A really late review and an almost-late preview of shows at Durham’s Common Ground Theatre

Two of the Triangle's energetic theatre artists, Katja Hill and Lormarev Jones, outside of Common Ground Theatre, which hosted ROUGH DRAFT. Photo: Rachel Klem.

Two of the Triangle’s energetic theatre artists, Katja Hill and Lormarev Jones, outside of Common Ground Theatre, which hosted ROUGH DRAFT. Photo: Rachel Klem.

ROUGH DRAFT: A Night of New Solos (Common Ground Theatre June 28-29, 2013)

Summer Sisters Presents TANGLES: My Mother, Alzheimer’s and Me (Common Ground Theatre, Aug. 29-31, 2013)

Durham’s theatre scene would be much the poorer had Rachel Klem not come to town. Subtle actress, incisive director, performance space owner and manager, producer, and general creative force, Klem, along with her husband Jeff Alguire (actor, designer, etc) have provided Durham with a small, flexible theatre in which all kinds of surprising and affecting work happens. In June, Common Ground made possible the presentation of works-in-progress by two extremely interesting actor-thinkers, who have written/are writing theater pieces taken directly from their own life experiences.

The monologue never has been my favorite mode of theater, but both DEBRIS, by Katja Hill, and THE VIRGIN COOKBOOK, by Lormarev Jones, were so engaging that I’m forced to reconsider my bias. After all, I’ve been thinking about their shows for two solid months, and still find them intriguing. Both women will be familiar to local theater-goers, and many will have seen Hill’s previous work about the trials and tribulations of becoming an actor. Jones, as far as I know, had not previously presented any of her own writing, but has enriched many productions with her intense presence and gorgeous voice.

Hill took on the universal themes of life, death and stuff. While the presentation left much to be desired (she sat at a table with a notebook, the table forming a barrier between her and the audience), the content was engrossing. Hill’s mother, a Finn who married an American, lived in Sylva, NC. Cancer attacked and advanced rapidly; Hill and her then-boyfriend barely got her back to Finland to die. With what seems to me amazing fortitude, Hill wove together her mother’s stories–her life, her romance, her cancer-on-a-credit-card, her work in the plant department at Walmart, her death and its aftermath–and laced them to her own stories with ribbons of wry humor, sorrow, joy and exasperation. Anyone who has dealt with the plethora of objects left behind by the beloved dead would have gotten the metaphors instantly, but for anyone who hadn’t, Hill had a selection of stuff you just don’t know what the hell to do with for show and tell–and a telling costume. Hill’s a lovely blonde with a natural elegance which she almost disguised in grubby pants, a Walmart employee T-shirt (store number on the back) and a Nordic girl wig with long blonde braids, sloppily covered by a kerchief. Looking a bit like orphan Cinderella in the ashes, she unreeled the silk of a lifetime, opening its twist for us to see the strands, uneven but knotless. Lives are plied together like yarn. Mother’s strand, father’s strand; a third ply for daughter. Mother’s strand attenuates, leaving a snarl of broken fiber, but the spinner picks up another strand–the boyfriend, now the husband, is spun into the twist during the course of the story.

It takes a brave heart and a clear mind to formulate and present art like this, so close to the bone, seesawing between personal sentiment and universal feeling in a delicately balanced spiraling structure. Be on the lookout for DEBRIS when it falls on us again, sparkling like a diamond its own dust.

Lormarev Jones’ THE VIRGIN COOKBOOK was not as highly developed as Hill’s work, but rather more surprising. Maybe 30-year-old sexual virgins are not as rare as I think, but I am sure that there are not many who will get up on stage and tell you all about it. Jones retails some hilarious anecdotes about her upbringing: her mother worked with AIDS patients during the early awful years of the epidemic, when they were all dying. Determined that her children would not die for lack of knowledge, she made sure little Lormarev was informed far beyond the norm for her age group. On top of that, Jones’ grandfather, with whom she lived part of the time, encouraged her in no uncertain terms not to waste her time on boys. On top of that, Jones attended college at Meredith, the Baptist women’s school in Raleigh. The upshot is–she’s a virgin, and pretty much all her acquaintance gives her grief about the fact. Currently, Jones is working toward an MFA in theatre from Sarah Lawrence, and is planning to fully develop THE VIRGIN COOKBOOK as her capstone project for the degree.

In June, it was still rather rough, although the scenes in which she plays her own grandfather were beautifully realized. Jones’ tends to look down while she speaks, breaking eye contact with the audience, which diminishes her strength, but it flares up immediately when she raises her implacable virgin’s eye. She makes a lot of jokes, and never brings up the power ascribed through history to the virgin woman, but this show certainly makes you think about it. There’s a lot to be said in favor of experience, but you can always get that. You can’t ever retrieve innocence, and to have held onto it for 30 years strikes me as somewhat of a modern miracle. This is another show to look for in its next iteration.

And beginning tonight, for three nights only…

13 of the Triangle’s talented women of theatre have gotten together to workshop a piece of performance art based on Sarah Leavitt’s graphic journal TANGLES: MY MOTHER, ALZHEIMER’S AND ME. These “Summer Sisters” are year-round fearless. They take on loving, aging, loving, family, care-giving and did I mention loving even through the forgetting?

Once again, the real live art is at Common Ground. Shows at 8 pm, Aug. 29, 30, 31. $10. Part of the proceeds will go to benefit Alzheimer’s North Carolina.

Reservations: (919) 698-3870 or tickets at the door.

People Get Ready, There’s a Train a-Comin’

Almost ready to roll. Looking up into the dome of Baldwin Auditorium.

Almost ready to roll. Looking up into the dome of Baldwin Auditorium.

“People Get Ready” opens the great Curtis Mayfield song released in 1965, but I always hear it in my mind as sung by North Carolina bluesman Sonny Terry with fellow Piedmont bluesman Brownie McGhee. For years I thought it said “there’s a change a-comin’.” Well, in Durham, there generally is a train comin’ down the tracks, but recently it’s a train of change that has jumped the rails and is running uptown, downtown and all over Duke. “You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board.” For one of the big, grand changes, you will, however, need a ticket–or, preferably, season tickets–because if you love music, you will want to visit a venue you’ve been shunning.

Aaron Greenwald, whose connoisseurship has made Duke Performances very special, helped guide the renovation.

Aaron Greenwald, whose connoisseurship has made Duke Performances very special, helped guide the renovation.

Baldwin Auditorium, which so gracefully closes the north end of the long quad of Duke’s East Campus, was built in 1927, and ever since, it has been a pretty terrible place to hear music. Even after a renovation in the mid-1980s, the sound quality was poor, and the room uncomfortable. As Scott Lindroth, Professor of Music and Vice-Provost for the Arts noted, drily, “What we’ve not had at Duke is a world-class performance venue.” Those days are OVER. A $15 million train run by acoustical engineers, passionate architects, demanding musicians and an outstanding impresario has passed through Baldwin and rendered all beautiful. This morning, Duke faculty and staff opened the almost-ready hall for a media tour, and they had every right to their proud and happy faces. Baldwin, which connects to Duke’s music building, will be the music department‘s performance home, and the venue for Duke Performances‘ classical music offerings. The Ciompi Quartet will perform Sept. 21, and an amazing variety of classical, jazz and vocal music will follow, with an exciting program featuring the great Dianne Reeves coming up on Oct. 4.

Eric Pritchard played a little Bach.

Eric Pritchard played a little Bach.

Scott Lindroth enjoying Pritchard's performance.

Scott Lindroth enjoying Pritchard’s performance.

In case the naturally skeptical reporters doubted the acoustic quality of the room, Eric Pritchard, Professor of the Practice of Music and first violin in the Ciompi Quartet, was on hand with his violin to demonstrate. Even before the acoustical fine-tuning that will occur over the next few weeks, the music was astonishing. Sitting 5th row center, under the dome, I felt like I was inside the violin. I can still feel the music quivering on my skin. With all the changes that have been made, the hall is wonderfully resonant, and completely lacking in the echo bouncing off the balcony that had previously muddied all music. The vibrancy of the room makes you realize that Reynolds, for all its attributes, is a little muffled, and that it is not just the chairs in Nelson Music Room that are a little hard. The new Baldwin is also a visual treat. The warm-toned wood covering many of the theater’s surfaces is figured anigre, an African wood, cut from a single large tree (even without this knowledge, you feel the ineffable harmony of wholeness). The 1/16th inch veneers were bent and applied to the  vacuum-pressed plywood substrates built up in layers to as much as an inch thick by Apex-based Woodpecker Industries. The wow factor is very high in the lovely complex curves, which swoop above and around the 685 seats with their pale beech arms and (surprise!) Duke blue upholstery.

Ray Walker, Duke staff architect, showing off the results of six years of work.

Ray Walker, Duke staff architect, showing off the renovations.

Ray Walker, a staff architect at Duke for 39 years, who coordinated the Baldwin make-over, explained some of the mysteries of acoustics as he led the walk-through. Because the auditorium was square, which is bad for sound, they built a box within its box, creating side lobbies around a rectangular hall. They broke up wall surfaces to increase resonance. They installed all sorts of shades and curtains that can be pulled to soften sound when needed. They engineered all those wonderful curves so sound could flow. They corralled the HVAC equipment in an underground vault outside so there will be no vibration or hum. Working with Jaffe Holden acoustical consultants, and Pheiffer Partners Architects, Duke seems to have thought of nearly everything.

The only thing missing from the new Baldwin is a coat check room. Sigh.

Here are a few details of the interior.

Looking from the stage, through the sound baffles to the dome.

Looking from the stage, through the sound baffles to the dome.

A side balcony, with view through the new wall and out an original window.

A side balcony, with view through the new wall and out an original window.

Even the oculus underwent acoustical alterations.

Even the oculus underwent acoustical alterations.

All the rich detailing was carefully preserved.

All the rich detailing was carefully preserved.

An original Corinthian capital on a pilaster.

An original Corinthian capital on a pilaster.

Sometimes classical is just the best.

Sometimes classical is just the best.

Wouldn't believe it if there weren't 'before' photos.

Wouldn’t believe it if there weren’t ‘before’ photos.

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