Friday, October 9, 2009

Reunion in Exile

Posted By on Fri, Oct 9, 2009 at 10:37 AM

Duke Ernsberger, the man of a thousand teeth, was onstage last weekend – cutting up in a costume designed by Bob Croghan. Fred Story was supplying sound, Ron Chisholm was choreographing, and Charlotte’s prince of gels, Eric Winkenwerder, was on board as lighting designer. Bringing them all together was yet another local luminary, director Steve Umberger, founder of Charlotte Rep.

So was this a special Rep reunion? Nope, but NC Shakespeare Festival’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the closest thing to a locally produced Actor’s Equity theater event we’ve had in Charlotte this year.

Karl Baumann as Puck in NCSF production of A Midsummer Night's Dream; Photo by Tom Terrell
  • Karl Baumann as Puck in NCSF production of A Midsummer Night's Dream; Photo by Tom Terrell

It was also the latest incarnation of the Dream concept birthed at Theatre Charlotte in March 2003 and lovingly transported to High Point for an NCSF production that same September. All of those Umberger Dream's– and one or two in between – have featured the same lynchpin, Cirque du Soleil performer Karl Baumann and the acrobatic dimension he brings to Puck.

As his physical capabilities evolve – and he becomes more comfortable with the language – Baumann’s portrayal of Robin Goodfellow continues to be an amazing work-in-progress. At the same time, Umberger has become fluent in Cirqueish and evolved his own concept. There was far more aerial activity in fairyland than ever before, using fabrics suspended from the fly loft and a fortified proscenium; more reliance on trapdoors and mechanical lifts to initiate magical entrances; and a new infatuation with silhouettes – utilizing an outsized full moon a la E.T.

David Foubert as Bottom and Kim Ostrenko as Titania in NCSF's A Midsummer Night's Dream;  Photo by Tom Terrell
  • David Foubert as Bottom and Kim Ostrenko as Titania in NCSF's A Midsummer Night's Dream; Photo by Tom Terrell

In what seemed like a last-gasp season (Midsummer was the only show in this year’s “festival”), the latest Dream sparked some dream attendance, igniting new hope for the future. Near-term plans include establishing an outpost at the Sawtooth Center in Winston-Salem and running a season of four plays in 2010, including non-Shakespearean repertoire. Long-term, there are hopes of making Charlotte the third leg in the Festival’s Tarheel presence.

With all those fine local talents involved, the quality is certainly there. Loyalty to Umberger certainly helped bring all those familiar names to High Point, but the three-time CL Theaterperson of Year’s reputation extends far beyond the state line. Last fall’s NCSF production of King Lear, which starred Rep stalwart Graham Smith, will be remounted next March – in Philadelphia at People’s Light & Theatre, with Smith once again in the title role.

Of course, somebody at People’s Light had to trouble to travel to High Point to see that production of Lear. We don’t have that level of interest in homegrown professional theater here in Charlotte. With its straitened budget, the Charlotte Observer has basically discontinued cultural coverage beyond a 40-mile radius. If you were interested in the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival – or the National Black Theatre Festival up in Winston – you needed to look elsewhere.

Nor are Charlotte’s producers, promoters, civic leaders, or bankers interested enough – or in some instances, contrite enough – to make regional professional theater happen here again. On the eve of yet another gorgeous theater opening in our Uptown, there won’t be a resident professional theater company inside. You’d think that the communications company that gave its name and dollars to the Knight Theatre would be keen on pointing out that irony.

Guess not. As recently as five years ago, the movers and shakers who sat on Rep’s board were afire with the ambition of winning a regional Tony Award. That was the fire that actually incinerated the company, sending theater artists who had given their souls to the enterprise scurrying to the exits. These cultural custodians wanted the best, and now they want nothing. How many more theaters will we build before a new generation of local professional theater artists – and those now in exile – will have a theater they can come home to instead of merely visiting?

Angels recently materialized to rescue the Charlotte Symphony from the financial brink. But have you heard about one cent of that largesse going to remunerate the musicians for all the salary concessions they made to help the cause? There’s your answer right there.

No, the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce isn’t giving consideration to making “The Largest City in the USA Without a Regional Professional Theater” our official motto. The snappier “We Screw Artists” is also a non-starter. But it’s true.

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