Women’s Theatre Festival
Murphy School Auditorium at Burning Coal Theatre
July 13 - 22, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
July 17, 2018
RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)
At the crossroads of J.M. Barrie and Jim Henson lies Goblin Market, a one-act musical adapted from Christina Rossetti’s 1862 narrative poem of the same name. Co-authored in verse by Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon--with a delicate, chamber opera score by Pen--the piece is a nursery rhyme. One of the creepy ones.
The musical has been staged in a variety of styles since its premiere in 1986. Some directors favor a strictly child-friendly interpretation with ladies dancing and mischievous puppets. Others have leaned heavily into the text’s eroticism and religious allegory. Director Ashley Popio has added her own dish to the menu: she has collaborated with the Carolina Ballet to mirror the singing sister duo with a pair of younger counterparts, interpreting the sung lyrics through ballet.
It is a unique and appropriate choice, providing more local women the opportunity to practice their art on stage. This is likely the reason for double-casting the two leads, something entirely unnecessary as the “C/J” cast of last Saturday seems more than competent enough to handle it. Unfortunately, I cannot speak to the alternate cast’s work--the sad reality of critiquing a doubly-cast show in a short run.
I was treated to the magnificent voice and precise comedic timing of Ciara Ellis as Laura, in one of the year’s finest performances thus far. Soprano Joy Bryant plays counterpart Lizzie, keeping the duo grounded with a more austere and real-world performance. Music director Katherine Anderson’s small orchestra provides a pleasant hint of Victorian whimsy.
Lisa Suzanne’s mysterious lighting--including a trio of gorgeously-designed hanging flower pods-- dances across Miyuki Su’s stunning magical woodland and Popio’s costumes, with support from Amani McKenzie, transport us into a Victorian world of severe black gowns and fine cream-colored frocks. Candace Hescock supports the fruit-centric storyline with a bevy of quinces and oranges to tempt the sisters. These elements are sewn tightly together by technical director Katie Moorehead and executed with precision by stage manager Grace Bolton.
Dancer-choreographer Jennifer Palmer matches Ellis’s passionate verbal delivery with equally impassioned dancing as Young Laura. At her side, Carmen Felder strongly and boldly dances the role of Young Lizzie, her frenzied, climatic interactions with the goblin horde being the show’s most exciting moment. The masked ensemble of frolicking, tormenting, colorful goblins is thoroughly engaging and is the show’s highlight. Popio makes a brilliant casting choice in the young Scarlett Blum, divinely captivating as a gamboling, beguiling goblin child.
The playful opening number, an extended game of listing types of fruits, far overstays its welcome and is the first sign of trouble. While the story of the sisters is poignant and integral, much time is wasted reiterating the simplest of facts for the sake of extending the score. The added choreography breaks the monotony at times, but it is difficult to stretch 30 minutes of solid theatrical material to a full hour.
It is the presence of the goblins that that raises the stakes, provides the conflict, and engages the characters in an external struggle. Without their plot-driving activity, even lovely voices and expert dancers prove insufficient keep one wholly engaged with the basic story. The choreography is lyrical, evocative, and expertly executed, but there is a notable lack of urgency and character in the movement--more pas de deux than sisters in crisis--lacking clear distinction between calm, tension, and conflict save for the impressive climatic interactions between Felder and the goblin horde. The result is a disconnect between the vocalists and the dancers, who appear to be in different stories entirely, rather than reflective of one another.
The simple final moments of the play--connecting the far past, recent past, and present of our characters--are the most profound, reminding us of our own unbroken connections, the sacrifices we have made for one another, and, if we have them, the unique relationship only siblings can share.
Photo by Proctor Photographics.
July 11 - 22, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
July 15, 2018
RATING: 2 stars (out of 5)
A mishmash of characters and plotlines from Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel and John August’s 2003 screenplay adaptation, Big Fish hit Broadway in 2013 with a book by August and a score by Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family, The Wild Party).
Mix William Faulkner with Lewis Carroll and you’ll come near the style of this southern gothic fairy tale, in which the rapidly aging Edward Bloom narrates a series of autobiographical bedtime stories to entertain and inspire his young son. A fairy tale for babby boomer dads worried about their lasting legacy.
The play rubs up against the notion that Bloom’s memories may be entirely fantasized, but the staging never skyrockets into full-blown fantasy like the source material. One struggles to separate theatrical magic with story magic, making it difficult to determine which inventions are the director’s and which are the authors’. In any given scene one wonders, “are we in a fantasy scene or the main plot right now?” Does it even matter? The play seems to think not, caring little about the veracity of Bloom’s Homeric tale. Rather, it focuses its energy on the stories’ essentially traumatic impact on Bloom’s son (but don’t worry, the ending is as cathartic as you require).
Director Eric Woodall has gathered an imaginative team of artists that help bring his concept to life. John Smith’s cabin-inspired set, bestrewn with Tim Domack’s many props, is a suitable foundation for Abbey O’Brien’s lively choreography and Meg Powers’s costumes, which sometimes bring us close to the clear fantasy the show desperately needs. Thanks to stage manager Scott Winton Wray, the show flows smoothly without noticeable hitch.
Erich R. Keil’s use of color is mostly effective, even pushing us into fantasy during the elaborately lit swamp witch sequence, with its greens, purples, and disco ball. Chanda Branch is equally vibrant as the Witch herself and this sequence is the production’s most magical. The insistence on spotlighting the cast’s faces during much of the action is distracting, as the light operators swing lights around like blind men hunting ever-moving game. It does not help that the entire production is far too big for the Kennedy theatre.
One wonders how any singer could remember such a forgettable score. It would seem that they could not, judging by the largely off-key evening. Energetic music director Ethan Andersen has assembled a solid band, but Eric Alexander Collins’ sound mix favors the singers, the orchestra having little impact on the audience or the vocalists. The result is much like a baseball player with eight arms: the pitches are all over the place. And it nearly ruins the game.
Lauren Kennedy, who gives a solid emotional performance as Edward’s wife Sandra, likely had a cold on Thursday night, judging from her unusually spotty singing. Rarely does an actor so effectively believe his characters’ lies as does Timothy Gulan. An exemplary Edward Bloom, Gulan dives headfirst into the man’s extravagant tales without prejudice or hesitation. With a straight-from-Broadway voice, Chris Dwan is the grown-up Will Bloom, mining what nuance he can from the vapid dialogue with which he has been burdened. Mili Diaz, as the empathetic Josephine, suffers the same burden, and has less success shaking it off.
A formidable Paul Hinkes is a perfectly plodding Karl the Giant, Carlos Alcala is delightfully clownish in a handful of supporting roles, and Areon Mobasher applies his imposing voice and enchanting manner to the role of scruffy carnival ringleader Amos. Shanelle Nicole Leonard is a sincere Jenny Hill and Keegan Story is a cheeky Young Will.
The cast and designers do an acceptable job despite the shoddy writing. Listening to August’s book is like floating dreamlike through a field of daffodils before coming across an enormous rotten pumpkin: cliche. And they are aplenty. The audience is not permitted to observe and assess without authorial interference, lest we misunderstand the basics of the human experience. No character’s thought or feeling can go unnamed and nothing is open to interpretation. Many of the father’s “wise” observations would be better suited to samplers and mugs in a Cracker Barrel gift shop.
The play’s largest obstacle is its very structure. Big Fish does not need to be a musical. The dialogue is already more expository than one can stomach and the emotional moments needn’t be milked twice. We don’t need “I Want” songs, character songs, and narrative songs tagged onto scenes where the content has already been over explained. But Lippa and August can’t help but both have their say. Big Fish either needs to be a straight play or an opera. And not written or composed by these two gentlemen.
This is sadly a case of a very good theatre company aiming too low and shooting themselves in the foot.
Photo by Jennifer Robertson.
Women’s Theatre Festival
July 27 - August 5
by Dustin K. Britt
August 2, 2018
RATING: 2 stars (out of 5)
The true story of the Radium Girls is not often told. A very indie film, Radium Girls--penned, produced and directed by women--garnered some small festival attention this spring, but you’re unlikely to see it anytime soon. Other than that, the only major fictional work anyone has heard of is Melanie Marnich’s 2008 play These Shining Lives.
Director Jorie Slodki has taken on quite a challenge: telling a story that needs to be told, but via a play that does not tell it well. Marnich’s storyline lacks focus, interrupting the high-stakes narrative (a group of women, who have been taken advantage of, stand up and take action against the men in power) with tedious homelife scenes of the main protagonist. Lydia Nethercutt and Nick Iammatteo work much harder than they should have to, compensating for superfluous material.
Maggie Lea is a stellar, bold Charlotte while Candace Hescock and Dannibeth Farnum help flesh out the quartet as Frances and Pearl, whose lack of attention from their playwright often leaves them out in the cold.
The ArtsCenter continues to prove a problematic space in which to stage theatre: the design elements are sufficient to communicate the story, but scenic designer Mac McCord and lighting designer Karyn Raynor cannot really stretch their wings. Mikki Stith’s costumes are mostly fitting, while Mac McCord’s many props are well-suited to the period. The overwhelming, rarely-used projection screen is a constant reminder that we are not anywhere near the 1920s.
What we want are scenes with the quartet of women, not the peripheral, male-dominated scenes that rarely do much to raise the stakes. We want to experience their triumphant lawsuit win against Radium Dial and Catherine Donohue’s subsequent testimony at the Illinois Industrial Commission. We see the suffering and the gathering of forces and then jump straight to the dying.
Unfortunately Marnich’s text of These Shining Lives feels more like a Wikipedia article than a biography. I really want to know these heroic women. But the author won’t let me. The Women’s Theatre Festival is absolutely right in choosing the Radium Girls as a topic, but should have chosen one of the many talented women in this area to write a new, better play.
Photo by Proctor Photographics.
Dustin K. Britt, a North Carolina native, is a performer, theatre instructor 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
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