Farinelli and the King @ The Station Theatre
Review of Farinelli and the King - a play by Claire van Kampen, directed by Tania Arazi Coambs
There is a throwaway line somewhere amidst the magnificence of Farinelli where the two primary characters indicate their intention to do some "SINGING and KINGING". When you get right down to it, that is pretty much what the 2018 Tony nominated play currently playing at the Station Theatre is all about.
Claire van Kampen took her fascination with the true story of the Italian castrato, Farinelli, and his relationship with the King of Spain, and turned it into a spectacular "fairy tale for adults". Amazingly, this nearly 400 year old story - told as a straight up period piece - feels contemporary as the timelessness of celebrity and public v. private insecurity/anxiety play out.
Both Aaron Miller's King and James Hevel's Farinelli are suffering. Neither set out to become what they are - coronated into royalty and castrated into operatic majesty, respectively. The play is about the changes and awakenings the two men go through when they find one another. And Miller and Hevel manage the feat of transformation and introspection with incredible nuance, sensibility and artistry.
Until Farinelli is brought to the King by his suffering yet loving Queen Isabella (a brilliant and passionate turn by Cara Maurizi), he is dazed, lethargic and on the verge of losing his throne. He doesn't know who he is, and feels like a fraud, neither capable of looking or acting the part of a king. Miller's evokes this confusion, evolution, and regression so perfectly. It is complicated to have such drastic character changes without over or underplaying, but from the moment Farinelli's first Aria is sung, he slowly rises and becomes something new. Himself. Miller expertly discovering boyish exuberance, a zest for life, and punctuates various highs and lows with perfectly timed f-bombs. It took me awhile to figure out who he reminded me of in his more charismatic moments - I couldn't believe it when I figured it out - Bill Nighy as Billy Mack from Love Actually. In physicality, face, tone and in a quest to reconcile real self versus ones label - it is an unlikely but very cool similarity.
Simultaneously, Farinelli is searching as well. His duality is more subtly presented by Coambs' (versus the 2017 Broadway version) decision to not cast the role with two actors - the singer and the man. So the weight falls on Havel - a singer with limited acting experience - to both impress us as the magnificent vocalist, but also to let us see the man who almost resents his talented persona. Havel rants - "I'm not famous, Farinelli is famous" and "Those notes don't belong to me - they belong to him". And we see in him in those moments feeling what must be the same trappings that celebrities suffer in our social media 24/7 world - who is the human being in there? Havel's voice, btw, is something literally from the heavens. I have no exposure to male sopranos, and because opera (especially sopranos) is not something that pleases my ear, it took some time, but by the second act, I was up in my seat every time the incredible pianist Chia-ying Chan took position at the "baby grand". Please James - explore Hadestown - because Isabella was right - you would make a great Orpheus!
There is a large and capable supporting cast - all beautifully costumed by Brianna Rose Malotke. Rodney Woodworth has the biggest role as the villainous Don Sebastian, determined to find the King unfit to serve (of course, in present day he would be the hero leading the impeachment proceedings!). Woodworth is period perfect and commands full attention in each scene. David Heckman is Farinelli's manager John Rich, and doesn't get enough stage time as I was intrigued by the character that Heckman created - almost worthy of a spin-off story, I think.
See this show while you can. It is unique and so well done. It is long, but I found that being prepared for a long haul, the 2:45 (including intermission) really flew. And the 6-7 mini Handel arias serve as little transitions and make it feel more like chapters that turn fairly rapidly. It is shocking to me that there has been any negative press surrounding this show or the performances. See the show and trust C-U at the Show.
Special thanks to Station hero (and show Producer) Linda Evans (and her ever-present theatre loving sidekick Josie) for all of your work on this show, for coordinating and supporting our interview with the cast, and for being a big part of making the Station Theatre the special place that it is. And thanks Latrelle Bright for joining me after for an impromptu turn as my show co-host. It was amazing to see you there on an off night from the other worldly Elephant Graveyard at Parkland (back up tomorrow night) - and the cross show support of Kimmy Schofield and Krystal Moya was awesome to see and one of the great things about C-U theatre!
Elephant Graveyard @ Parkland College Theatre
Axiom of profanity - use it sparingly to maximize the impact.
After previewing Elephant Graveyard last night, I found myself wishing that I had more sparingly praised previous C-U theatre performances - - because then my effusive raving over this masterpiece would have the impact this powerful, imaginative and emotional show warrants. But, alas, I have loved too much, too often.....
Still, I have to try to impress upon my readers and listeners that this one-act, 70 minute tragedy is a MUST SEE.
Bright has put together a legitimate all-star team of local talent, and creatively/surprisingly put them in roles that uniquely shape their characters and the narrative as a whole. The Second Stage (in the round) at Parkland is a perfect setting for the circus to come to town, and for the audience to literally be the audience. And to also have to bear witness.
Six entry/exit points allow the circus performers and townspeople to make rapid entrances and exits while also establishing an intimacy with the crowd. They mingle at the outset and then introduce themselves and a bit of their story. We meet the worlds saddest and most comically stunted clown (Zoe Dunn, always a brilliant dancer, now getting to show off her personality and character strength). The Ballet Girl (Melissa Goldman) who knows nothing of ballet, but like all of the performers knows and accepts her role as the sex attraction. And the Strongman (Juan Andrés Suárez), who like the other performers has a mix of love, awe and jealousy for the real star of the show - Mary, the beloved Elephant.
The Tour Manager (Lincoln Machula) and Ringmaster (Parker Evans) have invested a lot in Mary - - - $8,000 in 1916 money, and it is clear that they are bottom-line profit-centric exploiters of their "talent", people and animal. Parker has been waiting for a role like this - and he absolutely shines. Although he needs to pace his lines a little better at the outset, he embodies everything that one expects (likes and dislikes) in the Showman of the Ring - bombastic, slick and smarmy. And if those lambchop sideburns are legit, he deserves some major follicle kudos! Lincoln's voice - we all know that voice - is magnificent in this space and I felt like he had captured Jim Broadbent's Zidler from Moulin Rouge perfectly (my highest praise!).
Although we never see Mary (or the unfortunate Red-Haired man), both have a presence due to the brilliant use of shadows, silhouettes and puppetry behind the massive curtains covering the exits. It is experientially enhancing and aids the story, but it is also a brilliant nod to the technique used so frequently in circuses and other performances back 100 years ago. The cast also in various forms portrayed Mary and the other elephants in tremendously effective simple ways - showing their simple elegance and power through steps and breath.
There is singing. There is stomping. There is mourning. There is an allegory. What we see happening to Mary at the hands of an angry white mob is all too similar to what happened to others in the early 20th century south. This point isn't overplayed, but we see and feel the ugliness that can arise in people when they want to exert superiority over others - something 2016 made just as clear as 1916 did.
It wasn't surprising to learn that Schofield (the elephant trainer) is deeply and passionately involved with animals in her every day life. Although she is as talented an actor as I've seen in this area, the conviction and commitment she fiercely conveys towards her animals - and Mary in particular - is the heart (and heartbreak) of the show. Love and life are complicated - and her reluctant acceptance of the path required of her is so beautifully done I can barely type with the vision in my head.
On the flip side, is the cold-hearted Engineer (Aaron Clark, finally back on the stage!). Clark's engineer is so excited about the prospect of showing off his mastery of machines and machines master of man/animal that he becomes the embodiment of ugliness and inhumanity. There is a point where he furiously paces around the entire rest of the cast that is just so incredibly constructed and Clark's fixation is magnificently horrible.
Doug Malcolm is the Steam Shovel Operator, who didn't stand out to me through the first 65 minutes and then suddenly turned a 180 in a closing scene with Dunn's clown that was somehow both mesmerizing and tragically hopeful. Krystal Moya and J'Lyn Hope are townspeople that likely have many similarities in their day-to-day lives, but the events of this story bring out ugliness and empathy respectfully. Hope's theatre resume is mostly filled with musicals, but her dramatic turn here is spectacular and I hope she finds more roles that she can dig this deep with in the future.
Bright directed Men in Boats at the Station a year ago, and that was the first time I had seen Courtney Malcolm, and it was a standout performance. Malcolm is a smallish and young looking woman, who, in the role of town Marshall, was the club and gun toting tough guy. As the play developed, the casting made sense - this small delicate white person talking tough and trying to assert dominion over others. Perfect. Also standing out was Natalie Deptula, whose role turned out to be much bigger and more significant than "Young Townsperson" would lead one to believe. She has an energy and confidence, providing us an important perspective to the enthusiasm and horror that all of the highs and lows that this show has to offer.
I hear tonight is SOLD OUT - that is great and deserved. Nick Shaw has done a masterful job with lighting, and the sound cues (very complicated timing for several of them) are masterfully designed by Nick Harris. Costumes by Vivian Krishnan (clown and ballerina in particular) and the creative but simple set by Mike O'Brien all enhance what is just a magical theatrical performance. Definitely the best show to take place in the Second Stage - - - don't miss it!
Witness for the Prosecution @ The Monticello Theatre Association.
This is a long show — a slow-building thriller. So prepare yourself for train travel (fitting for Monticello), not a jet plane ride. The prolonged build-up is partially because the demographic of introductory story-building characters is all middle aged white guys in suits - there were actually too many to count. But in the early scenes (via the energetic and period perfect Michaela Kruse), and then throughout the 150 minute show, the passion, life and energy of the drama comes out through the brilliant performances by the women in the the cast.
Director Leonard Rumery costumes the women in stunning solid colors, nail polish and accessories. A lawyer himself, Rumery contrasts these women against droll, staid and boringly similarly dressed, similar looking men. Once Carrie Brocksmith enters (as Romaine - the "wife") with her perfect German accent and precise comedic timing, the play takes off - she had me off guard and laughingly confused throughout. Subsequent scenes from Amanda Orwick as the embittered housekeeper Janet and a late return to the stage by Kruse, add lightness and hilarity while keeping the plot twists churning.
But the standout in the performance was Kelly Barbour-Conerty as the prosecuting attorney Mrs. Meyers. Written for a male character, Rumery puts Barbour-Conerty all by herself at the prosecution table in a solid green dress, tightly pulled hair and severe makeup. She is ferocity, and is constantly on the attack - winning some, losing some, but never losing the audiences full attention. If someone ever writes the play "Fresh Squeezed OJ" about Marcia Clarke and her prosecution of Simpson, all Barbour-Conerty is going to need is a big frizzy perm and the part is hers.
As a lawyer with courtroom experience and training myself, I was watching the lawyers and judge carefully for minute errors and flaws. There were none. Tony Curtis (defense attorney Wilfred Roberts) is an actual attorney, but as I told him afterwards, I would have Roberts represent me any day. While the play might have been more energized if his Roberts would have played with more charisma, I prefer my counsel contemplative and thoughtful, and Curtis brought a realism to the role - taking his time and choosing intelligence over bombast. He was supported by John Howard as his sidekick John Mayhew. Aside from Howard's bizarre fumbling with his pipe, I was enthralled by the way that Howard handled his character when he was out of the interaction of the scene. He didn't overplay or lose himself. This is an actor who could get detective type roles in Hollywood - he has the look and the perfect nuanced touches.
The primary suspect in all of this is Leonard Vole, played by Craig Alexander. I was surprised to learn that he is relatively new to the stage considering the voluminous amount of lines and complex interaction that this role requires - and he seemed very experienced in those respects. However, I had a difficult time figuring out some of his acting choices and character development. Initially my thought was that this is what it would be like if George W Bush was back in his Yale cocaine-infused days and was asked to do an improv show about a kid wrongly accused of taking a cookie. We were told at the beginning of the show that the audience would be the jury for the courtroom scenes, but Alexander played to the audience even when it wasn't in court and that was inconsistent with the other characters he was interacting with. That said, many around me were very impressed by his performance, and the "can't be mentioned" twist at the end, serves to potentially explain a good bit of what I considered to be an over-the-top portrayal (no - he doesn't actually turn out to be Bush, although he would've been just about the right age in the mid-late 60's).
It's always great to see Diane Pritchard and John Tilford on stage, and I wanted more of them as their roles were quite small. David E Laker and Les Schulte both had important character work and were at ease and believable in their respective roles - especially Schulte as judge with his hilarious asides with various witnesses.
Overall - it was wonderful to be exposed to this theatre and space. I love the black room and the elevated stage. Rumery put together a unique and talented cast that took us on a great thriller/mystery ride. I see why so many C-U actors venture the 20 minutes down I-72 to be part of this scene - - I imagine that I will do so myself sometime soon!
No Exit @ Twin City Theatre Company
GO TO HELL!
Seriously, tomorrow night you should go to hell. It has been reimagined and reconstructed, and will be brought to (after)life tomorrow night when the curtain rises at SoDo Theatre for Twin City Theatre Company's No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre.
When the New Republic first reviewed this fast-paced one act play in 1946, their headline was "It should be seen whether you like it or not!" I agree, although I will confess that I will likely view you as having less depth, intellect, curiosity and reflection if you fall into the "not" category.
Aaron Polk has directed this micro-masterpiece, while also being forced into taking over the protagonist character of Cradeau, playing against Gabrielle Smith's enthralling Inez and Antonella Ortiz's desperate Estelle. Dylan Heck rounds out the cast as The Boy (better named in some versions as "The Valet"). Heck is only seen in the first fifteen minutes of the show - introducing us to the players and the place - but he leaves us wanting more. Both of him and about him. He has a confidence and stage instinct that makes me very eager to see what comes next for him in the local theatre scene.
In No Exit, Sartre has written a treatise on coexistence - something he described elsewhere as: "Other people are what alienates and locks us in to a particular kind of being, which in turn, deprives us of freedom." If you are familiar with the brilliant tv show The Good Place, you will quickly understand how the show's creator was inspired by No Exit. The notion that "other people are hell" seems simple enough, but there are so many layers to exploring that concept and the exploration is further enhanced by the meta nature of the characters trying to figure the whole thing out (likely part of the torture in itself). There are also elements of the Albert Brooks movie "Defending Your Life", and even the Modern Family episode where Phil and his kids wrongly believe they are trapped in a room constructed as a psychology experiment.
ASIDE: Hey Brainstorm Escapes and Champaign-Urbana Adventures in Time and Space - what do you think about a cross-promotional existential escape room where you just put three people who don't know one another in a room with NO EXIT?? I'd do it......Well, for an hour.
Back to the show and the cast.....
While Polk has (deservedly) gotten a great deal of praise and attention over the fact that he unexpectedly had to take over the role of Cradeau (original cast member Nico Perez-Jandrich pulled out just last week), the women are so strong and perfectly cast that much of Polk's incredible efforts are overshadowed. Smith, in particular, is a stalking, slinking seductress - her Inez is much less intimidated by the surroundings than the other two, and she absolutely owns the stage with physicality, expression and presence. I frequently thought of Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret in the Crown while watching her - because I couldn't stop watching her, even when the action was elsewhere. As for Estelle, you will not believe that this is Ortiz' first time on the stage. The bold casting move by Polk to give so much responsibility to a theatre rookie reaps huge dividends as Ortiz oscillates from composed to desperate seamlessly and is an ideal counter to Smith's Inez.
Polk would rather I left it at that - focusing on his cast. However, the passion, energy and effort that he has brought to this show - both as a director and actor - is something spectacular and perhaps at a level I haven't seen before in C-U. I'll encourage you just to listen to our show to better understand how much No Exit, and his cast means to him. What's perfect is not in getting every line right, but in embodying a role and getting your cast/team to follow your lead and enthusiasm to create something beyond the words on a page. There is a (Tom) Hanksian way about Polk in voice, cadence, and expression. It feels organic and natural - that Cradeau is really trying to find his footing in the present and the past to understand the future, and doing so in the eyes of those in the room.
There are no mirrors in Sartre's hell - though they are requested many times. You are naked that way. As Estelle says "How empty is a mirror when I can't see myself in it," and Inez "You've stolen my face because you've seen it and I can't see it anymore." No selfies in hell. We have always been told to fear judgment day - assuming there would be a supreme judge of some kind. But this hell is a buffet - a "cafeteria where the customers serve themselves" - and judgment comes from our peers. Hell indeed.
The Wizard of Oz @ Champaign Urbana Theatre Company (CUTC)
Director Jeff Dare promised us the straight movie version of the iconic show, and Champaign Urbana Theatre Company absolutely delivered. Spearheaded by the vocally unparalleled Colleen Bruton as Dorothy, the perfectly cast primary roles led the The Virginia Theatre audience on the very adventure we know so well.
Utilizing not just the top community talent, but also combining adult and child actors (ranging 7-70 I'd guess) - and not to mention a scene stealing Toto - we got the full experience of charm and humor mixed with high level theatrical performance. Whitney Havice has once again exhibited her immense skill as a choreographer as the dance sequences - especially in the second act - were executed beautifully by an unexpectedly large and talented group of featured dancers. Zoe Dunn, in particular, was stunning and seems to be perhaps the most underutilized talent in the area.
Dave Ivy and Cheryl Morganson were responsible for the orchestra and vocals respectively. It is mind-boggling how a one weekend community theatre production can have this quality of sound and musicality. And of course there was the great organ with Dave Schroeder creating the iconic Virginia vibe both before and at intermission, but also contributing in places during the show - that was very cool.
THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE
In a cast this big, I can't mention all of the outstanding performances. Three things really stood out to me:
1) Will Curtis as the Cowardly Lion. Will was the youngest of the primary players - still in high school and coming off a great turn as Gaston in the CUTC summer production of Beauty and the Beast. He was perfection, making the character his own, but still being faithful to some of the magic of the original movie version. The fear and anxiety could easily have been overplayed, but he found the balance and this performance is worth the admission all by itself.
2) Susan Curtis as the Wicked Witch of the West. I was so excited about this casting, because Susan's personality is so big and wonderful that I've been waiting to see her with the vehicle to reveal that onstage. Once she put her green on - it was game on. Like her son, Will, she made the witch her own with a bit more humor and less one-note wickedness than the classic movie version. Although I was disappointed in her melting scene (spoiler alert - she melts), every scene the witch was in was riveting.
3) Laura Vavrin's costuming. What a task this must have been to costume not just the main characters, but also the dancers in their multitude of scenes, and the farm characters and the monkeys, and the munchkins. Really an overwhelming task - and it ended up broadway quality. Note to the makeup artists as well. Scarecrow in particular.
Speaking of the Scarecrow, Nick Hittle was fantastic - literally channeling the original. His experience in ballet was utilized well in the unique movements (and falls) of this beloved character. Lincoln Machula IS THE WIZARD. This man has the most unique and compelling voice in theatre and was fantastic - especially when booming as the giant Wizard head on screen. Great uses were made of the screen throughout to compliment the set. Jacob Smith as Tinman was strong and managed the difficult task of creaky movement and frozenness with ease. Jim Dieker (in his THIRTY-EIGHTH show for CUTC!!) was the most natural Kansasian as Uncle Henry and also a very funny and capable Guard of the Wizard. Kari Croop was perfection as the Good Witch - - - I just wanted more scenes for her! I also wanted more munchkin action - especially from the mayor, Cecilia Morber, who had the biggest role of the youngsters in the show.
I'm sure I've left out a lot - - - but there are just two more chances to see this great show and I want to post this so people see it and go tonight and to tomorrow's matinee! Great job CUTC!
The Last Five Years @ The Station (August 2019)
AIDA is one of my favorite love story musicals of all time. It begins with the end - two lovers preserved for eternity in each others arms. The story then takes us on a journey of how they met, fell in love, and stayed together until the end.
The Last Five Years from The Celebration Company at The Station Theatresimilarly opens (at least for one character and thus for the audience) with the end. We immediately see the devastation of the end of a relationship - the inverse AIDA - instead of eternity, Jamie and Cathy get five years.
Chelsea Collier has directed a Station masterpiece - a tight 14 song, 90 minute, 4 musician, 2 actor, 1 act show that will move you, shatter you, and ultimately leave you with so much to consider about both Jamie and Cathy, but also about your own relationships and journey.
While Cathy's story is told backwards from the breakup, Jamie's is inverted such that he moves forwards from their meeting. So the relationship is evolving and devolving until they cross paths mid-show for about ten minutes (ironically with the beautiful wedding song - The Next Ten Minutes).
Collier gives the characters separate space, with Cathy audience-left and Jamie audience-right. I don't believe they ever cross. And the way in which the characters make efforts to connect with specific audience members when telling their story (pleading their case) almost makes it feel like you are at a wedding and should choose whether you are on the side of the groom or the bride.
Collier double cast the roles such that they perform alternating nights. And having seen each over the last two nights (open final dress Wednesday and then opening night Thursday), I can assure you that this exploration is so personal and intimate that they are VERY different cast/actor determinant shows. You can ask us or easily figure out which cast is which night, but because this is a long 14-show run I highly recommend simply seeing both. It will be worth it.
Opening nights pairing was David French and JennaMarie Kohn, with Bryan Goode and Mariana Seda having performed the final dress. This is French's Station debut - and not since Warren Garver burst on the C-U scene with Chess in 2013 have I been so blown away by and excited about a new male performer to the area. It is one of the strongest performances I've ever seen as he effortlessly handled the challenging vocals, while also exuding a comfortability in his role so that while we might not like him, we understand him. Kohn has a way of expressing herself facially and playing with her delivery of lyrics that immediately broke my heart, and her vulnerability and warmth creates the perfect contrast to French's coolness. Their final song and the staging of the last prolonged scene is an image as indelible and classic as AIDA's - and the tragedy of it just broke me.
Goode and Seda are a different couple and are both more brash and direct in their approaches. Seda's Cathy is not so much wounded as angry, and she uses that brilliantly in the second half climax of "See I'm Smiling". Her character also ages back subtly through expression and wardrobe such that when we see her 5 years earlier at the end, she seems unscarred and young and so open to the love she doesn't yet know is going to crush her. Goode's Jamie is more aggressive and manic, and it was easy for me to see why this was not going to be good for Cathy. His vocal range is impressive and his powerful voice certainly doesn't need to be mic'd in the small confines of the Station.
The four piece orchestra is visible but just offstage - and the power and quality of the sound cannot be overstated (and is probably the reason the singers need to be mic'd). The string work by Barbara Hedlund and Collin Jung is outstanding and their visibility to the audience is excellent because they are clearly enthusiastic about this music and both get a chance to really shine. A small show at a small venue is so fortunate to get this quality of accompaniment.
Just like with the masterful movie Memento, I'm left wondering what the show would be like with each character moving forward - so I play Cathy forwards in my head alongside Jamie to see their love evolve together. I also am so curious about what the show would be like flipping the casting to see Seda with French and Kohn with Goode. Maybe they'll do one bonus double feature for super fans like us!
See this show. I'll be seeing it again. Cause, you know, we humans just love having our hearts broken. Like Hermes says:
'Cause here’s the thing
To know how it ends
And still begin to sing it again
As if it might turn out this time
The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek @ The Station Theatre
The stark set of The Celebration Company at The Station Theatre's The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek is comprised of asymmetrically assembled structures strewn with shattered glass. And Naomi Wallace’s brilliant play transpires in an asymmetrically presented timeline strewn with shattered souls.
We are taught in school about the Great Depression as an era, and as an economic crisis. What I hadn’t fully conceptualized until tonight was the correlation between the Depression and depression. Life stripped down to an existence devoid of comfort and stability creates more than just a hunger for food, but a hunger to be heard, to be seen, to be touched.
This is heavy and complex material for any director to take on, but for Saskia Bakker to be making her community theatre directorial debut with this show was a bold choice by Rick Orr and the artistic team at the Station, and a massive challenge for Bakker. And she crushed it.
Assembling a mix of veteran local talent with young actors back from their theatrical education endeavors for the summer, Bakker cast the five roles perfectly. The primary story revolves around the teenage characters Pace (Kat Blakeslee) and Dalton (Gabe Halstead) Their scenes were electric. Pace is one of the most compelling characters I can remember, and the energy and intensity that Blakeslee brings to it is pure magic. The alley style set (audience on both sides) and the intimacy of The Station allow for the subtlety and nuance of her performance to be fully seen and appreciated. Similarly Halstead is tasked with situational and emotional variation from scene to scene without leaving the stage and somehow deftly transforms from naïve to passionate to broken with each dimming of the lights.
David Heckman’s anguish as Dalton’s father, Dray, is heartbreaking and left me with different verses of the Dixie Chicks’ “Top of the World” running through my head with each scene – “I come home in the evening…Sit in my chair…One night they called me for supper…But I never got up…I stayed right there…In my chair.” Kevin Paul Wickart's role as the jailer ramps up dramatically in the second act, and Wickert is perfect as someone torn between the weight of regret and the desire to seize the opportunity to change.
Christine Des Garennes makes a strong Station debut as Gin, Dalton’s mother – desperately trying to hold the broken men in her family together.
We all crave touch...We all want to be seen...We all need to be heard...We need witnesses and partners as we find and travel down our path...So - let's reach out.
I can’t say enough about this performance. Considering I had front row seats in the Tony award winning Hadestown in the same week I had front row seats to Trestle at the Station – and didn’t feel any letdown or drop-off is testimony enough that this is a beautiful tragedy performed by incredibly talented actors. We are so fortunate to have this sort of art in our community. Ten more chances to see this show - I'll be seeing this again. Bravo.
The Taming of the Shrew @ The Station (June 2019)
Last night I finally made it to the Station Theatre to check out Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew – directed by Laura Alcantara. Despite being on the Board at the Station, and having ultimate trust in Alcantara and her All-Star cast, I concede attending with a great deal of trepidation. Because – well – start with the title and go from there.
Two weeks ago on the show I interviewed Alcantara and Mindy Smith, the phenomenal and versatile actress playing Katarina/Katherine/Kate. They didn’t reveal much detail, but assured me that the cut of the script made it fun and tight while eliminating a good bit of problematic content, and that the production would “take what people expect and flip it upside down”.
As someone who has never done Shakespeare before (and frankly am more familiar with Bard parody than the great works themselves), the concept of cutting the script was new to me. As an actor I’m used to directors imploring – well, demanding – that the script be literally and precisely followed. After all, do I know better than the playwright? So – certainly wouldn’t that apply to the great one? Apparently not. And the task of this “cut” was given to Mathew Green, a prolific director and actor who is responsible for bringing great art to this community from on-stage and off virtually every season and cycle of shows. Green not only had the difficult task of shaping the show with the script, but also by finessing the role of Katarina’s antagonist – the gregariously arrogant Petruchio. Simply put, Green was exceptional and successful on both fronts and led this show into the surprising territory of not just being acceptably adapted, but hilarious and exhilarating.
Attending the show with an actual Shakespearean scholar to give extra validation and credibility to my novice perspective, I was treated to great insight about choices made and not made. Generally, this Professor Emeritus from the UIUC English Department was engaged and entertained throughout. I kept an eye on her and she was especially enamored with Green and Matt Hester’s outrageously costumed and portrayed Gremio. Ultimately, she was very positive about the show and especially the caliber of the talent and the production. Like the News-Gazette review by UIUC Theatre Professor Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, she was disappointed in some of the omissions of what Jenkins described as giving “short shrift to the complex journeys of the characters” by “eliminating text that does not get right to the intergender battles”. Well – if said eliminations mean cutting out the physical, mental and emotional abuse parts – then I’ll forego that complex and horrific journey any time. What they’ve done here is made this both accessible and acceptable – in a tight 1:45, including intermission – there is no lacking of furious wit and performance, while we are not subject to any of the “taming” sequences that would seem almost gratuitous to include. The audience responded heartily to the humor throughout – and it was a great house – especially for a third week Wednesday night being about 75% capacity. I watched a young girl with a teenage sister and her parents and the show appealed to all without anything that seemed to strike them (or me) as inappropriate content.
Much credit goes to visual and auditory choices that made for a rich sensory experience. The costumes by Susan Curtis were outstanding – leaving this in a period that could be 400 years ago or 400 years in the future. They were elegant, flamboyant and exotic – just like the musical inspiration of the show – Prince, whose purple rain flowed over the simple set and into several of the key wardrobe pieces. Jenkins was displeased with the “clashing design aesthetic” which didn’t create a place and time – but I found the “timelessness” of it to importantly elevate it from any particular period, and to eliminate any judgment we would have about the characters based on that era of politic or relationships.
Well – how did they do it? The script cutting, setting, and music certainly helped, but still – we literally have the words TAMING and SHREW in the title, right. The answer is in the sheer talent of the actors and the delivery and expression of words that careless handling of could still leave us with a misogynist, sexist mess. Somehow, what emerges from Petruchio and Katarina is a match. A match of untamedness, a match of desire, a match of wit, and a match of passion. Without a disparity of power between the two, and with lines delivered with winks, laughs, and other subtleties a believable love story emerges. If she has been tamed, then so has he, and both emerge as the two most present, alive and authentic of the 11 character cast.
It is unclear - even to the experts - what Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote this play. It’s hard for me to believe that – even in its worst form – it was actually a statement endorsing the abuse and violence associated with the “taming”. Even in that reading, this would seem to me to be a tragedy - - perhaps with a misogynistic climate and characters, but not necessarily message. The “taming” in that reading would be tantamount to the Stockholm Syndrome or the surgical wrath of Nurse Ratchet in One Flew over the Cookoo’s Nest.
Fortunately, the Station version avoids all of that. It is a chance to appreciate the wit and fun of Shakespeare delivered by an extraordinarily talented cast, taking controversial subject matter and brilliantly flipping the script and giving us an unlikely love story of two epic characters finding kindred spirits and living an untamed life together.
In addition to Green, Smith and Hester, there are other standouts amidst the cast. In particular, Jordan Needham shines yet again as Bianca, the presumptive more desirable sister between her and Katarina. Lincoln Machula is a Baptista right out of Central Casting, with a fatherly presence combined with expressions of anger and bemusement that only someone of his caliber can muster. I was also impressed with Parker Evans (Grumio), who was given enough of a chance in the first act to show that he is a hilarious character actor and someone worthy of larger parts in the future.
Congratulations to all involved with this undertaking. It must have been a hell of a lot of work, but you are certainly enjoying the fruits of it all!
On The exhale - Twin City Theatre Company
A WOMAN MEETS A GUN: “Entitlement mixes with adrenaline with fear with testosterone you smell the incendiary cocktail wafting off him while his leg twitches wildly...Until he lifts the edge of his shirt a simple, subtle gesture - graceful even - he flips up the bottom corner of his tasteful green button-down and there it is. Obediently waiting in its holster. Eyeing you with its obsidian stare.”
What Kimmy Schofield does in Twin City Theatre Company’s Production of On the Exhale is take the audience on a despair and tragedy filled journey to the brink of self- destruction. This one woman show, directed brilliantly by Dustin Yocum, is like a masterful Spoken Word treatise on the arc and effect of gun violence in America.
Pulling no punches against the male and politically driven forces behind the prevalence of American gun culture, Schofield naturally progresses through fear, grief, anger, numbness (pondering “is there virtue in radical detachment”?), hopelessness and a version of addiction that comes from power and powerlessness.
This was a perfect show for the sparse stage of the Sodu Theater, and Schofield’s movement, physicality and intonation are exactly what a one person show needs to resist tedium or stagnation.
Tune in to WEFT Community Radio 90.1 at 5:30 on Thursday when Schofield and Yocum will join me on air to discuss this great work and the three remaining chances you have to see it!
STUPID FUCKING BIRD @ The Station
THWARTED CATHARSIS (you'll understand after you see it)
It may be true what Mash (Hannah Yonan) sings early in SFB, that "You're born and then you live and then you die..." BUT she leaves out the fact that somewhere in the "live" part, you get to see some really fantastic theatre!
Let's get the title out of the way - it is weird to have a show that is awkward to say the name of in public - and that can't even be properly said on the radio. It's unfortunate, I think, to have an unfamiliar show with something potentially off-putting in the title. So - my job - OUR JOB - is to help this show overcome that liability and get people to the The Celebration Company at The Station Theatre to see this incredible play.
This is a reinvention of Checkov's "The Seagull" and viewers will benefit from some knowledge of that play. In my case, I watched the 2018 movie this week - a watchable, well-acted version which was not so well reviewed, but generally agreed to have been pretty faithful to the 1898 play. We have seven people connected by blood and circumstance and love, but none are paired with the one they desire, and none are fulfilled by the one they are paired with. Love is irresistible but impossible, and wondrous but unbearable - that we come to see.
What Kay Holley has done with this material is simply brilliant. This is complicated content delivered in unconventional ways, and that puts a huge burden on the Director from casting to blocking to timing and cohesion. There is plenty of humor and darkness in this story - sometimes dark humor and sometimes humorous darkness, and there really seems to be a difference between the two in SFB. The first act had more of the former and the next two more of the latter. I guess it's the difference between laughing out loud and smiling wistfully.
Hannah has such a great Zooey Deschanel style voice that is showcased with a ukulele at various times, and her brooding character is at such odds with the optimistic and bright Sophie she portrayed in Mamma Mia!. Music is smartly used throughout - with thematically on-point songs like "I can't make you love me if you don't" and "If you love someone, set them free" playing before the show and at intermission. There are also several musical interludes that move the plot along and give the characters a chance to emote wordlessly in developing their story lines. Some ambient beach sounds and a beautifully painted and structured set make the simple and small station stage transform into a broad field of play for this cast of seven.
Jake Fava is Con - and I suspect that he is actually the muse of playwright Aaron Posner. Con not just breaks the fourth wall early and often, but makes it clear that no such structure exists for SFB. I didn't see Jake in Memphis, but understand him to have crushed the vocals in that production - and here, he shows incredible range, nuance and emotion as an actor.
Make no mistake, Kay has assembled a #TheatreDreamTeam for this show - combining local legends, with experienced veterans with exciting young talent. But All-Star teams don't always produce winning results - and that is what makes this show so special - they do! Each character is so AT EASE with their roles. As a relatively inexperienced actor, I watch off-action more than the average viewer and everyone was immersed in the natural being of their character the entire time.
Most reviewers of The Seagull suggested that it was required viewing just to see Annette Benning as Emma - the mom of Con. I would say the exact same thing here about Joi Hoffsommer. Joi always brings an elegance and strength to her characters, but this one is so maternally destructive anybody with any Mommy issues will be scared and uncomfortable in every scene. She is paired with/against (sometimes literally "with/against") Gary Ambler as Trigorin. The movie Trigorin (Corey Stoll) is a younger version of the seductive writer, and that threw me off at first. But like every Ambler role, he is SO good and SO convincing that it was the Corey Stoll casting that in retrospect is less sensible. Ambler and Hoffsommer must have worked together previously in their voluminous stage resumes, but each scene they share is exciting and electric.
Lindsey Gates-Markel is Nina - the apex of the triangle with Con and Trigorin. Her scenes with the men are strong, but the most exciting scenes are her clashes with both Mash and Emma. Reserve gives way and each releases pent up anger with and against the other in ways that they don't seem to be able to show with their male counterparts. It is spectacular.
William L. Kephart and Eric Beckley round out the cast and are the two most grounded characters, and that gives them more freedom with their insights and humor to resonate with the audience, because we are less worried about the dark undertones to what they are going through. Both are given much more meat than their movie characters and we are lucky because of it.
Here. We. Are.
Did we get catharsis? Nope. We were thwarted.
But did we get a great show? We sure fucking did.