February 2018

Company ★★★


Hoof 'N' Horn at Duke University

Sheafer Theatre, Duke University


January 25 - February 4

by Dustin K. Britt

February 9, 2018

RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)

Since 1936, Duke University students have been producing, designing, and performing big-name plays and musicals under the name Hoof ‘n’ Horn. This season’s lineup included Sondheim’s musical marriage (or perhaps anti-marriage) comedy Company. Clever director Alex Felix risked offending every purist in town by employing text messages, Tinder swipes, and Instagram posts rather than a 1970s answering machine. Sonali Mehta’s projections of these smart phone machinations were not overused and were somewhat effective. 

The contemporary choice matched Elena McNeice’s stylish costumes and Wesley Caretto’s cube-based set. Sound designer Lauren Hale balanced onstage vocals and offstage orchestra well, but could not save some fast-talking or whispering actors from the sonically uncooperative performance space.

CJ Cruz was a charming Bobby and, though he sometimes pushed his voice too hard, captured the complex nuances of “Being Alive” and the comedic timing of “Barcelona” with skill. Cutting a scene added in the mid-1990s, the “have you ever had a homosexual experience” conversation between Bobby and Peter (an adorable Niall Schroder), robbed both actors--and the play--of a terrific moment. 

Shaina Lubliner (Sarah) and Kelly McLaughlin (April) landed playwright George Furth’s jokes with expert timing while Holly Holder and Niall Schroder brought a bubbly energy to Susan and Peter. Tim Clayton was a mature Larry, paired with the a hardy Jenna Clayborn, who stopped the show with Joanne’s “Ladies Who Lunch.” 

The show’s breakout star was Sarah Jacobs, who mastered the infamously difficult “Getting Married Today,” and earned hearty laughs through Amy’s sincerity, eschewing all goofiness. 

Music director Adam Beskind gathered a terrific orchestra who nailed Jonathan Tunick’s demanding orchestrations, with particularly strong work from the winds. The entire cast dazzled in “Side by Side,” choreographed by Julia Medine, whose smart moves for “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” were a true highlight. Though well-executed here, “Tick-Tock” continues to be the play’s most unnecessary moment.

Minor technical flaws aside, Hoof ‘n’ Horn is obviously unafraid of tackling challenging musicals and adult material. If they continue to do it so well, I’ll be a regular visitor.

Photo courtesy of The Chanticleer.

Almost, Maine ★★★★


Cary Players

Cary Arts Center


February 2 - February 11, 2018

by Dustin K. Britt

February 9, 2018

RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)

It is a rare indeed for a community theatre company to take a mediocre, overdone play--say, John Cariani’s Almost, Maine for example--and make it worthy of a restaging. 

Companies across the nation have been sleepwalking through productions of this play, which can be staged with little tech and only four actors, for well over a decade. But for Cary Players, director Randy Jordan slaps the play square in the face and says “snap out of it!” His keen attention to pacing and world-building shake Almost, Maine out of complacency. 

Revolving units of living rooms and porches and flown-in signage--all designed by Randy Jordan and Todd Houseknecht--transport us smoothly between nine different short stories that never feel too separate. Subtle musical cues, engineered by Bob Kulow, and stunning aurora borealis-inspired lighting designs by Ryann Norris achieve a sense of cohesion. Never have nine mini-plays felt so much like one story.

Tripling the size of the prescribed cast, while not entirely necessary, gives local performers an opportunity to flex their dramatic and comedic muscles. Jordan double casts them to highlight characters’ extreme differences. Liz Webb is, as always, fascinating to watch--a master of physical acting who jumps between the timid Ginette and the rabid Gayle with ease. Her director is not afraid to turn her loose, giving her nearly a full minute of silence at the play’s opening. As much a musician as director, Jordan allows the play its rapid sixteenth-notes and its lengthy rests to create a dynamic experience.

Joey DeSena likewise finds terrific contrast between the sensitive Steve and the butch Randy. Paired with a flawless Danny Mullins as Chad, the pair turn “They Fell” into one of the shows most beautifully nuanced scenes (though it does overstay its welcome). Laura Parker’s interpretations match her characters’ hairstyles--Marvalyn a wild explosion of fuchsia and Marci a dispirited black bob, mostly concealed by a winter hat. Kirsten Ehlert sparkles as the fiery Sandrine before extinguishing that flame as the repentant Hope. Lu Meeks cannot be ignored as the jocular Waitress and the dynamic Rhonda, while Cindy Paciocco’s committed work as Glory makes us miss her when she vacates the play after the second scene.


Cariani’s play is less about love than it is about crossing other people’s personal boundaries. Many repellent behaviors--from his juvenile and underdeveloped male characters in particular--is never questioned by Cariani, who would rather spend two hours beating us with a baseball bat that has the word “Idiom” carved into it. Still, both Jordan and his cast find ways to tell these stories with complexity and nuance--tying the script to a balloon and letting it soar. Certainly one of Cary Player’s finest productions to date.

Photo courtesy of Cary Players.

An Act of God ★★★


North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre


January 26 - February 11, 2018

by Dustin K. Britt

February 9, 2018

RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)

By cross-breeding Johnny Carson and Fred Rogers, Playwright David Javerbaum has created a God that is anything but wrathful. Equal parts political satire, church service, and stand-up act, An Act of God stars The Big Guy Upstairs (Chris Maxwell) as he guides us through a revised Ten Commandments list. Just as he did in the 2015 Raleigh Little Theatre production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Maxwell proves a master of audience interaction and banter. Even a swarm of distracting technical cues cannot distract from his delightful performance. 

With subtle smirks from the archangel Gabriel (Alison Lawrence), God annotates the Book of Genesis (it was Adam and Steve) for a less doctrinaire congregation. Guided by Javerbaum’s concise script, director Bunny Safron serves the dessert before the vegetables, highlighting the playfulness of God’s droll cultural observations (God has no involvement in the Grammys, so stop thanking him) before sideswiping us with weighty questions posed by cynical angel Michael (Tom Barbieri).

Frank questions (such as “where were you during the Holocaust?”) put God on defense, forcing him to justify his “mysterious ways” to an increasingly unsympathetic audience. These moments transform a one-hour stand-up set into something more provocative--giving the show its proverbial wings.

Photo courtesy of North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre.

Romeo and Juliet ★★★


Carolina Ballet

Fletcher Opera Theatre


February 1 - February 18, 2018

by Dustin K. Britt

February 9, 2018

RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)

This year Carolina Ballet revives its production of Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet in Downtown Raleigh’s Fletcher Opera Theater. In his 1938 work, Prokofiev spends a tremendous amount of time on Juliet, composing for her the ballet’s most lush and evocative music, beautifully interpreted from Shakespeare’s words.

The Russian composer could not have envisioned a more suitable Juliet than Margaret Severin-Hansen, who danced the role last Saturday night. Executing Robert Weiss’s alluring choreography, she captured both Juliet’s childlike grace and terrible anguish with equal prowess--at once a proficient dancer and a superb actress. Her Romeo was Marcelo Martinez, a danseur of incredible physical strength, leaping and lifting with equal ease (Severin-Hansen was usually airborne when they shared the stage). But Martinez lacked the required emotional expression of literature’s greatest tormented lover--his face often lifeless. These two paired nicely, however. Their balcony scene pas de deux is worth the price of a ticket.

An indefatigable Nikolai Smirnov mastered the clownish Mercutio’s fouetté turns while a precise Alyssa Pilger was stirring as the sensual Gypsy Fortune Teller. Yevgeny Shlapko appeared as Juliet’s menacing cousin Tybalt, whom Shakespeare calls the “Prince of Cats,” handling a sword with feline dexterity, thanks to the nimble fight choreography of Jeff A.R. Jones. Ross Kolman’s lighting filled the Fletcher stage with scorching golds and a background of icy cobalt blue while Thomas Mauney’s Roman arches captured both the romance of the Capulet manor and the openness of the Veronan marketplace. The resplendent costumes, on loan from Pennsylvania Ballet, were well-suited for the characters. 

There was some calibration and correction happening on Saturday night, the company in its first weekend of performances, but most of the evening was--if you will pardon the pun--on point. 

This performance was part of February's "Dinner and a Show" Feature, which you can find just above this review.

Photo courtesy of Carolina Ballet.

Feature: Dinner and a Show

This Month: Lovers & Fighters


by Dustin K. Britt

February 9, 2018

Welcome to Dinner and a Show!

For my inaugural Dinner and a Show, my guest is Heather J. Strickland: Raleigh-based actor, producer, director, dancer, and fight choreographer. She is a co-founder of Bare Theatre and a regular at Raleigh Little Theatre.  

I’m glad I chose a farm-to-table restaurant, since Strickland is a farm-to-stage actor.

We are painting the town red tonight with the simple, artisanal food of Raleigh’s own Standard Foods Restaurant + Grocery: farmer’s market fare without the sunburn. 

A few minutes after arrival, Strickland and I toast each other with a pair of fresh Raw Cedar Island Oysters. With a subtle grapefruit mignonette and a hint of herb oil, they are the freshest I’ve ever tasted--and I was born with an oyster knife in my fist. 

Our attentive server, Thomas, places before us the Cedar Island Oysters’ roasted counterpart, buttery and imbued with dill, as Strickland and I discuss the sources of strength and fearlessness that led to success in a male-run industry--the American theatre--as well as  certification from the Society of American Fight Directors.

Raised on a farm in upstate New York, a 6-year-old Strickland studied ballet and dreamed of anchoring the six o’clock news. Her Danish mother, a lifelong fan of dance, sang all over the house as her father brought home a freshly killed deer or black bear--bow and arrow on his shoulder.

“I never had store-bought beef until I was 9 years old” she explains, creating an open-faced sandwich from our specially-curated Standard Foods Butcher’s Board: sweet and spicy blueberry salami with ground mustard and mildly spicy kimchi. I opt for the mustard, pepperoni and bread and butter pickles--an exciting blend of flavors. The thinly sliced pork cheek, a little chewy and slippery, is sampled only once.

Running boisterous and barefoot around family farm was not exactly part of the princess training process. And that worked out just fine. Do not let Strickland’s phenomenal fashion sense or humble attitude fool you. That full-length velvet glove hides a fist. 

Strickland graduated from Florida’s Flagler College, where she doubled in Communications and Theatre. She soon moved to Raleigh, North Carolina and eventually roomed with director Carmen-Maria Mandley who, as luck would have it, had her own theatre company. But Bare Theatre had gone cold, with no shows since its first--and only--season, four years prior. The two women, both with a penchant for artistic risk-taking, sought to reignite that flame.

Tagging along with a boyfriend to his weekly stage combat class, taught by legendary local designer and fight director Jeff A.R. Jones, Strickland saw choreographed fighting as just another form of dance, something she’d known all her life. She jumped in head-first and has been body-slamming, head-butting, and impaling actors ever since. She can stage a 20-fighter battle with nothing but feather dusters and make it look like Game of Thrones. Her actors and students walk away exhausted, but uninjured--the fight choreographer’s ultimate responsibility. 

Back at dinner, Strickland sips a 2016 Ruttenstock Grüner Veltliner as I indulge in a bright, tangy cocktail of reserve gin, aged rum, Sangiovese syrup, lime, and aromatic bitters: a Gin Rummy. It cleanses the palate after a bowl of inordinately salty clams.

Back in 2005, Strickland was acting around the Raleigh area, doing marketing work for the Carolina Ballet, and helping Mandley get Bare Theatre up and running--and fighting--again with some daring, minimalist productions--mostly Shakespearean--for which Bare Theatre has become well-known.

Soon after, she walked into a dark, cold, empty warehouse space out in rural Durham, which local artist Rachel Klem had purchased as a performance space. Common Ground was staging its inaugural production: Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby. And Strickland was in.

While the Bare Theatre family was growing, Strickland was playing some of the Bard’s greatest roles: Hamlet’s Ophelia, As You Like It’s Rosalind, as well as directing pieces like Twelfth Night and staging fights for not only Bare, but half the theatres in town. Hers is a diverse acting resume: a few years dancing Frau Stahlbaum in Carolina Ballet’s The Nutcracker, playing the lusty Abbie in Desire Under the Elms and engaging her spidey senses on aerial silks in Charlotte’s Web

Our server Thomas, my new favorite person, brings forth what is certainly the most impressive dish of the evening: a whole fried speckled trout served with cornmeal crepes, hot honey, pickles, and spicy greens. Fish tacos. The crispy, mild trout contrasts pleasantly with the supple, peppery cornmeal crepe. A thin drizzle of hot honey unites these savory elements with a soupçon of sweetness.

Strickland soon became a triangle mainstay and along with Jeff A.R. Jones--who still teaches that Sunday night combat class--is one of the most sought-after fight choreographers in the area. As a director, her brutal all-women production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus for Bare Theatre in 2015 was one of the last major productions staged at Durham’s Common Ground before its closing in December of 2016.

She recently staged the gutsy What We’re Up Against for Raleigh Little Theatre and has spent the last few weeks there helping director Patrick Torres toss actors down the gullet of a colossal botanical monster puppet named Audrey II.

With courteous service and a diverse menu favoring fresh locally-raised meats, colorful fresh root vegetables, and vibrant herbs, Standard Foods proves to be a worthwhile trip into downtown Raleigh. Savoring both our meal and our conversation like we have, Strickland and I must run every yellow light in Raleigh to get downtown in time for the new Carolina Ballet production of Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet, whose review you can read below

See you at the theatre!

Little Shop of Horrors ★★1/2


Raleigh Little Theatre

Cantey V. Sutton Theatre
Raleigh, NC

February 9 - March 4, 2018

by Dustin K. Britt

February 14, 2018

RATING: 2.5 stars (out of 5)

Director Patrick Torres and his team have provided a clever, detailed set by David Bennett, an admirable sound mix by Todd Houseknecht, a dramatic lighting scheme by Liz Grimes Droessler, largely understated costumes by Jenny Mitchell, and a bevy of props by Ruth Berry.

Musical director Michael Santangelo has achieved strong harmonic blends from his cast, though there were some very pitchy spots last Sunday--perhaps due to low monitor volume. His first-rate band (Brian Westbrook, Keith Lewis, Jordan Hubbard, and Timothy Wall) keep the music alive, despite a consistently sluggish tempo.

Chase Rivers delivers one of the show’s most engaging performances as the voice of the monstrous plant, Audrey II. I recommend avoiding balcony seating, as the tall set made seeing him (and several other visual elements) a challenge. His physical expressiveness is captivating--it is hard to look away. And that is precisely why he should not be onstage. The visibility of Rivers, costumed a la The Wiz, distracts from the puppeteering and reminds us constantly that we are watching a giant piece of foam rubber simulate an actor’s voice.

Brian Fisher is perfectly cast as adorable nerd Seymour, favoring honesty over flamboyance. His voice is clear, strong, and consistent. Mackie Raymond is an equally honest Audrey, painting her as a survivor rather than a victim--standing her ground rather than cowering in the corner. She earns big laughs in “Somewhere That’s Green” simply because she delivers the song with such sincerity. 

Tristan Yonce is both comical and unsettling as sadistic dentist Orin--whom he plays without irony. Alec Donaldson is a strong performer, but his Mushnik is an amiable father figure from the beginning--robbing him of his emotional arc.

Elizabeth Quesada is a comical Chiffon, while Jasmine Marshall impressively kicks off “Skid Row” as Crystal. Natasha Gore’s Ronette is sufficiently sassy. Chasta Hamilton’s choreography serves these ladies well, but some additional pep is needed from the trio. Ensemble members Jesse Farmer and Brian Thacker stand out with some high-energy characterizations. 

Torres’ experimentation with the play’s sci-fi elements is fairly well-executed, but I question its appropriateness. When the trio of narrators begin to use mind control on the show, the stakes are lowered and the characters lose their agency. Likewise, extra-terrestrial control of Audrey II robs the monster of its power and, thus, any sense of danger.

The elaborate, melodramatic staging of the finale, “Don’t Feed the Plants” captures perfectly the campiness and darkness of the play, proving that, despite its flaws, RLT’s Little Shop of Horrors knows precisely what it is.

PHOTO CREDIT: Areon Mobasher

Bad Jews ★★★★


A Big Wig Production

Levin Jewish Community Center Durham, NC

February 8 - February 25, 2018

by Dustin K. Britt

February 14, 2018

RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)

After a staged reading at the Governor’s Mansion last summer, followed by months of fundraising, A Big Wig Production finally brings Joshua Harmon’s dark comedy Bad Jews to Durham, NC.

Producer and company co-founder Brian Yandle has chosen director Beth Brody to plant and grow Harmon’s four-player family drama in soil that has never housed live theatre--the Levin Jewish Community Center in Durham.

Set in a modern Upper West Side studio apartment, designed by Ami Kirk Jones and lit by Tyson H. Jones, Jewish brothers Jonah and Liam and their cousin Daphna (whom Liam insultingly dubs “Über-Jew”) are forced into an Edward Albee-esque slumber party while their parents prepare to sit shiva next door.

Chloe Oliver is a veritable firestorm as Daphna, assailing those who do not value their Jewish heritage as she does. Unlike her cousins, she is a Good Jew--keeping kosher, studying her people’s history, and holding true to (some of) the complex system of Jewish laws.

Ben Apple is a passionate, dynamic Liam, who holds his own against Oliver--their theological and ad hominem attacks slicing each other to shreds in an attempt to defend their own viewpoints.

Ford Nelson is an understated, nuanced Jonah, who distances himself from the bloodshed with Swiss-like neutrality. This young audience proxy is a comparatively quiet role, but Nelson notably delivers a tremendously honest and expressive performance.

Natalie Cooper balances ably the forced bubbliness and terrible discomfort of Liam’s girlfriend Melody--the sole gentile--caught in the crossfire. 

Brody is a character-first director (as all good ones are). She has formed a family that is at once palpably estranged and unbearably familiar, finding moments that lighten an otherwise shattering play. Regardless of any religious affiliation, this play demands that its audience consider our sources of belief, our connection to our families, how we grieve, and whether we are the Good or Bad version of what we strive to be.

The play contains very strong language, so the producers recommend it for patrons 16+.

Poster art courtesy of A Big Wig Production.

The Christians ★★★★1/2


Playmakers Repertory Company

Paul Green Theatre at UNC


February 1 - March 10, 2018

by Dustin K. Britt

February 16, 2018

RATING: 4.5 stars (out of 5)

The realm of the dead. A fiery lake of burning sulfur. Everlasting destruction.


Growing up protestant, I was taught that the only way to achieve salvation (i.e. launch heavenward) was to accept Jesus into my heart. Otherwise I would fall into the aforementioned site of torment.

This conception is the very foundation upon which Christianity is build. If you are a typical churchgoer and do not believe in Hell, you might want to rethink your Sunday morning routine.

But what if your pastor told you otherwise? “Impossible!” you cry. 

Not in the world of provocative playwright Lucas Hnath. Under the shrewd direction of Triad Stage’s Preston Lane, Playmakers’ current production of The Christians immerses its audience in a bona fide church service: an opening hymn from a live choir (at this performance the UNC Chamber Singers, directed by Glenn Mehrbach), prayers, a sermon, and an offertory. The main source of theatricality in Lane’s production is that which is inherent in a modern worship service.

When our Pastor goes out on a limb and challenges the basic tenet of Christianity, all hell--slowly but surely--breaks loose. All around us begin to question this revelation and what it means for attendance.

Joey Collins plays the Pastor with such believability and precision that one wonders if he has not preached before. Nemuna Ceesay is a controlled and penetrating Pastor’s Wife, serving as his sounding board, as is her wont. Alex Givens commands attention as the troubled Associate Pastor and Jeffrey Blair Cornell is a subtly pensive Elder. Christine Mirzayan’s appearance as a disgruntled congregant is at once welcome and unsettling. 

Some cast members’ reactions are shielded due to a flaw in the staging, so I recommend tickets on the side of the auditorium.  

Alexis Distler’s vibrant and polished set juts out into the amphitheater-style seating of the Paul Green Theatre, forming a complete and uncanny mega-church. It must be noted that Distler’s set must quickly be transformed into that of Tartuffe, which is playing in rotating repertory. Robin Vest’s costumes are unobtrusive, lighting designer Oliver Wason minimizes disruption with instantaneous scene changes, and sound designer Palmer Hefferan mimics the enormity of a thousand-seater church with well-balanced handheld microphones. 

Rarely have I been so engulfed by a play, thanks to its detailed design, naturalistic performances, the cast’s interactivity with its congregation, and Hnath’s almost unnatural ability to capture the vibes of a Sunday morning service--lulling me into a false sense of security before the theological bomb drops.

Once comfortably--or uncomfortably--seated in church, the audience is pummeled again and again with questions about the source of belief and the limits of loyalty.

Photo courtesy of PlayMakers Repertory Company.

Tartuffe ★★★★


Playmakers Repertory Company

Paul Green Theatre at UNC


February 3 - March 11, 2018

by Dustin K. Britt

February 18, 2018

RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)

In rotating repertory with The Christians, Playmakers’ sparkly retelling of Molière’s Tartuffe is anything but reverent. It was published in French in 1664 as Tartuffe, or The Impostor, or The Hypocrite. It is this third descriptor that master satirist Molière tackles most directly in his play. Adaptor David Ball has chosen to slip in and out of rhyming verse, a choice which minimizes the musicality and comedy of the text.

To replace that missing musicality, director Saheem Ali has added contemporary French pop and hip-hop interludes, most of which are exciting and fresh--with nightclub LED lighting by Oliver Wason. Alexis Distler blends 18th century French manor home sophistication with ornate Catholic cathedral. Like the music, Anne Kennedy’s costumes straddle a chronological fence: flowery 18th century France and 1970s American discoteque. The stage management team (Elizabeth Ray and Jennifer Caster) keeps things moving seamlessly. 

Ray Dooley is a frantic, high-octane Orgon--his foil, the falsely pious Tartuffe, played with grand clownishness by Joey Collins. Nemuna Ceesay is a very controlled Elmire, Orgon’s wife. Her sensible performance does not match the circus that encircles her. Shanelle Nicole Leonard is the uninhibited (sometimes too much so) servant Dorine and Brandon Haynes is her amusingly spry co-clown Damis. David Fine shows comedic promise, doubling as a foppish, prat-falling servant and the vulpine Filpote. Kathryn Hunter-Williams makes a mighty impression as the magniloquent Madame Pernelle. 

A three-ring circus combining Molière’s irreverence, Saheem Ali’s spirited direction, and an engagingly anachronistic visual scheme, PlayMaker’s production leans ridiculous, trying too hard to seem raunchy. It is a dynamic and enjoyable production, if a bit tacky. 

Photo courtesy of PlayMakers Repertory Company.

Gidion's Knot ★★★★★


Bartlett Theater

PSI Theater, Durham Arts Council

February 16 - March 4

by Dustin K. Britt

February 20, 2018

RATING: 5 stars (out of 5)

The dreaded parent-teacher conference. Teachers screwing their courage to say things they’d rather not to parents who do not wish to hear them. And vice-versa.

Playwright Johnna Adams places between her two characters--a teacher and a mother--a Gordian knot of sorts. Somewhere between police interrogation and battle of wits, a nervous fifth grade teacher and a disgruntled mother are charged with untying the mystery left for them by a boy named Gidion. 

Shannon Malone shows tremendous control in her exquisite work as newbie teacher Heather. She is like the tide: anxieties ebb and flow effortlessly as she is pressured by forces beyond her control. 

Lakeisha Coffey is a veritable powder keg as the antagonistic Corryn. She is a crossbow who uses the text’s extensive silent pauses to slowly pull back and lock in her arrow before firing it directly at Heather and preparing to reload. The casting is impeccable, as both actors are exceptionally captivating.

Bryan Conger directs them with absolute precision and creativity, allowing for both utter stillness and jarring eruptions. 

Like playwright Annie Baker (whose work is the focus of Bartlett’s current season), Adams seems to delight in lighting a long fuse and leaning back to watch her characters--and audience--squirm. These frequent, prolonged silences force us into a period of introspection and extrospection. 

That processing time--fraught with tension--is what makes Gidion’s Knot unique among People Arguing in a Room plays. Tab May's classroom set is instantly recognizable and wholly believable, with an open central space serving as a de facto boxing ring. Anthony Cacchione’s lighting is subtle and unobtrusive while Jonathan Fredette has mixed a fitting array of sound effects. 

This play is thoroughly unexpected--a savage, slow burning thriller that left me gasping. I am still not sure if I have untangled the knot Gidion left behind, but I suggest you give it a go.

Hairspray ★★★1/2


NC State University Theatre

Stewart Theatre, Talley Student Union, NCSU


February 21 - February 25

by Dustin K. Britt

February 24, 2018

RATING: 3.5 stars (out of 5)

In choosing to stage Hairspray this month, John C. McIlwee could not have known that teenagers all over the country would be pushing back against the socio-political status quo in a way that has not been seen in decades. As his college theatre students tell the story of a group of dance-obsessed outsiders joining the march for integration, another group of theatre kids are standing up to the National Rifle Association, their state leadership, and some of our nation’s most deep-rooted philosophies.


McIlwee has (over)filled the Stewart stage with a cast of dedicated and energetic performers who have given the 2002 musical, based on John Waters’s subversive 1988 film, a real injection of adrenaline. For a university without a theatre major in the catalog, NC State continues to present some of the area’s most polished collegiate productions--often outshining some of the local grownups. 

Fara Marin is a vocally solid Tracy Turnblad and delivers her lines with a deadpan honesty that earns some laughs. Isaiah Lewis is an endearing and dry mother Edna, but plays the character with such perfect femininity that any jokiness about Edna’s masculinity is inaccessible. Both Marin and Lewis--along with the charming and vocally gifted Carl Staub as goofy dad Wilbur--do not quite match the cartoonishness of their peers; a noticeable imbalance.

By contrast, Tony Markoch is a hyper-cheesy--but loveable--Corny Collins, put in his place by a sensationally sultry Lauren Knott as the villainous Velma von Tussle. As bratty blonde minion Amber von Tussle, Megan Van-Spanje has the sass, but lacks true malice. Rachel Walter nearly walks away with the entire show with her quirky, effervescent performance as nerdy Penny Pingleton. 

Matching Walter’s commitment is Steffen Schilstra, whose smooth Link Larkin is the most sympathetic, comical and likeable I have seen. Any kisses from Tracy are well-earned and audience-approved. Jordan Williams stands tall as both vocalist and dancer as the charming Seaweed Stubbs. Kaitlin Perkins’s voice shines bright as Seaweed’s kid sister, Little Inez. Our Motormouth Maybelle, Riki Dows, has a tremendous amount of physical and vocal power, but is holding too much back. There is a dynamite performer under that wig, but Dows needs the confidence to let all tension go and let that character come flying out.

Thought McIlwee has added nearly ten extra actors to the already sizeable prescribed company, a few ensemble members manage to stand out. Natalie Sherwood combines fearless, precise delivery with Looney Tunes-like physicality in a vigorous turn as the prudish Prudy Pingleton while triple-threat Danielle Whitman--as the prison Matron--proves that big things come in small packages. In his brief time onstage, Austin McClure sells us a flawlessly frantic Harriman Spritzer. 

Musical director Matt Hodge gets knock-out volume and harmonic blends from his cast, though backing vocals are mostly lost beneath the piping-hot mics of the leading players. The rocking pit band gets so little support from the sound team that the show’s score becomes primarily vocal. I can hear some phenomenal percussion and brass work since they punch loudest, but Hodge’s strings and reeds are pretty much gone. Unless sound designer Kevin Wright is going for only a Phil Spector-esque distant echo, we have got to get some mics on that hard-working band. 

Accomplished dancer-choreographer Tito Hernandez does not let a single company member off the hook. He’s working them hard, and they’re proving more than capable, though the grand finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” is too crowded to remain precise. Hernandez follows an important rule: give your cast moves that they can actually master; thus, everybody looks fantastic. 

The real standout of this production is Stage Manager Nia Crews and her quartet of assistants (Rosie Hou, Amy Steigerwalt, Minming Hsu, and Megan Tumpey) who have this cue-heavy show running sharper than one could hope for. Crews is graduating next year, so I suggest you book her as your stage manager as soon as possible before her calendar fills up. This show is fast and furious, and so is she. 

Scenic designer and props master Jayme Mellema has constructed a new visual language for Hairspray, employing the comic strip-like pop art of Roy Lichtenstein alongside highly-detailed and spectacularly-lit signage. True John Waters fans will be quite pleased with the neon pink flamingo. With the size of the cast, however, Mellema’s multi-tier platforms take up more space than McIlwee can afford. 

Laura J. Parker and John C. McIlwee have teamed up to master the vivid 1960s makeup palette and, more importantly, an array of structurally-sound and color-coordinated wigs--a brilliant touch.

Joshua Reaves’s expert lighting is audacious and radiant--painting the stage with intense and ever-evolving hues. But Icarus flies mighty close to the sun, as his focus on creating impressive musical numbers has left some of the book scenes seeming like an afterthought--markedly underlit and patchy.

The show’s design highlight is Laura J. Parker’s costuming. Eschewing many of the Broadway production’s now-tired silhouettes and patterns, Parker has created her own Hairspray from the cha-cha heels upward. She understands better than most how fabric interacts with light and with choreography. Her choices are functional, well-suited to character, and dazzling without becoming distracting. Did I mention that the female ensemble’s wigs are dyed to match their dresses? Yeah, that’s a thing that just happened. 

Even with some unbalanced tech and some performances in need of fine-tuning, McIlwee has made a gutsy choice for his last show as program director (but not his last as stage director) and nobody balked at the challenge. It’s a big show. A tough show. Not kids’ stuff. NC State University Theatre has further proven that central North Carolina’s collegiate productions are worthy of our attention. As far as theatre in our area goes, it seems that the kids are alright.

Photo by Ron Foreman.

The Moors ★★★1/2


Manbites Dog Theater


February 22 - March 10, 2018

by Dustin K. Britt

February 25, 2018

RATING: 3.5 stars (out of 5)

If Charlotte Brontë and Edgar Allan Poe collaborated on a piece of satirical absurdism, it would look and sound much like Jen Silverman’s The Moors, a bleak comedy staged by director Jules Odendahl-James as part of Manbites Dog’s final season. 

The playwright throws numerous concepts at the proverbial wall and most of them stick. But with a dry suspense comedy inside the house and a tragic fable about depression outside on the murky moors, Silverman’s play is engaged in a tug-of-war with itself, though not an uninteresting one. 

Sonya Leigh Drum’s elegant, simple set spans the breadth of the Manbites stage, populated with sumptuous and often well-tailored costumes by Sarah McCabe and a bevy of suitable props. Austin F. Powers provides an immersive, unnerving soundscape which mirrors Jenni Mann Becker’s evocative and eerie lighting--all synthesizing under the thorough technical direction of Nathaniel Conti

The show’s many sound and lighting cues are called with precision by stage manager Katy Koop, keeping Silverman’s 110-minute one act in perpetual motion. Though Jeff A.R. Jones’s fight direction is precise, its execution was a bit muddled last Friday night.

Jessica Flemming plays the even-tempered Emilie, a governess who enters a cold home where little is what it seems. A highly-disciplined Jessica Hudson plays the hard-nosed Agatha whose sister Huldey, played with unbridled vigor by Tamara Kissane, is contrastingly manic. Sarah Koop is truly remarkable in her understated portrayal of two housemaids--Mallory and Marjory--switching between the two with ease and wit. 

As the family’s Mastiff, Nick Popio has renounced canine cliche in favor of the behavioral minutiae that only an attentive dog owner would notice. Thanks to Silverman’s text and Popio’s sincerity, the family dog manages to be the play’s most human character, waxing existential with the help of an injured Moor Hen, played by an earnest Faye Goodwin.

Though Silverman’s writing wanders willy-nilly from gothic horror to vaudeville to talk therapy session and back again, this production’s otherworldly designs and meticulous acting make it compelling and strangely amusing. In Odendahl-James’s hands, The Moors works better than it ought to.

Photo courtesy of Manbites Dog Theater

Bedlam Hamlet + Saint Joan ★★★★1/2


Bedlam, Presented by Duke Performances

Rubenstein Arts Center


February 21 - February 25, 2018

by Dustin K. Britt

February 26, 2018

RATING: 4.5 stars (out of 5)

bedlam (n.) a scene of uproar and confusion; an institution for the mentally ill.

Founded in 2012 by New York actors Eric Tucker and Andrus Nichols, Bedlam is a theatre company whose productions live up to its name.

With minimalist staging in bare-bones venues, Bedlam pumps some electricity into theatrical classics with surprising executions of unusual interpretations.

Two of the company’s most lauded productions, their inaugural Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare’s Hamlet are on tour in repertory. The show packs up neatly for travel but expands to fill any venue they overtake. The small production team, managed by Juliana Beecher, had only last Monday to load-in the tech for the show before director Eric Tucker came in on Tuesday to restage 6 hours worth of theatre in a completely unfamiliar performing space. Stage manager Caroline Englander and team had fewer than three days from the unlocking of the stage door to the proverbial rising of the curtain to prepare for Wednesday night’s opening of Saint Joan.


In 1923, three years after the canonization of Joan of Arc, George Bernard Shaw wrote a six-scene satirical tragicomedy about the 15th century military figure’s final days. With no clear hero or villain, the French military, British judicial system, and the Catholic Church all work to convince the strong-willed Joan that the voices she hears--those of God and the saints, she claims--are simply her own imagination or, worse, the Devil himself. 

With no-frills costuming, few lighting and sound cues, and only a handful of props, Bedlam’s quartet of players run amok in the Rubenstein Arts Center’s Von der Heyden Studio Theater. Reminiscent of a storage warehouse, the Von der Heyden is a blank, multi-tiered industrial metal chamber where anything can happen. Bedlam makes only slight changes to the space, with minimal set designs by John McDermott and some very evocative but unshowy lighting cues from Les Dickert. Eric Tucker’s costumes are simple and change only when absolutely necessary (often the simple switching of a hat or pair of glasses allows an actor to switch between two (or four) more characters in a single scene. The actors use posture and voice to do most of the heavy lifting. Tucker’s sound design comes mostly from a pair of handheld cassette tape players operated by the cast. 

Tucker’s production fills the theatre as bees occupy a hive. An evermoving, inescapable swarm of activity. His actors go both high and low: the audience, hidden hallways, adjacent rooms, and the tiers above. His actors climb and jump and sneak about the theatre without restraint--an engaging and invigorating method of staging that helps clarify the many settings and keep things interesting. However, he sometimes gets too showy--favoring mania over story.

This is an actor’s company and an actor’s production. UNC School of the Arts alum Aundria Brown easily captures Joan’s naive reverence and headstrong military determination with equal care--and simultaneously. As Brown impressively tackles Joan, the three male actors take care of the other 23 roles with terrific success.

One scene requiring nearly a dozen actors has only 3, meaning we’re all pulling quadruple duty. The actors do not so much embody different roles as the characters themselves jump from actor to actor like souls--or demons.

An athletic Aubie Merrylees changes personas with ease, from the frazzled Robert de Baudricourt to the calm, pompous Earl of Warwick. 

Sam Massaro, a master of vocal manipulation, shifts his timbre to embody men and women, French and British, from the pragmatic, fervent Bishop of Beauvais to a giggling lady of the court.

UNC Chapel Hill alum Kahlil Garcia delivers Shaw’s simplest material as the well-tempered Dauphin before tackling the bombastic, furious John de Stogumber--one of the play’s finest performances.

The director’s insistence on rearranging the audience seating between every act proves unnecessary and sometimes--as with audience onstage during Act Two--ill-planned, since he did not stage his actors to accommodate in-the-round seating.

Still, the dynamic staging and break-neck pacing keeps things stampeding from some of Shaw’s silliest and funniest banter through the dark courtroom drama that results in Joan’s infamous burning at the stake. The unbearably trite epilogue, an attempt by Shaw to install a happy ending, is no fault of Bedlam’s, but even they cannot keep it from devolving into an insult on the audience’s intelligence. After an emotional, impacting, and perfect ending point, the epilogue clings onto the play like a parasite.


Saint Joan spent the weekend in rotation with Bedlam’s Hamlet which has strengths and weaknesses all its own. The intense opening moments are too soon followed by an attempt to keep things light and funny--practically hanging flashing lights around Shakespeare’s humor, rather than simply leaning into it. Hamlet is less polished than Saint Joan--its staging more ambitious and harder to execute. The between-act audience rearrangement--again--feels more a symptom of the director’s boredom than an attempt to enhance the story. 

The cast are as engaging and in-tune as any Shakespearean ensemble I have witnessed. Call it Hamlet et al. The interwoven performances transform the Danish prince’s revenge story into a play about two families coping with death and deceit. 

Aubie Merrylees is an understated, relatable Hamlet, and makes no attempt to showboat. Sam Massaro is a surprisingly amiable Claudius--favoring feigned sweetness and a palpable fear of discovery over villainy--a dynamic and unusual choice. The panic-stricken new King contrasts nicely with Massaro’s confident, popped-collar frat bro Rosencrantz. Aundria Brown, understandably, doubles as a queenly but human Gertrude and a more mature, less pitiful Ophelia than we typically witness. Her madness is bold and boisterous, rather than meek and mild. Like Massaro, she brings great newness to her roles. In one of the most challenging doublings, Kahlil Garcia is both the professorial Polonius and his intense son Laertes. Garcia admirably manages to avoid campiness while talking to himself. His Horatio, however, is unimaginative--delivering his lines like he’ll win an award for simply knowing them.

A tour de force of acting and endurance, Bedlam knocked out both productions last Sunday. If the show comes to your town, I recommend giving yourself a night to sleep one off before charging into the other. As exhausted as I was by the end of the two-show day, I can only imagine how quickly the actors and crew must have taken to their beds.

Any minor flaws are greatly outshone by riveting performances. Bedlam fuses youthful “hey guys, let’s put on a show” spirit with intelligent, careful communication of language. With so much innovation in play, delivering a stable production is hard enough without restaging the entire show in every city. Things are bound to be imperfect. Insane, even. Bedlam is appropriately named. 

Photo courtesy of Duke Performances.

Assassins ★★★


Theatre in the Park


February 23 - March 11, 2018

by Dustin K. Britt

February 28, 2018

RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)

“Hey, kid, failed your test? Dream girl unimpressed? Show her you're the best.
If you can shoot a president…”

If the 1970 musical Company proved anything, it was that Stephen Sondheim could make a concept musical (i.e. theme-based rather than plot-driven) fill seats on Broadway. In 1990 he revisited this structure, in collaboration with book writer John Weidman, in the off-Broadway political satire Assassins. In 1970, figures in his life drove naive Bobby toward marriage. In 1990, a pantheon of presidential assassins (and would-be assassins) drive naive Lee Harvey Oswald toward infamy.

“You know Brutus' name. Brutus assassinated Caesar what, 2000 years ago?”

Director David Henderson leans into the show’s abstractness, his actors flowing ghostlike between time and place. Thomas Mauney’s set strategically disassembles and reassembles itself while his splendidly mysterious lighting enhances both the meta concept (a carnival) and the separation of individual vignettes with equal care. Costume designer LeGrande Smith revives the American fashions of old--from the civil war to the 1980s. Lormarev Jones’s choreography befits Henderson’s vaudevillian presentation and is never ostentatious. Stage Manager Christine Scardino, assisted by Sage Amthor Twiss, supports the director’s dreamlike vision, scenes transitioning like the fleeting passing of spirits. 

“They may not understand all the words.
All the same they hear the music. They hear the screams.” 

Diane Petteway’s band is as expressive as always, though uneven sound mixing left some musicians sadly underappreciated. Many in the cast are whispery, relying too heavily on amplification. Microphones, even when operational, cannot pick up sound that is not there, and much of the dialogue and singing is unintelligible if not completely inaudible. Three performances into the run, a mix this rough suggests that the production team either did not notice or simply does not care. I’m not sure which is worse.

Thank the gods we can hear the mellifluous Tyler Graeper, who sings and dances the Balladeer with sardonic cheekiness. The dynamic Andrea Amthor Twiss brings new life into the show every time she totters onto the stage as the ungainly Sara Jane Moore. Joel Abelson shines as John Wilkes Booth, dripping with thespian charm, and Daniel Wilson masters the accent and disgruntled disposition of Polish anarchist Leon Czolgosz. 

“Some say it was your voice had gone. Some say it was booze. Some say you killed a country, John, because of bad reviews.”

As the unstable Samuel Byck, Michael Blanchette holds the audience in the palm of his hand during his tirades against Richard Nixon. Olivia Fitts delivers “Squeaky” Fromme’s insane dialogue with surprising sweetness and David Bankert is an understated, sensitive John Hinckley, Jr. Ira David Wood IV is a remarkably nuanced Lee Harvey Oswald: human and sympathetic, but never overstated. 

Brett Yates is an exuberant--if not pitch-perfect--Charles Guiteau and Areon Mobasher delves deep into Giuseppe Zangara’s physical and emotional agony (and his strong Italian accent), avoiding one-dimensional unchecked rage. As the Proprietor,  Gerard Williams was still getting his sea legs on the first weekend--hopefully finding some pizzazz before the second. Ensemble member Rachel Pottern Nunn stands out with an expressive face and sweet soprano. 

The criss-crossing of time periods, embrace of anachronism, and personification of abstract ideas (Uncle Sam actually distributes guns to citizens) make Assassins both a unique and fascinating work, and--despite its flaws--Henderson has communicated Weidman and Sondheim’s message: when the American dream proves an American nightmare, those left behind by their neighbors and leaders are going to take matters into their own hands. With just a move of their little finger, things could end with a bang.

“When you've a gun everybody pays attention.”

Photo by Stephen J. Larson

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