Annual "Britt's Picks" Best-of List - Facebook Live - December 17 at 8:00 PM
April 20 - May 6, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
April 28, 2018
RATING: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
This ain’t Sesame Street. Hell, it ain’t even Avenue Q. No, this is Hand to God by Robert Askins. Premiering off-Broadway in 2014, the satirical play honed in on some uncomfortable truths about honesty and personal responsibility, through a twisted lens.
The story begins in a Texas church basement where Margery (a perfectly tempestuous Kathy Day) is helping her three-student performance ministry complete their sock puppets. On hand are the progressive, outspoken Jessica (an understated, honest Lorelei Lemon), bad boy Timmy (a bold showing from newcomer Kenny Hertling), and Margery’s son Jason. A believable Chris Brown is featured as the anxious, troublesome Pastor Greg.
Played with admirable control and precision by Ira David Wood IV, who also directed the production, Jason and his ever-present puppet Tyrone battle it out for control of young Jason’s world. Wood has proven that there are occasions in which an actor can be directed by themselves. He does not showboat, giving ample (and well-earned) focus to Kathy Day.
Much fuss has been made about the play’s profanity, blasphemy, and frank depictions of sex acts (both human and sock). It is not for the weak of heart, stomach, or spirit. Any character’s horribly destructive decision is exacerbated by lies, avoidance, or scapegoating. One might blame the victim, their own unavoidable weaknesses, or perhaps a demonically-possessed sock puppet that has taken over a child’s arm.
Nathaniel Conti’s lighting designs are vivid and the church basement set is highly detailed, with hidden moving pieces--making for efficient transitions coordinated by stage manager Christine Scardino and assistant Casey Cleland. Puppet designer/builder Marilyn Gormon has created lifelike sock characters that could still believably have been built by kids.
The play is at once hysterical, shocking, unsettling, and enigmatic. An unnecessary epilogue--evil puppet Tyrone’s direct address to the audience--works overtime to explain the play’s moral.
In a bizarre (and hopefully legally-obtained) edit, Wood has cut the play’s entire prologue, in which Tyrone explains the true reason behind the devil’s existence: our need for someone to blame for our naughtiness. This opening “the devil made me do it” explanation captures the play’s theme perfectly, putting our minds in the right place and making the epilogue a bookend (as it wants to be) rather than an apology (which it has now become). Considering the prologue sets up the entire framework of the play, it is baffling and frustrating that Wood would simply get rid of it, robbing the play of much of its clarity and undermining its ending.
Still, Theatre in the Park’s production is a boldly acted, designed, and directed one that leans into the rough stuff and certainly takes no prisoners.
Photo by Stephen J. Larson
April 20 - May 6, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
April 28, 2018
RATING: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
With flavors of novelists Terry Pratchett, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Philip Pullman, Peter and the Starcatcher serves as a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s original Peter Pan mythos. Based on a 2004 children’s novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, Rick Elice’s 2009 “play with music” (it is deemed to have too few songs for consideration as a musical) won four Tony Awards for its design and one for Christian Borle’s showy performance as Black Stache.
From the minds of director-choreographer Nancy Rich and director Rod Rich comes a magical, exciting, and campy journey into the origins of Peter and his infamous foil, Captain Hook.
Liz Grimes Droessler delivers some of NRACT’s most effective and beautiful lighting design to date. Rachel McKay’s parade of costumes pays homage to recognizable early 20th century British attire with a hint of Sandy Powell flair. And mermaids. These blend nicely with Chelsey Winstead’s impressive horde of multifarious props. All of these elements cohere and flow without pause under the masterful stage management of Bunny Safron.
Music director and pianist Darylene Hecht obtains mellifluous harmonies from the cast as they execute composer Wayne Barker’s few, but impacting songs. Foley artist Mike Muhlada journeys playfully into Looney Tunes territory. East Carolina University’s recognizably purple pirate-in-residence, Steve Whetzel, stages magnificent pirate battles on Todd Houseknecht’s unobtrusive set.
Most set pieces are constructed by the cast themselves, who transform into hallways, doorways, and galleys with ample support from Droessler’s lights. It is this concept: the cast as set, combined with some simple stage magic, that makes this production so wonderfully surprising.
The company of actors is as talented and well-assembled as any community theatre ensemble in the area. Bobby Simcox grounds the show in reality as the brooding Boy (soon to be Peter) in partnership with Charleigh Smith’s earnest, courageous Molly and Stephen Carl’s sturdy, distinguished Lord Aster.
Across the sea, far from those realistic performances, sails Aaron Alderman as the deliciously campy Black Stache (soon to be Captain Hook). The ever richly-voiced Alderman channels the sarcastic Hook of Dustin Hoffman and the dandiest queen of all villains, Broadway’s Cyril Ritchard, with terrific panache. And a mermaid.
William Booth and Charles Robson shine as clownish Will They/Won’t They lost boys Prentiss and Ted. Nat Conti easily switches between haughty British naval officer Greggors and sidekick Smee. And a mermaid. Rhonda Lemon displays splendid variety as a bevy of masculine heavies (making me wish more women had been cast), including Grempkin and Fighting Prawn. Del Flack’s larger-than-life Alf, Sean Malone’s puppeteered maniacal cat, and Nick Popio’s hilarious and masterfully-spoken Hawking Clam help round out this stellar ensemble. And mermaids.
Tim Cherry is truly marvelous as Molly’s lusty nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake, and mermaid princess Teacher. However, with so few female roles available, it’s a shame the authors insist these two be played by a male actor. A character can be funny without drag, no matter how adept the actor wearing it.
Additionally, the Prawn scenes, with Italian-speaking characters coded as Amazonian Island Natives, are more than a little uncomfortable given the mostly white cast portraying them.
Text issues aside, NRACT has succeeded in producing one of its finest productions, having chosen a piece that fits its technical capabilities and talent pool. Peter and the Starcatcher proves one of the year’s sharpest and most entertaining productions thus far.
Photo by Areon Mobasher.
April 19 - 29, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
April 27, 2018
RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)
Southern Gothic novelist Carson McCullers (perhaps best known for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter) wrote about misfits. Outcast, isolated, and eccentric: those on the fringes of society.
Her 1946 novel The Member of the Wedding was no different. Her theatrical adaptation, premiered on Broadway in 1950 and has seen several revivals. Her name, however, is not as well-known as her contemporaries’: Truman Capote, Harper Lee, William Faulkner, or her close friend Tennessee Williams.
Star Pocket Theatre, in its inaugural production, seeks to bring McCullers’ name into your household. Producer-Director Brent Wilson, assisted by Star Pocket artistic director Areon Mobasher, has staged the intimate story of young Frankie Addams in Raleigh’s small VAE art gallery. Thought substantive theatrical lighting is nearly impossible in such a space, designer Kelly Mahaffey does what she can. Set designer Sherry Di Filippo’s well-dressed southern family home and Cody Hill’s period-appropriate costumes establish the play’s setting unquestionably.
Much like Harper Lee’s tomboyish protagonist Scout Finch, Frankie is what one might mistakenly call a “free spirit.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Frankis is trapped in her town, her family, her body, and her mind. Star Pocket managing director and co-founder Mackie Raymond tackles the role with passion, pluck, and complete lack of self-consciousness. Her 12-year-old Frankie is uncomfortable in her clothes and her skin, constantly fidgeting and squirming at the kitchen table as she shouts her pledge to flee her hometown and play honeymoon tagalong with her brother and his soon-to-be bride.
Frankie is a psychologically complex character, something that Raymond knows and tackles perfectly. Her view of marriage is non-traditional: one might live with their brother and sister-in-law in a pseudo polyamorous arrangement. She finds herself obsessed with their wedding--an abstract concept--with a lover’s passion. Feeling “unjoined” and uncomfortably singular--trapped by the oft-supposed gender binary--Frankie seeks membership and mutual love. The gender(s) of such a lover appear inconsequential.
The “get me outta this place so I can be myself elsewhere” is a thought shared by many a queer individual. It would be a gross oversimplification to call this a Coming of Age story. I’d argue, rather, that this is a Coming of Self story. Frankie is both aware and unashamed of her gender ambiguity. McCullers does not belabor the point that Frankie is queer but some tell-tale conversations point us in the right direction: the desire to change one’s name, the ability to shift one’s public gender perception, a biological boy enjoying dress up and dolls, etc.
A southern writer in the 1940s, McCullers defied expectations by replacing the “Mammy” character trope with a multi-dimensional black female parental figure: Berenice Sadie Brown (played by a sensitive, but hesitant Joy Bryant), who opens Frankie’s mind with frank discussions about sex, gender, and racism. McCullers addresses racial injustice and oppression directly and violently through the appearance (and disappearance) of Berenice’s nephew Honey, played with tremendous boldness by Melvin Gray Jr.
While Frankie is loudly and energetically itching to come out, her neighbor John Henry West (promising newcomer Charlie Sirois) is just beginning to explore the world in defiance of gender expectations, using few words while doing so. Tyanna West appears briefly, but powerfully, as the sweet-voiced elderly neighbor Sis Laura.
Wilson’s direction is simple and clean. His primary concern is character relationships, judging by his brave embrace of extensive conversations at the kitchen table. But the three-act play is far from tedious, mostly thanks to Raymond’s consistently surprising interpretation.
Star Pocket has smartly chosen a play that is both relevant and rarely staged. Some of the casting shaky, which may change once the company becomes better known and actors come flocking. With strong minds for marketing and organization, co-founders Mackie Raymond and Areon Mobasher could prove successful in the triangle, but need to match story and venue with caution if they hope to really show what they can do.
In central North Carolina, theatre companies are popping up at an unsustainable rate: krill among a few whales. Star Pocket has been selling out performances of Member of the Wedding routinely. They must continue to build this brand and grow in size if they are to survive in this particular food chain.
Photo by Areon Mobasher.
UNCSA 3rd-year actors Ben Weinswig (Romeo) and Cricket Brown (Juliet).
by Dustin K. Britt
April 25, 2018
This weekend, in Raleigh and Wilmington, the UNC School of the Arts and the North Carolina Symphony (under the direction of Grant Llewellyn) will present a joint production of Romeo and Juliet. A fully staged production, underscored by the works of a dozen composers. Chatham Life and Style spoke with four of the production’s most integral participants. Here is what they had to say:
CARL FORSMAN, Drama Faculty, UNC School of the Arts
The North Carolina Symphony asked us to collaborate on A Midsummer Night’s Dream three years ago and it was incredibly fun and exciting. When they said they wanted to keep working together, we started kicking ideas and Romeo and Juliet was always on the list.
MARTIN SHER, General Manager, North Carolina Symphony
The musical selections started coming together about a year ago, and have been undergoing constant refinement until about 2 weeks ago. There are many works composed on the theme of Romeo and Juliet. Ultimately we decided to turn to Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet as a base. To contrast with the lavishly-orchestrated Prokofiev, the other pieces chosen are written for strings alone.
“The Walk to Paradise Garden” from Frederick Delius’s opera A Village Romeo and Juliet fits the balcony scene perfectly, as though they were made by the same mind. They match in length and tone. Jean Sibelius’s tone poem “Tapiola” is both thrilling and mysterious, so for our production it frames a fatal fight between the two families: where the play turns from a comedy into a tragedy.
Most of the music is programmed to pair with scenes just as their composers intended. But not all. Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique” features a movement titled “A Ball,” which is exactly how we’ve set it. Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten’ is an elegy and we use it as one near the play’s finale.
CRICKET BROWN (Juliet), 3rd Year Drama Student, UNC School of the Arts
My favorite musical piece used is Shostakovich’s “Chamber Symphony in C Minor.” It comes at Juliet’s loneliest moment: the potion scene. The solo violin emphasizes her isolation.
We had auditions at UNC School of the Arts. Any woman in this class could have played Juliet. That was the hardest to choose.
I had no previous history with Romeo and Juliet. I read it for the first time to prepare for this audition.
BEN WEINSWIG (Romeo), 3rd Year Drama Student, UNC School of the Arts
This is my first lead in a Shakespeare play so I have been sharpening the tools I’ve learned at school to approach his language.
This is different from staging a traditional Romeo and Juliet in that there is another rhythmical element: the music. The actors are working to synchronize the musical tempo and delivery of the spoken text.
We are rehearsing scenes with the musical selections playing as underscore. It becomes a driving force for me, both as an actor and as Juliet.
The stage is 12 feet deep and 80 feet wide. And no set, other than a ladder and some platforms. But the play is fully staged--even all the fights are there.
Every time I step on stage, I am supported by the likes of Puccini and Wagner. It has been a gift to have an extra scene partner to play off. Cricket (Juliet) is a gift to work with. Every day I learn from her courage in approaching Juliet. It’s exciting and invigorating to dive into these scenes of incredible passion and vulnerability with her.
Both Ben (Romeo) and I are very silly and youthful at heart, and this innocence is something we like to share on stage. He is impulsive and free and allows himself to delve into Romeo’s extreme emotions. He does not back away from Shakespeare’s language, but rather takes it on and uses it to affect Juliet.
The more I allow myself to be affected by the music, the truer and deeper the scenes become. I can’t imagine what it will feel like when our rehearsal speaker is replaced by a world class symphony, only five feet behind me.
By Travis Lassiter
Playing now...in a pub very, very near...
Bare Theatre presents ShakesBEER II: The Bard Strikes Back,a new sequel to their hit original comedy ShakesBEER,with 100% new material. After two successful multi-city tours last fall, a quartet of skilled actors will again combine beer and the bard, delivering a unique blend of Shakespearean and contemporary comedy and song.
The first incarnation of ShakesBEER received high critical praise from IndyWeek (“A crew you should really go out and have a beer with...clearly calls for another round”), The News & Observer (“Shakespeare himself probably would’ve been proud”), and Triangle Arts and Entertainment (“a great ensemble...a funny and engaging trip”).
ShakesBEER II: The Bard Strikes Backwill be performed at some of the Triangle’s best-known breweries, bars, and pubs. Four ukulele-strumming, iambic pentameter-talking players portray more than 20 characters in 45 minutes of high-energy, high alcohol % by volume antics designed to bring Shakespeare to bar-going audiences across the area.
Like its predecessor, ShakesBEER II is directed by Dustin Britt, with original material and adaptations by Charles Keith. The show is always free, but donations are strongly encouraged (the hat will be passed at the end of each performance).
Audience members are encouraged to eat, drink, and be merry while observing some of Shakespeare’s greatest drunks in freshly-staged scenes from Antony & Cleopatra, Henry IV, As You Like It, Hamlet,and more! If you play your cards right, you might even get to join the troupe on stage for a scene inspired by the films of Martin Scorsese or perhaps set in galaxy far, far away.
Raleigh-based Bare Theatre takes its name from a minimally-staged but high-energy, physical approach to the works of Shakespeare and other historical texts. This mobile company strives to connect with audiences by exploring unique approaches to time-honored plays while also presenting new works from our finest local artists.
The new cast includes Glenn Greggs, Laura J. Parker, Benjamin D. Tarlton, and Camille Watson.
The production is assistant directed by George Labusohr, stage managed by Ami Kirk Jones with fight choreography by Heather J. Strickland and musical direction by Camille Watson.
Location: Various sites throughout Raleigh, Durham, Cary and surrounding areas. Current venue listings can be found at baretheatre.org/shakesbeer2.
Dates: April 22 - May 5, 2018
Time: 8:00 PM
Facebook Event Page: facebook.com/events/338832259946029
The Cary Theater
April 15, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
April 23, 2018
RATING: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
It is one of the most recognizable pieces of western music ever composed: “Habanera” from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen. Just last week I heard it in a TV commercial for kitchen fixtures. Its opening notes call to mind Romani (“gypsy”) dancers with roses and castanets, courted by mustachioed toreadors in tight pants and enormous hats.
Based on the 1845 novella, the French opera--composed by Bizet with a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy--premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1875. Its shattering of musical, cultural, and narrative conventions scandalized the city and led to an international reputation as a bold, lusty work: a working-class story of infidelity, lawlessness, jealousy, and--inevitably--tragedy.
For his 2018 production for the Royal Opera House, visionary director Barrie Kosky took all audience expectations and obliterated them. Across the globe, from now until September 2018, cinema audiences are chomping at the bit to see what Kosky is up to. Every Carmen is different and his is bound to be no exception.
At the curtain’s rise, after the bombastic musical Prelude, we expect to see and hear a chorus of soldiers outside a Seville cigarette factory, waiting to escort their lady loves home from work.
But we do not see this. Instead, the Prelude (also instantly recognizable) is not even permitted to finish before the rising curtain reveals Carmen herself. Someone we ought not to see for nearly a half an hour into the opera.
She is sitting alone, in a skin-tight, androgynous pink and yellow toreador costume, leering right at the audience. She is high on a set of bleachers that reach almost to the top of the proscenium--this production’s set.
Carmen is not only early to the opera, but she interrupts the Prelude--her stillness contrasting with the circus happening in the orchestra pit. Then comes an original voice-over narration track. From here on out, Carmen will control the narrative. She will frequently participate in scenes like never before, providing context and motivation for her character and others. She is no man’s object. She is the puppet master.
As Carmen’s attitudes and tastes change, so do the production’s. 19th century Sevillian design butts up against the stark black-and-white imagery of Fellini’s 8 ½ before borrowing from the sinister World War II-era club scenes of Cabaret. Katrin Lea Tag’s designs bring these highly stylized European eras together without seeming mismatched, while Otto Pichler’s stunning and highly stylized choreography melds Bob Fosse, Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd, and vaudevillian acrobatics.
Mezzo-soprano Anna Goryachova sings the title role with equal parts seduction, venom, and mischief, while tenor Francesco Meli’s lovesick soldier Don José elicits as much sympathy as he should--but no more. Bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas is engaging and amusing as the braggadocious toreador Escamillo and soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan finds striking dynamics (there usually are none) as the young maiden Micaëla.
The Royal Opera Chorus is extraordinarily integral to Kosky’s visual concept. An enormous ensemble of singers and dancers take over the enormous staircase, giving Kosky the otherwise improbable option of filling a stage both horizontally and vertically--which he does masterfully.
The Met Live in HD has been tackling such live broadcasts (and re-broadcasts) itself, but not so well as the ROH, whose camera direction and live editing are noticeably in-sync with the intentions of the staging and maestro Jakub Hrůša’s tempos. It is cut with necessary energy and variety and--most importantly--is never afraid to step back and allow the cinema audience to absorb the stage’s grand span as if in the theatre ourselves.
With striking designs, unique integration of dance, a new perspective on Carmen herself, and--dare I reveal--a revised ending, the live broadcast of the Royal Opera House’s Carmen comes as a welcome shock to the system.
Director Wade Newhouse gives notes after the final dress rehearsal. Photo by Dustin K. Britt.
by Dustin K. Britt
April 19, 2018
Dr. Wade Newhouse is giving direction.
“I want to hear you say SHIT. I want to hear all three sounds: shhh-iiiii-t.”
On the stage of William Peace University’s Kenan Hall, actor Zoe Sinton smiles at her professor’s earnest instruction. As Gerald Ford’s klutzy would-be assassin, Sara Jane Moore, Sinton will scream “shit” any number of times this evening, and with extraordinary clarity. A note well-taken.
The cast are trickling into the auditorium from the dressing rooms, tucking microphone cords securely behind ears and under period coifs as they. Most are stopped by Newhouse for a brief check-in regarding last night’s rehearsal.
He wants more excitement from Mitchell Mulkey while playing President Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau. Tonight, Mulkey’s face will never lose that wide-eyed wonder that accompanies pure, unadulterated delusion. Another note well-taken.
Sophomore Nathan Hamilton gets his energy up, playfully tap dancing across the stage, dressed as John Wilkes Booth--the closest thing the ensemble show has to a leading character. “It’s a lot of responsibility,” Hamilton explains. “Booth is a known person; someone who did terrible things. But I have to bring humanity to him.” He’ll live up to that responsibility later tonight at the dress rehearsal, finding charm and rage in equal measure.
Few drama programs would give a demanding role like Booth to a mere sophomore. But William Peace University does not roll that way. “A freshman is just as important as a senior in their last semester,” explains musical director and theatre instructor Matt Hodge. He is also a recruiter for the university’s program. “People ask me about freshmen--whether they’ll have to be in the ensemble. I don’t want to plant the seed that the ensemble is somehow less-than.”
This is no diva training ground, and nobody gets a free pass. “Professionalism is everything. I don’t care if you can hit a high G; do people want to spend eight hours a day with you?”
Including majors and minors, WPU’s drama program currently serves about fifty students--a relatively small program. “We are small enough to feel like a family, but large enough to have competition for roles,” says Hodge. Recently the department opened up their semester auditions to non-majors and non-minors.
Enter Augusto Batista, game development major and Assassins ensemble member. Batista, a junior, is bounding with energy, showing no signs of nervousness, though he has not appeared on this stage before. “It’s fun playing multiple characters; constantly running around, changing costumes. The hardest part is finding distinction between the characters.” Tonight, Batista will ably scroll through a handful of roles, from the bumbling Gerald Ford to an animatronic William McKinley.
Another ensemble member, freshman Maddy Sedberry, seeks to make the most of her few scenes. “I noticed everybody on stage was being really happy in the first scene. I wanted to do something different, so my first character is a strutting, bad bitch type. I’ve been doing a lot of research on Sondheim’s lyrics, which helped inform my character in ‘Something Just Broke.’ And the costumes really help me find these women.
Those costumes, designed by WPU alum Rachel Pottern Nunn, are more about storytelling and cohesion than nailing iconic looks. “This show crosses so many time periods. The challenge was making people who don’t belong together look like they do belong together. I wanted to link the Proprietor and the Balladeer in particular, the two storytellers. That’s an important connection.”
Even private institutions have their budgetary concerns. “I had a $500 costume budget for the show,” Nunn reveals. “About ⅔ of the clothes were borrowed from NC State, several pieces came from Peace’s small stock, and Theatre in the Park helped out, too. Though I intentionally avoided using any of the materials from their Assassins.”
Historically, Assassins requires cast members to point firearms directly at the audience during the show. Those of us who have learned about stage firearms from Jeff A.R. Jones, who designs and teaches at WPU, know his rules: treat a stage gun like a real one; very, very carefully.
“Don’t point the guns at the audience! I said that to Wade from the start,” Jones recalls. “The climate we’re in now makes it a bad idea.” Given the ever-growing list of public shootings, many of us are on edge, not to mention what a young child or combat veteran may experience staring down the barrel of a gun. To maintain safety control and to ensure historical accuracy, Jones ordered a special set of guns designed for productions of Assassins. “We keep the guns locked in the campus security office,” explains Newhouse. “I’ve got a guy backstage whose only job is to hand off and receive guns from actors all night.”
As Newhouse, Jones, and I are discussing firearms, stage manager Bailey Pate calls places. The actors shuffle off to their respective backstage positions. About a dozen invited guests wait anxiously to see the students have one last go before Thursday night’s big opening.
A few minor technical glitches aside, the cast, crew, and director seemed pleased with the run. Particularly impressive was the 11-piece band, conducted by Matt Hodge: the largest ever assembled for a musical at WPU. So large, in fact, that they were housed in the loft above the lobby rather than inside the auditorium. With more than a dozen microphones, an off-site orchestra, and a bevy of sound effects, it’s like juggling flaming swords to get an acceptable live sound mix. Stevan Dupor accepted, met, and tackled this challenge
What makes this production stand out are some of Newhouse’s bolder directorial choices. Matching the Broadway and London revivals, Newhouse lets the Balladeer--a seemingly impartial narrator--in on the action, doubling him as one of our more notorious presidential assassins. In the role, Nick Davis’s bright, soaring voice carries us through the show before he turns into something more sinister. Dressing him as a contemporary teenager brings local headlines sharply to mind and balances him perfectly with the menacing Proprietor, played subtly by Anthony Cooper. Staging the Hinckley/Fromme stalker ballad “Unworthy of Your Love” as a tender Rodgers-and-Hammerstein love duet makes it all the more chilling.
Kelsey Bledsoe and Cal Bumgardner prove masters of European accents as Czolgosz and Zangara, respectively. Audrey Moore plays Squeaky Fromme with devastating honesty, while Zoe Sinton is unstoppable as the uproarious Sara Jane Moore. Jesse Farmer is both sympathetic and terrifying as John Hinckley, Jr., playing up his humanity rather than his monstrosity. In his stage debut James Hall makes a tremendous impact as the maniacal, Santa suit-clad Samuel Byck, with nods to Taxi Driver for good measure. His is one of the show’s finest performances; a promising newcomer indeed.
Brenna Coogan is flawless in her vocal and dramatic performance as the housewife in the penultimate “Something Just Broke,” and manages to be an assertive, but never threatening, Emma Goldman. Thanks to a committed and well-rehearsed ensemble, “How I Saved Roosevelt” is the production’s most invigorating and hilarious number.
Favoring honesty over artifice, these characters challenge the audience’s assumptions about patriotism, justice, and what makes America great--important lessons for Newhouse’s students and their audience--both WPU students and the public at large. His haunting new staging of the play’s finale, a reprise of “Everybody’s Got the Right,” is a bold and important move--one that reframes the entire play and makes it well worth the ticket.
William Peace University Theatre will return next season with another dark musical comedy, Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debate. Known for its variety, Peace will continue the season with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (directed by Amy White), William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (directed by Wade Newhouse), and the 1967 rock musical Hair (directed by Amy White). As long as Newhouse and this program keep challenging their students, I’ll be there to see what they come up with. Many of his graduates are doing exemplary work in this area and beyond. The next playbill you open, keep your eyes peeled for former WPU theatre majors. You’re bound to find a few.
Kenan Theatre, William Peace University
April 19 - 22, 2018
Presented by North Carolina Theatre
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
April 17 - 22, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
April 19, 2018
RATING: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
The musical and comedic voice of Steve Martin comes bursting through the score and book of Bright Star, whose national tour has set up house in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts downtown.
The production’s brightest star is its orchestra, conducted by P. Jason Yarcho. Most of the 10-piece band (save the drummer, hidden beneath the stage floor) glide through the show on a movable country shack, keeping clear of the cast and set.
August Eriksmoen’s stirring orchestrations bring the rhythms and timbres of Appalachia into the show’s already Carolina-centric story.
The mismatched set, designed by Eugene Lee, has seemingly endless moving parts and overly complex scenic transitions, which are jarring between emotional scenes.
Japhy Weidman’s gorgeous lighting design evokes memories of the past, while Jane Greenwood’s costumes clearly separate the 1945 and 1923 storylines without ostentation.
The complex, banjo and fiddle-heavy score is pure Steep Canyon Rangers--Steve Martin’s Grammy-winning band. Co-composed with another Grammy-winning Americana musician, Edie Brickell, the music is by far the show’s greatest strength, though the overly simplistic lyrics do not support the ornate vocals.
Martin’s dry wit and sarcastic commentary are pervasive in the show. The play bounces between tragedy, melodrama, comedy, and vaudeville with laughs aplenty, particularly in act one.
Audrey Cardwell is a dramatic, comedic, and vocal powerhouse in her dual role as the teenage and adult versions of Alice Murphy. Patrick Cummings is sympathetic as Alice’s beau Jimmy Ray, and his father, Mayor Dobbs, is played by an authoritative Jeff Austin.
Henry Gottfried wins hearts as the gentle, witty Billy Cane, his father played by a sturdy David Atkinson. An effervescent Liana Hunt plays Billy’s love interest, Margo while supporting players Jeff Blumenkrantz and Kaitlyn Davidson steal several scenes as flamboyant office workers Daryl and Lucy.
The ensemble is tightly-knit and director Walter Bobbie involves them constantly. Talented singers and dancers though they are, they are sometimes in the way of the action and are too great in number.
Even with its predictable and time-worn storyline, the show remains engaging thanks to its powerful score and some very emotional and convincing performances. However, constant visual overload prevents us from connecting with the characters as intimately as we would like to.
Murphey School Auditorium
April 12 - 29, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
April 16, 2018
RATING: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
To replace a planned production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus Burning Coal has chosen Mike Bartlett’s 2014 “future history play,” King Charles III, which tackles a what-if that has been on the mind of the British public for decades: what will Prince Charles do when Elizabeth II dies? Will he ascend the throne, or will he abdicate--handing the crown off to Prince William? There is an ongoing public back-and-forth about whether Elizabeth can skip over Charles altogether and go straight to William.
Prince Charles is not the beloved, popular figure that his late wife, Princess Diana, was. In personality and demeanor, he appears to be a frog whose princely transformation halted halfway. His eldest son, the smiling, mature, and forward-thinking Prince William appears better suited to lead a modern United Kingdom.
Mike Bartlett’s premise is a fascinating one. But in trying to counterbalancing dull political technicalities with infinitely more interesting family drama, Bartlett misses out on a tremendous opportunity: tell me something I don’t know. They play does have a few surprising moments, the end of Act One being its greatest shocker, but Bartlett doesn’t keep up the momentum. He doesn't even really have a point.
It's kind of about freedom of the press. It's kind of about the monarchy. It's kind of about a power-hungry daughter-in-law. It's kind of interesting.
The author presents a future that we can easily predict without his assistance. The entire piece, while funny and intriguing in parts, feels like a missed opportunity to show us something unpredictable. He throws in a pinch of Shakespeare, a dash of Molière and doesn’t turn on the oven. Both the human and political stakes are far too low, and the inevitable tragic ending he is so obviously building toward never actually comes. Brutus’s arm is reaching around Julius Caesar’s back, only to give him a pat and a kiss on the cheek.
The family-focused second act give the cast much to work with. As King Charles III, Randolph Curtis Rand begins the play on slightly uneven ground, but finds his bearings by midway and delivers a strongly sympathetic performance. Ben Apple delivers another tremendous performance as the rebellious Prince Harry alongside Mya Ison’s fearless girlfriend Jess. Lucius Robinson’s William, Duke of Cambridge, is the production’s most nuanced and bold performance, while Chloe Oliver is a perfectly enigmatic, Lady Macbeth-like Kate, Duchess of Cambridge.
Reanna Kicinski has some strong moments, both spoken and sung, as a trio of characters, while Simon Kaplan’s toadie press advisor James Reiss is deliciously wicked and well-developed. Lilly Nelson, like Rand, is unsteady at first (and far too young for the role), but settles into Camilla and takes a surprisingly sympathetic and heartbreaking turn near the play’s end.
Karen O’Brien’s direction is kinetic and provides for engaging dynamics, though an unnecessary raised platform proves a large, creaking obstacle for the actors. Music Director Julie Oliver has achieved a hauntingly beautiful harmonic mix from the cast during the requiem mass.
Juan Isler’s sound mixing is top-notch, while Christopher Popowich’s lighting serves mood and location with equal regard. The same cannot be said for the costumes, which are often ill-fitting in both style and tailoring, particularly those for the notoriously fashion-conscious Kate.
I am certain that by the second weekend, the accents will be more consistent, the lines will all be learned, and the quick changes will be well executed.
O’Brien does what she can with a punch-pulling script, and the mostly strong cast manages to keep its head above water. The relationship dynamics between the sons, their ladies fair, and Charles is the play’s dynamic element, and Bartlett is remiss in not noticing. This does the cast no favors, talented though they may be.
The battle between William and Charles near the play’s end is the meatiest, most resonant scene, and I couldn’t help saying to myself “where has this been for the last two hours?”
Leggett Theatre at William Peace University
April 6 - 21, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
April 13, 2018
RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)
Under the attentive direction of co-artistic director Susannah Hough, Honest Pint’s production of James Lecesne’s The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey proves a one-man tour-de-force.
Originally performed by the author himself--the screenwriter of the short film Trevor, which spawned the Trevor Project--Lecesne’s cast of characters come vibrantly to life via the capable mind and body of veteran triangle actor David Henderson.
An optimistic cousin of docudrama The Laramie Project, this 75-minute one act follows a New Jersey detective as he recounts his investigation into the murder of a flamboyant teenage boy named Leonard. The souls of each of the detective’s interviewees jump into a single actor’s body as if possessing him.
Aided by Will Mikes’s sometimes fitting projections, the story unfolds clue-by-clue until some surprising and not so surprising truths about the victim and his influence on his community are unveiled. This is less about the murder than it is about Leonard’s positive impact on the world.
Shanna Burns’s props play a background role, populating our protagonist’s office set with evidence from the case. That set, tastefully designed by Jen Leiner, is lit masterfully by Anthony Buckner, whose storytelling impact nearly equals Henderson’s.
Though a number of technical cues were misfired last weekend, little distracted from Henderson’s detailed and fearless work.
Jumping between settings and miming all object interactions, he embodies men and women both young and old. Strong, simple poses provide silhouettes for character types we all know well. Just enough detail to signify without overcomplicating.
16-year-old Phoebe, anxious as can be, pushes her hair over her ear as she speaks nervously to adults. When she isn’t picking at her nails or scratching her elbow, she holds her hands together and contracts her shoulders as though she has to pee. Coupled with a soft, high-pitched voice, Henderson communicates this girl fully and unfalteringly as well as any 16-year-old actress could. Through her monologues, we learn about Leonard’s interactions with same-aged peers.
On the other extreme, we meet Otto, a German Jewish clockmaker, whom Leonard befriended. When not shouting at his small dog, Otto reminisces about his time chatting with the amiable, perceptive young gay boy. Otto shuffles slowly from place to place, grimacing as he eases into his chair. His smile widens at the thought of Leonard’s openness as his hands shake and clench from palsy and arthritis.
These highly-detailed and well-researched characters are only two of the nine that possess Henderson over the play’s course.
Aside from some technical hiccups, and occasionally distracting projections, David Henderson’s delivery of the play’s text--both hilarious and devastating--is a masterwork, and certainly demands to be seen.
Paul Green Theatre at UNC
CHAPEL HILL, NC
April 4 - 22, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
April 12, 2018
RATING: 5 stars (out of 5)
Leaving Eden is a simultaneous projection of two moving images. One: racial injustice in depression-era North Carolina. Two: racial injustice in contemporary North Carolina. These two realities are projected not side-by-side, but on top of one another.
In the fictional town of Marah, North Carolina, the years 1933 and 2016 are terrifyingly similar. Established, legally-enforced segregation in one era and an attempt at re-established in another through forced eviction of Latinx residents. A nation at war with its own values--or lack thereof.
For its first fully organic, home-grown production, PlayMakers Repertory Company has employed the keen eye and sharp tongue of documentary playwright Mike Wiley. A hometown hero and MFA graduate from UNC, Wiley has made a name for himself as a solo performance storyteller. These stories shine a harsh light on the dark past--and present--of American racism and exclusionism. He has brought to us the stories of Emmett Till, Jackie Robinson, and the Freedom Fighters to name but a few. At once a one-man traveling theatre company, ethnographer, documentarian, entertainer, teacher, and truth-teller.
His expanded version of his one-man adaptation of the nonfiction book Blood Done Sign My Name will premiere on May 11 at Raleigh Little Theatre and it has proven to be a hot ticket.
Four years in the making, Leaving Eden's fascinatingly interwoven plotlines are enhanced by the songwriting of another hometown hero--composer, performer, and activist Laurelyn Dossett--whose 2004 song Leaving Eden served as a springboard for this play.
Brought sharply to life by director Vivienne Benesch, the world premiere of Leaving Eden is PlayMakers at its finest: inventive, engaging, and poignant. Enhanced by the technical direction of Laura Pates, Benesch maneuvers the ensemble briskly through landscapes both rural and urban with an elaborate, timeless set designed in exquisite detail by Jan Chambers and lit strikingly by M.L. Geiger. McKay Coble’s costumes instill clarity in the actors’ character doubling, while Adam Bintz’s sound design mixes effects, vocals, and the four-performer pit band with great discernment.
Charles K. Bayang proves his managerial prowess yet again with a show that flows without hiccup, supported by assistant stage manager Elizabeth Ray. Adam Versényi provides dramaturgy of the highest calibre, holding together a complex new play whose timeline spans more than 80 years.
An extensive cast of characters is common in Wiley’s work, and he plays them all. But in Leaving Eden, the story of 33 small town residents is told by a cast of 18.
At the start, the audience is awoken by mystical griot Selah--acted, sung, and danced masterfully by Tangela Large. Many in the company embody multiple roles, crossing back and forth between the thin boundary separating the two eras. Rebecca Guy is heart wrenching as the fragile but determined Ms. Maggie, while a passionate Sarita Ocón portrays Maria, loving mother to Javier, played by an energetic and endearing Carlos Alcala. Both actors also served as Spanish language and cultural advisors to Mr. Wiley.
Many of the actor/role pairings show the reflection of two souls. We are treated to a pair of tough-loving caregivers from Kathryn Hunter-Williams and enraged by a duo of Trumpian despots from Jeffrey Blair Cornell. Sarah Elizabeth Keyes plays two daughters, both at odds with their family’s values, Alex Givens doubles as young men advocating for their own equitable treatment, and Tristan Parks earns tremendous sympathy as two fearless small-town men.
Other character pairings are inversions. Ray Dooley is both a friendly, loud-mouthed junk salesman and an obsequious, racist country doctor. Samuel Ray Gates is both oppressed and oppressive: a depression-era black man and a modern-day anti-immigrant mayor.
A powerhouse supporting cast includes the versatile David Adamson, who switches easily between a Good Ole’ Boy and an Evil Ole’ Boy. Trevor Johnson is a trio of distinguished characters and Rishan Dhamija is a long-suffering assistant. Boldly present are two pairs: an intimidating Geoffrey Culbertson and Dan Toot and determined justice-seekers Jonathan Varillas and Peyton Furtado.
The small but powerful pit band features Dossett herself on guitar, Daniel Faust on percussion, Scott Manring on guitar/banjo, and Genevieve Palmer on bass and violin. Their visibility makes them citizens of Marah--participants in the struggle.
Wiley occasionally dips his toe into the ocean of cliche with this one, but he never dives in. The two immigrant characters’ dialogue is occasionally hokey and a few points are belabored. However, these are minor inconveniences compared to the deep character development, splendidly converging plotlines, and tremendous ingenuity.
This magnificent script, buoyed by a fitting score, clear and stirring direction, a bevy of outstanding performances, and breathtaking designs make Leaving Eden an absolute triumph for both Mike Wiley and PlayMakers Repertory Company.
Photo courtesy PlayMakers Repertory Company.
Meymandi Concert Hall
April 6 & 7, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
April 9, 2018
RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)
Interactive, instructive, and magical, NC Symphony’s performance of Stravinsky’s The Firebird last weekend was nothing short of delightful. Part of the Young People’s Concert series, conductor Wesley Schulz explained the context, history, and arrangement of four pieces of great Russian classical music, all with kid-friendly cadence and language, leading up to the evening’s showpiece.
Unless they saw The Firebird interpreted in Fantasia 2000, most of the children in the crowd were likely unfamiliar with the piece--a perfect opportunity for an instructive experience. Instruments and tutors in the lobby helped kids explore the very instruments they were about to hear in the concert hall.
Schulz wisely chose Kabalevsky’s rousing and imaginative Overture to Colas Breugnon to open the evening, followed by Khachaturian’s instantly recognizable “Sabre Dance” from Gayane, often seen in old cartoons. The folk-inspired and vibrant “Dance of the Tumblers” from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden was the evening’s most Stravinsky-like companion piece.
The second half of the hour-long concert featured a bunraku puppeteered interpretation of the entire Firebird ballet. Visiting from Philadelphia, the aptly-named Enchantment Theatre Company, under the direction and choreography of Leslie Reidel, presented colorful, swirling, and highly stylized puppets and masks to tell the story of the famous Russian ballet. Aided by a storybook narrator, the often abstract presentation was easy to follow, even for the youngest among us.
David O’Connor’s bold lighting design--fraught with oranges, purples, and blues--matched perfectly Jonathan Becker and C. David Russell’s vibrant puppet and mask designs.
The masked huntsman, Prince Ivan (danced ably by Adrian Plascencia) serves as the archetypal wandering hero, as the Firebird (with dazzling and athletic puppeteering by Shannon Rose Richardson) sweeps through the forest. A masked Jennifer Blatchley Smith employs specific, simple movements as the Princess, compensating perfectly for her invisible face. As The Unicorn, Sara Nye nimbly performs the most traditionally- choreographed role in the concert, and Landis Smith is a magnificently menacing Jafar-like Evil Magician Kaschei, with grotesque fingernails long enough to scratch a giraffe’s nose.
The perfect length for a little one’s attention span, the stunning sounds of Schulz’s orchestra combined with visual evocations of Disney’s Aladdin and the fairy tales of old to form a concert that engaged both regular symphony goers and first-time visiting families--all of whom left the venue quite satisfied, if not thoroughly amazed.
Presented by Fathom Events
CHAPEL HILL, NC
March 25, 2018 (Live) and April 4, 2018 (Encore)
by Dustin K. Britt
April 8, 2018
RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)
The plot of Così fan tutte, Mozart’s opera buffa, sounds practically Shakespearean: mischievous pranks, lovers in disguise, and plenty of clowning.
Don Alfonso (Christopher Maltman, bass) asserts that women are inherently adulterous (the title literally means “all women are like that”). When his two young friends, Guglielmo (Adam Plachetka, bass) and Ferrando (Ben Bliss, tenor) brag that their virginal fiancées are the exception to the rule, the more experienced Alfonso places a wager.
According to the bet, Guglielmo and Ferrando, in disguise, must attempt to woo one another’s lady love. If either girl succumbs to the pranksters’ charms, Don Alfonso pockets the guys’ cash. A chaotic, comedic battle of the sexes ensues and, of course, everything ends up just hunky-dory in the end.
Known for its sexist attitudes and ludicrous storyline, this particular opera is not necessarily the best choice for a contemporary audience. But director Phelim McDermott has discovered two fixes that make it a worthwhile inclusion in the Met’s season.
First, he plays to the gender dynamics of 1950s America; secondly, he places the action in the annual Coney Island summer carnival, filled with magic and mystery. Populated with actual circus performers, McDermott’s frenetic production is at once cartoonishly inflated and wholly believable, thanks to some fine performances. Paule Constable’s alluring lighting gives life to Tom Pye’s gorgeous amusement park rides and revolving motel sets. Laura Hopkins’s costumes cement the characters firmly in the early 1950s. These elements unify to evoke the melodramatic tones of On the Waterfront and Rebel Without a Cause, while offering Grease-like romantic teen comedy in equal measure.
Under the baton of maestro David Robertson, the three male leads all sing well (tenor Ben Bliss in particular) and perform their roles ably, Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto and Mozart’s score highlight the talents of the trio of ladies more strongly. Prima donna Amanda Majeski sings the role of prudish Fiordiligi, her bright soprano matched by masterful comedic prowess. Soprano Serena Malfi sings the lusty Dorabella with terrific boldness.
The most surprising casting choice is Kelli O’Hara as scheming maid Despina. The Tony Award winner is best known for leading roles in Broadway hits The King and I, South Pacific, and The Light in the Piazza, but her operatic training is no surprise to regular patrons of the Metropolitan Opera. In this, her third role at The Met, O’Hara proves reaffirms herself as a formidable comedic and musical force and certainly this production’s most confident actor.
Camera director Gary Halvorson keeps things moving over the four-hour broadcast event with quick cutting and an adequate balance of close-ups and wide shots. His shooting, though perhaps overly conventional, is not showy or distracting. We are treated to some backstage goings-on before and after the performance by Met Live broadcast host Joyce Didonato.
As with the National Theatre Live broadcast of Angels in America last year, there is a sound-image sync problem at the Silverspot Cinema in Chapel Hill. Perhaps only the encore screenings have the half-second audio delay, and the first live broadcast is fine. As appreciative as we are of the opportunity to view these works, the distraction is nearly enough to derail a screening. Lucky for us all, the Met’s presentation of Così fan tutte is so visually stunning that we spend little time worrying about the performers’ mouths.
If you happen to be in New York City, you can catch the Met's live production through April 19, 2018.