Kennedy & Campbell Theater
Barton College, Wilson NC
Through May 30
WILSON, NC—It’s clear: The decisions are the ones you’d probably make if you were producing a major regional theater festival here, in a part of North Carolina formerly most renowned for world-class barbecue and audacious outsider art. Mix classics with contemporary, comedy with drama, a large cast show with a smaller, more intimate work—and, if you’re compelled to gamble, known with unknown. Recruit the region’s professional talent for creative management and leading roles in one show. Then slate a change-up for the second—someone with good credentials from out of town, or out of state.
Stir, then serve in repertory: the larger show in a medium-sized, old-style (but only partially renovated) proscenium theater, a venerable venue whose architecture telegraphs its vivid past in film and vaudeville. Place the smaller work in an intimate black box across town. Market with literary, historical, cultural—and, this being the South, culinary—tie-ins, and promote not only through the region as a tourism destination but within North Carolina as a whole and beyond.
So why don’t what seem to be best practices result in best outcomes for the fifth anniversary of the THEATER OF THE AMERICAN SOUTH festival? For, after a 40-minute trip from downtown Raleigh to this charming small eastern North Carolina college town, once again we witness the struggles we’ve seen before between aesthetic strengths and practical weaknesses in the two main stage productions that anchor this annual event.
It’s a dilemma: Almost by definition, a regional festival has to be a standout. To guarantee its long term survival, a festival really has little choice but to consistently produce work either at that region’s highest level of achievement, or above it.
Perhaps that sounds extreme. But consider for a moment: If audiences can see better work in their own communities, why head to Wilson? If the festival’s work is only equal to the local art, why add a solid one- or two-hour round-trip commute from the Triangle on top of an evening’s entertainment?
The issue becomes more pointed the greater the distance one has to travel. Will cultural tourists ever darken a theater’s door again? And what will they tell the neighbors back home? The answer rests on how worthwhile they found the work the first time.
The closing figures from this year's edition, after the jump.
But really, its strongest claim to being taken seriously was that the author of the screenplay was Horton Foote.
Foote, who died in March 2009, is a big deal this year on Broadway as his Orphans' Home Cycle had a triumphant limited run during the winter, prompting plans for its transfer to Broadway in the fall.
Still, that hasn't been enough to get much attention for Main Street, which appeared at Cannes last week, according to a couple of online sites. Main Street isn't listed on the Cannes website (and if you Google "main street" and "Cannes," you'll get nothing but hits for Stones in Exile, the documentary about the Rolling Stones 1972 album, Exile on Main St.). Instead, the film played at the market at Cannes, where hundreds of producers set up wildcat screenings in hopes of finding distribution for their films.
It's worth looking at the blog post written by one Jordan Overstreet and reposted on an Orlando Bloom fan site. The review recaps the story start to finish. Although there's a bit of a howler right at the top as Overstreet mistakenly writes that Foote based his script on Sinclair Lewis' novel Main Street, what follows is fairly exhaustive, and she seems to be well-versed in film language (like "B-story") and is comfortable criticizing Foote and John Doyle, the film's director, for some of their narrative decisions.
The bullet-ridden, blood-splattered poster outside Carolina Cinemas Asheville declares ActionFest “the film festival with a body count.” Indeed, over the next few days I’ll see about every possible way for a human being to be shot, impaled, exploded or receive a roundhouse kick to the head on camera. A few efforts might even be Oscar-worthy, head-kicks and all.
I’ve driven to inaugural edition of the festival (held April 15-18), out of a desire to see some films that have been earning buzz on the festival circuit, and for the more elusive opportunity to meet action star/unlikely ironic pop-cultural icon Chuck Norris, whose brother Aaron is the festival’s co-director.
Although his action film heyday, which included such titles as The Delta Force, Missing in Action and Invasion U.S.A., is long behind him, the mustachioed karate champion remains a potent cultural force. Aside from the myriad Internet “facts” (“Chuck Norris does not sleep. He waits”), Norris remains iconic for reruns of his long-running series Walker Texas Ranger (a “complete series” DVD set was just released), Conan O’Brien’s random use of clips from said show, and his weirdly eclectic appearances in everything from the Total Gym infomercials to his commercials endorsing Mike Huckabee for president. My personal favorite is the intro to his short-lived 1980s cartoon Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos, pitting him against such foes as the “Super Ninja” and “The Deadly Dolphin.”
Adam Hicks, the news director at High County Radio in Boone, says he admires Norris. “You don’t have heroes like him any more,” Hicks tells me. “He stuck to his guns, and he’s not afraid to talk about what he believes in,” says Hicks, who’s there to get a few sound bites from Norris and catch a few flicks. Hicks admits he owns a Total Gym based on Norris’ infomercials: “When he endorses a project, I believe he uses it.”
Norris perhaps represents the ultimate cross-section of earnestness and camp. On the one hand, he represents a conservative vision of all-American values with simple, straightforward tales of justice through roundhouse kicks. For those who claim to venture a more highbrow road, he represents an iconic, ironic figure whose works can be ruthlessly parodied.
Outside of all the hoopla, though, who is the real Chuck Norris? This weekend gives me the chance to find out.
5 STARS (highest recommendation)
Deep Dish Theater
Through May 22
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The tea lights gleamed like molten butter—the only source of light in the entire restaurant—as our host stooped to ignite the Cherries Junior Johnson. The sponge cake, soaked in moonshine, had just begun to flash-broil its little lake of rendered fruit and syrup as my companion leaned forward.
“You’ve had such success with your writing,” she said, as I looked (demurely, I hoped) off to one side.
“And you’re so high-functioning,” she marveled breathlessly, while the waiter’s hand-tossed mix of baking soda and confectioners’ sugar blanketed the flames, the table and our evening wear.
“Your eye contact? It’s been so strong tonight,” she purred. “And your social awkwardness: really, it’s no more than you’d expect of someone on their first date!”
I sat, slackjawed. “That’s because I thought I was,” I whined in disbelief.
Silly me. All those probing questions during dinner, that I thought just might be leading to a snuggle session later on? Not quite: She'd been building a medical profile instead.
Hm. Perhaps the metal clipboard should have tipped me off.
Her thesis—which was, ultimately, all she wanted to discuss with me—was that critics have to have at least a touch of Asperger’s syndrome. After all, what other job description involves a total lack of empathy? Plus that tell-tale compulsion to blurt out the most inappropriate and unwelcome truths, defying all social norms when it comes to polite behavior? Hmmm?
I resisted the diagnosis. I did, however, let her pick up the check.
Which put me, come to think of it, in a somewhat similar position to Jared, one of the riveting characters we meet at the start of BODY AWARENESS, the current production at Deep Dish Theater. Jared ‘s 21 years old, intensely interested in etymology—and working at McDonalds while still living at home with his mother. Also, he’s all but violently resistant to a diagnosis of Asperger’s, with a collection of tics, blunt observations and repetitive, limited motions and interests, and only the vaguest sense of social relationships or obligations.
But we meet Jared—and his mom, Joyce, her partner, Phyllis and their guest, Frank—during what psychology teacher Phyllis has unilaterally declared to be "Body Awareness Week" at the small Vermont college where she works.