Cry If You Want To: Little Green Pig’s Knock-out CELEBRATION at Shadowbox

Photo: Alex Maness.

Thaddaeus Edwards as Gbatokai, in LGP’s CELEBRATION. Photo: Alex Maness.

When the lights came up in the Shadowbox, and the cast took its bow at the close of Celebration on February 7, the actors were met with enthusiastic applause. But after they filed off stage, no one moved for several minutes. The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern had nailed us to our seats with this excoriating production. Adapted for English-speaking theatre by David Eldridge from the 1998 Festen, an early Danish Dogme film directed by Thomas Vinterberg, Celebration is directed here by Kevin Ewert. With a combination of boldness and reserve he makes us doubt what we already know about the plot—gives us the denial already infecting the family—seducing us with the party set-up, then wallops us with the truth. It’s a tough show, but an extraordinary work of theatre.

There are worse things a father can do to his children than rape them repeatedly, but not many. In this story, the father doubled the damage by inflicting himself on his young twins, a boy and a girl. Now he’s turning 60, and the family has gathered to celebrate. All but one—the damaged girl twin, long since grown, has recently killed herself. The boy twin returns to Denmark, to the hotel his parents own and where the children grew up, with a pair of speeches in his pocket. As the eldest son, it will fall to him to make the first toast to his father.

Overlaid scenes in LGP's CELEBRATION. Photo: Alex Maness.

Overlaid scenes in LGP’s CELEBRATION. Photo: Alex Maness.

Jaybird O’Berski leads the outstanding cast of 15. As Christian, the abused son who has lost his twin, O’Berski’s trademark intensity is put to full use, and he exhibits a masterful control, especially in contrast to his brother Michael’s (Jeffrey Detwiler) invisibly crafted wild crudity. Tamara Kissane, who is often paired with Detwiler to great effect, is a knock-out here as Mette, Michael’s energetic wife, who gives as good as she gets in the marital wars. Mette wears blood-red lipstick, an unsettling note amid the carefully designed black, white and beige world of set and costumes (Kevin Ewert and Caitlin Wells), forebodingly lit by R.S. Buck.

Dana Marks gives another powerful performance as the remaining living sister, Helene. Like Kissane, she is fearless on stage, and continues to surprise with her range. She’s brought her new boyfriend (Thaddaeus Edwards) to the party, and his presence offers an excuse for a truly shocking outburst of racist song. Edwards has little to do, but he registers polite astonishment very well, and his what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-these-people look is priceless.

I had some quarrel with the directorial choice that made the personification of the father, Helge, very low-key. As played by Dan Oliver, Helge is almost completely without affect, and no match for son Christian in intensity. I would have preferred to see a glimpse of the brimstone lake below the placid exterior. Once only do we see his cruelty uncloaked, but his threats are weak. His fortress is his bland denial. It was a valid choice to play the character this way, but not, I think, the most powerful one possible.

Denial works much better for Helge’s wife Else, the mother of his children, because finally hers is splintered. Lenore Field gives a brilliant, riveting performance. In the final scene where she is isolated, though not banished, I could not take my eyes off of her motionless portrait of a woman whose forty years of married life has just turned to ash.

In addition to a powerful script, wonderful stagecraft and great acting by the leads and all the supporting cast, this show has something really special: the presence of a child. 5th grader Marleigh Purgar-McDonald has a natural approach and poise many an older actor might envy. Her interactions with her mother (Kissane) and her grandmother (Field) could not have been better. But it is the physical fact of her, a little girl, innocent and loving, that brings the horror of Helge’s past abuse of his own children into the clearest light. I don’t know how Purgar-McDonald is able to process the content of this play, but that she does suggests there may be a great actor in the making inside her. I intend to watch her grow at every opportunity.

This play is not an entertainment, and its content may be too hurtful for some. But it is one of the best works that The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern has produced, and highly recommended. The show runs Feb. 13-15 and 20-22. For reservations go to https://dime.io/events/celebration, or call 919.452.2304.

Photo: Alex Maness.

Marleigh Purgar-McDonald’s Little Girl keep a wary eye on Jay O’Berski’s Christian, while Dana Marks’ Helene reads the damning letter from the dead. Photo: Alex Maness.

For a Hot Time, Come on over to OUR TOWN

The cast of The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern's new production of  OUR TOWN. Photo: Alex Maness.

The cast of The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern’s new production of OUR TOWN, through September 21 at The Trotter Building. Photo: Alex Maness.

Who’d a-thunk it? A fresh, innovative, heart-sqeezing new production of Thorton Wilder’s OUR TOWN is now playing in cool Durham’s hottest hipster district. It is, naturally, brought to us by the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern and director Jay O’Berski. This 1938 play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was a chestnut when people still knew what a chestnut was. Set in a small New England town early in the 20th century (although here it looks more like the Hayti community of Durham in the same time frame), its ultimate purpose is to force recognition of the preciousness of ordinary life. Having been done to death in many a middle school, and its then-surprising staging techniques superceded by even more radical methods, OUR TOWN had rather faded from the roster of plays considered for serious productions.

O’Berski likes to have many things happening simultaneously on stage; he likes to push to the edge of chaos. For him, this is a remarkably controlled and unmessy production, but the script lends it self surprisingly well to his preferences. He captures the wheeling nature of time beautifully by having the show performed in the round in The Trotter Building’s open event space; he shows the interweaving and overlapping nature of lives in a community by the way the characters move in, through and around the audience, which sits in a single row around the “stage.” As many readers will know, Wilder gathers the audience in by use of a Stage Manager/Narrator who speaks directly to us; O’Berski amplifies our sense of belonging with the physicality of his approach. There are a few moments when the difficult acoustics of the space make mush of multiple voices speaking at once, but it doesn’t really matter because the physical acting is so clear.

The cast is uniformly strong. Many of the actors perform several parts, and O’Berski made some excellent casting choices for those roles. Lakeisha Coffey plays both Mrs. Webb and Constable Warren–I had to look at the program to know that the latter was she. The same was true for Jennifer Blocker, playing the two newspaper boys and the pontificating professor. The versatile Trevor Johnson plays Mr. Webb with an insouciant conviction and charms in his other roles, especially that of the milkman circling the town on Bessie, his bicycle horse. Kyma Lassiter as the warm-hearted, dream-deferring Mrs. Gibbs is wonderfully matched with Thaddaeus Edwards as Mr. Gibbs. Edwards is a very fine actor, and here he finds yet another new face and set of mannerisms. Carly Prentis Jones plays young Rebecca Gibbs and gives the speech about the letter addressed to a person on a farm in a county in a country on Earth in the solar system, etc,. with such joyous wonder I could hardly stay in my seat. Jones is also a knock-out in her turns as Stage Manager, and when she sings, solo, “Balm in Gilead” near the play’s conclusion…it’s exquisite. Jade Arnold, too, is very strong in all his parts–the suffering, drinking organist, the minister, and the Stage Manager–and particularly commanding in the latter, as he pins each of us with his knowing eye.

Nicholson and Belfield as George and Emily.

Nicholson and Belfield as George and Emily. Photo: Jaybird O’Berski.

Teenagers George Gibbs and Emily Webb are at the heart of OUR TOWN’s story, and their actors do them proud. J. Alphonse Nicholson is an extremely talented, highly disciplined young actor still burgeoning at an almost incredible rate, and who seems to have skipped right over the self-consciously arty actor phase. He is completely believable in that tough scene where he has to tell Emily he’ll do better, a believability few men can muster, onstage or off. I’d not seen Aurelia Belfield before, but I certainly plan to again, as soon as possible. Her multi-faceted interpretation of Emily is rich and surprising, and at the end, tears were running down her face–and mine, and those all around.

Liam O’Neill and Steve Tell have contrived some lovely lighting effects; Chelsea Kurtzman’s costuming is excellent, but Justin Robinson’s music direction makes this show really special. From the opening band parade by the full cast breaking loose on “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” to its delicate reprise at the finale, the play is punctuated by beautiful singing.

I say, hallelujah. Because in OUR TOWN, in this town, the day has finally come when we can be judged on the content of our characters, and not the color of our skins.

OUR TOWN runs Thurs.-Sat. through Sept. 21. House capacity is small but every seat is equally good. Do yourself a big favor and reserve in advance.  www.brownpapertickets.com/event/418928 or call 1.800.838.3006.

 

Sing, Play, Dance: A Few Previews as Merry May Skips In

She'll grab you by the heartstrings. Iris Dement, appearing at the ArtsCenter May 2.

She’ll grab you by the heartstrings and sing you back home. Iris Dement, appearing at the ArtsCenter May 2.

One of my all-time favorite songbirds will be singing tonight from the small stage at the Carrboro ArtsCenter: the wonderful Iris DeMent.  What a songwriter! What a storyteller! What a compelling voice! When DeMent’s first album, Infamous Angel, appeared in 1992, I could hardly play anything else for months. She makes me feel home. Not necessarily comfortable or happy (“Easy’s Gettin’ Harder Ev’ry Day”), but home. Other great records of wise poetry and fine playing joined it–but until last fall, it had been sixteen years since a new Iris album came out. It’s called Sing the Delta. Hallelujah, y’all. When she came to the Cat’s Cradle years ago, I saw practically everyone I knew there, pressing close to the stage. It will be nearly as intimate in the ArtsCenter, with the advantage of actual seats. Show’s at 8. See you there.

Roger McGuinn, guitar man.

Roger McGuinn, guitar man.

Thursday is just the beginning. The ArtsCenter, now led by the highly music-knowledgeable Art Menius, has announced a really incredible roster of concerts–many kinds of American music–for the forthcoming year. Friday, May 3 brings another legend–Roger McGuinn. This is the man whose sparkling 12-string and musical verve lit up the 1960s and beyond. He was one of the founders of the Byrds.  Need I say more? Maybe just three words: “Mr. Tambourine Man.” McGuinn has not slowed down, but he has turned back towards his folk roots. If you were, perhaps, born too late to know him from the first wave, check out his recordings of numerous songs here  (listen for free). Should be a great concert.

But wait, there’s more–it’s a one-two-three punch. Not the Byrds, but The Stray Birds, a charming singer-songwriter trio from southern Pennsylvania, will play the ArtsCenter on Saturday, May 4. The musicians of this young band were steeped in music from infancy–Appalachian mountain music, classical, and (for them) classic Americana. Lead singer (guitar, fiddle, banjo) Maya De Vitry grew up singing along with Iris DeMent in the family car, and you can hear it in her words, and the spaciousness she gives them. De Vitry’s voice is smoother, more golden, than DeMent’s, but no less honest. Band mate Oliver Craven (guitar, fiddle) wrote half the songs on their fine, self-produced CD, and he and Charles Muench (bass, banjo) create beautiful harmonies with De Vitry. NPR named their album one of the best of 2012, and I totally agree. Smart songs, lovely sounds, great energy. Really great energy: “I like surprising people with music,” De Vitry told me in a phone interview. Explains why the now 22-year-old was successful busking her way around North America and Europe. Prepare to be happily surprised on Saturday night.

American troubadours, The Stray Birds, will play May 4 in the Paris of the Piedmont.

American troubadours, The Stray Birds, will play May 4 in the Paris of the Piedmont.

However, if you just can’t take your nouvelle old-time music sitting down, choose option B.

The Five Points Rounders.

The Five Points Rounders.

Local favorites, The Five Points Rounders will be playing one of their Rowdy Square Dances, this time at  Nightlight Bar & Club near the Chapel Hill/Carrboro line. Warning: this is not your mama’s square dancing. Too much fun, and you can buy beer.

I’ll be missing Roger McGuinn on Friday, because I will not miss the opening of the final show in Manbites Dog Theater‘s great 25th season. Ed Hunt and Jeff Storer changed the theatrical landscape in Durham and the Triangle when they created their theater, and here’s a play to demonstrate how far we’ve all come. At the beginning, MDT did a lot of “issue” plays about gay identity, AIDS, discrimination and so on–all good–but now they can make plays about people, not symbols.

The super-cast of THE HOMOSEXUALS, lounging at the Durham bar, Whiskey. Photo: Paul Davis.

The super-cast (including Gregor McElvogue cuddling with the ever-impressive Derrick Ivey) of THE HOMOSEXUALS, lounging at the Durham bar, Whiskey. Photo: Paul Davis.

As Jeff Storer says: “In the early days we did queer theater because our friends were dying and it was a way to tell the stories and raise awareness about our responsibilities as a society. A play like THE HOMOSEXUALS is political by virtue of its title. But it is not an issue play. It’s about FAMILY. About finding a family and a home when the one you were born into disapproves. The play is sexy and playful and It’s about change and loving friends. It’s about the “here and now.””

Storer, a master at coaxing maximun humanity from actor ensembles, directs this recent play by Philip Dawkins. He’s got a dream cast of several of this area’s finest actors. The show will run through May 18. Tickets on the website. Don’t let this one slip by.

Also in Durham, and just a block away, something entirely different. Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern presents The Wooster Group’s Diary of Anne Frank at The Shadowbox. This experimental production of an experimental work that never happened, in a new experimental performance space, is directed by Jay O’Berski. It could be a steaming mess; it could be brilliant. Probably both. Guaranteed that LGP will take you for a wild ride. Opened May 1, runs through May 18. Tickets: tickets@littlegreenpig.com  or 919.452.9204.

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