Oh! Little REDBIRD: Bright New Plays at ArtsCenter Stage

Most of the REDBIRD gang. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

Most of the collaborating troupe that’s making REDBIRD sing. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

The Carrboro ArtsCenter has generally been a key player in the local theatre scene since its founding in 1974, and has been fortunate in its leaders, from Mary Ruth through Derrick Ivey and Emily Ranii. But Jeri Lynn Schulke, current artistic director of ArtsCenter Stage, has particularly championed–and commissioned–new work for the stage since taking that position. March 13 saw the first blossoming of her most strenuous effort yet, made in collaboration with, and major support from, Dorrie Casey. Casey is one of those protean artists who explore every aspect–she’s acted, sung, written, directed, designed and criticized–and now dreamed up and co-produced a festival of new one-act plays by North Carolinians. The Schulke-Casey team commissioned the plays and put together a dream team of about 30 theatre artists to present five works in two programs. This is community theatre, but not volunteer. Every one working on this is getting paid. “Not a living wage, said Casey, “but a respectful amount of money.” The first three of these new works debuted on the 13th; the second two will premiere tonight.

The Triangle is rich in theatre. Both the university-based and the independent theaters do amazing work year in, year out. But the REDBIRD festival strikes me as marking a significant step forward in our cultural growth. The world has long praised North Carolina writers, and this (first?) festival capitalizes on the well-known names of some of them–four of the five plays are adaptations from other forms. On opening night, all the authors and playwrights were in the house, if not on the stage.

Jane Holding in Saints Have Mothers. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

Jane Holding in Saints Have Mothers. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

First up on Program One is Jane Holding’s adaptation of Allan Gurganus’ Saints Have Mothers, from his novella collection Local Souls, performed by her with her customary entrancing blend of bold and bashful. Her intoxicating speaking voice, cultivated by reading aloud since childhood, glides from character to character as Holding tells a complicated story of a thwarted poet’s love for her daughter and the predicaments in which it lands her. Nothing can take the Southern out of that voice, though it knows many variants. Like most of Gurganus’ characters, Jean is eccentric, wacky with energies seeking outlets, and very very talkative, but never “derange-o” as some kids in the mall call her. After a deeply traumatic and ridiculous series of events (don’t want to spoil the surprise for those who haven’t read the story), Jean’s on the ferry to Ocracoke, having been instructed to “gather” herself and get out of everyone’s hair. Director Tamara Kissane (mother of a daughter herself) has created a pleasing amount of action for this extended monologue. She has Jean bump and struggle up the steps to the ferry’s upper deck with much luggage, where she takes over two benches in the sun, pulling things out of her many totes and shopping bags to illustrate her tale, and makes the story close with the ferry’s arrival in harbor, so that Jean clatters and bumps her awkward way offstage into the next chapter. She’s lightened her load by an item or two. Very smart.

Gurganus’ grand, wry style, both embroidered and cut to the quick, gets to its destinations via many diversionary paths and lacunae, but never loses sight of the operatic human feelings that inform it. Holding “made many passes” over the story, successfully condensing it to its most telling and dramatic elements for the stage, without altering the tempo so important to Gurganus’ storytelling. Both the original and the adaptation make you hoot with laughter, cringe sometimes, and sometimes cry–but the in stage version, Jean’s pain, anger, relief and mystification are more directly communicated and felt.

Tom Marriott and Lenore Field in Linnaeus Forgets. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

Tom Marriott and Lenore Field in Linnaeus Forgets. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

The program’s second work, Linnaeus Forgets, was adapted from a Fred Chappell short story of the same title by Marianne Gingher and Debby Seabrooke, and is absolutely delightful. It takes quite a few liberties with the original, but Chappell laughed and nodded and shook his head in amazement from the front row during the performance. Gingher and Seabrooke have made some of the story into songs (some original music by Sam Gingher), wonderfully sung by Greg Hohn in period costume and wig, and made other parts into puppetry, and substituted a fabulous claymation video sequence for description of what Linnaeus sees through his magnifying glass.  The two beautifully caught Chappell’s blend of erudition and simplicity; his love for the fantastical and the ordinary (sex and love fall into both categories), and his deep sympathy for his characters. They even made up rhymes that sound like Fred Chappell rhymes–“no, no,” Chappell said afterwards, chuckling, “those weren’t mine, those were all Marianne’s.”

Greg Hohn also directs, and he keeps the pace zesty and the laughs coming. Jimmy Magoo operates and speaks for a marvelous puppet, and he might speak a little more loudly, but that was the only problem. Tom Marriott is completely wonderful as the aged, dreaming scientist, and most charming waltzing with his wife (Lenore Field), still a coquette after all the years. Special kudos to the costume designer, Marissa Erickson.

Tom Marriott also directs the program’s final work, perhaps its most difficult and ambitious. Michael A. Smith has made a first-rate adaptation of Nancy Peacock’s 1996 novel, Life Without Water, set in 1969-1975, mostly in a Chatham County that time has nearly erased. It’s a good moment to revisit this story. Maybe if we look back carefully enough on the Vietnam war, we might find someway out of the morass of war we’re sinking in now. Life Without Water is a small book that contains an outsized story, and I didn’t see how it could be squeezed into a one-act play with a small number of characters.

But Smith, with, I believe, some ideas from director Marriott, conceived a simple set-up in which daughter Cedar (Jane Allen Wilson, kinetic and commanding) tells her story, with her mother Sara (Marcia Edmundson, softly aged, still baffled by the buffeting events) there to agree, augment, argue and echo. Marcia Edmundson can evoke big emotions with the most economical of gestures, and her little shiftings and turnings away at difficult moments had me stifling sobs at times. The house so crucial to the story, Two Moons, is present in an excellent changing photo/video backdrop made by photographer Catharine Carter and video designer Joseph Amodei. That this is Cedar’s story, and Sara’s in it, is made clear by Cedar controlling the laptop on stage that controls the images. Brilliant. There’s also great period-appropriate sound design by Tom Guild, and again, Erickson’s costuming is strong: she’s put mother and daughter both in the dark red of placental blood. It was very hard to keep in mind that they weren’t actually mother and daughter, so natural–free and easy–with each other are the actors, and so well-timed is the direction.

Marcia Edmundson, Two Moons, and Jane Allen Wilson in Life Without Water. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

Marcia Edmundson as Sara, Two Moons, and Jane Allen Wilson as Cedar, in Life Without Water. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

That three quite different plays could appear smoothly on the same stage during the same evening, in a modest theater with minimum backstage facilities and a tiny control booth, speaks of the high levels of skill and organization that have gone into making this festival. There were no delays; there were no technical problems. Just three hours of exhilarating, artful theatre. Made in North Carolina, on view in the Paris of the Piedmont.

For the remaining schedule and to purchase tickets, go here.

Redbird_image_less_text

Oh, little red bird come to my window sill
Been so lonesome, shaking that morning chill
Oh, little red bird open your mouth and say
Been so lonesome, just about flown away

So long now I’ve been out
In the rain and snow
But winter’s come and gone
A little bird told me so

From “Winter’s Come and Gone”  by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

The REDBIRD Flies Tonight from the ArtsCenter Stage

Redbird Postcard Revised_etix

Two years ago, Dorrie Casey, who’s done pretty much everything else in theatre, decided her next adventure would be a festival of new plays. Add producer to her credits, please, because starting tonight, five new plays by North Carolinians will debut at the Carrboro ArtsCenter. Heavily underwritten by Casey and produced by her and Jeri Lynn Schulke, the artistic director of ArtsCenter Stage, REDBIRD promises to be as showy as its name, with the five works premiering over two opening nights. It’s a significant milestone for non-university theatre here.

Tonight’s first first night will include Michael A. Smith’s adaptation of Nancy Peacock‘s first novel, Life Without Water. Peacock is my contemporary (Chapel Hill High School Class of 1972) and the world she imagined in her book resonated strongly with me–and with Tom Marriott, who directs. He too has lived without water. “The play is very, very moving for me,” he said, “and to have Marcia Edmundson and Jane Allen Wilson—!” Here he threw up his hands and grinned with the delight of working with these two splendid women. Marriott’s been making theatre in the Triangle area since 1969, “poor theatre,” as he says, and has been a crucial instigator in the birth and growth of the “not-PlayMakers theatre scene” currently thriving here. This is an ideal situation for the birth of a new play: everyone involved knows everyone else’s art and can also bring intensely local knowledge to this work. The newest member of the team is Joseph Amodei, who’s doing the multimedia. The photographer Catharine Carter is another longtime Chatham County person, and for the backdrop imagery she has photographed the house Nancy Peacock lived in back in the day.

Also on tonight’s bill is the ineffable Jane Holding, who has adapted a story from her friend Allan Gurganus’s recent Local Souls. Holding and Gurganus have been friends since 1969, and share similar eastern North Carolina backgrounds. Part of their friendship involves reading to each other, so Holding knew Gurganus’ characters and their stories long before the book was published, and knows their language and their rhythms deep in her soul (Holding collaborated with Gurganus on the stage adaptation of his Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All). Holding will embody Jean, mother of Caitlin, for whom Jean put herself in the background. But in Saints Have Mothers,  Jean’s back up front. Holding has told me that this story was important to her, as “more than anything, I wanted to be a good mother.” The insightful Tamara Kissane directs. Of course, Holding and Kissane have previous theatre connections, too–Kissane played Holding’s daughter in Little Green Pig’s fantastic all-female Richie.

Just to prove that ALL the excellent writers in the state do not live in the Triangle, Greensboro will be well-represented in the third piece on tonight’s bill, Linnaeus Forgets. The short story’s by my hero Fred Chappell; the adaptation by Marianne Gingher and Debby Seabrooke. Lenore Field, Greg Hohn, who also directs, and the indefatigueable Tom Marriott will act (and waltz), and Jimmy Magoo will handle the puppets.

On the 14th, the second opening night will feature another new work by Howard L. Craft, whose Freight was such a smashing success in January (it will receive a New York production this summer). Craft has adapted from historian David Cecelski’s book for The Fire of Freedom, and the character Abraham Galloway will be played by Jade Arnold. Chaunesti Webb directs.

The REDBIRD’S fifth work is Property, by Dana Coen, director of the UNC-CH Writing for the Stage and Screen program, and examines outsiders’ and locals’ relationships with the land and “sustainability.” Coen directs Alex Thompson, Melanie Rio and Brandon Rafalson.

REDBIRD has a design team, too, studded with well-known local names. The whole damn shebang is stage-managed by the amazing Emma Nadeau. “She’s the hub of the spinning wheel,” said Jeri Lynn Schulke. Maybe if we stomp our feet, she’ll come out at the end with her accordion.

REDBIRD runs two weekends only! with the shows in rolling repertory. Check http://www.artscenterlive.org for which is when, and get your tickets.

IMG_2701

Excellent Production of AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE at PlayMakers Rep

I don’t know whether to be more relieved or depressed by the acute timeliness of PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of An Enemy of the People. On the one hand, Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 script tells us that people in power have acted against common sense and the public good at least since then, and Arthur Miller’s 1950 update makes it clear that the problems were the same in his era–in other words, our time, though out of joint, with its spyware and its science-deniers and its ghastly secret fracking chemicals and its brave, unworldly warriors like Edward Snowden, is not anomalous in history. On the other, humanity has not made much noticeable improvement in itself since Ibsen penned his blistering critique of the politics of power and money in the everlasting joust between the truth-armed individual and an obtuse majority.

The Ensemble (Allison Altman as Petra, Julia Gibson as Mrs. Catherine Stockmann and Michael Bryan French as Dr. Stockmann, facing) in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE,  by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

The Ensemble (Allison Altman as Petra, Julia Gibson as Mrs. Catherine Stockmann and Michael Bryan French as Dr. Stockmann, facing) in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

 

Directed by Tom Quaintance, the PlayMakers company and guest artists give Enemy an intense immediacy, highlighted by the astute design choices (McKay Coble, set, and Patrick Holt, costumes) that place it in the 1950s, but also in the 2015  infatuated with “mid-century modern” and snap brim hats. Quaintance has paced the show for clarity and, without excess, for maximum wallop, allowing the excellent actors to work naturally in Ibsen’s and Miller’s tautly drawn situations in which their characters’ psychologies must be dissected. It’s the most satisfying show of the PRC’s 2014-15 season thus far.

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann, and Michael Bryan French as Dr. Stockmann, in PRC's AN EMEMY OF THE PEOPLE. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann, and Michael Bryan French as Dr. Stockmann, in PRC’s AN EMEMY OF THE PEOPLE. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

Briefly, the storyline is: Dr. Stockmann (Michael Bryan French, naive, flustered and implacable) has with his brother (naturally, it needs to be his brother) the Mayor, Peter Stockmann (Anthony Newfield, neurotic, politically skilled and implacable) have created a spa that’s bringing economic hope to their town. But after everything is built, the doctor discovers that the water is dangerously polluted. When the play opens, he’s just received the test results from the university, and he’s all set to tell the world, so that the healing spa waters won’t sicken anyone. The Mayor’s having none of that!

Julia Gibson and Michael Bryan French as Catherine and Dr. Stockmann. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Julia Gibson and Michael Bryan French as Catherine and Dr. Stockmann. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

On hand to make the most of this conflict are a firebrand newspaper editor, Hovstad (Benjamin Curns) and a high-strung reporter (Gregory DeCandia) and their waffling editor, Aslaksen (Jeffrey Blair Cornell, just perfect) ready to twist in whatever way will benefit them the most. The doctor’s eccentric father-in-law, Morten Kiil (David Adamson, fiendishly good) bumbles around the edges, looking for the spot to drive in a wedge. The doctor does have a family who love and support and hector him–Julia Gibson as Katherine Stockmann and Allison Altman as their daughter Petra also keep the testosterone levels from becoming too overwhelming. All these excitable people in this little town are counterbalanced by the doctor’s friend, the taciturn sea captain Horster (Derrick Ivey), who’s been about the world and seen places where people weren’t allowed to speak their minds. He didn’t like that.

Ivey continues to amaze. Here he stands like granite, so dense he draws your eye again and again, even though he has only a handful of lines. His Captain Horster contains a vital paradox: He stands behind the doctor not because he understands anything he’s on about, but because he believes he is free to say it. Yet if that’s not the way it’s to be, he’ll morph from the stable to the flowing, and take them all to freedom in America. (That’s about the only thing in the play that seems dated, that belief in a bighearted, clear-thinking America.)

The production was slightly marred on opening night by some technical difficulties involving smoke and water, and maybe the mob could use a few more bodies (although John Allore, as the drunk, is a host in himself), but it’s a powerful play, powerfully done. It runs only through March 15 in the Paul Green Theater. Tickets online or call 919-962-7529.

You can read the play, with a good introduction by Arthur Miller, here.

Most readers will already know that PlayMakers has announced the forthcoming departure of company producing artistic director Joseph Haj this July, when he will leave Chapel Hill for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. If not, see Byron Wood’s Indyweek piece here. I’d hoped we’d get to keep Haj for a couple of more years–he’s been a very positive force for this theater scene, beyond transforming PlayMakers. See my 2010 feature on Haj for a sense of how far we’ve come, and how lucky the Twin Cites will be to have him there. Bye, Joe.

Now the question is–who will be the next PRC artistic director? And–when?

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “An Enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller. February 25 - March 15, 2015. Directed by Tom Quaintance. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “An Enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller. February 25 – March 15, 2015. Directed by Tom Quaintance. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

 

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