by Dustin K. Britt
March 26, 2019
Chatham Life & Style sat down with Natalie Sherwood, actor and author of North Carolina State University Theatre’s recent world premiere of A Good Little Rain, to talk about playwriting, self-criticism, and mental illness.
Sherwood, a senior at NC State, has acted in collegiate productions and with local companies including Theatre in the Park and Bare Theatre. She received a Performing Artist Award for her role in NCSU’s The Exonerated and a Creative Artist Award for her original play A Good Little Rain.
She has described her play as a gift for her mother. “In her later years in life, she spoke of writing a book detailing her childhood spent in tobacco fields in rural North Carolina, but lived to write only stray anecdotes for it. This play is a translation of her dream through the language of my life.
Chatham Life & Style: What was your process for writing A Good Little Rain?
Natalie Sherwood: It was like making a quilt. The fabric squares were anecdotes from my life and my family. The patches were my manipulations and imagined dialogue, and the thread was made of poems and journal entries. I gave myself the space to manipulate personal anecdotes and to encourage transformations of the characters to serve the story. The vignettes became creative extrapolations of memories that felt powerful. The decision to make the narrative non-linear from its onset empowered me to make bold choices.
CLS: How does one approach a sensitive topic like mental illness?
NS: I have confronted a lot of personal experiences and gained the understanding that some things I faced when I was younger were beyond my maturity or emotional fluency. The writing has helped me embrace that and forgive myself for the time mental illness took away. A Good Little Rain is unflinching in its address of tough subjects, benefiting from my own experience. The hopeful ending discovers the purpose in the pain. I am grateful for the chance to share this story for myself, for my mother, for those who find themselves lost.
CLS: Why premiere the play at University Theatre?
NS: This was a chance to open a dialogue around mental health, to give it the attention it deserves. Their Open Door Series is such a rich avenue for change, exploring content relevant to students--often social or political topics. More and more, I see my peers coming to terms with their anxieties and traumas and this was a chance to say, "hey, me too."
CLS: It definitely made an impact. A Good Little Rain earned you the school’s Creative Arts Award.
NS: The receipt of the award itself was astonishing. Funny enough, I received it upon my second submission of the play. The subsequent revising process invited the challenge of self-criticism and acknowledging the play’s capacity for maturation.
CLS: How involved were you during production?
NS: I desired only to be a fly on the wall, to shadow [director Mike Mellas] in his process and collect empirical evidence regarding the script's functionality. I sat through the casting process and only attended two rehearsals. That’s where everything sort of fell into place because I was ready to discover others’ interpretations instead of imposing my own. Working with Tamara Kissane was a joy. She continuously encouraged me to derive confidence from what I already prepared.
CLS: How did those rehearsals affect the script?
NS: I got to see how deeply my words affected the actors, and they noticed connections that were completely unintentional. Lines to which I was emotionally attached but were not grounded in the context of the play were stripped away. One-off characters were changed to be more relevant. The current version is much more focused, active, and efficient storytelling.
CLS: What have you learned during this process?
NS: I learned how little I knew! Because the story jumps around, tracing a character arc became especially important. I was reminded not to judge the characters, even if they expressed themselves in unhealthy ways. During the audition process, one interlude was performed differently from what I intended in the text, but it worked. I was delighted to see it unfold from someone else's perspective.
CLS: Do you have future plans for this play?
NS: None at the moment, but am open to however it wants to blossom. Its reception may have a hand in its future, who knows. Otherwise, I see a future for the poems in the text, at the very least. Vague visions of self-publishing a poetry collection float around in my head, but only time will tell.
Natalie wants to use A Good Little Rain as an opportunity to draw attention to the nonprofit organization To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA). The group spreads the message of hope and funds therapeutic resources for those struggling with their mental health. She would not be who she is without their voice.
Visit TWLOHA at https://twloha.com
Transactors Improv Company
March 16, 2019
by Rachel Kasten & Emory Kasten
March 24, 2019
The Mom & Son Rating System:
Mom Says: Thumbs Up 👍
“Young children” and “professional improv show” are two phrases that don’t generally go together. Yet Transactors Improv has carved out a niche with a series of Family Friendly shows at the very family friendly time of 6:00pm. Transactors claims to be “the longest running improv company in the South” (it is not, as I initially thought, an improv group made up of transgender actors) and was founded as a children’s theater company, so they come by their commitment to family entertainment honestly.
It was clear right away that this experience was tailor-made for children: a large mat was on the floor in front of the stage for kids to sit/lay/be in other weird positions on throughout the show. This allowed the adults to relax in the back without having to wrangle fidgety little ones.
Director Anoo Tree Brod led everyone in an interactive warm-up, winning over the kids immediately. Brod explained that the the theme of the show was Nature. In practice, this meant that many of the audience suggestions ended up being some variation of “tree.” Given the short-form structure of the show, having an overly-broad theme didn’t add much (previous themes include Girl Power, Back to School, and Snow).
The small cast, Brod, Bart Hubbard, and Steve Scott, moved quickly from one scene to the next, keeping the atmosphere upbeat and emphasizing physical comedy. Hubbard is a standout performer, while Scott seemed somewhat underutilized. Brod effortlessly balanced her roles as both improviser and emcee. Although the show was a brisk 55 minutes, they even included a brief dance break in the middle. There are few things more thrilling for a kids than a surprise dance break.
The show included many standard improv games: Bucket (before the show, audience members write lines and place them in a bucket; the performers improvise a scene and use the lines throughout), Half-Life (actors perform a 60 second scene, then repeat the scene in 30 seconds, then 15, and so on), and Should’ve Said (throughout a scene, one of the cast members rings a bell, and the actors have to change the last line of dialogue). Should’ve Said was a highlight, as it showed off the cast’s ability to construct a scene and change directions quickly.
Surprisingly, the show offered just as many laughs for the adults as it did for the kids. Transactors kept all content PG and navigated difficult or problematic suggestions with ease. As an added bonus, the cast answered audience questions immediately after the show. There were some typical kid questions (“When’s your birthday?”), as well as a really nice moment when a mother asked about how improv can help children gain confidence.
While your tweens and teens might be a bit too cool for this one, it’s a great family night out for those with younger children.
Son Says: Thumbs Up 👍
Transactors Improv was really funny. This was my first improv show ever. My mom has performed improv lots of times, but I’ve never been allowed to go because it’s not for kids. So I was really excited that there is improv for kids!
I wrote ideas on pieces of paper for them to use in the show, but they couldn’t read my handwriting. There were lots of kids my age there, and I didn’t even have to sit with my parents because you could sit on the mat right by the stage. My favorite performer was Anoo because she was a great actor. Something amazing they did was a “freeze dance” right in the middle of the show. Everyone danced, including the performers and some of the grown ups in the audience.
My favorite part was of course when I got to go on stage! I got to be on Anoo’s team. Sometimes she’d tap my head and I could finish her sentences for her. It was hilarious because she was trying to name her pet tree, and she let me pick the name. I picked Chicken Nugget! The whole audience liked that. I think you should go to the show, too, because the performers are funny and it is good for kids.
Photo by Rachel Kasten.
UNC Memorial Hall
CHAPEL HILL, NC
March 21 & 22, 2019
★★★★★ by Dustin K. Britt
March 23, 2019
RATING: 5 stars (out of 5)
Storytelling is often described in terms of contrasting pairs: written or spoken, sung or danced, painted or sculpted, comical or tragic. It is the limiting “or” that holds artistic explorers ashore and acquiesces to the public’s aversion to intellectual and artistic provocation. Vancouver-based dance company Kidd Pivot, helmed by director-choreographer Crystal Pite, has forsworn the rigid “or,” demanding in its place “and.”
Co-commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts and written by Jonathon Young, Revisor presents two worlds existing not side-by-side, but with one lying in wait beneath the other. Pite and Young have scrutinized the content and context of Nikolai Gogol’s play The Inspector General, once embraced as an agreeable mid-19th century Russian farce.
Their aptly-named revision, Revisor, exists within the paradigm of dance-theatre: highly stylized and precisely-choreographed movement married to a more dialogue-driven, plot-based play. Their surreally cartoonish retelling employs precise, swiftly-changing, inflated gestures more suited to Friz Freleng’s Looney Tunes than contemporary dance. During Revisor, one could freeze the action at any moment and be rewarded with a striking tableau of gestures so specific as to tell the story without further context.
Disembodied pre-recorded voices--made manifest by delightfully exaggerated lip-syncing--heighten the animation effect to preternatural levels. With the jerky, shifty movements of hand-drawn cel animation, The Revisor (Tiffany Tregarthen) is as confident, wily, and gender-ambiguous as Bugs Bunny, while Postmaster Wieland (Jermaine Spivey) is the overreactive and perplexed Daffy Duck. The Director of the Complex (Doug Letheren) favors a bellicose and springy Yosemite Sam. One imagines Marvin the Martian when seeing diminutive and militaristic Interrogator Klak (Rena Narumi). We see a carnivorous and scheming Wile E. Coyote in Minister Desouza (Ella Rothschild) and a stuttering, overwhelmed Porky Pig in the Revisor’s assistant, Osip (David Raymond).
In 1836, guffawing spectators of Gogol’s The Inspector General missed the point entirely: Gogol was satirizing the greed, deceit, and corruption within the imperial Russian government. But amid the improbable plot developments and utter foolishness of the characters, Gogol’s biting satire was lost. Pite and Young intend to extinguish any lingering misunderstanding.
They present that same colorful distraction, earning echoes of those long-forgotten guffaws.
All is fun and games until the invisible Narrator (Meg Roe) interrupts the action, explaining to the audience that Minister Desouza will now perform an extensive, abstract reenactment of the goings-on, supported by the entire company.
The color is drained from the production as if via syringe. Jay Gower Taylor’s warm, 19th century set, Nancy Bryant’s ostentatious costumes, and Tom Visser’s meticulous lighting are now about as vibrant as a charcoal artist’s sketchbook. We dive deeper and deeper into minimalism and abstraction, as if Benny Goodman were replaced by Philip Glass.
The twisted psyches and dastardly intentions of the formerly fanciful characters are laid bare.
Throughout this unadorned (and thus, more truthful) version of the tale, our narrator describes humorlessly each pained twist, voltaic spasm, and diabolical thought of our characters. As the narrator’s thoughts devolve, so does the choreography. One cannot tell who is in control. Is the narrator issuing instruction or simply describing what she sees? Perhaps a bit of both.
Then the sun comes up. All color and life returns for the story’s end. Though the original, comforting tone reemerges, we know more than we did before. We analyze and assess each movement with the “gray” version of the story in mind. Each gesture holds deeper meaning. Not only a superficial indication of character, but a glimpse into what hides just beneath the surface: the tragedy beneath the comedy. We appreciate the farce, but now we know the truth. “Kill the comedy” the play reminds us again and again. And it does just that.
Photo by Michael Slobodian.
Durham Performing Arts Center
March 11 - 17, 2019
★★ by Dustin K. Britt
March 15, 2019
RATING: 2 stars (out of 5)
Content Warning: suicide, mental illness
In some stories the ends justify the means. In others it does not. The 2016 Broadway Mega Musical Dear Evan Hansen pretends to.
Much like this critic was, Evan Hansen, our protagonist, is a teenager riddled with acute, chronic anxiety, which may or may not stem from other unnamed diagnoses. The creators insist that Evan is merely an “outsider” with no specific medical diagnosis. This is, of course, as ludicrous as the authors of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time suggesting that its lead character does not have autism.
To escape a moment of understandable panic, the well-meaning Evan lies to the parents of a suicide victim, a troubled classmate named Connor. The lie: Connor was not the militant teenage stoner everyone thought he was; he was a devoted and compassionate friend to the outcast Evan.
The lie is innocuous enough, perhaps even helpful, but the transformative untruth about Connor’s nature spreads like wildfire. Evan continues to fan the flames and Connor becomes a superstar martyr. Things quickly spin out of control, earning Evan a surrogate family, national attention, and a couple of close acquaintances (he even Gets the Girl).
Bookwriter Steven Levenson (Showtime’s Masters of Sex and FX’s upcoming Fosse/Verdon) covers a breadth of dramatic themes: deceit, marital discord, megalomania, suicide, bullying, paternal abandonment, and a full-blown (and expertly acted) public anxiety attack, to name a few. But this is a Broadway musical. We rest easy that truth will out and ample catharsis will be provided. We’ll have a cry (or twenty), sing a song, and hike back to the parking deck, holding tightly our teenage sons.
He potently highlights themes of social media FUBARs, WASPy classism, and the challenges of single parenting. Coupled with a melodramatic score by megastar composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dogfight, La La Land, The Greatest Showman), the emotional overload is almost unbearable for both characters and spectators.
And then the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Evan admits the truth, albeit on a need-to-know basis. Evan’s mother and Connor’s family are understandably, though momentarily, shocked by the revelation. We have a good cry and wham, bam, everybody recovers in a matter of minutes. No harm, no foul. But all’s well that ends well and spring is in bloom because things are, the show claims, better for the community.
This unsatisfying deus ex machina demands that all the characters--and the audience--forgive and forget the manner in which they have manipulated, dishonored, and even monetized the suicide of a child with mental illness: one who has already been stereotyped and maligned by his author as a Stoner Kid and a Potential School Shooter and, as his sister suggests, A Psychopath.
These plot offenses are no fault of the production team or its brilliant troupe of actors. The tightly-connected company of thespians is as unguarded and devoted to honest emotion as any I’ve seen on stage. Music director Austin Cook elicits vocal power and tight harmonies from the ensemble, which includes the marvelously precise and empathetic Ben Levi Ross (Evan), an earnest Jessica Phillips (his hard-working mother, Heidi), and well-balanced Maggie McKenna (his love interest, Zoe).
A delightfully animated Jared Goldsmith (as horned-up nerd Jared Kleinman) provides some welcome comic relief, but the capable Phoebe Koyabe (the sole person of color amid a milky-white cast) has quite a hill to climb as Evan’s classmate: Machiavellian harpy Alana Beck--evidently written by a man petrified by assertive women. Alana makes Hermione Granger seem like Shirley Temple.
Christiane Noll’s passionate, raw performance as Connor’s mom Cynthia is a masterpiece while Marrick Smith, as Connor himself, finds an adequate balance between the Connor We Knew and the Connor We Hoped For, though his opening night vocals were not as solid as his castmates’. Aaron Lazar does what he can as the clichéd Detached Father, Larry Murphy. His banal baseball bonding scene with Evan (I’ll be your dad because yours ran off and you’ll be my son because mine is dead) left me gagging.
Michael Greif (Rent, Grey Gardens)) provides kinetic direction, with rapid shifts in time and space thanks to floating set pieces by David Korins (Hamilton, War Paint) and sharp lighting by Japhy Weidman (The Visit). Peter Nigrini’s (The SpongeBob Musical) stimulating but overused projections tend to distract and confound and Nevin Steinberg (Hamilton, Bright Star, Cinderella) keeps the vocals at often ear-piercing levels. This likely evened-out after opening night.
But striking performances, nimble staging, and an acceptable score cannot overcome the play’s thoughtless and disrespectful stance on mental illness. Michael Greif has taken an enormous step backwards, having already directed the truthful and reflective mental illness-focused Next to Normal.
When Evan is semi-adopted by the late Connor’s family, it appears to cure him of his anxiety, considering that he stops taking his psych meds without discussion or withdrawal. “I’m proud of you” his mom tells him, because, to her, going without meds is a brave step toward Normalcy. It’s the laziest possible way to show the audience that Evan is having a relative decrease in anxiety.
If some TLC from Connor’s family has led to such miraculous improvement in Evan, it must have been his single mom’s work schedule that caused the anxiety. Having some positive social interactions seems to have done the trick as well, suggesting that Evan’s anxiety is purely circumstantial and not related to any illness or disorder.
Moreover, the play (and therefore the audience) gives Evan a free pass to wreak havoc because he is not neurotypical: an insulting notion that those of us with mental illness are pitifully incapable of decision-making and require special accommodation for any and all behaviors. Only the blunt Jared calls Evan out: “Connor being dead, that’s pretty much the best thing that’s ever happened to you, isn’t it?”
Pretending that the distressed and freshly-interred Connor was in fact a perfectly “normal” kid seems enough to dismiss his obvious agony, eschewing any meaningful evaluation of why he killed himself and what we could have done to help him.
We’re sad when we think our dead kid was just an asshole. But once Evan’s revelation reveals that Connor was a Good Boy, we can now heap the love, praise, and attention Connor finally deserves. When Connor was just a bully, the community ignored it. When he was just a potential school shooter, his parents wrote it off. When he was just suffering from an obvious emotional disability, it was chalked up to Teen Angst and marijuana.
A child has killed himself. All of our closure and catharsis has been completed fabricated and we know it.
The show wants very much to be about the Journey to Find One’s Voice. And there is an audience that relishes that journey. They find themselves represented in the characters, they see larger truths so rarely addressed in musicals, and they may be moved by the score. These are perfectly justifiable reasons to love the show.
I myself was overcome with emotion, riveted by tremendous performances and sharp dialogue.
But as I began to engage my mind as well as my heart I find that the superficially beautiful Dear Evan Hansen is actually pandering to our desperate need for closure, without regard for truth or meaningful reflection. We get to the ending that we want. But at what cost? Here, mental illness is a gimmick and a sick kid’s corpse is little more than a MacGuffin.
Despite the pop psychology buzzing around Dear Evan Hansen, the show proves to be about mental illness as much as Les Misérables is about tuberculosis.
Photo: Ben Levi Ross as 'Evan Hansen,' Aaron Lazar as 'Larry Murphy,' Christiane Noll as 'Cynthia Murphy' and Maggie McKenna as 'Zoe Murphy' in the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy. 2018.
Raleigh Little Theatre
Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre
March 8 - 24, 2019
by Rachel Kasten & Emory Kasten
March 13, 2019
The Mom & Son Rating System:
Mom Says: Thumbs Up 👍
If I look tired, it’s not from Daylight Savings Time; it’s because I’ve just gotten back from a trip to Jamaica. At least that’s how I feel after seeing a performance of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds at Raleigh Little Theatre. Three Little Birds lives and breathes the island and stars Ziggy (Jireh Ijeoma), a young boy whose fear of hurricanes keeps him glued to the weather report on television instead of enjoying the outdoors with friends. Not that Ziggy has many friends besides his pet, Doctor Bird (Benaiah Barnes), and Nansi (Seanna Osborne), a girl on the island with a love of adventure--and Ziggy.
Eventually, Ziggy is coaxed outside and the theatrical experience is immersive. Director Deb Royals-Mizerk and the production staff make excellent use of the black box Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre: Scenic Designer Jeannine Borzello manages to create a stage that functions as a busy market, Ziggy’s home, and several different spots on the island without the need for scene changes, and Lighting Designer Ryann Norris fills the small space with lush greens, blues, and purples in leafy patterns. Using the small catwalk/balcony above the stage as a place for the birds to sing from above was another great touch.
Bob Marley’s songbook provides the soundtrack, which poses a few issues: 1) As with most jukebox musicals, the songs add nothing to the actual narrative, 2) Marley’s songs sound quite similar, which doesn’t allow for much emotional variation, and 3) the music is deceptively simple; very few voices sound great singing it. The production is able to overcome much of this because the music functions as a character itself; it is the rhythm of the island and the characters interact with that rhythm instead of just singing the songs. The music is also elevated considerably by the voice of Benaiah Barnes, the only cast member who is able to improve upon the source material. Barnes is poised to break out as a star any minute.
Much of the show rests on the shoulders of its two main stars: Jireh Ijeoma (a 7th grader) and Seanna Osborne (a 5th grader). The two are so good that I forgot that I was watching children. Ijeoma displays great dramatic range and Osborne shows off hilarious comedic timing and strong dancing skills. The choreography is one of the highlights of the show and choreographers Chanda Branch and Aya Wallace infuse every movement with joy. They make particularly good use of the wooden swing hung from the ceiling.
The cast is excellent and many are making their RLT debuts, including Hadley Ayers, siblings Kyla, Leah, and Noah Guilford, Darius M. Hooks and his daughter Rayne D. Hooks, Jireh Ijeoma, Verlene Oates, Seanna Osborne, Salima Thomas, and Alyssa Wise. I never want to hear another Triangle director complain that they “can’t find” black actors to be in their shows. Instead, figure out why these talented performers aren’t showing up to your auditions.
It would be exceptionally difficult to discuss Three Little Birds without praising Costume Designer Jeremy Clos, who rose to the challenge of creating costumes to represent birds from different parts of Jamaica’s history, from a gorgeous peacock to Spanish Conquistador Birds with armor, and, of course, Colonizer birds, with Maria K. Barber getting a brief but hilarious turn as the Great Grandmother British Bird.
The costume of the evil spirit Duppy (JaJaun Cofield, who strikes the right balance of menacing and silly; perfect for a family show) was a particular triumph, with a skeleton-like beak and a collection of dreadlocks stolen from unsuspecting children. Cofield is also masterful at engaging with the audience, as are Wallace and Branch, who lend their dancing and expressive faces as part of the main bird trio. While the Duppy storyline provides most of the urgency of the story--he is attempting to steal Ziggy’s strong, beautiful dreadlocks--the references to various Jamaican superstitions around him are a bit difficult to follow.
Three Little Birds easily holds the attention of a wide age range of theatre-goers and at less than 60 minutes, you won’t even have to worry about young children getting restless. Unlike many youth-oriented shows, there is plenty here for parents and grandparents, too, especially if you’re a Marley fan. Take a staycation to Jamaica for an afternoon, and don’t forget to wear red underwear (it’s a Duppy thing).
Son Says: Thumbs Up 👍
When we walked into the theatre to see Three Little Birds, I thought we were in the same place we saw Goblin Market [staged at Burning Coal as part of last summer’s Women’s Theatre Festival]. Both of the theatres are small with seats on three sides and there were lots of fun things on stage, like a swing and a bike. I wish I could go on both of them.
They made it seem like the birds were perched in the trees. I wish the lighting was brighter, because sometimes it was hard to see. Every bird’s costume is good, except for the Cousin Chinese Bird because she didn’t have a beak. I especially loved Doctor Bird’s costume; it had a beautiful beak and green feathers. The songs are great, and my favorite was “One Love.” They even sang it in lots of different languages. I like the beat of the island!
The story is a little confusing, but there is a bad bird named Duppy trying to steal hair from Ziggy. Ziggy was scared of everything and didn’t like to go outside, but he did have three bird friends. He also had a friend named Nansi. She was my favorite character, because she’s a trickster. Plus Nansi is a cool name. Nansi and Ziggy kissed, and I liked that! Nansi has a pet spider, and Ziggy calls it disgusting. That’s really funny because the spider is named Little Ziggy!
There were lots of things the did to try to keep Duppy away, like wearing red underwear. That didn’t work! Duppy throws mangoes at everybody to make them upset. But Nansi does her best trick to trick Duppy: using her spider. She is the hero! If Duppy tried to attack me, I’d karate chop him, push him out of the door, and then lock it.
I really liked Three Little Birds. I think kids who aren’t white would really like it, because there are lots of brown children in the show, and it has a lot of unique culture. I’ve never seen a show like this before.
Photo by Jeannine Borzello.
India Williams as Cedella and Jireh Ijeoma as Ziggy in Bob Marley's Three Little Birds.