp often seen in CCT's original shows, this production is sure to entertain the age 3-8 set.

To clarify, Bunnicula isn't exactly a vampire - he's an adorable little rabbit found by a family right after seeing a vampire movie, and since he has big teeth, why not name him accordingly?  This doesn't sit well with their existing pets, however, especially the catty and obsessive housecat, Chester (Paul Lindley II.)  Unknown to their humans, Chester and the older, wiser, yet also goofier dog Harold (Jerry Stevenson) can communicate, sing, dance, and even read. Chester clearly never learned what curiosity can do to cats, and sees the newcomer as a dire threat.  Hilarity and hare-brained schemes ensue, and at one point the furry duo get their folklore wrong and try to vanquish their foe with a steak - yep, from the refrigerator - to the heart.

Lindley continues to grow as a character actor, and has perfected feline mannerisms down to a T. He speaks with a little bit of a Southern drawl, mimicking a cat's languid mee-ow, and often drapes himself in ridiculous poses across the furniture. His expressions of discomfort are priceless when mom Mrs. Monroe (Toni Moore) wants to kiss such an adorable little kitty, and his humiliation is complete when she makes him put on his little sweater. Stevenson as Harold is better behaved, but he too has his issues, including tremendous fear of their worst nightmare: the dreaded vacuum cleaner.  Stevenson directs as well, and (with Jim Litzinger) designed the set, which is rendered entirely in shades of gray, to replicate a color-blind animal's point of view. Even the humans' clothing is all gray, leaving the dog and cat with the only color to be seen. Their costumes, by Stevenson and Donna Harvey, don't try to replicate fur, but look comfortable and colorful, with moderate make-up to suggest an animal's features without obscuring the actors' faces. (Imagine a scaled down variation on the musical Cats, or John Candy in Spaceballs.)  Moore does fine in a role she often plays at CCT: the harried, somewhat authoritarian, slightly clueless grown-up, and is joined by Julian Deleon as her husband, with Riley Smith and Kate Chalfant as two rather bratty kids. Deleon gets to play a normal dad for a change (as opposed to, say, Santa Claus, a cross-dressing wolf, or an especially festive Happy the Dwarf), and like Lindley is becoming a dependable part of the CCT stock company who can always be counted on to deliver a good performance, whatever the role may be. This CCT's tenth year, meaning that many of the students who have grown up in their children's acting classes and performed in their youth productions are now experienced veterans who are ready to join the adults on stage. A few years ago, young adults would probably have been cast as the Monroe kids, but instead, it's Smith and Chalfant, both talented and age-appropriate youngsters.

Like the best theatre for young audiences, there are plenty of jokes that only Mom and Dad will get. For example, kids will squeal with delight when screeching strings and scary lighting effects accompany a particular event (and the start of a running joke) but parents will recognize the score from Psycho. Similarly, when Stevenson uses a British accent while narrating the show's intro with an accompaniment of playfully mysterious music, children will understand this as a parody of the start of a ghost story, while it might take Grandmom or Granddad to realize he's imitating Alfred Hitchcock, right down to theme from Hitchcock's television anthology series from 60 years ago. Jeffries' score is quite good, especially the peppy "Nothing Like a Pet" in which dog and cat details the benefits enjoyed by their owners, and the bluesy jazz song "Poor Cat," after Chester is placed outside. In keeping with their characterizations, Chester continues to yowl and complain after misbehaving, while Harold is genuinely crestfallen after, for the first time in his life, he is thought to have been a "bad dog." (Note to actresses looking for an audition piece or cabaret number - sung by a woman, "Poor Cat" could be an awesomely vampy torch song.)

You'll note I haven't mentioned the title character. Matthew Wright is an energetic performer who has grown up with CCT, and played a great Donkey in Shrek the Musical last year at Town Theatre; clad entirely in gray stage-ninja attire, he performs as puppeteer for the rabbit character, which has no lines, and is basically a stuffed bunny doll. Its head turns, its limbs move a little, its eyes glow in the dark, but the show is more about the dog and the cat, and so Wright doesn't get much time in the limelight. I really hope that when this show is revived again, Bunnicula can be more fully realized as a Muppet-style marionette, or at least as a hand puppet. Kids in the audience won't mind, however, and Wright's silent presence lends an added eerie effect. I also wasn't wild about the hasty plot resolution, a sort of lepus ex machina (only Stevenson will get that reference) that tidily ties everything up for the finale, but I'm sure that follows the plot from the original book. The production runs right at 70 minutes with no intermission, and the cast as always is available for autographs, hugs and selfies afterwards.  

My favorite productions at CCT have been their original spins on traditional fairy tales, which allow for more improvisation and interaction with the audience. Children, however, are guaranteed to enjoy seeing one of their favorite books come to life on stage, complete with musical accompaniment. This is also a chance to see Mr. Jerry (CCT’s Artistic Director) in a rare acting role on stage. Making this show worth sinking your teeth into.  Bunnicula runs through  March 1 with a closing Sunday matinee performance.  Call (803) 691-4548, or visit http://www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com/bunnicula/ for more information. Also, don’t forget – this Friday, Feb. 27, there is a Late Night (ok, ok 8 PM) Date Night performance for Mom and Dad, or for local theatre enthusiasts who want to support their actor friends in an adults-only environment – details can be found at http://www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com/event/late-night-bunnicula/ .

Fresh Talent Shines in USC's 
Translations at Longstreet Theatre

Review by August Krickel. 

Brian Friel's acclaimed Translations, running through this weekend at USC's Longstreet Theatre, is an important play, full of important themes and ideas. The power of language, the inexorable march of time as one culture supplants another, and a people's connection to their land are all presented in the context of the assimilation of 19th-century Ireland into the English-speaking British Empire. While some of its complexities may be lost in the ....well, the translation, a talented new batch of MFA students on stage and behind the scenes make this a thought-provoking evening of live theatre.

Much like the works of Friel's literary ancestor Sean O'Casey (and for that matter, like Gone With the Wind and other popular historical fiction), Translations depicts the personal relationships of everyday characters playing out against the backdrop of social upheaval. Rural youths scrape together coins to be tutored in the basics of language and mathematics at "hedge schools," sometimes held outdoors near hedgerows, but in this case at a ramshackle barn that doubles as classroom and home to hard-drinking schoolmaster Hugh (Chris Cook) and his adult son Manus (Benjamin Roberts.) Latin, Greek and Gaelic are on the curriculum, but restless Maire (Grace Ann Roberts) wants to learn English, her head filled with visions of opportunity in America. Jimmy Jack (an amusing Dimitri Woods) fantasizes about hooking up with the goddesses described in Homer and Vergil, while silent Sarah (Nicole Dietze) is an attentive pupil, but due to some impediment is barely able to vocalize words. Inescapable change comes to the village of Ballybeg with the arrival of Hugh's other son, Owen (an appealing Matthew Cavender), now working as an interpreter for the sappers, i.e. the Royal Engineers, who are tasked with surveying the country and creating standardized maps, complete with standardized - and Anglicized - nomenclature for all Gaelic place-names. It's the tip of the iceberg, however, as hedge schools are due to be replaced by a system of English-language-only national schools.

Friel's genius is seen in the trick he uses to portray the language barrier: everyone in the cast speaks English, but the English and Irish characters are unable to understand each other. This leads at first to comedy, when characters ask the interpreter what the other is saying, and actually all they're saying is "What is he/she asking?"  The supercilious commanding officer (Park Bucker) rambles pedantically, while Owen's rendering of his words is clear and succinct. Sympathetic and impressionable Lt. Yolland (Josh Jeffers) struggles to understand Gaelic, and somehow hears Owen's name as "Roland," which he proceeds to call him for most of the play. Yolland is mesmerized by the local Irish beauty ... but apart from Maire, he also likes the culture and countryside.  (Thank you, I'll be here all week - try the corned beef and cabbage.) Their budding romance is adorable, and their fluency in the international language of love (while not being able to understand a word the other is saying) sets up a central thematic question: how important is language anyway?  Owen says he's still the same person however he is called, and Hugh's students learn the nuances of mythology and grammar in their Latin and Greek lessons, yet the implication is that Gaelic will soon join the roster of languages no longer spoken, with its cultural heritage similarly destined for ancient history status. This might seem of little import to a modern audience, until one considers the native languages all but obliterated here in America and elsewhere, and their cultures along with them. In one of many moments where the action on stage has greater symbolic meaning, the British, until now fussy bureaucratic mapmakers, turn menacing when an officer goes missing, and threaten literally to wipe Ballybeg out of existence.

Senior Grace Ann Roberts, memorable as Tecmessa in Ajax in Iraq only a few months ago, shines in every moment she is on stage as Maire. Jeffers as Yoland is nearly as energetic and attractive, and their scenes together are a delight. Visiting director Paul Savas has some clever blocking that takes advantage of the plentiful open space on stage, which is an expanded thrust, with the audience surrounding perhaps 80% of the action. Maire and Yoland circle each other like combatants in a cage match of flirtation, enabling the audience to see them from every possible angle, while catching some of the dizzying exuberance of young love. Chris Cook takes a stock role (the boozy, dreamy, learned Irishman, originally played off-Broadway by Barnard Hughes, who made a career playing that kind of role) and fleshes it out admirably. Sophomore Wes Williams brings a nice assertive physicality to his role as Doalty (a role originated by the young Liam Neeson), with Rachel Kuhnle convincingly playing young school girl Bridget through restless body language and perky line delivery. Park Bucker's characterization of the officer Lancey almost seems over-the-top, until one realizes that we are seeing him through the eyes and ears of the local Irish. He's a caricature of a rigid Englishman, as seen and translated (and for that matter written) by an Irishman, and he finds just the right note to remain believable. Nicole Dietze as Sarah has almost no lines, and minimal blocking, yet she impressively commits to the role, and is always engaged in the action on stage. Even tiny bits of business have significance: during a storm, characters come running in with shawls or their jackets over their heads, and one realizes that in this impoverished region, few would have umbrellas.

My only issue with the production is the accents, which I'm sure are authentically Irish, and which the actors have clearly mastered. But almost too well. I found myself struggling to follow details of plot and character, simply because I couldn't understand specific words. Part of this is Friel's fault: he explains just about every plot point and relationship backstory in exposition, but it's only a sentence here and there, making every single word in a talky and cerebral script quite important. It's like an American playwright explaining that a character "hasn't been the same since 'Nam." An American audience would immediately pick up that this is probably a baby boomer suffering from PTSD, but that one syllable "Nam" would be crucial for understanding. Yet part of this was my own fault, because I was fascinated by the Latin and Greek references, and as I tried to translate them in my mind (recovering Classics geek here, just like Jimmy Jack) I realized I was missing important dialogue. At times one or two characters take center stage while the others simply watch and listen, and I found myself following their expressions and movement, because they were so skillful at seeming natural (as opposed to looking like an actor stuck with no lines on stage.) Dietze was the champ in this area... but again I realized I was missing vital exposition that wouldn't be repeated. But part is simply that the accents are just a little too strong, as if one were listening to Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis in one of their many eloquent but incomprehensible interviews. I will concede that the accents are vital to establishing the Irishness of the setting, but since we're supposed to be hearing Gaelic not English anyway, I hope that they will have mellowed a wee bit by the time you read this. I will say, however, that I still followed the broader themes of the play without a problem, and that the cast's performances are excellent throughout.

USC's Theatre Department not only trains actors, but also technicians, and three first-year MFA students created a richly authentic environment for the production.  Baxter Engle's set is painstaking in its detail, with random, angular panels signifying parts of the whole, which is an old, weather-beaten wooden barn, with the lush Irish countryside seen in the distance. Rachel Harmon's costumes are the wool and muslin and flannel that the working class of the era wore, and look lived-in, i.e. they're not crisp creations direct from the costume shop. Chris Patterson's lighting design is similarly subtle, recreating the ambient light one might find in such a setting, and inconspicuously dimming or narrowing in on a particular actor when appropriate. (I have to give kudos to the stage veteran Cook here, who invariably manages to find the exact spot on stage where the lights illuminate him best.)

Translations is a significant work from a giant of modern theatre, but it's not the sort of play that's likely to be performed more than once every generation or so in Columbia, and then only in a university setting. It's the sort of play that might be analyzed in detail by an Irish Lit or Sociology class with great rewards to be found therein, but it can be enjoyed on surface value as well, like the best of great literature. For me, however, as is often the case, my enjoyment was all about the work by the actors and technicians. Translations runs through Saturday, February 28; for information, visit http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/thea/translations-longstreet-theatre, or call (803) 777-2551.



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