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Like daggers to the ears 

click to enlarge Lenore Field as Florence Foster Jenkins and Mark Lewis as Cosme McMoon - PHOTO BY RACHEL KLEM

Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins

Ghost & Spice Productions
@ Common Ground Theatre
Through Jan. 24

If we're going by playwright Stephen Temperley's version of things (in Souvenir, now playing at Common Ground Theatre), the tale of Florence Foster Jenkins seems little less than Kafkaesque—served, perhaps, with extra paranoia for garnish.

A society matron in the 1920s, dissuaded from a career in the arts for decades while her blue-blood parents were alive, finally embarks upon a career as a classical music vocalist after their deaths. Gradually, she rises to what should be the top of her profession—salon performances at New York's finest hotels; a recording contract and a series of albums; finally, a sold-out benefit concert at Carnegie Hall.

Oh, there's a catch, all right. She can't sing.

No, really: Apparently, she cannot begin to tell that her pitch, vocal color and rhythm are as capricious as the weather. And those "loyal fans" who've been telling her she's brilliant, egging her on each step of the way, have just been putting her on for their own amusement, to see how big a spectacle she'll ultimately make of herself.

All of them, that is, except for one: her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, whose big-time paychecks will only last as long as her "career" does.Need we add that Cosmé, who tells the tale of her career, comes to see himself as her protector from life's harsher realities: the truth about her non-existent talents, the critics and, ultimately, herself?

Funny, then, that we laugh at the tale as easily as we do. By all accounts, Jenkins was to early 20th-century classical music what Ed Wood Jr. was to 1950s film: a hopeless incompetent, whose onstage interpretations (and wardrobes) veered between mere melodrama and the totally ludicrous. One signal difference between these two world-class washouts was Jenkins' wealth, which afforded her the ability to stage greater and greater artistic disasters during the 1930s: a series of operatic concerts held in high-society enclaves in (but mostly, outside of) New York; carefully chosen shelters that kept her far, at first, from the ears of the critical press.

Keep the phrase "carefully chosen" in mind. Because when Temperley calls his play a "fantasia" on Jenkins' life, he's basically acknowledging that he's fudging some of the facts. In his account of the performer's life, Jenkins' perfect—and therefore poignant—naiveté isn't compromised by, among other things, a former music director whom she fired after six years as her accompanist when he couldn't stop guffawing at her during a performance, or her male consort of 36 years, a fading actor who also happened to be (surprise, surprise) her manager.

With no insult to Lenore Field or Mark Lewis, who ably play the musical odd couple scripted in this Ghost & Spice production, it's hard to say which character in Temperley's world is less believable: An opera music lover whose cognitive disorder prevents her from recognizing her profound vocal deficits—both live and on record? Or a washed-up lounge pianist who, some 20 years after her death, somehow feels he has license to kvetch about the outcome—before looking back and asking, incredulously, "Was I wrong?"

Mark Lewis appropriately affects a world-weary air as Cosmé, our guide down musical memory lane. He softly croons to the microphone in a bar, somewhere, with a perpetual sigh in a voice that's as dry as a martini. That aspect changes, though, as we segue back to his first meetings with the legend.

From the first time Jenkins actually sings, Lewis' expression at the keyboard changes from ambush to betrayal, before arriving at deep, deep concern—with considerable comic dividends all along the way. He looks up, in disbelief, at the woman singing. By the end of the audition, we know and he knows—this is a gig he really should pass up.

But then Jenkins writes Cosmé the first in a series of rather hefty checks. The die is cast. His tortured rationalizations attempt to get him off the hook for the rest of her career, including (if the playwright can be believed) a Carnegie Hall date with destiny that's also the first—and only—time Jenkins realizes that the audience is laughing at her, and not with her. Repeatedly, we sense that Cosmé is trying to convince himself more than us.

Lenore Field expertly plays a woman whose confidence and aesthetic faith blind her to her singular inabilities. Rachel Klem's direction is brisk, even if we're left at evening's end more bemused than convinced by the characters.

click to enlarge Adam Luckey as the title character in Hamlet - PHOTO COURTESY OF TEMPLE THEATRE
  • Photo courtesy of Temple Theatre
  • Adam Luckey as the title character in Hamlet


Temple Theatre
Through Jan. 25

Since at least the 1980s, a number of stage artists have worked to merge versions of live theater with projected film, video, computer graphics and animation. We've seen palpable hits (designer Jerome Sirlin's 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, at Duke) and bewildering misses (Robert Wilson's Monsters of Grace and Mikal Rouse's The End of Cinematics, both at UNC).

Sanford's Temple Theatre might not be the first venue from which one would anticipate a technical fusion breakthrough. But director Richard St. Peter's collaboration with Cyburbia Productions' design in this presentation of Hamlet gives us, at points, a tantalizing sense of what the future of multimedia and multimodal design is probably going to look like. As scenes progress in this Shakespeare play, Cyburbia's overtly industrial video backdrops melt into fog, or segue to other locales including a toxic green lake and a Spanish doorway.

If Adam Luckey's Hamlet is more streetwise, more of an action-adventure lead than we've seen in this role in a while, he also lacks some of the finer nuances seen in other interpretations. St. Peter's equally obvious direction at points has him (and Thomas Dalton's otherwise robust, notable Claudius) deliver their most interior soliloquies directly to all of us in the audience. Lynda Clark nails another one here as a brittle Gertrude and David McClutchey has the needed velocity as the avenging Laertes, while Tim Brosnan was a true treat, reveling in the raw and reprobate wit of the Gravedigger. Supporting actors Michael Brocki and Robbie Gay are stretched too thin over eight supporting roles. While Anne Butler is sweet, she remains too much a cipher here as Ophelia.

In terms of the new technology, there's the sense of things not thought all the way through in an otherwise promising production. For example, when the ghost of Hamlet's father first appears, in this updated retelling, in a series of security monitors, the guards draw their weapons and aim. At the TV screens. Later, the ghost seems more the product of bad satellite feed than an ectoplasmic visitation from beyond. Some digital scene changes seem abrupt, while other set backgrounds leave us scratching our heads.

Inevitably, with any new performance technology, proficiency must be acquired. From the looks of things, these artists are well on their way. Unfortunately, whether further such breakthroughs—or much of anything else—will be seen at Temple is open to question at this point.

After tallying year-end gifts, receipts from its holiday production—and a mandatory 5 percent give-back in arts grants, due to the state's financial crisis—producing artistic director Peggy Taphorn said this week that the theater faces a $91,000 budget shortfall for the rest of the season.

The news comes at a time when the theater has been making major initiatives in expanding and diversifying its audience. A new black box theater, two doors down from the mainstage on Carthage Street in Sanford, was shuttered by fire marshals the day before it was scheduled to open a production of Proof in September.

"Most of our subscribers live outside of our Lee County," Taphorn noted, "and when we were in our big season ticket drive for the year, gas prices were $4.80 a gallon. Then the economy went down, which has affected ticket sales, advertising and year-end giving."

Theater management had already instated a series of budget cuts, including a 10 percent pay cut for staff earlier in the fall. Taphorn frames the stakes in the current crisis: "We're the only theater in Lee County. There's nothing else here. If we go dark, this part of the state goes dark."

The community has begun to respond: By last Friday, the company had received $13,000 in pledges and donations.

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