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15 February 2007

LYLAS: Humorgasm

Three words: Black. Tran.

Actually, you’ll have to ask LYLAS about the third word, if you missed their latest show.

I love LYLAS. They are totally unpretentious in their quest to make themselves laugh and have a good time. And they are actually funny, so we the audience laugh and have a good time, as well. But they never pretend to be anything other than a group of women who are not afraid to try out new ideas in front of an audience and hope they work. If they don’t work, it’s no big deal, and they just try again. It’s refreshing.

Their newest play, Humorgasm, now playing at Windows on the Park, is a mix of old and new sketches all centered around the theme of love. As always, some of the material works better than others, and sometimes the set ups are funnier than the punch lines. This was especially true of the sketch centered around the “Awkward Eliminator,” which was a great concept with really good set ups but less exciting follow through. But I didn’t really care that the punch lines were not as funny; I don’t come to a LYLAS show to feel like I have just seen some sterile, polished comics going through their routines. I go to laugh along with some other regular folks at these regular women who just might have more gumption, guts, and comic timing that the rest of us and are willing to go out on a limb to find those things.

That said, there are a few things that I felt kept Humorgasm from being quite as good a show as their prior offerings. For one thing, Windows on the Park is a great venue for parties dinners or the like, but it does not really lend itself to keeping focus on the performers in a play; that is left to the creativity of the performing group, and in this case, it didn't quite come together. The lights LYLAS brought in helped with focus, but without the structure of 35 Below or NC Stage, the piece felt a bit more disjointed. Also, the material focused less on Asheville than WASH-TV or West Asheville Side Story did, and I missed the local skewering. There was nothing here quite as funny as, say, “Who is Laura Lynn?” It was not just a coincidence that one of the best lines of the play had to do with the Bele Chere selection committee; it was a pointed and funny dig at a local institution and process, and one that made everyone cringe just a little bit, because it really hit the nail right on the head. I, for one, would like to see more of that sort of thing, that has worked for well for the group in the past.

But here’s a question: does it matter what’s funny? If a sketch about a woman in an pilates class explaining her complicated romantic point system of measuring who’s done what with whom is amusing, but Besty Puckett’s largely lineless role as her new friend (who’s more interested in not falling off her exercise ball than trying to figure out the system) is really funny, is that bad? I don’t think so. The point is, they made me laugh, so who cares if I was laughing at he script or the actors? Is Jenny Bunn’s character Lurleene funnier than the things she says? Sometimes. But usually (especially in Lurleene’s last two appearances) you are laughing hard enough that it doesn’t matter where the humor comes from: it’s there (although those two cases show off some of the funniest writing, as well).

At any rate, I enjoyed the show, imperfections and all, and the packed house was only one indicator that I was not alone. I don’t know when their next show will be, and I don’t think they do either, but I know that I will make every effort to find out.

--Willie Repoley

Royal Shakespeare Company at Davidson

editor's note: Davidson is a bit outside of the "Asheville Area," but this seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up. For more information about the RSC's visit, check out http://www3.davidson.edu/cms/x20205.xml


No one wants to admit that they went all the way to Stratford-Upon-Avon, saw a show by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and didn’t like it. But sometimes that’s how it goes. Some years ago I saw Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and what I remember most is the imposing set, how far away from the stage my balcony seat was, and how disconnected and disappointed I felt. Was the play any good? Maybe, but what I remember is the feeling of being distant from it. It is no surprise to me that the hordes of schoolchildren that are dutifully shuffled into the theatre every year spend much of their time in the balconies text-messaging each other. No matter how good the play may or may not be, they are left distant –literally, physically—from the action on stage. Now, however, it seems the RSC has initiated a shift towards a more audience-serving approach to Shakespeare. Partly this is being done by building a new, much more intimate mainstage theatre, but if their current productions of Pericles and The Winter’s Tale, running very briefly at Davidson College in Davidson, are any indication, it is also being done by simply reestablishing the importance of the language of the plays, so that the technical elements of a production (while still reflecting a large budget) are rooted in the text, and where the audience becomes a vital part of the experience.

The Frazier Stage in the Duke Family Performance Hall at Davidson College is typically an elegant, intimate house that seats about 500 and was designed to accommodate a fairly wide range of performing arts with comfort, ease and style. But two weeks ago, they brought in thousands of pounds of steel, and in a Herculean display of skill, teamwork, and hard work, transformed the room into a modern metal wasteland with only a relatively few number of seats—those in the balconies— remaining uncovered (the new features had to be installed on top of the existing seating). The reason for the makeover was the impending arrival of Pericles and The Winter’s Tale (as well as a modern play, Days of Significance, a response to Much Ado About Nothing, that is only playing for two performances). The shows were created for the RSC’s relatively small Swan Theatre in Stratford as part of the RSC’s Complete Works series, and were not originally intended to tour. Nevertheless, the design team working in conjunction with the folks at Davidson have done a marvelous job at adapting the set to the somewhat larger space at the college, and the result is not to be missed.

Ordinarily, I would be wary of a review that felt compelled to mention the set in the opening sentences. Ordinarily, I would assume that meant the technical elements of the show were so overpowering as to distract from the acting, and even the story. But this is the new, leaner, more focused Royal Shakespeare Company, and these shows are not ordinary in any way. Most interestingly perhaps, they are performed in what is being described as promenade style, meaning that the audience, aside from those in the balcony seats, are sharing the stage with the actors. There are no chairs, and they are free to move around to get a better view, or just to see what it looks like from another position. The actors have no trouble clearing a path through the audience to move about the stage, and when necessary, they do not shy away from physically and vocally herding the audience around, as to clear room for a dance or a fight. The set also incorporates a long sweeping ramp from the deck to the balcony which serves as playing area, and, opposite the ramp, is a large rectangular box (set at a slight rake) that keeps the actors separate from the audience when appropriate. The box is accessed stage right by a metal staircase to the deck and by a bulky metal bridge to the balcony, which is matched by a similar bridge stage left. The harshness of the steel set, treated to give it an uneven sheen of rust, is very effective for the hot desert locals of Pericles, if less so for the sophisticated court and lush pasture of Winters’ Tale, but both plays use the set, as well as the lighting and costumes designs, to create an almost unending series of stage pictures so beautiful and haunting that I almost wanted to be able to stop the play every few minutes while I soaked in the power of the visual. And while it would still have been beautiful in a more traditional staging, the fact that you, the audience member, are physically present with all of this makes the experience of the play alive and exciting in a surprisingly personal way.

But lest I imply that the show is all about the visual, let me reinforce that I am only able to talk about the design elements this way because they exist not in a vacuum, but in a powerful and serious relation to the actors and, most especially, the text. It is the overall effect that is so moving, the cumulative effect of the actors, directors, designers, technicians, and always the words of the play, that provide the sturdy and unflinching base upon which the productions are firmly based.

I did worry momentarily that this was not going to be the case: upon walking into the theatre –and therefore, literally, onto the stage—before Winter’s Tale, the amount of spectacle seemed excessive at first. A live band was playing sophisticated 1950’s era instrumental music from the elevated box, and elegantly costumed actors were dancing all around the stage, some in couples, and some dancing with the other “guests” at this party, the audience. At some point, someone started a countdown in which we all joined, a clock was lowered, and white confetti showered down as everyone yelled “Happy New Year!” before grasping hands and singing Auld Lang Syne (I was holding the gloved hand of Paulina). From there, the dialogue of the play started, and we were underway. But what kept it from being just another waste of money, just a chance to show off, was how it served the play: most importantly, by inviting the audience to be a part of the experience of making the play happen, and introducing us to the new concept of sharing the stage, of being both part of the play and separate: participants, but also observers.

This almost Brechtian sense of duality was constantly at work to varying degrees, but the conflicted feeling seemed wholly appropriate for a play that deals in similar juxtapositions: Anton Lesser, as Leontes, committed fully and immediately to each of his emotional extremes, not needing to question “why” each time he took a turn, but simply taking them and letting the play speak. The transpositions from courtly Sicilia to pastoral Bohemia were likewise thorough, helped in no small part by the Old Shepard (Richard Moore), who was the picture perfect rustic English farmer, and Autolycus (Richard Katz), a bizarre and inspired mix of Bob Dylan, Abe Lincoln, and Jarvis Cocker. The famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear,” was both somewhat silly—a man in a realistic bear suit that lumbered around and stood on its hind legs—and moving, thanks to the choice to have Antigonus (the eloquent Ben Onwukwe) bravely if timidly confront the bear to distract it from the baby Perdita, and thereby sacrifice his life for the child.

In addition to the favorite stage direction, there is much in the play that can be troublesome, at least for modern audiences. But in this production, they are played simply, not ironically or with a wink to the audience, and it made a huge difference. Take the betrothal of Paulina (Linda Bassett in a wonderfully strong yet loving portrayal) and Camillo (Joseph Mydell, who wisely treated the character not as a waffler, but simply a practiced politician who knows when to abandon particular loyalties) at the end of the play: the marriage seems not only forced upon them, but also terribly cruel for proud, widowed Paulina. This can be viewed as a final failing of Leontes, demonstrating that no matter what he has learned during the sixteen years of the play, he has not fundamentally changed. But the RSC has chosen to let Leontes be the changed man he seems to be. The difference is subtle but hugely important, and I believe it is utterly justified in the text. Consider that Leontes introduced the idea of the marriage in the first place by revealing that Camillo has long loved Paulina. And after sixteen years of her close counsel, Leontes surely must know Paulina very well. True, his public “outing” of them both as potential mates is awkward, but Bassett and Mydell took that awkwardness and made it fresh and lovely, at first holding hands very tentatively and hardly looking at each other, like young lovers (an image they discovered the first time they tried the scene in rehearsal; it worked so well they kept it unchanged from day one). I thought the moment was so interesting that I continued to watch this pair, even as Leontes resumed speaking, and I saw the two of them gradually, silently, admit their hidden passions, so that by the time the play ended, they were looking into each others eyes, oblivious to the rest of the action, Paulina even being caught off guard by the end of the play, as the pair of new love-birds join the joyous procession up the ramp and off stage. Paulina the widow, always passionate, but resigned to a solitary existence, and Camillo the politician, loyal but not stupid, are guided into a match that they never would have discovered without Leontes’ help, and are both the better for it.

Two other potential hang-ups of the play are the sudden introduction of Time, as a chorus (who explains that sixteen years have suddenly passed, and then disappears again), and the introduction of three new characters near the end of the play who tell Autolycus all the major plot points that have just occurred off stage, so that we can skip right to the statue scene without ever seeing the reconciliation of the rest of the court. But instead of having three “gentlemen,” or even Camillo, speak these lines, they are delivered somewhat tongue in cheek as a newscast, one reporter even carrying his microphone and tape box around his neck and narrating as if he were at a sporting event. The device is a bit silly, but it solves the problem of introducing characters we have not seen before (newscasters are hardly “new”; everyone is familiar with them, after all), and it gives a small wink at the modern audience, who may have been expecting to get to see what Shakespeare has decided we only get to hear about. As for Time the chorus, the character is usually utilized only in that one scene, and it works just fine, but here Time (which was subtly introduced at the top of the play with the dropping of the clock for New Year’s, and is personified by Robin Lawrence) is presented as a quiet gardener who maintains a presence at the edge of the playing area all through the play. When he finally speaks, he is discovered pruning a small tree, listing to the gentle and amusing strains of “Catch a Falling Star” on his portable radio. He turns it off, and in a totally relaxed yet fully invested soliloquy, he knowingly guides us through the years, and takes pains to make really take us on the journey, so that when he presents the change of time and local (cued by turning his radio back on and discovering “California Dreaming” now playing) we are excited and ready to make the complete and utter shift to this new, freer world.

Time, in this way, also readies us for the arrival of the peddler Autolycus, who could only exist away from the pomp and formality of the Sicilian court. His first appearance severs any ties we had to that world so completely, that we will be ready for almost any sort of reversal (handy, since there are still many more to come) As played by Richard Katz, he is sharp eyed but lackadaisical, pulling laughs out of the audience as easily and as innocently as he pulls money from the purses of the Bohemian farmers; he holds the same curious mixture of contempt and appreciation for us as he does them. But it is perhaps his first appearance that is the most memorable, and does such a good job of setting up both the character and the whole Bohemian mind-set: He half stumbles out of a trap door part-way up the ramp, with a battered silk top hat perched on long gray curls reminiscent of Arlo Guthrie, and a long joint in his mouth, while playing haltingly on a cheap guitar and Dylan-style harmonica. As he emerges, it becomes clear that this man is serenading us (with a song it sounds like he is still in the process of writing) while wearing only a tattered tail coat and a pair of bright purple underwear. There is no doubt whatsoever that we are now in full “Summer of Love” Bohemia, and we are delighted to be there, especially if we are to be guided there by him.

Not all of Bohemia works as well; the dance performed at the sheep shearing, for example, seemed to be a bit over the top, even in this world, with nearly naked men sporting phalli stomping tribally around. It wasn’t really a bad choice, necessarily, but I remained unconvinced that the earthy nature of Bohemia really needed to be underscored so visually, since the characters and the words they speak do that so well for themselves.

At any rate, I was perfectly willing to forgive a few moments that didn’t quite work for me, given how many really interesting and exciting choices were made in other places. Perhaps the most effective moment was the stature scene. Of course, being part of the scene, only feet away from the statue and able to see the faces of everyone present so clearly, made a huge difference. And Lesser’s Leontes was so moved at the sight, it was palpable. Kate Fleetwood as Hermione (who’s courtroom scene was similarly moving and personal) played the whole thing so that we were free to believe both that she had lived all these years, or that the statue sprang to life. Either way, it is a moment of magic, and the way Leontes embraced the queen he effectively killed sixteen years before --as if he was simultaneously overcome with joy and utter fear that he might somehow break whatever spell this was-- filled the room with a willingness to believe in miracles, and in the power of change, of Time.

Time ends the play with a gesture reminiscent of Puck, who comes “with broom before/ To sweep the dust behind the door.” Or, in the case of The Winter’s Tale, to push his broom in cathartic sort of circular dance, ending the play with a burst of energy that seems not only to wipe the slate clean, but to do so in such a way that the pieces will fall in some new, surprising, and delightful configuration tomorrow night.

And they did, for the next night the company performed Pericles, which is a perfect companion to Winter’s Tale in many ways, especially the themes of suffering and redemption. I was utterly unfamiliar with the play, and sat in the balcony for the show, both of which probably contributed to my feeling a bit more distant from this play, but it was really of comparable quality to Winter’s Tale. The play was set in East Africa, also the childhood home of the lead actor, Lucian Msamati, whose rich voice and natural affability helped create a man who has real depth. He is competitive, proud, practical, ready to love and laugh, someone who is smart enough to know when to run and when to fight. Like Leontes, he is a leader who loses his wife and daughter, but unlike his counterpart, Pericles does nothing to deserve this punishments. The play seems much more concerned with the changing tides of fortune, a theme reinforced by the importance of the sea. The sea causes two important shipwrecks, Pericles’ daughter is born at sea, his wife is buried at sea (and revived on the beach), and both the sea and the playwright toss the characters about pretty severely before allowing truth and redemption to conclude the tale.

The first two acts of the play were probably written by George Wilkins, and I cannot help but wonder if Wilkins wanted to write a capital “T” Tragedy. I suppose not; although I am not very familiar with the play, I have read nothing to indicate that either Wilkins’ novel of the same name or any of the source material did not include the redemption and resurrection of Pericles and his family. But, still, I have to wonder; it just seems fun to think that perhaps the man who gave us the magic that concluded The Winter’s Tale also decided to breathe some hope into this other play that, apparently, he took over and finished.

One interesting feature of this production was that no white actors appeared until well into the play. The RSC’s cast for both plays was unusually multiracial, which was a welcome and exciting beak from “tradition,” but the decision to place the land of Tyre in eastern Africa, created the unusual opportunity to hear the words in a different accent, the actors wearing beautiful loose fitting robes, the rust colored set standing in very convincingly for the hot desert. Clarence Smith as King Antiochus of Antioch has some of the best-looking moments in the transposed setting. In gold rimmed aviator style glasses and loose black button-up shirt, he is the very picture of a despot: a modern-day smiling damned villain, so confidant that his secrets will never be discovered that he crafts a riddle around them, with the prize being his daughter’s hand in marriage. Pericles, of course, cracks the riddle and discovers the secret, at which point Antiochus retreats to his hot, bare office to assign one of his men the task of assassinating Pericles, thus setting the play in motion.

Adding subtly to the complexities is the fact that Antiochus and Pericles are standing on almost exactly the same spots as Leontes and Hermione the night before in the trial scene, as one stood in judgment of the other. I don’t know if that was intentional or not, but it was a nice touch regardless.

Once the action moves to the kingdom of Pentapolis, where Pericles is washed up after a storm and rescued by fisherman, things start to turn. Pericles enters a tournament with five other youths, all competing for the hand of the princess Thaisa. The actors themselves worked out reality TV style competitions whereby each athletic event resulted in one competitor being booted, until only one emerged victorious. The events and the competing knights were exciting and funny, and it was clear that the actors were enjoying themselves (partly because they had such ownership of the sequence), as were we in the audience. But the best moments came after Pericles emerged the victor, when King Simonides (the superb Richard Moore, again) toyed with Pericles as to whether or not he was pleased with the man who was destined to marry his daughter. His asides and winks to the audience kept us one step ahead of poor Pericles, and by the time he and Thaisa were hitched and the wedding feast began, we were all having a rollicking good time.

And here Gower, the chorus (Joseph Mydell) performs his most magical feat, conjuring up another storm, from the tables now filled with sleeping forms. And instead of some giant, expensive transition to another shipwreck, Gower simply planted his long staff and began to sway from side to side as he described the scene, Soon the sleepers joined the pattern, until it became more violent, and started to rock and upended the very tables. The running back and forth effect was actually very early Star Trek, but it was not comical at all; it was a simple, effective, and even scary storm.

Other scenes that worked especially nicely were the birth of Pericles’ daughter Marina in the belly of the ship (behind a sheet strung up in the elevated box, which now also sported port holes and a ladder leading to the upper deck), and the scene where the fourteen year old Marina maintains her virginity despite being sold into prostitution. Her handlers, played by the very fun team of Richard Moore, Linda Basset, and Richard Katz, were recognizable English bawds, who were funny but sinister, buffoons with a deadly serious side. Marina, played with an actually emboldening naiveté by Ony Uhiara, is able to fend off not only the advances of Katz’s servant Boult, but also those of the lecherous Governor, Lysimachus (Nigel Cooke, who also presented a very fine Polixenes in Winter’s Tale). Both men not only leave her untouched, but seem to have gained sudden insight into their own wicked ways. Lysimachus in particular takes a great interest in Marina’s virtue and well-being, and as a result is able to usher in the possibility of a happy ending.

The RSC rehearsed The Winters' Tale and Pericles in rep for a total of 12 weeks before opening in Stratford, running a short while, and then moving to Davidson for an additional two weeks of performance. Economic considerations are forcing a end to the tour after this brief stop, partly because it is more expensive to book a theatre willing and able to accommodate the promenade style of the productions. This is a real shame, because the shows are refreshing and exciting at every level, and it is clear that a lot of thought and effort went in to each aspect of production. The director, Dominic Cooke has done a brilliant job at connecting every element of the production to the text and working with the designers and actors to make that text come alive in a very palpable way for the audience. I think the RSC has something really special on its hands, and I get the feeling that the cast is somewhat sorry to see it go. I don’t blame them. It is not every day that we get to see Shakespeare –or anyone—performed with such clarity, passion, and joy.

--Willie Repoley

01 February 2007

ACT's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

I been thinking of something like this for a long time. I feel if we want to grow as artists within our community we must hear some (hopefully) constructive criticism. I even posted about it in my last MySpace journal. I'm glad you've made it happen. I just hope we can use it to grow and not bicker about one another. Hopefully I'll have a lot to say. With that said here is my journal I wrote about Cat On A Hot Tin Roof:

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof
Asheville Community Theatre
Jan. 17 2006

Let me preface this by saying that I saw this show on "Friends and Family" night, which basically translates to the second dress rehearsal, so I must say that what I saw wasn't a finalized production, which might account for the fact that what I did see was rather underwhelming.
The first act, which was probably at least 30 min shorter than the second, really dragged. It didn't help that the two people onstage the whole time seemed to be in different plays. Maggie (The Cat) played by Melissa Menard seemed to be stuck in some neo-Victorian melodrama, where her character felt compelled to direct her monstrous monologues not towards her unsympathetic husband Brick, but towards the larger, more uncaring audience. Brick on the other hand, played by Dan Clancy, seemed stuck in some early Pinter Absurdist play where the character only speaks in mumbled grunts, and short sentences embellished with some kind of hybrid Deep South meets Brooklyn accent.(Something most of the cast seemed to struggle with) These are both fine actors whom I've see put on notable performances in other shows, but here I felt they just never connected on any level. They never engaged one another. I never saw any clear intentions. If Maggie wanted to get Brick in bed, or make him jealous I never saw her follow through with those motivations. Similarly if Brick wanted Maggie to leave, I never saw anything that would provoke her to do so. I would have liked to have seen more danger from both actors. Maggie needed to be more seductive, and I think Brick needed to be more volatile. The blocking never really helped much either. How many times in real life do people just stand in the middle of their rooms and soliloquize. The shame is that there was so much beautiful furniture in the room, and it seemed like the actors weren’t allowed to sit on it, like it was in some museum or something.
The only actor that really seemed to take a chance was Charles Bell who played Big Daddy. He brought an energy to the stage that no other actor could match or even seem to keep up with. This was the only character living on the edge, the only one who you weren't sure what he was going to do next, and honestly the only interesting one in this whole production. His characterization never faltered, his mannerisms were suited to the character, and he was the only character that made me feel something. At one moment I wanted to pat him on the back the next I wanted to punch him in the gut. The others I never really cared about. Most of them were regulated to set decoration and furthering plot points. Gregory Dickens who played Gooper did manage to come alive a little when he was giving his betrayed speech to Big Mama, but most of the time he just seemed to blend into the background. Cary Nichols, who has a commanding stage presence, never seemed to be able to embody Big Mama with any bigger emotion than a nasally whine. I would have liked to have seen something from her other than a subjugated matriarch.
Lysa Kennedy did an adequate job as Mae mother to five chronically upstaging children, but many of her big moments seemed to have an overly presentational quality about them. Many never seemed to come from a real emotional place or stem from real intentions, they just came out because they had to. I felt as if she was a bit too confined in her character. I felt she wanted to break loose but wasn't allowed to. Although I must say after Charles Bell, she was the only actor that seemed to inhabit the world of the play when not delivering lines, often finding good natural buisness.
Kent Smith did a fine job as Reverend Tooker and probably got the biggest laugh of the night for his hastily exit, but I do wish I'd see more vocal range from him. He tends to often get stuck in the same delivery.
Bob Baldridge also did a fine job with Dr. Braugh, but his onstage time was limited, and other times he was kind of regulated to the outskirts.
Aside from the great language, probably some of the best since Shakespeare, and the wonderful performance by Charles Bell, the only other redeeming thing about this play was the amazing set design by Jack Lindsay and always remarkable technical direction by Adam Cohen. It was a really wonderful set, and the false proscenium really added a lot to the over all stage picture. Unfortunately the lighting, while appropriately warm and moody, was a bit spotty in places, but knowing the limitations of ACT I can look past this deficiency in the production.
Unless this production gets significantly better over the course of its run, I really couldn't say it’s the best thing I’ve seen at ACT. Go see this play to hear Williams's beautiful wordplay, watch Mr. Bell's grand performance, or see a truly beautiful set, but I wouldn't expect anything to be much more striking than those.

~Jason Williams