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26 April 2009


Maybe the MX is going to keep these reviews coming, Let's hope so.

Urinetown the Musical at Theatre UNCA
By John Crutchfield on 04/24/2009

I once cautioned a friend of mine who was coming to see me perform in a production of Twelfth Night some years ago at Appalachian State University, to keep in mind that for college theatre productions, the show’s educational value was at least as important as its aesthetic — and certainly its commercial — value. The main purpose of such productions is to provide an educational experience (however defined) for the students; and depending on the program, this is not necessarily the same thing as putting on the strongest show possible in artistic terms.

I assume this is one reason why high school and college theatre departments so often do Broadway musicals. Apart from the variety of specific skills required of the performers, such productions demand a massive coordinated effort among actors, musicians, dancers, set and costume designers, lighting and sound designers, stage hands, etc., to say nothing of the staff of directors. The musical, one might say, is another great symbol of American Democracy. But on second thought, so is The Pequod.

In any event, I have little doubt that the students involved in the current production at UNCA (and there are lots of them), are learning a tremendous amount from this experience. They obviously love doing the show, and through much of it, their enthusiasm is enough to carry the audience along.

The play, Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’s scrappy hit, Urinetown, arose from the pungent July heat of the New York Fringe Festival in 1999 to become one of the most celebrated new musicals on Broadway in 2001. It ran continuously at the Henry Miller Theatre until June of 2004. Above all, critics praised it for its meta-theatrical wit (c.f. Officer Lockstock: “You’re too young to understand it right now, Little Sally, but nothing can kill a show like too much exposition”), and was seen to present a rather acerbic satire of American capitalism, populism, government bureaucracy and corporate greed.

It’s the satiric element, manifested in the play as irony, that is most interesting, since in its structure (the so-called “non-happy-ending” notwithstanding) the play is entirely conventional. Performing it thus presents certain challenges that go beyond those usually associated with musicals. The performers must not only sing, dance and (yes) act; they must also — and this is absolutely essential — refrain from playing the irony. Unfortunately, self-restraint is not something one expects many college actors (or actors at all, for that matter) to be good at without strong directing. The director has to help the actors see that the plot and dialogue are already doing the work of the satire. Their job, as performers, is to commit to their characters’ intentions in the scene, and play it straight.

This sounds simple enough in theory, but in practice is incredibly difficult — especially in an age (and age-group) where irony is, as it were, the default setting. Director Rob Bowen and his colleagues deserve praise for challenging their students to meet the demands of such a sophisticated play. And the result is, perhaps not surprisingly, mixed.

The play is set in a dystopian world where, in an effort to conserve water, private toilets have been banned, along with public urination, while a single mega-corporation (“Urine Good Company”) owns all public bathrooms—for the use of which a fee is charged. (According to legend, the conceit has its origins in writer Kotis’ experience traveling “on a budget” in France.) As a dramatic premise, this sounds serviceable enough. But Urinetown, despite its title, is in fact a rather antiseptic play. Its self-conscious meta-theatricality is turned up so high that all authentic emotion boils away in an instant. Hence the question of the relative “happiness” of the ending never really arises — or rather, it arises only because one of the characters raises it. Moreover, very little of the actual plot is not directly or indirectly derived (and always with a wink and a nudge) from other well-known musicals: West Side Story comes to mind, as do Les Miserables and several of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s better-known works. Even Brecht’s Threepenny Opera contributes a character or two, and Kurt Weill’s score is audible, if somewhat garbled, in Hollmann’s. One has the impression that the play consists almost entirely of quotations from other musicals; and indeed, the show’s creators make little effort to conceal these larcenies. On the contrary, they assume we recognize them, and this is what gives the play that postmodern je ne sais quoi.

In other words, the play seeks to create — and appeal to (or, to put it bluntly, exploit) — a kind of “insider”-community consciousness among people who know and love the Broadway Musical, with all its conventions, its hackneyed melodrama and endlessly re-animated tropes. Without this meta-theatrical consciousness, the play is as devoid of charm as it is of content. It’s just not that interesting to watch people pretending to have to pee really badly.

Luckily, most of the audience at UNCA’s Belk Theatre seemed to “get” it, and in fact, the night I saw the show, they forgave the under-rehearsed dance numbers, the capricious lighting and the mishandled entrances and exits, and gave the cast a standing ovation. Nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the impression that some of the actors were scarcely aware that they were performing in front of an audience at all. (I noticed several of them slouching in their tableaux, literally resting on their haunches, and one or two even mouthing speeches or songs that belonged to someone else.) For some others, their awareness of the audience seemed so palpable, and the desire to please so desperate, that they were hard to watch.

But then there is Cody Magouirk. A senior theatre major who appeared memorably as “Caliban” in last year’s The Tempest Project, this young man almost succeeds in making it all okay. It would be easy to enumerate his many strengths as a performer — his physical precision and expressiveness would certainly be at the top of such a list –– but I’d like to focus on one quality I find rare indeed in young actors: the guy knows how to stay in the scene. In this, he is not alone in the cast, but he’s by far the most consistent. When Magouirk is on stage, though his performance as “Bobby Strong” (the romantic lead) is far from flawless, we know we’re in good hands: the energy picks up, the scene starts to move, the other actors come alive, things happen, we can hear what’s being said and sung. By the same token, no sooner has he made his exit than the tension starts to sag again. The latter half of Act II suffers in this respect, and it passes that suffering on.

Magouirk’s performance is funny, too, precisely because he refrains from the mugging that wreaks havoc on most of the other performances. He knows, perhaps intuitively, what most of the other performers apparently do not: that even in the hyper-stylized and artificial world of the Broadway Musical, someone trying to be funny is less amusing than someone trying to be serious and failing. Magouirk embodies his absurd, one-dimensional character with complete conviction. He plays it straight, as the play requires, and he responds with a lively spontaneity to what the other actors give him. I also liked Carly Crawford as “Little Sally” (How does such a loud voice come from such a small person?), and Skyler Goff as “Caldwell B. Cladwell” and Bridget Paterson as “Hope Cladwell” both have strong scenes. No one is seriously miscast. The costumes are well-conceived and executed, and on the whole, the singing in the show is quite impressive. The band (under Musical Director Ruth Seiber Johnson), manages admirably, despite the predictable and cliché-riddled score. I found at least something to admire in almost every scene.

I realize of course that I’m holding these students — and their teachers — to what is really a rather high professional standard. Perhaps that’s unfair. After all, a standing ovation has got to mean something, a testimony to the audience having been entertained. Shouldn’t that be enough? Besides, who’s the outsider here? I have no detailed knowledge of the specific training these students are getting, and hence can only speculate as to the pedagogical intentions behind this production. But I do know that this program has been an important part of the theatre community here in Asheville for many years now, as well as the incubator of many of our currently active theatre artists — professional and amateur alike. I would like to imagine that, were I an ambitious theatre student there, the perspective of someone outside my immediate school environment would be salutary, if for no other reason than this: after graduation, there’ll be nothing more between me and the audience but my hard-won skills and self-discipline, my intelligence and the depth of my commitment to the art of theatre. If I haven’t built up the courage necessary to stay in the scene with friends, how will I find it with people I don’t know, and in front of strangers?

Urinetown, The Musical, playing at UNCA’s Belk Theatre, through Sunday, April 26, evenings at 8 p.m., matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets: $10/$12/$15. Music: Mark Hollmann. Lyrics: Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis. Book: Greg Kotis. Director: Rob Bowen. Musical Director: Ruth Seiber Johnson. Choreography: Cherie Holmes.


A review from blueridgenow.com, http://www.blueridgenow.com/article/20090423/NEWS/904239958/1151?Title=-Art-is-a-play-you-ll-ponder-on-the-way-home

'Art' is a play you'll ponder on the way home
By Bill Moss
Times-News Staff Writer

A fun exercise among old friends, having seen Art, the new play at Flat Rock Playhouse, would be to uncork a favorite bottle of wine and ask:

1. Who was right? Was Serge right to follow his heart and spontaneously shell out for a painting the amount most people would spend on a house? Was best friend Marc right to be upset about this? How could Yvan, the natural diplomat who has no opinions of his own, have moderated the war better?

2. Who do you know that’s like Yvan? How about Serge? How about Marc? (Marc, definitely.)

3. Is Art more suitable for 20-somethings, 30-somethings, 40-somethings or beyond?

In other words, Art is the sort of play that we think about on the way home, and the next day.

An internationally acclaimed comedy originally in French, Art is tightly crafted and expertly acted by three Playhouse veterans — Scott Treadway (Serge), Bill Munoz (Marc) and Damian Duke Domingue (Yvan).

Longtime friends in real life, the three portray friends whose relationship is capsized by Serge’s purchase of a modern painting, the value of which only he can see.

The casting is perfect.

Serge, a dermatologist and art aficionado, starts the ruckus by buying the white-on-white painting, with faintly discernible lines signifying ... well, something, at least to him. Treadway is Treadway, rock-solid and reliably comic, marvelously quizzical in his reaction to both of his friends. As always, he is as good reacting to what’s around him as speaking.

Munoz turns in a strong performance of quiet rage, then not so quiet rage at the disintegration of the underpinning of his relationship with Serge, at least in his way of thinking.

As Yvan, Domingue delivers a hilarious story of the most mixed-up pre-wedding crisis you’ve ever heard, made even funnier by the thunderstruck reaction of his two friends.

The conflict starts at the very top, with Serge’s art purchase and Marc’s visceral negative reaction to it. The disagreement unearths an underlying hostility between the two, like pollution bubbling up from leaky barrels.

Marc cannot understand how his friend could “lose every ounce of discernment, for sheer snobbery.” Serge can’t stand Marc’s aggressive refusal to be “modern,” to “live in his time.”

Yvan finds himself in the middle, hapless and helpless. He’s got problems enough dealing with his fiancee, stepmother, mother and other wedding landmines, yet is pulled violently to and fro by Serge and Marc. It’s not enough that they’ve turned on each other; they turn on him, too.

He’s an ineffective umpire, stampeded and obliterated by a bench-clearing brawl of two. Serge and Marc in turn are catty, bull-headed and snarling as they intensify the battle.

There’s either a lot going on here, or not much, depending on your perspective. It’s "Seinfeld" if George, Kramer and Jerry had more money and better educations. And like a Seinfeld episode, it’s hard to see how the conflict can resolve at all, much less amicably.
* * *

This is all funnier than it sounds. It’s often hilarious. These three actors would excel at most anything the Playhouse could stage; the booster rocket of Art is the script, with its fast-paced repartee and truly funny lines. They don’t have to rescue weak material, as with a Norm Foster “comedy.”

Marc has become so unraveled over the art purchase that he takes to swallowing tranquilizers.

“What are you eating?” Serge asks.

“Ignatia,” Marc says.

“You believe in homeopathy now?”

“I don’t believe in anything.”

It’s a funny line but filled with meaning, too. Marc does believe strongly in friendship, and he feels that has been undercut. Eventually, we learn why he thinks Serge’s decision to spend $200,000 on a white-on-white canvas is such an affront.

Dennis Maulden’s set is spare; a script this strong does not require embellishment. Michael Mauren’s lighting is just right, not overbearing.
* * *

Art has gotten publicity for its use of the F word. Those loaded for a big scandal I think will be disappointed.

For the historical record, the word was uttered on the Flat Rock Playhouse stage for the first time at 8:49 p.m. Wednesday, April 22, 2009 AD.

“Yvan manages to be late for everything,” Serge says. “Where in the f--- is he?”

It’s uttered several more times, including a machine-gun repetition among all three characters arguing over who “f---ed up” the evening.

If you don’t want to hear the word, don’t go. It’s not hidden.

But it’s not a major star of the script by any means. Instead of an F-bomb, it’s a series of F-spitballs. It will be jarring to delicate ears, uttered from this well-loved stage, but hardly more offensive than the sex-saturated cheating housewife dramas and double entendre-laced sitcoms that ooze through our TV sets.

Art is much more entertaining than the small-screen stuff, and less offensive than a lot of movies on the big screen.

Volumes have been devoted to the meaning of art and the meaning of friendship. Art, the play, combines that exploration in a most enjoyable and provocative way.


A rare review from the MX

Eve-olution at Asheville Commmunity Theatre
By Jamie Shell on 04/16/2009

Look beyond the abominable title. ACT’s 35Below is currently presenting the North Carolina premiere of Hilary Illick and Jennifer Krier’s Eve-Olution. But the writing is better than one might think.

Eve-olution is the story of two working mothers, Alison (Susan Stanley) and Liza (Wendi Loomis). The women tell their stories of balancing career, relationship, and child-rearing via alternating monologues on separate halves of the stage, centered around their respective beds. A lot of the action happens to take place in the bedroom (not like that – okay, sometimes like that). The minimal set (designed by Jillian Summers) works well to facilitate both a basic visual for the backdrop of their vignettes, and a hiding place for the various props that enhance their speaking.

The script is, perhaps, a little chick flick-y, but I appreciated its candor, humor and vulnerability. The writing touches the difficulties of career women starting families, within the frame of Alison’s and Liza’s perceptions of their own mothers, and the influences of their mothers on their own child-rearing. (This latter point resonated with me, despite my lack of children ... well, other than the 75 teenagers whose minds I attempt to mold during the week.)

The arc of the play takes a little while to firmly differentiate between the struggles of the two characters. At first they are both just noticing that their careers and relationships are suffering—it felt a little niche and a little unnecessary to have two separate characters with the same problem. The characters do develop more distinctly, as Alison copes with the idea of abandoning her job altogether, and with the envy of her model-parent-type friends. Liza learns to juggle four small children and a laptop. Liza, with one notable exception, tends to have more cute and funny problems, while Alison’s obstacles move a bit more towards pathos, though in a real rather than melodramatic way.

Both actors deliver strong, convincing performances. Loomis lends the appropriate comic, exuberant, and, at times harried air to make Liza a very likeable though flawed persona. Stanley is exceptional, particularly in bringing out the deep insecurity and sensuality of her character. Direction by Anne Slatton is virtually invisible, in the way good direction should be. The one questionable choice—which may have been scriptural in nature—was bringing the two women together at center stage at the beginning and end of the play. Their characters aren’t written to be friends, and the lines in these scenes are still, essentially, monologues, yet they interact with each other as though they are acquainted. The effect is rather stilted and odd.

Eve-olution is a by turns honest, painful, charming and humorous take on modern motherhood. I expect mothers will particularly relate and enjoy, but offspring are not a prerequisite to being entertained by this play.

21 April 2009

A Number

From the C-T

Review: “A Number” is dynamite drama

The small, downtown North Carolina Stage Company's house is usually configured as a thrust stage, with audience on three sides. When deciding to do Caryl Churchill's quite unusual and riveting script “A Number,” director Ron Bashford chose to reconfigure the conventional stage into theater-in-the-round by adding a row of seats at the back of the customary 'stage.'

This logistical discussion is a conscious and blatant ploy to avoid any revelation of the astonishing plot. It's all about the emergence of a longheld family secret involving a single-parent father and three - or more - sons. And, therein is the secret. Out of consideration for future audiences, we'll avoid a discussion of the startling script, thus revealing the big surprises in store for those who get to see this intriguing show.

The power of this plot is strong enough to rely on fine acting, alone. The set is simply an oval, tiled floor. No backdrop nor decoration. The scenery, as created by Don Baker, is only two stylized chairs and a patio chair-side table. No props needed. Clothing, not costumes, conceived by Deborah Austin, appears so comfortable and unconscious that it could it could be from each actors own closet, although most is not.

Even the lighting by Sarah Elliott is monochromatically off-white, and the sound design by Hans Meyer is tuneless and without melody, but effectively creates or sustains a feeling, a mood and an aural context. It's all very simple, basic, essential to the complexity of this challenging story-line.

Okay, it's the writing and the acting that carry the show – and carry it a long distance, indeed. It's performed all within an intense, condensed, concentrated and distilled hour and ten minutes, without intermission. And the acting is done by two awesome actors. Graham Smith, a mainstay of the Charlotte area stage, portrays Salter, a single father, and NCSC co-founder Charles McIver creates his several sons. The sons are identified in the program by names and ages. But that only complicates the story. Go figure.

British-Canadian playwright Churchill's “A Number” is a dynamite drama. It's not light entertainment, but solid and significant stuff that will send you away thinking about science and identity, ethics and moral inquiry. And thinking far into the night, for sure.

Jim Cavener reviews theater for take5.

20 April 2009

Weldon Rising

Another C-T review.

Billing a tense and graphic theater experience about a gay-bashing hate crime as a comedy has inherent risks.

Scapegoat Theatre Collective's fine “Weldon Rising” is a case in point. The script does call for comedic devices, and there is ample opportunity gales of laughter.

But in the current production at downtown Asheville's BeBe Theatre, the audience is torn between responding to horror before its very eyes and enjoying the stereotypical drag queen who always refers to herself in the third person.

Directed by Taryn Strauss and written by Phyllis Nagy, “Weldon Rising” is theater that makes you work for your reward.

It's not likely many viewers will say they enjoyed the show. But sensitive and aware audience members can easily acknowledge their appreciation of the work and its execution.

Among the surrealistic elements in the show: a heat wave ravishing New York's Central Park that might suggest hell; a central character shredding paper and cloth as he falls to pieces; and a stigmata right out of pre-Enlightenment superstition.

It's set in New York City's Greenwich Village in the 1980s.

A biracial lesbian couple live across from a gay male duo, at least one of whom shares living accommodations with a tortured drag queen, Marcel, who always refers to herself in the third-person.

Stephanie Hickling and Brooke Whitcomb are the lesbian couple duo; Peter Brezny and Scott Fisher are convincing as the young, ill-fated gay males.

Marcel becomes a mantra as the towering diva expresses her displeasure by using her stage name, as in “Marcel does not approve of that.”

Actor Scott Thompson could milk the comedic moments even more, but — given the heavy-duty tragedy played out on stage — finding this balance is a tough challenge.

Jason Williams plays the only sexually undefined role, and his Boy is effective, equal to the fine acting of the others.

“Weldon Rising” asks us to consider our response to the issue of hate, still all too common, around us.

Jim Cavener writes on theater for take5