Titmus Theatre, NCSU
Through Nov. 1
We discontinued regular critical review of NCSU University Theatre productions in March 2007, when the program vacated its Thompson Theater site at the start of what became a two-year physical upgrade of that facility. At the time, we praised the long-term strengths of the program at N.C. State, including its enviable design team, which routinely distinguished itself in costume, set, lighting and special effects (see "Unknown pleasures").
We also diagnosed difficulties of equally long duration we had found at N.C. State, involving frequently problematic acting and direction in its main-stage productions. We then recommended that the university's "upgraded theater should have in it actors whose abilities have been upgraded as well—through additional systemic coursework and training, by full-time teaching artists" whose work matches the professional standards we already saw in its design team. We observed, "[I]t makes precious little sense to enhance the Thompson Building without solid plans in place to enhance the program that will ultimately inhabit it."
So I was eager to hear this spring from John McIlwee—director of the University Theater and a costume designer of long renown—that he'd secured funding for several new positions. In April, Allison Bergman came on board as UT's assistant director, boasting an M.F.A. in directing from Carnegie Mellon and directing credits in Los Angeles and New York (with a pair of Drama-Logue awards for her troubles).
Since none of us expected an overnight shift in production values, I saw—but did not review at the time—the University Theatre production of Amadeus in September. I caught the second show of their current season, Blue, last weekend. Ms. Bergman's credit in the production of Amadeus, as acting coach, was absent in the playbill for Blue, a main-stage production marking the directing debut of the program's marketing, projects and graphic designer, Ronald A. Foreman, a young man who has appeared a number of times on the Thompson Theater stage.
If an occasion ever merited some seasoned acting and directorial backup, this would appear to be it.
The outcome was familiar and largely unsurprising for longtime viewers of University Theatre productions. We saw wobbly acting with occasional flashes of inspiration on the part of students who had been wittily, artfully dressed to the nines on a set that was tastefully designed and lit. A memorable performance by special guest—and former faculty member—Dr. Patricia Caple was complemented by a sensitive, nuanced reading by new actor Bryce Davis, who should be encouraged to return to the stage as quickly as possible.
But elsewhere, we saw reductive, one-note character composition choices, an unfortunate casting decision or two and the occasional directing gaffe that had actors suddenly addressing their dialogue with another character directly to the audience. Charles Randolph-Wright's soapy script indulged in melodrama; Nona Hendryx's urban contemporary song suite, which a sharp-looking Anthony L. Hardison only sometimes was able to sing in tune, dragged things out in Act 2.
All in all, it was par for the course, or even a bit better, for a beginning director who somehow found himself handed the keys to a university main-stage production.
But Blue leaves us wondering where the backup was. We wonder when personnel with professional training in directing and acting—and who've achieved distinction in those fields—will be permitted to actually practice their craft on the University Theatre's main stage in something beside an advisory role. Their presence and professional contribution is needed.