All the King's Men, Part One: Hope of the Heart, Burning Coal Theater (**** 1/2 stars) All the King's Men, Part Two: Willie Stark, Burning Coal Theater.
This sprawling, broad-canvas adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren is in many ways the most ambitious, most imaginative and most accomplished work of the season to date, a must-see for regional theater-goers. A uniformly strong ensemble under the direction of the legendary Adrian Hall renders a vivid cyclorama of one Southern century.
But Warren's web of history is particularly tangled during the first part of this double-header. Hall elects to begin his tale in the novel's chapter four, where a packet of written memoirs takes us back and forth between the worlds of a 19th-century abolitionist and distant relative Jack Burden, a cynical, dissolute graduate student studying them in a state college in the deep South in the 1920s.
There's no shortage of fine acting in Part One. Stephen Roten makes Jack a likable cynic, while Sarah Fallon defines icy, fatal beauty as seductress Annabelle Trice. Still, Hall's flashbacks within flashbacks come so fast and brief at times that the audience occasionally gets snarled in a tangled historical web.
Such difficulties are ironed out in Part Two, a fictionalized recounting of the rise and fall of Louisiana governor Huey Long. As a cavalcade of calendar pages fall, we watch Dan Kenney take the role of Willie Stark, from gubernatorial patsy to the power-hungry manipulator of a formidable political machine. Burden helps him do this, along with acidic lieutenant Sadie Burke (Fallon again, in a memorable supporting role) and David Klionsky as personal aide, Sugar-Boy.
Though Stark walks over political hacks like Tiny Duffy (given a rich reading here by Carl Martin), he cannot budge the principled Judge Irwin. Mitch Butts is marvelous in this role; an implacable force, resonant with gravitas, and the chemistry between Jack and the Judge is something to behold.
Still, one thing All the King's Men desperately needs at this point is an original score. The half-cynical, half-nostalgic remembrances of a childhood in the Southland fueled Randy Newman's concept album Good Old Boys, but Hall's attempts to plug Newman's classic tunes into different scenes don't always work. "The Debutantes' Ball" nicely propels a dream sequence with gentle satire, but event-specific songs like "Louisiana 1947" and "Rednecks" descend into non-sequitur or anachronism when attempting the same thing. And why did Hall all but erase one of Warren's dramatic climaxes--the attempted impeachment of Willie Stark--by substituting Newman's song The Kingfish for it instead?
These, however, are brief interruptions in a vividly realized world. As Stark's political and personal fortunes wax and wane, good walks hand in hand with evil in Warren's world. For better and worse, a series of vivid characters get caught up in Stark's sociopolitical vortex: Jeri Lynn Schulke as a vivid Anne Stanton; a notable Lynne Marie Guilielmi as Stark's too-ethical wife, Lucy; Greg Paul as Jack's addled father, and Lynda Clark as Jack's mother.
The result is an intricate, multi-generational recounting of a political and personal disaster--one which permanently informs the ethics of those not absolutely ruined in the process. Compelling history, compelling theater--clearly one of the season's high points.
Reviews & Openings
Other notable openings:
Julius Caesar, Shakespeare & Originals; Stomp, Broadway Series South; Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam, Carolina Union; Charlotte's Web, Theatreworks, Carolina Theatre (Durham).
**** 1/2 Sea Marks, Ghost & Spice/Wordshed--At its best, John Murphy's performance as Colm, a 55-year-old hermit and fisherman of the British Islands, recalls nothing so much as the sharp austerity and loneliness of Benjamin Britten's music for the sea, in this lovely--and nearly optimal--production of Gardner McKay's romantic drama. The unsentimental but deep poetry of nature which Colm reveals in a series of letters wins the heart of Timothea, a Liverpool publisher's assistant who visited the island once for a wedding. But, McKay's resonant script asks, is loving the writing the same as loving the man? And can a city girl find common ground on which to construct a relationship with a man of the sea? Nicole Farmer Taylor is clearly Murphy's match as a Timothea whose personal and literary proprieties are sometimes engagingly derailed by memories of a Welsh farm childhood, in this sharp and charming show.
**** The Rainmaker, Triad Stage--At a glance, you know the wheels are set for tragedy. On a failing farm outside a small western town in time of drought some 50 years ago, a woman no longer young, raised in a house filled with plain-spoken men, realizes she's a romantic washout because of it. The farmhouse is too small for a younger brother chafing under the joyless rule of the older one, whose dreams died long ago. Enter a con man who might be on the run from the law--and a local lawman living a lie.
The body count should include most of the principal characters and half of the supporting cast, right?
But N. Richard Nash constructs a comedy instead, and a metaphor on the aridity of life in the absence of hope, faith--and myth. Yes, the 1954 plot may be just a shade too pat for some, but director Preston Lane's strong ensemble makes the case for it on Robin Vest's vivid, iconic set--even if we never entirely buy Tommy Lee Jones-lookalike Steven Rishard's performance in the title role.
The irate early notes of Elisabeth Ritson's performance as Lizzie belie later realizations as faded as Anne Porterfield's pitch-perfect period costumes. Ed Pilkington truly digs into role of an aged father still willing to take a chance on something unseen, and Michael Legg fits the bill as the faithless elder son, Noah. Jeff Talbott thankfully doesn't milk the stereotypical slow notes of lawman File, Lizzie's hypothetical beau. When they get together, watching two totally inept potential lovers painfully figure out how to court one another keeps us on tenterhooks.
Though Rishard's character lacks a charlatan's true magic or charisma, the rest of the cast acts as though it does--a feat as impressive itself as the rest of the work onstage. In doing, they fully save the show--and earn the recommendation for that trip to Greensboro.
** 1/2 Bird of Paradise Dew Drop Inn: The House of Blues, Front Porch Productions--In writer/director Dorothy Clark's world, a juke joint provides another form of group therapy--a place where, in the spiritually-tinged words of proprietor Eula Mae Johnson, "you can bring your pain, right here to this floor, and leave it there." Indeed, three characters testify in separate spot-lit dramatic monologues about their past, amidst rewarding comedic club scenes and tasteful interludes by Bobby Hinton's blues band. As the spurned, frustrated Ralph, Gil Faison's is the most convincing; when told to "act like a man," he ultimately concludes, "they better hope I keep on acting...and not explode." And you don't have to know that unwed mother Shirley and the younger, insecure Emma Jean love the same man to see the former as the latter character's future.
Still, the narratives tend to bog down in the mechanics of character exposition, the details of stories already too familiar in our culture: the woman without value without a man, the pregnant teen, the black man struggling to keep some threads of dignity intact. Since the playwright has disclosed each character's situation, she's free now to zero in on what makes each individual, unique. Since the evening ends early, even with musical numbers that take up half the show, there's plenty of time to do so.
We loved Jewelyn Dunn and James Fann's vocal stylings, and comedian Rosa Williams' schemes as Avis to take the stage for her addled musical solo (hey, where's her monologue?), but we never do understand how the crazy Blues Lady winds up as guest therapist for the evening. Even so, when Clark makes the case for the place, she makes us want to spend more time and get to know it better.
*1/2 Jackie O, Long Leaf Opera--Considerable musicianship is at work, from cellist Clark Wang's stinging solo requiem to Elisabeth Grayson's luminous lead soprano, with substantial support from vocalists Rick Piersall as Ari Onassis and Charles Stanton as Andy Warhol. But when '70s icons Liz Taylor, Grace Kelly and Ms. Onassis expound at embarrassing length on how hard it is to be worshipped by millions, and insincerely protest "I want to be ordinary--but I can't," it's clear this work's real subject is its creators' narcissism, and not a presidential wife's biography.
Though Jackie O promises a kitschy romp through the dawn of pop culture, Michael Daugherty and Wayne Koestenbaum's nauseating opera is a lot more like watching drag queens at an estate sale, eagerly pawing through the personal effects of the deceased. Thus reduced, "Jackie" can tastefully (of course) grieve the loss of John F. Kennedy--without losing a milliwatt of fabulousness. Imagine.
In librettist Koestenbaum's negative synecdoche, the surface of style is always taken for the whole, as soulless icons mouth soundbites from speeches by JFK, almost as if they meant something. The spectacle of Maria Callas trading beauty tips with Ms. Onassis at what looks like JFK's tomb redefines the word "unseemly." Daughtery's uneven score isn't even a triumph of style over substance--not with vocal warm-up scales masquerading as songs like "1968."
The pair stage the penultimate scene like small kids playing with dolls, projecting their own desires for fame and adoration on surfaces that by now have grown quite smooth and cold. Since the dead cannot object to such appropriations, the living have to.