Universes, the Bronx-based performance troupe that fuses spoken word, song, rhythm and theater, epitomizes the concept of arts-as-multidisciplinary. The performers who comprise Universes—all of whom are persons of color—serve as storytellers and poets and music-makers. They're also social critics who aim to give voice to the silenced. And, for the most part, they succeed in doing so without being too heavy-handed. That’s no easy feat.
Their newest piece, Spring Training, currently has its world premiere at PRC2 in Chapel Hill. Commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts and PlayMakers Repertory Company as part of their Rite of Spring at 100 project, a centennial celebration of Stravinsky’s revolutionary composition, the members of Universes were given free rein to adapt The Rite of Spring in any manner they chose. The result is less an adaptation or a recreation of Rite than an entirely new piece incorporating Rite as one thematic ingredient. In culinary terms, Universes uses Stravinsky to season Spring Training, but doesn't let Stravinsky be the dominant flavor.
That’s not to say you can't taste Rite in the work, which features Universes’ company members Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, William “Ninja” Ruiz, Steven Sapp and Gamal Chasten under direction by Chay Yew. The opening and closing song of Spring Training, a soulful evocation of the struggles of everyday life, melodically mirrors the familiar, haunting bassoon at the beginning of Stravinsky’s composition. But here, the music gives way to Bobby McFerrin-esque rhythmic beatboxing and shadows of James Brown and Marvin Gaye.
Then begin the stories: poignant, heartbreaking and sometimes funny tales of suffering and, yes, the rites of passage young people must go through—the spring training of our lives we endure before confronting the even greater challenges of adulthood.
We think of Homer as the first bard, the beginner of dramatic storytelling. But storytelling is as old as dirt: ancient, the collected dust of time that retains the human imprint. From dust to dust we go, and from the dust we live on as stories. Ray Dooley as The Narrator in the bleak ruins of An Iliad seems beyond time, even as he relates the story of Homer’s Iliad, the mighty battles just before the sack of Troy. Dooley drifts on to the stage, looking like any aging white guy who’s been on the road for a few hundred thousand years, his ragged clothes the colors of brush, dried mud and sweat. He stumbles around the dirt and debris onstage, mumbling in Greek, trying to remember what story he’s on for tonight.
The Narrator finally beckons to someone in the front row for a program and sighs upon reading it. He’s a tentative teller, doesn’t really want to go into all that again. Rage. Hubris. Blood. Warriors at war. Women on the ramparts, watching. The interference of the gods. Character in the face of inescapable destiny. Yet he is fated to tell that story yet again, and you know this fate will go on forever. He is at the mercy of the Muse.
The Narrator may be reluctant, but playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare are very eager. They want us to know the now of the story, as well as its everlastingness in the long litany of wars, and give The Narrator many contemporary examples to convey understanding of how big and how long this famous battle really was, and ways to understand on our own terms some of the emotions that drove it.
Dooley, working with guest director Jesse Berger, makes these explanatory interludes some of the most intimate and excoriating moments of the play. And, of course, these are the moments that make the production a play, rather than a storytelling session. It is hardly surprising that An Iliad won a special citation for this combination at the 2012 Obie Awards.
Ray Dooley is surely the most accomplished of the many fine actors working in this area, and this is a rare opportunity to see him working alone on the stage. He is superb in ensembles, but here he performs the special feat of maintaining his time-travelling Narrator and the nuances of The Narrator’s weary emotions, while simultaneously evoking the story’s protagonists and their dusty, blood-soaked world. Agamemnon and Priam, Hector and Patroclus and Achilles—and Achilles’ various armaments—vivify before us. Made only of words, they roar and dazzle and awe.
This short run of An Iliad that opens this PRC2 season follows the marvelous Penelope that closed last season’s run of new plays in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre. Playwright and actress Ellen McLaughlin turned The Odyssey inside out in an innovative contemporization of the ancient story. She also maintained her modern Penelope’s character while evoking others, but she also added a breathtaking layer of complication by at times becoming the Chorus, singing lines she’d just spoken elsewhere on stage, to musical accompaniment. For An Iliad, there’s no live music, but several pieces of delicate and haunting sound by Ryan Rumery that re-sensitize one to the violent story. Seth Reiser’s well-considered lighting also helps keep us a little off-balance and emotionally available to its power, as The Narrator unfolds it in Marion Williams’ costume and set.
An Iliad is a very tight piece of theatrical work, and a powerful beginning for the fall theater season. It is most highly recommended. Maybe we will get really lucky and PRC will bring it back in rotation with Penelope, but don’t hold your breath. This show closes Sun., Sept. 9.
To be truthful, I haven’t taught drama in a “worst of the worst” New York City classroom like playwright and performer Nilaja Sun, whose semi-autobiographical one-person show, NO CHILD… closes at PlayMakers Rep on Jan. 15. I taught high school drama in an economically and culturally impoverished North Carolina county during half of the last decade instead. It was the hardest—and most rewarding—job I have ever undertaken. And on the basis of the experience, I can say this much: Ms. Sun clearly knows whereof she speaks.
NO CHILD…is reportedly based on her years of experience as a teaching artist in New York public schools. The news is that it’s not a world apart from the challenged classrooms I saw in the rural South. Both reflect a popular culture supersaturated with sexuality, violence and speed. And if either had once cornered the market on ADHD, emotional, sexual and physical abuse or attitude, ignorance and pride, neither does now.
Yes, the quest Sun’s character faces during a short-term (and short-sighted) state grant—staging the Australian penal drama Our Country’s Good with a group of at-risk high schoolers who are theatrical beginners, in six weeks—is certainly quixotic. But it’s hardly unfamiliar in North Carolina, where a public education in the arts mandated by the state’s master Basic Education Plan still hasn’t yet been fully implemented, much less evenly distributed, across urban and rural systems—some 27 years after its ratification in 1985.
A new legislative commission tasked with finally closing that deal this Spring would give some cause for hope—had the Republican-led legislature it will ultimately report to not slashed millions of dollars from education last year and then declared open political warfare on the teachers who dared oppose them. In the meantime, the sort of inconsistent, “drive-by” arts education on display here remains hauntingly familiar, to say the least. If one of Sun’s central points in NO CHILD…concerns the wholesale abandonment of children by their families, society and the state, it bears noting that the troubled kids of New York aren’t the only ones who have suffered—and still suffer—this on a number of fronts, including public education and the arts.
Pierce, a Tony winner for 2007’s Curtains, first came to PlayMakers last year, when his longtime partner, UNC graduate Brian Hargrove (a long-time TV writer for such shows as Titus), was honored.
Since Frasier ended in 2004, Pierce has focused on the theater, headlining such productions as Monty Python’s Spamalot and more recently, David Hirson’s La Bête on Broadway. At this point in his career, he can afford to be choosy about his roles, taking on more eclectic projects at his leisure.
“To be able to choose what you want to do, and not have to worry about the economics of it, to take whatever’s offered, that’s a great luxury,” he says. “There’s also a great responsibility, I think, to yourself and your artistic life.”
Regional theater such as PlayMakers, Pierce says, “reminds me a lot of being in London—there, the audiences are constantly exposed to a wide range of plays. They’re not all good, but the audience starts to develop a wider idea of what a play is.
“That means the audience in the regions around the country can have more diverse tastes than audiences in the bigger cities, who get short bursts of shows that have been pre-selected, because we think they can make it through the gauntlet of fire that is commercial theater.”
Pierce bluntly answers “no” when asks if he’d like to do a TV series again, despite his respect for the medium.
“I don’t feel like I left anything undone doing Frasier. I loved that whole experience, it was fulfilling in every way, and after we filmed our last episode, I didn’t walk out of that soundstage thinking, ‘Oh, if only I’d had a chance to do something I didn’t get a chance to do with that fantastic company and that great writing.’ It would have to be something that really caught my eye and my ear about the writing of the character.
“The bottom line for me is the live audience. I love that connection, and it’s very difficult for me to give that up.”
Pierce’s upcoming work includes the independent film The Perfect Host and making his directorial debut on a stage production written by Hargrove.
We asked him if he had any advice for the production of Spamalot, scheduled to take place at DPAC in May. “I’m sure the actors know the material well already,” says Pierce, “but I can offer what Mike Nichols (the original director) told me—‘No matter how funny it gets, remember—it’s always very, very serious.’”
For more information on the PlayMakers Ball, including tickets and sponsorship, contact Lenore Field at 452-8417 or email@example.com, or visit www.playmakersrep.org.
The questionable side? For the second season running, PlayMakers' performance schedule for said blockbuster creates—oops!—an embargo that essentially keeps the region's critics gagged during the first two weeks of the run.
As they say, once is an accident. Twice... and it begins to look like company policy.
The still unfolding story of SPIDERMAN: TURN OFF THE DARK has raised a number of potentially useful questions. Just how "sacred" should preview performances be considered? Under what circumstances is the convention conceivably being abused? And what is the appropriate response from the media under those circumstances?
As we and our editors are mulling these questions over...
Dear Readers: Now, it really comes down to you.
For the next week, the public critical conversation on PlayMakers Rep's ANGELS IN AMERICA is entirely in your hands.
If you saw it or will see it during its opening weeks, please share your responses, below. If you didn't see it, but know someone who did or will, please send them our way.
We're just wondering. What's ANGELS IN AMERICA like? What does it make people feel, and think?
We only ask because we believe a show of this magnitude deserves a lively, full and public critical conversation—one that begins well before the third week of a six-week run.
Post your responses in the comments, below.
And thank you for continuing the public conversation on the arts—while we observe conventions that prevent us from doing so ourselves. For the moment, anyway.
My newfound appreciation for the work of Samuel Beckett dates from 7:45 p.m., Sept. 8, after Julie Fishell’s character Winnie had been speaking for just a few minutes in PRC2’s new production of Beckett’s Happy Days in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre of the UNC Center for Dramatic Art. My every previous encounter with Beckett on page or stage had resulted in boredom, irritation and somnolence, as my youthful, impatient romantic soul rebelled against the bleak Beckettian waiting, insufficiently relieved by slaps of dark humor. Tired and wiser now, the everlasting ongoingness of nothing, presented so precisely, makes sense at last.
What makes humans any different from other animals in their earthy dens and burrows? Here is a woman who makes clear the one or two essential differences. Buried up to her waist in a gigantic mound of earth—immobilized, de-sexed (though not de-gendered), capable of only the most limited actions and occupied with fruitless daily rituals filling time “between the bell for waking and the bell for sleeping,” Fishell’s Winnie makes us laugh, cry and, ultimately, admire her courageous, addled endurance and insistence on self-hood.
For Winnie, and for the rest of us, language is the essential coin of humanity, but as she tells us several times, talking to oneself is not enough. As much as she longs to see her hidden husband Willie (living in a burrow on the backside of Winnie’s mound), she needs even more to hear him—in order to know that he has heard her. The play is a two-act monologue for Winnie (with a few but necessary sentences and minimal appearances by Willie, intensely played here by fellow PlayMaker Ray Dooley), a tour de force of language structured like music. It is a huge, difficult role for the actor, demanding physically, emotionally and vocally.
Julie Fishell’s interpretation is tremendously moving. Directed with restraint and clarity by Rob Melrose (co-founder and artistic director of The Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco), her timing, her vocal expressiveness and her gestures are all superb. In the second act, Winnie has sunk into earth up to her neck: She is naught but a talking head in a cunning hat atop the mound, and must communicate all with voice and facial expression. Her eyesight is fading; memory mangles the “immortal lines” of poetry—but still, “classics help get you through the day.” Stripped of all agency but thought and word, yet she maintains the inexplicable faith that “this will be another happy day.”
This amazing season-opener for what promises to be a powerful year at Playmakers runs only through Sept. 12.
Usually, determining a play’s subject is something of a preliminary task: one that leads us, more or less directly, into deeper critical waters. But within the past week, two productions—MoLoRa (Ash) at Duke and I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda at UNC—have stopped me at what is usually a fairly neutral border in my critical walk. In both cases, it wasn’t enough to ask what each work was about. I felt I had to ask what each should be about, as well—based upon the focus each work has ultimately chosen.
By coincidence, both plays deal, at least tangentially, with different atrocities that occurred upon the African continent. MoLoRa, performed by the touring South African company Farber Foundry, seeks to reframe the tragic Greek trilogy The Oresteia against the achievements of that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 1996-1998. A Remarkable Document concerns the Tutsi genocide of 1994 in Rwanda.
But both of these statements actually set the true trajectories of these dramas off by a few, crucial degrees.
Kenneth Strong, an actor and teacher with PlayMakers Repertory Company and the Department of Dramatic Art since 1979, died Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 12. Strong had fought glioblastoma brain cancer since 2007, a battle whose early rounds were documented by arts journalist Orla Swift in a Nov. 25, 2007 feature story in the Raleigh News and Observer.
Strong had achieved distinction for his memorable contributions to over 50 PlayMakers productions, including Pericles, The Little Prince, God's Man in Texas, and Art. He also performed in a 1996 Broadway revival of "Inherit the Wind" with George C. Scott, in addition to roles off-Broadway, in television series including "Law and Order," "Spin City" and "In the Heat of the Night," and in films.
According to the biographical information on the PlayMakers company website, Strong had also been originally cast to play Newman Noggs in PlayMakers' 2009 production of "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby." Weston Blakesley appeared in the role instead.
Strong had been in hospice for just under a month at the time of his death. Heidi Reklis, PlayMakers general manager, posted on his hospice website that at the end, Strong "was very much at peace and had his [wife] Kee, his mother, his brother and Kee's brother in the room with him. His very last moment was a brilliant Ken Strong smile and a quiet breath. While we are all very sad, you could not ask for a better moment."
A memorial service will be held Mon. Jan. 18, at 1 p.m., at Paul Green Theater.
In lieu of flowers, Strong's family has requested that donations be made in his name to the Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University Medical Center. Click here for a link to their online donation page.
Word to the slammers — and all of the other spoken word and poetry performance practitioners in the region: Following the Friday, Jan. 15 performance of The Big Bang by Universes, PlayMakers Rep will sponsor a spoken word performance competition in Kenan Theater. Prizes to be awarded include a 3rd-generation Apple Ipod Touch.
The three-round competition is for original works, performed by their creators, on any subject, in any style. Performances in each round will be timed, and must be under three minutes in length (with a 30-second grace period before penalties will be assessed). Each poem may only be used once during the competition. Contestants are advised to leave musical instruments, pre-recorded songs, props and costumes at home.
The competition will be hosted by CJ Suitt, a poet and facilitator with Sacrificial Poets, a youth performance poetry team in Chapel Hill, and judged by the members of Universes.
To register, email Jeffrey Meanza, PlayMaker’s Director of Education/Outreach, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Participants may also show up on the night of the event, but night-of competition spots will be held on a first-come, first-served basis.