Theatre Review

Nunsense ★★★

TheatreFest at University Theatre

Titmus Theatre, Thompson Hall, NCSU
RALEIGH, NC

June 14 - 24, 2018


Nunsense is presented as part of TheatreFest 2018, a series of three productions in repertory at NC State's University Theatre. Reviews of the companion plays, Deathtrap and The 39 Steps are published on this page.


by Dustin K. Britt

June 17, 2018


RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)


Low-hanging fruit for community theatres since 1985, Nunsense has never proclaimed itself to be anything other than what it is: silly, campy, and energetic. Over the years it has become stale, with thousands of productions cluttering up the zeitgeist, with seemingly few companies able to elevate it beyond its easily-executed, guaranteed crowd-pleasing book and score by Dan Coggins, who also penned and composed each of its six forgettable sequels and three spinoffs.

 

That being said, TheatreFest has picked the low-hanging fruit and made a very enjoyable pie. John C. McIlwee’s lively direction of this convent fundraiser gone awry captures the hokey vaudevillian presentation without loosening the heartstrings.

 

This is largely thanks to a well-suited company of women, each one permeating the one-dimensionally scripted Little Sisters of Hoboken with nuance. Under the musical direction (and piano accompaniment) of Cathy Cameron-Hamner, Coggins’ score, while forgettable indeed, has impact upon its viewing. Tight vocal harmonies in “Just A Coupl’a Sisters” and “Clean Out the Freezer” make them noteworthy, while some nimble--if not polished--tap dancing puts pep into “Tackle the Temptation.” 


Kathy Norris is exceedingly believable as the firm but kind Reverend Mother Regina. A marshmallow dipped in titanium, her soft, emotional core breaks through in the bluesy “Turn Up the Spotlight” and a playful scene in which she inhales a sizeable dose of isobutyl nitrite (also known as “poppers”). Lynda Clark is an eccentric Sister Robert Anne. Her plucky playfulness makes her a joy to watch, but her moving vocal delivery of “Growing Up Catholic” makes her unforgettable. 


As the confused but devoted and Sister Mary Amnesia, JoAnne Dickinson owns this production. Her deadpan trivia quiz scene is a masterpiece of audience interaction, comedic timing, and vocal delivery. This performance, throughout the show, is quirky, touching, and hilarious. 


As Sister Mary Hubert, Riki Dows has shown tremendous growth since her tentative turn as Motormouth Mabel in February’s Hairspray. She is developing strong comedic timing skills and shows promise as both a singer and actor.  Brett Williams puts her well-tuned clowning skills to the test as the sunny Sister Mary Leo, whose ballet-inspired “Benedicite” is satisfyingly playful. Williams also provides some of the show’s strongest vocals. 


The script pitches a real slow-ball of a setting for the design team: on the set of an 8th graders’ school play--currently in production. It can be any set of any play, as small or big as one likes. Technical director David Jensen has played his cards very wisely, thinking well ahead of the game. Jayme Mellema’s stunning set for Hay Fever was adjusted to meet the needs of Deathtrap, upon which Nunsense is being staged. A one-two-three punch that saves time, money, and resources. The set is detailed, enormous, and undoubtedly expensive--a bridesmaid’s dress you can wear again.


Miranda Millang’s choreography and Laura J. Parker’s costumes are appropriately hammy and Jennifer Sherrod’s dynamic lighting design helps break up the story and keeps the production visually compelling. Kevin Wright has achieved a perfect microphone sound mix.


Some logical updates have been made to the text (an HDTV in place of a VCR), but no one has bothered to cut or alter “A Difficult Transition.” I have included a selection of that song’s lyrics:


There were hottentots with rotten tots / in baskets on each mother’s head / and Zulus, they concluded / never understood a thing they said. / Ubangis who were ganging up / on natives who were being fed. And Swazi who were goosing / all the bushmen in the line ahead. / It was dreadful! The Pygmys had their noses stuck in everybody’s business / while Watusis* had their business stuck in everybody’s nose. 


*A reference to the Tutsi, who were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousand during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The playwright could not know this. But University Theatre does.


I must be dreaming, because I cannot imagine a universe in which this type of content would be permitted on the stage in 2018 with no hint of irony. Being a small portion of the song, it would not have hurt to cut these lines. They certainly would not have been missed. If that worries you, get the author’s permission. If you can’t get that, don’t do the show. 


I, for one, am tired of theatre companies assuming they can pull a fast one a paying audience, hoping that we simply won’t notice or won’t care when this kind of material is given the seal of approval. And in an academic environment at that. Not to mention the unfairness to the performers. I doubt they liked singing these lyrics any more than I liked hearing it. 


This is a solid production, better than its source material, delivered by a competent and dedicated cast of women. It is a shame that tone-deafness is distracting from their hard work.


Photo by Ron Foreman.

Theatre Review

Oliver! ★★★

The Justice Theatre Project

Umstead Park United Church of Christ
RALEIGH, NC

June 8 - 24, 2018


by Dustin K. Britt

June 14, 2018


RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)


This devoted and hard-working theatre company is hit-and-miss when it comes to production execution, but Justice Theatre Project’s presentation of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! operates, overall, above expectations. 


An impressive multitude of child actors brings the old, predictable story, back to life. Andrew Farmer is a world class Oliver, balancing moxie and dread with equal skill, and giving a vocal performance better than any adult in the room, particularly in his heartbreaking “Where is Love?” Vincent Bland, Jr. is a capable Artful Dodger, but his voice is largely lost in the space. Emma Gaddy is notably animated as young Nipper and Steve Johnson is a perfectly unsavory Noah Claypole as are his sinister companions, Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry (Thom Haynes and Kathleen Jacob).


Taufiki Lee launches into Looney Tunes territory as Mr. Bumble and it pays off: his is the show’s most engaging and delightful take. Lee knows what this show is--a fable--and I wish the entire company were as outlandish as he. As Widow Corney, Ann Forsthoefel’s vocal power is impressive, as is that of Leslie-Anne Wickens, our Nancy, whose tackling of the reprise of “As Long as He Needs Me” is splendid. 


That being said, director Jerry Sipp has not managed--or attempted, it would seem--to solve the Nancy Problem: in which author Lionel Bart gives his leading lady one of musical theatre’s most sincere and grand love ballads, all about a man who beats and endlessly traumatizes her. One could try and argue that such an attitude was commonplace in 1838 or that victims of domestic abuse sometimes do display such affection for their abusers. However, neither Lionel Bart, Jerry Sipp, or Ms. Wickens make a noticeable attempt at irony, commentary, or awareness of any sort.

 

Juan Isler shows intense control as the villainous Bill Sikes, but this tea kettle of rage never actually whistles, putting the onus on Wickens to demonstrate how frightened of him we should be. Likewise, Jerry Sipp never quite springs into full effect as Fagin, who feels only 50% developed, much like Dr. Grimwig (Dominique Ormond). 


Perhaps overburdened by double-duty, Sipp’s direction is sometimes clunky, but the cast and choreographer keep things moving for him, except the occasional lapse in urgency. But they cannot save the blandness of the mildly tragic climax, leaving a skilled Meagan Solloway as Bet to do the emotional heavy lifting. 


Music director Ronzel Bell elicits extraordinary vocal performances from this cast, especially in the rousing group numbers led by the orphan ensemble. Young kids typically don’t hold back vocally in a group, especially when excited by the material, but many of the adults are too reliant on amplification, something that comes and goes in this show. 


Darby Madewell does much with the limited lighting grid, with a knack for heightened, dramatic colors. Brenda Hayes’s costumes are lively and spot-on, save for some amorphous fat man tummies. Erin Folk’s props suit the show well, especially Fagin’s many bobbles. Jeffrey Nugent and Jerry Sipp’s set maximizes space for the large ensemble, wisely employing a second level and hidden compartments. The many moving parts almost always move smoothly, thanks to a nimble cast, and I appreciate the visibility of the splendid band. 


Stage manager Alyssa Petrone has accomplished quite a task in wrangling a cast of this size; the company is in sync and the cues are well-timed. Heather J. Strickland’s athletic choreography makes the opening number (“Food, Glorious Food”) one of the most thrilling musical numbers in recent memory. Making use of table tops and the aisles, and metal food pans, she channels Busby Berkeley, the kids swirling geometrically throughout the space, before moving onto the percussive elements of Stomp, and finally precise movements of Bob Fosse and his famous bowler hats. An amusing circus sequence and “Oom-Pah-Pah” give the adults their fair share of vigorous and lusty moves, but we lose the vocals on the latter.  


With a production this ambitious, it is impressive that it came together as well as it has, despite its imperfections. Casual theatergoers and younger patrons in particular will likely find the production flawless. Thanks to its phenomenal cast of child actors, fitting design, and exuberant choreography, Justice Theatre Project’s production of Oliver! proves a worthwhile ticket for a family night out.


Content warning: gunfire, domestic assault, murder, kidnapping.


Photo by Jason Prince.

Theatre Review

Don't Dress for Dinner ★★★★

Raleigh Little Theatre

Cantey V. Sutton Theatre
RALEIGH, NC

June 8 - 24, 2018


by Dustin K. Britt

June 13, 2018


RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)


Premiering in Paris in 1987, Marc Camoletti’s Don’t Dress for Dinner was every bit the scandalous French weekend-in-the-country farce. Scantily clad maids, prostitutes, love affairs, physical foolery, and improbable plot twists were--and are--commonplace in the genre.


Over the course of the play, a sextet of characters delivers an absurd amount of rapid-fire dialogue, building a mountain of lies before desperately trying to prevent the inevitable avalanche. 


Director Patrick Torres has leaned into the frantic pacing and physical clowning and it proves tremendously effective. The laugh-per-minute rate is practically incalculable at this speed. He knows when to let the play breathe and when to push through the text, letting the comedy ebb and flow appropriately. With an overabundance of expositional dialogue (whose complexity is a joke unto itself), the play can grow overwhelming at times--leading to a audience shut-down. 


Pausing for laughter is a fine art: determining in a split second whether to barrel through the audience’s roars to keep the rhythm or pause awkwardly to allow for intelligibility. The cast were working to find this balance on Saturday night and overprescribed the barrel-through treatment. 


Torres has staged the action quiet close to the audience: perfect for observing the tomfoolery. Elizabeth Newston’s set is warm and welcoming, while Jeremy Diamond’s mostly fitting lighting contains some superfluous, distracting shifts. Vicki Olson’s costumes are exaggerated just enough to comply with farce and they delineate nicely the characters’ social status. Paul Jason Baker’s horde of props is equally befitting the heightened style and Casey Kaleba choreographs believable and coherent fights, including some impressive furniture maneuvers. 


The ensemble is well-cast and tightly-knit. Rob Jenkins is an enthusiastic and commanding Bernard, the middle aged philanderer, his wife Jacqueline played with impeccable timing and panache by Jenny Anglum. Michael Parker is a sincere, understated Robert, though the task of delivering smoothly much of the play’s exposition proved an arduous one during the first Saturday showing.

 

In a promising RLT debut, Tara Nicole Williams is a dynamic force as Suzette, mastering both subtle intimations and audacious antics with equal finesse. As the befuddled Suzanne, A.C. Donohue pulls out all the stops: comical faces, witty delivery, quirky voices, and a roller-coaster of amusing physicality. Her work is masterful, if sometimes distracting from the business at hand. A focused Will Harris plays the brutish, but not overly simple, George. 


The production’s major imperfection is the fault of its genre and its author--something typically noticed during the play selection process. The piece’s misogyny cannot be overlooked. While Camoletti gives the female characters a great deal of agency, particularly in exercising their sexual rights, he still leans against the tired fence posts of mocking large women and reinforcing women's primary roles: wife, cook, or whore. His lazy jab at  “transvestites” can hardly be deemed a joke. Some might argue that the characters are misogynistic, not the author. But this play does not present itself as satire, and these comments are not coded as inappropriate or ironic. Thus, the responsibility for commentary lies at the playwright’s feet. 


Have we seen the “French farce” before? Yes. Most sitcoms follow the model, as do many plays and films. Though we know the cadences of such material, this plot--adapted by Robin Hawdon--manages to twist and turn around lovers and their secrets until predictability is diminished. Though the tale--and its values--be old, spry direction and a hyper-kinetic cast make this a Dinner worth savoring.


Content warning: demeaning rhetoric, sexual innuendo.


Photo by Areon Mobasher.

Theatre Review

The 39 Steps ★★★★

TheatreFest at University Theatre

Kennedy-McIlwee Studio Theatre, Thompson Hall, NCSU
RALEIGH, NC

June 7 - 24, 2018


The 39 Steps is presented as part of TheatreFest 2018, a series of three productions in repertory at NC State's University Theatre. A review of Deathtrap is published on this page. A review of Nunsense is coming soon.


by Dustin K. Britt

June 10, 2018


RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)


A spoof of the 1935 Hitchcock thriller of the same name, The 39 Steps plays like the love child of The Mystery of Irma Vep and Young Frankenstein. Many actors are required, but only four are used: one leading man, one leading lady (with three roles), and two supporting clowns (with dozens of roles of various ages, genders, and nationalities). Supplementing this cast are two invaluable Stagehands--in charge of all scenic and props movements (of which there are many)--played by the indefatigable duo of Roman Lawrence and Austin McClure.


Under Rachel Klem’s precise direction, Jonathan King and Marisa Markoch star as our will-they/won’t-they film noir leading couple. King helps many gags land, thanks to his incessant commitment to playing up the melodrama. Markoch lacks energy and dialect mastery as Annabella Schmidt, but the bulk of her time is spent as the more engaging Margaret, an uptight Hitchcock Blonde. 


Markoch’s charming stint as Scottish housewife Pamela is her most sincere work of the show (overall, this scene is the production's most solid work). As the play loses energy part-way through the second act--a fault of the playwright--it is harder for the duo, though well matched, to keep us fully engaged. 


As expected, the night belongs to Gus Allen and Daryl Ray Carliles, known locally for playing exuberant and sometimes outlandish characters. This play is a logistical minefield: dozens of lightning fast costume changes, frantic runs around the theatre to make entrance after entrance, and the gluing and pinning of mustaches, wigs, hats, and beards. Both actors display incredible prowess in character differentiation. 


Allen’s scripted menu of characters are more varied than Carliles’s and, thus, he tends to achieve greater distinction between them. Both men portray female characters with commitment and honesty, never playing drag or turning into Pythonesque ratbag housewives. One quickly forgets the gender of the performers and is focused on the well-developed characters.


Scenic designer Jayme Mellema has set aside his realistic tendencies in favor of something more abstract and deceptively minimalist. The set (mostly loads of trunks) is built, unbuilt, arranged, and rearranged by the stagehands and cast to form everything from trains and cars to furnaces and hotel beds. Two large movable frames serve as every doorway and window in the entire United Kingdom and stirring action sequences are achieved with little more than toy airplanes and shadow puppets. 


To help sell these illusions, Joshua Reaves’s lightning design is meticulously shaped to match the ever-changing onstage universe. His use of footlights is extremely effective in evoking the setting of an old theatre. Eric Alexander Collins’ sound design is equally precise. Laura J. Parker delivers a career-defining product: immaculately crafted and detailed costumes, hair, and makeup for the endless parade of characters that also meet the logistical needs of the production’s many quick changes and physical stunts. 


Stage Manager Molly Riddick keeps this runaway train firmly on the tracks, save for a couple of misfired cues. Technical snafus are written into the script to enhance the meta-narrative, but I sometimes wondered if there were legitimate mistakes in the first few scenes, which were noticeably lacking in urgency and sharpness. Luckily, the play's adapter, Patrick Barlow, seems to forget about the “Play That Goes Wrong” antics after a couple of scenes.


Director Rachel Kelm reinforces what she has already proven with other productions: she is a next-level thinker and an unstoppable force. Even with its intermittent sluggishness, with Barlow’s magnificent script, a fearless and zealous cast, and a design team committed to magic-making, TheatreFest 2018’s The 39 Steps proves to be one of the year’s funniest, liveliest, and most engaging theatrical events. 


Content Warning: gunfire.


Photo by Ron Foreman.

Concert Review

Behind a symphony orchestra, a movie screen shows Mozart, a man 18th century clothes, conducting.

Amadeus Live ★★★

North Carolina Symphony

Meymandi Concert Hall
RALEIGH, NC

June 7 - 8, 2018


by Dustin K. Britt

June 10, 2018


RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)


Milos Forman’s 1984 Oscar darling Amadeus does not need much dressing up. It’s already an enlarged version of Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play, which he adapted for the screen.


If you have not seen it, put it at the top of your cue. The Director’s Cut. There is no more stirring filmic depiction of an artist’s passion and process.


The film’s aural output is legendary. Director Forman employed the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields as his orchestra, with Sir Neville Marriner as both conductor and music supervisor. Additionally, the Choristers of Westminster Abbey brought 600 years of choral experience to the table. In the end, the film won the Academy Award for Best Sound, thanks to its miraculous mixing and editing of score, effects, and dialogue. 


The double-disc soundtrack exploded like few other films’ had. And with an entirely classical score. It hit #56 on the Billboard Popular Albums Chart, went Gold thirteen times (6.5 million sales) and won the Grammy for Best Classical Album of 1984. Of the film’s 30 musical excerpts (give or take a few, depending on whom you ask and which version you watch) only three are not Mozart compositions. One, appropriately, is from Antonio Salieri’s opera Axur, re d’Ormus.


Avex Classics International has been touring this film, pairing it with local symphonies and chorales. Composer John Jesensky conducts each symphony the with terrific poise, if Thursday night’s showing is to be an indication. The North Carolina Symphony, in its 85th season, is undoubtedly an impressive company of musicians, a fact reinforced year after year. Likewise, the North Carolina Master Chorale, in its 75th year, is home to hundreds of masterful Carolinian vocalists. Nearly 60 of its members sang the large operatic and concert pieces with prowess in the Raleigh incarnation this week.


The symphony website warned us of the “R” rating of the Director’s Cut, but screened the theatrical PG version. It was either an unintentional posting or they backed out, wanting to avoid a lengthier evening or perhaps Mrs. Mozart’s unclad bosom. 


In Meymandi, the projection screen was placed behind the orchestra, a wise choice as it put them at the forefront. Had it been lower, though, I could have incorporated both into my a singular field of vision. But even with its HD quality, the distance and the lighting in Meymandi made the image less visually dramatic that it should be--with odd shadows and washouts.

 

I appreciated having the music slightly overshadow the film’s dialogue, as I noticed several musical nuances that were mixed out of the film. But the orchestra distracted me when it fell out of sync with the film’s vocalists, causing me to grip my armrests with musical sympathy pains. Amazingly though, this only happened four or five times during the 2.5+ hour film, which is a minefield of tricky entrances and tempos. 


I was amused to see Mozart conduct the onscreen musicians while Mr. Jesensky mirrored (or deviated) from the those grand gestures. The climactic “Requiem” composition scene--in which Mozart describes the role of each instrument and vocal part in isolation--was terrifically exciting, since each solo instrument carried out clearly and boldly in the concert hall. Each was warmer and more personal when playing alone, conducted by small waves of the dying Mozart’s finger. 


The film was still responsible for a few musical moments and often I could not tell if I was hearing the movie soundtrack or the live orchestra--suggesting great precision from the in-house musicians. The “Salieri’s March” scene was somewhat surreal due to this phenomenon and it was quite impressive.


I have the DVD at home and the CD in the car, so why was I there at all? I came to have an enhanced experience. A different sound, spirit, or interpretation was to be expected. When I closed my eyes I could not tell the difference between my previous 30+ viewings of the film and what I was hearing in the room on Thursday. Yes, it is awe-inspiring that the NC Symphony can trick me into thinking it is the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. But that’s more curse than blessing. It begs the question: what’s so special about being here?


I would have better appreciated the symphony had the film not been screened with it. I would have devoured a concert of the film’s music--more than two hours of some of Mozart’s finest works. But both orchestra and chorale were forced to compete with my auditory memory. And their talent became their downfall. I would have been just as moved and entertained watching Amadeus on my own couch. And the cat would have loved it.

Arts Feature: In Rehearsal

Seed Art Share's "A Night at the City of Raleigh Museum IV"

Photograph of a human-sized cartoon squirrel smiling as a young man with glasses frowns.

Photo courtesy of Seed Art Share.


by Dustin K. Britt

June 8, 2018


You may or may not have heard of Seed Art Share. The triangle-based theatre company prides itself on dynamic, interactive, educational, and inclusive theatrical experiences. And they’ve got it down. But blink and you’ll miss them. Their shows don’t run for long, but they are plentiful. 


Their productions move. And quickly.  Producer Renee Wimberley and her troupe of the area’s best playwrights, directors, and actors have concocted a number of “moving” projects over the last few years: original historical plays through Raleigh’s Mordecai Historic Park, a Hillsborough Street bar-hopping play with scenes featuring signature cocktails, and an annual family-friendly show at First Night Raleigh, where you can spend half an hour on New Year’s Eve roaming downtown with a batch of oddball historical figures. 


The company prefers to create its material in-house, but will pull from a play from the shelf if the right concept comes along  In 2015, they co-produced, with Raleigh Little Theatre, a summer production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Raleigh Rose Garden, with local kids playing the fairy train. This summer they will mount one of their most ambitious projects to date: an immersive, 20-actor production of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker presented in and around the historic Borden Building in Raleigh’s Fletcher Park.


For the fourth consecutive summer, Seed is presenting an incarnation of their interactive educational play, A Night at the City of Raleigh Museum, a favorite of Wake County school kids and their parents looking for 90 minutes of activities, learning, and an escape from the heat. 


Chatham Life and Style sat down with some of the creative team to learn more about this unique play.


RENEE WIMBERLEY, MANAGING ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, SEED ART SHARE: 


"As a character, Sir Walter Raleigh appears in most of Seed Art Share’s historical and educational shows. Many kids know the story of the Lost Colony, so he’s familiar and can be used to present all sorts of topics: exploration, Roanoke Island, the founding of Raleigh, etc. 


"As a teacher, I love creating an arts-integrated curriculum. This is the second year I have written the museum show. The target age group for this show is 6 to 11 years old. They will hear stories about Raleigh's history, play games, do hands-on activities, and explore familiar spots downtown spots. Much of the show takes place in the darkened museum.


"We have systems in place so parents can drop of their kids for the show and come back later if they like, which we encourage. The kids are given flashlights and we guide them, but for anyone unnerved by the dark we have staff here to help them navigate the museum and take some alternate routes. We don’t make much noise, but kids with sound sensitivity are always welcome to bring their headphones. There is no food involved, so allergens are not an issue and the museum of wheelchair accessible of course."


ERNEST DOLLAR, DIRECTOR, CITY OF RALEIGH MUSEUM: 


"People remember history when they can hear, see, feel, and touch the past. Museums in the 21st century cannot simply rely on artifacts and text panels to excite visitors. We noticed Seed Art Share’s enthusiasm for history-based theatre and decided to approach Renee to develop children’s programming. 


"The museum provides some historical background for the authors and help fact check scripts. This program is a living exhibit, and we strive to present as accurate a view of the past as possible."


KENNY HOWELL, ACTOR: "MARTIN"


"The show is interactive and every show is completely different. We can rarely predict what a child might say or come up with as an answer to a character’s question. But our cast is phenomenal at improvisation and the kid always feels like their words are now part of the play--which they are.  I love to see the spark in the eyes of a kid that says, 'I just discovered something wonderful'."


A Night at the City of Raleigh Museum IV 

June 2, 9, and 16.

3:30, 5:30, and 7:30 PM.

Theatre Review

A boy in school uniform stands in front of his classmates, shouting as they read silently.

Spring Awakening ★★★★

North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre
RALEIGH, NC

June 1 - 17, 2018


by Dustin K. Britt

June 6, 2018


RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)


Since the 2006 premier of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Spring Awakening, I have gradually grown tired of the rock musical’s pretensions. Its semi-conscious breakneck shifts between irony (see: Hair) and its pleas for sympathy (see: Rent) had me on the train to Skeptictown some years ago, though I adored the score like few others. I had even looked past the barrage of extraneous songs, particularly in the second act. After several hundred spins of the cast recording and a handful of trips to see the Broadway tour, I tore up my pity party invitation and went back to Avenue Q.


After twelve years, director Timothy E. Locklear has brought me back, at least temporarily.  He removed the gimmicks: handheld microphones, a brick wall of ostentatious neon lights, on-stage audience seating (impossible at NRACT anyway), rock concert choreography, and--most importantly--the desperate need to appeal to a mass teenage audience via shocking boner jokes and dispassionate dry humping. The fact that the gay romance is not given same frank depiction (i.e. onstage sex) as the straight relationship has always been a problem. Unfortunately, this production does not try to fix that.


Miyuki Su’s sleek, multi-tiered set features a hand-painted wooden classroom floor while Victoria Barnes’ imaginative lighting design integrates modern technology without veering too far from the setting. Sheila Cox’s costumes hint at our contemporary world but remain grounded in the early 19th century--save one enormous stumble, choosing contemporary dress for the show’s finale, bring us into Godspell territory. Chelsey Winstead’s props are entirely suitable for the story and its setting. 


NRACT took a risk with the sound design and it mostly paid off. With its small but oddly-shaped space, the theatre has always struggled with finding that perfect balance between the microphone, the band, and the sound effects. In this case, the cast are without mics. No popping, hissing, dropping out, or volume inconsistency to distract. Unimpeded vocal delivery. Simon Hale’s string orchestrations are prerecorded, which is often a blessing in an intimate space and Annamarie Milazzo’s vocal arrangements, under Craig Johnson’s direction, prove strong enough to cut through most of the music. 


The disadvantage to lack of amplification is a lack of control for sound designers Todd Houseknecht and Michael Santangelo. In adjusting the volume for quiet soloists we never quite hear the music well. It seems neither can the cast who--capable singers all--occasionally veer off tempo or throw vocal darts at the wall hoping to hit their pitch. Blocking singers to face the wings does not help.

 

Choreographer Aya Wallace has eschewed rock concert moves in favor of something evocative and modern. More Martha Graham than AC/DC, Wallace’s choreography injects some much-needed maturity and nuance. Steve Whetzel’s fight choreography is both brutal and believable, never feeling separate from the surrounding scene. 


Stage manager Scott Winton Wray always has the next scene in mind, executing Locklear’s swift and uncomplicated transitions with precision. Costume changes are speedy--no panicked actors stumbling onto the stage. 


Locklear has cast an impressive ensemble, if still too large for the NRACT stage. Natalia Soto is a delicate Wendla, in contrast to the lusty Melchior, played with impressive emotional and vocal range by Ford Nelson. Nathan Hamilton masters the physicality of the ungainly Moritz but misses some opportunities for nuance. Lauren Knott is ethereal, flying high above the world as Ilse while a harrowing Faith Jones is planted firmly on the ground as the aggrieved Martha. 


Shane de Leon is an imposing vocal force in his dual role as Georg and Dieter and, as the persistently priapic Hanschen, Matt Scheaffer plays the famed masturbation scene with fearless humor. But it is his effective seduction of Ernst, played by a tender Bryan Bunch, that gives the character depth. 


The indefatigable duo of Heather Shinpaugh and Ted Willis play all of the adults, from physicians to parents to stuffy professors. Both do solid work, but it is Willis’s performance that has raised the bar on how effective this catalogue of characters can be. His shifts between these men are bold, swift, and strikingly clear. 


Locklear has turned down the burners on flamboyant presentation and cranked up the heat on character and conflict, taking a show made for teens and making it emotionally accessible to adults. He leans strongly into humor and tragedy with equal force, but even he cannot save a droopy second act. He values nervous laughter over shock and awe, highlighting the absurdity of human behavior--a welcome change from the usual staging. Even with some vocal stumbles, NRACT’s production is more honest, optimistic, and mature than it was before. This ain’t your kid’s Spring Awakening.


Content Warning: sexual acts, abortion, suicide, abuse, and mild nudity. 


Photo by Elizabeth Anderson.

Theatre Review

A young man in looks over the shoulder of an older man, pointing to a sheet of paper

Deathtrap ★★1/2

NC State University Theatre

Titmus Theatre, Thompson Hall, NCSU
RALEIGH, NC

May 31 - June 10, 2018


Deathtrap is presented as part of TheatreFest 2018, a series of three productions in repertory at NC State's University Theatre. Reviews of the other two productions, The 39 Steps and Nunsense are coming soon.


by Dustin K. Britt

June 4, 2018


RATING: 2.5 stars (out of 5)


The 1978 “comic thriller” Deathtrap was Ira Levin’s well-received attempt to incorporate a meta-theatrical structure into a weary genre. It broke Broadway records and received a handful of Tony nominations before a 1982 film adaptation.


With the first of his three sets for this year’s TheatreFest lineup Jayme Mellema proves, once again, to be one of the area’s most indomitable and thorough scenic designers. This production’s star is its set: the precisely detailed 1970s home and office of playwright Sidney Bruhl.


Adrienne McKenzie’s lavish--but never garish--costuming cements the period

and clearly brands each character’s social status. The lighting design is hit-and-miss. Darby Madewell and Joshua Reaves create some believable moments--particularly when the Bruhl home’s electricity is compromised--but the inexplicable color switches between warm living room and cold warehouse, on the same set, is distracting. 


I will be somewhat vague here to avoid spoiling the play’s 2 or 3 plot twists.


The play’s characters are merely wooden pillars used to hold up Levin’s plot structure. Their development is either inconsistent or absent, like much of his other writings including novels Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives


The playwright is not sure if Sidney’s wife Myra is supposed to be the plotting Lady Macbeth or the abandoned Ophelia but Lynda Clark manages to paint an intriguing--if perplexing--portrait with both brushes. Danny Norris is notably convincing as attorney Porter Milgrim and JoAnne Dickinson is amusing as psychic Helga Ten Dorp, though her hodgepodge of Europeanish accents is baffling. 


Wade Newhouse is a controlled Sidney Bruhl, but is never sinister enough as to elicit fear in the audience. Justin Brent Johnson gives the steadiest performance, balancing the warmth and the hostility of mysterious boy toy Clifford Anderson. 


The Titmus stage is a wide one, and things cannot be easily hidden from the entire audience. This makes the fight choreographers’ job a tricky one. A few of Heather J. Strickland’s and Jason Bailey’s hits read false to the farthest sides of the audience. But their inventive moves, the cast’s terrific execution, and a pinch of shock value make these sequences memorable and exciting. 


John C. McIlwee’s direction puts Levin’s few surprising plot twists to good use, turning up the electricity on the play for a few moments. But he puts all his eggs in this one basket--the play’s energy coming to a dead halt between plot much-awaited plot reveals. This is partly Levin’s fault, filling the play with unhelpful character business (not his forte). The play’s self-references (“why did you walk so far downstage?” one character asks another) are rare and random enough as to seem like ad libs, and McIlwee’s actors do not lean into these moments enough to make them stand out. 


I give a golf clap to director John C. McIlwee for inserting some romantic contact between the men--a subtext explored in the film and some other productions. It is a shame that he cannot take it further, but the author’s estate (i.e. his three sons) has already shut down one revival that got “too gay.” 


Content warning: gunfire, bloody violence, death.


Photo by Ron Foreman.

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Dustin K. Britt

Dustin K. Britt, a North Carolina native, is a theatre teacher and freelance writer. He has worked in the theatre for more than 20 years and holds a Master of Arts in Education from East Carolina University. Dustin covers concerts, dance, comedy, and theatre in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Cary, Raleigh, Durham, Pittsboro, and Apex. His writing has appeared in IndyWeek, Carolina Parent Magazine, and Triangle Arts & Entertainment.  You can find him on Twitter or Instagram @dkbritt85