Friday, December 9, 2011

Edgier stuff on the edges of town: Spring Awakening, God of Carnage, Vanities

Posted By on Fri, Dec 9, 2011 at 11:40 AM

While visions of sugar-plum fairies dominate the post-Thanksgiving theater scene here in the Bethlehem of Metrolina, a few trips to the outskirts of town revealed a strange phenomenon. On stages in Rock Hill and Cornelius, Christmas had not already begun! Who do these places think they are, New York? For lo, in the city of Rock Hill, after five Yuletide productions had already sanctified our region, Edge Theatre Company was premiering the first homegrown production of the defilement known as Spring Awakening last Wednesday night. Nor was this the only outbreak of secularism down in the Palmetto State, for WIP Productions whipped out Vanities the following evening.

Most embarrassing of all was the spectacle in Cornelius at the wee Warehouse Performing Arts Center on Westmoreland Road. On Friday and Saturday nights, the-little-PAC-that-could hosted the regional premiere of God of Carnage. Wasn’t it agreed that regional premieres of major Tony Award-winning dramas would always be staged in Charlotte? Guess not. The production was actually an import, staged by Hickory Community Theatre, after running up in Catawba County on November 4-19.

Unfortunately, the little PAC’s publicity machine is proportionate to its size, so the Saturday night crowd at the cozy venue was less than we usually encounter for the Warehouse’s native efforts, produced by Marla Brown. Or there was a widespread fear of furr’ners, a distrust of community theatre, or an aversion to adventure.

Too bad. Folks in those seats would have beheld a dandy production of a dandy Yasmina Reza script.

With the exception of Frances Bendert, all of the players were new to me. Bendert made her local debut at CAST just over three months ago as Karen, the most wanton of the Weston sibs in the smashing regional premiere of August: Osage County. So there was no community theater diffidence in that sector. But there was a fascinating character shift, for Veronica Novak is the mother of Henry, a boy who has lost two teeth because a schoolmate attacked him with a stick — decidedly prone to moral outrage and self-righteousness. It is she who convenes the disastrous conference with the other boy’s parents, Alan and Annette.

Currently writing a book about the genocide in Darfur, Veronica speaks from a lofty moral mountaintop that is even wearisome for her husband, Michael, a warehouser who scrambles around selling such chi-chi products as doorknobs and toilets. But the chasm between Veronica and Alan is far, far wider. For one thing, Alan is perpetually barking into his cell phone, quarterbacking his client, a huge pharmaceutical firm, as it circles the wagons in extreme damage control mode. If that weren’t enough, Alan openly admits his incompetence as a parent, arrogantly content to leave it that way.

A worthy antagonist for Bendert, Bill Morgan handled the difficulties of Alan’s cell phone conversations with admirable aplomb, credibly mixing preoccupation with his objectives, lawyerly frustration with his wimpy client, and annoyance with all those damned interruptions from folks in the same room who have the temerity to insist on his cooperation rather than his corrupt long-distance counseling. Morgan might have tamped down the volume a bit for the smaller venue, but I’m guessing that the original director, Charles E. Jeffers, didn’t commute from Hickory for the brief engagement.

As you may have surmised, Veronica and Alan are sufficiently irritating to tick off their respective spouses as well as each other, making Reza’s argumentation dramatic as often as it’s polemical — and keeping the overall action unpredictable. Michael and Annette are also more human than their spouses, keeping the nectar of comedy from evaporating in the heat of confrontation.

Anthony Liguori appeared supremely settled in the boorish role of Michael, no doubt more abashed and meekly defensive than James Gandolfini could have been on Broadway when facing the double-barrelled condemnation of both women for murdering the family hamster, Nibbles. If Carnage is a nano-Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — denuded of depth and pretensions — then wealth manager Annette is the counterpart of Albee’s fragile Honey. Right down to the vomiting. Emily Schuttenburg may have the best cheekbone structure in Hickory for an ideal Annette, at times showing surprising spontaneous strength, and she’s tantalizingly close to conquering all the querulous, queasy woman’s quirks.

In sum, an eye-opening production.

HAVING SEEN both the Broadway and the touring versions of Spring Awakening, I was surprised when Edge Theatre declined to do one of the things they do best. They abandoned their frequent practice of sitting the audience onstage at cavernous South Pointe High School auditorium with the actors. Instead, director Jimmy Chrismon designed a set with a pair of crossbridges that curved around the five-piece band, mitigating the usual moat between the auditorium’s permanent seats and the stage.

Sad to say, things worked out badly on Friday, the second night of the run. To work, the public school teens of Spring Awakening need to be LOUD. In this devastating adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s corrosive takedown of Prussian prudery and hypocrisy, Duncan Sheik’s hammering rock score needs to simulate the raging hormonal undercurrents held clumsily in place by the strait-laced mores of fin de siècle 19th Century Germany — where the rod is never spared.

Hard to blame the sound system, for there was only one or two thumps all evening long, and no annoying pops or unearthly sounds. I’d have to point one finger at the folk way back in the soundbooth trying to correctly pot a show with so many mics and so much movement, daunting challenges for even the most seasoned pro. But another finger has to be directed at the enterprising youngsters onstage, who were often more diligent about turning their mics off than turning them back on.

Considering that the themes of Spring Awakening were so toxic that it took Berlin authorities a full 15 years to allow its premiere in 1906, I can still say both Edge and South Pointe High are to be commended. Individually, I saw plenty to like in the two leads, Morgan Overcash as the tragically ignorant Wendla and Tyler Waddell as her seducer, the brilliant, impetuously progressive Melchior. Also promising was Steven James as the slow, good-hearted Moritz; and Kitty Beard as the girl who fancies Moritz — alas, too late! — is simply a powerhouse.

IF YOU AREN'T HIP to WIP, the Rock Hill company is unlike anything I know of in the Queen City: a guerilla community theater group. On top of that, the acronym stands for Women in Plays, and so far, founder Sheri Marvin is sticking with the mission, presenting all-women casts in the fledgling company’s first two outings.

Like Charlotte’s more proficient guerillas, Citizens of the Universe, you don’t know where WIP will show up next. After staging Belles at the Community Performance Center back in April, Marvin and her pompom cheerleaders invaded the fourth floor of the Withers Building on the Winthop University campus, two floors above the classrooms where my wife Sue took graduate courses before we met. Lighting at the Sunday matinee was as primitive as COTU’s was in its start-up days, a combination of two light banks and the ambient light seeping in through the high windows.

The structure of Jack Heifner’s script is very much like another three-act comedy of the mid-70s, Same Time, Next Year. Here we follow our three peppy preppies from the afternoon of JFK’s assassination in 1963, a couple of months into the girls’ senior high school year, flash forwarding to the trio’s sorority house bedroom as college graduation approaches in 1968. Then we skip ahead six years to a first reunion, arranged by former head cheerleader Kathy at her swanky Manhattan apartment, getting all the dishy specifics on all that has happened since.

A strong production of Vanities, such as the one that inaugurated Off-Tryon Theatre Company in 2000, can involve us completely in the evolution of alpha cheerleader Kathy, prim and domestic Joanne, and the artsy independent-minded Mary. When that doesn’t happen, the weaknesses of Heifner’s script become painfully obvious. After archly showing us the girls’ lack of concern when JFK is gunned down — other than its effect of canceling their pep rally — we navigate through 1968 without a single mention of, let alone reflection on, the key names and acronyms of that year: LBJ, HHH, RFK, MLK, Nixon, and Eugene McCarthy.

Worse, both Acts 1 and 2 have similar agendas, showing the girls in what basically amounts to an events-planning conference. Three fine actresses can still triumph over the lightheadedness and the repetitiveness of the script. Sadly, with Melissa Diller as Kathy, Janice Hage as Joanne, and Melissa Steele as Mary, we only had one solid performer and two works-in-progress.

Other strong points were Marvin’s production concept and, despite occasionally sluggish cue pickup, a fairly crisp and quick-paced delivery of the lines. Blocking had a nice spontaneity with few instances of cloying simplicity, and there was gratifying evidence here and there that WIP’s Marvin can actually crack a whip. But can she ask those searching questions that help a neophyte find the path to artistry, discovering within herself who she needs to be onstage? Stay tuned.

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