10 x 10 # 14: The Annual Short Play Festival Goes Nova from the ArtsCenter

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I was late to the party on this year’s 10 x 10 in the Triangle–the 14th annual at the Carrboro ArtsCenter–but, WOW! These 10 plays, each 10 minutes long, by 10 authors, performed by 10 actors with 10 directors, add up to a major theatrical event. 10 x 10 has always been fun and intriguing, but this time, as well as comedy, there’s powerful drama from start to finish, much of it dealing with very inconvenient truths. The show repeats tonight and Sunday, and the 23-26.

The 10 plays were chosen from the 550 scripts that were submitted from around the world. They were winnowed out in a process led by ArtsCenter Stage Artistic Director Jeri Lynn Schulke, who produces this complicated festival. All the chosen plays are new to North Carolina, and two received their world premieres on July 10, when the show opened. Yes, more world premieres at the little theater that could, in the Paris of the Piedmont. The list of directors, actors and production designers includes many well-known names in local theatre, as well as some new talent. For more on all the participants, go here.

Racism, murder and corporate madness are the primary topics here, and, even though some of the stories are rich in dark humor, they as a group are only slightly leavened by tales of betrayals, break-ups and a charming meditation on free will and fate. Each of the scripts is so accomplished that none of the stories is uncomfortably fragmentary, and each feels as if time has stretched for it, to allow much more incident and detail than 10 minutes generally allows in life. If the production has a flaw, it is that the transition from play to play is so smooth and fast that there’s not quite time to catch one’s breath between the stories.

Barbette Hunter, Julie Oliver, and the

Barbette Hunter, Julie Oliver, and the “white chicken chili” of Alban’s Garden, in the ArtsCenter’s 14th 10 x 10 in the Triangle. Photo: Adam Graetz.

I was most affected by Alban’s Garden, by Rich Espey, with Barbette Hunter and Julie Oliver, directed by Brook North with cool lucidity;  Two Mothers at a Roadside Cafe, by Allan Bates, with Page Purgar, Barbette Hunter and Kala Hinnant, directed by Gregor McElvogue with powerful restraint; and the incendiary Stop/Frisk by Rich Rubin, with Alexander Jackson and John Allore, directed by Lormarev Jones with controlled rage. All of these plays involve murders, murders that have already occurred, or that will, or may, occur in the near future, or both. This is tough stuff. Although there’s a hint of possible reconciliation between injured parties in Two Mothers, none offers real hope of healing for our most desperate social malaises. The acting in all three is outstanding, but the delicacy with which Gregor McElvogue controls the timing in Two Mothers–making us wait and puzzle for long stretches–allows Hunter and Purgar to do particularly great work.

Page Purgar, Kala Hinnant and Barbette Hunter in Two Mothers at a Roadside Cafe, in the ArtsCenter's 10 x 10 in the Triangle #14. Photo: Adam Graetz.

Page Purgar, Kala Hinnant and Barbette Hunter in Two Mothers at a Roadside Cafe, in the ArtsCenter’s 10 x 10 in the Triangle #14. Photo: Adam Graetz.

Fred Corlett gives three wonderful performances–as a put-upon long-married husband in the comic Couples Therapy (Meredith Sause, director); as the dignified teller of his journey to death in a Holocaust gas chamber, in As We Knew It (the wrenching lyricism of which is calmly unspooled by director Hope Alexander); and as The Narrator, in the stylishly philosophical The Third Person, directed by Jules Odendahl-James with the same verve she showed in her recent work at Manbites Dog.

Leigha Vilen and Fred Corlett in The Third Person, at 10 x 10 in the Triangle #14. Photo: Adam Graetz.

Leigha Vilen and Fred Corlett in The Third Person, at 10 x 10 in the Triangle #14. Photo: Adam Graetz.

In the last, Corlett plays opposite Leigha Vilen, who also lights up the biggest surprise of the evening. Jack Karp’s Brother, Can You Spare a Dime (world premiere), cleanly directed, with wit and sass, by Monet Marshall, excoriates the banking business’ subprime slime with a series of set-ups and jokes modeled on silent film’s antic miming. From the first title card to the final “Cut!” this satire is all complete. Vilen plays the Title Card Girl, as well as versions of a young woman who’s got “it” and knows how to use it. Lazarus Simmons is quite wonderful as the poor beggar and the poor fool taken in by the slick banker (John Allure in fake mustache glory). The visual storytelling is fantastic–I don’t want to give away the gags.

See it for yourself, and if you can find it in your wallet, drop something in the cup for the ArtsCenter’s Summer Challenge fundraiser. There’s nothing subprime about the ArtsCenter, but it does need help keeping on keeping on providing a home for high-quality theatre, year after year. Go here for tickets or call 919-929-2787.

Lazurus Simmons and John Allore mime it in Brother, Can you Spare a Dime? at the ArtsCenter's 10 x 10 in the Triangle, 2015 edition. Photo: Adam Graetz.

Lazarus Simmons and John Allore mime it in Brother, Can you Spare a Dime? at the ArtsCenter’s 10 x 10 in the Triangle, 2015 edition. Photo: Adam Graetz.

Sweet Summer Youth Conservatory: GUYS & DOLLS

L to R:  Colin Kless as Benny Southstreet, Ryan Widd as Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Daniel Johnson as Rusty Charlie,  on the set of PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo:  Jon Gardiner.

L to R: Colin Kless as Benny Southstreet, Ryan Widd as Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Daniel Johnson as Rusty Charlie, on the set of PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

PlayMakers Repertory Company has slowly but surely been winning me over to the pleasures of good musical theatre. One of its prime strategic weapons has been Jeffrey Meanza, who understands musicals in his bones, and has been known to steal a show or two. Meanza came nine summers ago to start PRC’s Summer Youth Conservatory. He meant to stay three months, but instead stayed on as education director, then as associate artistic director for PRC. Now he’s departing, to join Joseph Haj at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater–but not before one last SYC swan song.

The Meanza-directed classic musical Guys & Dolls opened last night on the Paul Green Theater stage at the UNC Center for Dramatic Art in Chapel Hill, and it is a delight. The high school-age students in the summer intensive program have excelled–there are no weak links in this professionally-mounted production. The on-stage talent is augmented by that of the technical student apprentices in a parallel program in back-of-the-stage theatrical work. The young people in the SYC programs come from many schools all over the Triangle area, so to put on this glittering, big-hearted show, they’ve not only learned lines and music and stagecraft, but the great lesson of bonding with strangers to make something bigger than any of them.

The Ensemble in  PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo:  Jon Gardiner.

The Ensemble in PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Guys & Dolls, with its music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, is based on stories and characters by Damon Runyon from the 1920s and 1930s. The musical was first staged in 1950, and promptly won a Tony Award. It has been made for film, and re-staged any number of times. Some of its songs have been recorded and sung so often by so many that their origin is nearly lost in the haze of popularity. The reason for this? They are just plain good.

Meanza and crew have set this production in the New York of the mid-1930s, and it’s carried off with panache. Scenic designer Robin Vest makes the most of the possibilities of the stage’s lift and slide mechanisms, and together with lighting designer Dominic Abbenante, gives us grit and glamour galore. Jade Bettin has, as usual, produced a stageful of gorgeous costumes, and music director Mark Lewis, as always, accomplishes small miracles.  After several weeks of total immersion in the choreographies shown at the American Dance Festival, Matthew Steffens’ work didn’t strike me as particularly exciting, but it suits the show, and there are several really charming bits.

Ainsley Seiger as Miss Adelaide with The Hot Box Girls, in Act II of  PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo:  Jon Gardiner.

“Take Back Your Mink:” Ainsley Seiger as Miss Adelaide with The Hot Box Girls, in Act II of PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

But it is the young actors who bring all the troubles and hopes of the guys and dolls to life, and for whom you will laugh and clap. Several have strong singing skills, and some have real voices. Most notable is Maya Ison, who plays the Mission sergeant Sarah Brown. High, clear, powerful and nuanced, this voice will be going places. Ison is also lovely in her characterization. Also strong–and funny!– is Ainsley Seiger, who plays Miss Adelaide, the Hot Box revue star engaged for 14 years to Nathan Detroit, organizer of the oldest permanent floating craps game in New York. Seiger and Ison’s duet near the end of Act II is perfectly fabulous.

Although his voice is not as strong, Ethan Fox makes a good Nathan Detroit, quick with the patter and believably harassed by the exigencies by his undertaking and by Lt. Brannigan (Jack Carmichael). He is, however, overshadowed by the fourth lead, gambler Sky Masterson, dashingly played by Gideon Chickos. Chickos’ portrayal of his character’s transformation from heartless, insouciant risk-taker to honest lover is mature beyond his apparent years. His scenes with Miss Sarah (Ison) are particularly winning, although he commands the entire theater space with his rendition of “Luck Be a Lady,” as he prepares to roll for the souls of his fellow sinners.

You can get lucky yourself with this show tonight through Sunday, and again next weekend. PRC box office: 919.962.7529.

Ethan Fox as Nathan Detroit and Ainsley Seiger as Miss Adelaide in the happy ending of  PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo:  Jon Gardiner.

Ethan Fox as Nathan Detroit and Ainsley Seiger as Miss Adelaide in the happy ending of PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Through July 25, 2015.  Photo: Jon Gardiner.

The Cubans are Here!

The American Dance Festival and the Carolina Theatre of Durham co-present Ballet Folklórico Cutumba, from Santiago de Cuba

It’s something I didn’t expect to happen in my lifetime. The invisible wall between the United States and Cuba has been cracking for years, but finally, finally, the cracks are big enough for an entire troupe of traditional Afro-Cuban dancers and musicians to come bounding through. In spite of various bureaucratic impediments, including the breakdown of the US State Department’s visa computers, and the threat of thunderstorms that might have grounded the last flight out of Miami on the 14th, Ballet Folklórico Cutumba and all their costumes and drums made it to Durham to present their spectacular show, which was introduced by the very excited Baba Chuck Davis. Davis was unusually ebullient, even for him, thrilled that another aspect of African culture would soon be more widely known. “Roots and Cuban Tradition” will repeat tonight at 8 p.m.

The dancing of the deity Yemayä was particularly powerful.  Ballet Folklórico Cutumba at ADF, 7/15/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

The dancing of the deity Yemayä was particularly powerful. Ballet Folklórico Cutumba on the Carolina Theatre stage, at ADF  7/15/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Some years ago, my passion for textiles lead me from Nigerian cloth into a broader study of west African arts, which led me to the dancing of masks, which led to studying the orisha—deities–especially those of the Yoruba and nearby cultures, which led me to Santeria and voudun and the head-smacking realization that much of African Atlantic culture had been preserved and carried on for centuries on the far side of that ocean. The slave trade killed millions, but it did not kill the orisha, who continued to make their meanings even when operating under the mantle of the Roman Catholic church and other ways not immediately apparent to white people.

Yemayä is a great example. Goddess of the Oceans, Great Mother, Queen of the New Year, she slipped easily under the blue cloak of the Virgin Mary, Stella Maris, whose son is recognized by all wise men on the Feast of the Epiphany. The first dance in Ballet Folklórico Cutumba’s program is traditional to that day. In “Procesión ‘King’s Party'” seven of the great Yoruba deities dance in turn, demonstrating the powers arising from their essential characteristics. The most splendid of these in last night’s dancing was Yemayä. You may not have known her name, but her power and her association with water and life were unmistakable.

There follows a song and dance to Changó (Shangó, Xango), a powerful warrior and lover among the orisha, who is associated with drumming and dancing as well as thunder and lightning. He was hot, as he should be, in his red and white, with his symbol, the double-headed axe, as he prepared the way for the splendid ensemble of “Warriors and Handmaidens.” There are only eight dancers on this tour, but their energy, and the brilliant, bouffant costumes decorated with pattern and enriched with ruffles and floating panels, made them seem like many more. With the musicians and singers all in white on a narrow dais behind them, the stage was filled nearly to spillover.

Six pieces follow post-intermission, with more emphasis on the fine singers and drummers. I thought the peak was a sharp piece in which the four male dancers, all in white, with soft white shoes, perform a series of solos and duets that bear striking resemblance to some of the Nicholas Brothers classic tap dancing routines–but without tapping. Then all the dancers come out in flat hard sandals, and comprise another rhythm section, slapping, not tapping, the flat soles against the floor. The crisp sounds beating together with and in contrast to the rounder sounds of the drums was just amazing.

But wait, there’s more! The final piece made dance pattern visible by means of colored ribbons on a pole. Working in two teams, the dancers move over, under and through, to wrap the top of the pole in a round braid made from the pendant ribbons; they braid sections to lie flat along the pole; then they weave around it again–before undoing the whole thing. All this occurs at warp speed, under the influence of rapid drumming. They dance the weave!

There are no deep questions explored here. There’s no angst, no innovative social commentary, no provocative new choreography–but my mind was blown. This program shows an aspect of dance that is as important as any other. And it is more than OK to get happy with it. There one thing, though, probably a permanent conundrum. As the Grateful Dead used to croon, in a song about a man dying, “it all leads up to this day.” If African people had not been enslaved and taken to Cuba, we would not be seeing these dances in Durham. I don’t know know what to do with that, except praise the persistence and adaptivity of the culture those people brought with them.

The evening culminates with the eye-popping "Clasical Tahona." Ballet Folklórico Cutumba at ADF, 7/15/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

The evening culminates with the eye-popping “Clasical Tahona.” Ballet Folklórico Cutumba on the Carolina Theatre stage, at ADF  7/15/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

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