Growth observed—and growth still needed: Theater of the American South Festival 2010 | Arts
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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Growth observed—and growth still needed: Theater of the American South Festival 2010

Posted by on Sat, May 29, 2010 at 12:00 PM

3 stars

Boykin Cultural Center, Wilson NC
Through May 30

3 stars

Kennedy & Campbell Theater
Barton College, Wilson NC
Through May 30

WILSON, NC—It’s clear: The decisions are the ones you’d probably make if you were producing a major regional theater festival here, in a part of North Carolina formerly most renowned for world-class barbecue and audacious outsider art. Mix classics with contemporary, comedy with drama, a large cast show with a smaller, more intimate work—and, if you’re compelled to gamble, known with unknown. Recruit the region’s professional talent for creative management and leading roles in one show. Then slate a change-up for the second—someone with good credentials from out of town, or out of state.

Stir, then serve in repertory: the larger show in a medium-sized, old-style (but only partially renovated) proscenium theater, a venerable venue whose architecture telegraphs its vivid past in film and vaudeville. Place the smaller work in an intimate black box across town. Market with literary, historical, cultural—and, this being the South, culinary—tie-ins, and promote not only through the region as a tourism destination but within North Carolina as a whole and beyond.

So why don’t what seem to be best practices result in best outcomes for the fifth anniversary of the THEATER OF THE AMERICAN SOUTH festival? For, after a 40-minute trip from downtown Raleigh to this charming small eastern North Carolina college town, once again we witness the struggles we’ve seen before between aesthetic strengths and practical weaknesses in the two main stage productions that anchor this annual event.

It’s a dilemma: Almost by definition, a regional festival has to be a standout. To guarantee its long term survival, a festival really has little choice but to consistently produce work either at that region’s highest level of achievement, or above it.

Perhaps that sounds extreme. But consider for a moment: If audiences can see better work in their own communities, why head to Wilson? If the festival’s work is only equal to the local art, why add a solid one- or two-hour round-trip commute from the Triangle on top of an evening’s entertainment?

The issue becomes more pointed the greater the distance one has to travel. Will cultural tourists ever darken a theater’s door again? And what will they tell the neighbors back home? The answer rests on how worthwhile they found the work the first time.

The closing figures from this year's edition, after the jump.

It’s tempting to say that professional casting works—as far as it goes—in THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, an atmospheric stage adaptation of Carson McCullers' memorable 1946 female coming of age novel. Noted regional actor—and chanteuse—Yolanda Rabun effectively collaborates with director Adam Twiss to ground this production with her work as Berenice, the stern but compassionate African-American cook and nanny hired to watch over the title character, in a performance worth the drive from Raleigh, Durham—or just about anywhere else, for that matter.

Berenice’s charge is Frankie, a theatrically-inclined, emotionally impetuous 12-year-old tomboy who finds herself a misfit in the social structures of a small Southern town. With her mother long since dead, her father emotionally distant, and her older brother, Jarvis, abruptly about to marry while home on military leave, and move with his wife to a town more than an hour away, Frankie suddenly finds herself, in McCullers' words, an “unjoined person.” Abandonment issues overwhelm her: “Everyone belongs to a ‘we,’ except me,” she observes. Then she desperately seizes on the wording of the nuptial social announcement as implying that, as a “member of the wedding,” she will automatically be included along in her brother and his bride’s honeymoon and their new life, far away.

But Fletcher Duke’s Jarvis displayed no perceptible chemistry with his conflicted sister Frankie when we saw his work on opening weekend, and no believable sparks flew between him and an underdeveloped Jessie Jones as Janice, his whirlwind bride-to-be. As a result, we don’t believe them, their relationship—and with it, whatever compels Frankie to cling to him or them in the first place. Given the plot, this is not a small matter.

There are reasons why a critic should exercise due discretion in publicly faulting a child actor’s performance. With a good audition—and a resumé including substantial network cable and film work already to her credit, along with professional representation in New York—one could easily understand how Madeleine Chloe Taylor was cast as the title character in this production. But on opening weekend, we learned that the emotional depths and complexities of Frankie remained beyond the scope of this still developing young actor. Stage acting is different than performing for the camera, we recalled, as Taylor’s scenes did not so much build as roughly transition and plateau among differing emotional planes, while the actor blurted her lines on occasion through both acts. Taylor needs more development in stage acting before her next lead—or supporting—role in live theater.

William Wilkins brought appropriate tension—and reserve—to the supporting role of T.T. Williams, a black man who must conduct himself carefully in a wealthy white man’s house in the time of Jim Crow.

As mentioned above, Rabun’s work as Berenice conveyed a well-rounded character, a compelling combination of temper, patience, wisdom, full-throated humor—and chilling fear when her own son’s life is threatened. When her fellow lead and too many in the supporting cast could not match her level of professionalism, an uneven Member of the Wedding ultimately suggested a work from the middle levels of regional community theater—not, in short, where a festival flagship production needs to be.

— — —

I’ll confess to conflicting views on author—and raconteur—Peter Neofotis’ live theatrical performance of CONCORD, VIRGINIA. I understand that Mr. Neofotis performs different tales on various occasions under this title, all drawn from his collection of short stories of the same name, published last year by St. Martin’s Press. My conclusions here are based on the two chapters he selected for his main stage performances at the festival: The Heiress and The Ancients. (Neofotis performed another work, The Botanist, which I read but did not cover, during a solo, late-night show.)

Good writing is inescapably a matter of voice. It involves clearly hearing the voice of the character who tells the tale to begin with, and then attempting to replicate that voice with full fidelity on this civilization’s first, surprisingly successful attempt at inventing the tape recorder: the printed page.

Author Peter Neofotis in Concord, Virginia
  • Author Peter Neofotis in Concord, Virginia
And voice is, decidedly, Neofotis’ strong suit, a truth we find reinforced in his performance of his works. It’s an achievement which should be celebrated and encouraged to continue.

It’s easy to interpret both of these tales as being told by the same person. With discreetly knowing references to good land, good liquor and the General—why, Lee, of course—Neofotis’ narrator is clearly an insider, a descendant of that peculiar rural aristocracy of history, privilege and race known as the Old South.

In what qualifies as one of the most mannered performances I’ve seen in years, the author’s vocal tone and bearing in performance nearly suggests the somewhat Southern version of a Katherine Hepburn or a male counterpart, in the latter decades of life. The narrator’s voice quivers with strong opinion—and, apparently, some age—on events dating back before the middle of the last century.

“The Carlisles stunk of money,” our witness relates, before describing their errant son who “distinguished himself as an ambitious drinker” at college. In such elegantly patrician phrases, the one who weaves these tales genteelly conveys sharp-eyed social expectations and received wisdom about human nature. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, famously quoted as saying, “If you haven’t anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me,” would likely have loved our narrator’s company, since the speaker only suffers fools long enough to tell us, with deep satisfaction, about their well-earned comeuppance and downfall.

In Neofotis' world, blood is blood and land is land; to knowingly transgress against either is to invite distinctly less than tender mercies. When the bottom lines finally arrive for several of these characters, their deepest held sentiments are equally likely to be inscribed on the wings of their oratory—or the tips of their bullets.

For all of this, I still have the nagging sense that Neofotis has been indulged to some degree by his editors. The feeling comes when I sense that the author has taken each of these tales one or two crucial plot points too far, past believability, into the realm of Southern Gothic.

Yes, I’m well acquainted with the ancient temptation of all storytellers. I’m also aware that part of being an artist at the height of his powers involves knowing exactly when to stop. Something essential in Neofotis’ beloved Fork River is conveyed, pristine and intact, in the enviable economy of his poetic prose. While a metaphorical shark fin may thrill the audience—momentarily—when it breaks the surface, ultimately its appearance must detract from the tale’s verisimilitude. For a voice as memorable as the one encountered here, that really shouldn’t be allowed to happen.

Is it that impressive a memory feat when the author performs both works verbatim? Any actor performing a one-person show does the same. Still, in translating all of the words from page to stage, some expository and descriptive passages predictably lose some of the show’s momentum. Though the work regains it soon enough, some editing for stage would still be wise.

Another unavoidable conclusion: If he is to truly capitalize on the live performance of his works, Mr. Neofotis still requires more training in public performance. Distracting habitual personal gestures with hands, hair and posture, and occasional, nearly choreographic flamboyances repeatedly pull the audience's focus: They draw our attention from the story to the storyteller, and sabotage the dramatic moment. What seem to be random stage movements at times lead us to wander, visually and mentally. And at the height of his character’s passions, Neofotis’ actions and voice momentarily appear to slip out of his control.

These thrilling, funny and poignant tales of against-the-odds victories, poetic justice and poetic revenge, and a changing world held imperfectly at bay through applied hoodoo—and world-class moonshine—are clearly tales written to be told. Gifted monologists of either gender could make a first-class show of the material here (and the author should strongly consider licensing his work). But if Neofotis wishes to join them on the stage, he still has a bit more developing left to do in his own performance of his work. I wish him well.

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