Theatre Raleigh/Hot Summer Nights
Through Aug. 11
Theatre Raleigh’s checkered 2013 season has featured some of the best—and worst—work on regional stages this year. It’s a relief, therefore, to report that Wednesday night’s performance of the acerbic 2001 musical URINETOWN represented a nimble, artistic 180-degree turn back into fair territory.
A couple of student groups have tackled this savvy, self-aware satire which manages to send up corporate corruption and politics as usual—and idealism, populism and a host of sappy musical theater conventions—after Raleigh Little Theatre’s regional premiere of the work in 2007. But no one’s done it better than this sure-footed production which, as one of the company’s two single-week engagements in Fletcher Opera Theater this season, closes far too soon, on Saturday.
No, the phrase "dystopian romp" doesn't come up very often in the critical lexicon. But URINETOWN is one; its deft, self-reflexive touches (and string of unforgivable puns) plumb the depths, as it were, of a world where private toilets have been banned due to water shortages, and people are forced to pay a fee each and every time they have to go number one.
Trust me; it's a lot funnier than it sounds. Director Richard Roland eggs on a canny, top-flight cast to dig into the stockiest of stock characters—including walking expositional devices like Officer Lockstock (a fine David Hess) and budding dramaturg (or theater critic?) Little Sally, played by a rewarding, bug-eyed Rachael Moser—who populate this hard-boiled city without pity. In a plot ripped from The Cradle Will Rock, a monolithic company helmed by the ruthless Caldwell B. Cladwell (Raymond Sage, in a memorable performance) uses its paid stooge in the legislature (Jade Arnold's evangelical Senator Fipp) and the police to drain the downtrodden masses of their last pennies and dimes.
All hope seems lost—go know—until Bobby Strong (Brennan Caldwell), a scrappy assistant janitor in the grimiest public amenity in town, stands up to all of them. Can a single, proverbial clean-cut kid spark a popular revolution, upend the power structure, save the day, and get the girl—Cladwell's beautiful and blindly idealistic daughter, Hope (an accomplished, comic Cameron Caudill)?
Are you kidding?
It actually gives little of the game away to reveal that the answer is: Sort of. Kinda. Call it three out of four—plus or minus change—which isn't a bad way to end up. (Unless, of course, it actually is.)
Officer Lockstock keeps reminding us and Little Sally that this is not a happy musical—though under Julie Bradley's musical direction, Mark Hollmann's score repeatedly lights up like a pinball machine. Bradley's five-piece orchestra and the talented cast are flawless on jazz-inspired numbers like "Snuff That Girl," addled gospel-tinged raves like "Run, Freedom, Run," a first-act rap tribute to advanced law enforcement, "Cop Song," and a romantic stemwinder—which director Roland has supporting characters checking their watches and bemusedly taking five throughout—in the reprise of Caudill's lovely, loopy "Follow Your Heart."
Strong supporting work by Courtney Balan and Maigan Kennedy adds savor to numbers including "What Is Urinetown" and "Why Did I Trust That Man?" And Lauren Kennedy's choreographic big-show quotes and cliches (including a silly synchronized file folder routine in the number "Mr. Cladwell") only increases the mirth. In Denise Schumaker's droll costume designs, tasteful ensembles fairly drip with yellow highlights across stage.
Our obvious recommendation for this knowing pistiche boils down to three little words: You gotta go!
THE TO DO LIST
At first, The To Do List seems another summer teen sex comedy, and it delivers—but with surprising poignancy, while also leaving the audience nostalgic for the early ’90s.
In the innocent summer of 1993, iPhone-less interactions drive the film as the era itself becomes a character with its own punch lines and personality. References to VCRs, an early "boo-ya" shaved into buzz-cut heads and the frequent interjection of "LOSER!" (complete with an L-shaped hand to the forehead) balance the grotesque and the raunchy.
We meet Brandy Klark at her high school graduation. She’s a Hillary enthusiast, president of the Mathletes and the creator of a recently published zine entitled "Womyn with a Y." Played by a believably naïve and callous Aubrey Plaza, Brandy’s drive to succeed in her summer quest to check things off a to-do list of sexual feats while working her first job as a lifeguard leads to a whirlwind of ridiculous situations.
Apart from the comedic bits, the film is noteworthy for its representation of young women taking complete control of their own sexuality, not necessarily for the sake of falling in love, but because they want to enjoy sex. Also, the film departs from convention in its representation of male sensitivity, displayed as Brandy breaks the heart of a boy who proceeds to fall apart, requiring the emotional support of his friends.
The majority of The To Do List chronicles Brandy’s pursuit of a one-dimensional approach to what “growing up” means. By the end, the movie pounds out a clear and under-enunciated theme: Having sex for the first time can be some gratifying magic moment, or it can suck. And more importantly, if it does suck, that’s completely fine.
Painter Robert Longo, motion picture special effects designer John Gaeta, UNC defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, martial arts choreographer 袁和平 (Yuán Hépíng) and cyberpunk novelist William Gibson got thrown out of a tec bar the other night...
In its past, even among its most refined practitioners, hip hop choreography has been a signifier set that frequently has pointed back to little more than itself. Stipulate that such is an inevitable stage in the evolution of any human behavior that emerges from pastime to trick to technique to style to substance as an art form: in this case, dance moves and gestures capable of disclosing or speaking to something other than themselves.
As a result, at times a sense of more than merely physical exhaustion has haunted even the bravura of Compagnie Käfig, Rubberbandance and Rennie Harris over the years.
Enter the 605 Collective, a hive of dancemakers from Vancouver. To be certain, AUDIBLE, their percussive evening-length American Dance Festival debut, was physically exhausting to enact (and even watch, to some degree).
Still, there was a clear sense that it had exhausted neither its subject nor the range of artistic possibilities by the end of its hour on stage. Even more importantly, in these choreographers’ ability to find, analyze and fuse a diverse range of cultural influences into a meta-commentary on technology, sport, surveillance and the hazards of increasingly mediated isolation and community, we read what seems more of an opening statement than remarks knotted into the end of someone's artistic rope.Where dancemakers once aspired to anthropomorphize such aspects of the natural world as the afternoon of a faun or a bevy of swans next to a body of water, these artists have devoted substantial time and technique to recreating digital video editing artifacts and glitches—electronic stutter/stagger steps, microloops and other gestural hangs—on the human form instead. It makes 605 Collective the second dance company in the same week (Shen Wei's Near the Terrace was the first) to present audiences with convincing real-time versions of digitized images, movements and effects first seen on video or in film.
As mentioned in our previous Critical Remix, Shen Wei regularly revises earlier works. Less regularly, however, does he change their titles while keeping much of their content the same.
That gives us pause about the putative world premiere of COLLECTIVE MEASURES. By my reckoning, at least half of its contents were viewed, more or less verbatim, in a lengthier world premiere at the 2011 ADF called Limited States.
Shen references the work in the playbill. No doubt he should. Sequences in which dyads made exaggerated fingertip selections while facing each other; a seven-minute game of zone transversing and adjustments measured out in a spotlit square; projected footage, above the stage, in which three shifting trios inflict pain and comfort gestures on a dancer in the middle; a contact section suggesting theatrical improv machine-building games; weightless women lifts and a sinuous centipedal sequence—all of these echoed the work we saw two years ago.But don't take my word for it. Compare for yourself our exclusive video preview for Collective Measures, above, with the video preview we produced for Limited States, in 2002, here at left.
It is less clear, however, if the reappearances of these themes here represent refinements of earlier work, or mere reiteration.
Beginning with sequences referencing early motion-picture motion studies of the human form, Limited States focused largely on measurements of bodies in increasingly close proximity to one another. Among its varied, fascinating technological views of the human form (generated by video artists at New York’s Fake Love), Shen seemed to be asking how large groups in finite space limit the autonomy and range of individual expression. When inquiring into the rules that might permit compact co-existence in a crowded cube, the choreographer nearly seemed in pursuit of one particularly alarming endgame that global overcrowding may well present.
Collective Measures appears to add little to that inquiry. In fact, it may well be subtracting something from it.
Parts of the work represent a retreat into the human sculpture garden we’ve seen previously, in works including 2004’s Connect Transfer. Comparisons with Merce Cunningham seem inevitable here, but while both have mapped out impressive landscapes in the realm of the possible involving human movement and placement in space, Shen’s work still seems by far the colder of the two.
We were taken with Cecily Campbell’s and Alex Speedie’s mid-work solos, both brisk, daunting, crisp and lyrical excavations of personal space. Though Cynthia Koppe and Janice Lancaster Larsen briefly threaded through them, certain energetic group sequences still seemed to plateau, overlong and without a developing point.
Though brief gesture quotes from a number of Shen’s previous works are identifiable here, it’s not clear whether their presence suggests a grand integration, or a lack of other options.
At the time, Connect Transfer clearly suggested a gesamtkuntswerk fusion of all we had seen up to then in Shen’s work. By comparison, I’m afraid that Collective Measures suggests decidedly Limited progress.
NEAR THE TERRACE
SHEN WEI DANCE ARTS
AMERICAN DANCE FESTIVAL
DURHAM PERFORMING ARTS CENTER
By now, we’ve come to expect choreographer Shen Wei to revise earlier works when he restages them, as the prerogative of an artistic intellect that is never still. Those changes have ranged from the subliminal tweaks we’ve witnessed in versions of Folding to the overt makeover which suggested that, in the first section of his famous trilogy, the incomplete title Re— actually stood for rewriting. (Or, possibly, redaction, when the shattered floor-length mandala which clearly symbolized the Tibetan Buddhist diaspora in the first version of that work was muddied beyond recognition in at least one iteration that followed, before its later reinstatement in recent years.)
All of which speaks to another cautionary hallmark we’ve come to associate with Mr. Shen: Second thoughts, that sometimes necessitate a third, or fourth.NEAR THE TERRACE, the choreographer’s tribute to Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux, and the first work of the first evening in the American Dance Festival’s 80th season, Jun. 13 in Durham. The world premiere of this evanescent composition (with a then-student cast including current company members Sara Procopio and Jessica Harris) announced the arrival of a formidable new choreographer in the dance world here in 2000.
Then a revised edition in 2001 dialed that announcement back, just a bit. A second section Shen added to the work that year (including a filibuster-length solo danced by the choreographer himself) ultimately gave the composition the feel of overworked dough, doubling the length—but not the charm—of his original achievement. It's been years since Terrace’s part two was jettisoned; it wasn’t on the playbill last week.
What was, however, included an enigmatic new opening to what by now has become a cherished classic in modern dance.
How to make a better Superman movie is the Sphinx’s riddle of superhero cinema. There’s nostalgia for Richard Donner’s soaring but cumbersome 1978 original and Richard Lester’s able but somewhat nutty sequel. Some critics have come around to a fondness for Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, although I tell can’t wrap my arms around a movie about Superman returning after a five-year sabbatical to battle Lex Luthor—again—and Kryptonite—again (oh yeah, he has a kid).
So, the news that Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) would produce a reboot of the Superman saga directed by Zack Snyder (300; Watchmen) was enough to catapult legions of Super-fanatics into delirium. The result, Man of Steel, isn’t the reimagined overhaul many anticipated. The origin myth remains intact, with some incremental but significant tweaking, chiefly an increased emphasis on the Krypton backstory. And anyone looking for Christopher Reeve’s smile or John Williams’ memorable score will come away empty-handed (although Hans Zimmer’s thundering soundtrack will reverberate in your head for days).
This isn’t your (grand)father’s man of steel; this one has only the slightest of smirks littering a fable that takes its reinvention deadly serious. And I’m fine with that.
Before he becomes Superman, immigrant-from- Krypton Kal-El (Henry Cavill) must discover himself and the reason he’s an all-powerful stranger in a strange world. The film only specifically references the lofty Superman moniker once, but the religious symbolism is unabashed. Kal-El is the son of two fathers. One is by birth, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), who jettisons his son from a dying planet to one where he knows his son will live as a god but hopefully serve as a savior. Jor-El’s consciousness joins Kal-El to Earth, an omnipotent presence guiding his son’s maturation, and anyone willing to believe.
The other earthly patriarch is Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), a Kansas farmer without children of his own with wife Martha (Diane Lane), who shelters his adopted son and urges him to conceal his powers from a suspicious and fearful world, even at Jonathan’s own expense. It’s a reality Kal-El grapples with as kid Clark Kent growing up in Smallville, Kan., where he swallows his powers in the face of bullies and stifles any public display of those super-abilities, even if, according to Pa Kent, people die.
One of the closest experiences any of us will have to rival time travel is taking place these nights just after dark in Horton Grove, a verdant section in Stagville, a state historic site several miles out Old Oxford Highway. Prior to the Civil War, Stagville held the dubious distinction of being the largest plantation in North Carolina, and one of the largest in the United States: a spread some 47 square miles in length which stretched to the north and east of Durham.
Back then, Horton Grove was where the slaves lived on whose labor the plantation ran. Now its fields are populated only by deer, cicadas, fireflies and the vocal chorus of frogs off in the distance. Its gray two-story quarters, built in the 1850s out of wood and handmade brick, are quiet.
Until, that is, our host conducts us, by lantern light, over the threshold of the largest of the structures on the green. And in that humble, whitewashed room, a woman now dead for 70 years speaks once again. Her name is Tempie Herndon.
Sometime in 1936 a visiting writer for the Work Projects Administration interviewed her because, even at the age of 103, she vividly recalled the details of life on a plantation not far from here, before the emancipation of 1865. During the 1930s, WPA writers would interview 176 North Carolinians like her about their experiences under slavery. The Slave Narrative Project, as it was ultimately called, filled 17 volumes with the verbatim testimony of some 2,300 former slaves from across the South. (Some of its narratives are available as an ebook and online; a complete hardbound copy of the collection is in the State Library in Raleigh.)
Last year, Bare Theatre’s artistic director Todd Buker adapted seven of the interviews and staged them with an all-star cast under the title LET THEM BE HEARD during Stagville’s Juneteenth Celebration. Though we did not review the show (whose one-weekend run closed before our following issue), we remembered the production last December, when Let Them Be Heard made the INDY’s list of best shows of the year, earning superlatives in ensemble, direction and special achievement in the humanities.
This memorable production’s second season closes this weekend at Stagville. Even with a week of shows added this year, the work clearly deserves a longer run than it will get. After a couple of weather-induced opening night glitches—and a cast member out due to illness—on Friday, Saturday night’s performance fully conveyed the impact of the work’s initial run.
The title Star Trek Into Darkness remains just as nebulous by the time the closing credits roll as it does during a chase prologue along the Class M Planet of Nibiru. Fortunately, director J.J. Abrams inadvertently provides a number of alternate titles along the way. Into Darkness is the second installment of Star Trek’s look into yesteryear, the continuation of an alternate timeline created in the 2009 Star Trek, also directed by Abrams, which chronicles the adventures of the fledgling crew of the Starship Enterprise.
Just call it Star Trek Babies II.
In essence, Into Darkness is really about the evolving relationship between Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), although their bromance usually boils down to scenes like Kirk’s misty separation anxiety at the news that Spock is being reassigned to another ship, or Spock’s jealousy emotion being triggered when Kirk enlists the duplicative services of beautiful blond science officer Carol (Alice Eve). What hampers any emotional heft, however, is the misapprehension that their relationship has always been about the characters, discounting the time-tested rapport developed between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.
That said, Pine and especially Quinto prove capable as they, along with a more prominently featured Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and the rest of the crew, face a threat from within: Starfleet officer-turned-terrorist John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a highly intelligent super soldier whose covert design goes sideways after he breaks loose from the moorings of his Federation minders.
Just call it Star Trek: The Wrath of Bourne.
Early on, Abrams hints at Star Trek’s political and social heritage with allegory critical of the current war on terror, including policies favoring indiscriminate hits on high-value targets and drone missile attacks. (Poor Klingons, formerly emblematic of the threat and decay of the Soviet Empire, are now stand-ins for modern day terrorists.) But any such high mindedness quickly evaporates in the fog of a script that is equally lighthearted and incomprehensible, along with a hellfire of 3D special effects and Abrams’ trademark visual quirks.
Just call it Star Trek: Into Lens Flares.
Unlike the sublime mix of rediscovery and homage that fueled the 2009 reboot, Into Darkness eventually chokes on the umbilical cord tethered to its heritage. Trouble with a Tribble or one of a dozen “manual auxiliary rerouted power couplings” are cute, but homage soon crosses the line into unoriginality, from the choice of villain to the mashed-up tropes to a scene in the final act featuring such shameless aping that it converts the sacrosanct into self-parody.
Into Darkness is an entertaining retread that also feels like an elongated TV episode with a bigger budget and explosions that come at the expense of the series’ humanism. This next generation Star Trek is reworked and replicated for today’s generation of moviegoers.
Just call it Star Trek: Attack of the Clones.
Musical theater fans can be quite rigid in their tastes, and even more so once they’ve reached a certain age. Take this tart little number, whom I encountered the other night in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. Mere moments from the opening curtain, he was already griping to me about the long-term decline of the American musical—and at a North Carolina Theatre show, no less: They’re too disappointing. Too long. And then there are those productions—you know, the ones where the cast comes out into the audience: “God. I didn’t pay $100,” he snarked, “to have the fourth wall come crashing down around my ears.”
“You know,” he groused, “there was a time when people sat in darkened theatres and thought to themselves, ‘What have George and Ira got for me tonight?’ Or ‘Can Cole Porter pull it off again?’”
“Can you imagine? Now, it’s ‘Please, Elton John, must we continue this charade?’”
(What can I say? People have always felt that they can just open up to me.)
But this little-too-lonesome character wasn’t some crank on a night pass from assisted living in North Raleigh. The man in the chair was actually our host. (His name? Man in Chair.) And as the central figure in the musical THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, he not only ushered us into his all-time favorite night at the theater, dropping the needle on a phonograph to share the soundtrack by its original cast with us. He then proceeded to lead us on a guided personal tour of it as well, repeatedly interrupting the playback with his annotations on the careers of the performers, the mechanics of the show—and almost anything else that came to mind as the record spun. As obsessive musical theater fans will sometimes do.
And, as also sometimes happens, that musical, which becomes the play within this play, takes over and remakes his rather gray little flat into the dynamic stage of an all-singing, all-dancing (and definitely all-mugging) spectacular which supposedly bowled them over on Broadway in 1928.