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Monday, March 3, 2014

Neal Bell on In Secret, a new film adaptation of his stage play

Posted by on Mon, Mar 3, 2014 at 11:18 AM

In Secret - PHOTO BY PHIL BRAY
  • photo by Phil Bray
  • In Secret
After its professional New York premiere, it took almost 17 years for Neal Bell’s stage play Thérèse Raquin to make it to the big screen in the form of the recently-released In Secret, directed by Charlie Stratton and starring Elizabeth Olsen and Oscar Isaac. But for Bell, the result was worth the wait.

“It’s exciting and strange,” says Bell, a professor of theater studies at Duke University. “I hadn’t seen the movie until it opened, so I didn’t know what to expect. But I was really surprised and delighted to see that it came out so well.” The film came about after Stratton directed Bell’s play for a Los Angeles production. Stratton was impressed enough with the material that he set about bringing it to the screen.

“He spent the next 15 or so years trying to put it together and then losing his actors or his funding,” Bell says. “There were all kinds of different people attached. Glenn Close was interested at one point; I think Gerard Butler was interested. And then, about two summers ago, he called me to say he’d gotten the funding, and the actors had come together at the same moment!” Bell has nothing but praise for Stratton, whom he calls “an incredibly honorable and decent guy, along with very, very talented.”

Bell’s play, an adaptation of Émile Zola’s classic novel, has an odd history of its own. He originally wrote it as the libretto for a proposed musical called The Wild Party by Michael John LaChiusa. “He wrote what I thought was an incredibly beautiful score, but decided he wasn’t satisfied with his work,” Bell says. “I had this orphaned libretto, and a young guy at NYU asked me if he could direct it as a senior distinction play, so I turned it back into a straight play. It got picked up by regional theaters and went on from there.”

Bell credits the play’s long run and eventual film adaptation to Zola’s original story. “It had an influence on film noir,” he says of Zola’s novel. “The Postman Always Rings Twice is almost a literal adaptation of it. It fascinated me because of how it tells the tale of what happens after the lovers commit murder and get away with it.”

Though his involvement in the production of In Secret was limited, Bell has an extensive background writing for television, including a stint under fellow Duke professor Michael Malone at daytime soap One Life to Live. Bell currently teaches a course on TV writing at Duke, where his students watch the one-season classic My So-Called Life and then plot out episodes for the second season that never was.

“I feel like we’re in the middle of a second golden age of television,” Bell says, “and that the long-form writing being done for it is as good as any playwriting that’s being done in New York right now.”

He’s remaining true to his theater roots, most recently with an adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday at Little Green Pig. Still, he admits that the film of In Secret has given him some new credibility with certain people, thanks to Harry Potter co-star Tom Felton’s presence. “If I’m talking to a younger person,” he says, “that’s generally what I lead with.”
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    The Duke professor's play Thérèse Raquin is based on Émile Zola’s classic novel

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Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: Love's Infrastructure, a striking theatrical collaboration of Torry Bend and Bombadil

Posted by on Mon, Jan 27, 2014 at 5:45 PM

Torry Bend with the members of Bombadil: (from left): Daniel Michalak, James Phillips and Stuart Robinson - PHOTO BY JUSTIN COOK
  • Photo by Justin Cook
  • Torry Bend with the members of Bombadil: (from left): Daniel Michalak, James Phillips and Stuart Robinson
Love's Infrastructure

Duke Performances
@ PSI Theatre,  Durham Arts Council
Closed Jan. 26

Let’s start with the most striking thing about Love’s Infrastructure, the new collaboration between puppeteer Torry Bend and pop-folk trio Bombadil: how the show works. Imagine watching The Muppet Show while simultaneously seeing all the hubbub behind the scenes. While Bombadil plays music, Bend’s crew of designers, managers and puppeteers creates a complex puppet show, projecting the results at the center of the stage, while the “making of”—sets, puppetry, cameras and computers—spills out behind the screen.

The delightful opening scene, for example, shows the sun—a round bit of tin foil discreetly held in a puppeteer’s hand—rising over a green countryside. We descend to a bird’s-eye view of a country road, with cars zipping around verdant curves, and then level off to the driver’s perspective as cookie-cutter neighborhoods—rows of cardboard houses glued to a wheel—churn by. At last, a whole city springs into view when a puppeteer swings its set into place behind the others.

This mode of performance, though not unheard of, is novel enough that audiences will find more than enough to keep their interest. In fact, Love’s Infrastructure is so visually stimulating that it’s possible to forget that Bombadil is playing live, which is a pity, since the band more than holds up its end of the show. Bombadil’s songs go down easily but lean toward being anthems, sung in lilting tenor voices and played in perfect sync over heartbeat rhythms.

The story-songs float over the narrative of Love’s Infrastructure, a quirky modern romance between a commuter and a tollbooth agent. Somehow, I fell behind on the plot, catching the twists dreamily and belatedly. A scene where two puppets’ hands pass sparkly gewgaws back and forth, sometimes pausing to hold them to the light, struck me as a pretty metaphor for courtship and attraction. Only later did I realize that the commuter was actually giving these little objects to the tollbooth agent in lieu of coin, getting her fired and setting the stage for a heroic act.

I think I lost the thread because I was swept up in another story entirely: the story of the puppeteers. I often found myself watching them instead of the screen, rapt by this one’s intricate sheaf of braids, that one’s smile of concentration, another’s lean and muscled back as he hunched over the scene he was filming, or the strong and graceful hands with which a fourth crew member maneuvered a puppet. Their silent, cooperative struggles and triumphs were more engaging to me than the sweet but rather anemic central romance.

Following the puppeteers meant feeling stressed for them, because on opening night, Bend and her company seemed to be uncomfortably pushing the limits of their abilities. Take, for example, the scene where the puppet-hero escapes his confines in order to save his crush. He leaps onto the screen—now recorded rather than visibly manipulated from backstage—and, projected onto the white-clad body of a puppeteer, enters the real world. The image is poetic in theory, but the puppeteer found it difficult to keep the projection on his body. At any rate, the shallow space of PSI Theatre makes the illusions nearly impossible to maintain in all seats.

Still, imagine this scene with me for a moment, from a different vantage: What if it’s not so much about the puppet rising from determinism into free will, but more about the puppeteer abandoning power for vulnerability? He becomes a visible body rather than an invisible pair of hands. This brings us back to the title, Love’s Infrastructure. What vast systems move under the apparent world? Who makes our lives and amours possible, and what do we make possible? What do we work for and what does it cost us?

All puppetry proposes invisible causes, but by making the causes visible, Love’s Infrastructure foregrounds these philosophical questions without quite plumbing them. That’s why I’d call this show a launch rather than a landing for Bend and Bombadil.
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    Love’s Infrastructure foregrounds philosophical questions without quite plumbing them.

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Friday, January 17, 2014

Forget Newsroom. Aaron Sorkin should go back to politics

Posted by on Fri, Jan 17, 2014 at 11:14 AM

Aaron Sorkin - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • Aaron Sorkin
This is an interesting moment for the playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. After months in limbo, his HBO series The Newsroom was just renewed for a third and final season. This should excite hardcore Newsroom fans, but there's another opportunity we'd like to see him pursue—his long-promised adaptation of Andrew Young's tell-all account of John Edwards' downfall, The Politician.

Sorkin acquired the rights to Young's book around the time of its publication in 2010, with the final stages of the Edwards drama—the death of Elizabeth Edwards and the besieged politician's subsequent trial for campaign finance fraud and his subsequent acquittal—yet to play out in the real world. 

Sorkin had planned to make his directorial debut with the story, but it fell victim to his success—his Oscar-winning script for The Social Network, his writing for The Newsroom and his research for a planned Steve Jobs biopic started taking up all his time, along with a now-delayed film about the trial of the Chicago Seven for Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass. As recently as July 2013, Sorkin said that he planned to tackle The Politician after the Steve Jobs project was done. But it seems obvious that in order for a film of The Politician to happen, Sorkin would have to clear a few things off his plate.

It might be worthwhile for Sorkin to make room in his schedule. As critical responses to his work veer from brickbats (NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) to near-universal acclaim (The Social Network) and back again (The Newsroom), The Politician is the sort of story that plays to his strengths as a writer, and could win him another Oscar if he can pull it off. 

Andrew Young's "The Politician" - COPYRIGHT ST. MARTIN'S BOOKS
  • Copyright St. Martin's Books
  • Andrew Young's "The Politician"

As someone who's read the bulk of Sorkin's work, from the Broadway non-starter The Farnsworth Invention to the early drafts of Charlie Wilson's War—which ended with the title character staring at the smoke coming from the Pentagon on the morning of September 11, 2001—it's deeply intriguing for me to imagine Sorkin's voice adapting The Politician. It's also a thought experiment I conduct with caution, knowing how Sorkin's worst tendencies as a writer could just as easily lead the material astray.

It might sound odd to hang such caveats on one of the most acclaimed writers working today, but like all writers with a distinct voice, Sorkin has his indulgences. Seeing how those indulgences enhance or undermine each project is one of the great, fascinating parts of his work. Will the brilliance overwhelm the flaws, or will the recycled themes and ham-handed messages take over?

The Newsroom
, for example, attempted to critique the media in its first season by having its fictional cable news network get stories "right" after having the information they needed fall in their laps through some last-minute personal source. This often came off as a condescending lecture to both the audience and the real news organizations that work hard to report information.

There are countless other issues, such as Sorkin's problems with writing female characters and romantic relationships, his fondness for old-school melodramatic flourishes and pratfalls, and his reliance on straw-man antagonists to make the "good" characters seem more noble. At times, these shortcomings are downright painful—the less said about the first-season Newsroom episode exploring Gabby Giffords' shooting in a montage set to Coldplay's "Fix You," the better. 

That's why, entering the second season, there was genuine fear that Sorkin would offer sermons on Trayvon Martin and the Sandy Hook massacre (blessedly, he ignored the latter and kept the former to a minimum). The second season seemed like Sorkin battling against the tendencies that led to critics "hate-watching" the first season. An utterly flat storyline about the Romney campaign didn't bode well for the potential of a Sorkin adaptation of the campaign-trail setting of The Politician. Yet the flaws that recur in Sorkin's writing could actually work in his favor on this project. 

Young's book tells a fascinating story. Beyond the fun, for North Carolinians, of the local name-drops (Shelley Lake! Nantucket Grill!), the relationship between John Edwards and Andrew Young is the stuff of which psychology textbooks are made. Edwards comes off as almost sociopathic in how he uses his good looks, charisma and self-made story to craft a congenial surface that conceals a manipulative, entitled core. Young, meanwhile, comes off as a pathological sycophant. His fanatical, almost masochistic devotion to his employer makes him seem like an awkward high-school kid in awe of being allowed to do a popular jock's homework. 

Even Elizabeth Edwards comes across poorly for much of the book, ordering around underlings and breaking down over minor imperfections—though in fairness, she probably had other things on her mind. For all his efforts at self-effacement, Young's book has the tone of The Simpsons' Waylon Smithers deciding to finally write a tell-all on Mr. Burns.

So Young's story has the sorts of larger-than-life characters—such as the sad, strange figure of Edwards' mistress, Rielle Hunter, portrayed as a woman whose delusions of settling down with Edwards aren't far removed from Young's dreams of being his right-hand man—and situations that Oscar hopefuls are made of, balanced with more intimate moments and countless oddball campaign anecdotes.

John Edwards - PETER SMITH VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Peter Smith via Wikimedia commons
  • John Edwards

Though he sometimes tends toward hyperbole, Sorkin wasn't exaggerating much when he said this story would have "lit Shakespeare up." It's a funhouse-mirror version of the kind of idealized politics that Sorkin delivered weekly on his greatest success, the long-running NBC White House drama The West Wing. While that show inspired a generation of young people to get into public service, The Politician portrays the realities that many of them likely encountered after they got to work.

A whole host of themes and scenes in The Politician feel like they could have come from The West Wing. Young's first encounter with a speech-giving Edwards is eerily like White House staffer Josh Lyman's first encounter with the future President Bartlet in The West Wing's flashback episodes. There's also an echoing of themes seen throughout Sorkin's film, TV and stage work.

The Politician deals with fathers. Young admits that in a way, Edwards was a substitute for his own father, who was also tainted by an adultery scandal. Exploring those levels—Young's projection, his estrangement from his family through his devotion to Edwards, Edwards' own betrayals as a father—has the potential to be an intriguing reversal of the recurring motifs in Sorkin's work. From A Few Good Men's Daniel Kaffee (whom local attorney Don Marcari claims is based on him, despite Sorkin's denial) to The Newsroom's Will McAvoy, Sorkin's protagonists often deal with the specters of disapproving, sometimes abusive fathers, with even the fictionalized Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network pinning his hopes for the nascent Facebook on his unseen father's approval.

The concept of devotion to unworthy father figures is one that Sorkin has mined—Sports Night and The West Wing both did stories about characters being disillusioned by the discovery that their fathers had long-term affairs. These were some of the best stories in Sorkin's work. The Newsroom greatly improved in its second season with an extended storyline about the investigation and reporting of a false scandal, though it punted much of its dramatic heft by making the story the result of an ambitious reporter sneakily editing a crucial interview.

The Social Network was a potentially problematic storyline for Sorkin, who has infamously railed against the Internet on several of his shows. Yet he managed to stay away from "the Internet is making us dumber and meaner" to tell a more intimate tale of how the building of an empire came at the expense of friendship. The accuracy of the overall tale is suspect, something the film itself admits, but as a dramatic story, it's first-rate.

Of course, the biggest question is how Sorkin would direct his own work. The Social Network worked because David Fincher went away from the Hollywood sheen of past Sorkin films such as A Few Good Men, grounding the tale in dark dorm rooms and a minimalist score by Trent Reznor. Imagine how differently the opening shots of Jesse Eisneberg skulking across Harvard's campus would have played if Fincher had gone with Sorkin's stage direction to use Paul Young's cover of "Love of the Common People" instead of Reznor's ominous ambient piano.

By applying the lessons of that film's success, Sorkin could get into self-satire, painting the glory days of the Edwards campaign in the glowing light of The West Wing before gradually curdling it into the shadowy scenes of The Social Network. Like any unmade film, the possibilities for Sorkin's The Politician are limitless until it actually gets made. But the potential is incredible—a story with rich roles, an exploration of the cult of personality surrounding Edwards in the early 2000s, a tragic tale of a flawed man who finds purpose in serving an even more flawed man.

Rather than taking a third stab at realizing The Newsroom's potential or getting bogged down in new projects, it might be worth Sorkin's while to take this uniquely North Carolinian tale of personal and political downfall and use it to explore the dark underbelly of the ideas that characterize his work. That, or he could just go back to writing the book for the Flaming Lips musical Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. I've always had a morbid curiosity about that.

President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in "The West Wing" - CREATIVE COMMONS
  • Creative Commons
  • President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in "The West Wing"

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    A third season of The Newsroom is a less exciting prospect than Sorkin adapting John Edwards expose The Politician

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

NC Theatre's Elf is lovely but forgettable holiday fare

At Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium through Sunday

Posted by on Wed, Nov 13, 2013 at 1:38 PM

While I'm not a die-hard fan of the 2003 Will Ferrell-in-tights holiday film Elf, I enjoyed it enough to notice all the times the stage musical version produced by NC Theatre strained to recreate a big laugh line from the film, or introduced some new element to the plot that didn't click. The musical overall is like a beautifully wrapped gift with a pair of socks inside: It's lovely to look at, but ultimately forgettable.

Will Blum stars as Buddy in Elf The Musical. - COPYRIGHT AMY BOYLE PHOTOGRAPHY 2013
  • copyright Amy Boyle Photography 2013
  • Will Blum stars as Buddy in Elf The Musical.

As the Santa-raised elf-man Buddy, Will Blum from Broadway's The Book of Mormon affects a high, childlike voice that sometimes sounds more like Michael Jackson than a joyous Christmas spirit. It doesn't help that the production depicts the elves in Santa's workshop as full-sized actors walking around on their knees. Obviously, the CGI used in the film to depict tiny humans alongside the immense Ferrell doesn't work on stage, but weren't any actors of appropriate size available? The effect is more unsettling than whimsical.

Elsewhere, the scene from the original with Peter Dinklage's high-strung author is cut for a lame joke about a manuscript and a paper shredder. It's not a matter of the original material being irreplaceable, but the new scenes are so forgettable as to make the difference more glaring.

In the film version of Elf, you have a whimsical character from a Christmas movie wandering into a movie-friendly but still not magical New York City, where his innocence and cheer contrast with the world-wary humans. The problem with adapting this to a musical is that when everyone is singing and dancing all the time, the contrast doesn't stand out as much. What remains is a selection of labored song-and-dance numbers (one brief song involves a DNA test). It's hard to tell whether it was due to technical problems or a lack of vocal range, but few of the musical songs projected much energy; many of the lyrics were drowned out by the orchestra, which was in fine form.

The sets, with scenic design by Christine Peters, upstage most of the actors in Elf. There are constant transitions between a bustling North Pole, a glittering Macy's Christmas display and plenty of New York scenery. The elaborate sets often feel like overcompensation for a thin script, as do the colorful costumes by Gregg Barnes. There's all manner of jokes about iPads, TiVo and even a localized quip about ECU, but there's relatively little wit in the overall book.

The best work comes from bit players such as Kevyn Morrow, who does some fancy footwork as a cynical store manager, and Lanene Charters as a brassy secretary. (She's more memorable than the actual love interest, Jovie, whose drab personality Lindsay Nicole Chambers can't overcome.)

Elf suffers from the same problem as many other film-to-stage adaptations: All the effort to make the live experience seem as spectacular as a big-budget movie often results in such elements as good dialogue and memorable characters being shuttered. It's not without its charm, and younger theatergoers likely will enjoy the scenery. But there's nothing as funny as Will Ferrell recoiling in fear from a jack-in-the-box popping in his face from the original movie. You can build all the giant sets you want, but it's still hard to top the sight of that man in tights.

Now, if someone wanted to do a musical version of Love Actually...

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    The musical based on the movie doesn't translate so well from the silver screen to the stage.

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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A novice attempts to understand Cats at new NC Theatre production

Through Sunday at Memorial Auditorium

Posted by on Wed, Oct 9, 2013 at 7:14 PM

Grizabella (Jennifer Shrader) confronts kitty mortality in Cats.
  • Curtis Brown
  • Grizabella (Jennifer Shrader) confronts kitty mortality in "Cats."

CATS
YMMV
NC Theatre
Through Oct. 13

When I was a kid, my parents used to read me T.S. Eliot's poems from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats; as a teen, I owned a best-of-Andrew Lloyd Webber CD before I got into more Sondheim-y composers.

And yet, I had never seen Cats, Webber's massively long-running staging of Eliot's poems, until NC Theatre's production at Duke Energy Center's Memorial Auditorium.

The reason was simple: By the time I was old enough to go to stage shows myself, I had already experienced countless parodies of Cats on various TV shows (most notably Chris Elliott's immortal "Zoo Animals on Wheels") and had already built up a firm prejudice against Webber's play. It didn't help that it looked like a cross between the trauma-inducing kids' show Zoobilee Zoo and my preferred brand of cat-people, the kind who battled Mumm-Ra the Ever-Living.

But it is one thing to judge by reputation, and another to judge through actual experience. So, I attended opening night determined not just to review Cats, but to understand what has made it both the second-longest-running show on Broadway and a perpetual punch line for theater pundits.

The first thing I noted was that Eliot's wordplay and subtle commentary on the corollaries between human and feline behavior is not exactly an ideal fit for the more-is-more production style of Cameron Mackintosh, the Jerry Bruckheimer of musicals (Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera). The sprawling junkyard set provided by FLCO Music Theatre, and the garish spandex-and-fur costumes from the Kansas City Costume Company, give the sense that whatever you've paid for the ticket, NC Theatre at least sunk every penny back into putting on the show.

There's also a full set of colorful felines constantly in motion, doing all manner of Cirque du Soleil-level flips and fancy footwork, is also a bang for one's buck. And then there's the infamous moments where the cast heads out into the audience, thus ensuring that you get a good look at the cat makeup for yourself.

Assuming you aren't blinded by the Day-Glo spandex and/or traumatized by the visits to the audience, you might start to notice that this show doesn't really have a plot. There's a vague through-line about the elder Old Deuteronomy (Ken Prymus, who was in the "Suicide is Painless" sequence in the original M*A*S*H film) deciding which cat will be reborn into a new life (don't cats have nine already?). Will it be the enfeebled and disliked Grizabella (Jennifer Shrader), who performs the show's most famous piece, the non-Eliot ballad "Memory"?

Ah, "Memory." Lovely when performed by an actress of range and projection; deathly when mutilated by endless aspiring actors, lounge singers and elevator music. This was a part of the show I knew already, and Shrader pulls it off. However, I was a bit puzzled by how little the rebirth plot, and Grizabella herself, figured into the overall show. And I was appalled by how the whole thing ends with a literal stairway to heaven.

Were not sure what this is, and we were there
  • Curtis Brown
  • We're not sure what this is, and we were there

I found myself enjoying the numbers that stuck more to the simple narratives of the original poems without adding too much bombast. For example, you can get through the whole opening song and still not understand what the hell a "Jellicle Cat" is (it's a simple mispronunciation of "dear little cat" in the poems). Whatever my perception of the Rum Tum Tugger (Thay Floyd), I didn't expect him to resemble the love child of Marc Bolan and Sun Ra.

Likewise, I never envisioned the criminal cat Macavity (Joe Moeller) in orange spandex painted with hell-flames, but there's always an artistic license that comes with symbolic representation, I think, maybe.

When all the stuff with reincarnation and feline ballet is out of the picture, there's a nice, simple quality that can be quite charming. The Mungojerre and Rumpleteazer number (with Will Porter and Amanda LaMotte as the respective tongue-twisting troublemakers) is a nifty little soft-shoe piece, while the second act gains considerable energy and poignancy from Dirk Lumbard as "Gus, the Theatre Cat," who enacts the pirate tale "Growltiger's Last Stand." It's a goofy bit that still has some of the wit of the original Eliot lines. Likewise, the jazzy "Macavity" is a playful take on a playful poem, but the whole hell-demon symbolism is a bit much.

My feelings on Cats remain conflicted. On one hand, I can see where the spectacle and raw energy captivate audiences—credit the direction and choreography by Richard Stafford and the music direction by Edward Robinson for keeping pace with the intricate sound and movement required by the production. Yet, while I appreciate the elaborateness of the show, I kept wishing that about half of it was on the chopping block, that there was a simpler Cats that just acted out a few of the poems for kids and didn't try to cover up its plot holes with dance numbers and glitter.

There was a nice moment at the end of the evening, though. The couple sitting alongside me expressed their bewilderment at what they'd just seen. They took my advice to check out Eliot's poems, which were conveniently for sale at the lobby's souvenir stand. Perhaps, like many a musical-theater snob, i will never fully comprehend Cats. But it's nice to know I'm not alone, and that for all the spandex and all of the actors' horrific ventures into the audience, it'll at least get some people to experience Eliot's work.

Well, that's one more pop-cultural black hole checked off. I'm still not sure about reading 50 Shades of Grey all the way through, though.

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    It is one thing to judge Cats by reputation, and another to judge through actual experience.

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Friday, August 9, 2013

Laughter overflows in Theatre Raleigh's dystopian romp Urinetown

Posted by on Fri, Aug 9, 2013 at 5:23 PM

Some of the supporting cast from Theatre Raleigh/Hot Summer Nights' URINETOWN. - COURTESY OF GOLDEN RELATIONS
  • Courtesy of Golden Relations
  • Some of the supporting cast from Theatre Raleigh/Hot Summer Nights' URINETOWN.

URINETOWN 
★★★★
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!


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    Our recommendation for the funny musical with the awful title: You gotta go!

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Monday, July 8, 2013

What Every Girl Should Know to play NYC Fringe Festival; Indiegogo campaign begins

Posted by on Mon, Jul 8, 2013 at 2:31 PM

Margaret Sanger, in the NYC Fringe program ad
  • Monica Byrne
  • Margaret Sanger, in the NYC Fringe program ad for WHAT EVERY GIRL SHOULD KNOW
After its award-winning premiere in 2012, WHAT EVERY GIRL SHOULD KNOW, Durham playwright Monica Byrne’s speculative drama based on the history of birth control in the United States, is getting an extended life this summer.

The work will be presented in August at the New York International Fringe Festival, running for five performances Aug. 15—24 at The Robert Moss Theatre in lower Manhattan. A fundraising campaign supporting the production was launched this morning on indiegogo.com.

Set in a Lower East Side Catholic reformatory in 1914, the provocative 90-minute one-act mixes dark humor and social criticism with magical realism as it follows a group of four indigent teenage girls. Through literary contraband smuggled in by a new arrival, the girls learn about the work of Margaret Sanger, one of the founders of the birth control movement. When the quartet adopts her as their secret saint in rituals in their upstairs dorm room, their imaginations are liberated far beyond their dingy quarters, before their faith manifests itself in increasingly mysterious ways.

The play was commissioned by Durham's Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, which premiered the work in April 2012. The production was cited among the year's best ensembles, direction, original scripts and productions in INDY Week's List for 2012.

In an online video for the indiegogo campaign, Byrne notes, “One of the things I realized as I was writing this play is that the life these girls envisioned for themselves, the life they fantasized about themselves, is the life that I am leading now, one century later. And it’s because of the efforts of people like Margaret Sanger who believed that women should lead a life of their choosing.”

Noting the increase in legislative attacks against women’s health services in recent years, Byrne writes, “We need to understand the physical realities of these threats. My play is about the world that is possible when young women have sovereignty over their bodies, and the reality they face when they don’t.”

The New York production will be directed by Jaki Bradley, who worked in the Triangle theater scene while a drama student at UNC Chapel Hill. The production’s website is saintmargaretsanger.com; the indiegogo campaign is at www.indiegogo.com/projects/what-every-girl-should-know.

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    Monica Byrne’s speculative drama on the history of birth control in the United States, WHAT EVERY GIRL SHOULD KNOW, plays New York in August.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Moving testimony from former slaves: Bare Theatre's Let Them Be Heard

Posted by on Wed, Jun 12, 2013 at 4:42 PM

Philip B. Smith and Justin Smith in LET THEM BE HEARD
  • Jason Bailey
  • Philip B. Smith and Justin Smith in LET THEM BE HEARD
LET THEM BE HEARD


Bare Theatre
Stagville State Historic Site
7, 8 and 9 p.m., June 14 and 15

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.

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    In this moving show, we walk in the footsteps of former N.C. slaves—and hear their testimony, verbatim.

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Monday, May 13, 2013

Update: Longtime regional director Haskell Fitz-Simons dies at 64

Posted by on Mon, May 13, 2013 at 11:36 AM

Haskell Fitz-Simons
UPDATE May 14 5:00pm: The funeral for Haskell Fitz-Simons' will be Tuesday, May 21 at 4 p.m. at St. Michael's Episcopal Church, 1520 Canterbury Road, Raleigh. A reception will follow in the church's fellowship hall. The family has requested that in lieu of flowers donations be made to Raleigh Little Theatre or Wake County Animal Shelter.

Haskell Fitz-Simons, the longtime artistic director of Raleigh Little Theatre, died last night at UNC Hospitals following a lengthy battle with lymphoma. He was 64. The Chapel Hill native had served as a director at the prominent Raleigh community theater for 30 years, joining the company in 1983. Before that, Fitz-Simons had been a drama and speech instructor at University of Wisconsin at Superior. His theatrical resume included work with the Light Opera of Manhattan, an apprenticeship at the Alley Theatre in Houston, and seasons with the Manteo, N.C., outdoor drama The Lost Colony. Fitz-Simons earned his MFA in theater from UNC Chapel Hill in 1979.

“His death was so sudden and unexpected,” RLT executive director Charles Phaneuf said this morning.

“From the outpouring of support, it's clear that his legacy is not only about the fact that he directed so many shows for us and was here for so many years. People today are talking about the spirit of Haskell, his mentorship, and how many lives he touched.”

Fitz-Simons came to the stage from a theatrical family. As a child, he performed with other family members in summer productions of Unto These Hills, the Cherokee, N.C., outdoor drama. His parents also had a hand in notable early productions by Raleigh Little Theatre. In 1936, his mother, born Marion Tatum, directed RLT's second production, the African-American drama Heaven Bound; Fitz-Simons would later direct her in a 1984 RLT production of Deathtrap. His father, Foster, was a novelist, a dancer who worked with modern dance choreographer Ted Shawn, and an actor who performed at RLT in the 1940s and taught at UNC Chapel Hill’s Department of Dramatic Art.

Fitz-Simons’ last production for the company was a December 2012 restaging of the company's holiday classic, Cinderella. He also directed The Rocky Horror Show in August and The 39 Steps in October.

Funeral and memorial service arrangements are incomplete.

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    Haskell Fitz-Simons, beloved longtime artistic director at Raleigh Little Theater, died this weekend. He was 64.

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Friday, May 10, 2013

A loopy musical send-up with a heart: this Drowsy Chaperone's no sleeper

Posted by on Fri, May 10, 2013 at 1:58 PM

She doesnt really want to show off: Paige Faure as unwilling Broadway bombshell Janet Van De Graaff  in THE DROWSY CHAPERONE
  • Curtis Brown
  • She doesn't really want to show off: Paige Faure as unwilling Broadway bombshell Janet Van De Graaff, in THE DROWSY CHAPERONE
THE DROWSY CHAPERONE


North Carolina Theatre
Through May 12

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.

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    This production marks Clay Aiken's return to the site of some of his earliest stage work.

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