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Byron Woods 

Remembered stories

Local playwright Scott Davis can still summon up his first experiences with the stories of eastern European author I. L. Peretz, from his childhood in Southern California.

"The Jewish school there taught Jewish literature, history and culture," Davis recalls, "and we read the stories of the three Zaydes--or grandfathers--of Jewish literature: Mendele Mocher Sforim, Sholom Aleichem and I. L. Peretz. Peretz's stories didn't have as raucous a sense of humor as Sholom Aleichem's, but his characters were deeper, broader--and in some ways darker, although he still had a sense of humor."

In Bontshe Shvayg (Bontshe the Silent), when a good, stoic man is rewarded in the afterlife with anything his heart desires, what he asks for stuns and humbles Heaven. A stern Talmud scholar, a mystic Chassidic rebbe, and a free-thinking Yiddish writing teacher have different answers for an orphan boy who asks them What is a Soul? And a suspicious, skeptical Lithuanian Jew investigates the regular disappearances of the Rebbe of a nearby town--and learns something new about the nature of good deeds, or tzedakah--in the tale If Not Still Higher.

Davis' adaptations of these three stories form the play Souls Are Flying! Actors Comedy Lab and Temple Beth Or co-produce a staged reading of the new work Sunday, Oct. 19 and Monday, Oct. 20.

After a childhood in Yiddish theater, Davis rediscovered the power of Peretz' stories two years ago, as he read them to a 9th grade class on ethics and values at Temple Beth Or. "I was surprised at how attentive the students were. As I read, I realized that they were written for Jews at the turn of the 20th century, and a lot of the subject matter might be foreign to students today. I wanted to find a way to take those stories and explain what they were talking about."

After Davis "shyly" presented the idea to Rod and Nancy Rich who, along with Jack and Bunny Safron, are co-producers of of Actors Comedy Lab, they agreed to read his script. One week later they called back and said they wanted to stage a public reading of the work. "They were just lovely," says Bunny Safron, "fantasies, but with morals--they just make you smile."

The staged reading, the second in as many months devoted to Jewish theater, comes during a year where at least two companies devoted to the art form have emerged in the area. After Second Avenue South's debut last month, a new group called Theater Or--Theater of Light--will produce The Chosen in January, as part of a year of cultural, religious and artistic events commemorating the construction of a new synagogue at Judea Reform in Durham. In the same series, Britain's Sol Reichlin, who begins the off-Broadway stand of his one-man show, Sholom Aleichem: Now You're Talking in December, brings it to Durham first, at Judea Reform on Saturday, Nov. 8.

The American premiere of A Prayer for Owen Meany at Playmakers Rep this week reminds us that their season calendar was erroneously omitted by the editors of the Indy's Fall Guide last month. After Prayer closes Nov. 9, the 1915 British comedy Hobson's Choice bows at PRC Nov. 26-Dec. 21. King Lear starts the new year Jan. 14-Feb. 8, before a revival of the 1964 comedy The Subject Was Roses , Feb. 28-Mar. 21. Artistic director David Hammond closes the season with another American premiere: Nick Stafford's Luminosity, running Apr. 7-May 2.

While we're correcting errors, I've got two of my own to amend. Lakeetha Blakeney was joined onstage by Dalmar Montgomery in the latest version of Minstrel Show: The Lynching of Willie Brown at Manbites Dog Theater, and not Nathan Crocker, who appeared in the original Manbites Dog production. And the correct spelling of Loveseat Theater's redoubtable artistic director is Katja Hill, not Hall. I regret these errors. EndBlock

Reviews & Openings
Other notable openings:
Handler, Raleigh Ensemble Players; Underneath the Lintel, Flying Machine; Carmina Burana/Firebird, Carolina Ballet; Choreo Collective, Culture Crawl, Wellness Partners in the Arts; Dee Dee Bridgewater sings Kurt Weill, Stewart Theater, NC State; Diary of Anne Frank, NC Kids Theater, Durham Arts Council; After Hours, Duke Dance, Duke Museum of Art; The Foreigner, Towne Players of Garner; Not About Nightingales, NCSU University Theater; Othello, Aquilla Theatre, Duke Institute for the Arts, Page Auditorium; Schoolhouse Rock Live, Raleigh Little Theatre; Tibetan Dance, NC Museum of Art; Terri Tempest Williams, NC Museum of Natural Sciences; The Wiz, Hoof 'n' Horn, Sheafer Theater, Duke.

**** All the King's Men , Part One: Hope of the Heart
**** 1/2 All the King's Men , Part Two: Willie Stark , Burning Coal Theater--A strong ensemble gets a real workout in theater legend Adrian Hall's sprawling, broad-canvas adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's famous novel. The result is an epic cyclorama of one Southern century--clearly the most ambitious, most imaginative and most accomplished work of the season to date, a must-see for regional theater-goers.

In the expositional preoccupations and tangled flashbacks-within-flashbacks of Part One, dissolute grad student Jack Burden, the novel's narrator, uncovers the true nature of History as he gradually unthreads the mystery of distant relative and 19th-century Abolitionist Cass Masters. Then, in Part Two, Burden himself is caught up in the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a politician based on populist Louisiana governor Huey Long.

Stephen Roten makes Burden a likable cynic, while Dan Kenney embodies Stark's transformation from gubernatorial patsy to the savvy manipulator of a political machine. Singular support comes from Sarah Fallon as icy Annabelle Trice and acidic political lieutenant Sadie Burke; Carl Martin, who simply channels redneck political hack Tiny Duffy; and Mitch Butts, a standout as both Duncan Trice and Judge Irwin. But solid performances from Jeri Lynn Schulke, David Byron Hudson, David Klionsky, Lynne Marie Guilielmi, Greg Paul, Lynda Clark and Bob Barr give this world much of its authority.

Despite the steady hands of Harrison Fisher, Kings Men strays occasionally when it delves into song. At this point it mainly lacks an original score, and not the suite of Randy Newman songs which plug into earlier events, sometimes more effectively than others.

Even so, we're left with compelling history, compelling theater, and clearly one of the season's high points.

*** 1/2 Julius Caesar , Shakespeare & Originals--In Tom Marriott's dark mirror held up to modern politics, Kenny Gannon's Caesar is a conceited wimp in a familiar flight suit, clearly propped up in power by unseen hands. His opponents are worse: gutless militarists who trade Armani and Secret Service shades for desert camo when they finally find the right spin to put on his assassination. The junta rises and falls in its control of striking images--no shortage of which are to be found in this production. Though the televised announcement of the assassination jump-cuts to cheesy audience response "news" footage in bars, college dorms and senior centers, an operatic assassination scene mixes David Lynch with Sergio Leone. Derrick Ivey is dramatic, but rushes things a bit as Mark Anthony, but Jay O'Berski's enigmatic, soft-spoken Brutus reveals a moral soldier who becomes corrupted by the mechanisms of power.

** 1/2 Blithe Spirit , Temple Theatre--Noel Coward's supernatural souffle from 1941 comes off a bit heavier than desired in Temple's latest labors. Local legend Martha Nell Hardy commands as an imperious Madame Arcati, and Donna Shannon's comic contributions demonstrate dramatic growth. Meanwhile, as Charles, Martin Thompson strolls through the male lead with more American urbanity than British reserve, and Dena Byers chips in a refreshing supporting performance as Edith, the maid. Though she visually references Tracey Ullman, this should probably mark veteran actor Rebecca Koon's last go-round as amorous ghost Elvira, the scandalous young slip of a bride who left Charles a widower.

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